Religious Views of Homosexuality

Dawne Moon. Handbook of Lesbian and Gay Studies. Editor: Diane Richardson & Steven Seidman. 2002. Sage Publication.

Religion is a solemn affair, heavy with pretension, and lumpy with love. Listening to a religious debate on sex is like reading an academic thesis on jokes. It misses the point.

This chapter focuses on Western religious views of homosexuality. Current debates about such topics as same-sex marriage involve many complicated and subtle arguments, but these debates are easier to understand if we start by sorting out two main themes: nature and scripture. This chapter begins by looking at scholarly and theological approaches to the traditional assumption that homosexuality is ‘unnatural.’ It looks at two different, sometimes competing definitions of nature, one a scientific definition and the other a moral definition, and shows how these definitions fit into Western religious worldviews. It then examines different approaches to scripture. Focusing on two different ways people can approach scripture, it shows how different religious thinkers select parts of their scripture and traditions to argue either that homosexuality is sinful or that it is compatible with a righteous life.

The chapter then looks briefly at contemporary debates about same-sex marriage, showing how concerns about tradition and social change are shaped by differing views about nature, scripture, and God. Overall, I show that, from a sociological perspective, religions are inherently neither pro-gay nor anti-gay, and that people can use the same approaches within a religion to argue very different things. I conclude by suggesting questions for future research into religious debates and attitudes about homosexuality.

Nature, Science, and Morality

For those coming from a Western perspective, nature is a key theme in discussions of religion, morality, and sex. ‘Crime against nature’ was the traditional English euphemism for sexual transgressions, and many of the religious debates about homosexuality in the West implicitly or explicitly center around the question of whether homosexuality is unnatural. As Dutch scholar Pim Pronk (1993) points out, however, arguments based on a language of nature tend to confound different meanings of the word natural. While Pronk focuses on three aspects of nature, I will modify his approach for our purposes here and highlight two. The first formulation of what is natural pertains to science, as in that which may be observed in the natural world. The second formulation of nature is the Ancient Greek one, also used by the Apostle Paul, in which natural means moral. Many of the debates in Christianity and Judaism are confounded, as Pronk shows, when people use competing definitions of nature without acknowledging them. Regardless, it is clear that people may base claims about homosexuality in ideas about nature, whether their intentions are pro-gay or anti-gay.

This section examines various challenges within religious groups to the common-sense assumption that homosexuality is unnatural. It starts by looking at how people participating in these religious debates use cross-cultural evidence and Western historical evidence to challenge the idea that human beings naturally reject homosexuality. It then looks at how pro-gay religious thinkers may challenge the assumption that contemporary, dominant standards of sexual behavior could exist for every society throughout time. I then examine pro-gay attempts to argue that homosexuality is natural by using evidence from science, and show how these uses of nature can help us as scholars to shape questions for study. In the final part of this section, I look at the argument that sex is naturally for reproduction, an argument which uses a moral rather than scientific definition of nature. By looking at this argument and the pro-gay challenge to it, we begin to see how people with different viewpoints can understand the same passage of scripture to mean very different things about the moral status of homosexuality.

Arguments about nature shape contemporary Western debates about homosexuality, as anti-gay religious thinkers assume that homosexuality is unnatural and their pro-gay counterparts must challenge that assumption. Many religious thinkers assume that homosexuality is a sign of humanity’s fall, that human beings were created heterosexual and that homosexuality is a part of society’s degeneration. Others argue that God did not necessarily create human beings to be heterosexual in the first place. These thinkers refer to secular gay and lesbian scholarship which has shown, for example, that sexuality differs across different cultures, establishing that humanity is not inherently, or by nature, ‘heterosexual.’ Anthropologist Gilbert Herdt, for instance, contributed a great deal to Western understandings of sexual variation in his studies of ritual homosexuality in Melanesia, where he observed that oral sex between young initiate boys and older boys was a ritualized phase of life (Herdt, 1981; Herdt and Stoller, 1990). Walter L. Williams (1986), Will Roscoe (1997) and Paula Gunn-Allen (1981, 1986) made similar contributions in their writings about Native American berdaches. In a number of Native American nations, aberdache was, or is, a person who was thought to have especial spiritual power by embodying both male and female attributes, and most often was someone with a male body but who wore women’s clothes and married a man (sometimes as a second wife), or a person with a female body who served the traditionally male role as a hunter or warrior and who sometimes had a wife (see Baum, 1993, for an extensive overview). Such scholarship refutes the claim that human beings all by nature share traditional Western taboos around sex and gender.

