Homosexuality and Morality, Part 2: The Bible

First published at Between the Lines on December 12, 2002

MANY PEOPLE claim that homosexuality is wrong because “The Bible says so.” This claim rests on two presuppositions:

(1) The Bible condemns homosexual conduct. (2) The Bible is a good moral guide.

Each of these raises questions. Regarding the first: does the Bible condemn all homosexual conduct, or just some? And which Bible are we talking about? (Remember that in addition to the numerous editions of the Judeo-Christian Bible, there are also countless other religious texts that claim divine authority. Given our tendency toward cultural myopia, it bears repeating that the vast majority of the world’s inhabitants are not Christians.)

Regarding the second presupposition: is the Bible infallible, or might it contain some error? If the latter, how do we distinguish true moral teaching from that which simply reflects the authors’ prejudices? Consider, for example, two passages — one from the Old Testament and one from the New — that seem pretty clearly to endorse slavery:

“[Y]ou may acquire male and female slaves ƒ from among the aliens residing with you, and from their families that are with you, who have been born into your land; and they may be your property. You may keep them as a possession for your children after you, for them to inherit as property.” (Leviticus 25: 44-46)

“Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as you obey Christ” (Ephesians 6:5).

Faced with such morally troubling passages, the reader has one of three options:

(A) Deny that the passages really endorse slavery. But this seems rather difficult to do, especially given the references to “property” in the first quotation, which was allegedly spoken by God himself.

(B) Maintain that the Bible contains no error and concede that slavery may be morally acceptable. Not surprisingly, few believers take this approach (though the case was quite different 150 years ago, when slave-owning Christians often cited these passages). This option ought forcefully to be rejected. Surely one should have more confidence in the wrongness of slavery than in the inerrancy of the quoted text. Which leaves us with.

(C) Acknowledge that the Bible contains some error. To admit this is not to claim that God makes mistakes. Perhaps humans have erred in interpreting God’s will: after all, one should not confuse complete faith in God with complete faith in human ability to discern God’s voice.

Option (C) comes at a cost, however. Once you have admitted that the Bible contains error, you cannot simply use “The Bible says X” as if it were an airtight justification of X. This is as true for homosexuality as it is for slavery.

Is the Bible thus rendered useless? Not at all. The Bible is a valuable account of the experience of past believers, and it can teach important lessons on matters both moral and non-moral. But to quote its passages on controversial issues without paying attention to its historical context is to diminish its richness. Fundamentalists do the Bible no honor when they treat “The Bible says X” as if it were the last word, rather than a piece of a larger puzzle regarding human longing for truth and meaning.

Which brings me to another point. Critics often suspect that there’s something self-serving about “revisionist” readings of scripture by pro-gay scholars. In some cases, the critics are right. But the revisionist readings are also motivated by honest recognition of a tension between the apparent evidence of scripture and the apparent evidence of our experience. If God is the creator of all things, surely God reveals divine intentions in our lived experience and not merely in an ancient text. (Besides, if you don’t generally trust your own experience, why trust your experience of the text?) And if our lived experience teaches us that homosexual relationships can be loving and nurturing, there’s something incongruous about the idea that a benevolent God would condemn them.

How then do we explain the handful of passages that seem to condemn homosexuality? Biblical interpretation is a complex matter, and I can only scratch its surface here. (For a more thorough treatment, see Daniel Helminiak’s What the Bible Really Says about Homosexuality.) But let me suggest that these passages, like the passages on slavery, strongly reflect the cultural circumstances of the authors. More specifically, they reflect (1) the fragility of the authors’ communities and a corresponding emphasis on procreation for the sake of community survival, (2) a distaste for Greek pederasty, and (3) a distaste for various pagan practices that included ritual homosexual conduct.

If the Biblical authors had these features in mind when they wrote about homosexuality, then what they were discussing is quite different from what we are discussing. In that light, using Biblical passages to condemn contemporary homosexuality looks much like using them to support nineteenth-century American slavery — a reflection of the reader’s prejudices, rather than an honest assessment of the moral facts.

Homosexuality and Morality, Part 1: The Essential Question

First published at Between the Lines on November 22, 2002

THE HOLIDAY SEASON is upon us and with it come holiday dinners, which can be hazardous to your health. This is not because the dinners are fattening or because you might choke on the wishbone. It’s because holiday dinners mean extended family gatherings, and your family can drive you crazy.

