Accepting What Cannot Be Changed
I see myself as a family values guy. In my psychology textbooks, I document the corrosive effects of pornography, teen sexual activity, and family decline. I am on the advisory board of The National Marriage Project, whose recent cohabitation report concludes that trial marriages undermine marriage. I am participating in the new “communitarian” initiative to help renew society’s moral roots. And I have invested a couple thousand hours in writing a new book (The American Paradox, Yale University Press, 2000) that documents the post-1960 social recession and its roots in radical individualism, the sexual revolution, and the decline of marriage and the two-parent family.
Hearing me speak on such things recently, one friend remarked “you’ve become more conservative.” No, I said, I’ve always been pretty conservative on these family concerns, partly because the data are so persuasive. In the academic world, those of us who call attention to these data are, in fact, sometimes called “moral conservatives.”
Mindful of my “ever-reforming” Reformed tradition, new data have, however, dragged me to a revised view of sexual orientation. Here are some of the observations that challenged my former assumptions. I offer them as part of the “committed dialogue” process encouraged by Reformed Church General Secretary Wesley Granberg Michaelsen.
1. There is no known parental or psychological influence on sexual orientation. Factors once believed crucial actually seem not to matter. Sexual orientation appears not to be influenced by social example, overprotective mothering, distant fathering, having gay parents, or child abuse. If some new parents were to seek my advice on how to influence the sexual orientation of their newborn, I could only say, after a half century of research, that we are clueless. So far as I currently know, there is nothing you can do.
2. Unlike sexual behavior and other moral tendencies, sexual orientation appears unaffected by an active faith. Compared with people who attend church only rarely, those who attend regularly are less likely to be juvenile delinquents, abuse drugs and alcohol, and divorce. In a recent National Opinion Research Center survey, they were also but one-third as likely to have cohabited before marriage and they reported having had many fewer sexual partners. Yet they are virtually as likely to be homosexual. This unpublicized finding is worth pondering: If sexual orientation is a spiritually-influenced lifestyle choice, then should it not—like those other disapproved tendencies—be less common among people of faith?
3. Today’s greater tolerance seems not to have amplified homosexuality. Homosexuals are a small minority—roughly 2 or 3 percent of the population—and their numbers appear not to have grown with their coming out or with the passage of gay rights laws. Contrary to the concern that gay role models would entice more people into a homosexual orientation, surveys suggest no significant increase in the homosexual minority.
4. Biological factors are more and more looking important. This scientific story is still being written and the light is still dim, so we had all best be tentative. Nevertheless, we have learned, first, that siblings of gay people, especially their identical twins, are somewhat more likely than people without close gay relatives to themselves be gay.
Genetic instructions, if there are such, must be manifest in physiology. So it should not surprise us that new evidence points to both prenatal hormonal differences and to brain differences in a region known to influence sexual behavior. One scientific review concludes that “the emerging neuroanatomical picture is that, in some brain areas, homosexual men are more likely to have female-typical neuroanatomy than are heterosexual men.” This may explain why homosexual men tend to have spatial abilities like those typical of heterosexual women. A newer report suggests that this female-typical pattern extends to a prenatally-influenced fingerprint difference between gay and straight men.
Homosexual women may likewise have more male-typical anatomy. For example, the hearing systems of lesbian women appear to develop in a way that is “intermediate to those of heterosexual females and heterosexual males.”
Although these findings suggest biological influences at work, we should be wary of an extreme biologism. As every psychology student knows, biologically disposed tendencies operate within an environmental context. Even Tulips require hospitable soil and water. It may yet be shown that certain biological dispositions interact with particular environments to predispose sexual orientation.
5. Efforts to change one’s sexual orientation usually (some say, virtually always) fail. People who have experimented with homosexual behavior (as many heterosexual people do) can turn away from it. Homosexuals, like heterosexuals, can become celibate. Or they can marry against their desires and have children. But research on efforts to help people do a 180 degree U-turn with their sexual orientation—their feelings and fantasies—reveal, according to one review, “no evidence indicating that such treatments are effective.” Many a person has tried, hoping upon hope to escape their culture’s contempt. Few, it seems, have succeeded.
Christian ex-gay organizations have had a go at this, and may offer effective support to those seeking to leave the gay culture. But many—including thirteen such organizations affiliated with Exodus International—have been abandoned by their ex ex-gay founders. Two of Exodus’ own co-founders, Michael Bussee and Gary Cooper, fell in love and left the organization. “I counseled . . . hundreds of people . . . who tried to change their sexual orientation and none of them changed,” recalls Bussee (quoted in Record, Spring, 1990). “The bottom line is, it doesn’t work.”
Reading the ex-gay literature, one is struck by the admitted homosexual temptations many “ex-gays” still struggle with. “God does not replace one form of lust with another,” explain Bob Davies and Lori Rentzel in Coming Out of Homosexuality. Ex-gays commonly struggle with homosexual attractions and typically “do not experience sexual arousal solely by looking at their wife’s body.”
Sexual feelings are private (and it is, after all, the direction of one’s lusts—one’s feelings and fantasies—that define sexual orientation). Thus, short of physiologically measuring sexual responses to male and female sexual stimuli before and after sexual conversion programs, there can be no precise measure of the frequency of actual sexual orientation conversion. Such research has not yet been done, so it remains an open issue as to whether significant numbers of sexual conversions have occurred. (For men, whose “erotic plasticity” is relatively low, this may be an especially elusive goal.)
