Link Thursday (#4): Obergefell v. Hodges: The “True” Definition of Marriage

I apologize for not getting this out on Wednesday. I also realize that these “Link Wednesdays” are turning into substantial posts in themselves. Let me know if you prefer substantial posts for Wednesdays or ones with links and very minimal annotation at ilostmyprayerhanky At gmail.


Jim Obergefell
Jim Obergefell
What is the purpose of marriage? Is it to produce children? Is it to enable people to connect emotionally over a lifetime? Does it have more than one purpose?

At stake in the Supreme Court case Obergefell v. Hodges is whether or not states are required to give marriage licenses to same-sex couples and to recognize marriage licenses issued by other states. The summary of the oral arguments and amicus briefs for and against are here, here, here, and here.

This post will look in detail at the religious freight brought to bear in the amicus brief submitted by The Coalition of Black Pastors and Christian Leaders, aka The Coalition of African-American Pastors. Amicus Curiae are documents submitted by persons strongly interested in a case but not actually involved in it. I am interested in this case, because Black Protestants make up the next biggest opponent of same-sex marriage behind White evangelical Protestants. Since I am somewhat familiar with evangelical religious reasoning against same-sex marriage, I was curious to see if there was overlap with Black church leaders’ legal reasoning.

Here are their three major arguments that will be covered in turn (page numbers from the document will be cited parenthetically):

  1. The caseLoving v. Virginia does not create marital inclusivity as far as the plaintiffs wish
  2. Unelected courts should not decide on morality; that should be left to legislation and the People
  3. The Sixth Circuit Court did not have to employ strict definitions in considering the states’ marriage laws (iii)

Before going into the argument, the pastors and Christian leaders provide a glimpse into their identity and aims in this quote:

For Amici, the Bible expresses sound, ethically-grounded doctrine upon which individuals beneficially rely regarding family matters. Amici bear the responsibility to oppose unsound, morally-relative doctrines and to oppose practices that are harmful to the following of God’s time-proven teachings. Amici, therefore, hold a vested interest in a State’s right to correctly define marriage (1; bold mine).

On to the arguments.

The case of Loving v. Virginia (1967) had to do with anti-miscegenation laws. Anti-miscegenation laws were found unconstitutional for violating the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

The plaintiffs in Obergefell v. Hodges argued that denying marriage licenses violated the Equal Protection Clause, using Loving v. Virginia as precedent. The Amici do not see this as valid for a few reasons.

Their big one involves the first alternative use of Loving in Baehr v. Lewin (1993). Baehr held that sexual orientation was a “suspect class” like race was in Loving. Suspect class is “a class of individuals that have been historically subject to discrimination” so that their involvement in a discrimination case is subject to “strict scrutiny.” To survive this level of judicial scrutiny, a State has to have had a compelling reason to limit fundamental rights and narrowly defined the law so as not to engage in discrimination. Examples of suspect classes subject to strict scrutiny include race and religion. One of the questions at stake is whether marriage is a fundamental right.

The Amici argue that the Supreme Court in Loving never contemplated or addressed same-sex marriage (7). This argument gets at origins. In this line of thinking, the closer reasons (practices, beliefs, etc.) are to some group’s original intentions, the more authority it carries. What’s interesting about this originalist interpretation is that the Founders never envisioned African-American voters, but here we are. Time brings out new questions, and, many times, new answers.

They go on to say that “Loving emphasized the importance of marriage to all Americans, in the true sense of the word” (8, bold mine). Words do not have true senses. They have definitions based on how people accept them. If I say someone is gay, you aren’t going to think I’m meaning it in the “true sense” of happy. Why is marriage cordoned off from this ability to change meaning over time? Is it because so many personal investments revolve around how its definition?

And yet, the fact that words do not have eternal, true senses does not mean that definitions are merely idiosyncratic either. While words can be defined however a group wants to define them that does not mean words change meaning overnight. It takes time and people agreeing with definitions. If I say tomorrow that “marriage” means that someone likes chocolate, good luck with that catching on, particularly considering my readership numbers.

These rhetorical strategies of “origins” and “classification” go back to what I have covered on practice and community. The use of origins is a great strategy, because it gives your case a sense of establishment, authority (based on heroes at the beginning of a discourse), and longevity. Sometimes, it is also used to ignore all the intervening steps (history) between the proposed origin and the present (See Monica Miller’s post on labels). However, it also serves the religious element in Lincoln’s system of religious discourse in attempting to make historically contingent facts beyond dispute: religion is at least “temporal, contextual, situated, interested, human, and material dimensions of those discourses, practices, and institutions that characteristically represent themselves as eternal, transcendent, spiritual, and divine.” In other words, this move to origins is meant to stop argumentation, because origins are where authority rests. If God isn’t the authority in this case, it is the immutable and inerrant Founders, treated much the same way as inerrant Scripture.

