I have wondered whether to post this or not for various reasons that might soon enough become apparent. First, it is based in a family situation. And since I have never really reconciled the public nature of blogs and my intensely private traits, posting this would only add to my angst in the cyber-age. Second, and as it should be pointed out beforehand anyway, this is not meant to be a post on any immediate political question or direct comment on certain morality, though it would be naïve of me to assume it couldn’t quickly turn into that at some point. In a word, I have plenty of reason to clam up. But here I am and here I go.
Over this past holiday season we traveled north to visit my extended family. This is the broad mega-church evangelical side with deep roots in frontier Bible-church Fundamentalism, pietism and revivalism. As such, they rarely refer to any particular religious tradition and simply understand themselves to be “conservative Christians.” There is one member of the family who is gay. Learning well from the sort of reactionary-Fundamentalism within which he was reared, it is not at all surprising he is, generally speaking, as “carnal” as they are “spiritual.” I don’t suppose I need to rehearse all the implications of this, but suffice it to say that he had what I would consider the typical experience growing up gay in a religious community which made it clear that there was not much worse on earth than that.
So when another family member, in his employment as a Christian radio personality, throws the switch that runs the latest Focus on the Family diatribe against what is reckoned one of the worst set of cultural culprits, deep lines of division are drawn. And everyone who has just drawn said lines goes into victim mode when either their nemeses dare to respond or when the resident Presbyterian (me) points out the foibles of culture war. (Presbyterians are essentially as enigmatic to funda-evangelicals as are homosexuals. I’d make a comment about strange bed-fellows, but since it is difficult for me to gauge the sensibilities of Outhouse readers, I’ll refrain.)
Admitted or not, this particular family rendezvous seemed to be cause for anxiety on everyone’s part: “Adam” was bringing home “Steve” for the holidays. This twist to the festivities owed to the interesting interplay between conservative personalities—to their magnanimous credit—not behaving as boorishly as their system seems to demand and actually encouraging the paired visit, and a pushy partner who seems to naively relish the role of corrective ideologue to the Fundamentalists. As the lone Presbyterian I just stood around fretting about the fact that nobody had a clue about what they were contemplating, since, being somewhat also self-centered, I worried about how my holiday might get ruined (I love Christmas-time). There were hushed conversations in our religious wings about what could happen; parents exchanged short, sharp excerpts as to the kind of preparations they decided to give their children. Doubtless Adam but especially Steve had practiced the standard eighty-four comebacks listed in “Home For the Holidays For (Homosexual) Dummies.”
But as it turned out, all went off without one hairy wrinkle. It was like opening day on the links after a long winter and pinging a straight drive down the fairway. You don’t know where it came from or how it happened but you don’t complain. As I told my wife in the post-holiday debriefing, everyone’s behavior was (mostly) exemplary but special mention had to go to the Fundamentalists. I’d be surprised if the untrained eye could have detected any trace of scar tissue. To my delight, all was Christmas cheer—well, as cheerful as teetotalism gets you.
And, amid all the happy-time, there was something that gave me the greatest pause for thought. When the time came for the inevitable family pictures to be shot, Steve was encouraged to “join the family” and carve out a spot next to Adam. This was nestled naturally within the larger experience of what could only be described as familial civility. The question arose in my mind: if culture warriors can privately encourage Adam and Steve to be in the family picture why is the public enterprise to make sure they remain second-class citizens?
One explanation that I would confidently anticipate if put to them directly would be: “We are vastly decent people who happen to depart from not only broader cultural mores but also from the horribly unfair caricature made of us because of those departures.” But, as capable of decency as I already know they are, that is much too convenient and suggests that the exemplary private demeanor justifies public nastiness. And it really doesn’t go very far in explaining the wide private and public disparity in the first place, except to prop up the generally Pollyanna worldview they have which easily marks the eternally good good guys from perpetually bad bad ones.
Another, more honest explanation may be that they do in fact understand something of a radical distinction between private behavior and public posture, one that allows for an intense and intolerant militancy out in the open but a cooing nurture when everyone resides behind closed doors. But, before some are tempted to have their cake and eat it too, one problem here is that this doesn’t seem altogether unlike telling a son, “Listen, when we go to the mall you walk ten feet behind me and pretend you don’t know me and I’ll do the same; if you or anyone else suggests we are in any way affiliated I will smear your name. When we get home, we’ll go back to treating each other decently.” For another, if it were true that the private and public regard could be so extremely cast, one should probably expect some amends made for past private behavior that was quite at odds with something like what I witnessed. After all, what exactly happens in between the time one is all but privately exorcised by the family pastor and inviting a partner into the family photograph that past unsavoriness is allowed to just evaporate?
Like any other human dilemma, it is complicated. And kulturekampf sounds good until real life actually shows up under your own roof and you realize that human beings are involved. When Sherman said “War is hell” he was uttering something only manly experience could over against a more sophomoric perspective which relishes bloodbath. But if these cultural warriors want to at once keep fighting and be consistent it seems like they have a choice to make:
1.) The private behavior should lead public posture. This would mean that, just as they privately encourage homosexual citizens of the clan to join the family picture, they should be on the exact opposite side of the prevailing social battle and deliberately see to it Adam and Steve are not kept institutionally and culturally bay.
2.) The predominant public posture should lead private behavior. This would mean that the stellar private behavior shown around the family hearth would basically turn into the sort of brazen dysfunction that embarrasses decent families.
Of course, as a Reformed two-kingdomite I am a conscientious dissenter from culture war in the first place. I don’t have to make it work. And I am at liberty to invoke an ethic about minding one’s own affairs instead of being forced into a public moralism one way or another, even as I may hold a public opinion subject only to my individual conscience and not any group-think; and I don’t have to choose between social gospels. But my guess is that my cultural warriors will press forward as they always have. If nothing else, it is interesting to wat