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Love the Sin

Book Review by Bob Minor

Love the Sin: Sexual Regulation and the Limits of Religious Tolerance by Janet R. Jakobsen and Ann Pellegrini, New York University Press, 2003. ISBN:0-8147-4264-5. Hardcover, 175pp. $21.95.
Love the Sin is a progressive contribution to discussions about sexual and religious freedom in a country where we find less of both than most politicians, religious thinkers, media moralists, and "average Americans" want to admit. It argues that the way to more sexual freedom in the United States is to champion more religious freedom.

In the process we must move away from the concept of tolerance altogether, by replacing it with religious freedom. As a value tolerance, Jakobsen and Pellegrini argue, can never replace freedom and equality. It actually works against both because tolerance in practice is exclusionary, hierarchical, and even non-democratic. Tolerance serves to maintain the very structures on which hatred and discrimination are based: "tolerance sets up an us-them relation in which 'we' tolerate 'them.'" And this is little different from the structures that support hate.

Listen carefully to the us-them language of media discussions of homosexuality for example. "Americans" are supposed to tolerate "homosexuals," as if homosexuals are not Americans. Those who fight for the rights of LGBT people are seen as extremists in the same way as those who fight against them and seek their demise. "Average Americans" are portrayed as innocent bystanders in the middle between these two "extremes" as if neither side includes real Americans. There is nothing to distinguish these two extremes morally, the media seems to say. And when "average AMA tolerance is the preferred solution, injustice can hardly be addressed: "the public is not expected to take a stand against injustice, but merely to tolerate both sides of a conflict."

Likewise, the authors join many of us in arguing that responding to anti-gay laws, pronouncements, violence, and bigotry, by arguing biology, the "we can't help it" defense, reinforces the belief that LGBT Americans are outsiders about whom there is something less desirable and even wrong. Those who use this argument: "forget that historically the naturalization of racial and sexual difference has more often been used to justify discrimination than to prevent it." Freedom to be different, and to act differently, should not be dependent upon whether someone is "born" different.

So how are religious freedom and sexual freedom related? The authors point out that religion is used as the natural and appropriate basis for legislative and judicial decisions only for public policies concerning sex. That's because at this time: "The secular state's interest in regulating sexuality is an interest in maintaining religious - specifically Christian - authority." Not only does this exclude as outside the norm non-religious morality, but "religion" and "morality" in the current climate mean Christianity, and often conservative Christianity at that. Anyone outside that way of thinking is a "minority" to be "tolerated." What the U.S. needs, instead, is more religious freedom, not less. Then people are not judged by the standards of one particular version of one particular religious tradition.

The authors also call for "Valuing Sex," the title of their fifth chapter. While many LGBT spokespeople are calling for less visibility about our sexual practices, Love the Sin calls for more sexual freedom. This, again, is far from the current practice toward sexuality where claims of the moral rightness of one group are asserted by naming some other group as the moral problem and "immorality" is assumed to be about sex (Consider the phrase: "She lost her virtue," where we take "virtue" to be about sex, as if there is nothing else about being virtuous.).

Sexual conservatism has not addressed the problem. It is often promoted by the same people and institutions (religious or not) who perpetuate and cover-up child abuse, sexual harassment or pedophilia.

No longer should sex be treated as a privacy issue. Doing so only prevents a rich public discussion about sex and ethics, while it reinforces the culture's overburdening of sex "as a site of anxiety" tied to social relations that are not inherently connected to sex, such as emotional, living, and financial relationships, or caring for children. Instead of revaluing sexuality, treating sexuality as an issue of privacy keeps "minority" sexual acts in the category of deviations.

Jakobsen and Pellegrini argue, then, that the tolerance of "love the sinner, hate the sin," is antidemocratic. They argue that sex is not a luxury but a good. And they argue that the solution is a radically inclusive America based on freedom and justice for all. Their points ought to be well taken.
Robert N. Minor is author of Scared Straight: Why It's So Hard to Accept Gay People and Why It's So Hard to Be Human (HumanityWorks!, 2001) and Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Kansas. He may be reached through www.fairnessproject.org
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