Is a Gay Identity Contradictory to Identity in Christ? Pt. 2

In my previous post, I examined how evangelicals talk about “finding their identity Christ” — that is, regarding God as their supreme significant other. Here, I’ll explore what “identity” means to LGBT people: personal self-definition and an acknowledgment of social realities.

Taking on a gay identity doesn’t mean the same thing for everyone. For some people, it just means being out. For others, it entails a more sweeping re-orientation to the world in terms of beliefs, values, and habits. Either way, for gay people, “identity” is, at its core, about self-definition, not self-worth. Self-definition is simply a person’s right to tell the truth about who they are. While self-worth involves a value judgment, self-definition is simply descriptive.

When someone says “I identify as . . .”, it reflects their decision about how to explain an important part of who they are. If someone identifies themselves as a “gay Christian,” it’s because they value that part of who they are and think it’s important that other people know as well. It seems wrong to a lot of people to append anything to “Christian,” but other people do it without anyone wondering whether they are subordinating “Christian” to something else — “Arab Christian,” “southern Christian.” It’s not common but it’s not unprecedented.

Unfortunately, gay identity isn’t always something that people get to choose for themselves. For many people, it’s acknowledgment of the social reality that to a large extent — in mainstream American society as well as evangelicalism — gay people are singled out as different from “the rest of us.” It’s not just that being gay is uncommon; in our society it’s labelled (implicitly if not explicitly) as abnormal. In Christian contexts, the fact that someone is gay is often seen as the most important thing about them.  If someone identifies as a “gay Christian,” it’s may be because they people around made the decision about their identity for them.

Christian identity and gay identity aren’t incompatible, and neither are two different uses of the term “identity.” We need to make sure we understand the words people are using before we use them to draw social dividing lines.

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Is a Gay Identity Contradictory to Identity in Christ? Pt. 1

It’s hard to get a firm grasp on the supposed conflict between the evangelical concept of “finding one’s identity in Christ” and claiming a gay identity. Although the two concepts share the term “identity,” it means something different in each context. In this post, I’ll examine identity in terms of its primary meaning in from an evangelical perspective, dealing primarily with self-image and self-worth, and in my second post I’ll examine identity from an LGBTQ perspective, dealing with self-definition and social realities.

“Finding one’s identity in Christ” can best be defined as how one regards God as a significant other. While in everyday English we use the term “significant other” to talk about our romantic partners, it has a broader meaning. A significant other is any person whose opinions or beliefs help shape your self-image and self-worth. Anyone whose opinion about you is important or relevant — regardless of whether it’s true or accurate — is one of your significant others. “Finding your identity in Christ” means regarding God as the supreme, overriding significant other — the Person whose evaluation of your worth and identity eclipses everyone else’s.

This simply isn’t what a gay person is talking about when they talk about claiming a gay identity. Coming out as gay, or identifying as a “gay Christian,” is not equivalent to denying God’s role as supreme significant other. Indeed, coming out can be a crucial step in finding one’s identity in Christ, because an openly gay Christian has come to the correct understanding of God’s opinion of them, that God loves and values them regardless of their orientation. “Identifying as gay” does not, in and of itself, equate to elevating one’s orientation above God in how it contributes to a person’s self-worth.

Someone might say that they are “proud” of their orientation. But we understand that there is a difference between being proud of something and being prideful. The same distinction applies here. Just because someone says they are “proud” of their orientation or identity does not make them automatically guilty of sin. Someone can draw a false sense of self-worth from being gay, sure — but this isn’t any more or less likely than someone drawing a false sense of self-worth from any other personal characteristic: beauty, intelligence, popularity, etc.

Using the terminology “gay identity” or “identifying as gay” does not, by definition, contradict the evangelical concept of finding identity in Christ, i.e., regarding God as the supreme significant other. Don’t let the overlapping terminology cloud what’s really at issue.

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Meme Analysis: Life Jackets = Condoms?

The issue: Is restricting access to and education about contraceptives an effective way to prevent unwanted pregnancies?

