Thursday, May 17, 2012

Christian Opposition to Gay Marriage: A Theological Argument

Read Part I - Christian Opposition to Gay Marriage: A Constitutional Argument

In this first part of this two-part series, we looked at how religious opposition to gay marriage goes against the principles of liberty and secular government, outlined in the Constitution.  It's not that religious people don't have a right to voice their opinion or to be opposed to something they view as sinful; but when religious opinions dictate legislation (as with recent gay marriage laws), the Constitution and civil liberties are thrown out the window.

In that first part, we saw how some modern political groups - most notably the Tea Party - claim to uphold the Constitution and to be rigorous defenders of Constitutional rights, but many of those same Tea Party groups are vocally opposed to gay marriage rights on religious grounds.  I stated that this is but one way in which many gay  marriage opponents are hypocritical.

The other way, of course, is within Christianity itself.  

Most people seem to think the question of gay marriage in general, and homosexuality in particular, is a "no-brainer" as far as the Bible is concerned.  The Bible explicitly condemns homosexuality and homosexual relationships, so any self-respecting Christian should be opposed to it.  In this regard, a Christian friend of mine, who is a minister, stated: "Scripture is clear.  Homosexuality is wrong.  There is no gray area."  In another place, he stated: "I can't just accept the parts about God's love and mercy and forgiveness, and skip over the parts about His holiness and judgement."  In other words, he can't just pick the nice parts, and ignore the difficult parts.  For this reason, he says, "I can't justify [a homosexual lifestyle] with a holy God who calls it a sin."

This "Pick and Choose" argument, as I call it, is one of the most common arguments that Christians use when discussing hot-button topics facing modern society.  I have heard it used in discussions on everything from gay marriage and homosexuality, to abortion, gender roles, and whether or not Jesus is the only viable means of salvation.  Indeed, this argument may be the most commonly used weapon evangelicals wield against "moderate" and "liberal" Christians who they see as watering down the Holy Word.

The problem with this argument, of course, is that there is no such thing as a Christian who does not pick and choose what they like from the Bible and discard or ignore the rest.  Even the most stringent Bible literalist doesn't actually believe everything the Bible says, and doesn't actually follow all of the Bible's teachings.  More on this in a bit.

First, I want to briefly discuss what the Bible does actually say about homosexuality.  I have written extensively on this topic in the past, so if any reader wants more information, they can find it here: Homosexuality and the New Testament.

To put it simply, the Bible has very little to say on homosexuality - but it seems like it says a lot more.  The Torah codifies homosexuality as a sin punishable by death (Leviticus 20:13).  Other passages in the Torah also condemn homosexuality as detestable to God.  In still other parts of the Old Testament, homosexuals are either put to death or expelled from the Jewish kingdom (for instance, 1 Kings 15:12).

There is a two-fold problem here, however.  First of all, anytime critics of Christianity point out all the absurd, and sometimes even downright horrific, rules of the Old Testament, Christians will defend themselves by pointing out that the Old Testament was replaced by the New Testament, and so the rules and regulations of the Old Testament are no longer valid.  Jesus did away with them.  If that's true, of course, it also applies to the Old Testament rules and regulations about homosexuality.  After all, many modern Christians may think homosexuality is a sin, but they don't advocate the death penalty for it.  So for Christians, using Old Testament passages to condemn homosexuality is theologically inconsistent.  Those rules aren't in place anymore, having been "fulfilled" by Jesus.

Secondly, and most importantly, the Old Testament doesn't actually say nearly as much about homosexuality as it appears.  In fact, outside of those outdated Torah rules about putting gay people to death, the Old Testament doesn't ever refer to homosexuality.  In all the many passages that have long been understood as referring to homosexuality, the Hebrew word used there doesn't mean "homosexual" at all, but instead refers explicitly to a temple prostitute.  In the ancient world, fertility cults were extremely common, and part of the way these cults worshipped included ritual sex acts, involving both men and women.  In the Old Testament, when kings are shown expelling "homosexuals" or "sodomites" from their kingdom, the text is actually referring to pagan fertility cults being disbanded.  This is so widely recognized today that even the widely-read NIV and the New King James Version have translated the word as "male temple prostitutes" instead of the traditional King James word "sodomites."

