The Motivation to Love

The Motivation to Love: Overcoming Spiritual Violence and Sacramental Shame in Christian Churches

Dawne Moon, Ph.D. (co-PI)
Social and Cultural Sciences
Marquette University

Theresa Tobin, Ph.D. (co-PI)
Marquette University

Project Summary

The Motivation to Love is a collaborative sociological and philosophical study based on participant­observation, document analysis, and semi-structured interviews with lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) and heterosexual/cisgender (meaning not transgender) Christians who are engaging in conversations about their churches’ abuses of LGBT people and their routes to reconciliation. In spiritual violence, the religious teachings, texts, symbols, and leaders that are supposed to foster loving relationship with God instead lead a person to experience God as unloving or abusive. Sacramental shame is one particularly pervasive kind of spiritual violence directed at LGBT Christians, in which people constantly demand they display shame, believing that will bring them closer to God.

This project investigates how the self is harmed by the spiritual violence of sacramental shame, as well as how perpetrators and victims can both overcome these institutional abuses and acquire the motivation to cultivate such virtues as compassion, humility, and Christian love that can serve as counterforces to this form of violence. We analyze the stories of people who have been subject to spiritual violence, as well as people who have committed these abuses and came to reevaluate their understanding of Christian virtues.

Our data collection proceeded largely as planned, with one change. We projected to complete a total of 100 interviews by Summer 2016. At the point when we had conducted about 80 interviews ourselves, we realized that we were not accessing many LGBT Christians of color apart from those we were able to recruit during participant-observation (in largely white organizations). With the permission of the project directors, we hired a consultant, a queer person of color with an MSW, to recruit and conduct additional interviews targeting this group, bringing our total to 112 by October 2017.  We completed a total of 480 person-hours of participant observation in October 2017, taking advantage of the extension participants were all given.

Significant Research Accomplishments

Our project advances understanding of the nature of shame and shame’s role in motivating people to moral virtue, and the relationship among shame, pride and humility in motivating people to virtue. By exploring the links between these emotions as they are experienced in this context has also generated new understandings of humility and pride.

First, conceptualizing sacramental shame as a particular kind of shame that impacts the lives of LGBTI conservative Christians is one of our most significant research accomplishments.  Sacramental shame names a shaming dynamic in which church members demand constant displays of shame from LGBTI people as proof that they remain faithful to God and worthy of church membership.  Our project shows how this shaming dynamic both resembles and differs from shame dispensed toward stigmatized groups in other contexts. Understanding this shaming dynamic also advances arguments that it is a mistake to conceptualize same-sex attraction and different experiences of gender as sinful.

Many philosophers think feeling ashamed of one’s moral failings can lead people to become morally better, but data from psychology suggests that feeling shame typically leads to morally worse action than whatever occasioned the initial shame experience, and does not support virtue development. We reconcile these views by distinguishing between different kinds of shame experiences and showing the conditions under which certain forms of shame can support virtue development while other types of shame do not.  Episodic shame felt by people whose presumed worth and standing is not routinely threatened may motivate people to moral improvement, but the chronic, totalizing shame often experienced by people in stigmatized categories violates the self and impedes human thriving.

Exploring shame’s role in moral motivation also improved our understanding of the relationship between shame, humility, and pride and has generated new understandings of humility and pride.  Theorists typically define humility either as an attitude one takes toward the self (owning one’s limitations and flaws) or an attitude one takes toward the other (openness to others). Our research emphasizes that humility involves both because it is a stance one takes toward relationship between self and other.  We hypothesize further that proper pride, distinguished from hubristic pride, is also a fundamentally relational virtue and that humility and pride may be two sides of the same virtuous disposition that orient a person to virtuous concern for relationship.

Our work also contributes to scholarship on gender and sexuality, while problematizing the “culture wars” framework that sees American society as divided into two opposing camps, pro-LGBT liberals and anti-LGBT conservatives. We show that conservatives, people who mostly adhere to Bebbington’s (1989) classic definition of what it means to be an evangelical, can still challenge conventional understandings of sex/gender/sexuality by challenging conventional conservative interpretations of scripture, including the creation stories in Genesis. Lay people in the movement we study draw from scholarship that reveals that, in fact, conventionally conservative Christians project their own dichotomous understandings of sex/gender/sexuality into texts that reveal a far greater appreciation for androgyny and ambiguity.


