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Secularism and Its Discontents

When dealing with HCFA and ‘theological disagreement,’ we cannot ignore the Spirit in our midst

By Henry N. Brooks, Contributing Opinion Writer

In the past month, student group Harvard College Faith in Action endured two serious public relations debacles, both regarding the group’s relation to the BGLTQ community. The first incident arose when HCFA invited renowned ex-lesbian Jackie Hill-Perry, who became famous for claiming that her rebirth into faith saved her from a “lifestyle of homosexual sin,” to speak at its weekly Doxa meeting. Then, in the wake of a public outcry and several opinion pieces, news broke that HCFA had dismissed one of its Bible study group leaders after she dated someone of the same gender—though group leaders cited reasons of “theological disagreement.” After the latter incident, the College put the group on "probation," reportedly marking the first instance of such disciplinary action in the history of the College.

Much of the response among community members and the wider public has echoed a familiar array of sentiments. One student interviewed by The Crimson chastised the non-denominational Christian group for exemplifying “institutional backlash against queer people.” An op-ed judged HCFA “complicit in promoting dangerous homophobic rhetoric” and threatening “the emotional and physical safety of LGBT people here on campus.” One commenter following the story on a BGLTQ news site staked out a more extreme position: “Virginal births, talking snakes, boats with two of every species on board… Enough judging people through the prism of fairy tales.”

It seems to this author that these reactions, some more respectfully than others, leave unexamined the purchase that faith still holds in people’s lives—and the lives of BGLTQ people no less. To identify “dangerous homophobic rhetoric” as the object of our frustration means leaving the underlying problem—the way faith is often framed as contending with our secular sensibilities—unaddressed. Attributing homophobia to a belief in “virginal births [and] talking snakes” only exacerbates that problem, affirming categories like “religious-and-straight” and “secular-and-queer” that constrain nonconforming expressions of identity.

Certain student commentators seem to have picked up on this friction. Abraham E. Rebollo ’20 worried that putting HCFA on probation might “feed into the modern Christian persecution complex.” Nicholas P. Whittaker ’19 reminded that a “more thorough…thoughtful drag [of HCFA] would seek to understand the complexities of the Black Faithful experience.” Sarah K. Grammar ’18 put it plainly: “side note: faith is important to a good number of queer people.”

Understanding the Hill-Perry incident and the later “theological disagreement” thus requires highlighting the way faith bisects the BGLTQ community. This means, among other things, taking seriously the claim, formulated by one self-identified gay, Christian student, that “I am two.” Accommodating this sentiment means rethinking the way we often banish religion from everyday discussion or consign it to the purgatory of “outdated” ideas. We must work instead to cultivate a space in which gods, spirits, the secular, and the queer can cohabitate.

This can seem a daunting undertaking, particularly in an age when it has become the unhappy business of secularism to provincialize the divine. For good or ill, the old American insight that it is impolite to discuss faith in public prevails in many areas of the country. Yet learning to speak about religion—and irreligion—as more profound than simple superstition, cynicism, or ideology is a timely lesson, and at Harvard, a strong first step toward community healing.

Concerns about resurrecting religious discussion should not be dismissed. As one cultural commentator recently reminded, “People actually begin wars and kill one another over conflicting religious views.” Nor are these wars foreign to our experience. Of America’s contentious political disputes, several are rooted in competing modes of belief: opposition to abortion for instance is highly variegated along lines of sect, concentrated among evangelical Christians. This conflict has produced its fair share of bloodshed since the 1980s. Whether it is value differences themselves, or our inability to adjudicate them diplomatically that results in body counts, is as yet undetermined.

It is also not obvious whether the posited categories “religious-and-straight” and “secular-and-queer” are anything more than persistent imaginings. That we have accepted religiosity as a stand-in for sexual preference only confirms that we see religion as bound up with our pasts and secularism as consubstantial with sexual liberation. This view ignores what Divinity School professor Diana L. Eck calls the “deep meaning” of religion in the present day, whose significance often extends to BGLTQ people. It also airbrushes the way secular forces have often been mobilized against the BGLTQ rights dialogue.

Importantly, the contrary position—that religion is a source of suffering for many members of the BGLTQ community—is not dissolved by adopting a more expansive view of the sexual/religious intersection. We actually revive the potential for religious criticism by acknowledging that queerness does always materialize within secularism. It is precisely our ability to talk about the benefits of BGLTQ faith that also enables us to resume a critical dialogue on religious shortcomings.

In the present moment, foregrounding these discussions becomes essential. With regard to HCFA, we ought to read the College’s sanctions less as a blanket measure against “hate” and more as a call to thoroughly articulate our values. In the rush to mobilize standard activist vocabulary—terms like “hate” and “tolerance,” “bigotry” and “discrimination”—against Hill-Perry and HCFA, we might double-check to ensure we haven’t misnamed the problem or alienated the BGLTQ faithful from their own dialogue.

This is the first step toward our communal repentance.

Henry N. Brooks ’19 is a Social Studies concentrator in Currier House. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.

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