There is a giant elephant lurking in the corner of the room, one whose presence we as Americans can no longer afford to ignore; the elephant of which I speak is the role of religion in our country’s current debate on gay marriage. Like it or not, our ongoing debate on gay marriage hinges almost entirely on certain religious convictions which, in turn, find their basis in Judeo-Christian scripture.
However, this simple truth is difficult for some of us to acknowledge. Consider, for example, the recent and much publicized remarks of Apple's CEO Tim Cook (who is himself gay): "This isn't a political issue. This isn't a religious issue. This is about how we treat each other as human beings." This isn't a religious issue, and yet, the newly-passed Indiana law which prompted Cook's remarks is literally called the "Religious Freedom Restoration Act." All positive and worthwhile sentiments aside, we just don't have time to beat around the bush anymore. If we hope to ever live in a country where freedom does not come with a caveat, where the religious viewpoint of one group can in no way take precedent over the beliefs and rights of another, we’re going to have to start being honest with ourselves.
Our country, the “land of the free,” currently finds itself in the midst of a prolonged cultural war over the rights of a particular group of our citizens, i.e. homosexual men and women. We have made progress, yes—in an amazing chain-reaction, nearly 40 states have legalized same-sex marriage—but as of today, there are still some 13 states that forbid same-sex marriage.1 This means that there are hundreds of benefits, rights, and protections, provided solely on the basis of marital status under our country’s federal laws2, that Americans in these states currently do not have access to. These rights include anything from being able to receive your deceased partner’s social security payments, to getting certain tax provisions (179 by one count).3
Nor, I’m ashamed to say, is this the first time that a specific group or demographic of Americans has had to fight for their right to participate in the institution of marriage. Astonishingly, there were still laws on the books in several states prohibiting interracial marriage as late as 1963, when the Supreme Court finally ruled all such laws unconstitutional.
And yet, have you ever stopped for a moment to consider why we are even arguing about gay marriage in the first place? Most of us just seem to take it for granted that some people are 'against gay marriage,' –but what is the actual motivation behind this opposition? Consider that recent Gallup polls indicate that approximately 40% of Americans still oppose same-sex marriage4— why in the world do millions of us continue to say, “No” to gay equality?
Do you see the elephant?
Several years ago, I had a conversation with a family member about this very issue. I suspected that the real motivation behind his aversion to gay marriage was his religious beliefs, but he seemed reluctant, at least at first, to admit this. So I asked him point-blank, “Why are you against gay marriage?” He responded, at first, with the typical, “Because it isn’t natural,” line of reasoning. This is usually the first thing that is brought up when you speak to someone about their opposition to gay marriage. However, if by “natural” we mean ‘occurring in nature,’ then homosexuality is by definition, “natural,” as we have documented homosexual behavior (that is, same-sex sexual intercourse) in some 450 other animal species.5
Moreover, it is a well-known fallacy to move from what is natural/unnatural to what is moral/immoral anyways; rape, after all, is perfectly natural in some cases, as is infanticide, yet this clearly tells us nothing whatsoever in regard to whether these things are moral or not. In the very same way then, the question of whether or not homosexuality is “natural” can tell us nothing in relation to the moral status of homosexuality, and much less if homosexuals should or should not have the right to marry. There should be red flags waving vigorously in your head whenever discussions of gay marriage digress into arguments about the “nature of homosexuality”—you have now stepped into the domain of irrelevancy.
Perhaps not surprisingly, much of this seemed to fall on deaf ears to my family member, but I proceeded to suggest anyway that the real reason he objected to gay marriage was actually his religious beliefs. After some gentle prodding, he eventually admitted this to be the case. So, you might ask, what was this gentle prodding? What does one have to say to get someone to admit that there is indeed an elephant in the room? Merely quote their scripture.
What does God think about all of this?
Here’s the thing; if we assume that the Holy Bible is the inspired word of God, then God doesn’t exactly shy away from dealing with the topic of homosexuality. Male-on-male sexual acts are explicitly condemned twice in the Old Testament, in Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13, and homosexuality in general is then further condemned in the New Testament via Paul’s letters to the Romans and the Corinthians (churches that Paul was counseling at the time). Indeed, as we’ll soon see, even Jesus himself, though not specifically addressing the issue of homosexuality, at least seems to condemn it indirectly with his comments in Matthew concerning the ongoing validity of the Old Testament commandments.