A second way scholars have challenged the common sense that homosexuality has been everywhere and always considered ‘unnatural’ has been to examine Western history itself. Historians of the European tradition have uncovered information about various forms of homosexuality in the so-called Western tradition, such as Bernard Sergent’s (1986 [1984]) and David Halperin’s (1989, 1993) work on ancient Greece and John Boswell’s (1980, 1994) studies of early and pre-modern Christianity in Europe. These scholars have pointed out that not only do different human societies and human religions recognize same-sex sexual practices as legitimate or even sacred, but even early Western philosophers did not share the beliefs about sex that tend to prevail in the West today.

For example, arguing that much historical research tends to be shaped by the researchers’ own prejudices against homosexuality, Boswell uncovers evidence of same-sex relationships between Saints Serge and Bacchus and Saints Perpetua and Felicitas. He argues that these relationships were intimate and were not seriously condemned throughout the first millennium of Christianity. Boswell and others (most notably Horner, 1978) also go so far as to argue that the Bible itself gives evidence of same-sex intimate love, for instance, the love of Jonathan and David, which ‘passed the love of women’ (II Samuel 1: 26) and even the relationship between John, the beloved disciple, and Jesus, who, upon his death referred to his own mother as John’s mother (John 19: 26-7). These thinkers show that homosexuality may not have always been considered unnatural or wrong, even in Western religious traditions.

While some theologians draw from such scholarship to show that homosexuality has not always and everywhere been considered sinful or wrong, others assert that people of faith should not give modern categories of sexuality religious significance, as our contemporary system of sexual categories has not always existed. Many scholars, most famously Michel Foucault (1978), have pointed out that the terms heterosexuality and homosexuality did not even exist until they were coined by doctors in late nineteenth century Europe, and thus, our conventional ways of attributing different sexual practices to specifickinds of people can hardly be considered either universal or ‘natural.’ In keeping with this historicizing trend, biblical scholars such as Robin Scroggs (1983) and Tom Horner (1978) have pointed out that the way sex has organized people’s lives in nineteenth- or twentieth-century Europe and North America was unheard of in biblical times (and vice versa). People making this argument believe that the timeless message of religion is, overall, to help people to treat each other with love and compassion, and that these ethics apply to all people regardless of sexual orientation (see also Olyan, 1997, Scanzoni and Mollenkott, 1994).

Foucault sees as peculiar contemporary Western society’s notion that humanity is naturally divided into the two distinct species of heterosexuals and homosexuals. However, many pro-gay religious thinkers (gay and non-gay) believe that our contemporary sexual categories have existed for all time and are, in that sense, natural. They argue that gay men and lesbians are born gay or lesbian. In this view, since gay men and lesbians are made that way by God, homosexuality is part of God’s good creation and cannot be considered unnatural or sinful. Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong (1988), for instance, argues that sexuality is determined in fetal development and thus, God creates some people to be homosexuals. Other theologians, especially among liberal Jews and Protestants, look with hope to the day that scientists will prove that gay people are naturally and immutably gay (see, for instance, Fuller, 1994, Kahn, 1997 [1989]). In response to popular argument that Christians should ‘hate the sin and love the sinner’ (Dallas, 1991; Geis and Messer, 1994), some pro-gay church members critique the ‘hate the sin’ perspective by asserting that gay people are inherently gay. Being constituted as gay, they argue, cannot be separated from doing gay things, including having gay sex.

When people make the ‘born gay’ argument in religious contexts, they rely on the findings of science to back their moral claims, a task science was not designed to fulfil. More importantly, this perspective overlooks a key feature of many Western religious viewpoints, that people are moral agents who can choose, to some extent or other, to do what is moral, what is right, what God calls them to do. As Lewis R. Gordon reflects:

That theological discussions of homosexuality have focused on homosexuality as sin has locked gays into the world of the unnatural. It is no wonder that a discourse on the naturalness of being gay—that is, not having chosen being gay but having been born gay—has dominated gay resistance to the charge of violating nature. The defense is, however, a ‘Catch 22,’ for in denying that there is something intrinsically wrong with being gay, one need also assert that one would choose to be gay if one were to have the choice. It is an existential positioning of a simple ethical challenge: is not part of loving oneself the willingness to choose, eternally, to be oneself? (1998: 175).

When pro-gay people of faith try to make their religious communities support gay people by insisting that gay people have no choice, they deny that gay people may have the ability to act as full participants in religious life. In effect, what eludes many pro-gay liberals, is the possibility that gay people may be called to be gay; that God might demand that they live with integrity as they challenge their societies’ family, gender and sexual norms. They ignore that choosing to live as gay, or lesbian or bisexual or queer might itself be a moral choice to make.

