The question from Sen. Cory Booker was blunt: “Do you believe that gay sex is a perversion? Yes or no?” Sitting in the witness chair at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing was CIA Director Mike Pompeo, nominated by President Trump to be Secretary of State. The former Kansas congressman began to answer, but Booker interrupted: “Yes or no, sir. Do you believe that gay sex is a perversion that is what you said here in one of your speeches? Yes or no, do you believe gay sex is a perversion?”
Watching this televised interrogation last week, I halfway hoped Pompeo would make the obvious joke: If they’re not having perverted sex, what’s the point of being gay?
Words mean things, and “pervert” originated in 14th-century France, as a verb meaning “to turn away” from correct religious belief, or as a noun synonymous with “apostate.” In the 1890s, the English psychologist Havelock Ellis used “perversion” to describe homosexual behavior in his Studies in the Psychology of Sex, thus borrowing the language of medieval Catholicism for the allegedly “scientific” study of sexual behavior.
Of course, neither Ellis nor anyone else who has made a career of studying sex should be presumed to be neutral and objective about the subject. Like many later such “experts” (including Wilhelm Reich and Alfred Kinsey), Ellis was decidedly weird in his sexual behavior, and his “objective” writing about homosexuality must be viewed with suspicion in light of his own abnormality. Nevertheless, it is to Ellis that we are most indebted for shifting the context of Western society’s understanding of homosexual behavior from the traditional category of religious morality (sin) to medical science (perversion).
This shift from Bible-based language to scientific terminology as the common basis for describing sexual behavior was advanced in the 20th century by Sigmund Freud and his psychoanalytic disciples. Those who had formerly been deemed sinners in need of prayer were reclassified as patients in need of therapy, and psychiatric “experts” replaced clergy as the guiding authorities in such matters. What had formerly been a crime called sodomy (a term derived from Genesis 19) subject to legal punishment, became instead the symptom of a disease called homosexuality, subject to psychiatric “treatment.” Instead of being sentenced to jail for an illegal act, or seeking advice from a pastor, priest, or rabbi on how to escape sinful temptation, the person diagnosed with homosexual tendencies was sent to the therapist’s office or, in some cases, committed to a mental institution. Words mean things, and this change of terminology about sexual behavior was significant of a major cultural shift in 20th-century America.
Mike Pompeo didn’t have a chance to explore the etymology of the word “perversion” in his Senate testimony last Thursday. Cory Booker wasn’t seeking a historical overview of our society’s understanding of sexuality, but rather was asking about remarks Pompeo made during a June 2015 “God and Country” rally at Summit Church in Wichita, Kansas. Pompeo quoted the words of Summit Church’s senior pastor Joe Wright: “We have worshipped other gods and called it multiculturalism. We have endorsed perversion and called it an alternative lifestyle.” In fact, those words are from a very famous prayer Pastor Wright gave in 1996 at the Kansas state legislature, which provoked nationwide attention as the evangelical minister asked God’s forgiveness for a number of sins. That 277-word prayer has been reprinted many times and circulated widely over the Internet and, while it may seem shocking to Democrats and their media allies, the words Pompeo quoted from Pastor Wright reflect the Bible-based beliefs of the vast majority of Christians in America today.
“Yes or no,” Cory Booker demanded, “do you believe gay sex is a perversion?”
Of course it is, if words have any meaning, but Mike Pompeo was there to be confirmed as Secretary of State, not to give a lecture about etymology, theology, or moral philosophy. A student of rhetoric might observe that Booker was not asking Pompeo whether homosexuality can be defined as a perversion; anyone could consult a dictionary for that. Rather, the New Jersey Democrat was interested in the negative connotation of the word “perversion.” In large measure due to the influence of Havelock Ellis, “pervert” became a vulgar insult in the 20th century. To be a pervert was to be sick — mentally defective — and as psychology replaced Christianity as the prevailing standard of social and legal judgment, “pervert” carried a stigma, a connotation of disapproval. For the sake of rhetorical accuracy, therefore, Sen. Booker’s repeated questions in Thursday’s hearing might be rephrased: “Do you disapprove of homosexual behavior?”