The Amici also move beyond legal reasoning to employ the “true definition” of marriage, again, using classification. Classification in political (one can easily argue that religion involves this same discourse since it too manages relationships between parties) discourse is never neutral or apolitical. So when they employ Robert Reilly to give the true definition of marriage–the context where the “procreative and unitive purposes of sex” (14-15, no. 13) occur–debate is curtailed, because by definition, same-sex couples cannot be married since they cannot procreate with each other, and therefore, do not meet both of the required elements. I’m not going to try to insult your intelligence too much, but following that definition, here are some heterosexual acts and statuses that should bar a person from marriage:

  • women with hysterectomies
  • men with vasectomies
  • the elderly
  • couples who do not wish to have children
  • couples who engage in any sex act that does not finish inside a vagina
  • contraception
  • abortion
  • divorce, because this eliminates the possibility of future children
  • post-menopausal women

This list is not exhaustive, but it shows that the State is not merely interested in defining marriage by the bare fact of procreation. What does it reveal about the “true definition” of marriage? I suggest that it at least shows that interests beyond the State’s are at play, and I would argue that they are religious ones. The definition is not beyond dispute but reflects the interests of the pastors. You can be the judge of how much or little specific religious discourse should play a part in judicial discourse. The aim of this blog is to uncover the strategies at play among religious and sex discourses. I have around five pages of single-spaced notes on the brief if you care to discuss this further. There is much I left out that I could have covered and that someone might say I overlooked. If so, comment or email me. Otherwise, I await the Court’s decision which might come out today.

My Weird Views on “Religion,” Part 3: Community

I have been presenting how I view “religion” for the past two weeks. This is the third of four installments on it. While it can get maybe too theoretical, I have tried to make it like the dentist: touch on the essentials (but not essentialism) but as quickly and painlessly as possible.

3. Community

Religion is at least, though not necessarily reducible to the following, in Lincoln’s thought:

  1. discourse
  2. practice
  3. community
  4. institution

holyterrorsuofcpressRegarding “community,” Lincoln speaks of a group that defines itself upon certain discourses and practices. He really expands on this in another book of his I’ve already mentioned: Discourse and the Construction of Society with his concepts of affinity and estrangement based on social markers.

Part of my piece last week included a conversation with Russell McCutcheon about the use of rationality and persuasion in public “discussion.” He had remarked how public debates weren’t so much about rationality and persuasion (though they may include those) as gaining control of the rules to your side’s benefit (e.g., getting to define what is “fair”). Sometimes this last piece is not conscious on the group’s part. They have processes and modes of authorization that to them are universal, though in reality, they are contingent. It is not beliefs that make a religion but that things are believed. At least.

Russell T. McCutcheon
Russell T. McCutcheon
For a group to form, they must have an identity based on agreed upon markers. Social borders are maintained on what Lincoln calls affinity and estrangement. The former refers to “feelings of likeness, common belonging, mutual attachment, and solidarity” and the latter entails “feelings of distance, separation, otherness, and alienation.” You can probably easily fill in ways in which people set up markers for belonging or exclusion. He lists some, to which I added some more. The first list is his and those that follow are mine. I have tried to include as many real world religious examples of the following categories, but they can really apply to any sector of society. These are by no means exhaustive, as we humans seem boundless in contrasting and distinguishing from among themselves.

Lincoln’s:

  • language
  • space: physical or geographical
  • diet
  • economy
  • marriage
  • customs
  • aesthetics

Monte’s:

  • music
  • leisure
  • work ethic
  • access to resources
  • body composition
  • body alteration
  • type of job
  • accent
  • eloquence
  • dis/ability
  • ethnicity
  • sexuality
  • race
  • technological prowess
  • age
  • gender

I contend that group identification depends as much on what you aren’t at least as much (sometimes maybe more so) as what you are. Difference is inevitable, but in defined communities, an othering process sometimes starts, particularly among competing religions. Various strategies are available. Within a tradition, you can try to cast your competitors as not as faithful to the discourse (“original teachings”) as your group is. You can say that times have changed and the other group has not handled the change in a way your group sees as ideal. You can say your group is original and established and the other is aberrant or “heretical.” You can say the other is old and irrelevant while yours has its finger on the pulse of humanity.

Not a Muslim
Not a Muslim
Othering of groups outside your tradition is where things can really get nasty (though Catholic/Protestant wars in Europe weren’t exactly tame). Consider the treatment of Muslims post 9/11. At the time of this Pew article, 24% of the United States public viewed American Muslims increasingly supporting extremism, while only 4% of Muslims agreed; significantly, 48% of Muslim laity said their leaders had not spoken resolutely enough against terrorism.

If you are religious (or not: this is a rather human thing), think who and what you have affinity with and whom and what you estrange or are estranged from. Are those distinctions natural? Are they contrived? How often are they actively said over and over again as if not saying them would make the distinctions evaporate? Consider someone you usually think as quite different from you.

I’ll be honest: when I see a transgender person at Walmart, my bodily reaction is to stare. I do not mean to do this; I am simply not used to seeing transgender persons, and have unfortunately never had a conversation with one. My somewhat legitimate excuse is that my job and family situation limit who I see in any given day. If I step back and think about what differentiates me from a transgender person, I only notice one thing: they do not appear in the way that I would express my gender. However, like me, they are shopping at Walmart. They are purchasing food, games, clothing, medicine, electronics, decorations, office supplies, and diapers. How different does a difference make us? Are they unworthy of dignity and respect? Do they need to be forced toward assimilation? Does their appearance encapsulate their persons?


Groups are fluid. And yet they persist over time. What makes some elements stick around and others slough off? How often are group members included and excluded? How sharp is the inclusion/exclusion? I will be covering this next week in Part 4: Institutions.

