Hi, I’m Fred Zaspel, executive editor here at Books At a Glance, and we’re talking today with Dr. J. Alan Branch. Dr. Branch is professor of Christian ethics at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Missouri, and author of the new book, Born This Way? Homosexuality, Science, and the Scriptures. It’s an important book addressing a very important contemporary discussion, and we’re glad to have Dr. Branch here with us.
Dr. Branch, welcome!
Thank you. I’m so glad to be here, Fred.
The title of your book makes it pretty obvious, but just to make sure we have the discussion in focus, tell us what your book is all about and what is the contribution you are hoping to make.
Well the title is borrowed from Lady Gaga’s song, Born This Way, in which she basically makes a connection between one’s sexual identity and one’s racial or ethnic heritage. So the big point of the book is homosexuality is not a trait like your skin color, your hair color or your eye color. It’s quite different. There are some data out there that correlate with higher incidence of homosexuality among some people groups when looking for certain variables, but there’s no data that shows or proves causation as of yet. So there’s a big difference between correlation and causation. And homosexuality is not a trait like your hair color your skin color.
Explain for us the connection that is claimed to exist between sexual morality and ethnic heritage. What is this all about?
Well the idea is that one’s ethnic heritage or skin color or body type and all these the sort of things are determined by our DNA in utero and so we don’t use those things, they are simply things with which we are born. So the main argument that is popular in our culture right now is that homosexual identity is much the same way.
One doesn’t choose this, it is in fact an innate, immutable characteristic so it is something a person is born with and that cannot be changed any more than one can change their race or ethnicity. So what the data shows is that there are some characteristics or variables – when scientists do research on homosexuality, what they are looking for are different variables and how those variables are connected with a higher incidence of homosexuality within certain people groups, within certain, not even people groups really, samples.
So you have to imagine a scientist has a group of people that he has in his or her sample which they’ve drawn from somewhere, there’s always places where they can get them, so then they go mining around within their sample to find if there’s anything in common all the folks have.
So what you find in almost every sample is this: if they have found something, what they find is some trait or variable that occurs more frequently among people who claim to be homosexual. But in every sample you’ll have some people who have the trait in question but who are not homosexual. Then you have other people in the sample who do not the trait in question yet they are homosexual.
What that means is none of these traits are necessary or sufficient to cause homosexuality but they do correlate with a higher incidence. We have to stress over and over again correlation does not equal causation and the helpful distinction between those between those two terms is usually lost in the public media when these findings are released to the public.
Let me read a paragraph from your introduction that gets to the heart of your thesis, and then perhaps you can comment on it for us.
The urgent question for us to answer is, “Are homosexuals really born this way?” In this book, I hope to offer a plausible answer to these and other questions associated with the relationship between scientific research and the moral status of homosexuality. A review of the research will show that, while there are some genetic or biological factors that correlate with a higher incidence of same-sex attraction and homosexual behavior, as of yet there is no proof of genetic or biological causation for homosexuality. The vital distinction between correlation and causation is central to my argument.
Well, there are numerous studies out there. What I would say to the person listening is: there has been an enormous amount of research into homosexuality, what causes it, especially on the biological genetic side and so biologically what I mean by that are things such as brain structures, typically, and then genetically of course comes out of your DNA. So what I would say is that homosexuality tends to emerge early. Most people, when they are asked about the first time they felt same-sex attraction, they’re going to say puberty. That shouldn’t surprise any of us, that’s a time of sexual awakening for everyone.
So I would say it emerges early but “emerges early” and being “born this way” are two different things. So it may feel as if someone has been born that way. I can understand where they might feel that way, but when you start digging into the data it’s much harder to prove that. The genetic evidence is quite inconclusive. There’s a recent study on the Xq28, which is a region of the X-chromosome which was originally identified by Dean Hamer back in 1993, and a couple of guys, Sanders and Bailey out of Chicago in 2014, claim to replicate some of Hamer’s findings along with some new areas of interest on chromosome 8, but even by their own admission when they talk about their findings, what they are claiming is “Well we found something that is statistically significant.”
Well, saying he found something that is statistically significant is far different from saying this trait is therefore caused by this variable that we have identified. Because even in their own sample, not everyone in their sample who was homosexual shared the trait for which they were searching. So it’s a finite sort of argument that you have to be very attuned to, and you have to listen very carefully to the claims that are being made. Statistically significant does not necessarily mean A causes B.