This is true even under the best of circumstances. But holidays are especially fraught with danger. Maybe it’s the eggnog, or maybe it’s the fact that when people buy you gifts they feel entitled to “express themselves”. Whatever the reason, these occasions give your relatives the wacky notion that they ought to tell you precisely how they feel about your lifestyle: “It’s none of my business, really, but you’re going to hell. Now please pass the eggnog.”

“My lifestyle? Hello, I live in Michigan. Nobody here has a lifestyle.” But by this point Aunt Sally has moved on to the next offensive remark.

Never fear, dear reader: I’ve got your back. For over the next several weeks, I’m going to do a series of columns on homosexuality and morality. The point of these (aside from helping me to pay for my extravagant Christmas shopping) is to provide you with ammunition in the face of anti-gay attacks. The columns will be based on my lecture “What’s Morally Wrong With Homosexuality?” which I’ve developed and presented around the country for the last ten years.

Let’s begin with a thought experiment. Suppose I told you that reading the newspaper is morally wrong.

“Why?”, you might ask. “Does it corrupt the mind? Is it produced by child labor? Is newsprint environmentally unsound?”

“No,” I answer. “None of those things. It’s wrong because you might get ink on your fingers, and ink-stained fingers are an intrinsic moral evil.”

The above exchange might lead you to think I had been hitting the eggnog a bit early. My claim about the morality of newspaper reading makes no sense — for two reasons. First, moral claims are only as good as the reasons that back them up. Second, those reasons must have some genuine connection with human well-being: not just any reason is a moral reason.

And this fact bears repeating: morality has a point. That’s why the idea that ink-stained fingers are evil is just — well, stupid. Typically, ink on your fingers won’t hurt anybody. It won’t detract from your or your neighbors’ well-being. There’s no good reason to condemn it.

What about homosexuality? Most arguments against homosexuality fall into three broad categories: (1) the Bible condemns it; (2) it’s harmful; and (3) it’s unnatural. Over the next three columns I’ll address each of these in turn.

But before I turn to the arguments against homosexuality, I want to state a preliminary argument in favor of it: namely, that homosexual relationships make some people happy.

To say this is not to settle the matter. Some things that seem to make us happy at first glance (e.g. Aunt Sally’s pie) are better avoided in the long run. Whether homosexuality is one of those things depends on the success of the arguments in the next several columns.

Rather, to say that homosexual relationships make some people happy is to create a burden of proof for the other side. Most everyone recognizes that falling in love and expressing that love sexually are sublime human experiences. Romantic relationships can be an avenue of communication, of emotional growth, and of lasting interpersonal fulfillment. Anyone who would deny this opportunity to homosexual people had better have a good reason. Do they? Join me for the next several weeks as we explore this issue.

And as we do so, please remember: morality is not the exclusive domain of our opponents. Exhausted by the moralizing of Aunt Sally — not to mention Jerry Falwell, Dr. Laura, and their ilk — we might sometimes be tempted to reject the practice altogether. And then we start to believe the fallacy that “Morality is strictly a private matter.”

Nonsense. Morality is about how we treat one another — and that’s very much a matter for public concern. It’s about fairness and justice. It’s about what matters to us — not just as a personal preference, but as a standard for public behavior. We have as much right to espouse such standards as anyone else — indeed, even more right, insofar as reason is on our side. And that’s precisely what I’m going to argue over the next several weeks.

European Gaydar

First published in “Between the Lines” in September of 2002

I have just returned from two weeks in Finland, with brief excursions to Estonia, Russia, and Norway. It was my first trip to Europe, and I came away from it having learned a profound and valuable lesson:

My gaydar is useless in Europe.

Nobody warned me of this ahead of time. My guidebooks were chock-full of information about pay toilets, local tipping customs, and electric-appliance adapters. But none of them suggested a gaydar converter: some special European filter that should be installed before transatlantic flights. This is a serious omission.

Gaydar, as readers of this publication are doubtless aware, is the ability to spot other gay people through various verbal and non-verbal cues. It is a subtle faculty, difficult to explain but undeniably real. Like most human tools, it isn’t foolproof, but it can be very handy.