Let’s consider the verses from Paul’s letters first. It’s worth noting that, although counterintuitive, it is Paul, rather than Jesus himself, that is arguably the “founder” of Christianity. This is because it was Paul that actually brought Jesus to the masses; Paul’s writings in particular emphasized preaching the good news to the Gentile, or non-Jew, whereas Jesus, a Jewish messiah after all, seemed to focus more exclusively on the plight “the lost children of Israel” (see Matthew 15:24).
First of all, there is some ambiguity to take note of in regard to Paul’s condemnations of homosexuality. This is due to the fact that the Greek words that Paul used in 1st Corinthians and 1st Timothy, which are then commonly translated into English Bibles as “homosexuals,” are malakoi and arsenokoitai; some scholars argue that it is peculiar for Paul to have specifically used these two words instead of the Greek word, paiderrasste, a term more commonly used in this time to refer to males who had sexual intercourse with other males.6
New Testament scholars, in what is more or less standard operating procedure, disagree about what all this means; some infer from this that, at least in these passages, Paul was not actually talking about homosexuals in the sense of consenting, adult, same-sex partners (i.e. what you and I mean).6 Furthermore, at least one of these references to homosexuality (1st Timothy) comes from one of the disputed epistles, meaning there is a lack of consensus in New Testament scholarship about whether or not the text was even written by the apostle Paul. While this is all legitimate criticism, surely the most infamous Pauline condemnation of homosexuality, Romans 1:26-27 (one of the undisputed epistles I might add) is clear enough:
“Because of this, God gave them over to their shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion.”
Yet, believe it or not, even this passage—seemingly as unambiguous as possible—is regarded by many with the same sort of inappropriately hard skepticism (“Well maybe he didn’t really mean that…”). Unfortunately—that is, unless we create a time machine—we’ll never really know for sure either way. We might, however, wonder why a supposedly loving god (who allegedly inspired this text) would allow his position on such an important issue to be so vague.
The Old Testament take on this matter contains no such ambiguities. In Leviticus 18:22, Yahweh commands Moses to tell his people that, “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.”7 Suffice to say, the Hebrew word that is being rendered here as ‘abomination,’ is not exactly a compliment. In Leviticus 20:13, Yahweh, or if you prefer, God, goes one step further: “If a male lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death; their blood is upon them.”8
It’s important to remember that this is allegedly God himself that is speaking, not Moses. In other words, when telling his chosen race how they were supposed to live their lives, Yahweh very clearly and completely unambiguously called for the outright execution of any males that had sexual intercourse with other males, full stop. In fact, the only ambiguity that does seem to exist here is the technicality that Yahweh doesn’t say anything about female homosexual acts, creating a possible loophole in the injunction against homosexuality in general. And though I can certainly appreciate the effort to make the Bible more, shall we say, palatable, it is far more likely that women were not referred to in this verse simply because it was not necessary to refer to them; in condemning male homosexual acts, it would have been presumed that female homosexual acts were condemned as well, by default. Think about it; given that the god of the Bible did think that male individuals who have sex with other males should be executed, is it more likely that this god is totally cool with lesbians, or that the male-chauvinist authors of the Old Testament only referred to women when it was absolutely necessary to do so?
Finally, what did Jesus Christ himself have to say about all this? As I already mentioned, technically, Jesus of Nazareth (by all accounts that we have at least) said nothing specifically on the topic of homosexuality. However, according to the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus did say a few things that do arguably pertain to this discussion nonetheless. For starters, we are told that Jesus is tempted by the devil, and during this exchange the devil asks Jesus to prove that he’s really the Son of God by transforming several rocks near them into pieces of bread. To this Jesus replies (quoting Deuteronomy), “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word [my emphasis added] that comes from the mouth of God.”9 Now either Jesus was merely being clever here (and, if you think about it, surprisingly dishonest), or Jesus was giving a genuine account of how he thought one should live their life—by every word that comes from the mouth of Yahweh.