Link Wednesday #3: Attack of the Transgenders!

This Link Wednesday is going to be short and sweet. It will be links, very quick intros, and questions.

1. Albert Mohler and the Transgender Attack on Women’s Colleges

Albert Mohler albertmohler.com
Albert Mohler
I’ve introduced Al Mohler here, so I will leave you to read about him there. He introduced a story that detailed how the last of the “Seven Sisters,” Barnard College, had admitted transgender students while still holding to its mission as a women’s only college. Notwithstanding that some of these colleges admit men, Mohler cast the decision as a moment of “conflicting absolutes” between feminism and the “transgender revolution.”

Questions:

  1. If elements within a movement shift on things are they no longer part of that movement?
  2. Are movements stable enough in the first place to be identified as one thing?
  3. Who gets to speak for a group and who decides? Is it within or outside the group?

2. Elinor Burkett: The Transgenders Are Coming for Your Abortions and Your Sororities!

Laverne Cox Author: Dominick D via Flickr
Laverne Cox

I found out about this article from Mohler. Elinor Burkett is a journalist, author, former professor, and producer. Her recent op-ed entitled “What Makes a Woman” appeared in The New York Times. Apparently a woman consists of a vagina and the ability to have children. Do with that what you will.

Questions:

  1. Burkett draws a parallel between former Harvard University president Lawrence Summers and then-Bruce Jenner: each said that men and women have different brains, while one was treated with scorn and one with bravery. Does who says something change what is said? If a white supremacist or an African-American rapper say the word “nigger” (and I record it), is it the same thing or not?
  2. Burkett claims that Jenner makes use of feminine stereotypes of appearance and emotionality; does the kind of woman Burkett lauds—liberated, with fuller agency—have room for the classically feminine woman she critiques?
  3. Burkett treats transgender women as a threat to women as a whole. How do you define woman? Is Caitlyn Jenner the same as Laverne Cox or Leslie Feinberg?
  4. Leslie Feinberg
    Leslie Feinberg

  5. Burkett says that Jenner does not get to define women, but then goes about defining women herself. Does Burkett represent women of all classes, politics, religions, races, and ethnicities?
  6. Burkett claims that transgender claims on womanhood trample her dignity as a woman. Did women’s suffrage trample the dignity of male votes? I don’t know how much Burkett would like that her position sounds similar to arguments like legalization of same-sex marriage would trample the dignity of traditional marriage.
  7. Burkett lists universal experiences that Jenner has never experienced, such as forgetting to take the pill. Can you name ONE universal female experience?
  8. Burkett remarks that Jenner has experienced privilege as a man, employing his sponsorship during the 1976 Olympics as an example of how he cannot understand the lack of privilege women experience. Is privilege static? Does the privilege of Bruce Jenner in 1976 match that of the 65 year old Caitlyn?
  9. Burkett is not without her points. Jenner does seem to buy into stereotypes of women as emotional and sex objects. Why did she transition to her current gender expression, and not the butch gender expression of someone like Leslie Feinberg?
  10. Burkett overtly links owning a vagina and working uterus with being a woman. Does having a non-functioning or absent uterus make one less a woman?

As June comes to a close, we will know the result of Obergefell v. Hodges. That case will determine whether or not same-sex marriage is legal. Next Link Wednesday will involve two strong cases each for and against same-sex marriage. As always, I hope for your interaction. If you do not feel comfortable commenting, please email me at ilostmyprayerhanky AT gmail. I truly enjoy conversation (I won’t berate you on differences of opinion) and seeing how people come to their conclusions. I thrive on what can occur when two people are open about where they are coming from and can open new possibilities beyond their current place.

My Weird Views on “Religion,” Part 2: Practice

Regarding last week’s post on discourse, I feel I was too dependent on Bruce Lincoln’s theory of religion. While I will continue to use his outline, I am going to expand it with my own stuff. This is part two of four.

Here is a review of the outline. Religion is at least, though not necessarily reducible to:

  1. discourse
  2. practice
  3. community
  4. institution

What is practice in religion? Lincoln defines practice as rituals and ethics which designate a proper world order/person as defined by religious discourse.

Bruce Lincoln Source: University of Chicago
Bruce Lincoln
Source: University of Chicago

I see practice as the primary identifier of religion, for it is what people outside the religion (discourse, community, institution) primarily encounter. You do not see beliefs or institutions unless you look at their texts, which are the result of the practice of writing and encoding ideologies with otherworldly authority. However, you can see clothing or grooming. You can also see texts or architecture if you are aware of it. You can hear certain music (or not hear it in its absence) or rhythmic recitations. You can taste different cuisines or items associated with a ritual. You can smell smells associated with a space, and you can feel the touch of objects or other persons.

You could argue with me about what should be primary in religion. Beliefs, or discourse in my presentation, is usually what is asserted as primary, if Protestantism is taken as normative for religion. However, even when it comes to discourse—in the construction, maintenance, replication, polemics, irenics, apologetics, destruction, or reformation of it—I see the activity of practice employed in it. Why? The act of discourse defines who is in a group and who is outside a group, a practice that is always more mobile than discursive text (though I do not limit discourse to text alone).

