Tikkun Magazine, July/August 2010
Ten Reasons Why Gay Rights Is a Religious Issue
by Jay Michaelson
Civil rights movements that appeal to religion succeed. Those that do not, fail. Contrast the fates of the Civil Rights Act and the Equal Rights Amendment, or the way African American civil rights was understood before and after Dr. King's religious message. As both pollsters and election results continually remind us, mainstream Americans do not respond to arguments about constitutional rights and equality; they respond to moral arguments, shared values, and religion—unsurprisingly, since over 90 percent of Americans profess a belief in God.
The centrality of religion to civil rights discourse is amplified when the civil rights struggle questions a status quo largely supported by religion. We may no longer remember the musty religious arguments today, but the Bible was once used to enforce segregation as much as to oppose it. God placed the races on different continents, segregationists said. God sanctioned slavery. Africans were heirs to the curse of Ham. And so on. Dr. King and his movement have so succeeded in their reframing of civil rights that these arguments may strike us today as bizarre. But just fifty years ago, they were preached from pulpits around the country.
Yet unlike the debate over African American civil rights, our current national debate regarding equal rights for sexual minorities (I will speak primarily here of gays and lesbians, though most of the arguments apply to gender minorities such as transgender persons as well—and I use the broad term "gay rights" to encompass all of these), has so far included religion on only the negative side of the argument. The Bible forbids homosexuality, we are told. Heterosexual marriage is at the core of God's design for the universe. Traditional (read: "religious") values have been clear on this question for thousands of years.
Liberals' overwhelming response to these claims has been to deflect them, to talk instead about equality or the separation of church and state. This has been a tragic mistake. God, family, and societal stability all matter more to more Americans than do equality or constitutional norms. Dr. King did not succeed because he invoked the Fourteenth Amendment; he succeeded because he invoked God. And so, unless we activists engage with religion in a serious and convincing way, we will not prevail in our struggle. "God versus Gay" has only one outcome.
Nor will we speak for the millions of LGBT Americans who are religious themselves. For us, "God versus Gay" is bad spirituality, as well as bad political tactics. Doubtless, many gay activists have justifiably relegated religion to the same mental basement as other repressive ideas. But the basement is just another closet. By perpetuating "God versus Gay," secular gay rights activists perpetuate this psychological oppression of religious gays, this spiritual schizophrenia that continues to harm and distort.
Fortunately, gay rights is a religious issue. Religious people should not be for gay rights despite their religions' teachings; they should be for gay rights because of them. For too long, we have allowed far-rightist forces to distort our religious teachings. Politically and spiritually, this has been disastrous. And contrary to the cries of the fearful, while there are indeed some religious arguments against equality for LGBT people, there are more of them in favor of it. Here are ten of them.
1. It Is Not Good to Be Alone
Opponents of same-sex marriage remind us that in Genesis, "it's Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve." But "Adam and Eve" is the solution to a problem: the existential crisis of aloneness. In fact, after the long series of good things God sees during the creation process, Adam's aloneness is the first thing that is not good (Gen. 2:18). It is the first natural condition which, the Bible tells us, is not to be left as is. Love, togetherness, mutual support—these are the essential qualities of the partnership God creates.
Religious and spiritual people, then, are faced with a fundamental religious imperative to heal loneliness where we find it and to insist on the importance of human relationship in so doing. What is different today is that, unlike five thousand, five hundred, or even fifty years ago, we now understand that sexual orientation is either genetically determined or determined so early in development as to be an essential, unchangeable aspect of the human soul. Thus, for millions of people around the world, to remedy this first, fundamental flaw of the human condition requires a same-sex relationship.
Of course, sexual orientation is a spectrum, not a binary, and for bisexuals and some others, there may be mutability. But a few bisexual experiences do not undermine a great many homosexual and heterosexual ones. For many people, the only way toward healing the split recognized in Genesis 2:18 is in a loving, same-sex relationship. Indeed, this is no doubt one reason that so many opponents of gay rights have insisted that sexual orientation must be changeable: because if it isn't, then the traditional, homophobic interpretation of Scripture cannot be maintained. Of course, that is exactly my point.