The question, then, for queer scholars, is why so many pro-gay people of faith base their arguments about homosexuality on discourses of science rather than on discourses of morality. Why is it so difficult for many people to imagine the possibility that God would want, demand, and ask people to choose to run against the social conventions of man-woman marriage, including by being lesbian, transgendered, gay or bisexual (or, for that matter, ex-gay)? What happens to religious beliefs if they start from the assumption that sex between (or among) some people of the same sex is good, rather than in need of justification?3 What makes that assumption so difficult to imagine, even for people who believe in an omnipotent and infinite God?

At one level, as we have seen, when Western religious participants in debates about homosexuality invoke the theme of nature, they focus on a question of creation—what is or has been observable in human creation, and whether the acceptance of same-sex sexual orientations or sexual fluidity fits into that. Another view of nature in Western thought characterizes a behavior as unnatural if it is not what God intends for people to do, if it is considered wrong. Many Roman Catholics, Protestants, Jews and Muslims point to God’s creating Adam and Eve, and commanding them to ‘be fruitful and multiply’ as evidence both that human beings are supposed to be have sex only within one-man-one-woman marriage and that homosexuality is therefore wrong, or unnatural. As they say on the talk-shows: ‘God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.’ The popular Jewish intellectual and talk-show host Denis Prager elaborates:

In order to become fully human, male and female must join. In the words of Genesis, ‘God created the human … male and female He created them.’ The union of male and female is not merely some lovely ideal; it is the essence of the biblical outlook on becoming human. To deny it is tantamount to denying a primary purpose in life. (1997 [1990]: 65)

For many people, the story of Adam and Eve is the central story of God’s creation. For Prager and others, it is a story of hetero-sexuality as an essential component of being human (see also Novak, 1998).

Detractors criticize this argument in several ways. Some maintain that the statement, ‘God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them’ (Genesis 1: 27—including the part that Prager, curiously, chose to leave out) points to the maleness and femaleness of God and all persons, which in itself runs contrary to heterosexist thinking (for instance, see Goss, 1993 and Trible, 1987). Others point out that if human beings were all created in God’s image, then that includes gay people (see, for instance, Alpert, 1989; Goss, 1993; Nelson, 1978; Sarah, 1995; Shulman, 1995). These commentaries look deeply into human understandings of nature and God and challenge the sexism of much religious thought. However, they tend to assume that gay people are a different kindof person, with a different nature. With the exception of Nelson, these commentaries do not confront the central assumption that God does not intend for people to engage in erotic practices with people of their same sex.

Prager’s argument that marriage and reproduction are primary purposes in life echoes much of Roman Catholic thought, which is best elaborated in what is known as Natural Law philosophy. This philosophy relies heavily on a view of nature as moral. For instance, John Finnis (1995) argues that male-female marriage is intrinsically good and therefore natural, while non-marital sexuality, including homosexuality, is not good and therefore, not natural. Finnis argues that companionship, not reproduction, is the ultimate and good end product of the marital union of man and woman. However, he claims, ‘parenthood and children and family are the intrinsic fulfillment of a communion which, because it is not merely instrumental, can exist and fulfill the spouses even if procreation happens to be impossible for them’ (1995: 27). In Finnis’s view, sexual activity outside of reproductive marriage—including homosexuality, prostitution, masturbation and ‘deliberately contracepted’ intercourse (within or outside the institution of marriage)—cannot provide the fulfillment of companionship and is pleasurable only as an individual, physical outlet.

This view is based on circular logic. It says that homosexuality and these other practices are wrong because they are not spiritually fulfilling, and that they are unfulfilling because they are wrong. Many religious thinkers, such as Michael J. Perry (1995), point out such logical flaws, and argue that if companionship and fulfillment are the purposes of intimate relationships, then whether or not a couple can or chooses to reproduce is irrelevant. Taking the critique a step further, and directing it toward those Protestants who argue that sex is primarily for reproduction, Eugene Rogers (1998) argues that the purpose of sex is not to fulfil an instrumental goal of producing children, but to help human beings to experience the love and desire God has for them.

In Rogers’s argument, people should see having children as a gift of grace, not as a mandate or near-requirement of being human. In his view, God’s amazing gift of love is itself what humanity should focus on. Rogers says:

The shock and wonder of God’s self-determining love in creation has a better analogy, according to biblical metaphor, in the contingency of the love of one human being for another, than in procreation …

As traditional marriage and childrearing are gifts of grace more than human achievements, and means of sanctification more than satisfaction, so too monogamous, committed gay and lesbian relationships are also gifts of grace, means of sanctification, upbuilding of the community of the people of God.

