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Jonathan Merritt and the ethics of "outing"

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William Crawley | 13:29 UK time, Wednesday, 15 August 2012



On Sunday, we broadcast an interview with the American evangelical writer Jonathan Merritt. I recorded that interview while travelling in the United States this summer. I met Jonathan (pictured) for breakfast in Washington DC during the Q Conference , a meeting of "new evangelicals", and we talked about his new book which encourages his fellow evangelicals to move beyond a sometimes toxic debate about culture wars.


A few weeks after the interview was recorded, Jonathan found himself embroiled in a public controversy about his own personal life, when a gay Christian blogger called Azariah Southworth revealed that he'd had a sexual encounter with him. Azariah Southworth's decision to "out" Jonathan Merritt appears to have been prompted by Jonathan's recent public comments on the same-sex marriage debate.

Jonathan subsequently gave an interview with Ed Stetzer, a Southern Baptist blogger, in which he confirmed that he and Azariah had had "physical contact that went beyond the bounds of friendship".

And Azariah Southworth has been explaining his decision to out Jonathan Merritt in a podcast interview with Peterson Toscano and Zack Ford.

Read more about the background to this story here.

In this week's Everyday Ethics podcast, I speak to Peterson Toscano about the personal dilemma now facing Jonathan Merritt (spool through to 19mins for both interviews)

You can also hear my interview with Richard Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary (at 10.00 mins)

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    I am of the view that Southworth was wrong to "out" Merritt, quite irrespective of the issues. The reason I say this is because we don't know the full circumstances that led to Merritt having that sexual encounter with Southworth. Had he been manipulated by Southworth in some way?

    I know what I am talking about when I say this. I don't mind admitting that I had a couple of homosexual encounters when I was a teenager (I have already mentioned this on this blog some time ago). I am actually not gay, and I feel no attraction whatsoever to the same sex. I admit that I am not sure about gay marriage, and on the homosexuality issue generally I suppose I take a slightly more liberal line, because I recognise that some people clearly do have a genuine sexual attraction to the same sex, and that such people cannot just be dismissed as deviants. Clearly the Church has to welcome, embrace and, most of all, seek to understand gay people.

    Because I had a couple of homosexual encounters as an adolescent, does that mean that I have to sign up to every aspect of the pro-gay agenda, for fear of being deemed a hypocrite? I think not. The circumstances of my youthful encounters were as follows: an extremely unhealthy sexual environment at an all-male prep school for the first experience, and a situation of abuse and exploitation when I was extremely vulnerable in my late teens when I was going through a depression. Both of these encounters involved "physical contact beyond the bounds of normal friendship" but did not involve "going all the way".

    If (as is probably extremely unlikely!) I were ever to become a well known person, then I suspect that certain people might crawl out of the woodwork and "out" me. I would consider such "outing" quite malicious. I am happy, however, to "out" myself, and explain the situation in my own way (as I have already done so to one person very close to me, with rather unpleasant consequences, to say the least!).

  • Comment number 2.

    Basically, the meanest thing about outing someone is that the subject may not be okay with exactly who she/he is yet.

    William Crawley,

    I find it interesting that you use Jonathan instead of Merritt in a few places. Even if you two are friends, the article isn’t a personal one, so it seems journalistically inappropriate, if you’ll pardon my saying. I think it makes him seem weak, but I don’t believe that is your intention. Merritt is a grown man, isn’t he? I can’t find an age for him. Which lead me to: not that it’s any of my business, but 2009 was only three years ago. When did his evangelical career begin? Anyway, the topic is not uninteresting.

  • Comment number 3.

     
    "Basically, the meanest thing about outing someone is that the subject may not be okay with exactly who she/he is yet."


    Even worse, it betrays a lack of manners.

  • Comment number 4.

    I do agree with Peterson Toscano when he suggested that Merritt had to have seen the risk he was taking by openly supporting Chick-fil-A.

    If Merritt is surprised his story came out, at either this time or at some future event where he publicly opposes gay rights, then he is naive indeed.

    I think Southworth was rude and insensitive, and no one deserves to be outed, but Merritt is an evangelical public figure and should’ve known this type of unfortunate thing comes with the territory.

  • Comment number 5.

    Some more links to this story:

    Azariah Southworth writes about why he outed Jonathan Merritt:
    http://www.salon.com/2012/08/12/why_i_outed_a_christian_star_2/

    Jason Ferago defends the practice of outing (sometimes):
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/aug/14/homophobe-jonathan-merritt-deserves-outed

    Gregory Kelley has his doubts:
    http://www.examiner.com/article/why-i-outed-a-christian-star-and-he-calls-jonathan-merritt-a-hypocrite?cid=rss

  • Comment number 6.