Here we arrive at the real truth of the matter. Pastor Wright might provide a scriptural exegesis, invoking various Bible passages (e.g.,Genesis 1:27-28, Leviticus 18:22, Romans 1:24-28) to justify the Christian faith’s disapproval of homosexuality. Americans are guaranteed both freedom of religion and freedom of speech by the First Amendment of the Constitution, and so no Christian can be compelled to approve of homosexuality, nor can any American be forbidden to express their opinion on the subject. It might have behooved Pompeo to turn the question around on Sen. Booker: “Does the Democratic Party believe in the First Amendment or not? Yes or no, Senator?”
Do we have a right to our own opinions, or is it now “hate speech” for anyone to say they disapprove of homosexuality? This concerned the late Justice Antonin Scalia in the series of decisions — Lawrence v. Texas (2003), United States v. Windsor (2013), and Obergefell v. Hodges (2015) — in which the Supreme Court first struck down the right of states to outlaw sodomy, then voided the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, and finally mandated that same-sex marriage must be recognized in all 50 states. Anyone can read Scalia’s dissent in the Lawrence case, where he prophesied the “far-reaching implications” of the 5-4 majority ruling as ominous of “a massive disruption of the current social order.” Four times in that dissent, Scalia quoted the majority’s claim that an “emerging awareness” of sexual freedom justified overturning the Court’s 1986 Bowers v. Hardwick decision, which had upheld Georgia’s sodomy law. The majority opinion in Bowers was written by Justice Byron White, who had been appointed to the Court by President John F. Kennedy in 1962, indicating that not long ago — within the lifetime of many readers — there were actually Democrats who disapproved of homosexuality.
Times change, and we are now governed by what I’ve called the Emerging Awareness Doctrine. Once an “awareness” of sexual liberation begins to “emerge” as a principle of law, who knows where it might lead? If the Supreme Court could locate a federal “right” to same-sex marriage somewhere in the Fourteenth Amendment, what other unexpected mischief might be found there? Some people have interpreted the Obergefell ruling to mean that citizens can be compelled to provide wedding cakes for same-sex marriage ceremonies, and why stop there? Perhaps next we’ll all be required to attend the nearest Gay Pride parade, under penalty of laws forbidding “discrimination” against the LGBTQ community.
Sarcastic humor about homosexuality is not yet illegal, of course, although it would be unwise to make any such jokes on a university campus in America, where the activist mobs are intolerant of anyone who refuses to participate in the compulsory celebration of “diversity” and “inclusion.” At Harvard University, for example, an evangelical Christian student group was recently “suspended” and “defunded” — to all intents and purposes, banned from campus — because it asked one of its leaders to step down after she became involved in a lesbian relationship. Christianity is now practically prohibited at Harvard, a school founded by Puritans for the training of Christian clergy, one of those 21st-century ironies we’re supposed to ignore, the same way we are expected to ignore how much Sen. Booker’s interrogation of Pompeo resembles the anti-Communist crusade of Joe McCarthy: “Are you now, or have you ever been, a homophobe?”
Words mean things, and the accusation of “homophobia” — which is what Sen. Booker was driving at in his questions about “perversion” — requires us to believe that Mike Pompeo’s disapproval of homosexuality is rooted in an irrational fear. Thus the scientific pretensions of Havelock Ellis have been reversed. Whereas once Ellis claimed “expert” knowledge of the causes of perversion as a mental disease, nowadays it is normal people who are subject to diagnosis as being afflicted with a “phobia” if they express disapproval toward homosexuality.
Pompeo was quick to disavow engaging in any illegal discrimination in such matters, but Booker felt a need to publicly shame him for what he’d said in a 2015 speech at a Kansas church event. If Christianity is unacceptable at Harvard, it certainly can’t be tolerated at the State Department. And if it is no longer permissible for any government official to say what Pompeo said, how much longer will preachers be allowed to say what Pastor Wright said?
America has become perverted, in the original 14th-century sense of the word, having turned away from the doctrines on which the nation was founded. We have worshipped other gods — “diversity” and “inclusion” chief among them — and the Supreme Court itself has “endorsed… an alternative lifestyle.” As Justice Scalia warned 15 years ago, there are “far-reaching implications” of our nation’s turning away from its founding principles and it remains to be seen how long America will survive the resulting “massive disruption” of its social order.