I have many, many Christian friends and family members who feel differently about today’s Supreme Court verdict than I do. I have many, many other friends, both religious and not, who were not raised in conservative households as I was, who only dimly understand what conservative Christians’ problem is, and who suspect that it is rooted in pathological killjoyism. I very slowly, over the course of years, came to hold the position I do today—people who knew me in high school can attest, to my shame, that I was sometimes a nasty little homophobe—and I reached this position in continuous mental argument with conservative Protestant Christianity, because that was my world. In case anyone from either side wants to know, in detail, how I got to the point where I am now, here it is.
Disclaimer 1: I’m not going to lecture or mock anyone about “being out of step with history.” When my fellow people of the left say things like that, I wonder to myself what the hell they think history is. From my point of view, history is amoral and progress is a short, short blanket. We’re not slowly moving into the light. The Singularity is not coming to save you. The Revolution, if it happens, will be another stupid massacre that leaves only the biggest assholes standing at the end. And being at odds with your era is often a perfectly respectable, sometimes even the only respectable, thing. I just don’t happen to think this is one of those cases.
Disclaimer 2: I think that people who morally disapprove of gay and lesbian sex, for whatever reason (whether we label that reason “religious” or otherwise—Freudianism defined itself as anti-religious, however much it functioned as a religion in its own right, and those guys were homophobic as all hell), should retain all their constitutional rights to free speech, freedom of association, whatever. If you’re afraid of being forced to hold a gay marriage in your Southern Baptist church, I don’t think that’s very likely, but I’ll march against it with you if it ever happens.
Most of the arguments against gay and lesbian sexual relationships that I was taught as a child just do not stand up to any scrutiny at all. So, for example, “It’s against nature” is just silly. Homosexuality and bisexuality are rampant in the animal kingdom. And anyway, isn’t that one of conservative Christians’ beefs with Darwinism: that it suggests we are just animals and should behave as such? (I don’t think that assumption automatically flows from evolution, especially for us theistic evolutionists, but whatever.) Or, to take another example, arguments that have to do with “proper gender roles” usually involve some theory of gender roles that was worked out in the nineteenth century by some British person theorizing in a vacuum, with very little reference to how women and men (and intergender folks—by which I mean naturally occurring hermaphrodites; they exist; look it up) have lived throughout history. “Proper gender roles” usually involve stereotypes about men that place Jesus Christ right out of his own gender. Jesus was emotional, a crier, humble, he hung out with women and listened to them for heaven’s sake. If some of the more popular Christian apologists for machismo met Jesus in the street, they’d wedgie him to death.
There is one argument that I respect, though I disagree with it. It is, very simply, the argument that at least two New Testament passages say or clearly imply that gay/lesbian sex is a bad thing. (There’s also a passage where Paul is hard on cross-dressing.) Therefore, as Christians bound by the New Testament, we have to obey them. I know a guy, a conservative, tender-hearted, loves his gay and lesbian friends, supports civil marriages between them, etc., but can’t quite agree that what they’re doing in their bedrooms is OK. The thing is, he wants to. It really breaks his heart that he can’t. But he’s got his Bible and he’s agreed to live by it. I know, in fact, lots of people like this and I adore them. A few of them have experienced same-sex attraction themselves, and resist it on principle. I don’t have to agree that such resistance is necessary to admire the strength of character it discloses.
Sidebar for People Who Consider Themselves Secular
By now, you’re wondering two things: a) Why do you people obsess so much over this one book? and b) Why do you people think you should get to force your book on my life?
a) We obsess over that book makes a historical claim—that God, the Supreme Being, whatever term you use, the being towards whom human beings have blindly gestured toward from pretty much the beginning of history (and we continue to do so), entered history, became a vulnerable person from within a vulnerable people, died, and was resurrected, and in the process somehow reconciled our fucked-up species to Her/Himself. That claim, about that moment, is the whole point of our religion. The NT writers seem to have been close to that moment, and so their words carry at least some varying degree of authority for most people who are serious about being Christian. (How those degrees of authority vary is something I’ll talk about later.)