2. God Loves Us and Does Not Want Us to Harm Ourselves
The suicide rate among gay teenagers is estimated to be six times that of straight ones. Need we say more? Does this statistic not teach us both that sexuality is a trait, not a choice (it's odd to kill yourself because of a choice, no?), and that embracing sexual diversity is a religious imperative? What more do we need to know? Gay people exist, and some of them kill themselves because of the shame they feel.
Suicide is not, of course, the only form of harm gay people inflict upon themselves. The "closet" is another. As someone who lived in the closet for over a decade of my adult life, I can attest from personal experience that it is less a closet than a tomb. Constructed of lies, fear, and shame, it beats the soul down and alienates it not only from sexual expression but from all other forms of love as well, including authentic love of God. People in the closet are like the dead people in The Sixth Sense: they don't know that they're dead, and don't know the wounds they carry around. The closet is like a heavy weight around the neck, and sexual repression is a form of self-mutilation.
Of course, Christianity, Judaism, and other religions do ask us to curb our behavior, even behaviors we may really enjoy, such as wanton greed and selfishness (e.g., the kind evinced by some of our society's most famous celebrities). Sexuality, too, is regulated by these religious traditions, in very different ways: Some permit all forms of sexual behavior within marriage; others do not. Some see celibacy as an ideal; others do not. But nowhere do we find individuals required to forego all sexual intimacy, sexual expression, or romantic love. God does not ask us to be Isaac on the akedah or Christ on the cross; we are asked to curb our impulses, but not to destroy ourselves. Were homosexuality merely a form of licentiousness (as some suggest), then one could imagine it being prohibited by religious tradition. But homosexuality is not lust; it is a quality of the soul and a pathway to the most sacred forms of love.
Can a homosexual relationship be degraded? Yes. Can it be holy? Yes. Banning homosexuality because of its potential for "abuse" would be like banning heterosexuality because of prostitution. Religious people can and should debate how best the power of sexuality is to be understood according to their religious traditions, but to demand that an entire class of people completely repress, suppress, and mutilate their sexual drives is antithetical to the fundamental religious ideal that God loves us. A loving God could not want the closet.
3. Compassion Is Holy
Spiritual progressives generally believe that, in the words of Richard Rorty, "cruelty is the worst thing we can do," and that, conversely, to alleviate suffering is a religious mandate. Thus, even apart from the theistic principle that God loves us and does not want us to crush our basic personalities, there is the ethical principal that cruelty is wrong and compassion is holy.
In this regard, gay rights—being compassionate rather than cruel to GLBT people—is simply a further widening of the sphere of ethical consideration that has extended concern to people from other religious/ethnic groups, people from other "racial" backgrounds, women, people with disabilities, and others. Once, the feelings and experiences of these "others" were deemed irrelevant to religious concern. Today, just as we have reexamined our religious ideas in the light of the experiences of these groups, so too is a reexamination of traditional religious approaches to homosexuality warranted by the experiences of gay and lesbian people.
It may be objected that gender and ethnicity are biological, whereas sexuality is still not known to be completely so. However, this objection fails for two reasons. First, as mentioned above, homosexuality is at least partly "natural," genetically determined, and present in hundreds of animal species. Even if it is partly developmental, this natural element makes it more like race and gender, and less like moral choice. Second, whatever its origins, homosexuality is experienced by gays and lesbians as being essential to their souls, and that is what matters when it comes to compassion. Subjective feeling is not sufficient for moral consideration; a serial killer may experience murder as essential to his soul too. But combined with homosexuality's capacity to bring love and holiness into life (unlike murder, bestiality, sexual abuse, and the other depravities to which my capacity to love is often analogized), its felt nature as essential to humanity means that compassion is invited, deserved, and required.
Homosexuality is real; this is all that is required of us to accept. It is not a mirage of choice or preference. And as such, as a real phenomenon, the religious question then becomes how we ought to respond to it: with repression or with love, with rejection or affirmation, with contempt or sanctification. All of these options and more are available within a traditional religious framework. But only the latter ones can be aligned with compassion.
