Centuries ago the prophet Jeremiah asked a probing question: “Are they ashamed of their loathsome conduct? No, they have no shame at all; they do not even know how to blush” (Jeremiah 8:12). Taking that text as her guide, Karen Booth details her experience in—and evaluation of—the growing sexual permissiveness, particularly regarding homosexuality, within her denomination in Forgetting How to Blush: United Methodism’s Compromise with the Sexual Revolution (Wheaton: Bristol House, LTD., c. 2012). Booth herself confesses to earlier moving through a broken marriage and “a wasteland of relational brokenness and serial promiscuity” (#212). She also supported, as a part of her concern for “social justice,” the “gay rights” agenda—as she was urged to do while attending a liberal United Methodist seminary in the 1980s. A decade later, however, saddened by both her personal struggles and the stories of individuals suffering from the permissiveness of her denomination, she began to oppose the pro-homosexual movement.
Importantly, “the roots of our long struggle” may be traced back “at least to the late 1950s and early 1960s when several strategic educational and programmatic decisions were made.” Prominent denominational leaders then “adopted and promoted a value neutral approach to sexual ethics called ‘the new morality’—a decision that laid the groundwork for the sexual confusion and compromise that would follow” (Kindle #187). To dolorously document her church’s “foolish and sometimes evil” Booth wrote this treatise. A century ago progressive thinkers rebelled against what they portrayed as Victorian prudery. Promoting the “social hygiene movement,” they called for a healthier attitude towards sex, including the abolition of the “double standard” treating men and women differently. Half-a-century later came the Kinsey reports, alleging Americans routinely indulged in various sexual activities and arguing that all forms of sexual expression were “natural” and thus permissible. To Kinsey, deeply committed to Darwin’s evolutionary paradigm, humans are simply animals needing to satisfy their biological urges. “So-called ‘perversions’ are rooted in primate behavior and in that sense are ‘natural.’” Denying one’s sexual urges needlessly frustrates a person and leads to both individual and social problems. And to Kinsey: “The Christian church is to blame for this situation; it is the main culprit behind sexual ignorance, repression and dysfunction” (#373).
Though we now know how seriously (indeed, intentionally) flawed was Kinsey’s “research,” it profoundly impacted post-WWII culture—especially the nation’s intellectual elites. Not only were his “reports” widely read, but he lectured in prestigious law schools and testified before a variety of legislative committees. Hitherto illegal, non-marital sexual practices, such as adultery, pornography, and sodomy, were quickly decriminalized. Sex education courses, subtly supporting more permissive sexual standards, were soon introduced into the public schools. Kinsey sought to change the nation’s ethos, and he succeeded. As Kristin Luker, professor professor of law and sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, concluded: “‘Men and women of a certain age have lived through a [sexual] revolution as disorienting and historically important as any of the revolutions we routinely recognize as such. . . . That revolution questioned a whole set of assumptions about what were the right ways for men and women to relate to one another sexually, how sex was and should be related to maleness and femaleness, and how and where marriage and sex should coincide. The opening up of what had been taken-for-granted truths has changed the world’” (#694).
Swept up in this revolution were many (if not all) of the nation’s Christian churches, including the United Methodist Church. However they may have tried to resist the “new morality” in the 1960s, churches (many following the lead of the National Council of Churches) quickly accommodated themselves to the more permissive sexual standards of the secular world. As Booth researched the subject, sifting “through the historical records of a number of Methodist and United Methodist Boards and Agencies,” she “discovered that deliberate curriculum and program choices made in the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s and 1970s laid the foundation for the moral revisionism that would follow and spread” (#1328). Thus in 1972, sex education was added to the Methodist Book of Discipline, and one spokesman was encouraged by what he saw as the “the church’s response to ‘the new sexuality,’ including: —a shift from ‘rigid rules’ to situational ethics —an emphasis on individual freedom and toleration of private, consensual acts —a redefinition of pornography that allowed for the explicit depiction of ‘various kinds of sexual behavior’—an understanding of homosexual behavior as ‘variant’ rather than as ‘deviant.’” It was all, of course, based on “‘a deeper understanding of the Bible’” (#1465-72).
Such materials were prepared by denominational leaders such as C. Kilmer (Kim) Myers, who infused his messages “with substantial amounts of Tillich and Buber, a few revisionist twists and a dollop of Jungian psychology for good measure. Myers taught that truth is not static but a “continuing revelation”; that church teaching should therefore “readjust itself” to the insights of modern psychology and sociology; that justification is not, as traditionally understood, being made right with God, but is “accepting the fact that I am accepted”; that in the ultimate union of masculinity and femininity man’s “wholeness,” including his homosexuality, emerges and, therefore, that all relationships are equally “valid” if they are loving, committed and “responsible” (#1700).
