(Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

On Wednesday (May 9), President Obama announced his support for same-sex marriage in an interview with ABC News. He noted that he and the first lady “are both practicing Christians,” and that his faith helped inform his shifting views on marriage equality. “When we think about our faith,” he said, “the thing at root that we think about is, not only Christ sacrificing himself on our behalf, but it’s also the Golden Rule, you know, treat others the way you would want to be treated.”

In response, R&P interviewed Mark D. Jordan, a scholar whose interests range from the history of sex and gender to the rhetoric of Christian ethics. His books include The Invention of Sodomy in Christian Theology (1997); The Ethics of Sex (2002); Telling Truths in Church: Scandal, Flesh, and Christian Speech (2003); Rewritten Theology: Aquinas after His Readers (2006); and most recently Recruiting Young Love: How Christians Talk about Homosexuality (2011). He is the Richard Reinhold Niebuhr Professor at Harvard Divinity School. In the summer of 2012, he will join the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics at Washington University as a Distinguished University Professor in the Humanities. –T.S.

R&P: What was your immediate reaction to Obama’s statements supporting the legalization of same-sex marriage?

MJ: I heard the news in two stages—like a classic double-take. First, I was surprised by the timing and wondered about the political effects. Why now rather than after the election? And if now, why not sooner? Did Biden really slip and force the issue? Then the double-take: No, wait, this is big. This is the President of the United States endorsing same-sex marriage only nine years after the Supreme Court struck down sodomy statutes. Nine years from criminal penalties to state-recognized marriage. Whatever happens next, that’s worth putting the tactical commentary on pause.

R&P: As someone who studies the history of sexuality, how do you see this moment along the continuum?

MJ: It would be comforting to think that the history of sexuality is a single continuum and that we’ve been progressing through it steadily. But there isn’t a single history of sex or gender. There are innumerable local histories, separated by time and place, but also by race and religion and wealth and erotic taste. A regime of scowling repression will still allow secret liberties to the elite—and will be unable to control the behavior of its outcasts. A movement that promises sexual liberation can impose all sorts of new restraints. Indeed, some people think that same-sex marriage is one of them. So I don’t think that we can say: Obama’s announcement is an irrevocable step forward! We can say, we should say: Just in making the statement as he did, backed by all the symbolism of the presidency, he performed a public ritual of approval. He recognized as real the families of Americans who have been denied the right to form any.

R&P: President Obama described his changing position on same-sex marriage as an “evolution,” when in the past he has said it was “evolving.” In your work, you have studied how the American Church has also evolved on the language and understanding of homosexuality. Can you briefly detail some of that history?

MJ: The hardest historical changes to notice are the ones that happen slowly all around you. You change with them. Then something reminds you how different things used to be. Part of the delicious shock of a show like Madmen, for example, is just how much ordinary expectations have changed in fifty years.

Many churches like to pretend that they preach an eternal truth in unchanging language. In fact, they’re no more immune from change than other institutions. Since the first Kinsey report—that is, in the last sixty years—Christian talk about same-sex desire has shifted fundamentally in America. Our terms and models for sexual desire are different. So are the interpretations of scriptural passages or the moral judgments on specific sexual activities—and not just those between members of the same sex. But the most fundamental shift in our talk is the hardest to notice. It’s the very prominence of the topic. Whether liberal or conservative, American churches now speak about homosexuality frequently, publicly, loudly—in just the ways that were taboo sixty years ago. There’s no more striking proof of that than an avowedly Christian president talking about same-sex marriage on television from the Oval Office.

R&P: The president specifically intoned his Christian faith as a key factor that led him to support same-sex marriage. What was your take on this invocation of faith?

MJ: Since I’ve spent my life studying rhetoric, inside churches and outside them, I try not to be naïve about how much effort can go into apparently spontaneous testimonies. I’m sure that the President’s invocation of faith was considered carefully beforehand. But that doesn’t make it insincere. And the way he invoked it echoes what a growing number of Christian writers have reported over six decades. Many devout Christians—members of the clergy, lay leaders, theologians and religious educators—have become convinced not just that discrimination against homosexuals is a violation of basic human rights, but that it goes directly against the teachings and the example of Jesus of Nazareth. So I was struck that the President spoke not just about the moral principle of the Golden Rule, but about Jesus’ sacrifice.

R&P: Last September, you gave a lecture at the Danforth Center on Religion & Politics entitled, “How Christians Learned to Talk about Homosexuality,” based on your book Recruiting Young Love: How Christians Talk about Homosexuality. What were some of the formative ways American Christians learned to talk about same-sex desire?

