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How a nursery rhyme helped me cut liberal Christians a little bit of slack

by Greg Krehbiel on 19 March 2017

The Farmer in the Dell came to mind this morning, and I realized as it was rolling around in my head that aside from being a silly thing for kids to sing, it could also be seen as a teaching tool, to some extent. It shows kids an order to life. The farmer takes a wife, the wife takes a child, etc.

While I was thinking about the nursery rhyme, a question that’s been rattling around in my mind suddenly surfaced, and I pondered it on my jog. The question being, How do liberal Christians simultaneously claim to believe the Bible and accept homosexuality (and other things)?

Yes, it seems like a long distance from the farmer to the gay pastor, but … give me a few minutes of your time and I think it will make sense.

There are people in the world who object to “heteronormativity.” That is, making the assumption that heterosexuality is the normative way, and that anything else is a deviation. “The Farmer in the Dell” could be considered “heteronormative.”

The people who object to heteronormativity believe little things like “The Farmer in the Dell” teach a heterosexual structure to life. It tells them the normal way. The boys are expected to grow up to become productive fellows, who then take a wife and have a child. It seems innocent enough, but to people who have different inclinations it might feel uncomfortable, and we all know that making people uncomfortable is a horrible sin.

Other people might say that the song isn’t meant to push people in any particular direction, it’s just a description of the way things are. But I think that is a bit disingenuous.

To make it simple, let’s say that you can view human sexuality as fixed, fluid, or some combination of the two.

If sexuality is entirely fixed, then the various “heteronormative” things we feed to children aren’t going to have any effect on their sexuality. The stories might annoy some people who don’t fit the mold, but the little ditties and such aren’t going to change them.

But I don’t think either extreme (all fixed or all fluid) is very defensible. Sexuality seems to be somewhat fixed and somewhat fluid. (If you don’t agree, just accept it for the sake of argument and bear with me.)

Now, let’s postulate that it’s good for society to convince boys to be productive, to get married and to have children, and to convince girls into marrying boys and having children. There’s lots of research that allegedly shows that sort of thing (then again, it is “social science,” so who can say?), but for now bear with me and just pretend that it’s true — that society can benefit from heteronormativity.

We’re used to the idea of people giving up some of their freedom and liberty for the good of society. Jury duty is a good example. It’s reasonable for society to impose this obligation on us — to take away some of our time and freedom — because society needs jurors.

Along those same lines, it’s at least possible that it’s reasonable for society to impose sexual obligations on people. Even if we know that not everybody is entirely interested in getting married and having babies, it could be best for society if we push people in that direction.

For example, societies need warriors, so it’s reasonable for society to push boys towards martial skills and attitudes. Societies need a next generation, so it’s reasonable for society to push girls towards wanting to have babies. How much and how far they push, and what’s a reasonable imposition on individual liberty, is all up for debate. But at some level society has an interest in encouraging certain attitudes and behaviors.

Now, at last, we’re ready to talk about the liberal Christian.

Every serious Christian knows that there are things the Bible tells us to do (or not do) that we no longer follow: washing people’s feet, or refraining from the meat of an animal that’s been strangled, or greeting one another with a kiss. In the first and third case, it’s pretty obvious these were cultural things. The second one is a little weirder, for lots of reasons.

What if “pushing people towards heterosexuality” is also a culturally-bound thing? What if it was relevant in other times, with other social structures, and isn’t relevant any more?

That’s a big “if,” but try to play along for a moment.

If that’s true — I’m not saying it is, I’m just postulating — then the liberal Christian who has no problem with the homosexual pastor is no different than the conservative Christian who doesn’t kiss everybody at church.

There’s nothing new here. This is, indeed, the kind of thing you hear from many liberal Christians. But in my experience, they usually put it in a ridiculously ignorant way, like “Well, you don’t eat kosher.” (That’s an ignorant thing to say because the kosher rules never applied to Gentiles anyway, and all foods were pronounced clean in the New Testament — even for Jews.)