The chief end of sex is not to make children of human beings, but to make children of God. And Christians best imitate God’s relation to them as children not when they bear and beget them, but when they adopt them. (Rogers, 1998: 138-41)

For Rogers, then, the self-giving of committed relationships mirrors God’s choice to love and foster humanity. Therefore, in his argument, simply reproducing out of duty has less to do with God’s covenant with humanity than do the relationships where someone chooses to commit to love another, such as in adoption or in a chosen committed love relationship. Given today’s tremendous social pressures to form heterosexual and not same-sex unions, Rogers implies that same-sex relationships have the potential to be more freely chosen and thus more like God’s covenant with humanity than conventional relationships, although he does not go so far as to make that claim.

The distinction between Finnis and Rogers has to do with a great deal more than the fact that one is Roman Catholic and the other Protestant, as many Protestants also believe that same-sex sexual activity is wrong partly because it cannot lead to reproduction. The difference between these views of sexuality comes not only from different understandings of how God created human nature, but also from different understandings of how God intends for people to use Scripture. For Finnis, Prager, and others like them, the story of Adam and Eve is an allegory about why male and female should be united in reproductive (or reproductive-looking) heterosexuality. For Rogers and others like him, the story of Adam and Eve is a story not about the mandate to reproduce, but about the mandate to love, regardless of gender or sexual orientation.

These examples show how people of faith can use the same scriptures, but arrive at vastly different conclusions about how God created human nature and what God intends for people. The next section looks more closely at different approaches to the parts of scripture that people often invoke in debates about homosexuality.

Scripture and Homosexuality

Just as nature may be invoked for either pro-gay or anti-gay ends, people also invoke scripture to determine what is moral, but they may come to either pro-gay or anti-gay conclusions. When considering scripture, it is important to keep in mind the comment of Hendrik Hart in his 1993 foreword to Pronk’s work, that Christians have an authoritative text, with no authoritative reading of it. When we analyse the ways that people (Christian or otherwise) use religious writings, we should ask such questions as: when do people choose one text over another, or ignore a text completely? In what historical, social, economic conditions are different texts or approaches to texts favored? What possible interpretations are unthinkable to people, and why?

This section begins by defining the terms modernism and fundamentalism, showing why we must be careful not to categorize people in debates about homosexuality as modernists or fundamentalists. I then distinguish between two ways of reading scripture, literalism and contextualism, and examine literalist readings of the scriptures that are seen as condemning homosexuality, and pro-gay contextual views of those passages. Finally, I look at more literalist readings of scripture as they are used for pro-gay ends.

Many people see debates about homosexuality as battles between fundamentalists and modernists. While this distinction does not help us to understand why some people think homosexuality is sinful and why others do not, this century-old split provides the backdrop for today’s debates about homosexuality. Fundamentalism, in Judaism, Christianity and Islam, can be loosely defined for our purposes as a belief that scriptural truths are spelled out in the text as written, and that the written truths of scripture constitute God’s clear and unconflicted will for all times. Modernism emerged in the USA and Europe when science began to show that the Bible did not correctly explain everything in the universe. Seeking to reconcile the tensions between science and the scripture, some people began to understand God’s truth as constantly being revealed to people, a view which, by extension, saw social change as moving towards God’s ideal rather than away from it. In this view, furthermore, scripture began to be seen as the stories told, and eventually written, to help people to understand the world and live well in it; truth could be found in these stories, but a truth which lay in their overarching messages rather than in their specific words and images.

While fundamentalism and modernism do shape today’s debates about homosexuality, we must not be too quick to stereotype holders of various viewpoints on homosexuality as modernists or fundamentalists, as these monikers obscure more than they explain. While James Davison Hunter (1991) and Robert Wuthnow (1988) both see a radical division in the USA, separating two opposed camps in what Hunter calls a culture war, much sociological evidence suggests that many people are more ambivalent about homosexuality, and many people try to resolve the conflicting arguments and feelings that these debates invoke (Williams, 1997).

Furthermore, many people can seem to adhere to either modernism or to fundamentalism, while holding a view about homosexuality that seems, on the surface, not to go with these other beliefs. For instance, the United Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches (MCC) is a Protestant denomination which maintains fairly conservative beliefs about how to understand scripture and the nature of Jesus and salvation, while maintaining that homosexuality conflicts in no way with Christian teaching (Warner, 1995). On the other hand, other people can hold modernist views about women’s roles and evolution, while still maintaining that homosexuality is sinful.

Because the split between fundamentalism and modernism is so politically loaded, these terms are not the most clear or useful for characterizing different approaches to scripture. Many people instead see the main divide as falling between literalists, those who take scriptures as word-for-word truth, and contextualists, those who believe that the truth carried by scripture is bigger than human language, and must be understood in the context in which it was read in order for people to begin to discern the greater truths within. Again, characterizing people as literalists or contextualists is not the most useful strategy for understanding these debates, since most people use both more literal-seeming and more context-based readings of scripture.