    FWIW, it's my understanding that Southworth doesn't label himself a Christian anymore, and hasn't in a while.

  • Comment number 7.

    Thanks for the links, Will.

    I can't say that I'm impressed with Jason Ferago's rather spiteful assessment of the issue:

    Merritt himself, like many homophobes, might not even realise he's gay. Certainly his comments since his outing, in which he says he is a straight man suffering from "brokenness," suggest he might be less hypocritical than deeply confused (though I'm sorry, sweetie, but the telltale lisp, the copious hair product, the body-hugging shirts … who knew evangelicals could be this camp). But ultimately, his outing isn't really about him. It's about the discourse his career is perpetuating, and whether the harm he inflicts can be stopped if the truth about his own sex life is disclosed. The goal isn't to embarrass the homophobe, but to delegitimise the message.


    Actually, this kind of talk from Ferago actually legitimises the criticism of gay culture and attitudes.

    It is hardly surprising that Merritt has a less than impressed attitude towards gays, when his mistake has been exposed in this way, which is actually nothing less than an act of betrayal. If this hurt drives his alleged "homophobia", then I would be hard put to call that "hypocrisy".

  • Comment number 8.

    logica:

    I don't see how Ferago's blog post "legitimises the criticism of gay culture and attitudes". That's an illogical jump which generalises from one person's comments to an entire culture. You make the same move when you write "it is hardly surprising that Merritt has a less than impressed attitude towards gays, when his mistake has been exposed in this way" -- again, a generalisation from one instance to an entire group of people.

    I hope you don't mind me pointing this out. These are complex issues at times, but it's better, I think, if we avoid generalisations.

  • Comment number 9.

    @ Will (# 8) -

    I don't see how Ferago's blog post "legitimises the criticism of gay culture and attitudes". That's an illogical jump which generalises from one person's comments to an entire culture.


    Perhaps "legitimises" isn't the right word. What I meant was that the tone of Ferago's article, and his description of Merritt, could provoke the kind of low view of gay culture that he would like to see eradicated. Of course, it doesn't justify such hostility, and therefore I accept that I used the wrong language.

    Furthermore, I can understand that Merritt feels hurt at being "outed" (as well as having succumbed to a homosexual relationship with which he obviously later did not feel comfortable), and this also may feed his hostility to gay culture and attitudes. Again, being hurt doesn't justify a homophobic position, but it might explain it. That is why I don't think that the simple criticism of hypocrisy is quite right. It seems to me that Merritt is going through a personal moral struggle with this issue, and it doesn't follow that just because he had a homosexual experience that he should then be fully supportive of everything to do with homosexuality (and, as I mentioned in post #1, I am in the same position).

    I certainly don't consider myself homophobic, but I feel uncomfortable with the idea of "outing" someone in the way that Southworth outed Merritt, whatever the moral indignation that underlay it.

  • Comment number 10.

    Thank God at least the Russians aren't taken in by homosexual propaganda:

    "Gay parades banned in Moscow for 100 years".

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-19293465

  • Comment number 11.

    Here is a You Tube interview with Azariah Southworth where he explains even his own dilemma with outing Jonathan Merritt and explains some of the reasons that he felt that he had to do this.

    http://youtu.be/8f_EyjNcrRs

  • Comment number 12.

    @ Theophane (@ 10) -

    Thank God at least the Russians aren't taken in by homosexual propaganda:

    "Gay parades banned in Moscow for 100 years".


    First they came for the communists,
    and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a communist.

    Then they came for the trade unionists,
    and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a trade unionist.

    Then they came for the Jews,
    and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a Jew.

    Then they came for me,
    and there was no one left to speak out for me.


    Martin Niemoeller


    I think a verse could now be added to that poem.

  • Comment number 13.

    LSV;

    So why not add one about people who commit incest and bestiality?

  • Comment number 14.

    @ Theophane (# 13) -

    So why not add one about people who commit incest and bestiality?


    How do you justify putting homosexuality in the same moral category as incest and bestiality?

    Perhaps celibacy ought to be put in the same category? After all, the creation account states clearly that "it is not good for man to be alone", and then God created the woman. Paul affirmed this practice in 1 Corinthians 7, but made clear he was expressing his own opinion, and, of course, he must have been intelligent enough to realise that if everyone followed his advice it would mean the total annihilation of the entire human race (I guess at least it would solve the abortion problem, because there would be no one to abort!).