Except in Europe. If my gaydar were to be trusted, all the men in Finland are gay. This seems unlikely.

Some of the false cues are pretty easy to explain. Young Finnish men dress well. They tend to have great bodies and to wear tight t-shirts. I thought I had landed in the middle of “The Blond Party”, some circuit event not advertised in the States.

Which brings me to another point: they have great hair with flawless highlights. I suppose this is Mother Nature’s way of compensating them for the fact that they see little daylight for nine months out of the year. (Not a bad trade-off, really.)

But the most powerful cues are, ironically, the more subtle ones. It’s the way they carry themselves, the way they interact with one another (and with women), the way they walk and speak and smile and make eye contact. Finnish men (and, I suspect, many other European men) lack the macho veneer characteristic of American straight guys. And so, to my American eyes, they seemed gay.

I did go to a few gay bars while there, mainly for comparison’s sake. (Okay, there were other reasons too.) The gay guys looked pretty much like the straight guys, only slightly more butch. Seriously.

All of this belied the myth that straight men are “naturally” aggressive, boorish, or coarse. The trip thus underscored for me the powerful influence of culture on gender roles.

That said, I also came away from it thankful for certain aspects of American culture. Ubiquitous air-conditioning. Seedless grapes. Over-the-counter decongestants.

Yes, decongestants. While in Finland, I had the misfortune of catching a cold, and I discovered that decongestants there are available only by prescription. What good is universal health care if you can’t have Sudafed on demand?

Which made me realize how I take for granted the fact that I can walk into any American drugstore (or supermarket or convenience store, for that matter) and purchase decongestants, with or without antihistamines, with or without pain relievers, in 6- or 12-hour formulas, in tablets or gelcaps.

Plus various generic versions of all of the above. God bless America.

(This has nothing to do with the main thread of the column, but I’m back in the States and my decongestants are making me a bit loopy.)

Returning to European gaydar: I did manage one afternoon to stumble across some gay guys on the Esplanade, a park in Helsinki that draws large crowds of locals and tourists. Four good-looking guys were standing around watching an exhibition of trained cats (which sounds like an oxymoron, and in fact is, judging from the cats’ performance). I spotted them and my gaydar went full tilt. I thought, “Finally, my European gaydar is working!”

As it turns out I was half right. They were indeed gay. But they were from Boston and Toronto.

We spent much of the afternoon together, touring the city and taking countless photos of one another. Our common gayness facilitated a kind of instant rapport: we were fellow “members of the tribe,” and so we could behave as old friends after knowing each other for less than an hour.

I wondered if this gay bonding was an American phenomenon, but then it happened again in St. Petersburg, this time with a gay French couple. My European gaydar had finally begun to work.

Thanks to Scott, Gary, and John from Boston, Gerry from Toronto, and Stephane and Olivier from Nice, France, for a lot of fun. Hope to see you in the States sometime. We may not have an Esplanade, but we know how to fight the common cold.

Facts, Values, and Nuclear Weapons

First published in the author’s syndicated column on June 27, 2002

Last week I was invited to give a talk on homosexuality at the Lawrence Livermore National Research Laboratory, which is a nuclear weapons research facility just southeast of San Francisco. (Apparently San Francisco has a dearth of experts on homosexuality, so they need to fly them in from Detroit. Who knew?)

One might wonder, as I did, why they would want a talk on homosexuality at a nuclear weapons research facility. Why not a talk on, say, wartime ethics, or nuclear disarmament, or racial profiling in national security initiatives — all topics which I, as an ethics professor, am eminently qualified to blather on about. But since they asked for the gay talk and since I wasn’t about to turn down a free trip to California, the gay talk is what they got.

My talk, which was perspicuously (if uncreatively) titled “Homosexuality, Morality, and Diversity,” was attended by roughly 100 rather serious-looking scientists and engineers. (Since these people are responsible for overseeing enough radioactive material to eliminate entire continents, I found their seriousness reassuring.) The lecture went well, and the Q-and-A session was relatively tame, with predictable questions about gays in the military (“Yes, I’ve dated some”) and the Boy Scouts (“James Dale still hasn’t called, but when he does…). One thoughtful senior official asked, “You must find it rather draining to have to deal with these horrible, homophobic arguments day after day as part of your work — how do you do it?” (Answer: I drink.)