One denominational activist, Ted McIlvenna, who had earlier served on the MNC’s national staff, was especially active in arranging conferences, workshops, and publications that advanced the “new morality.” Following efforts to minister to gay men in San Francisco, he worked assiduously to normalize their behavior, along with virtually all forms of sexual activity. Featured in a 1979 article in Hustler—“The Reverend Ted McIlvenna: Apostle for Sexual Rights”—he said his mission was to “free people from sexual restrictions” (#1970). “Just consider,” Booth says, “McIlvenna’s pronouncements about God and hardcore pornography: ‘I think the Spirit of the Lord may have been in Hustler before Larry Flynt consciously tried to put it there.’” Indeed, “the ‘Spirit of the Lord moves where it will, and my job as a missionary is to identify it where I find it. And I perceive God at the place where people are being set free. That’s why I perceive God in Hustler’” (# 2032-2037). Throughout it all, McIlvenna—the “missionary” for sexual license—retained his credentials for 40 years in the United Methodist Church!
Given the influence of clergymen such as McIlvenna, no one should wonder at the success of pro-gay agitation with Methodism. Activists insisted, in various venues, that the church change its historic stance. They often disrupted denominational meetings and slowly gained ground as “studies” and “reports” supported their position. Things came to a head in 1992 when The General Conference—“the only official decision-making body for The United Methodist Church—had the opportunity to speak a clear and unambiguous word about sexual morality. Instead, it compromised” (#2350). A decade later, meeting in Pittsburgh in 2004, “presiding Bishop Janice Huie ‘welcomed” hundreds of bused-in demonstrators onto the plenary floor. Activists marched around, beat drums and chanted for several minutes before placing a rainbow candle on the altar. Conservative observers in the visitor’s gallery thought the candle bore remarkable resemblance to a modern-day ‘asherah pole’” (#2378). Unable to gain all their objectives, activists have formed a Church Within a Church (CWAC) and begun ordaining ministers defying denominational standards. They dubbed their behavior as a “loyal” resistance, justifying “covert acts of subterfuge—for example, taking an ordination pledge of sexual purity with fingers crossed or ‘protecting’ a pastor or church official who is sexually active but doesn’t choose to ‘come out of the closet.’ Indeed, one influential activist defended ‘lying, deception, and operating under false pretenses’ as long as pro-gay objectives are achieved” (#2885).
Consequently, homosexuals have orchestrated the collapse of traditional Methodist discipline. They succeeded, Booth thinks, because the denomination lost its commitment to Scripture. An elderly man, supporting the gay agenda, simply explained it: “‘You know, we could resolve our conflict quite easily,’ he told me, ‘if we could just agree to get rid of the first five books of the Old Testament. If we could just eliminate the doctrine of original sin, we wouldn’t have this problem’” (#1316). While not exactly getting rid of the Pentateuch, biblical scholars within the denomination provided “nuanced” ways to attain the same end, explaining away certain clear prohibitions as “ignorant” and merely prejudices of an unenlightened era. Thus one scholar, Victor Paul Furnish, “‘declares that “homosexuality, as we have come to understand it and to use the word, is not a biblical topic,’” and ultimately faulted “‘every one of the specific moral rules and teachings of Scripture’ for being ‘time bound and culturally conditioned’” (#2769).
Casting away the timeless authority of Scripture, today’s United Methodist Church has truly forgotten how to blush!
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In Moral Combat: How Sex Divided American Christians and Fractured American Politics (New York: Basic Books, c. 2017), R. Marie Griffith seeks to show how sexual concerns have effectively “split” Christianity “into two virtually non-overlapping religions” (p. ix). The split first began a century ago as women mobilized to assert their right to vote. Thereafter, a divide widened between “Christians embracing new ideas regarding women’s rights and roles and others redoubling their efforts to preserve the old sexual order” (p. x). Chapter by chapter—though endeavoring to set forth a scholarly historical work and providing richly-researched and detailed information—Griffith continually lauds the progressives who worked to transform the nation’s ethos. To her, those opposing “sexual relationships and behavior outside traditional marriage” were mainly driven by “fear” (p. xi). Those supporting “tradition” feared change whereas “progressives” embraced new ways of behaving, especially for “persons once excluded, marginalized, or stigmatized for behaving outside the norm” (p. xi). As she tells the story, compassionate, inclusive progressives prevailed and ushered in a better world, especially for women such as herself!
Griffith begins her treatise by recounting “the battle over birth control in the roaring twenties.” Following to the work of Margaret Sanger, “the signature leader of the birth control movement,” many Christians (ignoring one of the most ancient traditions in the Christian Church, both Catholic and Protestant) began supporting contraception in the 1930s “as morally acceptable and, crucially, as perfectly consonant with American liberty” (p. 1). Sanger effectively courted Protestant supporters by claiming opposition to birth control was simply a Catholic superstition irrelevant to progressives determined to be on the right side of history. Stressing how a child’s right “to be desired” as well as the “racial uplift” for the nation would be bolstered by birth control, she enlisted sympathetic “Protestant clergy, underscoring the fact that Protestants no longer spoke with one voice regarding contraception” (p. 11).
The campaign for contraception rapidly gained momentum when the Church of England, in the 1930 Lambeth Conference, cautiously embraced birth control for married couples facing unusual situations. In response, Pope Pius XI reaffirmed the Church’s traditional condemnation of contraception in Casti Connubia, sharply rebuking Anglicans for departing from centuries of Christian teaching. But as the “Red” Anglican Dean William R. “Inge suggested, the Protestant position on birth control followed an internal modernist logic consistent with a progressive position on a number of other issues in American society, including the teaching of Darwinian evolution and the publication of literature formerly deemed obscene” (p. 31). Consequently, support for birth control rapidly spread in the United States—a 1938 poll showed nearly 80% of the women approved it.