    So perhaps Russia should also ban the Catholic Church for promoting the sexual perversion of compulsory de facto sterilisation, known as celibacy? (After all, look what enforced celibacy has produced!)

    In other words, Theophane... get your own house in order, before pontificating about other people's sexuality.

  • Comment number 15.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 16.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 17.

    LSV, 14;

    If you see *celibacy* as a "sexual perversion", presumably you see any kind of abstinence as a vice? Not that this has any relevance to the situation in Russia, since celibacy is mandatory for all Bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church. But i'm afraid there's a current of anti-Catholicism surfacing again here, which i'm not prepared to dignify with a discussion.

    [and if that gets modded, Auntie Beeb really is satan's little helper]

  • Comment number 18.

    Further to #17, the really offensive thing about #14 is that it gives the impression that you are unclear as to which group has done more for the betterment of mankind - active homosexuals or the Catholic Church. If this is the prevailing attitude, is it any wonder that the industrial-scale butchery of defenceless unborn children, and the state-sponsored molestation of primary school children in 'sex education' classes, are things that go virtually unopposed in this country?

  • Comment number 19.

    @ Theophane (# 13) -

    If you see *celibacy* as a "sexual perversion", presumably you see any kind of abstinence as a vice?


    I did not say that celibacy was a sexual perversion. I said compulsory celibacy was a perversion, which, of course, it is (at least as far as adults are concerned). To forcibly deprive people of their sexuality in order for them to acquire positions of spiritual authority is the most outrageous condemnation of human sexuality imaginable. In fact, it's a condemnation of God, because God, of course, is the creator of sex.

    But i'm afraid there's a current of anti-Catholicism surfacing again here, which i'm not prepared to dignify with a discussion.


    Well I never, Theophane!!

    You came on here in a spirit of aggression expressing your joy at Russia banning gay parades (and actually sending the thread off topic), and then you complain that someone else has hit back at your position!

    If you are going to throw stones, then at least have the maturity to accept the consequences.

    As for "satan's little helper"... no, Auntie was doing her job: moderating offensive posts. If you don't like that, then the internet is a vast ocean, and there are plenty of other depths in which you can swim, if you so choose.

  • Comment number 20.

    @ Theophane (# 18) -

    It's rather strange that you should pick on gay people and feed in the issue of abortion. I don't suppose it's occurred to you that homosexual practice cannot produce a foetus?!

    You should be railing at heterosexuals, shouldn't you?!

    Furthermore, I have never encountered an instance of a gay person trying to force a heterosexual to become a homosexual. Perhaps this does indeed happen, but if so, it must be a very rare occurrence. And yet there are those who consider themselves spiritual who force others to embrace a certain sexuality (celibacy) in order to obtain a position of spiritual leadership.

    So which is worse: just wanting society to recognise your rights without coercing other people or forcing your views on others?

    I'm afraid the Catholic Church has a terrible record of the latter, as you must surely know. And that is not at all conducive to the betterment of mankind.

  • Comment number 21.

    This may be of interest to Catholics of whatever sexual orientation.

    The Daily Telegraph is reporting that the Pope is set to drop the Catholic ban on condoms.

    "The Pope has signalled a historic shift in the position of the Roman Catholic Church by saying condoms can be morally justified."

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/religion/the-pope/8148944/The-Pope-drops-Catholic-ban-on-condoms-in-historic-shift.html

    Now that this little oversight has been (we hope) pushed out of the way, the Pope, and thus the Catholic Church, can go back to being 'infallible' all over again.

  • Comment number 22.

    From my post #14 to Theophane:

    How do you justify putting homosexuality in the same moral category as incest and bestiality?


    Still waiting for an answer to this question.

  • Comment number 23.

    LSV, #22;

    "How do you justify putting homosexuality in the same moral category as incest and bestiality?

    Still waiting for an answer to this question."

    What do you think i was trying to do with comments 15 and 16? But naturally it is crucially important to make a distinction between a *homosexual orientation*, and *homosexual activity*.

  • Comment number 24.

     
    #15, #16, #23


    Oh. I thought you were separating the sheep from the goats.

  • Comment number 25.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 26.

    SG, #24;

    Is there an implied 'incestaphobia' or 'bestiaphobia' in your post?

  • Comment number 27.

     
    #26

    Theophane,

    You just made those words up, didn't you? No, I'm not implying anything; just trying to inject a wee bit of humour.

    Besides, I'm not the one being busted by the mods. When I saw #25 I howled with laughter!


    ;o)

  • Comment number 28.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 29.

    How can a quote from an American court transcript freely available without copyright be deemed to break the house rules ?

 

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