The Sexual Threat to Fundamentalism

During this holiday season—a time, ideally, of peace, empathy, kindness and transcendence—gays and lesbians have reason to feel themselves under siege by ostensible men of God. First there was the Rick Warren affair, with its concomitant message that, unlike racism or anti-Semitism, gay and lesbian equality is something decent people can disagree on. Then, just days later, in his Christmas greeting to the Roman Curia, the Pope saw fit to compare homosexuality—and, indeed, any deviation from binary gender roles—to the destruction of the rainforests.

The official English translation of the Pope’s remarks hasn’t yet been published, but an unofficial version disseminated online by English bishop Michael Campbell shows that Pope Benedict did not, on this occasion, draw analogies between the despoiling of nature and torture or war. Gender-bending alone is singled out as a force rending the harmony of God’s creation.  

“What is necessary is a kind of ecology of man, understood in the correct sense,” said the Pope. “When the Church speaks of the nature of the human being as man and woman and asks that this order of creation be respected, it is not the result of an outdated metaphysic. It is a question here of faith in the Creator and of listening to the language of creation, the devaluation of which leads to the self-destruction of man and therefore to the destruction of the same work of God. That which is often expressed and understood by the term ‘gender,’ results finally in the self-emancipation of man from creation and from the Creator.” Such self-emancipation leads inevitably to a kind of destruction as dangerous as any threat to the natural environment. “The tropical forests are deserving, yes, of our protection, but man merits no less than the creature, in which there is written a message which does not mean a contradiction of our liberty, but its condition,” said the Pope.  

Expressions of homophobia issuing from the Vatican are anything but novel. Nevertheless, it is fascinating that at a time of terrifying and multiplying planetary catastrophes, so many prominent religious men across the globe have decided that homosexuality presents such an urgent and singular threat. In the United States, the Episcopal Church is tearing itself apart over gay ordination; in Africa, prominent religious leaders agitate against homosexuals in paranoid language that bespeaks a supernatural threat. As Bruce Wilson recently reminded us, Peter Akinola, archbishop of Nigeria, supported legislation that would have made it a crime, punishable by years in jail, for anyone to organize on behalf of gay rights, attend a gay marriage, or disseminate pro-gay media. According to the New York Times, the legislation “could be construed to cover having dinner with someone of the same sex.” (None of this stopped Rick Warren from comparing Akinola to Nelson Mandela.)  

In Uganda, another Warren ally, the influential Pentecostal pastor Martin Ssempa, conflates homosexuality and lesbianism with witchcraft. As Helen Epstein wrote in her superb 2007 book The Invisible Cure: Africa, The West, And The Fight Against AIDS, Ssempa’s sermons condemn:

[H]omosexuality, pornography, condoms, certain kinds of rock music, and women’s rights activists, who, he said, promoted lesbianism, abortion, and the worship of female goddesses. He told me that Satan worshippers held meetings under Lake Victoria, where they were promised riches in exchange for human blood, which they collected by staging car accidents and kidnappings.

Similar demonization is running amok on other continents. The Southern Poverty Law Center has reported on a ferocious and violent anti-gay movement among Christian fundamentalists in Latvia who also happen to be influential with some Russian-speaking evangelicals in the United States. One of its leaders is Pastor Alexey (or Alexei) Ledyaev, whose Riga-based New Generation Church has more than 200 satellite churches spread throughout Eastern Europe, Argentina, Israel, and the United States. As the SPLC’s Casey Sanchez reported, the pastor “promote[s] his vision of global theocracy through elaborate, large-scale Christian rock operas that Ledyaev writes, directs, and stars in, and which are replete with lasers, smoke machines, and spandex-clad actors in ghoulish makeup. One of the rock operas, which young Russian-speaking, anti-gay activists promote on video-sharing Web sites, features a hero character wearing a tuxedo battling men in black tights armed with tiki torches. Over heavy-metal guitar riffs, a military-like chorus sings of ‘victory over the gays.’”  