One former Eagle Scout introduced herself — yes, herself — after the talk: She was a male-to-female transsexual who transitioned while an employee at Livermore. Her story and others made it increasingly clear why they wanted a talk on sexual diversity at a nuclear weapons research facility.

The most challenging part of the visit, however, was not my talk before the general audience but my earlier lunch meeting with the LGBTA employee group. As is often the case (I’ve been doing these talks for ten years) the hardest questions and liveliest controversy came during the “friendly fire.” Unexpectedly, I found myself in the strange position of being a gay atheist who was defending the religious right (in a sense).

It happened when one of the luncheon attendees — a pregnant lesbian physicist whose partner was also an employee — complained about the employee Bible-study group. “Their problem,” she stated bluntly, “is that they want to impose their values on other people. That’s the difference between our groups — we believe in ‘just the facts’ while they want to push values.”

I could not agree with her description, and I said as much. For in just a short while I would be giving a talk in which I intended to “push values”: values of tolerance, fairness, and diversity. I wasn’t going to present “just the facts” — I was going to argue that people ought to behave a certain way in light of those facts. In other words, I was going to moralize.

The word “moralize” tends to turn people off, and with good reason — it’s typically associated with the likes of Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and Dr. Laura. In rejecting their brand of moralizing, it is tempting for us to reject moralizing altogether. As the saying goes, “Morality is strictly a private matter.”

But this saying is patently false, and the sooner we acknowledge that fact, the better. Morality is about how we treat one another — and that’s very much a matter for public concern. It’s about fairness and justice. It’s about what matters to us — not just as a personal preference, but as a standard for public behavior.

When I say that society’s treatment of gays and lesbians is wrong, I’m making a moral claim. I am telling people how they should live: They should accept their gay sons and lesbian daughters; they should be welcoming toward their LGBT neighbors; they should support our civil rights. They ought to do these things because they’re the morally right things to do.

The problem with the religious right is not that they push values. The problem is that they push the wrong values: valuing conformity more than diversity; obedience more than freedom. Let us not concede the moral sphere to them. Or the nuclear weapons. (Transsexual Eagle-scout physicists, unite!)

Remembering Robert

First published in Between the Lines in June 2002.

Last month I learned of the death of an ex-partner.  It’s an odd feeling to lose to death someone whom one has already lost to painful separation.  But it’s a loss nevertheless.

Robert and I met as graduate students in philosophy at the University of Texas.  I had just “escaped” from Notre Dame, and I had high hopes for Austin.  It was 1991: Ann Richards was governor, and the UT student-body president was an African-American lesbian socialist.  (“Toto, we’re not in South Bend anymore.”)

Robert approached me at the new students’ party.  Physically, he wasn’t my type, but there was something about him I found mesmerizing.  He had a keen intellect and a razor wit.  We got into an argument during that party—the good kind, the kind that philosophers thrive on.  We quickly became friends, and then something more.

The relationship is hard to explain to people who didn’t know us (and even to some who did).  It was passionate but not sexual; full of conflict yet strangely comfortable.  The contradictions suited us.  Most people were unaware that we didn’t have sex, which was fine with us.  (How many of us know the details of our partnered friends’ sex lives?)  Some would say the relationship didn’t “count”, but it counted to us, and that was what mattered.

He had a brilliant sense of humor.  Robert, who had grown up in Odessa, often poked fun at his West Texas roots.  He used to steal phone-message pads from the philosophy department secretary and then leave notes in my office mailbox, often beginning with “Robert Ramirez, of Paris, New York, and Odessa, called…”

Or another time:  “Alvin Plantinga [a famous Christian Philosopher] of Notre Dame called.  Message:  He wanted to talk to you about the problem of evil, but when he heard you weren’t in, he said, ‘Aw, Fuck it.'”

Yet Robert was also (by his own admission) a fundamentally angry person.  He was bitter about his estrangement from his father, about losing his previous partner to AIDS, and about what he saw as the generally sorry state of the world.  He drank excessively.

It didn’t help when he was diagnosed with HIV himself.  Interestingly, some of those who had shunned him for his surliness started to cut him slack.  I told them not to:  “He was a cranky person before; now he’s a cranky person with HIV.”  He didn’t want their pity, and he didn’t need it, either.  Beneath the crankiness was a remarkable individual, and those who paid attention knew it.

