The Bible Tells Me So
Religion in the Heartland is more complex than those
of us in the blue states sometimes think
By Vicki Haddock, Insight Staff Writer
Francisco Chronicle, December 12, 2004
“Dear President Bush ...” begins a satirical screed
that was popular on the e-mail circuit after the election, “Thank you so
much for doing so much to educate people regarding God’s Law. ... When
someone tries to defend the homosexual lifestyle, for example, I simply remind
them that Leviticus 18:22 clearly states it to be an abomination.”
The letter writer then wryly proceeds to explore other
implications of applying the biblical laws of Leviticus to modern life:
“Leviticus 25:44 states that I may possess slaves, both
male and female, provided they are purchased from neighboring nations. A
friend of mine claims that this applies to Mexicans, but not Canadians. Can
you clarify? Why can’t I own Canadians?”
“I know from Leviticus 11:6-8 that touching the skin of
a dead pig makes me unclean, but may I still play football if I wear
“My uncle has a farm. He violates Leviticus 19:19 by
planting two different crops in the same field, as does his wife, by wearing
garments made of two different kinds of thread (cotton/polyester blend.) He
also tends to curse and blaspheme a lot. Is it really necessary that we go to
all the trouble of getting the whole town together to stone them, as suggested
by Leviticus 24: 10-16? Couldn’t we just burn them to death at a private
family affair, like we do with people who sleep with their in-laws as per
The litany of deadpan queries concludes with faux
gratitude to Bush, who boosted his electoral margin by advocating an amendment
to the U.S. Constitution to ban gay marriage: “Thank you again for reminding
us that God’s word is eternal and unchanging.”
The e-mail is facetious, but it also reflects what
serious Christians on both sides of the cultural divide are doing these days:
returning to Scripture to help them reconcile their traditional view of sin
with the shifting sands of modern society.
The words of the Bible lie at the heart of the United
States’ broad rejection of equal rights for gay and lesbian citizens. But
there is vociferous disagreement about the meaning of those words.
Increasingly, churches are consulting scholars, parsing Hebrew and Greek
terminology, sponsoring in-depth discussion forums and commissioning research
to examine exactly what the Bible says, and what passages written thousands of
years ago when concubines were the norm, mean for 2005.
Here in the Bay Area—or Sodom and Gomorrah, as our
region has been nicknamed by the region we have nicknamed the Bible
Belt—many residents have trouble grasping the roots of the religious
objections others have to homosexuality.
It’s easy for people here, most of whom either know
gays and lesbians or are gay or lesbian themselves, to dismiss anyone holding
such objections as hate-filled and homophobic. But those labels seem unjustly
harsh to many people who rely on what they believe is God’s guidebook about
a host of contemporary mores.
Nor can the setback of same-sex marriage be ascribed
merely to hateful homophobes—there aren’t enough of them, thank God.
Voters in November rejected same-sex marriage in 11 states, just as voters in
several other states including California had already done.
Although several religions cast a wary eye on
homosexuality, in the United States it is a uniquely divisive political issue
among Christians. Conservative and fundamentalist preachers—including some
whose sermons are broadcast every Sunday morning in the Bay Area—told their
listeners that the institution of heterosexual marriage is under siege and
needs their protection. On Election Day, the religious right heeded that
clarion call in record numbers.
What difference does this make to Americans of other
faiths, or no faith at all? Simply that they may understand the current
political impasse better by recognizing what fosters the resistance raised by
many Christians. This isn’t just theology anymore—it’s politics, and
pivotal politics at that.
The tale of Sodom and Gomorrah is a good place to begin,
because it is the origin of the very word once used to criminalize sex among
gay men—sodomy. What exactly constituted the wickedness that triggered the
destruction of the twin cities of Sodom and Gomorrah?
The story related in Genesis is that a man living in
Sodom named Lot took in two angels disguised as men to be his houseguests. In
the middle of the night, a mob of local men demanded that Lot surrender his
guests so they could have sex with them. Lot refused and, amazingly, offered
up his two virgin daughters to the mob instead.
Genesis says Sodom and nearby Gomorrah were consequently
demolished by “sulfur and fire from the Lord.”
In context, the tale doesn’t read as an indictment of
consensual gay sex—it’s a sickening denouncement of gang rape. The prophet
Ezekiel later quotes God as enumerating Sodom’s fatal flaws, and one could
argue that these Sodomites sound about as similar to certain televangelists as
to your basic resident of the Castro: They were overly proud, haughty,
gluttonous and indifferent to the poor and needy.
Elsewhere, the Old Testament is clearer. Leviticus 20:13
states, “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have
committed an abomination and shall be put to death.”
Still, nobody today—not even the most fundamental of
fundamentalists—follows in a literal way every one of the hundreds of laws
of Exodus and Leviticus, which mix universal ethics with cultural taboos. If
they did, our society would still be stoning adulterers, not to mention
executing anyone who curses their parents or works on the Sabbath.