I am not using my religious upbringing as representative of all religion, but merely to demonstrate a point. It seemed sometimes that signing onto a belief was as important, if not more important, than enacting a practice connected with that belief. This ended up being a practice in itself. One of the practices closely identified with my group was the practice of glossolalia, or speaking in languages you hadn’t sat down to learn. While the group pushed the practice, it definitely mattered if you even considered it a possibility. Southern Baptists, who did not condone the practice, were seen as other to us because they did not even consider glossolalia a possibility. It didn’t matter that we had many in our group who did not themselves “speak in tongues” as glossolalia was referred to; it mattered that we took the practice of believing Acts 2 in a way that Southern Baptists didn’t.

Certain practices seem to have religious connotations associated with them: ingesting a limited amount of food and beverage in a communal setting (Eucharist/communion), stretching limbs in a communal setting (raising hands in worship or some settings of Hatha Yoga), dressing up (wearing a hijab, niqab, skull necklace, funerary ashes), or feeling an object in a stylized manner (prayer wheel in Tibetan Buddhism or rosary).

Lincoln goes on further to say that no practice is inherently religious in itself until defined by the discourse. I described some practices in a purely material way. If I said I was making you a cake, would you consider it religious? Consider the following. Cake-bakers mix flour, sugar, and oil together, bake this set of ingredients, and then design it. When religious discourse is added to it, some Christian bakers decided not to bake and design cakes for same-sex weddings, because they associate their practice of baking with their religious discourse.

This example brings up some important questions. Who defines practice: religious specialists or ordinary religionists? When is a practice religious and when is it idiosyncratic? Is religious practice and idiosyncrasy mutually exclusive? Is religion primarily personal or social? I’m not asking what should be, but but how practice functions in a particular time and place.

Source: norepealsgf.org
Source: norepealsgf.org
How are ethics colored by religion? Ethics here would describe interpersonal or public actions toward one’s own group and outside of one’s group (as defined by the discourse) based on discourse. This discourse can be reasonable or not, but what matters is that a group finds the discourse reasonable enough from which to authorize practice. So making cookies for your neighbor could be a way of consoling him when he’s sick (and you simply performing a practice for a friend) or a way of demonstrating care motivated by proselytizing (a religious motive). It could involve speaking with (or not speaking with) members considered outside your community and doing so in a specific way (conversationally, in a rebuking way, avoidance, etc.).

ksmu.org
Source: ksmu.org
Recently in Springfield, MO, there was an issue on the ballot (“Question 1”) of whether or not to include the LGBT community in the City’s non-discrimination ordinance regarding housing, employment, and public accommodation. Depending on how you approached this, it could be merely a political and civil rights issue or a religious (or religious freedom) issue (and religious discourse occurred on the “Yes” AND “No” sides of the issue). Who got to define whether it was political/civil rights or religious?

Russell T. McCutcheon Source: Twitter
Russell T. McCutcheon
Source: Twitter
Regarding Question 1, I lamented to Russell McCutcheon that it didn’t seem that persuasive/reasoned discussion was possible when people held fundamentally different views. It seemed to me that groups lobbed talking points at each other without hearing others’ points. He gave me the following: “They’re trying to play fair — it’s just that their mutually beneficial definitions of ‘fair’ either compete or even contradict one another. They’re not all playing the same game but each is trying to portray theirs as the only game in town…”

Even when practices are similar within a community-e.g., providing public discourse on why you should vote a certain way–they are carved out from general use to serve to the interests of your own group. This seems true to me, regardless of how libertarian you want to be.


Next Saturday I will go over “community.” You might be able to tell this from reading so far, but all of the features Lincoln lists-discourse, practice, community, and institution-are integrally related. It helps to separate them to discuss them, but they generally don’t operate apart from one another, unless a religion is extinct.

Link Wednesday #2: Is Caitlyn Jenner Mentally Ill?

(~1350 words: analyzing Paul McHugh’s dealing with transgender issues)

Caitlyn Jenner’s last interview as Bruce Jenner occurred a little over a month ago. Then on June 1, 2015, she announced herself to the world with her new name and a cover shot. This prompted comments ranging from support to denigration.

So this link Wednesday has to do with one psychiatrist in particular who holds a lot of clout with conservatives who oppose to transgender persons (or what transgender people do, not their persons, according to the rhetoric).

1. “Surgical Sex” by Paul McHugh

Paul McHugh hopkinsmedicine.org
Paul McHugh
hopkinsmedicine.org
Paul McHugh was the longtime chief psychiatrist, professor of psychiatry, and department head at Johns Hopkins University and Johns Hopkins Hospital. He has gained much publicity for his position against SRS. In this article published on First Things (see their About page here), he discusses why he opposes it. He primarily found the desire for SRS solely in men who could not deal with their own homosexual attraction and sexual experience. He wished to test his unease with these men by testing 1) if an operation resolved other “psychosocial issues” (“relationships, work, and emotions”) in them and 2) if operations performed on boys with abnormal genitals combined with raising the them as girls allowed them to be gender-adjusted in adult life as women.

Concerning his first inquiry, McHugh followed Jon Meyer’s research. Meyer had spoken with SRS patients years after their surgeries, finding that they were largely satisfied with their choice. McHugh inferred, though, that the surgery did not resolve other psychological issues present in them.