MJ: I confess to a bad habit of punning in my titles. This one is no exception. The main title is a reference to Anita Bryant, who is for me a key figure in the history of American debates over sexuality. The original name of her campaign was “Save Our Children,” and her constant warning was that homosexuals were “recruiting” the innocent. Part of my reply to Anita is to reveal the hidden assumption—namely, that children can be recruited, which means that they don’t come already set as heterosexual. Indeed, Anita herself is all in favor of recruiting children—so long as she can capture them for her version of marriage.

My other pun is in the sub-title. It reminds the reader that Christians had to learn to talk about homosexuality, because “homosexuality” is a 19th-century word that came from legal and clinical settings, not from Christian tradition. It entered Christian speech fairly recently, in a series of other terms, some of which have since disappeared. You can watch as “homosexuality” makes its appearance—not least in translations of the Bible. But there is no equivalent for “homosexual” in Hebrew or Greek. So when a contemporary Christian proclaims a biblical truth about homosexuality, there’s a lot of interpreting going on—and, I would say, a basic mistranslation.

R&P: How did what was happening in the churches around homosexuality affect our political debates? When did this start?

MJ: Oh, churches got involved in politics about five minutes after they became churches. I mean, the institutionalization of “the Christian church”—the transformation of persecuted assemblies gathered around Jesus’ table into increasingly powerful organizations—fused worldly politics into the very structure of churches. So the question is never: Should churches be political? The question is: Since churches will be political, how can believers and non-believers work to make that involvement constructive rather than destructive? This question becomes more acute in religiously diverse societies—such as our America.

But you also have to read the relation of churches and civil politics in the opposite direction. Our political and legal debates about homosexuality can only be understood against the backdrop of a long Christian history. Our criminal laws against same-sex acts were drawn from explicitly Christian models, and secular arguments about natural desires or real families or the good of children are often theological arguments barely disguised. So if churches have often been driven by the most partisan politics, our political speech about sex can’t be understood without knowing at least a little church history.

R&P: As a historian, you do not make conjectures about the future regularly. But given where these debates have come from, where they have led, where do you see these issues going, in the future and during the 2012 elections?

MJ: I don’t have the gift of prophecy—and everything I think I know about the election I get from Nate Silver’s numbers in the Times. No short-term predictions from me. But I would risk saying something about the longer term, which is a more familiar unit of measure for historians of ideas and societies. The issue of homosexuality is a leading indicator for the state of Christian churches. It’s like a gauge for larger controversies—about human relations and social power—that will determine the Christian future. I should say futures, in the plural, because these controversies are likely to result in new divisions among churches or new churches simply speaking. I agree with my opponents at least about this: We’re not fighting just about sex. We’re fighting over the Christianity of the future.

R&P: Tell us a little about your area of expertise, how you got interested in these issues, and where your studies have led you.

MJ: I’ve always been interested in how Christian languages and practices shape human lives. As a teenager, I fell in love with the Christian Middle Ages. (No accounting for taste.) This interest carried me through graduate school and my first years of college teaching, when I was writing on Thomas Aquinas and other medieval theologians. But for me the reading of these figures wasn’t a sort of antiquarianism. I was interested in them for what they could teach us about human lives in the present—and for how they could help to resist violent abuses of religious tradition. It is hard to think of a crime that hasn’t been committed in the name of Jesus. For me, that is a terrifying and urgent realization. It demands an ethical response.

That sense of urgency led me eventually to the topic of sexuality—though it wasn’t the only motive. The topic pressed on me because I am a Christian who also happens to be a gay man—and who became unwilling at a certain point in my own “evolution” to lie about it any longer. But I hope that I would have been led to the topic even if I didn’t identify as gay. Anyone who wants to think about Christian ethics in the present has to think about sex, right alongside race, gender, economic class, and the defacing of our planet.

R&P: Why is the study of the history of sexuality, and homosexuality in particular, so important?

MJ: History, if you do it right, is a great antidote to all sorts of intellectual diseases—like absolute certainty and provincial bigotry. Its medicinal function is especially helpful when you’re trying to treat dogmatic claims for unchanging truth, whether in individuals or institutions. All of that applies to history in debates over sex.

But there’s a more particular reason for studying the history of homosexuality: we’re still immensely ignorant about it. Old regimes of secrecy have worked too well. We are barely beginning to recover the few records that have survived, much less to understand what they might mean for the present. It’s hard to say strongly enough how new it is for Christians to be living openly in same-sex relations. When critics point to failures in lesbian and gay relationships, I’m tempted to say: Could you give us a century or two? I mean, we’ve barely been allowed to show up in church, and already you want us to get marriage exactly right? Make that twenty-one centuries.