Causation works like this: if trait A exists, then behavior B is going to follow. Inevitably. Nothing like that has been found for homosexuality where if A exists, you can absolutely predict with absolute certainty that that person will be homosexual. Even Sanders and Bailey in their widely published research in 2014, admit that their own research doesn’t provide findings which are sufficient to predict if a child in utero will be homosexual. So they admit that it has a weak predictive power. What they have found is something of interest. Well, saying something is interesting is far different from saying something causes homosexual behavior.
Explain for us the implicit theological argument that is smuggled in with the claim that we are “born this way.”
Well, I don’t know if it’s theological. I think it’s a worldview because it’s really a non-theological worldview. It’s biological determinism is what it is. That humans are no more than the sum of their DNA and chemicals of sort of learn to self reflect. Even though Lady Gaga mentions God in her song I rather suspect the god whom she has in mind is some sort of vague, nondescript deistic sort of idea of God.
But really the idea that’s driving through our culture is biological determinism. You are the sum of your DNA and we’re all doomed by our DNA and biological structures to certain patterns of behavior. It’s a very materialistic view of humans which is simply false. Humans are more than the sum of their DNA. Humans are more than just a bunch of chemicals that it learned how to self reflect. So what we’re wrestling with at the core is biological determinism which is closely related to a very nontheistic materialistic view of the universe.
Right, and yet some will say, “born this way” is tantamount to “God made me this way.” But then whoever that God is, I suppose, right?
Right, and so what we’re dealing with there is… The most gracious thing I can say about Lady Gaga’s song, Born This Way, is that she seems to want to affirm Genesis 1:26-28 that people are made in God’s image, but she doesn’t want to affirm Genesis 3 that a historic space/time fall has occurred which is messed up all of creation. So we as Christians don’t deny that we live in a fallen world where confusing things can happen. I want to make it very clear that I am not unsympathetic to people who struggle with same-sex attraction at an early age. My question is not whether or not that happens. I believe it does. And I believe they are telling us the truth when many of these folks say, I didn’t ask for this. I didn’t request this. It wasn’t something I sought out. It’s something I felt. So it is not my point that they are lying to us.
No, I think they’re telling us the truth. The question though is when we start looking at the data about how that emerges. Well there’s lots of ways that I think in the years to come we are going to figure out that these things emerge. So I rather suspect that years down the road we will be talking about just homosexuality in the singular, but people arriving there at multiple different pathways that lead people to that point. But the idea I can’t stress enough again is in our culture when people talk about God they want a god without any boundaries.
Well, love in any ordered relationship always has boundaries. So we are not living in a perfect world, we’re living in a fallen world. Sometimes in a fallen world our desires are disordered. This is Paul’s main point in Romans chapter 1. We in fact want to do things that God says not to do in the sinful desires feel natural to us. It’s not just homosexuality, there’s a whole host of these desires. They feel natural, in fact, they are wrong.
And why is that? That’s because we’re living in a fallen world and we need redemption. Sanctification is the whole process of Christian learning how to fight these desires which are contrary to God’s perfect will. I can’t stress enough the idea that, yes God designed us and we are fearfully and wonderfully made, but it’s also true that we live in a fallen world and our desires get really messed up.
Are there social or familial factors that may influence same-sex attraction in any way?
Right, in fact prior to 1973 when the APA changed its stance on homosexuality the driving theory was that the triad of a mother and a father and a child gets very dysfunctional somehow and typically have this idea of an overbearing mother and a passive father and somehow this can, especially with males, could lead to male homosexuality. Well, that’s certainly true for some people, but it’s not true for all cases of homosexuality.
There are people in the gay community today that will tell you they grew up in a happy home where the mother and father loved each other and the dad was a good man, was active in their life, and yet they now self-identify as homosexual. So there are some social factors I suppose we could call them, that seem to affect homosexuality in some people.
But we as Christians need to be very careful and not assume that’s true with everyone. Some of the more interesting data revolves around to other issues it’s childhood sexual trauma and then childhood gender nonconformity. It is a fact which homosexual activists will admit, that sexual abuse and sexual trauma occurs more frequently among people who self-identify as homosexuals when they are adults.