At this point, you might be asking, "But what about the New Testament?"

Like the Old Testament, the New Testament only seems to say a lot about homosexuality.  Famous passages in both 1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy use a Greek word that has been translated as "homosexual" or "homosexual offenders" (or the classic King James phrase "abusers of themselves with mankind"), but linguists and scholars today understand that this word's meaning is basically unknown.  It is never attested in any Greek text prior to Paul's usage of it in 1 Corinthians, and it simply isn't clear what he was referring to - it has even been suggested that Paul coined the word himself.  There were, in fact, several widely-used words in ancient Greek that referred to homosexuality - "pedophilia," which referred to men having sex with boys, and "kinaidos," which basically referred to the size of one's rectum.  Whatever Paul's word meant, there simply isn't any reason to assume it meant "gay men."  In my own study of the issue, I think the most appropriate translation of the word is "pimp" - that is, someone who benefits monetarily from sex.  The link I provided above goes into a lot more detail about this issue.

In any case, we are left, in the New Testament, with just one passage that definitely talks about homosexuality, and that is a text found in Romans 1, where Paul laments men and women who give up natural relations in order to have sex with people of the same gender.  But here, as in the Old Testament passages, this reference to homosexuality is related to ritual sex in pagan temples.  The context of the passage makes that crystal clear, and Paul almost certainly had an eye on the Old Testament passages we saw above that talk about ancient Jewish kings expelling fertility cults from the land.  And remember, Paul was writing to the Christians in Rome, where fertility cults were commonplace.  He was encouraging them not to be led astray by these false gods, which were "man-made things" made to look like birds and reptiles (think of the animal gods of ancient Egypt).

With all these issues in mind, is it actually true that the Bible is crystal clear on the issue of homosexuality, as asserted by my minister friend?  Or are the waters much, much murkier?  In fact, I think the waters are unquestionably murky.  About the only thing we can say with confidence is that the Bible clearly condemns pagan fertility cults and those who take part in them.  Just about everything else is debatable.

As such, should Christians be attempting to legislate morality on an issue that is not even particularly clear in the Bible?  Shouldn't Christians be more concerned with issues that are, in fact, clear in the Bible, like feeding the poor, helping the sick, and living a lifestyle of unrestrained love and mercy?

Of course, I think the answer to that first question is no, and to the second question yes, but my theological argument goes even farther than that. I want to turn now to the "Pick and Choose" phenomenon I mentioned above.

As I explained, one of the first arguments sophisticated Christians make when confronted with social issues is that a Christian can't just pick and choose what they want to believe.  You have to accept the whole deal; you can't just follow some things, and reject the others.  This is sometimes referred to as "buffet-style Christianity," taking what you want and ignoring the rest.

And this is where the real hypocrisy comes into play in regards to Christians who are opposed to gay marriage on Biblical grounds.  Let's agree for a moment that the Bible actually is crystal clear on the issue of homosexuality.  Let's agree that homosexuality is an unquestionable sin and should be condemned.

Of all the sins and unrighteous ways of living outlined in the Bible, why is this one so important?  Not just so important that Christians need to voice their opinion about the sinfulness of the gay lifestyle, but so important that they actually need to amend their state constitutions - and maybe even the U.S. constitution - in order to deny gay people the right to get married?  Why this sin, and not something else?

In 1 Corinthians, there is a passage that is very frequently referred to by people arguing against gay marriage.  This is one of the passages I noted above where the meaning of the word used is unclear and probably did not refer to homosexuality.  But, as above, let's agree for a moment that it does refer to homosexuals.  In that passage, Paul is imploring his audience to live righteous lives and to flee from immorality.  He lists several sins which will keep believers from "inheriting the kingdom of God."  Among these are sexual immorality, drunkenness, greed, idolatry, adultery, and homosexuality.  Why is homosexuality the most important thing in that list?  Why not focus on greed, or drunkenness?  Why not re-enact the 18th Amendment and put Prohibition back in place?  Why not amend the constitution to outlaw sex outside of marriage?