Secondly, later in the gospel of Matthew, Jesus reportedly says this to his followers:
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the Kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Scribes and Phar’i·sees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”10
When Jesus speaks of “the Law” here, he is almost certainly referring to the commandments that are contained within the Old Testament (see Luke 16:16-17 as well). One could quite reasonably argue, therefore, that while never bringing up the issue of homosexuality explicitly, Jesus (at least as described by the gospel of Matthew) nevertheless fully supported and reasserted the previously ordained injunctions against homosexuality. For, according to Jesus, “until heaven and earth pass away [which I’m relatively sure hasn’t yet happened], not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law,” and “whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the Kingdom of heaven.”10
Now, I would hope it goes without saying that in no way am I suggesting that most, or even a significant minority of, modern-day Christians currently endorse the death penalty for homosexuals (leaving aside the recent proposal in California to do just that). My point in dragging you through all this theological dirt is to illustrate the biblical basis for opposing homosexuality; this opposition to gay marriage did not just appear out of the void—it emerged directly from the Judeo-Christian traditions that have and continue to shape American society. This, of course, is why the Americans who typically oppose it are conservative Christians (like Matt McLaughlin, the man responsible for the above mentioned ballot proposal to execute gays). Ask yourself this, how many atheists do you know that are opposed to gay marriage?
Therein lies the rub
Don’t get me wrong, people have every right to their beliefs. As Americans, nay, as human beings, we have the freedom to believe pretty much whatever. The point of dispute is the fact that some Americans seem to think that their religious beliefs somehow take precedent over the religious beliefs, and indeed, even the rights, of others. Consider, for a moment, the blatant hypocrisy of the conservative Christian opposition to gay marriage: the whole movement is dressed up as a defense of religious freedom, as though their right to believe in a bronze-age belief systems is somehow being threatened by armies of well-dressed gays, yet all of this takes place while they simultaneously and unabashedly seek to decrease the civil liberties and religious freedom of their fellow, in some case Christian, Americans.
After all, it’s not like Obama is out there (yet) forcing straight, Christian, Americans to go out and marry people of the same sex… their religious freedom (at least in the context of gay marriage) is of course perfectly safe. But the freedom of homosexual Americans, depending on where they live, is not; their “freedom” comes with the special caveat that they are not allowed to marry the person whom they love. Perhaps the only possible consolation in all of this madness is the thought that we will soon, almost certainly, look back on the opposition to gay marriage akin to the way we currently look back on the opposition to interracial marriage—as an embarrassing and almost inconceivable remnant of our ignorant and prejudiced past.
Wrapping things up
Neither my religious beliefs, nor your religious beliefs, take precedent over the religious beliefs, let alone the civil rights, of others. What could possibly be more fundamental to our American way of life than this? Yet the opponents of gay marriage, knowingly or not, reject this sentiment wholesale. This is why, were it not for our Judeo-Christian heritage, gay marriage would almost certainly be a non-issue in this country. Most of us already agree that, in terms of our civil liberties, the opinion of some, or even most, simply cannot determine the rights of the few. Honestly, the situation only gets murky here when people begin to bring their religious convictions into the discussion.
Hence, the genius and absolute necessity of the beginning of our country's first Amendment, also known as the establishment clause: “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, nor prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Though the implications of this statement are still being hotly debated, and probably always will be, the basic principle, or, if you will, spirit of the text is relatively clear; the government can neither officially endorse any religion, nor interfere with any of the religious practices of its citizens. On these matters, they must effectively remain silent. Given this, and if you grant that the opposition to gay marriage is fundamentally religious in nature (and again, what else would it be?), any sort of legislation attempting to ban gay marriage would thereby seem distinctly unconstitutional.
Consider as an analogy how we oppose so strongly the outrageous prospect of Shariah Law being implemented in our land. This is not because it is inherently Muslim, but because it is inherently religious. That is, the very idea of any religion, whether Islam, Christianity, or for that matter, Pastafarianism, meddling in legal matters in our country is just antithetical to our values. The separation of Church and State, surely one of our country’s most praise-worthy traits, has to apply across the board, or not at all.
2. Defense of Marriage Act: An Update to Prior Report, General Accounting Office, 2004
7. Leviticus 18:22. New Revised Standard Version. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1990. Print.
8. Leviticus 20:13. New Revised Standard Version. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1990. Print.
9. Matthew 4:4. New Revised Standard Version. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1990. Print.
10. Matthew 5:17-20. New Revised Standard Version. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1990. Print.
Photo credit: Prezi