Make Straight the Way of the Lord: Queering American Evangelicalism

Boyce, William, Religious Studies - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Jones, Paul, AS-Religious Studies, University of Virginia
Hedstrom, Matthew, AS-Religious Studies, University of Virginia

“Make Straight the Way of the Lord”: Queering American Evangelicalism traces the moral, theological, and social performances of the Christian adage “love the sinner, hate the sin” in its historical materializations throughout North American evangelicalism. At the heart of the project, I narrate four scenes from the modern, postwar ascendency of U.S. evangelical Christianity and one contemporary consequence of this historical manifestation. Specifically, I highlight the complex, and at times contradictory, dimensions of “love the sinner, hate the sin” as its interfaces with queer persons, identities, issues, and desires. I argue the aphorism has surprising staying power in part due to its operation as, what I call, an affective logic. The phrase not only provides a theological grammar and ethical toolkit for analyzing and responding to queerness. It also induces, disciplines, and interprets religious affections. Nonetheless, the presumptive obviousness and caricatured simplicity of the Christian proverb has led to inattention by scholars of evangelicalism, sexual ethics, and contextual theology.

For the sake of conceptual clarity and analytical purchase, I foreground and elevate one predominate theme within each of the four case studies. In the first half, I showcase love as silence in the life and death of Lonnie Frisbee of the Jesus People Movement and then love as enrichment in the establishment of the “ex-gay ministry” Exodus International. In the second half, I emphasize hate as righteous zeal in the denominational resolutions from the Southern Baptist Convention at the height of the AIDS crisis and thereafter hate as hypervigilant angst in the apocalyptic series Left Behind by authors Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins. To assay the impact of this sweeping vortex of “love” and “hate,” I reveal in a final illustration how purity culture theology and evangelical sex manuals have arranged identity in light of recent conversations by evangelicals about sexual abuse and violence in the #MeToo era.

The dissertation features two further discussions which bookend the project. To start, I address the scholarly challenge of defining evangelicalism and why it still matters. I examine four insufficient typological models on the quest to construct a hegemonic definition of evangelicalism. Over against these scaffoldings, I propose a generative, variegated, and queer complexion to evangelicalism. I rely on the insights of Molly Worthen and Jasbir Puar to recast evangelicalism through methodological queering. I turn to assemblage theory to reposition the frameworks by which evangelicalism is conceived to clear space for the subsequent case studies. To conclude, I engage Dietrich Bonhoeffer as a provocative interlocutor for displacing the affective logic of “love the sinner, hate the sin” by subverting its theological resources, exposing it to critique, and opening it to reformation. In a constructive mode, I take stock of Bonhoeffer’s ethic of suffering and resilience and his faith in God’s love for humanity in godforsakenness.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Evangelicalism, LGBTQ, Christianity, Queer, Evangelical, Gay, Theology, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Love the sinner, hate the sin, American Evangelicalism, North America, Lonnie Frisbee, Exodus International, Frank Worthen, Love in Action, Southern Baptist Convention, Left Behind, Trauma, Abuse, Godforsaken
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