The last time I saw Robert was shortly before I moved to Detroit in 1998.  Our breakup had been turbulent.  We met for coffee; it was awkward.  I asked him, “How’s your health?”

“My doctor has advised me not to buy green bananas.”

“Seriously, Robert, how’s your health?”

He told me he likely had less than a year.  Yet he managed to hang on for four, despite battling testicular cancer, which was difficult to treat because of the AIDS.

I shall always remember Robert for his sharp wit, his deep intelligence, and his fiercely loving core beneath a gruff exterior.  I share his story to celebrate his memory, and also as a reminder that—despite protease inhibitors and drug cocktails and “the end of the plague”—AIDS still kills.

Robert Ramirez—of Paris, New York, and Odessa—rest in peace.


Pedophilia in the Priesthood: Are Gays the Problem?

First Published in “Between the Lines.” March 28, 2002

FIFTEEN YEARS AGO I was a candidate for the Roman Catholic priesthood. One night during a candidate retreat I was alone in a monastery rec room with a youngish priest — let’s call him Fr. Jack — who was attempting to counsel me as I struggled with the difficult decision of whether to enter training that year. Fr. Jack, who seemed genuinely concerned about my emotional state, offered to give me a massage. The proposition was simultaneously strange and appealing, and I nervously accepted. He began with my back and proceeded slowly to cover virtually every inch of my body — except, notably, my genitals and buttocks. Fr. Jack then looked at me in an eager and suggestive manner and asked, “Is there any part of you that is still tense?” Quite uncomfortable at this point, I blurted, “Um, yes — my mind!” and then quickly gathered my shirt (which one of us had removed) and excused myself.

The current pedophilia scandal in the Catholic Church reminded me of this event. I do not mean to suggest that Fr. Jack was a pedophile. The massage, though sexual at some not-very-hidden level, was not tantamount to sex. More to the point, I was about eighteen years old at the time — not a child, and not incapable of granting or withholding consent. But the story involves a number of issues that have been raised, often confusedly, in discussions of the ongoing scandal: priestly sexuality; priestly homosexuality; authority, secrecy, and vulnerability.

The scandal by now is familiar to anyone paying attention. In brief, there has been a disproportionately high incidence of sexual abuse among Roman Catholic priests, and the Church hierarchy have been going to great lengths to cover it up. These things by themselves would be bad enough, but in fact it’s worse: Not only have the hierarchy covered up the scandal, but they have repeatedly reassigned known pedophiles to posts which put them in contact with children. These reassignments are perhaps the most inexplicable aspect of the scandal. The pedophilia can be explained (to an extent) as a psychological disorder combined with moral weakness. The cover-up can be explained as a misguided attempt at damage-control. (To say that these two things can be explained is not to say that they should be excused — both involve culpable behavior.) But the reassignments are sheer reckless stupidity. The current priest-shortage notwithstanding, there are plenty of posts within the church that do not involve youth ministry. (Next time you’re in Church, consider the ratio of blue hair to baseball caps and you’ll see what I mean.) If these known pedophiles were to be reassigned at all (and that’s a big “if”), why not restrict them to working with older parishioners?

The Vatican’s response to this and other difficult questions has been — you guessed it — to change the subject and scapegoat gays. In a recent interview Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls contended that most of the sexual abuse cases involved teenage boys, not children, and thus did not really constitute pedophilia. He then inferred that gays must be unfit for the priesthood: “People with [homosexual] inclinations just cannot be ordained,” he concluded, suggesting that ordinations of gay men should perhaps be invalidated.

Navarro-Valls’ proposal, if implemented, would eliminate about half of the priests in the United States. (As a former candidate who spent a lot of time with priests and seminarians, I can confirm that this oft-repeated estimate is a reasonable one.) But does his argument for the proposal work? Even supposing (what seems likely from the reports) that the majority of the victims have been male, Navarro-Valls’ conclusion doesn’t follow. For the question to ask is not what percentage of sexual abusers are gays, but rather, what percentage of gays are sexual abusers. Consider an analogy: The vast majority of rapists are male. But it does not follow (and it is not true, pace Andrea Dworkin) that the vast majority of males are rapists. Thus, eliminating males from a given population would not be a fair or appropriate way of curtailing rape. Analogously, even if most sexual abusers within the priesthood were gay, it would not follow that most gays within the priesthood were sexual abusers. Eliminating gays from the priesthood would be horribly unjust to the vast majority of gay priests, who are innocent of sexual abuse and as horrified by it as the rest of us.