4. Justice Is Holy
"Justice, justice, shalt thou pursue" (Deut. 16:20) has long been a watchword of spiritual progressives. Justice is holy; equality is holy; fairness is holy. These qualities, ethical monotheism tells us, matter to God. Discrimination is wrong. Fairness is right. There has been a tendency in contemporary political discourse to let the Right have God on their side, since we on the Left have liberalism, justice, and anti-discrimination on ours. This is outrageous. If the Bible is any guide at all, God is on the "side" of justice and fairness. It follows that denying same-sex couples the same benefits as opposite-sex couples is an offense to God.
Are there countervailing values that might outweigh the mandate for fairness? Perhaps, some might argue. But that does not remove the basic principle that fairness is holy and unfairness is a sin, making injustice at best a necessary evil that would need to be justified by extremely pressing reasons. Gay rights is a religious issue because equality matters to God.
5. Because the Hebrew Bible Doesn't Say What the Right Says it Does
Gay rights is also a religious issue because anti-gay forces are misrepresenting what the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament say, and thus distorting the word of God. This should be of concern to all religionists. It is what Jews call a chillul hashem, a profanation of the Name, to twist scripture beyond its meaning to justify cruelty and fear. Thus to the extent that is taking place in the cases of Leviticus and Romans, it is of concern to all religious people even apart from the experiences of gays.
The most important aspect of these "problem texts" is that they are ambiguous. For this reason, when we turn to them, we do so bearing in mind the insights of the first four arguments. How we read these ambiguous verses depends on the fundamental values we bring to bear on interpreting them. Thus my claim is not (and need not be) that these readings are the only ones possible—just that they are the only ones consonant with our fundamental religious values.
This is not the place for a detailed reading of Leviticus 18:22, but briefly, we can note three aspects of it. First, the verse only discusses men. At the very least, 50 percent of gay people (i.e., lesbians) are completely untouched by it. To suggest that Leviticus prohibits lesbianism has no basis either in traditional Jewish law or in the plain meaning of the verse. Second, the verse only discusses, at most, anal sex. Again, both the plain meaning of the verse and the Jewish interpretive tradition (e.g., Rashi) make clear that "the lyings of woman" means, in the case of two men, penetrative anal sex. Of course, there is a longstanding Jewish tradition to "build a fence around the Torah" and prohibit acts that, while themselves permissible, might lead to prohibited conduct. However, let's not pretend that's in the Torah; the verse itself prohibits, at most, anal sex. Third, whatever the prohibition is, it is of the same class—toevah—as remarriage (Deut. 24:4) and Egyptians eating with shepherds (Gen. 46:34). The only thing that is "abomination" about homosexuality is the word "abomination" itself, a total mistranslation that has no basis in Hebraic text.
6. Because the New Testament Doesn't Say What the Right Says It Does
New Testament texts are also quite different from how anti-gay forces present them. Homosexuality is scarcely mentioned in the New Testament (surprisingly, given its cultural context) and never by Jesus. As many scholars have observed, the condemnation in Romans 1:26-27 has almost nothing to do with contemporary understandings of homosexuality. Those verses read: "For this reason God gave them up to dishonourable passions. Their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural, and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in their own persons the due penalty for their error." First, "their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural" was understood by Augustine, Clement of Alexandria, and all other early Church Fathers as referring to anal sex, not lesbianism. Second, "men committing unseemly acts with men" is about pederasty rather than homosexuality—the latter Greek term is arsen, which refers to young men, not aner, which refers to adults. Third, the clause "for this reason" explains that these sexual acts are the consequences, not the causes, of wrongdoing, which Romans 1:19-25 makes clear, is the veneration of images and idols. Fourth, the verses after 27 make clear that the real problem is not "homosexuality" (a nineteenth-century concept) but passing judgment when one is guilty oneself.
