Born Free? Al Mohler's Brave New World
Kathryn Joyce printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Tue Mar 20, 2007 at 03:14:41 PM EST
I'm not totally sure why Southern Baptist Theological Seminary president Al Mohler has gotten involved with the politics surrounding a German zoo and its polar bear cub, Knut, who was abandoned by his mother and is now being raised by Berlin zookeepers in a somewhat-controversial breach of animal welfare protocol. But I think it might have something to do with this: Mohler's highly controversial (for a reigning evangelical talking-head, that is) assertion that homosexuality may be biologically determined after all, and, if it's so determined, that Christians should embrace forthcoming technology that might be able to hormonally alter a fetus's sexual orientation.

For those who missed the controversy, Mohler recently stirred an inter-evangelical & gay-"ex-gay" debate when he riffed off a Radar article on the possibility of detecting sexual orientation in the womb, "Is Your Baby Gay," and mused that maybe, if parents could tell their fetus was destined to be gay, they could wear some sort of hormonal patch to straighten their future child out (thus saving the fetus from years of "straight" camps and baffling ex-gay ministries).

Mohler's original article, "Is your baby gay? What if you could know? What if you could do something about it?" also started with animals: gay sheep, specifically, and the scientific speculation that determining the biological components of the sheep's' gayness could lead to biological "cures" for gayness. Mohler summarized:

Homosexual activists were among the first to call for (and fund) research into a biological cause of homosexuality. After all, they argued, the discovery of a biological cause would lead to the normalization of homosexuality simply because it would then be seen to be natural, and thus moral.

But now the picture is quite different. Many homosexual activists recognize that the discovery of a biological marker or cause for homosexual orientation could lead to efforts to eliminate the trait, or change the orientation through genetic or hormonal treatments.

In a ten-point mini-study guide for Christians pondering the issue, Mohler then proposed that admitting a genetic cause for gayness, if one were found, need not be incompatible with the Bible, but rather Christians should look at it as a physical manifestation of the Fall: a Satan-shaped difference between gay and straight brains. Mohler also made clear that biologal findings need not interfere with Christian condemnation of homosexuality, as the Bible will hold firm on sin, but suggested that:

8. If a biological basis is found, and if a prenatal test is then developed, and if a successful treatment to reverse the sexual orientation to heterosexual is ever developed, we would support its use as we should unapologetically support the use of any appropriate means to avoid sexual temptation and the inevitable effects of sin.

Unsurprisingly, his suggestions riled both gay-rights activists and evangelicals wary of any attempts to cast homosexuality as anything other than a conscious choice. The Washington Post summed up some of the more contentious points on Friday:

For seeming to contradict a basic tenet of anti-gay thinking -- that homosexuality is a lifestyle choice, not a state of nature -- Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, was inundated with e-mails from readers who castigated him, he said on his blog Friday.

And for expressing his approval of a hypothetical prenatal intervention to change a baby's sexual orientation, he was verbally attacked by gay-rights advocates. Some of them likened him to the Nazi doctor Josef Mengele for seeming to advocate the manipulation of nature to "basically wipe out gay people," said Wayne R. Besen, founder of Truth Wins Out, a group that fights efforts to convert gays to heterosexuality.

Since then, ex-gay ministry leader (and member) Stephen Bennett has come to Mohler's defense, issuing the following statement:

"The reason Mohler's blog post drew so much media attention was the premise that the reader could walk away with: if someone is born a certain way, who are we to 'play God' and change nature?

Before repeating the necessary statement of faith (and redemption):

"The FACT is homosexuality - having NO scientific, biological basis whatsoever - IS ALREADY a changeable trait WITHOUT a patch or injection, one that I have personally received 14 years ago: Jesus Christ.

"No matter the future's findings or lack thereof, homosexuality is, was and always will be 'sin' in God's eyes - an immoral, sexually behavior based lifestyle that should and can be changed.

Former Operation Rescue head, and current Washington evangelical lobbyist Rev. Rob Schenk, tread a similarly fine line between admitting the possibility of biological cause (and ergo the possibility of a "cure"), while thanking Mohler for beginning an ethics conversation anti-gay Christian activists need to have now, before their "homosexual lifestyle choice" arguments are debunked by new research:

There will never be a quick, easy, strictly physical "cure" for sexual disorders and dysfunctions, hetero or homo. I'm convinced we will learn that spiritual, psychological, relational, experiential and environmental factors all combine with biological factors to produce certain human sexual proclivities and predilections--as is no doubt true of ALL human behaviors. Ultimately, of course, such dysfunctions are linked to the Fall and our resulting sinful state and consequent alienation from God the Creator. The cure for that underlying cause has already appeared.