Thus, Navarro-Valls’ point about gays is a red herring. It is one thing to be attracted to persons of the same sex; it is quite another to be inclined to abuse persons of the same sex, be they children or otherwise. Conflating these distinctions not only slanders gays, it misdirects our attention away from the real problem, which is sexual abuse. Such scapegoating is a familiar tactic, sadly, and it is morally repugnant — far more so, I would contend, than the clumsy advances of Fr. Jack when I was eighteen.

Which brings me back to the age issue. Navarro-Valls is correct that in some of the cases, pedophilia is not the real problem. (It is difficult to know the percentages, since the Church has been stubbornly uncooperative in releasing data.) There’s a big difference — legally, psychologically, morally — between sex with an eight-year-old and sex with a seventeen-year-old. Cases of the latter type, which often involve seminarians and seminary candidates, may be an abuse of power and a violation of priestly vows, but they are not pedophilia.

Eliminating gays from the priesthood would, indeed, eliminate many of these latter cases. But it would also eliminate a good many decent priests, and needlessly so. For the real culprit here is not homosexuality, but rather the Church’s refusal to address the issue of sexuality directly and realistically. Human beings are sexual, and priests are no exception. Celibacy is demanding, and repression and denial are not helpful in mastering it. If the Church is serious about addressing sexual misconduct, it should focus on healthy ways for its priests to manage their sexuality, which does not disappear once they take vows.

Fr. Jack is a prime example, and my memory of him reminds me of the saying “There but for the grace of God go I.” Had I decided during that retreat to enter religious life, I would have done so as an eighteen-year-old with no sexual or romantic experience to speak of. I would have been thrust into an all-male environment where I would be forbidden not only to have sex but also to masturbate. And sooner or later my sexuality would have asserted itself — doubtlessly in the awkward manner characteristic of the sexually immature. Perhaps I, too, would have eventually found myself attracted to a naive and fresh-faced seminary candidate, and perhaps I too would have behaved like a creep. (For the record, I decided to enter when I was nineteen and then withdrew almost immediately, correctly believing that I needed more “life experience.”) Navarro-Valls’ scapegoating of gays doesn’t solve such problems; it perpetuates them — while ignoring far more serious ones. It is time for the Church to worry less about protecting its image and more about protecting the people it serves.

First Gays, Then Polygamists?

First published in “The Harvard Gay and Lesbian Review” on November 30,1999

AN INCREASINGLY COMMON objection to same-sex marriage takes the form of a slippery-slope argument: “If we allow gay marriage, why not polygamy? Or incest? Or bestiality?” This argument is nothing new, having been used against interracial marriage in the 1960’s. But what it lacks in originality it more than makes up for in rhetorical force: given the choice between rejecting homosexuality or accepting a sexual free-for-all, mainstream Americans tend to opt for the former

Unfortunately, sound-bite arguments don’t always lend themselves to sound-bite refutations. Part of the problem is that the polygamy/incest/bestiality argument (PIB argument for short) is not really an argument at all. Instead, it’s a challenge: “Okay, Mr. Sexual Liberal: explain to me why polygamy, incest, and bestiality are wrong.” Most people are not prepared to do that — certainly not in twenty words or less. And many answers that leap to mind (for example, that PIB relationships violate well-established social norms) won’t work for the defender of same-sex relationships (since same-sex relationships, too, violate well-established social norms).

In what follows I respond to the PIB challenge. But first, I wish to set aside two popular responses that I think are inadequate. Call the first the “We really exist” argument. According to this argument, homosexuality is different from polygamy, incest, and bestiality because there are “constitutional” homosexuals, but not constitutional polygamists, incestualists, or bestialists. As Andrew Sullivan writes,

Almost everyone seems to accept, even if they find homosexuality morally troublesome, that it occupies a deeper level of human consciousness than a polygamous impulse. Even the Catholic Church, which believes that homosexuality is an “objective disorder,” concedes that it is a profound element of human identity….[P]olygamy is an activity, whereas both homosexuality and heterosexuality are states.”
Sullivan is probably right in his description of popular consciousness about homosexuality. Yet traditionalists may reject the idea that homosexuality is an immutable given. At a June 1997 conference at Georgetown University, “Homosexuality and American Public Life,” conservative columnist Maggie Gallagher urged her audience to stop thinking of homosexuality as an inevitable, key feature of an individual’s personality. Drawing, ironically, on the work of queer theorists, Gallagher proposed instead that homosexuality is a cultural convention — one that ought to be challenged.

