‘Against Heterosexuality’: An Object Lesson in Conservative Christian ‘Radicalism’

I recently had the misfortune to come across this article in the journal First Things. Written by Michael Hannon, it is entitled ‘Against Heterosexuality’ and subtitled ‘The Idea of Sexual Orientation is Artificial and Inhibits Christian Witness’. It is a symptomatic piece of ‘radical’ Christian writing for our time, in that it attempts to out-deconstruct the deconstructors in order to return us firmly to a teleological, hierarchical Christian order.

Hannon embraces the way that theory post-Foucault has unearthed the genealogy and the arbitrariness behind the creation of fixed categories of sexual orientation. He does so, not in order to advocate what he refers to as the ‘postmodern nihilistic libertinism’ of queer theory, but in order to replace socially constructed identities with a Christian anthropology grounded in nature. Measured against nature, sex is procreative. That, so we are told, is its obvious goal. In contrast, the modern categories of ‘homosexual’ and ‘heterosexual’ float free of this mooring. The first ‘binds us to sin’ (since it encourages people to remain enslaved to unnatural sex) and the second ‘blinds us to sin’ because it implies we have no choice in the matter of what we desire. Heterosexuality is seen as especially pernicious, since it creates a normative identity, but one that is detached from procreation, and which legitimates all manner of deviancy.

Why bother drawing further attention to an article which is frankly nauseating to read? As I said, I believe the kind of argument deployed here is symptomatic of contemporary intellectual reassertions of Christian orthodoxy, even if it goes further than most in the joy it extracts from use of the term ‘sodomy’. The first move is (in a banal sense) deconstructive: expose the contingent origins of ideas and categories often taken to be natural. The second is to contrast these naturalised inventions with a true nature, with a law embedded in creation, and modelled by Christ. In a notable hyperbole, the article’s invocation of the catastrophic nihilism gnawing away beneath the feet of modernity means that the Christian tradition becomes ‘the only place left to stand’.

Of course, it would be easy to return the genealogical favour: to shine a light on the constructed nature of the ideals of chastity, family and procreation lauded by the article; to undermine its hermeneutic, so blithely assured that the traditions of the church and the scriptures are beyond historical contestation.

However, I think there is something deeper at work, to which we need to pay attention. The article is scathing about constructed ‘identities’, but it clearly advocates an alternative identity and orientation: a teleological ordering to the perfect identity disclosed in Christ, the path to which is the freedom won for us by Christ’s sacrifice. Here we have orientation, norm and model, written into the very power which sustains creation.

The orientations and identities of the 19th century may be inadequate (though they remain open to diverse deployments, and they have at least been the occasion for protesting against the persecution, torture and murder of people because of their sex life). What this article misses, though, is the likelihood that the pattern for these orientations and identities was provided by the very Christian orthodoxy that now turns on them. This pattern instrumentalises desire in the most extreme way, because it is grounded on the notion of body-as-sacrifice. Your identity is to take upon you the mind, the yoke, the cross of Christ and make children for his kingdom. It is a colonisation of body, a conversion of flesh, outside of which all is Sodom.

Hannon’s article may make you laugh, it may make you feel sick. But don’t underestimate the tendency which lies behind it, and its capacity to offer intellectual justification for biotheological imperialisms yet to come.

9 thoughts on “‘Against Heterosexuality’: An Object Lesson in Conservative Christian ‘Radicalism’

  1. “What this article misses, though, is the likelihood that the pattern for these orientations and identities was provided by the very Christian orthodoxy that now turns on them.” … this is exactly right. I think it cannot be said enough that the fight between secular modernity and Christian orthodoxy is a fight amongst family members for ownership of a house that ought to get torn down

  2. The little Foucault-daimon inside me is sick after reading the FT essay. I found it odd how Hannon doesn’t see how mapping teleology onto nature (in addition to Jesus) is itself a construction.

  3. I sincerely doubt there is any danger here – first, its hardly the first time someone has attempted to graft conservative anti-gay theology onto the deconstructed corpse of Foucault. Jenell Williams Paris of Messiah College published The End of Sexual Identity a few years ago, which follows the same framework, without the overtly Roman Catholic natural law. It resonated with a certain segment of straight hipster evangelicals who wanted to appear gay friendly but I don’t know any gay christian who didn’t see the same old repressed Man behind the Queer curtain.
    Second, although rhetorically clever, this theology has an extremely narrow audience because it attempts to pick and choose from two mutually exclusive paradigms that are ultimately irreconcilable – use a radical skepticism to deconstruct natural identity foundations but then revert back to a thoroughly essentialist natural law. The academic social constructionists may see value in the deconstruction but are under no obligation to respect the attempt to reimpose essentialist foundations. On the other hand, traditional Roman Catholic, Reformed, Evangelical theologians will recognize the dangers of even flirting with Foucault – what are they to gain?
    Third, here is a recent article in an extremely right wing Catholic magazine that shows just what sort of confusion lies when non-theologians grapple with these concepts. The so called “New Homophiles” seem to represent the zeitgeist, which triggered the wrath of the orthodox, including the very subject of this post trying his very best to beat them back into the closet but Foucault doesn’t seem to be of much utility. http://www.crisismagazine.com/2014/the-new-homophiles-and-their-critics
    Finally, Queer Theory and its discontents may be popular in some parts of the Academy but it has virtually no traction with the masses, LGBT or otherwise, who are overwhelmingly “folk essentialists” and extremely fond of their identities. Despite several decades of deconstruction by academics and theorists, essentialist identities are more entrenched and naturalized than ever. This attempt to retrofit Queer Theory to somehow make pre-modern celibacy more attractive may work for a few catholic eccentrics with Phds in Li Crit but it doesn’t stand a chance against a Lady Gaga culture.
    It’s easy to gawk at the unsophisticated queers from a post-modern perch and tut-tut at their “naive essentialism” but Theory has failed to win any converts against scientific modernism. If it wants to compete, it has to step up its game :)

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