It doesn’t mean the majority, it doesn’t mean all, but what it does mean is it happens more frequently than in the general population. And there’s enough there that it should cause us some concern. But what seems to be very true is this: the age of someone’s sexual debut, the context in which that sexual debut occurred, and the gender of the person within this sexual debut occurred along with that person’s age has a very strong formative effect on the person’s later sexual identity. Now not everyone who is abused as a child grows up and becomes homosexual but it happens frequently enough that there’s something going on there.
But I have to caution – sometimes Christians hear this sort of data and they just assume that that’s true of all homosexuals and it’s not. But it is true of a significant percentage. The other issue is childhood gender nonconformity. This means children who exhibit attributes or want to act like the other sex when they are a child. This seems very strongly to be correlated with an adult homosexual identity.
So there’s something going on there with that. So these are some different social factors, but every person arrives at homosexuality in a different pattern. And so one of my talking points for Christians is to spend time with someone who tells you they are homosexual, if it’s your child, your grandchild, or friend of yours, spend time listening to them because they’re going to give you a story that may have some common components that I have just described, but it may not. And so just in some time listen and hear where they’re coming from but don’t assume that everybody has the same journey that gets there.
How have “born this way” arguments affected young children?
Well, it goes back to what I just said. I guess the best way I can answer that is to say I have concerns. In my book, in the final chapter I mentioned Simon LeVay who is very significant neuro-anatomist who has done some major research, that gets quoted quite frequently about a particular area, the hypothalamus, called the interstitial nuclei, the anterior hypothalamus #3, and he claims that he’s found something there that correlates with a higher incidence of homosexuality. His data is interesting, it was released in 1991 I think it was, hasn’t been replicated since.
But here’s the challenge – in his 2012 book about homosexuality and science Simon LeVay mentions the fact that more homosexuals than the average population were abused and in fact abused in a same-sex manner when they were children. So they had a child molester that molested them in a homosexual way when they were kids.
He’s addressing that data and he’s wrestling with this fact that, wow, this seems to indicate that at least for some people there’s strong kind of social factors that drove them toward the same-sex attraction as opposed to biological factors. So he’s trying to wrestle with that and what he lands at, and one can read his own book (and I’m not misquoting him either) he essentially says, well these kids were already gay, they didn’t know it and they were sending off signals to adults that they already had this same-sex orientation and they were actually subtly inviting this homosexual abuse. That is horrendous! It is deeply disturbing.
And when LeVay says that he is echoing things that were first introduced by Alfred Kinsey in Sexual Behavior in the Human Male and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female in 1948 and 1953 respectively. This idea that somehow it’s only because of children’s social norms that are given to them by religious parents that they are afraid of sexual behavior when they’re young and this is horrendous. It is deeply disturbing. What you have when you read these were these are very sexually attuned adults trying to read their own sexual appetites back on to children and that’s very dangerous for society.
It’s a fascinating story of how the American Psychiatric Association came to change its stance regarding homosexuality in 1973-74, and I think it is a story that deserves to be better known. Can you summarize that for us? How did the psychiatric community perceive homosexuality prior to 1973, what was their stated position afterwards, and how did the change come about?
That goes back to political activism. It all starts with the Stonewall riots in the late 1960s up in New York and this got the homosexual community very organized in a very quick way. What I would remind everyone is this change occurred in 1973. This is right at what I suppose we call the sexual revolution of the 60s. If we date the sexual revolution in the summer of 1967, the summer of love at Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco and the rapid spread of sex outside of marriage throughout the culture…just a seed change that occurred very quickly.
And in the middle of this you get several things. You have widespread use of oral contraceptives which makes it less likely for people to get pregnant if they’re having sex outside of marriage, you have the legalization of abortion on demand by decree of the Supreme Court in January 1973 which is closely tied to the sexual revolution, and in the middle of this you have the Stonewall riots in 1969. This is an era when people are protesting in the streets left and right, the Vietnam War and whatnot.
So if you can get in your mind people protesting the Vietnam War at the Democratic convention in 1968, those are really the sort of tactics that the homosexual community used with the American Psychiatric Association. They burst into their meetings protesting, shouting down people who had a different view of homosexuality and it’s this largely politically driven movement to get the American Psychiatric Association to shift.