Very few believers take every word of scripture literally. For instance, even though Jesus is reported to have said ‘if your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out,’ very few of his contemporary followers would believe that Jesus wants people gouging out their eyes. Likewise, almost all believers take at least some part of scripture literally. For instance, one would be hard-pressed to find any Jews, Muslims or Christians who would say that ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you’ is unimportant for today. The question for students of religious belief and behavior is when people decide to take a certain part of scripture literally, and when people decide to take it as rooted in its own time, as metaphor or as allegory. Our task is to understand contemporary society historically, understand why particular readings make sense, what is at stake for those people who believe homosexuality to fit into their religion and what is at stake for those who believe homosexuality to be sinful.

People can understand the same passage of scripture to mean different things, as we have seen with the story of Adam and Eve. Those who believe that homosexuality is sinful often turn to the several scriptural passages that appear to condemn it, reading them as clear statements of God’s eternal truth. Pro-gay people, on the other hand, tend to view those passages as rooted in historical context, even though they may take other passages much more literally. I will look at different views of several such passages in turn, beginning with those that appear to condemn homosexuality.

Many of those who believe homosexuality is sinful look also to the story of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19: 1-29), where God spared the family of Lot but rained fire on the rest of his city to wipe it of its extreme and irredeemable sinfulness. For those Christians, Muslims, and Jews who believe that homosexuality is sinful, it seems clear that God’s decision to destroy the city was spurred on by the townsmen’s demands to have sex with Lot’s visitors, two male angels sent by God to see if there were any righteous people in the city. Critics of this interpretation tend to see this story as being about the lack of hospitality the townsmen showed the visitors or about the rampant rape in the story, not about the more loving and egalitarian same-sex intimacy that can exist today (see Countryman, 1988; Mariner, 1995, Scanzoni and Mollenkott, 1994, and Umansky, 1997).

Another key scriptural passage which people see as referring to homosexuality would be that found in the book of Leviticus, with its dietary restrictions, codes of dress and other laws for maintaining order and distinction. These codes include a variety of rules about sexual behavior, including prohibitions on intercourse while a woman is menstruating and sex between men (Leviticus 18: 19, 18: 22 and 20: 13). Many scholars see these rules as having been designed to distinguish the ancient Israelites from practitioners of other ancient religions, whose customs often included things forbidden to the Israelites (see Alpert, 1989; Countryman, 1988; Horner, 1978; Olyan, 1997).

As Leviticus was written down as Jewish law, Jews, Muslims and Christians tend to differ on how they interpret this book. Within Judaism, given millennia of rabbinical teaching and social change, there are widely divergent opinions about the Levitical prohibitions of sex between men. Some see those passages as wholly relevant today, and reflective of a fundamental truth about humanity (see, for instance, the analysis of Jewish anti-gay thought in Alpert, 1989; Olyan, 1997; Olyan and Nussbaum, 1998; Sarah, 1995; Solomon, 1995; Umansky, 1997). Critics, however, point out that Jewish law was written in and for a different time, a time when people assumed that marriage consisted of the absolute submission of a woman to a dominant man, and that sex between men would, in this worldview, render at least one of the men ‘submissive’ (Horner, 1978; Sarah, 1995; Scroggs, 1983). In this argument, God’s way is constantly being revealed to humanity, and society can only progress when people look past their socially ingrained ways of thinking and acting.

Muslims and Christians do not maintain Leviticus as law, and Muslims who believe homosexuality is sinful do not appear to cite this passage as much as they cite the stories of Adam and Eve and of Sodom in denouncing homosexuality. However, many Christians do invoke Leviticus to prove that homosexuality is sinful. Such uses of scripture invite us to inquire into the surrounding social conditions, to ask what makes the particular passages about intercourse between men seem essential for Christians, when the surrounding passages seem, to many people today, irrelevant.

For many Christians, the Apostle Paul’s letters to the early Christian church affirm that homosexuality is abominable (Romans 1: 26-27, I Corinthians 6: 9, I Timothy 1: 9-10). For instance, in I Corinthians 6: 9 Paul includes the ancient Greek words malakoi and arsenokoitai in a list of evildoers, which many translations of the Bible interpret to refer to any homosexuality between men. The inclusion of homosexuality as sin in the New Testament shows many Christians that homosexuality is not like other things prohibited in Levitical law, that this prohibition holds true for Christians. Detractors suggest a more contextually based reading. Acknowledging that Paul’s letters portray homosexuality as a vice, they point out that Paul also says that women should submit to their husbands (Ephesians 5: 22-24, Colossians 3: 18), that women should not speak in church or teach men (I Corinthians 14: 34-36, I Timothy 2:12), and that slaves should obey their masters (Ephesians 6: 5-8, 1 Peter 2: 18-21, Colossians 3: 22). Many people, regardless of their beliefs about homosexuality, give numerous reasons to show that these sentences do not mean today what they appear to us on the surface to mean, that these passages must be understood as rooted in the ancient context in which they were written.

