Friday, February 09, 2007

From Romney to Haggard-- Religion in the News

There have been a variety of stories of interest to Christians in the news this week. One of them is the issue of whether Governor Romney's being a Mormon will be an issue as he begins his Presidential campaign as a Republican candidate. Now of course Romney is not your average Mormon. For one thing he's been governor of Massachusetts and many of the citizens of that Commonwealth liked him not only enough to elect him but they liked him after they saw what sort of governor he was as well-- that ought to tell you something since Massachusetts is probably the most politically liberal state in the East if not in the country. The article in the N.Y. times is interesting and here is the link

A couple of the paragraphs from the article by my friend Laurie Goodstein and a colleague are worth a quote:

Governor Romney says:"People have interest early on in your religion and any similar element of your background,” he said. “But as soon as they begin to watch you on TV and see the debates and hear you talking about issues, they are overwhelmingly concerned with your vision of the future and the leadership skills that you can bring to bear.”

The writers of the article go on to add:

"Still, Mr. Romney is taking no chances. He has set up a meeting this month in Florida with 100 ministers and religious broadcasters. That gathering follows what was by all accounts a successful meeting at his home last fall with evangelical leaders, including the Rev. Jerry Falwell; the Rev. Franklin Graham, who is a son of the Rev. Billy Graham; and Paula White, a popular preacher."

Well I am not sure Governor Romney is at all right about what he says. We are a profoundly religious country, and when you look at our last batch of Presidents since Nixon--- Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush they all have claimed to be committed Christians who were not part of any sectarian group like the Mormons. They all claimed to be mainstream Christians, however we may evaluate some of those claims (and I have questions about one or two in that list). On top of which all these men claimed to be Protestants of some stripe. There all W.A.S.Ps of some sort. So I am unconvinced about Romney and his remark.

The question this raises for me is this--- Whom would you rather have for President? An apparently devout but inept Evangelical President who keeps making bad political decisions that get us in hot water in both foreign and domestic affairs operating in an adversarial way, or a President who does not meet the conservative Christian scratch and sniff test but nonetheless is excellent at making good political decisions and works in conciliatory fashion as a team player? No fair asking for a third choice. This is a two horse race-- so which do you pick from these two?
For me the answer is clear--- you will know the tree by the fruit that it bears, not by professions of faith, however Christian, or bold rhetoric meant to stir our patriotic or conservative juices. I want somebody of personal and ethical integrity who knows how to govern. If he is also a devout Christian, this is a huge plus, but if that is all he is, he ought not to be President just for that reason.

Being President of the U.S. is not a job for the faint of heart, the weak of brain, or the wishy washy of character. We may like our TV stars seriously flawed, but we can't afford that luxury with a President, especially not now. And if you know a person by the company he or she keeps then we had better look carefully at who the friends of these various candidates for the '08 race are.
The other big religious story of the week is about Ted Haggard who has surfaced after a number of weeks (three to be precise) in intense counseling in Phoenix. He pronounced himself absolutely heterosexual after these weeks of intensive sessions, and declared that he and his wife intend to take some course in psychology giving new meaning to the phrase "Physician heal thyself."

Here is the link so you can read the story in the NY Times--

There are a large number of things that are disturbing about Haggard's recent remarks. First of all, any one who knows anything about serious counseling knows that you don't know anything for sure after only three weeks of counseling, however intensive. This is just bravado, or wish projection desiring to be well and done with the therapy.

Secondly, the idea that you could be objective enough, if you just take a few psychology courses, to be able to counsel yourself and heal yourself is problematic in the extreme, however popular this sort of approach may be. The human capacity for self-justification is large, especially with large egos, and all the more so when one's spirituality gets thrown into the mix with one's sexuality. Those two factors in a person's life often get confused or fused, and then it becomes impossible to self-analyze or self correct.

Not much more encouraging was the word of the psychiatrist who discusses Haggard's case in the article. He claims that people can't change their sexual orientation. We need to be aware however that the whole issue of 'sexual orientation' is a modern construct. It's a theory used to explain certain observable patterns of behavior. And for that matter it's a very recent theory as well.