Now a lady named Evelyn Hooker who had done some research was quite influential in some of this as well. So there was already some shift going on among some of the psychiatric community but what I would ask people to see this in – they were having a major shift about sex in general so some of it wasn’t so much psychiatric, some of it was a shift in morals and ethics. This idea that sex shouldn’t be restrained, it’s really a playboy view of morality as long as you’re not hurting someone else, that sex is for pleasure therefore it is good and homosexuality is just another form of sex.
So it was really these political activists bursting into these meetings of the American Psychiatric Association. It’s hard to imagine because when we think of scientific meetings and professional meetings of psychiatrists we think of boring lectures people delivering papers on different forms of treatment in a really kind of staid atmosphere. That is not what was happening. You have activists climbing up on the table and shouting people down and this is what pushed the change in the American Psychiatric Association in 1973.
What is your sense of just how pervasive this kind of thinking is – that homosexuality is a trait some are born with? Is this widely held? Do we know better but deny it? How do you size up the thinking on this in our society today?
Well, this is just my finger in the wind. I don’t have any hard data in front of me. I’m just a guy that’s talked to a lot of people and observed the culture. My assumption is that especially among teenagers, even in church, the assumption is they just think it’s a trait like your skin color or your hair color. The vast majority assume that. And it’s pushed off on them in a hundred different ways.
Every time a homosexual is presented in a movie or film or TV program, is always presented favorably, always presented as witty and concerned and a passionate person whom you would like to know. Never a negative word said.
Meanwhile, people who are trying to advocate the position like I am advocating here are presented as always narrow minded, always xenophobic, always probably subtly racist if they would just admit it. The same way that we are racist and also hate homosexuals, that’s not an uncommon theme. It just recurs over and over again.
So these kids get this and what is frustrating for me I suppose is the degree to which someone can go and dig into the research and present a plausible coherent representation of the research and yet an 18-year-old at a church while I am preaching will be on Wikipedia reading whatever Wikipedia has to say or looking at someone’s blog post and they put more stock and more reference in somebody’s blog page or blog post than they do on a reasoned presentation of Scriptures and research. So it’s a huge, huge fight that we are engaging in and I don’t think it’s one to go away anytime soon.
What response do you have to homosexuals who may say, “I couldn’t change if I wanted to!”?
I’d say, “Change is hard.” The data shows that change is hard. Now the American Psychiatric Association and the American Psychological Association are going to say… They lump a lot of things under reparative therapy. A lot of Christians may have heard that term.
Reparative therapy when it’s used technically is actually referring to a particular theory about the origin of homosexuality and about how one would help somebody overcome that. But generally out here in the culture it’s just to catch word for you want to help people stop behaving in a homosexual way, right?
So what the data shows is that complete change (by complete change I would mean someone no longer experiences same-sex attraction whatsoever) is very rare. However, what is more common, is on a continuum toward managing their same-sex attraction and not engaging in homosexual behavior anymore. What that happens more frequently, but it’s hard, it’s difficult and it’s a challenge.
What I guess is a bit frightening to me is in the current environment anybody who attempts to help someone stop engaging in homosexual behavior is automatically labeled as hateful and someone who you don’t want to be around and is engaging in dangerous activity. Which means any future research on helping people manage same-sex attraction in a successful way is going to be squashed, I’m afraid. So it’s not really an open marketplace of ideas if you want to know the truth.
So it’s difficult, and it’s a challenge but it is possible. But that shouldn’t surprise us as Christians that it’s difficult. If you take Paul’s vice list in 1 Corinthians 6:9-11, he mentions 10 specific vices that are outside God’s will. He says, “such people who participate in these things, these things are outside the kingdom of God.” The vice list is bracketed by the phrase, “such will not inherit the kingdom of God.”
Well there’s 10 vices in that list. He talks about things like drunkenness and adultery and sexual morality in general so I don’t know many of us who don’t know in our church or small group or fellow family member who came to faith in Christ that participated in those behaviors and they are living for Jesus today. But they’ll tell you things like, “Wow, it’s been five years since I’ve had a drink, but there are days when I would just die to have another beer or die to have another glass of whiskey,” right?
So it shouldn’t surprise us that someone (two of those vices in that vice list in 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 deal specifically with homosexuality) it shouldn’t surprise us as Christians that someone comes to faith in Jesus Christ the homosexual lifestyle and then says, “You know what, there are times when I’m still strongly tempted to go participate in homosexual behavior, but by God’s grace I’ve had another day of victory and I’m not going to do that.” I think sometimes we as Christians have just… If I can say this with some caution: the homosexual community does have at one point I think a legitimate complaint because we’ve made it sound easy.