Concerning his second inquiry, he followed the research of William G. Reiner. First, Reiner used comparative anatomy to conclude that even if boys were surgically altered postpartum, they had still been exposed to testosterone in utero. These young children, though raised as girls, preferred “boy” play: “enjoying rough-and-tumble games but not dolls and ‘playing house.’” Reiner’s case study on 16 “genetic males with cloacal exstrophy” found that once the youths had learned about their birth sex:

  • 8 boys declared themselves male
  • 5 continued to live as females
  • 1 lived in sexual ambiguity
  • (2 had parents who had elected not to have the surgery performed on their children)

McHugh then concluded that gender identity flows not from socialization, but from genetics and intrauterine encounters with testosterone. I have two issues with McHugh’s inferences from the data and studies. The first has to do with the propriety of his first inquiry: is it appropriate to ask if SRS solves other psychological problems in a person? I’ll propose something and let you think about it: does gall bladder surgery have benefits for asthma sufferers? McHugh admitted that men who underwent SRS were satisfied with the results in the majority of cases. His contention is that it did not solve attendant psychological issues. Should that be expected? If I suffer from bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and obsessive-compulsive personality disorder, will treatment for one diagnosis work for the other two? Some medications help multiple things. For example, Depakote can be used as a treatment for seizures, migraines, or the manic phase of bipolar disorder. But this isn’t always the case, and to expect one treatment to affect multiple issues doesn’t seem reasonable to me.

My second issue has to do with McHugh’s use of Reiner: “sexual identity is mostly built into our constitution by the genes we inherit and the embryogenesis we undergo. Male hormones sexualize the brain and the mind.” If effects in the uterus are primarily what account for sexual identity, why did nearly 43% of the boys operated on live as females—i.e., according to socialization—or ambiguously? Wouldn’t his claim call for a much higher ratio of “boyness” trying to overcome female socialization? Can a claim for naturalness/normalcy hold if it only accounts for roughly 57% of the sample?

2. “Transgender Surgery Isn’t the Solution”

(Google the title; if you click on this link, you have to subscribe in order to read the full article)

I came across this article when another article referenced it. That article had the catchy snippets in its title: “Johns Hopkins Psychiatrist: Transgender is ‘Mental Disorder;’ [sic] Sex Change ‘Biologically Impossible.’” (check out what the DSM-V says about it being a mental disorder; thanks to Brynn Tannehill; In the upcoming weeks, when I discuss the “institution” aspect of religion, I will discuss the politics of classification) While I read that article, I wanted to read the original. It is imperative in research to see what writers/speakers do with their sources in order to see if there are unstated motivations beneath their stated intentions.

I want to draw attention to one statistic provided by McHugh:

When children who reported transgender feelings were tracked without medical or surgical treatment at both Vanderbilt University and London’s Portman Clinic, 70%-80% of them spontaneously lost those feelings. Some 25% did have persisting feelings; what differentiates those individuals remains to be discerned.(Monte’s emphasis)

He also refers again to his reason for stopping sex surgery at Johns Hopkins: “surgically treated patients” were satisfied with the surgery, but didn’t experience relief from other “psychosocial” issues which he doesn’t detail here.

In this article, he produces a much more relevant study to his aims. The Karolinska Institute in Sweden conducted a 30+ year longitudinal study on over 300 people who had undergone SRS. He highlights two things. One, 10 years following the surgery brought about mental health issues, and two, the patients had a 20-fold suicide mortality rate when compared with the general population.

Concerning the Vanderbilt/Portman study, McHugh admits that no one knows for sure why gender dysphoria continues in 25% of individuals who experience it as children. With him, I don’t know what to do with this. It could have genetic or social contributors, or a combination of the two. We just don’t know. However, he’s the psychiatrist, and he doesn’t offer any alternatives to SRS (besides “devoted parenting” for children and adolescents) or help. If you’re a public intellectual offering your two cents, provide some solutions.

The second study concerns me. That suicide statistic is astounding. An article by Mari Brighe (about The Transadvocate here) critiquing McHugh’s op-ed detailed many of his misuses of data, including the following quote from the Karolinska study:

It is therefore important to note that the current study is only informative with respect to transsexuals persons health after sex reassignment; no inferences can be drawn as to the effectiveness of sex reassignment as a treatment for transsexualism. In other words, the results should not be interpreted such as sex reassignment per se increases morbidity and mortality. Things might have been even worse without sex reassignment. As an analogy, similar studies have found increased somatic morbidity, suicide rate, and overall mortality for patients treated for bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. This is important information, but it does not follow that mood stabilizing treatment or antipsychotic treatment is the culprit. (Monte’s emphasis)

Further links in the article cite differences in androgen receptors between transgender and cisgender men and a difference in brain anatomy between transgender women who haven’t yet undergone hormonal treatment (the article calls them “male-to-female (MTF) transsexuals”) and cisgender men.

What I take from this is that transgender persons need more access to mental health resources, but that a ban on SRS in itself would not “fix” them. With high suicide rates, abuse from families of origin, mistreatment by police and hospitals, and homelessness, exclusionary tactics like negative labels are not helpful. Labels more often than not serve to categorize a group as “Not us,” that can then serve as a shield of indifference to real complaints, issues, and needs.