My point is “you don’t eat kosher” is a dumb example of a perfectly legit argument, which is that in some cases a change in a social structure or expectation can change the way we interpret a moral rule. So if someone can make the case that heteronormativity is that kind of thing — something that’s necessary in one culture but not in another — then something analogous may apply.

But there’s more work to do than that. Sexual rules are far more deeply embedded in the whole Bible — and, I would say, in our own psyches — than anything about food.

So while I admit the theoretical possibility that biblical sexual norms are culturally conditioned, it seems there’s a whole lot of work to do to get there.

They would need to show, for example, that heteronormativity was necessary in biblical times (or in certain types of cultures) and is not necessary now, in our culture. They also need to deal with the “no sex outside of marriage” part of sexual morality.

It’s a big hill to climb, in my opinion.

In my experience, most liberal Christians embrace lax attitudes towards sex for much softer reasons. Because feelings. But there is at least the possibility that such a thing could be intellectually justified.

2017-03-19  »  Greg Krehbiel

Talkback x 7

  1. RR
    19 March 2017 @ 9:50 pm

    What I find strange is that both secular liberals and liberal Christians get pretty hot and bothered about fundamentalists who object to evolution. Yet Darwinian evolution (and mother nature in general) is about as relentlessly “hetronormative” as it gets e.g. genes exclusively get passed down via heterosexual relations. Mind you, this post isn’t an objection to evolution. But it seems a pretty big contradiction to complain about “heteronormativity” on the one hand and to claim to be champions of science and evolution on the other hand. Maybe it does boil down to feelings.

  2. Robin R.
    20 March 2017 @ 12:39 am

    You could consistently say that the human species has evolved into heteronormativity and at the same time find this result unacceptable. The theory of evolution, Darwinistic or otherwise, is not inherently normative. It only tells you how things are, not how they ought to be, though admittedly many – I suppose “secularists” – get confused on this point. Such people as well as liberal Christians may not be as repellent as authoritarian fundamentalists, but their confusions are nonetheless evident.

  3. Greg Krehbiel Greg Krehbiel
    20 March 2017 @ 9:34 am

    @RR, what I find weird is that people hold these two, seemingly contradictory views. (1) From an evolutionary perspective, homosexuality is a dead end and should have long since been selected out of the gene pool, and (2) there is a gay gene.

    Evolutionary biologists tells us that minor traits are “selected for” because they improve the chances of passing along those genes. A fortiori, homosexuality should have been selected against.

    But of course that assumes that homosexuality is inherited, which isn’t necessarily so.

  4. Ken Crawford
    20 March 2017 @ 1:00 pm

    The best reply I’ve heard to the evolution/gay gene dichotomy is that the gene in question is responsible for both being gay and something else that is more positive (in a reproductionary sense) and that since in the past many gay people lived “secret lives” in parallel with their marriages, they were reproducing at greater rates than the “control group” thus allowing the gene to survive.

    Of course the rebuttal to that is: Since the percentage of gays doing that is very small these days, I assume you admit that the gay gene will now disappear, yes?

  5. Robin R.
    20 March 2017 @ 1:17 pm

    What about things like autism and Down Syndrome? And what about genius? These are passed down. Why couldn’t homosexuality be comparable to them?

  6. Greg Krehbiel Greg Krehbiel
    20 March 2017 @ 1:17 pm

    @Ken, I’ve heard that as well, and I suppose it’s a reasonable theory, but many of the things that evolutionary biologists claim to have been “selected for” confer such a slight advantage, they have to believe the survival of any particular trait is on a hair trigger. Even little changes can make a difference, they say.

    Surely being attracted to the same sex is a pretty significant thing.

    Another possible explanation is group selection. A trait may disadvantage the individual, but help the group. You know, in picking out the right curtains and such.

    But … anyway, it doesn’t matter that much. It’s very possible that homosexuality isn’t heritable at all.

  7. Greg Krehbiel Greg Krehbiel
    20 March 2017 @ 2:54 pm

    According to a quick web search, Down syndrome is not heritable, and while autism is, mild forms of autism can confer some benefits.

    Not sure what your point is about genius.