These introductory points are, of course, just that. But the central point is that these texts can be read as anti-gay only by extrapolating them from their historical and textual contexts, distorting the meanings of their plain words, and, of course, blowing them completely out of proportion to the other 23,212 verses in the Hebrew Bible and 7,957 verses in the New Testament. None of the contemporary arguments against homosexuality—"untrammeled homosexuality can take over and destroy a social system," according to the Family Research Council's Paul Cameron; homosexuality "is a sickness, and it needs to be treated" according to Pat Robertson; or it will lead to "a breakdown in social organizations," according to FRC's Robert Knight—are present in these texts.
If we value the Bible, we should not let bigots hijack and distort it to justify their fears to themselves and others. (So too with the "sin of Sodom," which both Jewish and Christian sources long regarded as greed or inhospitality.) Whatever these problematic texts mean, they do not mean what the bigots say, and religious people should defend our sacred texts.
7. Evolution of Religious Doctrine Is Healthy
Naturally, a pro-gay reading of scripture is not the only possible one: one may choose to read Leviticus broadly, Romans expansively, and 1 Corinthians selectively. Even the search for the "plain meaning" of the texts is an act of interpretation. Thus the question is not whether to interpret Scripture but how to do so. And when one reflects on two thousand years of biblical interpretation, it is clear that our readings of the Bible have indeed evolved as the human race has evolved. We have read slavery out of the Old and New Testaments. We have changed how we understand Eve being a "help-meet" to Adam. Our rabbis and church fathers have even read troubling texts virtually out of existence.
This is all part of healthy religious development. Do we really want, as religionists, a hidebound faith that never changes? Is there a case in which fundamentalism and ultra-conservativism has led a religion to thrive? Movements of progression and regression, to be sure—but overall, religion evolves and that is why it remains vibrant. The plasticity of religious thought is as responsible for its durability as its commitment to core values is. For example, most of us no longer believe the world is 6,000 years old. If being religious depended upon such a view, we would be forced to abandon religion. Yet it does not.
Likewise in the case of homosexuality. To be sure, same-sex marriage is not found in the Bible. (Intermarriage and interracial marriage are, as in the cases of Moses and Solomon, as is a lasting covenant of love between David and Jonathan.) But the extension of the values of marriage—love, commitment, fidelity, trust, family—to same-sex couples is an adaptation of religious consciousness, not a rejection of it. For religion to endure, it needs both strong roots and expansive branches. Gay rights is the latest in a long line of moral questions to challenge religion and cause it to grow. This is a good thing.
8. Curbing Brutishness Is the Point
Building on point number seven, there is a specific kind of moral growth that gay rights brings about: a transcendence of traditional gender categories and primitive ideas about who men and women are. That these ideas are constructions of culture may be seen simply by traveling to places where men hold hands or women throw spears. But they are also particular kinds of constructions, which tend to reinforce a reductive view of brutish, mean men and delicate, wispy women dependent upon them.
Judaism and Christianity, in particular, have never held such primitive notions of gender in high regard. Goliath is not a Jewish hero; the lithe King David is. "Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, says the Lord." Christian saints submit to the will of God, submit even to the sword, just as Christ himself gave his life on the cross. While religion has all too often been allied with brute force, its directives and mandates point in the opposite direction: toward more gentleness and more curbing of our animal natures.
Acceptance of sexual diversity is, particularly for many heterosexually identified men, not unlike feminism in this regard: it is one more way to query and perhaps curb culturally or instinctually prescribed notions of masculinity, in a morally significant way. In the Bible, God does not endorse brutishness, but rather our aspiration to be better, kinder, and more like angels than animals. The embrace of sexual diversity is a valuable step forward along this path.
9. Because the Separation of Church and State Helps the Church
One reason liberals avoid making religious arguments in the public sphere is their deeply held belief in the separation of church and state. Generally, this is framed in terms of the neutrality or secularism of the public square and in terms of protecting our government and institutions from incursions by religion.