The argument: No; it’s as effective at stopping unwanted pregnancies as restricting access to life jackets would be at preventing drowning.

Logos: This is an argument by analogy, a concept I explore here. Since the strength of an analogical argument is in its simplicity, this meme gets less powerful as it goes. It should have ended with, “They only encourage risky behavior.” That forms a simple statement that anyone would reject, and it makes the anti-contraceptive argument look silly when placed alongside.

However, because the argument goes on, the analogy breaks down. There are too many points of non-correspondence between this meme and the anti-contraceptive argument. By the time you get to “You should see drowning as a gift,” it really ceases to be an effective analogy at all, because no one in their right mind would believe that. Even using the term “abstinence” in the first portion undermines the argument by using an ideological “trigger word” in what is supposed to be a commonplace, self-evident statement.

Pathos: Kids! Everyone loves kids. Throwing a picture of a kid into the meme was probably the best move they could make. A baby in floaties might have been even better. (Actually, a picture of a drowning kid would have packed the most punch, but it would have been a lot harder to obtain.)

Ethos: The “production values” of the photo and typeset are endearing; this isn’t technically a “meme” in the strict sense at all, just an advertisement distributed over the Internet. The professional production increases the likelihood that people will stop and read it, especially people who don’t typically communicate in memes.

Verdict: Possibly persuasive. The ridiculous lengths to which the analogy is stretched reveal multiple points of non-correspondence and its language reveals it to be a full-out assault on conservative religious ideas about contraception. The foundational analogy is solid, however, which could make it useful in swaying someone whose mind was not yet made up.

Personally, I would cut it down to “We should ban life jackets and other flotation devices. They only encourage risky behavior.” People like your argument better when you let them put it together themselves.

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Using Analogies Effectively

My best advice for using analogies effectively? Don’t.

Analogies are really bad ways to make arguments. Which sucks, because we love to use them. Sometimes, an idea seems so evidently wrong that we struggle to articulate how and why it’s wrong. So instead we find another, similar idea whose wrongness is equally evident and we compare the two. The potential upside of this argument is that the other person finds your similar idea so evidently wrong that they are forced to reconsider their own position.

Analogies are really hard to do well. They need to be short, simple, and pack a lot of punch in order to be effective. Why? The success of your analogy relies on correspondence: first, on a logical level, there has to be a taut logical connection between the initial argument and your analogy. Second, on an emotional level, the wrongness of your proposed analogy must be as evident to the other person as it is to you.

Since emotional resonance is what we’re looking for when we construct an analogy, we usually get that part right. However, the strength of the logical connection between their argument and your analogy relies on simplicity. Because no two situations are ever perfectly (or even substantially) analogous, the more complex the argument, the more likely your analogy is to have a logical breakdown. It only takes one glaring non-correspondence to sink an analogy. So while good analogies must feel intuitive, they must also be well thought-out.

In addition to being intuitive, a good analogy will also be subtle. The great thing about analogies is that they don’t actually make a direct argument against a position; they place another idea alongside, a sort of flanking maneuver. (This is why we see so many bad analogies: people would rather press a quick and dirty analogy into service than face the argument head-on.) The analogy’s strength is it’s ability to “sneak up” on someone and make their own common sense argue the case for you. Your analogy should be as commonplace as possible, something everyone would accept, and should be completely unrelated to what you’re actually arguing about. If people see words or concepts in your analogy that alert them to the fact that you’re making an argument, the potential for a “sneak attack” will be nullified.

Analogies can be incredibly powerful, but in order to be so they must be well-crafted. If you have the time to prepare an important argument or statement, it’s worth attempting. But if you’re in a conversational debate in person or online, you’re better off trying to build a real counterargument instead of wasting your breath with a poorly-conceived analogy.

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The God vs. Science Dichotomy, Pt. 2: Why It’s Bad For Christians

In my previous post, I discussed the dangers (for secular Americans) of Christians rejecting science completely, and while this is a very real danger, it’s not one that will be embraced by the evangelical intellectual establishment or thinking Christians in general. For the most part, intelligent evangelicals won’t use the stark “God vs. Science” dichotomy the same way atheists will, because they are smart enough to recognize that “science,” as a whole, is mostly reliable. So evangelicals modify the dichotomy’s basic form to “God vs. the scientific establishment.” But even accepting this qualification poses significant danger to American Christianity.

