Carrie Prejean, God’s Prophet or Porn Star?

The economy tanks, war in Afghanistan heats up and spreads to a nuclear Pakistan, and climate change escalates even faster than scientists originally predicted. But the real controversy, the real issue of the moment facing Americans? Carrie Prejean (currently Miss California, runner-up to Miss USA) takes on gay marriage. She’s opposed, in the name of God and her Christian faith—“no disrespect intended.”

Clearly the culture wars wage on, though pressure continues to build on President Obama to weigh in on same-sex marriage, in which case all bets are off. A Supreme Court appointment may even be at stake.

For those who don’t follow this sort of thing, three weeks ago Miss USA contestant Carrie Prejean was asked by judge Perez Hilton whether she thought gay marriage should be legal, to which Miss California responded “I think that I believe that a marriage should be between a man and a woman.” Later, in a videotaped response to questions over whether her position on gay marriage cost her the contest, Hilton unloaded, saying that she didn’t lose because she opposed gay marriage but because she’s “a dumb b***h.” In the following days, Ms. Prejean became something of a cause célèbre for many on the religious right, including James Dobson’s Focus on the Family.

Bad Theology Leads to Bad Ethics

For my part, beauty pageants ceased to be of interest some time ago. In my opinion they are exercises in the banality of soft-core pornography; a feminist critique that appeared over thirty years ago. So it would normally be ridiculous to weigh in on this brouhaha, except that in this case the ethical and theological implications of opposition to same-sex marriage—always in the name of God and Christian faith—are horrible for those who don’t agree with her position, at least some of whom understand themselves to be Christian.

Furthermore, the ironies and inconsistencies that riddle her claims and those of her defenders reveal a deep ambivalence toward human embodiment that extends, beyond the fatuousness of their assertions and their religious loyalties, to the culture at large. Of course, each citizen has guaranteed rights to religious expression and free speech, but what are the implications of what we express in terms of what we actually practice? And how do our practices affect one another? In the last analysis, this is a matter of bad theology and cultural hypocrisy leading to bad ethics.

Regarding cultural hypocrisy, Carrie Prejean had breast implant surgery just weeks before the pageant, bought and paid for by the California Pageant people at her request. More recently, photos of Prejean bare-breasted have surfaced (and keep surfacing—see left half of story image). She was seventeen at the time they were taken. Apparently unaware that the country is currently debating whether to criminalize “sexting” by minors as the transmission of pornography (a conviction that could label them as sexual predators for the rest of their lives), her response is quite simply that she was a model at the time and that everyone makes mistakes. And, she asserted once again that she is now a Christian. Oblivious to the possibility that theological consistency might lead to a conclusion that a god who prohibits homosexuality and homosexual marriage would not look favorably upon her interventions with her own body, she stands by her claim that God intends heterosexual marriage exclusively.

The responses from her defenders exhibit the same theological inconsistencies and cultural hypocrisy, by and large portray her as a victim of the liberal entertainment industry, praising her courage, hailing her as their spokeswoman, and by extension God’s. Jerry Falwell Jr., Chancellor of Liberty University, has offered her a free ride at Liberty to complete her college education. He noted that all of the male students currently enrolled, having seen her bikini pictures, would line up to donate the funds personally. (It’s not entirely clear whether she can meet the dress code, once she were to arrive, however.)

Shrouding Sexual Titillation and Drooling Voyeurism with the Patina of Beauty and Virtue

One commenter on the Miss USA site, a budding theologian identified only as “CF,” asserted that it was obvious that God intended heterosexual sex only, based on anatomy and electricity (not election). CF likened male-female intercourse to plugging in a television set, writing, “If you look at the anatomy of a male and female, you’ll notice that it works in the same way. The male end goes into the female end. And, you need to know that the ‘inward’ end on a male, is NOT a female end! That is an ‘EXIT ONLY’ end, just as it is for a female.” (What would Thomas Aquinas say? Or, alternatively, Joe the Electrician? Is this the price we pay for lack of sex education in the public schools?) One obviously exasperated respondent to CF’s wisdom wrote back emphatically:

Quite simply, gay relationships are not meant to be, period. Thus, “gay marriage” does not exist with God…

HOWEVER, A GIRL IN BIKINI IN FRONT OF MILLIONS OF MEN, IT’S OK? HEY CF, WHAT RELIGION DO YOU BELONG TO, OR WHO’S YOUR GOD FIGURE?