Those who believe homosexuality to be sinful do not see the Apostle Paul’s proscriptions against homosexuality as requiring similarly contextual readings, and see such analyses as going to extremes to make the Bible conform to a pro-gay agenda. On the other hand, those who believe homosexuality is not sinful see the relevant passages from Romans, I Corinthians, and I Timothy as requiring contextual understandings of what same-sex sexual practices meant at the time (including man-boy and master-slave relations, as well as temple prostitution), as opposed to the kinds of relationships gay men, bisexuals and lesbians have today. A task for scholars is to understand how people draw the line between what to read more literally and what to interpret given historical context.

Many pro-gay people of these faiths argue that religious truth about homosexuality cannot be found in specific readings of scriptural texts, because societies are so different today from what they were thousands of years ago. For the truth about homosexuality, many argue that the scriptures’ overall message is that God often goes against people’s expectations and societally entrenched laws, shaking things up. For instance, the prophets in the Hebrew scriptures rejected their families and livelihoods and roamed the countryside; Ruth refused to leave her widowed and childless mother-in-law; the shepherd David grew to become the great King of the Israelites; Jesus healed on the Sabbath, associated with prostitutes and money lenders’ and taught people how to love their neighbors by telling a story of a hated Samaritan (see, for instance, Goss, 1993; Heyward, 1984, 1989; Rogers, 1998; Scanzoni and Mollenkott, 1994). Similarly, these thinkers argue gay men, lesbians, transgenderists and bisexuals listen to God when they live and love in non-traditional ways, and hold a godly potential to shake up firmly entrenched human conventions.

These thinkers draw from what they see as the overall message of scripture, the deeper truth. Those who believe that homosexuality is sinful do the same, for instance, when they advocate ministries to help gay people to overcome their homosexuality (becoming ‘ex-gay’), with reference to Jesus’s overarching message of transformation of the heart. Thus, neither literalism nor contextualism necessarily leads to particular views about homosexuality. The major thing that seems to distinguish which side a person fits on seems to be her or his own experience with sexuality and with gay people. Those whose experience forces them to see gay men, transgenderists, bisexuals and lesbians as fully equal to heterosexuals in religiously significant ways, including being loved by God and able (as much as they believe any person can) to understand God’s will. Once someone understands sexual or gender orientation as making people simply different, rather than inferior, a more ‘traditional’ reading of scripture as anti-gay ceases to make sense.

Because a large part of the scholarly theological work on homosexuality has focused on uncovering the context in which apparently anti-gay scripture was written, I have so far given a great deal of attention to pro-gay contextual readings of scripture. I have also looked briefly at anti-gay contextual uses of Scripture, and described the fairly obvious anti-gay literalist readings as well. Pro-gay people can also read scripture more literally for evidence of the acceptability of same-sex relationships to God as well. We have already seen some pro-gay uses of scriptural literalism. For instance, when scholars point to the intimate relationship between Jonathan and David, and even that between Jesus and John, they hope to show that homosexuality is indeed compatible with religious tradition, teachings and ethics. Likewise, those who refer to the scriptural statements that human beings are created in God’s image and commands to love one’s neighbor, see these passages as clearly stating an eternal truth.

One final example should serve to show how the framework of scripture can allow not only for sexual repression, but also for sexual liberation. Mary McClintock Fulkerson (1997) uses Paul’s letter to the Galatians, where he addressed church members’ concerns about whether one must be a Jew before one can be a Christian. He wrote: ‘There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus’ (Galatians 3: 28). Many readers, like Fulkerson, see this passage as denying that any worldly identity matters once people are ‘one in Christ Jesus.’ She concludes that gay men, lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered people might use the passage from Galatians to challenge the church to accept all people as full equals and members in terms of God’s infinite love and inclusion. Thus Fulkerson uses a fairly literal reading of scripture to make a radical claim about accepting sexual difference.

Today’s Debates: Social Order and Same-Sex Marriage

Many Protestant denominations and Jewish movements have debated, and continue to debate, whether or not homosexuality is compatible with religious teaching and a life of faith. Some major religious groups have allowed clergy to bless same-sex unions. Even so, because people do not have to agree with every policy of the religious group to which they belong, members of these groups still disagree over the propriety of same-sex marriage or homosexuality in general. Furthermore, debates about homosexuality and same-sex marriage rage on within such groups as Presbyterians, Lutherans, United Methodists, Quakers, American Baptists, Mennonites, Episcopalians, and the Conservative movement in Judaism. This section looks broadly at these debates about same-sex marriage, showing how concerns about tradition and social change fit in with the themes of nature and scripture that we have already explored.

