A conservative case against ‘conversion therapy’

I was on holiday when the Church of England General Synod met, and so I followed events with even less interest than I, as a Scottish Baptist, usually do. On my occasional scans of my social media feeds, however, I saw a certain amount of interest in a motion proposing that the Synod condemn ‘conversion therapy’, the practice of seeking to change the orientation of lesbian or gay people to make them straight.

I was far enough away to have nothing interesting to say about the motion or the debate, but noticing it made me think once again what a deeply strange practice ‘conversion therapy’ in fact is. For the sake of the following argument, let us agree—briefly—to assume the best possible conditions: that there is no doubt that a traditional Christian account of sexual ethics is right, and that there are modes of intervention that are effective in changing a person’s sexual orientation (in reality I believe about 0.75 of these two things to be true). Even given these ideal conditions, the practice of conversion therapy would be a very odd one to engage in.

The argument is very simple: to be gay/lesbian is to experience erotic desire for various people of one sex only: one’s own sex. To be straight is to experience erotic desire for various people of one sex only: not one’s own sex. Mt. 5:28 suggests strongly that such an experience of being straight is just sinful. It happens that there is no parallel condemnation in the NT of gay or lesbian desire, but I suppose most serious ethicists would construct one. Fairly simply, in Christian sexual ethics, to lust after someone to whom you are not married is sinful, and that judgement either does not depend on the sex of the object of your lust—or, just possibly, is intensified if your lust is heterosexual.

So, to engage in ‘conversion therapy’ is to seek to supplant one set of sinful sexual desires—for people of the same sex—with another set of sinful sexual desires—for people of the opposite sex. Why would anyone want to work to exchange one set of sinful lusts for another, possibly worse, set of sinful lusts? And why would any responsible Christian ministry propose or promote such work?

As far as I can see, this is the only interesting question concerning ‘conversion therapy’—not, ‘does it work?’ (who cares?); not ‘is it a good idea?’ (from any meaningfully Christian perspective, obviously, no), but why did anyone ever dream it up?—and why did others in the church not merely laugh it off?

I can see only one plausible answer, though I would be very open to hearing others. I have argued in a few pieces before now that a peculiar pathology of contemporary Western society is an assumption that sexual activity is necessary to attain adequate humanity—a ‘healthy’, ‘adult’ existence is not possible for the virgin. (The source of this assumption is worthy of exploration—Freud must be the deep origin, but more has to be said.)

I have also argued before now that this pathological—idolatrous—assumption is deeply embedded within our churches, perhaps especially within the more conservative Evangelical traditions. Offered a single senior pastor, congregations demur, fearing that s/he is not adequately adult; faced with an adult celibate, we strain a young adults group to make space for them, and then give up, implying by our programme construction that there should be no celibate adults beyond the age of 30. (Forget Jesus. Forget Paul. Forget the gospel.)

Surrendering completely to this contemporary idolatry, that proper adult humans must be sexually active, we discover lesbian and gay people, who are sexually attracted only to people of the same sex. We might attempt to deny the existence of such people, but reality intrudes, and, if we are convinced that marriage can only be between man and woman, we therefore propose that it must be possible to change sexual orientation, and so we invent conversion therapy, and invest deeply in its plausibility.

On this telling, the practice of conversion therapy is a surrender to idolatry: to the idea that healthy and adult humanity demands sexual activity.

In the face of this idolatry Christian ethics can say one word only, the first word of all real Christian ethics: ‘Jesus’.

The moment we say ‘Jesus’ we admit that true, fulfilled, adult, humanity is possible without sexual activity, and so the moment we say ‘Jesus’ we deny the need for conversion therapy. More, the moment we say ‘Jesus’ we acknowledge that, in the Kingdom, celibacy is the normal and natural way of being human; the ethical question is whether sexual activity, marriage, is ever truly Christian.

Augustine argues that it is, that marriage may be an ascetic practice ordered towards holiness just as celibacy is; I find his argument convincing—and it is enshrined in pretty much every Christian marriage liturgy extant today. Can there be an Augustinian ethic of same-sex marriage? Eugene Rogers has offered the best case (so far) that there might be; I have argued in print that his argument fails, but I may be wrong, or there may be a stronger argument than his.

Regardless of this, in serious Christian ethics, so-called ‘conversion therapy’ can have no place. It is merely a surrender to a pervasive contemporary idolatry—precisely the same idolatry that sustains attempts to demand the recognition of same-sex relationships on the grounds that people must free to express their sexual orientations.

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