“Well, you just give your life to Jesus and you’ll never struggle with this again.” Well let me tell you what, I gave my life to Jesus when I was 10 years old (I’m 48 years old now) and in the 38 years since then there’s been a lot of sins I’ve fought, and by God’s grace you look for victory. So we want to be very careful what we tell someone in general when they come to faith in Christ and homosexuals in particular.
What I can promise someone that God’s grace is sufficient for whatever we’re facing, that there’s no temptation that’s facing you except such as is common to man, but God’s grace is sufficient and we find the strength every day to overcome temptation. That does not mean it’s always easy, but it does mean victory is possible.
But we’re living in a culture that essentially says you feel any attraction that’s enduring, persistent, then it must be natural. Don’t fight it. And in fact those Christians are telling you the wrong thing by trying to fight this. And I think the church needs to hear that. When we tell people to fight temptation many people say, no, you’re telling people the wrong thing. Not just about homosexuality but about any number of sexual temptations.
Yes, sins of any kind can be addictive and particularly so sexual sins and we shouldn’t leave a wrong impression and yet at the same time we do say that the gospel does offer hope.
Who is your intended audience?
Well my hope is, I’m aiming at Christians, people who love Jesus Christ and want to give and inform response to the culture. There are some chapters which are technical but the argument is there. I’m afraid that the devil is, in fact, in the details in some of these arguments. I want pastors to be informed.
I’m hoping that bright Christian young people in college and they’re 19, they’re 20, they’re 21 and want to live for Jesus, and they want to be kind, and they have friends that say they are homosexual and they like them. I’m hoping that they’ll have a reasoned understanding of what the science does and does not say. That’s my hope. And if they will at least grasp this basic idea: I like my friend however they wound up at homosexual orientation, I get it, it’s not like their skin color or their hair color, it is a different trait.
Our cultural moment has made it more incumbent upon Christians to be a little more informed on some things, and this is one of them. This could well be used I think in some even youth group settings or college-age settings to help inform our young people heading out to University and whatnot. We just have to be informed on some things in particular today and this is certainly one of them.
Have you been encouraged thus far with the reception the book has received?
Well, the book’s only been out about a month and so far, yes, I have been encouraged. I’ve heard many positive things from fellow people in theological education, the field I run in. I suppose what I would say, as a thought for Christians, is I cannot stress enough the degree to which the Obergefell decision that summer by the United States Supreme Court is changing the nature of moral debate in our nation. My book was not dealing with the American civic side of things but what I want people to understand – I think that Justice Kennedy spent a great deal of time talking about, freedom of belief as opposed to free exercise of religion, should cause us a lot of concern.
I could be wrong, and this could be one of those cases where I would be very happy to be wrong but I think his silence on free exercise of religion is foreboding and ominous. What that means is that you can get inside your church building and you guys can do whatever you want in those four walls, just don’t try to live out your faith in public. Which is why I’m deeply concerned.
What that means is that Christians are going to be placed in a position where they may not get the promotion at work, they may not get the job. I was a chaplain in the Army, there may come a time when evangelical chaplains are no longer welcome in the military. So there’s a lot of areas where we’re going to be pushed and I just want my book to be one part of the Christian’s attempt to be an informed Christian and that’s what environment. I don’t know if the other side’s going to listen to us.
You may have a friend that is incredibly animated, angry, and sometimes even unhinged, but it behooves us in response to that kind of attitude, to be kind, to be patient, to listen, let them vent, but at the end of the day when they are done venting, if they are going to listen to us say, “Look, I love you and I care about you and I want to be your friend and I know you disagree with me but I want to tell you why I hold to what I hold. And I want you to understand my beliefs are not just the rants of a loose cannon out here just trying to be xenophobic and hating people who are different from me. No, there are substantive reasons why I hold to the stance that I do hold.” I hope my book will be part of the arsenal I suppose you could say of someone trying to state such a position in a kind and gracious way.
We’ve been talking to Alan Branch, author of the new and important book, Born This Way? Homosexuality, Science, and the Scriptures. It’s a very well informed work, and we encourage you to get a copy and equip yourself for this very contemporary discussion.
Dr. Branch, thanks so much for being with us today.
Thank you. God bless you.
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Born This Way?