Changes in attitudes towards contraception were equally evident in other areas, such as censoring salacious publications and films. Progressives generally opposed censorship and warmly endorsed more explicit sexual materials, such as typified the writings of D.H Lawrence (whose Lady Chatterly’s Lover was frequently censored). Joining traditionalists who opposed such laxity, T.S. Eliot “described Lawrence as a ‘great genius’ sickened by ‘a distinct sexual morbidity.’ Denouncing ‘the deplorable religious upbringing which gave Lawrence his lust for intellectual independence,’ Eliot scoffed, ‘like most people who do not know what orthodoxy is, he hated it.’ He damned Lawrence’s lack of ‘tradition’ and analyzed him as having had ‘no guidance except the Inner Light, the most untrustworthy and deceitful guide that ever offered itself to wandering humanity.’” (p. 77).
That T.S. Eliot and the traditionalists were losing the cultural struggle became even more evident with the reception given the Kinsey reports immediately following WWII. Rather surprisingly, they fomented a “revolution . . . in religious thinking about sexuality” (p. 123). This was quite evident in the career of Seward Hiltner, a prominent figure in the National Council of Churches who taught at the University of Chicago divinity school and Princeton Theological Seminary and “would prove an important figure in altering mainline Protestant attitudes regarding sexual morality” (p. 123). Rather rapidly, the Christian community, as well “as the broader public culture grew more tolerant of explicit sexual themes and imagery” (p. 155). Hollywood films and popular novels treated sex more openly, and when, in 1960, the FDA approved the birth control pill, “many college students were openly questioning the strict sexual standards and taboos of their parents, including disapproval of premarital sex. Helen Gurley Brown’s racy best seller Sex and the Single Girl came out in 1962, exuberantly advocating women’s sexual freedom before and outside marriage, and Betty Friedan’s groundbreaking manifesto about unfulfilled homemakers and “the problem that has no name,” The Feminine Mystique, was published the following year” (p. 155).
More liberal sexual standard led to an openness regarding (and often an approval of) abortion as a last resort form of birth control. Though denounced throughout the history of the Christian Church, liberal Protestants early enlisted in support of it. One New York City Baptist clergyman, Howard R. Moody, organized the Clergy Consultation Service, an advocacy group to push for its acceptance. His group was supported by such pro-abortion advocates as Lawrence Lader, whom Betty Frieden called “the father of abortion rights,” who became persuaded, while writing a biography of Margaret Sanger, that “reproductive freedom for women’s full equality” included access to abortion. Believing the 1965 Supreme Court’s Griswold decision secured “privacy” rights, he reasoned: “If contraception fell under this right to privacy, why not abortion?” (p. 215).
Anti-abortion Christians simply embraced the historic Catholic position set forth by Pope Pius XII in 1951: “Every human being, even a child in the mother’s womb, has a right to life directly from God’” (p. 210). American evangelicals, however, did not immediately embrace the pope’s position. Indeed, many of them, including the Southern Baptist Convention thought “family welfare” concerns could justify aborting the baby. Thus W.A. Criswell “praised the court’s decision and publicly stated his belief that abortion was not murder and that ‘what is best for the mother and for the future should be allowed’” (p. 202). Within a decade, however, evangelicals such as Jerry Falwell, with his “Moral Majority,” joined conservative Catholics in adamantly opposing abortion. As Griffith sees it, “these resolutely conservative Christians and their innumerable allies and followers, feminism and abortion were twin evils, two sides of the same dirty coin” (p. 228).
In her final chapters Griffith discusses sexual harassment, same sex marriage and LGBT rights. Though earlier issues had certainly divided Christians into two camps, “Nowhere were national divisions over homosexuality deeper than in the church” (p. 274). But “a momentous event in the global Anglican Communion and also in American Christianity writ large” occurred when V. Gene Robinson, the “first openly gay and partnered man,” was made a bishop in the Episcopal Church. Robinson, serves as a symbol marking the triumph of the sexual revolution. He became such a celebrity that he was invited to speak at an event as part of Barack Obama’s first inauguration, and Griffith has nothing but praise for Robinson’s role in bringing about change in the churches. “For LGBT people and their allies, Robinson acquired something of the status of a saint, the very embodiment of grace in the face of prejudice, and of prejudice overcome. His outspoken feminism further endeared him to feminists as well, for he linked hatred of women to these other prejudices, repeatedly maintaining, “At their root, heterosexism and homophobia are expressions of misogyny” (p. 301).
In Griffith’s Epilogue she unleashes a furious denunciation of Donald Trump, who stands for everything she detests. Therein, ironically, one finds the heart of the book, for oversimplify, the message of Moral Combat is this: for a century righteous progressives, committed to compassion and ever-expanding inclusiveness, have slowly triumphed over assorted traditionalists who remain locked into out-dated perspectives.
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