Traditional Christian Ethics and Bein' Gay
Originally published Jan. 31, 2021
I have a subscription to, and occasionally read, Philosophy Now. In the November issue Doug Groothuis tries to defend a conservative Christian view of gay sexuality in “Homosexuality and Christianity”. Now this isn’t going to be a very long blog entry and that’s why it isn’t an episode. In this essay Groothuis argues that it is more Christian to not have sex, or to have sex with an opposite sex partner if you’re Christian and that not acting gay in the sexual sphere doesn’t negatively impact the people in question.
There are three things that I take issue with in this essay that I will address in turn:
The erasure of bisexuals.
The insistence that there’s no reason you can’t be happy and healthy and go to heaven if you only give up this point in your life.
In the essay he refers to people who are same sex attracted but are perfectly happy living with and having a sexual relationship with members of the opposite sex. My wife does this. She is same sex attracted but is perfectly fine being in a heterosexual, sexual relationship. The reason this is is because she is bisexual. There seems to be an idea that same sex attraction means that you’re gay that permeates Christian ideas of sexuality that are not true, and this contributes to the invalidation of pansexuals and bisexuals. This isn’t okay and is the result of a narrow view of sexuality taken from a book that also does not allow for these things in the sexual rules. I’m not going to say that everybody Groothuis is aware of that is same sex attracted but in an opposite sex relationship is bisexual, I’m not here to classify the sexuality of people I don’t know. I am going to say that the pattern of it not being considered as a possibility that seems to be common in Christianity oversimplifies human sexuality to a problematic extent and seems to be present here.
Quick considerations before I go on: moving forward I am going to assume that Groothuis is straight. This is because he talks about his wife and not about his struggles with same sex attraction (struggles because if you are same sex attracted and denying it than it stands to reason you might not object to classifying it as that). Since he talks about his wife I am also going to assume that he, like the majority of people, had a sexual relationship. Now Groothuis makes it a point to present his thesis at the end of the essay, “I have simply responded to the idea that Christian sexual ethics is especially unfair and unlivable for Christian gay people.” Of course he insists that it isn’t.
But I think that this leads to the question of is the kind of sexual relationship he suggests, without including celibacy, healthy? I don’t think that he has a healthy attitude toward sex driving this concept, and while the Minnesota Department of Health gets a little more spiritual than I would like, they seem to be on my side on this. They say that parts of healthy sexual relationships are “Decide on what is personally “right” and act on these values. Demonstrate tolerance for people with different values. Are not threatened by others with sexual orientation different from theirs. Show respect to others whose cultural values, ethnic heritage, age, socioeconomic status, religion, and gender are different from theirs.” On the other side of this we have taking Professor Groothuis’ word for it. Unfortunately Professor Groothuis’ word relies on not deciding what your sexual values are and instead letting his orthodoxy decide for you, which I also would classify as not respecting the sexual orientation or values of others.
Now in order to deal with the fairness question we have to ask what could be missing for people who don’t have sex? The answer is health benefits. According to an article on healthline.com the health benefits of sex range from a better immune system to lower risk of hypertension, living longer, helping with migraines and headaches, preventing incontinence, preventing types of cancer and so forth. Now if this were just a conversation about sex it could easily be sad that “Well that list includes masturbation and other types of sexual activity.” While I support masturbation and other types of sexual activity wholeheartedly I can’t help but think that maybe “traditional Christian ethics” would be against those sorts of things. So to answer the fairness question, would it be fair if a system of ethics demanded that a certain subset of people not take in the health benefits of certain other physical activities? Then there has to be some reason why it’s not a fairness issue to deny this one. That seems to hinge on Heaven.
This also seems to be coercive. We’re not talking about this abstractly, we’re talking about this in an ethical system that rewards disobedience with pain. I’m not going to pretend I know what version of Hell Professor Groothuis believes in, but I know that depictions run from a wailing and gnashing of teeth due to separation from god, to Promethean styles of eternal torture. Prescribing sexual ethics, or any ethics, in the face of that creates a situation where you’re not saying let’s let the best ethics win, or relying on evidence to work out a system using philosophical methods to does the best for the people living, and instead you’re saying this or else. That is coercion, and coercion of sexual activity, in this case a coercion to avoid sexual activity that doesn’t do anybody any demonstrable harm, is wrong. At least in my mere atheist humanist estimation of ethics.
Groothuis finishes by saying, “...if Christianity is true, its sexual ethic is not especially detrimental to gay people who are conservative Christians.” As long as being denied a potentially health improving activity with intolerant coercion is not, in fact, a detriment. I think that disagreeing with Groothuis is a reasonable stance to take in that, since it would seem that denying health improving activities between appropriately consenting people would have to be a detriment. At the very least, potentially to their health.
Of course the conversation only matters “...if Christianity is true…”. Clearly we have two different starting points, he says Christianity is true and goes from there, and I say I’m going to need him to demonstrate empirically that that is a true starting point.
Fortunately there’s nothing on the line here when we choose our startling lines. Except maybe your health.