So is Caitlyn Jenner mentally ill on account of being transgender? The DSM says no. I think the question might be missing an issue, though. My question is, do Jenner and people like her have access to mental health, relational, financial, occupational, housing, and other resources that I enjoy because no one is obstructing my access according to my appearance? I guess a person could say, “Stop trying to be something you’re not. Make your appearance more normal and you won’t have these problems.” To me that’s like saying, “Stop practicing Christianity, because it’s against your nature. You won’t have relational problems associated with being resisted because of your religious observance.”

My Weird Thoughts on “Religion”

Here I would like to share my views on “religion.” It got pretty long, so I am breaking it into parts. This first part will cover classic definitions of religion, the instability in terms, and the concept of “discourse.”

1. Classic Definitions of Religion and Instability in Terms

Religion has classically been defined as:

  • The feeling of absolute dependence (Friedrich Schleiermacher)
  • Belief in spiritual things (E. B. Tylor)
  • A systematic belief and practice system that unites a community (Emile Durkheim)
  • A way of placating higher beings which control the universe (James G. Frazer)
  • A feeling of awe in the presence of the holy (Rudolf Otto)
  • An illusion or neurosis (Sigmund Freud)
  • An agent (“opiate”) that deadens peoples’ minds to accept their station rather than improve it (Karl Marx)
  • A state of being grasped by an Ultimate Concern (Paul Tillich)
Bruce Lincoln Source: University of Chicago
Bruce Lincoln
Source: University of Chicago

Let’s test some of those definitions. I consider myself religious, but don’t feel particularly dependent on God during data entry (contra Schleiermacher); I’m not really aware of material things, much less spiritual things, before my coffee has kicked in (contra Tylor); my mind doesn’t feel particularly numb when I’m thinking about religion (Marx could be brilliant at times and at other times preposterous); Buddhists who rely on self-power (some rely on beings to help them, such as Amitabha) aren’t placating higher powers.

Furthermore, I strongly insist that religion is colored by your time, place, and other identity markers. If you learn about the Five Pillars of Islam, or the Four Noble Truths and the Eight-Fold Path of Buddhism, or the Shema Yisrael of Judaism, do you think you have really encountered those religions in all their varied splendor? Is Christianity reducible merely to the Sinner’s Prayer? Do the previous general beliefs account for the subdivisions within each tradition which sometimes go to war with each other (literally), even when outsiders see each party as part of the same tradition?

You probably haven’t encountered a tradition until you’ve experienced a living, breathing member of that tradition, and then, one person does not represent an entire tradition. In the end, I don’t find religion to be a stable category. Here are some social factors that interplay with religion, so that even within the same tradition religion is never the same: gender, race, class, ethnicity, nationality, politics, economics, culture, family, age, region, education, ability, dietary habits, athleticism, or customs. Just as with religion, I don’t see how these nodes of identity can be defined apart from these other factors.

2. Working, Constructed Definition of Religion

Russell T. McCutcheon Source: Twitter
Russell McCutcheon
Source: Twitter

But saying that religion is hard to define doesn’t really help much. So what do I mean by religion? I approach studying religion from a constructivist and social perspective. That’s not the only way to analyze religion (I analyze religion theologically, too, but that’s within another context), but that’s how I approach it academically. I will employ some help from history of religions scholar Bruce Lincoln. He has written extensively, particularly on how communities in general (not just religious ones) form and maintain their cohesion. What follows is his minimal definition on religion, riffing off of Durkheim (who I also like). While I won’t say religion is merely these four things, it is at least these four things (taken from Holy Terrors: Thinking About Religion After September 11):

A. “Discourse”

By religious discourse, Lincoln means truth claims that do not appeal to experience, experimentation, or human thought but that appeal to sources outside the human political (and other) interests. Many times this goes by the name of “revelation,” “scriptures,” “holy writings,” “sacred sayings,” “prophecy,” “oracles,” etc. Elsewhere, Lincoln remarks that discourse consists at least of myth, ritual, and classification used to construct, maintain, replicate, deconstruct, and/or reconstruct society. I will discuss myth here, ritual in the section on “practice,” and classification in the next post under “community.”

In his helpful primer, Studying Religion: An Introduction, Russell McCutcheon also offers a helpful definition, building off of Michel Foucault: discourse involves “the series of material as well as intellectual conditions, practices, institutions, architecture and conventions that make specific types of thought and action possible.” In other words, discourse is all about the background noise that influences your thought and action.

Source: michel-foucault.com
Source: michel-foucault.com
Source: demotix.com
Source: demotix.com

While Lincoln sees discourse employing myth, ritual, and classification to achieve its ends more overtly, it can covertly (or just less overtly) achieve its ends by means of “spectacle, gesture, costume, edifice, icon, [or] musical performance.”

So what are some examples of these subtle methods of discourse? If you think of a church setting, a costume can consist anywhere from a dress suit to clerical robes. Gestures can include raising one’s hands in Christian worship or bowing down on a prayer rug facing Mecca (which would also involve the icon of the prayer rug).

A word on “myth”

Roland Barthes Source: magnumphotos.com
Roland Barthes
Source: magnumphotos.com

Myth is typically used in a disparaging way toward beliefs you consider legend, fable, or something that just isn’t historical. Lincoln first explains myth by referencing Roland Barthes’ concept of myth: it involves ideas divorced from their original contexts/settings/histories and projected into a timeless story, or given “mystificatory” (that which obscures its origins) content. However, Lincoln develops a unique model of myth, by comparing it to the concepts of fable, legend, and history before plotting them on the axes of truth claim, credibility, and authority:

Fable Makes no truth claims, holds no credibility, and commands no authority
Legend Makes truth claims, holds no credibility, and commands no authority
History Makes truth claims, has credibility, and commands no authority
Myth Makes truth claims, has credibility, and commands authority

Adapted from Lincoln, Discourse, 23.