But Schenk too can see a role for the hormonal "fix":

In the end it is intent that matters most. If our intent is to help a child develop normally and to enjoy a life designed by God for his or her happiness in service to the Lord and to His moral will--and there is a reasonable and demonstrable possibility of doing so with limited risk, then we should pursue it.

Inundated with hate-mail from his fellow Christians, Mohler himself quickly revised and clarified his position: that no matter its origin, sin is sin is sin:

Let's get this straight -- God's condemnation of sin is not determined by science, but by God's Word. The Bible could not be more clear -- all forms of homosexual behavior are expressly condemned as sin. In so doing the Bible uses its strongest vocabulary and places this condemnation in the larger context of the Creator's rightful expectation of our stewardship of the sexual gift. All manifestations of homosexuality are thus representations of human sinfulness and rebellion against God's express will. Nothing can alter this fact, and no discovery in science or any other human endeavor can change God's verdict.

So what does this have to do with polar bears? Probably precious little, but what strikes me is Mohler's common resort in both debates to employing vague definitions of Christian stewardship: a concept that has itself provoked numerous internal skirmishes between evangelicals debating the extent to which the principle implies support for liberal-seeming environmentalism. In lambasting a few German animal rights activists who had criticized the zoo's decision to hand-raise and bottle-feed a bear cub rejected by its mother, Mohler fell back on stewardship: God gave us animals to eat, wear, and enjoy watching in zoos. Therefore, we can intervene in nature if we want to, especially if it concerns an unmaternal mama-bear.

Now Mohler is similarly loose with his applications of the stewardship rule, citing sexual stewardship - that is, guarding God's gift of sexuality - as containing not just brow-beating anti-gay sermons, but also potentially the prenatal, hormonal manipulation of a fetus so that it is less inclined to sin, and more ready to enjoy God's plan for heterosexual fulfillment. Belatedly aware of how creepy and dystopian this sounds to outsiders (as well as near-blasphemous to his brethren), Mohler has tied the stewardship principle to human intervention with nature's course with a cute, media-darling bear cub: as though interfering with nature as he has suggested need not be reminiscent of Brave New World so much as "Born Free". And in fact "born free" is just the promise he's making: freeing people of the potential to sin, as he defines it. Hopefully the hostile reception he's encountered is a reminder not just of his own theology, which places great emphasis on free choice, but, among people less-inclined to God complexes, of the near-genocidal implications of promoting such a plan.

If ever there were a clandestine/ third world experimental medical procedure, this would be it. We hope that the West will not turn backward, but at the moment, homosexuality is not regarded as an illness, therefore, prenatal intervention to alter it is not justified. Since the last widespread prenatal hormonal intervention, DES,  has resulted in cancers and genitourinary defects (anything from hypospadias  (urethral orifice in penis at base) to urinary bladder extrophy (urinary bladder open to outside), one might expect most US MDs to be rather resistant to doing an intervention, for a normal condition, that might expose them to mega-lawsuits for the next 21 or more years.

by NancyP on Tue Mar 20, 2007 at 08:16:12 PM EST

I just love how the religious right cherry picks science. They scoff at Darwin and twist the discoveries of paleontology in order to justify creationism, but then embrace genetic science where homosexuality is concerned. Why? Because it gives them the opportunity to act upon their true motive: domination and control. They'll stop at nothing to foist their beliefs on others -- even unborn fetuses -- given any opportunity. They would never entertain the possibility, of course, that homosexuality is perhaps part of a larger divine plan that they don't yet understand (population control, anyone?). There are no accidents in nature -- except, apparently, where reality (science) contradicts religious idealogy.

by moviescribe on Wed Mar 21, 2007 at 10:35:25 PM EST

Imply that he thinks gay are cursed from birth, or even before birth ?

Of course, though, since God in the end is by Mohler's definition almighty, such a curse would ultimately have to be God's doing rather than Satan's.

by Bruce Wilson on Tue Mar 20, 2007 at 05:18:10 PM EST

He has rather unwittingly provided a real opening or chink in the anti-gay movement.  If homosexuality is biological and not a matter of free will (so-called 'lifestyle choice'), then the way is open for the whole "God made me this way" argument.  That's why the other fundies are upset over his article - it messes with a lot of their theology.

