Cultural debate over sex roles has reached such a fever pitch that even the sexual preference of the children’s cartoon character SpongeBob Squarepants has become a topic of great concern.

Conservative religious broadcaster Dr. James Dobson expressed alarm that a new educational campaign to tout “tolerance” and “diversity” was employing the images of SpongeBob, Big Bird, and Barney, among others.  The We Are Family Foundation, which is distributing a video to schools, has included materials equating sexual practice with race and “gender,” arousing Dobson’s suspicions.

Dobson’s alarm was portrayed by the media as an “outing” of SpongeBob, who, as a cartoon and as a sponge, presumably has neither a sex nor an active sexual life.  The episode was similar to one involving Jerry Falwell several years ago.  His ministry’s newspaper carried an article citing homosexual groups that claimed the Teletubbies character Tinky Winky as one of their own.  The seemingly male Tinky carries a purse and has an upside-down triangle (a symbol of “gay” pride) on top of his head.

“Falwell Outs Tinky Winky,” chortled a hundred newspaper headlines.

Of course, Dobson, like Falwell before him, tried to explain, but it was useless.  It’s a story too delicious to ignore, true or not: Mean Religious Right Leader Attacks Gay Children’s Character!

The latest twist is that liberal religious officials, anxious to showcase their own “tolerance” and “diversity,” have jumped in to contrast themselves with conservative (i.e., bigoted and intolerant) religionists.

The 1.3-million-member United Church of Christ, one of America’s most liberal denominations (its historic ties to the Puritans of old notwithstanding), was quick to comment on the SpongeBob episode.  “Absolutely, the UCC extends an unequivocal welcome to SpongeBob,” church president John Thomas gushed.  “Jesus didn’t turn people away.  Neither do we.”

Thomas’s warm welcome for SpongeBob fit nicely with the UCC’s recent television campaign, which features bouncers outside a church turning away racial minorities and a same-sex couple.  The UCC is NOT like that!, the ad enthuses, contrasting the tolerant UCC with other, more close-minded denominations.  The major networks rejected the ad, fearing it touched too closely on the national debate on same-sex unions, but cable networks have been running the UCC promo.

Thomas also extended a warm welcome from the UCC to Barney, Big Bird, Tinky Winky, Clifford the Big Red Dog, and, according to a UCC press release, “any who have experienced the Christian message as a harsh word of judgment rather than Jesus’ offering of grace.”

“Resistance to our message is formidable,” Thomas explained of his denomination’s professed inclusiveness, “because we’re cutting against the prevailing grain of a society that is afraid of the stranger suspicious of difference and easily seduced by narrowly defined theological boundaries.”

It is difficult to picture Thomas’s Puritan spiritual ancestors, such as Jonathan Edwards, Cotton Mather, or John Winthrop, posing with a stuffed children’s puppet to make a political point, yet a photo of SpongeBob visiting with Thomas at the UCC national headquarters was included with a UCC news release.

Apparently, the UCC’s pledge of solidarity with SpongeBob was not enough.  The We Are Family Foundation decided to remove references to sexual orientation in the materials it is distributing to 61,000 elementary schools—while insisting that it was only shortening the guides, not responding to pressure.  Dobson’s Focus on the Family nonetheless hailed the decision as a victory, and, predictably, UCC officials were angry.  Thomas fired back a press release, declaring that

For Focus on the Family to bully groups like the We Are Family Foundation because of their efforts to teach children about respect for those who are different only leads to bullying on the playground. . . . What’s Christian or American about that?

Lest the UCC be singled out for religious silliness, don’t forget that the Episcopal Church, U.S.A., is still on the loose!  Both churches are among the fastest-declining denominations in America and are considered the most “inclusive” regarding sexual matters.  The Episcopalians, however, are probably more creative.  At Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, seminary mascot Chapel Mouse has “come out” in time for “Queer Week” on campus.

In a column for the seminary newsletter, the mouse sock puppet announced that he is changing his name to Ms. Chapelle Mouse.  Do not assume that Chapelle will be dressing as a female mouse, however!  If you do, you have succumbed to society’s artificial and restrictive sex expectations.  Chapelle will remain male in appearance to protest the false “construction” of a “binary gender system” by a “dominant society” that assumes everyone must look male or female.

“Gender is a fluid and mutable category, open to a range of emotion and identity,” explains the sock-puppet mouse.  “We cross the boundaries of the traditional binary gender system all the time in our daily lives.  In short, Ms. Mouse is a transgendered mouse.”

Chappelle Mouse helpfully explains that how you look to others doesn’t matter.  Social constructions of “gender” may “trap or free you.”  Chappelle, who will not be “going high fem” anytime soon, reminds us that “female identified” people look great in trousers, too.

The Episcopal sock puppet has probably been reading Omnigender: A Trans-Religious Approach, by Episcopal writer Virginia Ramey Mollenkott, who denounces the artificial and harmful static “gender” assumptions that force transgendered persons, and other curious people, to choose permanently between male and female identities.

That the secular entertainment industry would employ children’s characters to tout new visions of a sexless and libidinous society was probably inevitable.  That churches would be far more bold in claiming the promises of the sexual revolution and of a new omnigender utopia is perhaps a little more surprising.