When Lincoln speaks of credibility and authority, he doesn’t measure it on the story/narrative itself, but on how it is received by a community. This means that the history of one group can be the myth or legend of another group (compare how typical American and British histories treat the American Revolution). In his book, Authority: Construction and Corrosion, Lincoln defines authority in the following way:

When these crucial givens [“right” speaker, speech, and setting] of the discursive situation combine in such a way as to produce attitudes of trust, respect, docility, acceptance, even reverence, in the audience, or – viewing things from the opposite perspective – when the preexistent values, orientations, and expectations of an audience predispose it to respond to a given speech, speaker, and setting with these reverent and submissive attitudes, “authority” is the result

Lincoln’s work can apply to religion as traditionally conceived or to social phenomena in general.


That’s it for now on my thoughts on religion. As you can see, I owe a lot of gratitude to Lincoln. It is also painfully theoretical. I apologize, but felt I needed to establish this before I start getting concrete. If you have questions of where I fall on something concrete, email me at ilostmyprayerhanky at gmail.

I will post tomorrow or Monday on the second part. I may include how I think my initial thoughts on gender and sexuality relate to religion in that second part, or I might make a third part.

Link Wednesday #1- Feminisms, Same-Sex Marriage, and Caitlyn Jenner

1. Rita Alfonso Surveying Feminisms

Dr. Rita Alfonso thinkphilosophy.org
Dr. Rita Alfonso
thinkphilosophy.org

ThinkPhilosophy is a philosophy website run by “Dr. A” (Rita Alfonso), who taught philosophy and gender studies at Grinnell College and U.C. Berkeley before retiring. She is now an independent scholar and professional photographer.

Alfonso’s first few podcasts seem aimed at making a general audience clearer thinkers through reading and writing practices. Her blog is a text-accompaniment to her podcast. (Also neat: if you subscribe to her site, you can get Feminism: A Very Short Introduction as a free download. Oxford University Press’s Very Short Introduction series gives a quick survey of a topic by experts in the field. They run ~100-150pp and ~$10).

I came across Alfonso’s site when looking up gender studies blogs. Her first podcast that I heard was her explanation of three prominent feminist theorists: Simone de Beauvoir (existentialism/Marxism), Luce Irigaray (psychoanalysis), and Judith Butler (post-structuralism/queer theory). De Beauvoir pretty much kicked off Second-Wave Feminism with her The Second Sex. One of her most famous lines is “One is not born, but rather becomes, woman.” In other words, sex is not identical with gender, but gender has a cultural history. According to Alfonso, Irigaray takes de Beauvoir in an egalitarian direction while Butler takes her in a radical direction.

The audio runs ~38 minutes.

What do you make of de Beauvoir’s quote? Are women reducible to wombs or to what is called “feminine”? Is femininity something that is stable in a person or something that must be constantly maintained? How much is femininity a performance or projected image and how much of it is innate to a woman? Is woman simply the Other of man? How does liberal feminism differ from radical feminism?

How does Irigaray critique de Beauvoir’s “othering” (abbr- where you set up an opposite of yourself or your group to say “I’m not that” and use it as identity reinforcement) of women? Is Irigaray saying de Beauvoir sees women as simply non-actualized men in need of full (male) agency? How different does Irigaray find women and men as subjects?

Butler argues that if we take de Beauvoir’s sex/gender distinction seriously, we have no guarantee that a sex results in a given gender; if you always exists in a culturally expressed gender, do you ever exist solely as your sex? In other words, are bodies and biological sex ever interpreted free of cultural bias? In Alfonso’s questioning, does gender occur as naturally as a falling rock demonstrates gravity (every time)? Alfonso interrogates sex as a natural category: should it not result in a particular gender expression? Is the nature/nurture distinction itself a cultural product?

2. Albert Mohler on Attending Same-Sex Weddings

Albert Mohler is extremely influential in the Southern Baptist Convention and president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. His output is prolific. He has an almost daily podcast called “The Briefing” where he analyzes current events from an evangelical perspective.

I started listening to him because I wanted to gauge where real evangelical leaders are coming from and rather than being filtered through various outlets like Salon or other media which focus more on sensational figures (thinking Pat Robertson here) rather than on what broader evangelicals accept.

Albert Mohler albertmohler.com
Albert Mohler
albertmohler.com

If you are unaware, sometimes religious leaders play with a supposed (from an outside perspective) or real party line (again, this is why I think essentialism is unhelpful). While holding to a traditional view of marriage, Mohler also claimed that the church was guilty of homophobia and aggression (rather than redemption) against homosexuals.

The podcast I listened to on Monday was dated. He analyzed Sen. Marco Rubio’s statement on attending a same-sex wedding. Rubio would attend one if he loved the people, even though he doesn’t support same-sex marriage. Mohler argued that based on the phrasing from the Book of Common Prayer (“If any of you can show just cause why they may not lawfully be married…”) one’s attendance of a wedding is silent consent to the marriage, and that therefore, Rubio’s statement doesn’t make sense.

