Theorizing Modernities article

The Sexual Politics of Ethno-Religious Nationalism

Rainbow colors on the White House celebrate the Supreme Court’s June 26, 2015 5-4 decision allowing same-sex marriages in every state of the Union. White House photo. Photo Credit: GPA Photo Archive. Via Flickr.

The 2013 Supreme Court Decision, United States vs. Windsor, declared unconstitutional the Defense of Marriage Act of 1996—an earlier law that had defined marriage as a union between one man and one woman in federal law, thereby granting states the right to deny the marriage of same-sex couples. Obergefell v. Hodges (2015) further required the federal government, and all states, to recognize and respect same-sex marriage equality, and confer all the rights and protections attendant to such recognition.

On the night that the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its decision in Obergefell, then President Barack Obama illuminated the White House in rainbow colored lights—the colors symbolizing Gay Pride since the inception of the Gay Rights movement. For many evangelical Christian Americans, this action taken by the first African-American U.S. President was nothing less than a culture war broadside against evangelical Christian identity. For them, it marked the rapid dissolution of Christian culture in the United States. As evangelical historian John Fea recounts, “When LGBT activists claimed that Obama was on ‘the right side of history’ in his support of gay marriage, the message to evangelicals was clear: they were on the wrong side” (27–28).

Fea suggests that White evangelicals embraced Donald Trump during the 2016 presidential election as part of a backlash to a societal shift toward marriage equality that occurred “too quickly for many Americans.” And yet, this backlash narrative neglects the deep history and subterranean—yet episodically resurgent—dynamics that made evangelicals’ path to Trumpism predictable, if not inevitable. For, when viewed through the lenses of ethno-religious nationalism, it becomes evident that White evangelicals have been at such a juncture of obstinate opposition before in their sexual politics concerning the “sanctity of marriage.”

The “sincerely held belief” among White evangelicals in 2016 is that same-sex marriage (and all homosexual relations) contradicts the true meaning of “marriage.” This true meaning is premised on a putatively ontological, or natural, difference between men and women. Further, those who hold this belief appeal to a “civilizational normativity,”  which is frequently based on the alleged dictates of natural law. Here, the claim is that marriage is a union between a man and a woman that has served as a societal bedrock of Western civilization for millennia. Such claims resurrect and reanimate the same logics, patterns of refusal, and sexual politics of earlier evangelical opposition to inter-racial sex and marriage. Both cases spurred, and were further fueled by, upsurges in evangelical Christian ethno-religious nationalism. This points to the animating and reanimating impulse, pattern, and logic that has surged and resurged for more than a half-century in White, Christian America. I have termed this phenomenon “zombie nationalism.”   

Long before abortion was recruited as a wedge controversy, the “moral abomination”  of “inter-racial mixing,” “inter-racial marriage,” and “inter-racial procreation” led White evangelical Christians to engineer protective legal and political formations to defend against the putative onslaught against their religion and culture. Inter-racial sexual relations were rejected by conservative Christians as a taboo of “miscegenation” because they transgressed ontological racial differences. Countless documented lynchings were related to inter-racial intimacy, sexual relations, or “flirting” (alleged or real).

Long before abortion was recruited as a wedge controversy, the ‘moral abomination’  of ‘inter-racial mixing,’ ‘inter-racial marriage,’ and ‘inter-racial procreation’ led White evangelical Christians to engineer protective legal and political formations to defend against the putative onslaught against their religion and culture.

Many evangelicals argue that the parallel is not valid. Most claim to have long since renounced explicit racism. They argue that “race mixing” and “miscegenation”—while clearly taboo and sincerely believed to be moral abominations long ago—are fundamentally different concerns because the arguments against gay marriage stand upon the more (allegedly) stable grounds of the “biological complementarity” of specific sexual reproductive organs. Transgressing this conception of sexual complementarity, as they claim same-sex coupling does, violates “natural” (putatively ontological) forms of differentiation in ways that the “miscegenation” and “amalgamism” of inter-racial sex and relationships never did.

This objection, however, is based on revision of justifications treated as self-evident, and theologically justified, at the time. The claims that inter-racial sex, marriage, and procreation were biological, moral, and spiritual abominations, and thus ought to be legally prohibited, were justified by White evangelical Christians in similar ways to how they currently justify their opposition to same-sex marriage. They deemed the differences in personhood and status that existed between Whites and Blacks to be just as ontological and grounded in natural law. Protestants devised “Bible-based” theological justifications for separate races. Similarly, appeals to the logic of putative “ontological differences” between races, and claims that sexual separation of the races was a “civilizational norm,” served as bases for excluding certain people from legal marriage. For example, in prohibiting marriage between any “person of African descent,” and “any person not of African descent,” the terms of Oklahoma’s 1908 anti-miscegenation law made the ontological and civilizational nature of such statutes clear. Like the alleged abomination of same sex marriage (or any same-sex sexual relations) is for most White evangelicals and White Catholics today, inter-racial sex and marriage was claimed to be a violation of God’s law, as well as a betrayal of the essential natures of White and Black manhood and womanhood. The fact that instances of miscegenation could result in procreation spurred expansive legal innovation—laws which would cover the distinct class of cases in which inter-racial sex resulted in so-called “mixed-race” offspring.[1]

The claims that inter-racial sex, marriage, and procreation were biological, moral, and spiritual abominations, and thus ought to be legally prohibited, were justified by White evangelical Christians in similar ways to how they currently justify their opposition to same-sex marriage.