Regardless of their actual demographic status, evangelical Christians’ fundamental self-understanding is that of a repressed minority group. Evangelicals are socialized to view themselves as “believers” in contrast to “non-believers” (i.e., normal people). Certain segments of society are viewed as exhaustively composed of non-believers: the gay “community,” political liberals, and academia, of which “the scientific establishment” is a part. It’s a fundamental tenet of the evangelical worldview that the scientific community is thoroughly secular and fundamentally anti-Christian. Even when the science itself is unobjectionable, the scientists behind it are assumed to be possessed by an all-pervasive atheistic ideology, and it is this ideology that evangelicals erect as an edifice in opposition to God or “faith.” Evolution is the most prominent example of morally-neutral science “twisted” to serve atheistic ends.

Therefore, even with the qualification, the “God vs. science” dichotomy shows up as prominently in Christianity as it does in secular culture. The main result which I will examine here is that  there are a number of scientific conclusions, including but not limited to evolution, which are false or twisted science and cannot be accepted by any Christian, because it represents an acceptance and endorsement of an ideology antithetical to authentic Christianity.

If people who have internalized this dichotomy have a crisis of belief and are persuaded that evolution is true, their only option is to abandon Christianity. While the dichotomy serves to define community boundaries well, it can only hurt people who find themselves in between. Why turn away people who want to be Christians? If people take advantage of the option to believe evolution and retain their faith, then obviously they aren’t committed to some kind of secular ideological agenda. As Christianity shrinks as a cultural force in America and secularism grows in influence, the number of people who find themselves in this position continues to grow. If we care about nurturing people’s faith, rather than simply drawing tighter ideological boundary lines, we must give them more options.

Allowing an “ideologically-neutral” approach to evolution is not the same as endorsing it. It is a reframing of the issue, away from  “God vs. the scientific ideology” and toward “analysis of the evidence,” both biblical and scientific. Drinking alcohol, divorce, and contraception can all be framed as “Christian vs. Christian” debates; whether they are permissible is something about which people can disagree, however vehemently, as Christians. Just as atheists can be moral even though you don’t believe they have any logical justification for it, people can believe in Christianity and evolution even though they may appear to you to be incompatible. “Downgrading” evolution to an intra-community discussion allows people who have been convinced of the truth of evolution to remain in the Church.

The debate boils down, as it so often does, to issues of group maintenance and purity. As long as evolution is regarded as the product of an antagonistic out-group, in-group evangelicals will regard acceptance or rejection of evolution as a “boundary marker” or who is in or out of the Church. The discussion needs to be about evidence, not ideology. Framing debates in terms of contrasting ideologies is useful for group purposes, but it precludes the possibility of people moving into, out of, and between groups. In an era of general social fragmentation, our focus needs to be on building bridges to the people in between, not building higher walls to keep people inside.

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The God vs. Science Dichotomy, Pt. 1: Why It’s Bad For Atheists

Although framing the evolution debate as “God vs. Science” is a savvy rhetorical move by atheists in the short term, it’s a long-term strategic blunder. Making faith and science incompatible ensures that Christians will continue to distrust and oppose real science, threatening the well-being of our entire country.

Pitting faith in God against science is a pretty popular, and, judging by the ex-Christians I’m familiar with, pretty effective argument for converting Christians or theists into atheists. Basically, the argument goes, because science provides an understanding of the world that’s testable and demonstrable, it is far superior to, or flatly contradicts, any religious explanation. Therefore, modern scientific knowledge has completely ruled out religion as a valid category for explaining reality. In Internet parlance, “Religion is false, because science.”

Moreover, simply phrasing the issue in these terms also plays to the growing majority of agnostic or apathetic Americans who are more sympathetic to science than to religious exclusivity. However, this argument has a nasty side-effect: it often simply produces Christians who accept the dichotomy, distrust science, and retain their faith in God, which, as we will see, does no one any good at all.