Two very astute theological questions.

The sad truth is that neither a feminist’s nor a theologian’s work is ever done. The critique still holds. We as a nation promote biologically reductionistic, soft-porn views of human bodies and human sexuality, views that do real violence to real people. Don’t get me wrong; my objection is not to naked bodies and eroticism, but to shrouding sexual titillation and drooling voyeurism with the patina of beauty and virtue, a phenomenon hardly restricted to the religious right alone. We don’t have to be right-wing evangelicals to be confused about our own flesh; bought, marketed, and consumed through various print and electronic media. Indeed, the Carrie Prejeans and Jerry Falwells Jr. of the world are just more transparent.

Another case in point, Sarah Palin’s daughter Bristol recently appeared on the Today show, sitting next to her father, her aptly named son Trip nestled asleep on her arm. She struggled to articulate her sense of her newfound mission to travel around the country urging adolescents to abstain from sex in order to avoid early pregnancy and motherhood. She tried to find words to express how baby Trip himself was a blessing not a mistake, but premarital sex and pregnancy were to be avoided. She simply kept repeating to Matt Lauer, “It’s hard work all the time [to rear a child].” Her father stepped in and simply spoke for her, though he struggled as well.

If You See Someone Ugly-Looking, Don’t Judge ’Em

Almost concurrently, the news broke on the first face transplant in America. Connie Culp, shot in the face five years ago by her husband, standing with shotgun a mere eight feet from her, appeared on the screen. Her new face, still a work in progress, is a grotesque image in no way resembling her earlier likeness, though a definite improvement over the face her husband left her with. Before the transplant (but 30 plastic surgeries after the assault), she had no palate, no sense of smell; she could take food only through a straw. Now blind in one eye, she, like Bristol, struggled for words: “If you see someone [ugly-looking], don’t judge ’em,” she pleaded, “because you never know what happened to ’em.” Of her husband’s upcoming release from prison in 2012, she said, “Don’t go there,” adding, “I’ll always love him; he was my first love.”

I am left with sad musings rather than great, profound responses to the messiness of our attitudes toward our bodies and the loves with which we love one another. This much is clear: Marriage as we know it is all too often a nasty arrangement. Nearly half of American heterosexual marriages end in divorce (down from an earlier era). Irrespective of its nastiness, it is first and foremost a legal determination, essentially for economic purposes, a matter of State, not Church, and in this country the State is banned from establishing religion in any form.

Nastiness notwithstanding, to bear and rear children outside the institution of marriage in this country is, as Bristol Palin declared so plaintively, “hard work all the time” at best, and especially cruel for mothers (unless, of course, you are Angelina Jolie or Madonna). As for Carrie Prejean, no disrespect intended, I believe it presumptuous to speak on the subject of marriage so easily, for God and all Christians. Nevertheless, she too is a victim of a cultural pornography that cuts across the political spectrum, masking itself as beauty, virtue, and moral outrage. Both Prejean and Palin are being used, albeit with their own cooperation; we might do well to consider Connie Culp’s plea: “If you see someone [ugly-looking], don’t judge ’em, because you never know what happened to ’em.”

We project gods, secular as well as religious, that bear remarkable resemblances to ourselves and proceed to absolutize our most cherished values as universal, binding to all, whether they share those values or not. We proceed to act accordingly in their name, punishing those who resist. Thus, our gods say much about who we are, what we hold dear, what we dream for the future. I think the exasperated respondent got it right when asking CF, “WHAT RELIGION DO YOU BELONG TO, OR WHO’S YOUR GOD FIGURE?”

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