The segment on Rubio is the first ~7 min of ~18 min.

What do you make of this? Does Mohler’s assessment work for you? Can one not attend a same-sex wedding, love the people involved, and still disagree with what they are doing? Does attendance or presence equal consent? Does Rubio’s statement conflate loving people regardless of their sin and what people affirm? If a mother-in-law doesn’t like the spouse her child has chosen, and she still attends the wedding, is she affirming their marriage or her child? How does Mohler employ the term “category”? What does Mohler mean by love? Does he define it?

3. “Bruce Jenner Is Not a Hero

Yesterday was a mixed bag on my Facebook feed. There didn’t seem to be much middle ground surrounding Caitlyn Jenner’s reveal on the cover of Vanity Fair. This post was a negative assessment of her coming out. When I tried to find out about the author, she didn’t have an “About” section. Scrolling through her posts, I gathered that she is a mother seeking to explain a Christian worldview in light of cultural (generally sinful) trends. What caught my attention in her post was the following quote: “I never want to shy away from speaking something that needs to be said even if I know it is not something people want to hear.”

What prompts someone to speak to an issue to the point of saying that their words “needs to be said”? I can think of some possibilities: everyone is doing it, your position hasn’t been heard, your position has been maligned, your position has been misunderstood, you like to hear yourself talk, imminent danger, etc. I think in this case she sees a societal danger, but you tell me what you think.

How is Emily Suzanne using gender? Does she buy a distinction between sex and gender, or are these two items even distinct? How is she characterizing arguments in favor of Caitlyn Jenner’s coming out? What sources of authority does she use? How and why does she use them? What does she mean by “common sense” when coupled with a Christian worldview? How does Caitlyn coming out as a woman constitute being “lost, sinful, and desperately in need of Jesus” in itself? According to her definition of a hero, has Caitlyn not sacrificed and risked? When Emily Suzanne uses “we,” who is included and who is excluded?


I plan on using Jenner’s case as a launch pad to talk about the biology and politics of sex in an upcoming post, possibly before Saturday. Again, in Saturday’s post I am going to discuss how I relate religion and gender in my studies.

What Do I Mean “Your Sexuality Isn’t Natural”?

In my post “Working Thoughts on Gender and Sexuality,” I used the words “natural” and “naturally” to describe something I don’t subscribe to. When I was explaining my thoughts included there to a friend at work, he got me thinking how I’m using those words.

Natural can refer to socially constructed things, because no one exists outside of social relations. In that sense, all that humans do is natural. Even the prisoner in solitary confinement has food brought to him or her; social relations do not have to include words. They simply infer what one does not do oneself. So I may cook my own food, but Walmart workers stocked shelves, from materials transported by truck and train, from materials worked on a farm, from seed and antibiotics administered by farmers, bought from corporations, produced from still more materials, etc. While all that involves many steps, it is natural in the sense of humans produce and consume socially.

I do not mean natural in that way, however. What I am reacting against is “essentialism.” This word (essentially, ha!) carries the idea that if an object or concept is called by something, then it must contain all elements of the definition, or else not be that. Take the word “human” or anything having to do with humanity. One-size-fits-all definitions tend to leave out a lot of human phenomena. If humans are featherless bipeds, do persons who are quadriplegic qualify as humans? If humans are meaning-making animals, are people in comas or vegetative states nonhuman? If women are defined functionally by having the ability to bear children, do women who cannot bear children (or just don’t) not qualify as women?

To the person who says we need definitions in place to have a conversation, I will agree. But I think definitions need to be working definitions to deal with living data. If my definition does not capture all that is human, I need to interrogate the usefulness of my definition. Definitions necessarily leave something out, but how much do they leave out (or how far are they inclusive?) before they cease to be useful? I also think definitions need to be brought into discussion rather than just thrown around as if they have innate meaning. African-Americans and white Americans many times mean completely different things with the phrase “Black Lives Matter” until they discuss their situatedness.

Speaking of situatedness, I am aiming in my writing for more concreteness. My same friend asked me what percentage of people are born gay. I don’t think we’re born anything because we haven’t expressed anything yet when we’re born. I think there are predispositions for things at birth—presence of genetic markers for given traits, a certain ratio of sex hormones—but again, these do not determine outcomes. Babies don’t think other babies are hot or want to date people with a different or similar pair of genitals; they want to eat, if even that. Their self-expression is limited to eating, sleeping, pooping, and peeing. I attribute gender and sexuality to personhood, and babies, while starting their journey of personhood, simply don’t have much yet.

My initial bias does not include much interaction with genetic research on gender, I will admit. What I was trying to say is that possessing certain criteria (I provided three—hormones, sex organs, and chromosomes) does not determine existence. So maybe “non-determinism” regarding gender and sexuality is what I was talking about and not “unnaturalness,” or more concretely, “You’re not born with sexual express.” As I will admit throughout my blog, I offer ideas in process. Because of this stance, I invite questions, disputes, clarifications, negations. All I ask is that we bring a stance of at least understanding the other on their own terms before disagreeing with them on our terms. If I fail to do that, call me out. I don’t know it all. I just kind of claim to know where I’m coming from, though that isn’t always the case either.