If your response to all of that is “That is a crazy-ass thing to believe,” my short answer is: Sure. But literally everything about human existence is crazy. It’s crazy that anything exists. And here is one of the few conclusions that an immersion in philosophy really licenses a person to reach: Every worldview that seeks to explain this crazy world we live in has some crazy in it somewhere. Every worldview at some point involves some seemingly irresolvable contradiction, some indefinable idea, or some deductively uncertain leap of faith. And that knee-jerk secular instinct inside so many of us, the one that says “I’m sure there’s some perfectly rational explanation for everything,” is just a projection of bourgeois ennui onto the entire universe. It is, to me, the craziest-ass idea of all.
As to b) I agree. Younger conservative Christians often support gay marriage on exactly this principle: we can’t do it, but there’s no reason y’all can’t. However. The principle underlying this complaint is often stated as “Keep your religion out of public life.” And this I can’t agree with because it’s impossible—logically, conceptually, practically impossible. I use the terms religion and worldview interchangeably; in my experience, everyone has a set of beliefs that they live by, that they didn’t reach via a long chain of deductively certain reasoning, and that involve some leap of faith, some personal risk. Everyone. If you’re an atheist and you believe that human rights are a thing, well, that’s not a conclusion you reached by math. It’s a choice. It’s a damn good choice, in my opinion, and one that creates considerable common ground between you and me, and I hope you’ll bring that conviction right into the public square with you. But when you do so, you’ll find some people who don’t share it. And at that moment, you’re in the exact same boat as us weirdo religious people: You have convictions that not everyone shares, and you have to figure out what that means and what to do with it. There isn’t some enveloping, larger structure of beliefs that “we all” share that can adjudicate this conflict for us. There are just contending worldviews, and an ongoing cultural negotiation over which elements of those contending worldviews are widely enough shared to form the rickety basket of our laws and social structures. We could all stand to be more explicit about where we’re coming from, and the term “secular” is a smokescreen that makes that harder. (My support for pluralism doesn’t come from an overarching belief in pluralism itself; it comes from a desire to love my neighbor, who may not share my religion.)
OK, Back To Paul
So. The Bible says some things about same-sex activity. As it happens, interpreters have done all sorts of things with these texts. So, in Romans 1:26-27, where Paul writes of people so idolatrous that they take up sexual practices that are “against nature,” he could be talking temple prostitution or pederasty, not about strong and mutual love between two women or two men. Exegetes go back and forth, often arguing from different sets of facts about the ancient world. If they can’t settle this debate amongst themselves, then I sure as hell can’t settle it out here on my own. I only know like six Greek words.
But there’s something more fundamental about the Bible that I need to say.
All this focus on two or three New Testament texts only makes sense because of a specifically conservative protestant belief: that the Bible is inerrant. It has no mistakes, about anything. Among Protestant Christians, it’s ultimately this belief, I think, that forces people into condemning same-sex attraction. So it’s ultimately this belief that those of us who both affirm Christianity in general and want to support same-sex relationships have to look at. I think inerrancy is wrong. I think the Bible is important because it was written by flawed people trapped in history to whom God happened in a particular, unique way, not because God suddenly overruled the individual personalities of the authors and made them incapable, for a time, of being wrong about ancillary matters.
People to whom this is all strange and ancient and academic need to understand that belief in inerrancy comes from real people grappling with a real epistemological problem, one that imposes itself in some form on everyone. Some Christians believe in inerrancy because these claims about the universe, about whether there’s a God or not, about what is right and what is wrong, are about really important things, and when it comes to our most basic commitments we want to be right. It’s important to filter truth from bullshit, to the best of our ability. Some people mock this instinct, but I think it’s honorable, even if life doesn’t always offer us as much certainty as we want. People who believe in Biblical inerrancy know that Jesus must be right, and they want an epistemological principle that secures that. Guys, I get it.
The fundamentalists I know (Protestant fundamentalism is distinguished from all other kinds of Christianity by its belief in inerrancy) also don’t want to be guilty of picking-and-choosing within their own philosophy. I think that’s an even more important instinct. If I say that the New Testament is unlike all other books, that it’s the product of people who knew Jesus or knew those who knew him, but that there are some merely cultural prejudices in there as well, then that raises the possibility that I’ll just winnow down the New Testament to those claims that feel congenial to me. You don’t have to be formally religious to feel that that’s not the way to do this Christian thing. Everybody, even liberals, thinks there’s something essentially wanky about “cafeteria religion.”