If the issue at stake is “Which is right, God or science?”,  it leaves us with only two options: trust in the scientific process or an anti-scientific faith in God. If your only goal is producing atheists, then this may work for you. But (de)conversion is not the only positive outcome. It is in atheists’ best interests to promote belief in evolution among Christians alongside their efforts to convert people from Christianity. Christians who believe in evolution are potential allies for secular Americans on issues such as whether evolution or creationism should be taught it schools. Instead of a “two-party” system made of up the God and Science “parties,” we have the opportunity to nurture a “third party” of Christian evolutionists who can swing the balance in favor of real science, at least on this issue. Framing the issue as “God vs. Science” precludes this possibility.

In addition, while the “God vs. Science” debate usually focuses on evolution, framing the issue in this way will lead to Christians distrusting science in other dangerous ways. If atheists discourage Christians from rejecting the scientific consensus on evolution thanks to this false dichotomy, then those Christians will be more likely to be suspicious of science in general. This could lead them to reject other scientific consensuses, like those about the role of humans in global climate change or the effectiveness and safety of vaccinations. Evolution is, in the end, a mostly “academic” issue, but climate change and vaccinations can have very dire “real world” consequences if Christians reject their scientific basis, as some have already begun to do. If people aren’t prepared to abandon their faith in God, we don’t want them also abandoning their trust in science, but a “God vs. Science” mentality makes this their only option.

“God vs. science” is a terrible, terrible frame for a very complex issue. It does play well with the non-religious public, and as a tool for “un-evangelizing” Christians it may be effective. But in the arena of public discourse, it’s a false dichotomy which will only serve to further polarize American culture. Allowing space for a spectrum of beliefs is essential for the future health of our nation.

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What’s the issue?

Nothing aggravates me more than watching people simultaneously argue with each other about two completely different subjects. Seriously, people: the single most important thing to keep track of in a discussion is what it is you’re actually arguing about.

The issue at stake in any discussion, while often unstated, can always be phrased as a question:

  • “Should we go to war with Iran?”
  • “Is climate change a man-made phenomenon?”
  • “Moe’s or Chipotle?”

Your argument is the answer to the question, usually with reasoning or evidence:

  • “Yes, in order to protect our democratic allies in the Middle East, especially Israel.”
  • “While some changes can be attributed to natural climate patterns, there is a clear link between human activity and global climate change.”
  • “Moe’s, because they serve quesadillas and their queso is way better.”

When you encounter someone else’s argument, whether online, in a conversation, or in another venue, you need to be able to identify what issue that argument is addressing, especially if you want to respond. If you haven’t properly identified the issue at hand, you run the risk of making an argument that actually addresses a different issue, and you’ll end up talking past your debate partner instead of to them.

Now, we don’t usually botch this completely. Usually, even if we start addressing a different issue, it’s close enough that we can engage with each other in a meaningful way. But as a conversation progresses, if the issue is not regularly identified and clarified, the debate will start to fall apart. Too many debates bounce around from subject to subject, as people introduce new arguments that are tangential to the ones that preceded them. Our minds tend to jump from one subject to another, and while the connections may be clear to us, we rarely take the time to make them explicit for our debate partners.

So how can we argue better? The first thing we can do when reading an argument is to try to formulate a question, Jeopardy!-style, that this particular statement answers. We might not end up asking the exact same question that our debate partner is attempting to answer, but it will help us orient ourselves. Next, we can restate the issue along with our response or, better yet, take the time to confirm, before offering our rebuttal, that we’re covering the same issue our debate partner had in mind when they put forward their argument. Finally, when we want to introduce an argument on a different issue, we should present our new issue and our new argument as clearly as possible.

If you enjoy rabbit trails and long, meandering debates, I don’t want to rain on your parade. But you should do people the courtesy of clarifying, at every point in the discussion, what it is you’re talking about, and when it is you’re moving on to a new subject. If you want to be persuasive, you need to make sure people understand what you’re trying to persuade them of.

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