Opponents of religious same-sex marriage generally believe that blessing same-sex unions would take something away from the institution of marriage. For some, like John Finnis and James P. Hanigan (1998), this means that no social recognition should be granted same-sex couples, as any recognition would show children that same-sex relationships were acceptable. Organizations like the Family Research Council, which lobby government leaders from a conservative religious perspective, argue that same-sex marriage would contribute greatly to what they see as civilization’s decay and decline, as legitimating homosexuality would reflect a greater acceptance of ways of living that seem contrary to tradition as well as ‘nature.’

For others, like ethicist Jean Bethke Elshtain (1997 [1991]), same-sex unions should be granted civil status and protections, but not be equated with marriage, as such unions lack something present in one-man-one-woman marriage. While many in this camp argue that what is lacking is the possibility of procreation, critics suggest that what is ‘lacking’ is the hierarchy of male over female, which makes same-sex relationships seem to be missing something (see, for instance, Goss, 1993; Shulman, 1995). These critics argue that same-sex marriage does not lack anything significant when compared to traditional marriage, since many same-sex couples do have children, and more importantly, since marriage is supposed to be about love and companionship, not procreation (Rogers, 1998; Solomon, 1995).

Arguments about traditional marriage and same-sex marriage relate to a similar tension that appears in many religions, a tension between tradition and social change. People like Elshtain and Finnis clearly show a concern that if the institution of marriage is consciously altered by the church, that act will dramatically erode not only tradition, but social stability. Finnis makes this most clear when he characterizes homosexuality, along with prostitution, adultery, masturbation, and contraception within marriage as all inherently selfish and animalistic. In a widely cited piece on Judaism and homosexuality, Norman Lamm (1978) also expresses concerns about the social disorder to be hastened by the acceptance of homosexuality, when he argues that same-sex marriage could lead to the widespread acceptance of necrophilia and cannibalism (also cited in Umansky, 1997) and when he accepts an earlier concern that men will leave their wives for the (implicitly more enjoyable) sex with men.

Some pro-gay Christians and Jews accept that the family, and the married couple, are essential building blocks of an orderly society. Rather than seeing this as proof that homosexuality is immoral or unnatural, however, they see this assumption as proving that same-sex marriage should be both legal and religiously sanctioned, to help to curb promiscuity. For example, Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong (1988) argues that the church should recognize and bless same-sex relationships, saying:

A willingness on the part of the church and society to accept, bless, affirm, and encourage long-term faithful relationships among gay and lesbian people would be just and proper. But above all it would indicate to the homosexual minority that there is a recognized alternative to the loneliness of celibacy on the one hand and the irresponsibility of sexual promiscuity on the other. (1988: 202)

Spong does not mean to suggest that gay men and lesbians are all ‘promiscuous,’ as he does consider promiscuity to be rare among both straight and gay people. However, he sees promiscuity among gay men and lesbians to be a result of society’s denial of legitimation to same-sex couples. In his view, creating official church rituals to bless and affirm same-sex relationships would help to foster a just social order, one that recognizes that the times have changed and peopling the world is not as important now as it was five thousand years ago.

As we have seen, people who believe homosexuality is sinful or unnatural tend to assume, first, that humanity has always and everywhere despised homosexuality. Furthermore, they assume that people can only revere their religious traditions if they shape social policies to discourage homosexuality and encourage marital heterosexuality. We have seen how many scholars and theologians have discredited the first assumption by showing that sex is organized into people’s lives differently in different societies, and that even Western Christian history has not always deplored—and should thus not today discourage—intimate relationships between people of the same sex.

Others challenge the second assumption, by denying that the rejection of homosexuality is intrinsic or necessary to their tradition. Many Jews, Christians and Muslims believe that God’s truth is big enough to include social change, including social acceptance of homosexuality. These thinkers believe that the traditional rejection of homosexuality is far less essential to their faith than other parts of their traditions. For instance, Shahid Dossani (1997) argues that Islam has always recognized social change. Dossani draws from the Muslim belief that Judaism was correct in its time and Christianity in its time, but that Islam replaced both. This view recognizes that people can evolve and learn more about God’s truth. Dossani thus argues that such evolution did not stop with the founding of Islam, that God understands that society changes and that therefore, God recognizes that humanity has evolved to a stage where it is acceptable for some people, including some Muslims, to be gay.