This logic of ontology, civilizational foundations, and natural law leads most White, evangelical Christians, to be unable to recognize the legalization of same-sex marriage as the acknowledgement of a long occluded, marginalized, and persecuted group which has finally achieved recognition and equality before the law. They cannot see it as an instance of the arc of the moral universe bending toward justice. Any such claim is transvalued into the secular state’s, and secular culture’s, legal vindication of a putative “sexual orthodoxy” that appeared roughly two minutes ago on the clock of history, and is now being imposed upon them. Of course, by this logic, civil rights for African Americans and suffrage and rights for women fall roughly 2.5 and 3 minutes prior on the clock of civilizational history, respectively.

They protest that they are the victims of an anti-religious, militantly secular state and nihilistic culture that, in effect, marginalizes them by requiring that they legally recognize, and provide services in businesses (or in government, universities, or other organizations that serve the public and/or have tax-exempt status). Such recognition of same-sex marriage gets portrayed as a compelled endorsement of sin, transgression of natural law, and, as such, an infringement on a persons’ religious freedom to believe and treat same-sex marriage as an abomination in God’s eyes. So it was also in the eyes of Christians who were forced to recognize, first, laws overturning Jim Crow segregation, and gradually, inter-racial marriage, inter-racial sex and procreation, adoption, and child-rearing (Griffith, Moral Combat, 118–19).

Again, this illuminates sexual politics as a spirit that breathes life into zombie nationalism. What appears to be an isolated episode in sexual politics (i.e. rear-guard defense against newly legalized same-sex marriage) is, when placed in historical context, one surgent moment in a long contest over the identity and character of U.S. society. The “oppression” of White evangelicals occurs in the secular state’s putative infringement upon allegedly sincerely held commitments to a religious worldview. This is the secular state’s supposed violation of one’s basic right to religious freedom. This position construes religious freedom both as a so-called “first freedom,” as inscribed in the First Amendment of the U.S. Bill of Rights, but simultaneously, also a civilizational value that is intrinsic to the supposedly Judeo-Christian ethos of the U.S. founding. Accordingly, the fight for the “soul” (identity and character) of American society is infused by Christian nationalism.

What appears to be an isolated episode in sexual politics (i.e. rear-guard defense against newly legalized same-sex marriage) is, when placed in historical context, one surgent moment in a long contest over the identity and character of U.S. society.

This reactionary response reflects an attempt by evangelicals to contest the effects of modernization in U.S. society by using modern moral and legal terms. They deploy these tactics to preserve beliefs they consider to be non-negotiable, but which have become recognized as dehumanizing and damaging to others (for example, protecting their right to practice and promote “conversion therapy”). This creativity with modern legal and moral norms and concepts also leads to innovation and creativity with the religious dimensions of national identity, and the societal and legal implications that flow therefrom. This creativity is not the innovation of working within the normative constraints of a living tradition. It is the kind of creativity that Nietzsche described as emerging from the nihilism that underpins ressentiment. It exemplifies the resourcefulness and self-vindication of the transvaluation of values (see my discussion in Part 2).

The patterns of ethno-religious nationalism inscribed in White Christian resistance to interracial sex and marriage, and later, resistance to same-sex sex and marriage, evince markedly similar logic and dynamics of ressentiment. A key insight this connection illuminates is that, to identify and unlearn these patterns of ethno-religious nationalism—to escape the cycles of zombie nationalism—White evangelicals (along with White Americans more generally) will have to learn (and, then, unlearn) what it is to be, and to have been all along, White, cis-hetero-normative, and patriarchal in a context that bears the stamp of the distinctive racial history, recurring history of sexual politics, and hegemony of White, evangelical Christianity, as does the United States.

[1]  See Martha Hodes, White Women, Black Men: Illicit Sex in the Nineteenth-Century South, 1, and Fay Botham, Almighty God Created the Races: Christianity, Interracial Marriage, and American Law, 145, 156. See also, Marie Griffith, Moral Combat: How Sex Divides American Christians and Fractured American Politics, 86–90; and Byron C. Martin, Racism in the United States: A History of the Anti-Miscegenation Legislation and Litigation.

 

Jason Springs
Jason Springs is Professor of Religion, Ethics, and Peace Studies at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame.  Springs’ latest book, Healthy Conflict in Contemporary American Society: From Enemy to Adversary (Cambridge University Press, 2018), develops conceptions of healthy conflict and strenuous pluralism that are realistic about the challenges and limitations of religious tolerance in a society that is both deeply religiously plural and politically volatile. Springs is also the author of Toward a Generous Orthodoxy: Prospects for Hans Frei’s Postliberal Theology (Oxford University Press, 2010), and co-author (with Atalia Omer) of Religious Nationalism: A Reference Handbook (ABC-CLIO, 2013).

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