But for every discarded law—say, for example, the one
prohibiting men from getting their hair trimmed around their temples—there
are others that form the foundation of modern jurisprudence, including bans on
incest, theft and murder.
For Christians, the New Testament teachings of Jesus and
his disciples take precedence over some of the Old Testament prescriptions and
cancel them out—that’s why Christians don’t follow the Jewish diet of
“keeping kosher. “
On relations of gays and lesbians, however, Jesus Christ
That the early Christian church continued to perpetuate
the dim view of homosexuality is conveyed via the epistles of Paul, best known
as the apostle who spread Christianity from its Jewish origins to Gentiles
throughout the Roman Empire.
Writing to the fledgling church in Rome, Paul offered gay
and lesbian sex among a list of 23 activities committed by Gentiles that
debased them and incurred God’s wrath. He described it as exchanging the
“natural” for the “unnatural.” Another letter from Paul to the church
in Corinth lists “sodomites” along with “fornicators, idolaters,
adulterers and male prostitutes” as “wrongdoers who will not inherit the
kingdom of God.”
Not that Paul was a strong proponent of heterosexual
marriage—to the contrary, he advocated celibacy as spiritually superior. But
he allowed that if people lacked the self-control to abstain from sex, they at
least should confine it to marriage.
Many leaders of the early Christian church subscribed to
the theory articulated by Augustine, that sexual desire was evil even in
marriage, but forgivable if couples engaged in intercourse for the purpose of
It is true the Bible says nothing overtly positive about
homosexuality, although some scholars have tried reading between the
lines—discerning, for example, a subliminal gay relationship between the Old
Testament’s King David and his beloved friend Jonathan.
Only in recent decades have Christians begun to
reconsider the enduring view that gay sex is immoral. A small minority of
churches has begun to bless gay unions, but with the increasing social
acceptance of civil rights for gays and lesbians, other churches have more
forcefully condemned such marriages.
The nation’s Roman Catholic bishops are kicking off a
crusade to defend traditional marriage, expressing the hope that the focus on
“moral values” in the presidential election’s exit polls will “lead to
real action to ... defend marriage.” Southern Baptists and members of the
Assemblies of God are fighting to defeat what they call the “homosexual
The debate threatens to rip apart many mainline
congregations of Episcopalians, Lutherans, Methodists and Presbyterians,
leading those denominations to initiate an intensive appraisal of their
At issue is a question that probes the core of
Christianity: How literally should Scripture be interpreted?
Fundamentalists maintain that every scintilla of
Scripture reveals divine instruction. They are propelled by this adherence to
a strict, literal interpretation of the Bible—remember that they view
straight people who have sex outside of marriage with a similar moral
For these believers, the church loses its bearings when
individual Christians pick and choose which passages to follow and which to
jettison—or as philosopher/rocker Bob Seger would say, “what to leave in,
what to leave out.”
But over time, nearly all Christian churches have opted
to disregard certain Old and New Testament prohibitions—against women
speaking or appearing without their heads covered in church, for example—as
applicable to the year A.D. 60 but outdated two millennia later.
For centuries, Christians who practiced slavery cited
biblical support, noting that Paul explicitly urged slaves to “obey your
masters,” although only the KKK fringe of the Christian right would today
argue for reinstituting the slave trade.
Theologically liberal Christians argue that specific
biblical taboos are open to reinterpretation, and superseded by more important
universal commandments, such as Jesus’ admonishment to love your neighbor as
They contend that God intended believers to incorporate
scientific enlightenment into their reading of often allegorical
Scripture—say, for instance, when the Bible suggests the sun moves around
the Earth but astronomy demonstrates otherwise. Or when the Bible suggests gay
sex is a sinful choice while modern science says it’s the result of
The “moral values” debate cuts to the quick. That’s
because one side feels its faith is under attack while the other feels its
sexuality is under assault.
Christians troubled by homosexuality object to being
labeled homophobic bigots and “punished” for their beliefs. In Sweden, a
Pentecostal pastor recently was sentenced to a month in jail for violating
that country’s hate- speech law after he delivered a sermon against
Gays and lesbians object to the use of religious
tenets—sometimes awash in vitriol—to deny them their pursuit of happiness.
The Web site www.godhatesfags.com
claims that San Francisco coach Diane Whipple—a lesbian who was the victim
of a vicious dog mauling—“has been in hell for 1,398 days and counting.
Deal with it! All else is trivial and unimportant. All the fag caterwauling,
candlelight vigils, court orders, etc., can’t buy these perverts one drop of
water to cool their tongues.”
Fortunately, most people on both sides of the gay rights
debate recognize the importance of finding a more humane, tolerant way to
contemplate their differences and seek understanding.
In a perfect world, perhaps, political liberals would
honor the right of conservative Christians to morally oppose certain types of
sexual activity, much as they respect the right of vegans to morally oppose
eating animal products. And conservative Christians would recognize the
difference between holding personal moral beliefs and requiring their
government to legally impose them on everyone.
For now, however, a perfect world seems rather far away.
[Home] [Editorials] [USA]