But as for the claim that a person cannot change their sexual orientation, this is something no real Christian can easily accept-- we do believe in something called conversion and in grace as well, at least grace strong enough to help us overcome our sinful inclinations and stifle them, whatever they may be. You may not be able to change your 'inclinations' but you can most certainly change your 'orientation' if by 'orientation' one means the conscious pattern of behavioral response to inclinations, involving various choices. In short, you can certainly change how you respond to your inclinations if you draw on God's grace.

And this brings up a major factor I have encountered a good deal with modern secular psychiatry-- it does not believe in real change or healing! It simply believes one can, through therapy, change the train or chain of thought and feelings so that one recognizes the early warning signs and aborts the behavior before things go too far in a self-destructive direction. Now this of course is very helpful. Its good to recognize the signs of danger, and we are indebted to therapists to help us with that, but you need to know going in that you don't go to a therapist, at least a non-religious or non-Christian, if you expect to be cured or healed. Not only will they not guarantee such a thing, most of them don't believe in that sort of radical change or healing.

I want to say here, that I greatly value therapists and Christian counselors. They have helped many folks along the way including members of my family, and they are often unsung heroes helping people put their lives back together. There used to be a stigma when I was young about going to a counselor and there still is in some conservative quarters, but that should never be the case with a Christian, who knows personally that we have all sinned and fallen short of God's glory and can use some help from time to time.

To my brother Ted Haggard I would say-- be aware that you may have begun the journey of healing, but there is only a one in a million chance you can really come to know yourself after only three weeks of counseling. So, making that sort of claim about your sexuality after only three weeks is a red flag that you still have miles to go before you really know yourself, and thereafter know what to do with yourself. We are praying that you will continue on the path towards healing and not prematurely abort the process.


Unknown said...

Ted Haggart may have indeed claimed to be "completely heterosexual", but the NYT article doesn't actually report that. It reports that Tim Ralph says that Ted Haggert says that he is completely heterosexual. This is hearsay of uncertain accuracy.

Ben Witherington said...

Rev. Haggard wrote a letter to members of his old congregation. I think we will take it for granted that the letter includes that claim, since Tim Ralph has no reason to lie about this, but I see your point.

Peter said...

Give me effective over evangelical any day.

Didn't Luther say something like he would rather have a skilled and just turk rule than an inept Christian? (Turk, in his context meaning an Ottoman who was a Muslim.)

Government is an ordinance of creation. Good government does not require Christians in leadership to fulfill its purposes.

The best of whats left said...

rainsborough, it sounds like you are implying that people with homosexual inclinations are destined to one of two fates; either they can be fulfilled sexually through acting on their inclinations or they must bear the misery of an unfilfilled sexual life. I would suggest that there are other, better options than these two. Christianity teaches that it is only an intimate relationship with Jesus Christ that brings ultimate fulfillment in life. I can tell you that as a sexually active heterosexual male, acting on my sexual inclinations has not made me filfilled, sexually or otherwise. In fact, I still have many sexual inclinations that, due to my moral convictions, I cannot act on (i.e. sexual inclinations towards women who are not my wife). The radical change and healing takes place when as my relationship with Christ grows stronger, all my other unhealthy inclinations (sexual or not) fade in their power compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ. The opposite is true as well, that as I fade from Jesus (which includes experiencing His grace through Christian community), the other passions grow in intensity.

So the good news is this; there is one inclination that can completely fulfill us in every way, our inclination to know God, and if we act on it, it will bring into order and submission all our other inclinations.

SJBedard said...

Regarding Mormons, an interesting case is that of the Community of Christ, formerly known as the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (I don't know why they changed the name!). They have been moving steadily toward a protestant/evangelical theology. They have removed many of the doctrines that are most offensive to protestants, although they still hold on to the Book of Mormon as scripture, which will always be a stumbling block. However, we need to learn from the example of the World Wide Church of God that with the right balance of truth and love, change - even on an organizational level - is possible when it comes to God.