The fact is, there is no legitimate justification for putting homosexuality above the others.  There is no Biblical justification for denying gays the same rights as everyone else, even if you think it's a sin.  You may think sex outside of marriage is a sin too, but you sure aren't trying to keep those who have had premarital sex from being able to get married!

And the biggest one here, of course, is adultery.  If you judge a sin's importance by how often it is referred to or condemned in the Bible, adultery is probably the Number One Biblical Sin.

And just what is adultery, by the Bible's definition?  Quite simply, adultery is when a married person has sex with someone other than their spouse, or when a non-married person has sex with someone who is married to someone else.  At its core, adultery is about infidelity and unfaithfulness.  This is why, throughout the Bible, "adultery" is used as a metaphor for unfaithfulness to God.

In the Gospels, Jesus speaks about adultery on several occasions.  In fact, Jesus uses the word "adultery" no less than fourteen times.  One of his teachings, which is repeated in Mark, Matthew, and Luke, dealt with adultery and divorce.  Here, Jesus states that even looking lustfully at someone who is not your spouse is the same as adultery.  He goes on to say that Moses was wrong in allowing people to get divorced for any reason.  In fact, he argues, if you get divorced for any reason other than infidelity, and then get remarried, you are committing adultery.

This passage, of course, has been the basis for many rules and regulations within modern churches about divorced people.  I grew up being taught that getting divorced for any reason other than unfaithfulness was a sin, and so was remarriage after such a divorce.  I also grew up in a church that did not allow divorced people to have leadership roles like minister or deacon; many modern churches still have rules like that.  If a divorced person wants to remarry, some churches won't allow them to have the ceremony in their church, and some ministers won't marry anyone who has been divorced.      

So with this in mind, and considering that adultery is essentially the biggest sin in the Bible, why aren't Christians fighting to ban divorced people from getting remarried?  Why aren't they arguing that such marriages harm the sanctity of marriage, as ordained by God?  Why aren't they pointing out that divorced people who get remarried are living a sinful lifestyle of adultery?

Scripture is clear.  Remarriage after divorce is wrong.  There is no gray area.

I hope you get my point here.  Christian opposition to gay marriage is inconsistent with the way Christians react to other teachings in the Bible.  I don't know any Christians who are fighting to amend a state constitution to ban divorced people from getting remarried.  I don't know any Christians who would disallow a divorced-and-remarried person to  be an active and accepted member of their church community.  I don't know any Christians who are "hung up" on people getting divorced and remarried.

And yet there are millions of Christians out there trying to ban gay marriage, ostracizing unrepentant gay people from their churches, trying "cure" gay people of their sins, and who are, in general, definitely "hung up" on gay rights.

And these same people, of course, will turn around and accuse a gay rights Christian of "picking and choosing" what they believe, while ignoring the fact that virtually no Christian believes it's a sin for a woman to have short hair, or a man to have long hair (1 Corinthians 11), virtually no Christian believes a woman should not be permitted to have authority over a man (1 Timothy 2), and virtually no Christian believes that slaves should be content in their way of life and faithfully obey their masters (1 Corinthians 7; Ephesians 6).

The Pick and Choose argument, in the end, is just a lot of hypocritical smoke and mirrors to justify prejudice against gay people, and legislating discrimination based on that prejudice.  It is an inconsistent argument that makes false assumptions about what the Bible actually says about homosexuality, and presupposes that "good" Christians follow everything the Bible teaches, even though that is demonstrably not true.

In the end, opposition to gay marriage is not about religion at all.  It's about the fact that many people are simply uncomfortable with gay people, afraid of gay lifestyles, and generally find the whole issue of homosexuality distasteful.  Many of those people then simply open their Bibles to find ways to justify their prejudice.  It's a method of operation that has been going on in Christian society for many hundreds of years.  700 years ago, Christians used the Bible to persecute Jews and other non-Christians.  500 years ago, Christians used the Bible to condemn Galileo.  200 years ago, Christians used the Bible to support and condone the institution of slavery.  100 years ago, Christians used the Bible to deny equal rights for women.  And today, they are using the Bible to justify discrimination against gay people.