If Gallagher and her social constructionist sources are right, the “We really exist” argument must be abandoned. But whether they’re right or not, there are good pragmatic reasons for abandoning this argument. “We really exist” sounds dangerously like “We just can’t help it.” And to this claim there is an obvious response: “Well, alcoholics really exist, too. They can’t help their impulses. But we don’t encourage them.” Though the alcoholism analogy is generally a bad one, it underscores the rhetorical weakness of claiming “We really exist” in response to the (rhetorically strong) PIB challenge.

A second response to the PIB challenge is to argue that as long as PIB relationships are forbidden for heterosexuals, they should be forbidden for homosexuals as well. Call this the “equal options” argument. To put the argument more positively: we homosexuals are not asking to engage in polygamy, incest, or bestiality. We are simply asking to engage in monogamous, non-incestuous relationships with people we love — just like heterosexuals do. As Jonathan Rauch writes,

The hidden assumption of the argument which brackets gay marriage with polygamous or incestuous marriage is that homosexuals want the right to marry anyone they fall for. But, of course, heterosexuals are currently denied that right. They cannot marry their immediate family or all their sex partners. What homosexuals are asking for is the right to marry, not anybody they love, but somebody they love, which is not at all the same thing.

Once again, this argument is correct as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go far enough — at least not far enough to satisfy proponents of the PIB argument. As they see it, permitting homosexuality — even monogamous, non-incestuous, person-to-person homosexuality — involves relaxing traditional sexual mores. The fact that these mores prohibit constitutional homosexuals from marrying somebody they love is no more troubling to traditionalists than the fact that these mores prohibit constitutional pedophiles from marrying somebody they love, since traditionalists believe that there are good reasons for both prohibitions.

In short, both the “we exist” argument and the “equal options” argument are vulnerable to counterexamples: alcoholics really exist, and pedophiles are denied equal marital options. (Indeed, traditionalists are fond of pointing out that, strictly speaking, homosexuals do have “equal” options: they have the option of marrying persons of the oppostite sex. Such traditionalists usually remain silent on whether this option is a good idea for anyone involved, but so it goes.)

There is, I think, a better response to the PIB argument, one that has been suggested by both Sullivan and Rauch (whose contributions to this debate I gratefully acknowledge). It is to deny that arguments for homosexual relationships offer any real support for PIB relationships. Why would proponents of the PIB argument think otherwise? Perhaps they assume that our main argument for homosexual relationships is that they feel good and we want them. If that were our argument, it would indeed offer support for PIB relationships. But that is not our argument: it is a straw man.

A much better argument for homosexual relationships begins with an analogy: homosexual relationships offer virtually all of the benefits of sterile heterosexual relationships; thus, if we approve of the latter, we should approve of the former as well. For example, both heterosexual relationships and homosexual relationships can unite people in a way that ordinary friendship simply cannot. Both can have substantial practical benefits in terms of the health, economic security, and social productivity of the partners. Both can be important constituents of a flourishing life. Yes, they feel good and we want them, but there’s a lot more to it than that. These similarities create a strong prima facie case for treating homosexual and heterosexual relationships the same — morally, socially, and politically.

“But wait,” say the opponents. “Can’t you make the same argument for PIB relationships?” Not quite. It is true that you can use the same form of argument for PIB relationships: PIB relationships have benefits X, Y, and Z and no relevant drawbacks. But whether PIB relationships do in fact have such benefits and lack such drawbacks is an empirical matter, one that will not be settled by looking to homosexual relationships.

To put my point more concretely: to observe that Tom and Dick (and many others like them) flourish in homosexual relationships is not to prove that Greg and Marcia would flourish in an incestuous relationship, or that Mike, Carol, and Alice would flourish in a polygamous relationship, or that Bobby and Tiger would flourish in a bestial relationship. Whether they would or not is a separate question — one that requires a whole new set of data.