Here’s the thing, though: We don’t have a choice about whether to pick and choose. The Bible explicitly says (Psalm 137:9) that you’re blessed if you crush a Babylonian baby’s skull. This is not something that an inerrant book would say. Crushing the skull of a child, even the children of your colonial oppressors, is not a state of blessedness. It just isn’t. Once you acknowledge that, you start noticing other things. For example, the Bible has two proof texts (as we call them) against homosexuality and not one verse that actually says slavery is wrong. (I do think that Christianity put some ideas out into the world that ultimately led to the conviction that a human can’t own another human, and it was monotheist intellectuals who first condemned ancient slavery as such, rather than merely criticizing its excesses. Still: the proof text is just not there.) More to the point: I grew up hearing that, if a person allows for the morality of gay and lesbian relationships, s/he now has no grounds for condemning adult-child or adult-young-teenager relationships. This is precisely ass-backwards. There is no proof text against such relationships in the Bible, and Christianity coexisted for several centuries with societies in which it was not uncommon for adults to marry children. In medieval England, the age of consent was (yuck) twelve. Gratian thought consent could be given as young as seven. I’m vomiting just typing that. Again, I think that the concept of the imago dei and Jesus’ respectful attitude toward childhood as such probably helped pave the way toward modern conceptions of childhood that in turn (whew!) led to the condemnation of such sexual relationships. But it took till the eighteenth century for that to really get underway. (And some figures of the far left who are skeptical of the Enlightenment era, such as Michel Foucault, regret that it did so. Another reason I wish he weren’t so revered in American academia. Oh well.) But the proof text isn’t there, and I think we can all agree that it would have been really useful. If the Bible were the dictated word of God, I’m almost sure we’d find it. Right?
This is not nearly enough to prove that there are gay and lesbian relationships blessed by God, of course. It just opens up a little epistemological room. What finally convinces me is far closer to home. I attend church with people who do and believe the things that Christians are supposed to believe and do. They tend the sick, visit widows and orphans (metaphorically), feed the hungry, write to the imprisoned. They live lives of humble service to others and they credit Christ’s work in their lives as the source of that activity. And some of them are women who are in love with a woman, or men who love a man. As a Christian, I really only have two options here: I can call these people dangerous fakers, working on the power of Satan, or I can believe that God uses their unions as God has used my union with my wife, as a sort of extended training in unselfishness, in dying to oneself.
I often refer to “the church that saved my life,” St. James’s Episcopal in Milwaukee. What I’m referring to when I say that is that that was the place where I learned that it is not normal to have trouble breathing every day for a decade, that most people don’t wake up in the middle of the night in a panic, that the “fist in my chest” (as my daughter calls it) has a name, and that that name is general anxiety disorder. If I hadn’t learned this, I would have gone on destroying myself in various little ways, and I might very well have opted for something more final. But learning the name of my disorder wasn’t enough; I had to see a doctor and get help. And I just didn’t have the money. It was only because my pastor (a woman, and thus forbidden from her office, if you believe inerrancy) offered to pay for the medicine out of her discretionary fund that I finally made that phone call. The relief that I have felt in the years since amounts to nothing less than a spiritual transformation; I finally actually came to believe that God loves me only after I stopped practicing the mental self-harm that comes with general anxiety. And I’ve been immeasurably freer to love others as a result.
That church had a little rainbow flag on the sign.
When Jesus healed people, one of the things his critics said was that he did so by the power of some malignant spiritual agency. That he cast out demons by the prince of demons. (Jesus’ snappy comeback to this criticism is where we get that “house divided against itself” quote that high school debaters are so enamored of.) I don’t believe there was anything “demonic” about my anxiety; it’s just a thing that happened. But it was the kind of condition that causes people to reach for that language. It was a delivery from living death into life. And that deliverance happened in a church utterly dependent on the life and ministry of actively gay and lesbian people.
I can believe a lot of crazy things, but I’ll never believe that St. James cast out demons by the prince of demons.