I suppose the bioethics are tricky - if it is a developmental side effect of the in-utero environment (like, say folic acid deficiency in the mother), or if it's genetic.  I'm glad I'm not a bioethicist.  It does seem to me, however, that it's very difficult to take a creationist view - we are created in God's image - and permit tinkering with the 'natural process' - the whole 'theology of life' logic which dictates that euthanasia is amoral  as is theraputic abortion, would also dictate that congenital therapy (is that the right construct?) is also immoral.  

by montpellier on Wed Mar 21, 2007 at 09:13:39 AM EST

"hate the sin, love the sinner" line, by which gays aren't cursed, but rather especially prone to "sin" in this way, but which then asserts that it's up to them not to sin by acting on their homosexuality. Mohler likened it to a special moral challenge, like a soldier on a battlefield who didn't ask to be put in a moral life-or-death quandry, but there he was in such a quandry, and he would be held accountable for his actions. Likewise, by Mohler's quick-footed accomodation of new science, a person born predisposed to be gay would just have a special burden from God that he would nonetheless have to deal with according to the Bible. The whole conversation, and Mohler's quasi-acceptance of the idea of a
"gay gene" seems like preparation for such new research: they want their arguments prepared in case new research disproves their "it's a lifestyle choice" rhetoric.

Promoting prenatal anti-gay therapy, on the other hand, is a pretty shocking, interventionist, turn though, especially for a movement that has so long relied on "natural law" type arguments against homosexuality.

by Kathryn Joyce on Tue Mar 20, 2007 at 06:23:11 PM EST

Kathryn, thank you for placing it on the site. I think it will be incumbent upon all of us to document the very clearly articulated, unambiguous vitriol that evangelicals have spouted for decades now about how homosexuality MUST be a choice - and as such, means that gays are to be held accountable for their 'sinful lifestyle choices.' Such glaring inconsistincies can be easily overlooked and forgotten in time as folk like Al Mohler become the mouthpiece for a movement within the evangelical household that adjusts to new and irrefutable evidence.
Shalom, Rev. Dr. John C. Dorhauer "Time makes ancient good uncouth; we must onward still and upward who would keep abreast of truth." from Lowell, "The Present Crisis"
by John Dorhauer on Wed Mar 21, 2007 at 09:31:58 AM EST

I am amazed that I agree with Albert Mohler about anything. That little baby bear is powerful! I am especially amazed, since I had written him off after reading the "gay baby" blog entries. I wish he would spend more time trying to keep innocent creatures from suffering, and less time trying to inflict suffering on gays and bisexuals of all ages.

by GreenEyed Lilo on Wed Mar 21, 2007 at 10:22:42 AM EST

Thanks once again, Kathryn, for an incisive piece of writing. These guys who throw around words like "stewardship" when it suits them need to be shown up as the cynical sophists they are. It's downright Orwellian ... and I know that's an overused term these days, but there you have it. If you pay a visit to the so-called Interfaith Stewardship Alliance you'll see how cynical it can get. Here you have a bunch of hardcore evangelical science deniers (when it suits them) who have appropriated the respectable name of the Interfaith Alliance , (is this actionable?) inserted a well chosen trendy word ("Stewardship"), and, Bob's Yer Uncle, set themselves up as the truly environmentally-minded protectors of the poor darker-skinned peoples of the world who are used as gratuitous clip art for their site. Quote: "The poor are are often the most injured by misguided though well-intentioned policies." Translation: "Let's do nothing about global warming, especially if it involves increased taxes for us, and let's pretend we are doing it (nothing) to help the poor peoples of the world."

There's also this gem, which I would call scriptural non sequitur if it even made that much sense:
‘Along with all the benefits we derive from economic use of energy, another consideration–a Biblical/theological one–points in the same direction. The stewardship [italics mine] God gave to human beings over the earth–to cultivate and guard the garden (Genesis 2:15) and to fill [like, with bulldozers?], subdue, and rule the whole earth (Genesis 1:28)–strongly suggests that caring for human needs is compatible with caring for the earth. As theologian Wayne Grudem [who he?] put it, “It does not seem likely to me that God would set up the world to work in such a way that human beings would eventually destroy the earth by doing such ordinary and morally good and necessary things as breathing, building a fire to cook or keep warm, burning fuel to travel, or using energy for a refrigerator to preserve food.”’

On the other hand, it does not seem likely to me that God would resort to such specious reasoning to buttress a truly awful argument for "stewardship".

by downstreamer on Tue Mar 27, 2007 at 11:12:08 AM EST

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