Fortunately, history shows that they will lose this argument as they have lost all the others.  Fifty years from now, no one will have a problem with gay marriage, except for a few nutty people on the fringes of mainstream religion.  Gay people are going to win their rights to get married, and it will eventually happen in every state.  Christians today who are opposed to gay marriage will either die out or will reluctantly give in to the changing times and the irresistible force of progress, just as they did with slavery and women's rights.  In the future, the fact that there was so much opposition to gay marriage will be an embarrassment to self-respecting Americans.            

That, at least, gives me some hope.


Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Arguing Gay Marriage Rights

With North Carolina's passage of a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, passions have run very high very fast, and I am certainly among those who has been fairly vocal and public in my opposition to this amendment.  I have probably said too much; have probably argued too forcefully.

A friend of mine who pastors a church in Indiana made a blog post calling for calmer heads and more respectful discussions.  He ended by using the example of Jesus, who, he says, always debated respectfully with the Pharisees.  I appreciate his thoughts and I think his post is worth reading.

However, I ultimately didn't agree completely with him.  Some issues require passion.  Some issues even require anger and calling people to the carpet.  Sometimes, that's the only way you can get people to listen.  Without putting too fine a point on it, we certainly don't look back now at the 1960's and suggest that African-Americans shouldn't have been so angry.  Their anger fueled social change.

Anyway, in order to explain my perspective on this, and to explain why I am so vocal on this issue, I thought it might be worthwhile to post my response to him here on my own blog, where my own readers can see it.  Of course, you can also just follow the link above, read the original post, and also read my response.  


On many subjects, there are opinions, beliefs, and perspectives that are equally valid. Should the government cut taxes or raise taxes to spur the economy? Which is better and why, Papa John’s or Pizza Hut? What’s the best play in sports, the Grand Slam or the Triple Double? Is the Gospel of Thomas a mid-1st century, or a mid-2nd century text? What killed the dinosaurs, a cosmic disaster or a climatic disaster?

These are all questions that have valid arguments on both sides.

But not ALL subjects are like that. Should women be allowed to vote, or not? Should slavery be legal or illegal? Should we mandate jury trials in all criminal cases, or should we be allowed to convict people without a trial? Should we have religious freedom, or should the government tell us what we can and can’t believe?

On issues like that, there is only one perspective that has any real validity or legitimacy, and if someone argues against it, they certainly have the RIGHT to their perspective, but that doesn’t mean their perspective deserves any respect, or that their perspective has any legitimacy.

For me, the issue of gay marriage falls into the latter category. You are entitled to believe whatever you want to believe. But that doesn’t mean it has any legitimacy or deserves respect.

So while I agree that we should approach this topic with humility, that doesn’t mean that there is no right and wrong. That doesn’t mean that both perspectives are equally just and equally valid. Just as there was a right and wrong over the issue of slavery, and later of civil rights, there is also a right and wrong about gay marriage. And sometimes, you have to get angry in order for people to wake up.

And this, actually, is reflected in the gospel accounts of Jesus, which leads to another point about what you said….you say Jesus debated with the experts of the Law, but always respected them. There may be much lost in translation, but it seems pretty clear to me that Jesus didn’t just “debate” with the experts of the Law, but got into heated debates with them, and even downright angry arguments.

Matthew 23 is a great example. Jesus starts off by basically mocking and degrading the “teachers of the Law and the pharisees” and going into a long exposition about what incredibly unreasonable and enormous hypocrites they are. Then he goes on to deliver the so-called “Seven Woes” wherein he basically calls these people a bunch of nasty, dirty names, condemns them to hell, and states that all the “righteous blood shed on earth” is squarely on their heads.

There is nothing kind, conciliatory, or respectful in his tone.