At first glance, perhaps none of this seems particularly extraordinary. After all, the affair between fundamentalism and homophobia has been a long and faithful one. What’s new and chilling, however, is the single-minded ideological obsession of it. This is not something one sees in every theocratic state. Iran, for example, is brutally oppressive towards gay people, whom it regularly executes (although, interestingly enough, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a fatwa allowing for sex-change operations, which are paid for by the government). But the rhetoric of Iran’s fundamentalist clerics doesn’t treat homosexuality as a cosmically subversive threat; instead, Jews and Zionism play that role (as they so often did in Europe before the Holocaust), a dynamic that may prove useful in deciphering the ubiquity and vehemence of anti-gay rhetoric among conservative Christians the world over.

Gays: Synecdoche for Modernism

These days, right-wing Christianity is rarely anti-Semitic in the classic sense of the term. It may not be especially friendly to Jews, but it rarely singles out Judaism as a demonic and cosmic evil; as something that cannot be reconciled with a wholesome society. Homosexuality now occupies that space in the fundamentalist Christian imagination, even in places like Uganda where homosexuals are nearly invisible.  

This is partly due to the globalization of the religious right, a phenomenon that Warren—with all his overseas contacts—exemplifies as well as anyone. It’s also a result of the globalization of civil rights rhetoric. Last week, for example, sixty-six United Nations member states signed a declaration calling for the decriminalization of homosexuality worldwide. (The United States, predictably, was the one major Western nation that refused to sign).

Such pressure from the developed world lets anti-gay leaders cloak themselves in anti-imperialist righteousness, in which gay rights become a decadent Western imposition that poor countries must be protected from. The Vatican justified its opposition to the declaration by saying that it would “pillory” countries that ban homosexuality, creating “new and implacable acts of discrimination”—i.e., discrimination against countries that persecute and imprison gay people.  

Beneath the globalization of the culture wars, though, lies something deeper—something that has led religious figures worldwide to project a torrent of fears and anxieties onto a small and often powerless minority. European Jews, once attacked as rootless cosmopolitans, have frequently been viewed as symbols of modernity. Today, homosexuality has displaced Jews as symbol and placeholder; as synecdoche for Modernism.  

While it is true that plenty of traditional cultures had niches for people who didn’t fit neatly into one gender or another, it is also true that the dichotomy between men and women, and the hierarchy between them, has been at the heart of most human civilizations. “The differences between the two sexes is one of the important conditions upon which we have built the many varieties of human culture that give human beings dignity and stature,” wrote the legendary anthropologist Margaret Mead in her book Male & Female. “We know of no culture that has said, articulately, that there is no difference between men and women except in the way they contribute to the creation of the next generation; that otherwise in all respects they are simply human beings with varying gifts, no one of which can be exclusively assigned to either sex.”  

The modern world undermines such orders, pointing towards just the kind of culture that according to Mead has never existed. In their 2003 book Rising Tide: Gender Equality and Cultural Change Around the World, political scientists Ronald Inglehart and Pippa Norris wrote that “human development brings changed attitudes toward gender equality in virtually any society that experiences the various forms of modernization linked with economic development. Modernization brings systematic, predictable changes in gender roles.” Modernization brings people to the cities, away from ties of blood, tribe, or clan. It makes lower fertility rates economically advantageous, as it encourages the separation of sex and reproduction, and flattens out sex hierarchies that once seemed God-given and immutable. Modernity is the enemy of fundamentalist religion, and gender-bending is the hallmark of modernity.  

Some cultures, particularly fundamentalist Muslim ones, lash out at modernity by enacting a system of gender apartheid, struggling to keep a brittle and obsolete order in place by force, and by railing against the hated and hatefully powerful phantasm of international Jewry. The kind of homophobia that has taken hold globally among conservative Christians combines elements of both prejudices. It blames the awful vertiginous flux of change on a group of insidious outsiders seen to combine occult worldwide power and profound sexual threat. Thus, even as gay rights and gay acceptance make huge advances in the developed world, homosexuality has become a scapegoat for the anxiety and terror wrought by the upheavals of globalization and urbanization worldwide. It has been said that anti-Semitism is the socialism of fools. We might say the same about homophobia and virtue.