K.W. Leslie said...

About Romney: Sad to say, the last Christian we had in office who I think wasn't a hypocrite was the ineffective Jimmy Carter. I would much rather have a heretic or pagan in office than a hypocrite. And while I would prefer both honesty and orthodoxy, he should also how to govern. These things create a more complex picture of a man than the single issues people use to choose office holders; I wish more people would think these things through rather than simply say that Romney is unelectable.

About Haggard: After I visit the doctor, I never say I'm 100 percent better. No one can say that they are 100 percent better unless God has supernaturally healed them. Is that what Haggard means to say? I don't know; but using such optimistic language about therapy, no matter how intensive it is, can't come across as anything but naive -- and should someone that naive return to a position of leadership yet?

Bill Barnwell said...

I don't know why Haggard or his team or whoever allowed these statements to go public. He was just beginning to fade in the news and then these statements were released that have been universally mocked. You'd think they'd be a bit more media savvy and have a little more common sense. Even if Haggard was miraculously cured in three weeks, certainly they'd understand (you'd think) that most people would mock these statements. Instead, now Haggard is just looking more dysfunctional. It would have been better for him not to have said anything for a year or so and then resurface and have a contrite interview or something. But apparently his recently approved church severance packaged prohibits him from speaking out (ever?) on the scandal.

James Garth said...

I think for the sake of the country I'd take the effective liberal over the ineffective evangelical. But I don't think that we should exclude the possibility that, at least in theory, you could have an evangelical who is both a consistent Christian and a powerful and effective president.

At the core the ability to be 'effective' boils down to aspects of personality that are quite separate to one's religious beliefs, ie. leadership, vision, intelligence, ability to delegate, etc.

I maintain the core problem with W is that he chose the wrong advisers from the outset, and remains too heavily influenced by them to this day. A strong, competent leader needs to select wise advisers who will give it to him straight, good or bad, as well as offer fresh ideas and constructive criticism. Imagine the influence of a Powell/McCain/Gates in a strong senior role during W's first term rather than the triumvirate of Cheney/Rummy/Rice. I think you'd have seen a very different foreign policy emerge...

But ultimately, W must have responsibility for how he's acted and who he's appointed to date. This is his decision alone, and history will record the consequences.

Anonymous said...

My understanding (I could be wrong) was that Haggard's statement is about the nature of his sin, not a claim about healing. He has simply identified his failure as sexual addiction instead of homosexuality. So he is not a repressed homosexual, rather he is a sex addict (of one version or another). The gay sex he may or may not have had was simply an expression of his psychological problems, not of an innate lifelong attraction to only men.
So personally, I don't see anything wrong with offering that clarification (except perhaps that it seems to have been misunderstood).
My two cents.

Unknown said...

Ben, speaking of religion and politics, I came across an interesting article about Barack Obama and his Christian beliefs. It's informative but gets less objective towards the end.

Combine those two lines and you've got the url.


Jeffinoh said...

I tried to publish a comment earlier and it hasn't appeared - and since there's a high probability I messed up, I'll post again. If the other commment appears later, feel free to delete it. :-)

I believe a basic misunderstanding of Tim Ralph's statement has resulted in blog postings like this. As Brian said, the report was that Haggard came to the conclusion after 3 wks of intensive counseling that he is heterosexual. The homosexual 'acting out' was thus a way to deal with non-sexual, yet-to-be-determined issues in his life.

I personally think that's ridiculous, but I think it's important to be clear about what is claimed. No one has stated (other than blogs and sensationalist news sources) that Haggard was homosexual and after 3 weeks of counseling has become 100% heterosexual.

My thoughts about this post, its comments, and Haggard are:

- Denial runs deep and is frequently encouraged in evangelicalism.

- Homosexuality is the Big Sin for evangelicals (even more so than adultery and drug use in this case), so it's not surprising Haggard's damage control team acted quickly to deny Haggard is gay.