Jesus’s clearing of the Temple is another example, especially the version in the Gospel of John where he’s brandishing a whip!

Finally, in Matthew 15, where again Jesus is giving a tongue-lashing to the Pharisees, he seems to have gone so far in what he said that even his disciples seem embarrassed. They approach him afterwards to tell him he “offended” the Pharisees. Jesus is unrepentant and basically says they deserved it, because they are “blind guides,” and he likens them to weeds that will be uprooted by God.

Jesus, clearly, understood that sometimes you can’t “debate” with people. Sometimes, people are just wrong. And sometimes, the only way to get people to wake up is to call them to the carpet.

I believe all of these things pertain to the issue of gay marriage.

Saturday, May 05, 2012

Christian Opposition to Gay Marriage: A Constitutional Argument

The Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.
~ from the U.S. Treaty with Tripoli, 1797

After establishing its independence from Great Britain in the late 1700's, the United States faced one of its very first foreign relations crises: piracy in the Mediterranean Sea and Atlantic Ocean.  This piracy was based out of the so-called Barbary Coast of North Africa.

Muslim sailors from these North African kingdoms and caliphates were given the legal right to prey on shipping from European, and eventually North American, countries.  The justification for this was essentially a religious one - these western ships were fair game, because they were owned by Christian nations, who were considered the religious enemies of Muslim nations.

In 1785, just two years after the end of the Revolutionary War, two American ships were captured by Barbary Pirates and the men crewing those ships were sold into slavery in North Africa, with ransoms put on their heads.  There was even a rumor during this time that Benjamin Franklin, on a voyage overseas, had been captured, though it was not true.

In any case, the fledgling United States began establishing official diplomatic relations with the various Muslim countries of the Barbary Coast, in an effort to keep their ships safe from Barbary pirates.  As a result, they enacted a series of separate peace treaties with these countries throughout the 1780's and 1790's.  One of these was the Treaty with Tripoli in 1797.

This treaty established friendship between the two nations, and was unanimously approved by the U.S. Senate, and signed by President John Adams.  It is a matter of historical fact that copies of the treaty were given to each senator, and the entire treaty itself was read aloud on the Senate floor, prior to the unanimous vote of ratification.

One of the clauses in this treaty is the now somewhat infamous phrase I quoted above.  It comes from Article 11 of the treaty, and in context, this article argues that because the United States is not an established Christian nation, the Muslim region of Tripolitania had no religious quarrel with the U.S. - thus no reason to prey on U.S. shipping.

There is no question that this phrase from an obscure 200-year-old treaty has been over-emphasized in recent years by those wishing to widen the gap between Church and State.  But there is also no question that this government document, unanimously approved by the United States Senate and signed into law by John Adams, is an inconvenient one to those who wish to argue that the U.S. was founded on "Biblical principles" or is a "Christian nation."

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states that the government will not make any laws "respecting an establishment of religion."  This phrase is clearly referring to state-sponsored religious institutions, with a strong eye towards the Church of England, which the King of England controlled.

This amendment, however, has been interpreted by the Supreme Court to include a lot more than simply outlawing government-sponsored religions.  Instead, judicial rulings for more than 200 years have established this amendment as effectively separating Church and State, and thus keeping religion out of government.  Many people have differing opinions about this, but the Supreme Court has the constitutional mandate, and the constitutional authority, to interpret the Constitution, and that means their opinion is the final say on the matter.  It is worth noting that virtually every incarnation of the Supreme Court over the last 200 years, both liberal and conservative, has agreed on this issue - the First Amendment irrevocably separates Church and State.

This separation of Church and State is one of the hallmarks of the United States, and one of the most important and enduring legacies of our nation.  Because of it, any American can worship as they choose, or not worship at all.  Any religious organization can build structures and meet there peaceably.  Religious organizations do not have to pay taxes to either the state or federal government, and their rules and regulations do not have to meet with any approval of government officials.  While they must still remain in compliance with criminal laws, they have no obligation to meet the requirements of civil laws passed by the government.  Every citizen of the United States, regardless of their religious or political stripes, benefits enormously from this very important and distinctive American tradition.