But this much seems certain. Many gay and lesbian Christians have felt called to heterosexuality, but after years of effort, prayer, laying on of hands, Christian counseling, and searing guilt have found only misery, and in some cases lost faith. This fact of life is recognized by my denomination, the Reformed Church in America, whose Theological Commission statements on homosexuality have discerned (in the words of the church’s 1998 study document) that, “despite the uncertainty over its cause, the sexual orientation of a person, in most cases, is highly resistant to change.”
That conclusion found support in the American Psychiatric Association’s December, 1998 criticism of efforts to change sexual orientation. Its president, Rodrigo Munoz, summed up the association’s position: “There is no scientific evidence that reparative or conversion therapy is effective in changing a person’s sexual orientation. There is, however, evidence that this type of therapy can be destructive.”
For all these reasons it becomes difficult to avoid the conclusion that sexual orientation appears not to be a choice. For most of us, the emerging scientific surmise rings true to our experience. Can those of us who are heterosexual recall a time when we chose to be so? Or is it just the way we are?
Faced with the accumulating evidence and the experiences of gay and lesbian Christians and their families, various people of faith have revisited the Scriptures and discovered that the Bible has little to say about homosexuality. Many of us have been surprised to learn how mute (or at least murky) the Bible is regarding a committed union between mature homosexual adults. Biblical scholars are debating the half dozen or so Scriptural passages referring to same-sex activity, passages that sometimes also involve pagan idolatry, temple prostitution, or child exploitation.
To be sure, Jesus affirmed marriage, and so should we. But he spoke no recorded words about homosexual behavior. Although he had much to say about the poor and powerless, homosexuality was not one of the social issues on his radar screen. If the question “what would Jesus say?” is on our screens, then the answer seems clear: care about children, care about the poor, care about humility, care about love, care about marriage, and be slow to judge.
There are issues that biblical scholars will continue to debate, and a case has certainly been made that, as the 1995 Report of the Reformed Church Theological Commission stated, “homosexual behavior is not God’s intended expression of sexuality.” The issues, however, have not to do with biblical authority. Rather they are issues of biblical interpretation, including how to understand specific texts “in light of the whole witness of Scripture.”
To suggest that sexual orientation may turn out to be disposed rather than chosen leaves us free to regard homosexuality as either a normal variation (as with left-handedness) or as a tragic abnormality to be contested (as with dyslexia). As the scientific picture becomes more complete, it will not resolve the values issue. Moreover, straight or gay, we all face moral choices over options that include abstinence, promiscuity, and long-term commitment.
Two decades after the first edition of his Sex for Christians, evangelical ethicist Lewis Smedes reflects that
I still believe that the Creator intended the human family to flourish through heterosexual love. I still believe that homosexuality is a burden that homosexual people are called to bear, and bear as morally as possible, even though they never chose to bear it. I still believe that God prefers homosexual people to live in committed and faithful monogamous relationships with each other when they cannot change their condition and do not have the gift to be celibate.
Everywhere our culture seems preoccupied with the “homosexual threat to family values,” talk of which sometimes lays a foundation for harassment, cheap humor, and hate crimes. Reflecting on the murder of Matthew Shepard, a young gay man in Wyoming, church historian Martin Marty (Los Angeles Times, October 18, 1998) likened today’s homosexuals to the lepers of Jesus’ day—people who were shunned by religious folk, but not by Jesus. “I believe that much antigay and antiother activity is inspired by Christian rhetoric. But by now we must know that the attempt to love sinners while stirring hate about the sin, which, after all, has to be done by those called sinners, contributes to the atmosphere in which crime occurs.”
As one who is terribly concerned with the corrosion of family values, I am reminded of C. S. Lewis’ tongue-in-check advice from senior devil Screwtape to his apprentice devil. Corrupt by diverting their attention: “The game is to have them all running about with fire extinguishers whenever there is a flood.” If an active faith commitment does not affect sexual orientation, and if, as it is beginning to look, sexual orientation is an enduring identity rather than a lifestyle choice, than why not spend our energies where they can make a difference—on the real problems of a culture in social decline?
Are those whose anti-homosexual rhetoric diverts us from a focus on the family and from children’s declining well-being unwittingly heeding Screwtape’s advice? In answering the question, “what would Jesus do?” should we adjust our radar screens to refocus on the family? “If churches are going to expend energy worrying about sex—rather than poverty or hunger or homelessness or war—that energy ought to be expended on the distinctions that matter,” observes Catherine Wallace in For Fidelity. In this ‘if it feels good, do it’ era of marital decline, orientation is not the distinction that matters. Fidelity is.”
Can we, should we, relax and believe that, regardless of our sexual orientation, God loves us “just as I am”? Can we accept our own and others’ sexual orientation without excusing promiscuity, exploitation, or self-destructive behavior? Can we regard bathhouses and brothels, gay bars and strip joints, as similarly degrading? Can we accept gays who, not given what Catholics call the gift of celibacy, elect the functional equivalent of marriage (which society denies them) over promiscuity? To merit our acceptance must they live alone? Can our family values include love, care, loyalty, and respect for a son or daughter who may be predisposed to homosexuality? And might we Christians benefit from praying Reinhold Niebuhr’s serenity prayer?
God, give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things that should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.
Lacking such wisdom and feeling uncertain in our discerning of Scripture, what, for the present, shall we do? Might we come together in honest, open dialogue? In small groups, might we engage one another in love and receptivity to God’s will?
A final thought:
When torn between judgment and grace, let us err on the side of grace.
When torn between self-certain conviction and uncertain humility, let us err on the side of humility.
When torn between contempt and love, let us err on the side of love.
In so doing we may be more faithful disciples of the one who embodied grace, humility, and love.
Copyright 1999 by David G. Myers. All rights reserved. February, 1999.