Why churches are silent on sex

All David Morrison has to do to find out what gay activists and religious conservatives are saying about each other is open his own mail.

"I guess the only way to end up on all the mailing lists that I'm on is to have lived my life," said Morrison, a thirtysomething journalist in Washington, D.C.

In college, he was a homosexual activist who specialized in arguing with Christians. Then he graduated into volunteer work with AIDS networks. In 1992, he burned out and embraced a gay-friendly brand of liberal Christianity. Today, Morrison is devout Roman Catholic who affirms all of his church's teachings on sex and marriage, including its stance that homosexuality is an "objective disorder." He has written an unusually candid book called "Beyond Gay" that challenges many dogmas on the religious right as well as on the lifestyle left.

As he reads his mail, Morrison said he is struck by a sad and ironic fact: He doesn't recognize the people that these culture warriors keep writing about.

"When you read the stuff on the gay mailing lists, conservative Christians are 10 feet tall and all-powerful and on a crusade to crush their enemies and destroy the freedoms that all Americans hold dear," he said. "But if you read what the conservative Christians are writing, it's the gays who are 10 feet tall and all-powerful and ruthless and they're taking over America. ... I always wonder: Who are these all-powerful people?"

Obviously, homosexuality remains a hot-button issue in most religious groups, from the Southern Baptist Convention to Reform Judaism and all points in between. There's no sign this will change anytime soon. But Morrison said he senses a radically different reality at the local level. In pulpits and pews, there is silence.

Why is this? Morrison has some theories of his own.

* Congregations rarely welcome realistic discussions about sex, whether from the pulpit or in religious education classes. Talking about heterosexual sex is bad enough. If they were honest, said Morrison, most conservatives would have to admit that they want gays and lesbians to simply go away, not to share their tough questions and painful life stories. This code of silence also applies to the parents of homosexuals, especially workaholic fathers, with their feelings of guilt and dread.

* As a rule, religious groups have trouble addressing feelings and issues faced by single adults -- period. "Few people," he said, "ever stop and ask: What does God want single people to do with their lives? What is their unique, God-given role in the body of Christ?"

* Militants on both sides hate to admit it, but many questions about the roots of sexual orientation remain unanswered. In his book, Morrison admits that some homosexuals, through prayer and therapy, are able to take significant changes toward heterosexual orientation. But this doesn't seem to be true for all -- including himself. The reality is that many people struggle to define themselves, as they experience both heterosexual and homosexual feelings.

"I think this is liberating, in a way," he said. "It means that everybody faces temptations. It means that feelings of confusion about sex are more common than some people want to admit. But this also means that more people find the subject threatening."

* Many clergy are afraid to admit that some married people wrestle with homosexuality, a fact that Morrison regularly encounters in Internet correspondence linked to a chastity-based Catholic support group called Courage. Of course, some pastors also fear confronting the reality of heterosexual sin in their flocks.

* Finally, many conservatives -- in their hearts -- believe that same-sex sins are truly more sinful than heterosexual sins, or non-sexual sins, for that matter. They believe that God considers gay sex more sinful than adultery or pre-marital sex. But they don't want to confess that this is what they believe.

So they remain silent.

"Let's face it," said Morrison. "It's always harder to confront the sins that are in our own lives or in the lives of people in our own families. That's just they way we are. That is what makes sin, sin, and so very personal."