You may now be asking yourself: What does a 200-year-old treaty on piracy and the U.S. Constitution really have to do with the 21st century issue of gay marriage?

Quite a bit, as it turns out.

The Treaty of Tripoli shows that our earliest leaders viewed the United States government as a secular entity.  The United States was not "founded on the Christian religion," nor could the United States pass laws establishing religious principles as legal precedents.  That does not mean government officials can't be members of a religion, nor does it mean that U.S. officials can't use their religious beliefs as a way of influencing their own governing.  What it does mean, however, is that religious principles cannot be legislated - at least not if we want our laws to be constitutional.

Enter gay marriage.  From my experience, both in speaking with individuals personally, and in reading numerous sources, the overarching opposition to gay marriage is a religious one.  Of course there are other reasons given too, most notably issues surrounding traditional gender roles and family values, and slippery slope arguments about how gay marriage will lead to an "anything goes" perspective on the institution of marriage, including polygamy, incest, and zoophilia (sex with animals).  As the argument goes, if two men can get married, why not a man and a goat?

But in my experience, all these other arguments are secondary.  They are the "justification" arguments - and not very good ones, at that.  But the real source of the opposition to gay marriage is a religious one.  The other arguments simply attempt to deflect that fact.  I'm sure there are atheist/agnostic/non-religious people out there who are opposed to gay marriage, but I don't really know any.  The far and away vast majority of opposition to gay marriage is coming from people who are religiously opposed to gay marriage.  I am certain this is an undeniable fact, and if you don't agree with me, then consider these statistics:

In 2010, a Gallup poll found that among those people who said that religion was "very important" in their lives, 70% opposed gay marriage.  On the flip side, among those who said that religion was "not important" in their lives, the numbers were basically a mirror image - 70% supported gay marriage.  Similarly, among the four geographic regions of the U.S. - North, South, Midwest, and West, the most religious region, the South, also had the lowest support for gay marriage, at about 35%.

In 2011, a Pew Research Center poll found that among white evangelicals, 74% opposed gay marriage.  In that same poll, only 20% of people with no religious affiliation opposed gay marriage.

Clearly, the overwhelming majority of opposition to gay marriage - indeed, the only real reason why gay marriage is not already legal everywhere - is because of religious opposition to it.  Without religious opposition, there would be few people in the United States opposed to gay marriage.

I hope by now you see my point: it is unconstitutional in the United States for religious beliefs to form the basis of legislation.  If my Christian beliefs tell me that gay marriage is a sin, that fact can have no bearing, legally, on whether gay marriage is legalized or not.  This is why we have no laws banning sex before marriage, mandating baptism, or banning women from leadership roles over men (all of which are religious beliefs).

The separation of Church and State works both ways: the government can't pass laws regulating religious beliefs or practices, and religious beliefs and practices cannot be legislated and mandated.  This is why it is illegal for religious organizations to be involved in politics - they are separate from the government, they don't pay taxes, so they can't have an official voice in government.  Of course, free speech still permits them to express their views, but their religious views cannot form the basis of legislation.

And yet, many of the same people who bark about fidelity to the Constitution are the very same people who believe their religious beliefs regarding homosexuality should be legislated and made applicable to all Americans.

Consider the mission statement provided on the homepage of a group called Tea Party Nation:

Tea Party Nation is a user-driven
 group of like-minded people who desire our God-given individual
 freedoms written out by the Founding Fathers. We believe in Limited 
Government, Free Speech, the 2nd Amendment, our Military, Secure 
Borders and our Country.

This same Tea Party Nation has stated that gay marriage "will become one more factor in the destruction of America."

This constitutional inconsistency is just one of the ways in which hypocrisy creeps into the discussion about gay marriage.

In the second part, Christian Opposition to Gay Marriage: A Theological Argument, I will look specifically at Christianity and the Bible, and how Christian opposition to gay marriage is not only constitutionally irrelevant, but theologically inconsistent.