- Straight men do not risk their vocations, families, and reputation by paying other men for sex. One time for kicks? Maaaybe, but doubtful. Repeatedly for 3 years, no way.

- In Haggard's first public statement (probably at his most vulnerable and honest point), he confessed he had struggled continually with same-sex attraction since childhood. Does this sound like the experience of a 'completely heterosexual' man? Noooo.

- I don't understand why the fact that sexual orientation is a relatively recent (1860s, if that is considered 'recent') constuct nullifies it's value. Many of the ways we understand human psychology and behavior are rather recent. Is there something specific about the science of sexual orientation that lacks credibility? Or does it need to be discredited because it seems to contradict evangelical theology?

- Sexual orientation is not an 'inclination.' Straight folks: are you simply 'inclined' to have a relationship with someone of the opposite gender? Or does it go deeper than that and encompass more than sex?

- Why do those who are straight not understand that requiring gay men and women to be celebate is not analogous to denying yourself someone on the side?

- People like Haggard who seek help for same-sex attractions will be counseled, prayed over, admonished, forgiven, held accountable, and delivered of demons. Many psychiatric theories will be applied, all of which are denied by current psychology and the APA. As a result of any of all of these solutions, some will choose to live as 'straight' people, a few quite successfully. However, they will still be inherently homosexual as the testimonies of ex-gays inevitably admit.

Dr. Witherington, your post implies that non-Christian therapists cannot help gay/lesbian persons because they do not rely on the power of God to heal. Unspoken is the assumption that healing is desirable and necessary. I DO believe that God can heal, but I also believe God doesn't fix what isn't broken.

Jeffinoh said...

Oops, it was Daniel I was agreeing with in the 2nd paragraph, not Brian.


Ben Witherington said...

Hi Rainsbrough:

Good to hear from you once more. I am afraid your statistics do not match up with the data I have seen-- which suggests that perhaps 8% of all males in North America have such urges. Be that as it may, I am not convinced they were born this way. The medical evidence is not compelling. What I am convinced of is that we are all born with some kinds of sinful urges or inclinations, none of which should be baptized and called good, whether heterosexual, bisexual, or homosexual. And I am equally unconvinced by the argument that a person will be in some essential way unfulfilled as a human being in life, if they don't indulge their sexual urges. Life for everyone is not all about having sex. It is a good thing, but its not a be all and end all to satisfied living, despite what our sex crazed culture has programmed us to think.

I am reminded of the famous quote from a royal figure in regard to illicit sex: " The pleasure is momentary, the position is ridiculous, and the penalty can be permanent, if not eternal."

I do think one can change the trajectory of one's behavior by the grace of God. This is not to say that one will not from time to time have sinful inclinations thereafter-- we all do. It is to say exactly what Paul says in 1 Cor. 10.13.


Ben W.

Ben Witherington said...

In regard to the issue of Mormons, while there are certainly many Christians in the Mormon Church, the basic theology (and ethics) of Mormons differs from orthodox Christianity in numerous respects---not the least of which is their doctrine of God, and God's relationship to human beings. They seem to think that God is incomplete unless God has a body, and think this is what motivated the Incarnation--- God was looking for self-fulfillment. One of the more chilling quotes from Mormon doctrine is "As I am, so God has become. As God is, so I too shall be-- a god." This sounds remarkably like what the snake said to Eve. There's much more, but Martin's Kingdom of the Cults can be considered on these points.

I too am encouraged by Missouri Mormons who have moved more in the direction of orthodox Christianity, and so I do pray about that. The truth is that even most Utah Mormons have moved away from the racism and pologamy of Brigham Young, and since they have a living voice of prophecy in their church, there is the possibility of ongoing self-correction (noting the recent change in attitude about ordaining African Americans, enunciated by the church President). Of course a whole 'nother problem is the mythology of the Book of Mormon. The DNA evidence is clear--- American Indians are not DNA linked to any ethnic Jews-- period. They are not the lost tribes of Israel

Ben W.