  • Tobin, T. W. and Moon, D. (2018). Racialized Dynamics of Sacramental Shame in Conservative Christian Churches. Logos Workshop in Philosophical Theology on “Race, Gender, Ability, and Class:  Expanding Conversations in Analytic Theology,” University of Notre Dame, May 24-26.
  • Moon, D. and Tobin, T. W. (2017). Alpha, Omega, and the Letters in Between: Rethinking Gender with the LGBT Conservative Christian Movement. American Sociological Association, Montréal QE. August.
  • Moon, D. and Tobin, T. W. (2017). Shame, Pride, and Humility in the Politics of the Moral Self: Lessons from LGBT Conservative Christians and their Allies. Self, Motivation, and Virtue Project Conference, Norman OK. June.
  • Moon, D. and Tobin, T. W. (2017). Relationship, Humility, Justice. Religious Conviction and Intellectual Humility in Public Life, University of Connecticut, Storrs CT. April.
  • Moon. D. (2017). Alpha, Omega, and the Letters in Between: Rethinking Gender with the LGBT Conservative Christian Movement. Tulane University, Sociology Department Colloquium, New Orleans LA, April.
  • Moon, D. and Tobin, T. W. (2017). Ending the Culture Wars: Themes from an Ethnography of the LGBTQ-Affirming Evangelical Movement in North America, Marquette University, Social and Cultural Sciences Colloquium Series, Milwaukee WI. March.
  • Tobin, T. (2017). “Shame on you!” The Politics of Moral Shame. Invited keynote speaker for Eastern Michigan University Undergraduate Philosophy Conference, Ypsilanti, MI, March.
  • Tobin, T. (2017). Hubris and Humility in the Practice of Moral Epistemology. With Alison Jaggar. Methodology in Applied Ethics Workshop. Georgetown University, Washington, DC, February and Center for the Study of Mind and Nature, University of Oslo, Norway, May.
  • Moon, D. and Tobin, T. W. (2016). Alpha, Omega, and the Letters in Between: Gender Politics in the LGBT Conservative Christian Movement,” Annual Meetings of the Social Science History Association, Chicago IL. November.
  • Moon, D. and Tobin, T. W. (2016). The Motivation to Love: Overcoming Spiritual Violence in Christian Churches. Self, Motivation, and Virtue Conference, Notre Dame, IN. May.
  • Moon, D. (2016). Overcoming Shame, Practicing Love: LGBTQ Evangelicals’ Strategies for Social Justice,” Carpenter Series on Religion and Sexuality, Fordham University, New York, NY, March.

Publications & Manuscripts

  • Moon, D. and Tobin, T. W. 2018 (forthcoming). Sunsets and Solidarity: Overcoming Sacramental Shame in Conservative Christian Churches to Forge a Queer Vision of Love and Justice. Hypatia.
  • Moon, D., Tobin, T. W., and Sumerau, J. E. (Under revision). Alpha, Omega, and the Letters in Between: LGBTQI Conservative Christian Efforts to Rethink Gender.
  • Moon, D. & Tobin, T.W. (In Progress). Book manuscript on sacramental shame. A detailed outline and three chapters are drafted, with four chapters waiting to be completed.
  • Tobin, T. W. and Moon, D. (Forthcoming). Reflections on our Sociological-Philosophical Study of the Self, Motivation, and Virtue among LGBTI Conservative Christians and their Allies. Invited chapter for the SMV Project edited volume.
  • Tobin, T. W., and Moon, D. (Under review). Shame, Pride, and Humility in the Politics of the Moral Self: Lessons from the Shame experiences of LGBT Conservative Christians and their Allies. Submitted for the SMV Project’s Special Issue of the Journal of Moral Education.
  • Tobin, T. W., and Moon, D. (In progress). Humility: Rooted in Relationship, Seeking Out Justice


  • DeFranza, Megan, PhD and Dawn Mark Bacon-Johnson. 2017. In the Image of God: Male, Female, and Intersex. Marquette University, Milwaukee, WI September.
  • Panchuk, Michelle. 2017. A Philosophical Exploration of Religious Trauma. Marquette University Philosophy Department colloquium series, Milwaukee, WI, October.

Other Outputs


2016 Conference