Yet one of the most memorable metaphors for this system, "a wall of separation" between church and state, was coined by Roger Williams in 1644 not to protect the pristine sphere of politics from pollution by religion, but to protect pure religion from corruption by politics. Williams called for "a hedge or wall of separation between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world." Indeed, for spiritual progressives, Williams's warning is all the more powerful today. Many of us have sat in pews and watched our spiritual leaders espouse deeply troubling political views. We have watched how money and power have distorted churches, synagogues, and mosques. And we have seen how religion is often employed not as a check on human selfishness but as an aggrandizement to it.
Gay rights is a religious issue because its use as a political wedge issue has distorted church teaching and politicized religion. As we have seen in Iran, Israel, Ireland, and around the world, political power distorts religious life, leading to more competition, corruption, and outright venality on the part of our clerics. Of course, as individuals, we can and should allow our political choices to be informed by our religious views. But the baldly religious terms in which our current debate on homosexuality is being conducted distorts religion (as we have already seen) and involves the sacred too much with the profane. (Of course, my arguments here are susceptible to the same critique. However, my claim is that, if we are going to have a religious argument, it is political suicide for the argument to be religious on one side only.) For the good of religion, its leaders should stay out of political decisions involving power, coercion, and privilege.
10. Sexual Diversity Is a Beautiful Part of God's Creation
I learned in primary school that "God don't make no mistakes." Reflecting on the existence of homosexuality in over 1,500 animal species and in every human culture around the world, then, one pauses to wonder and speculate as to the particular gifts of gayness. Evolutionarily, some have speculated that homosexual individuals, who presumably do not procreate, care for the good of the group. Socially, LGBT people have often taken roles as artists, healers, and shamans, in forms both profound and absurd ("Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" is, one might say, capitalist shamanism). Spiritually, some in the gay community have sought particularly gay modes of relating to spirituality as liminal, "third sex" individuals who reflect on conventional constructions of gender from a fortunate place beyond them. And intellectually, we have every reason to expect that the liberation of sexual minorities will add as much to our cultural life as did the liberation of women—more perspectives, more questions, more complications, and thus more life.
However we understand the gifts of homosexuality, accepting sexual diversity leads to an appreciation of the gorgeous mosaic of God's erotic creation. Emerging as we still are from centuries of oppression, gay people have only begun to inquire into the unique gifts they bring to humanity. Yet the basic notion that sexual diversity is part of God's manifestation in the world, not a deviation from it, informs how we appreciate those who express their gender and sexuality in ways different from our own. Informs—and inspires.
These are but ten reasons—there are many more—why full equality for sexual minorities should be seen not as some accommodation of religion to a secular norm, but as a religious value itself. They are intended to be public reasons, that is, reasons that can be explored and discussed objectively regardless of our personal experience. But if there is an eleventh reason I would add, it would be of necessity a "private" one: that every religious sinew in my body leans in the direction of liberation, love, and holiness. I have known life as a closeted gay man, and so I have the experience that many of my interlocutors do not. They presume, on television and online, to know me better than I do. They tell me that what I know of my soul is incorrect, that really I am making a wrong choice and turning astray.
But I, like other gay religious people, know that they have it exactly backwards. When my soul turns toward God, it turns toward more love, enduring bonds, and the fulfillment of human potential—and those are precisely the qualities engendered by loving and holy sexual expression, homo, bi, or hetero. When I doubt myself and turn to the side of fear and repression (and its inevitable shadow, lashing out in lust), I feel the eclipse of God in my heart and in my body. I feel a terrible coldness creep over me, and an alienation that is not unlike the loneliness Dante describes in hell.
I cannot extrapolate public norms from these subjective experiences. But insofar as the discerning mind and open heart can ever be relied upon, I know in which direction sanctity lies. Of love, there is no doubt.
Jay Michaelson is the author of Everything is God: The Radical Path of Nondual Judaism and other books. He is also a columnist for the Forward, the Huffington Post, Zeek, and Reality Sandwich magazine, and director of Nehirim: GLBT Jewish Culture & Spirituality.
Michaelson, Jay. 2010. Ten Reasons Why Gay Rights Is a Religious Issue. Tikkun 25(4): 34