Jeffinoh said...

I guess it's true that most people assume that being gay is about having sex. So stifling inclinations is a requirement that is easily imposed on us by others. What I don't get is why others don't 'get' that loving and being loved by another is just as important for us as it is for them. Being sexually oriented toward the same gender is point for point analogous to being oriented to the opposite gender. It's not an all-consuming 'identity', but it affects nearly every part of life. Attempts to change or 'stifle' that have serious negative consequences. Of course it's easy to deny that when you don't have to actually deal with those consequences yourself.

Some people do not find the concept of being 'born gay' compelling. Others would conclude that there is a large body of scientific evidence pointing in that direction, even if it has not been conclusively 'proven.' What really drives decisions about what is compelling, though? Science or pre-determined beliefs? I read something on this blog about 'junk science' in re: to conservative opposition to global warming. Well-stated, I thought. In this instance, I believe the term 'junk science' can just as easily be applied to what passes as scientific inquiry by NARTH and is promoted by biblical scholars like Robert Gagnon. I know he is considered the expert of choice on homosexuality for this blog, but those he promotes on his sites (Richard Cohen, for example, but there are less outrageous examples) show that he, too, lacks understanding or discernment on this issue.

It's my strong belief that many Christian's views on homosexuality are a prime example of how personal bias and evangelical culture cloud the reason of even the most intelligent persons.

Jeffinoh said...

A further comment with a sincere hope for a response:

Dr. Witherington wrote:

"I am reminded of the famous quote from a royal figure in regard to illicit sex: 'The pleasure is momentary, the position is ridiculous, and the penalty can be permanent, if not eternal.'"

I understand the last part - you believe openly LGBT persons are in danger of eternal suffering.

But... "The pleasure is momentary..." Again, if homosexuality is about fleeting, illicit acts of sex that makes sense. I will contend that my committed long-term partnership is not about 'fleeting pleasure.' Same for the many other healthy, normal gay people I know. Does that make sense?

And... "the position is ridiculous." That seems to betray the 'ick' factor that I sincerely believe is at the root of most rejection of same-gender relationships by heterosexual persons, including Christians. Comments about the 'ridiculousness' of same-gender loving say more about the speaker/writer than anything else, IMO.

Do you truly believe that's an apt quote expressing your beliefs about LGBT persons?

José Solano said...

Five Refutations

1. People do not "choose" to be attracted to many things. Clearly many people have polygamous attractions that are not necessarily by choice. The etiology of such attractions may be deep rooted. What is the etiology of pedophilia? Would its practice be excused if it were found to be genetically predetermined? Nothing has been found that shows homosexuality is genetically predetermine. It might be easier to demonstrate for adultery and/or polygamy. Where does that leave the Christian? "Attraction" or "orientation" is essentially a euphemism for concupiscence which is the overriding problem we all wrestle with.

2. It is extremely difficult to "convert" pedophiles or adulterers. There is an extremely high rate of recidivism. "Even those are put out as success stories often admit to resurgent urges." I suspect it is easier to "convert" homosexuals.

3. Consider the incidence of homosexuality in the Netherlands with the US. What exactly are those incidences? Where are your sources? How about the incidences in San Francisco and Omaha? Etc. But the best evidence comes from ancient Greece when homosexuality was thoroughly tolerated and was rampant.

4. "Effeminate behavior in early childhood" is NOT "a good predictor of post-pubescent homosexuality." This is a terrible stereotyping of many shy and introverted children that are thereby steered by such prejudice into imagining that they have homosexual "orientation." This fallacy is responsible for confusing many a child into becoming homosexual.

5. Twin studies. On the contrary, the fact that there is not a 100% concordance among identical twins demonstrates that the factors must be other than genetic. If one identical twin has blue eyes then the other twin has blue eyes 100% of the time! The twin studies have also demonstrated that there is also a much higher concordance rate of incestuous behavior. Is that genetic? "The gold standard" turns out to be a tin alloy.