Others explicitly include same-sex marriage within their accounts of religious traditions of freedom and justice. For instance, Charles Curran (1998) argues that same-sex marriage would not threaten tradition and social order, while it would strengthen the church’s traditional valuation of human freedom. Similarly, many Protestant clergy members have deliberately violated their denomination’s rules forbidding same-sex marriage, citing other traditions they deem more important. For instance, the Reverends Jimmy Creech and Greg Dell, both United Methodists, have challenged their denomination’s doctrinal statement that ‘homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching’ (Book of Discipline, para. 65G) and openly blessed same-sex unions. Both have argued that they do so in keeping with the United Methodist tradition of seeking justice for and showing God’s love and grace to all persons, including gay persons. Many other pro-gay religious thinkers make similar points (Alexander and Preston, 1996; Comstock, 1993; Heyward, 1984, 1989; Nelson, 1978; Plaskow, 1998; Scanzoni and Mollenkott, 1994; Spong, 1988).

While people certainly find arguments for supporting homosexuality within their tradition, at another level, they may also point out that tradition should not hold society back. While many religious thinkers believe that God prefers that society not change significantly, others see much of tradition as unjust, ignorant, or simply outdated, and believe God’s way is revealed through social change. Liberal theologians, informed by understandings of science and history as constantly progressing toward the better, believe that their religions do not conflict with changing family patterns and changing meanings of sexuality. Thus, they believe that traditions or scriptural teachings that originated in a different time do not necessarily apply word-for-word to contemporary situations.

A number of gay theologians see prohibitions on homosexuality or same-sex marriage as rooted in a male-dominated Western tradition of oppressing women and repressing the erotic (Nelson, 1978; Plaskow, 1998). Many of these thinkers draw from Audre Lorde (1984), seeing God as speaking to people and inhering in the erotic, which they define as the passionate connections between people that occur physically, emotionally, and intellectually. In this view, sexual experiences can help people to commune with others and with God (see Goss, 1993; Heyward, 1984, 1989; Nelson, 1978; Plaskow, 1989). Spong argues that the church should develop liturgies for the betrothal of unmarried sex partners and the recognition of marital dissolution, as well as same-sex unions. For these religious thinkers, social change does not move people away from God; the church moves people away from God when it refuses to keep up with social change.

In any debate about social change, including those debates about same-sex marriage, scholars are led to ask what is at stake for participants in their desire to maintain an existing order or to promote change. What do participants in these debates stand to lose or gain in terms of money, power, or legitimacy? Similarly, a strain of religious thought known as liberation theology has long looked at what is at stake in demands for social order, as these demands are often made by people with some kind of power. Episcopal priest Carter Heyward (1984) writes:

For our sake as well as that of the rest of humanity, we need to realize that it is more often than not the same economic interests, the same governmental interests, the same ecclesiastical interests, and the same special interest groups that line up against the revolutions in Latin America and Zimbabwe, against aid to the cities, against welfare and day care and provisions for safe medical abortions, against gay/lesbian liberation and women’s ordination … black power, Native American grievances, and ‘communism,’ and against most if not all ecclesiastical change.… These are the people who tend to stand firm in their opposition to the relinquishment of any hard-earned privilege—by men, white men, rich white men, rich white private-enterprising men who see themselves as God’s special people on the earth. (1984: 113-14)

For Heyward, love and justice are part of her theological tradition, but so are structures of domination and dependence; she believes the role of Christians, and everyone, should be to challenge the system of power that makes connections among oppressions hard to see, to speak about, and to challenge. Unlike those who see religious tradition as wholly good, Heyward and other liberation theologians see religious tradition as a human creation and thus, having both good and bad elements. In her view, religious and social traditions of heterosexism and homophobia are among the many guises of power that people of faith must challenge in the name of God, love and justice. For her, the specific rights of gay people and same-sex couples should not be pursued apart from the essential goals of justice for all people.

Directions for Future Study

When we think about religious debates and attitudes about homosexuality, we can think about some specific questions to help us to analyse their arguments. These include asking what themes people use in a particular religion to make their case. How do they know, for instance, when to use scripture literally or read it in context or as allegory? How do they know how to apply tradition to contemporary life? How do the different themes people use keep them from understanding each other’s concerns and addressing them, and how do these failures to address each other weaken their own case?

We can ask a more general level of question as well. What economic, political, cultural, or family patterns or identities contribute to how people view sexuality, marriage, gender roles, and the like? How do people, in their every day interactions, thoughts, and actions create and respond to these conditions? What conditions allow for these political debates to take place, or not take place? What conditions allow people to become exceptions to the rules that prevail in their culture?

As debates about homosexuality within the religious communities I have discussed become more prevalent, the topic of homosexuality becomes a terrain on which people of faith play out various tensions in their beliefs about who and what God is and what God demands of people. These debates force people to articulate the beliefs they have rarely needed to articulate, and thus, they provide an opportunity for participants in and observers of these debates to better understand their deeply-held assumptions about God, humanity, life and love.