— As for Catholic doctrine, it does not teach that any homosexuals are "born that way." It says, "They do not choose their homosexual condition; for most of them it is a trial." It also states that "Its genesis remains largely unexplained" but it teaches that "Basing itself on Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity, Tradition has always declared that 'homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered.' They are contrary to the natural law. They close the sexual act to the gift of life. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstances can they be approved." See Sec. 2357 - 2359, Catechism of the Catholic Church.

José Solano said...

Consistency of the Refutations

1. To establish conclusions from anecdotal commentaries has merely political value. Some wish to make homosexual practice appear Ok while condemning pedophilia, polygamy, polyamory, incest, adultery, etc. That is simply their bias.

Pedophilia is classified merely by the society's established age of consent. Even in the US what is pedophilia in one state is not in another. Incest is also a social construct and again there are differences in what constitutes incest from state to state. Incestuous conduct among consenting adults I believe is legal throughout the US. We also find that incestuous marriages have been accepted in numerous societies. We know it is very common among animals.

I draw my moral teaching from the Bible. I don't make it up to appease my desires.

2. Clearly if so-called "effeminate" (shy, introvert) boys are demeaned as "sissies,"
you create a self-fulfilling prophesy that may bear itself out in "long range studies," whatever the general validity of such studies. If such boys are also turned over to adult homosexuals, as is often done these days, for "guidance," then of course the predefined condition is reinforced. There are numerous others social factors impinging on the development of these boys.

3. It is not problematic to recognize how homosexual conduct spread throughout ancient Greece during a time when it was not only tolerated but ennobled as the highest form of male relationship. Interestingly enough they never imagined that a homosexual "marriage" could be formed.

4. As geneticists understand the role of genetic factors predetermining behaviors is negligible. What at best can be said is that a certain "predisposition" may have a genetic basis. Tall boys have a predisposition to be better basketball players. But without using a microscope people can just look in the mirror to see the kind of sexual conduct they are biologically built to engage in. Abstention and celibacy are nevertheless wholesome ways for some. Sexual conduct that goes deliberately contrary to the natural physical, biological order is perverse.

5. As I quoted above, the Catholic teaching Does Not say that "homosexual disposition is a part of the order of nature." It explicitly states that "Its genesis remains largely unexplained" and goes on to state, "'homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered.' They are contrary to the natural law." The quote from Section 2357-8 of the CCC has been pulled out of context by (which does not speak for the Catholic Church) and mixed it in with a commentary about "an experience that is discovered, not freely chosen." The issue of "discovery," and "not choosing" tends to ignore the human ability Not to Choose" what is unwholesome and condemned by God. I may not "choose" an adulterous urge but I can choose not to act on it.

José Solano said...

It looks like we've switched themes from the condition of homosexuality to the "goodness" of persons with homosexual tendencies. I have no issue with the thought that certain homosexuals can be better than certain heterosexuals.

The particular letter quoted states, "Although the particular inclination of the homosexual person is not a sin, it is a more or less strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil; and thus the inclination itself must be seen as an objective disorder."

To understand what is meant by an "inclination" that is not sinful yet remains a "tendency ordered toward an intrinsic evil" one must take a deeper look at what Catholics believe with respect to the nature of "concupiscence." And there is a distinction between the Catholic and Protestant views on whether or not it is sin. Perhaps Dr. Witherington could touch upon this with greater clarity than I. It brings out some profound reflections on the nature of sin and evil.

For our brief comment here suffice it to say that both Catholics and Protestants agree at least that actions resulting from concupiscence are sinful. But from Luther and Calvin it is taken that all actions are so motivated and are therefore inescapably sinful and only through the grace of Christ is our sinfulness not "imputed" to us believers.

I confess that most days I lean towards Luther but on others, when I seek to see some intrinsic goodness in humanity, the Catholic teaching is more comforting.

May God bless us sinners with goodness.

Domweir said...

Ted Haggart is a sad self indulged pest. I am amazed to read any post trying to rationalize his behavior.