Another way to indicate the logical distance between homosexual relationships and PIB relationships is to point out that PIB relationships can be either homosexual or heterosexual. Proponents of the PIB challenge must therefore explain why they group PIB relationships with homosexual relationships rather than heterosexual ones. There’s only one plausible reason: PIB and homosexuality have traditionally been condemned. But (whoops!) that’s also true of interracial relationships, which traditionalists (typically) no longer condemn. And (whoops again!) they’ve just argued in a circle: the question at hand is why we should group PIB relationships with homosexual relationships rather than heterosexual ones. Saying that “we’ve always grouped them together” doesn’t answer the question, it begs it.

The question remains, of course, whether PIB relationships do, on balance, have benefits sufficient to warrant their approval. Answering that question requires far more data than I can marshal here. It also requires careful attention to various distinctions: distinctions between morality and public policy, distinctions between the morally permissible and the morally ideal, and — perhaps most important — distinctions between polygamy, incest, and bestiality, which are as different from each other as they each are from homosexuality. In what remains I offer some brief (and admittedly inconclusive) observations about each of these phenomena.

Polygamy provides perhaps the best opportunity among the three for obtaining the requisite data: there have been and continue to be polygamous societies. Most of these are in fact polygynous (multiple-wife) societies, and most of them are sexist. Whether egalitarian polygamous societies are possible is an open question. Whether egalitarian polygamous relationships are possible (as opposed to entire societies) is an easier question. Though I find it difficult to imagine maintaining a relationship with several spouses — having had enough trouble maintaining a relationship with one — I have no doubt that at least some people flourish in them.

This conclusion leaves open the question of whether such relationships should be state-supported. As my acquaintance Josh Goldfoot put it, “Marry your toaster if you like, but please don’t try to file a joint tax return with it.” Whatever reasons the state has for being in the marriage business (and this point is a matter of considerable debate), these may or may not be good reasons for the state to recognize multiple spouses.
Polygamy also provides the most troublesome case for the traditionalists, since polygamy has Biblical support. True, the Bible reports troublesome jealousies among the sons of various wives, which perhaps should be taken as a lesson. But polygamy is clearly a case where the religious right can’t point to “God’s eternal law.”

Incest, too, is common and expected in some societies — typically in the form of rites of initiation. In our own society incest typically results in various psychological difficulties, difficulties that should at least give pause to the supporter of incest. But one can easily construct a case that circumvents most (if not all) of these difficulties: imagine two adult lesbian sisters who privately engage in what they report to be a fulfilling sexual relationship. Can I prove that such activity is wrong? No — at least not off the top of my head. On the other hand, I don’t think it’s incumbent upon me to do so. If there are good arguments against such a relationship, they will remain unaffected by the argument in favor of homosexuality. And if the only argument traditionalists can offer against such a relationship is that longstanding tradition prohibits it, so much the worse for traditionalists. Again, that same argument is applicable to interracial relationships, and history has revealed its bankruptcy.

The bestiality analogy is the most irksome of the three, since it reveals that the traditionalists are either woefully dishonest or woefully dense. To compare a homosexual encounter — even a so-called “casual” one — with humping a sheep is to ignore the distinctively human capacities that sexual relationships can (and usually do) engage. As such, it is to reduce sex to its purely physical components — precisely the reduction that traditionalists are fond of accusing us of. That noted, claiming that bestial relationships are qualitatively different from human homosexual relationships does not prove that bestial relationships are immoral. Nor does the lack of mutual consent, since we generally don’t seek consent in our dealings with animals. No cow consented to become my shoes, for example.

To be honest, I feel about bestiality much as I feel about sex with inflatable dolls: I don’t recommend making a habit out of it, and it’s not something I’d care to do myself, but it’s hardly worthy of serious moral attention. I feel much the same way about watching infomercials: there are better ways to spend one’s time, to be sure, but there are also better things for concerned citizens to worry about.

Why, then, are we even discussing bestiality? Perhaps it’s because traditionalists have run out of plausible-sounding arguments against homosexuality, and so now they’re grasping at straws. And then there’s the emotional factor: mentioning homosexuality won’t make people squeamish the way it once did, but mentioning bestiality and incest will at least raise some eyebrows, if not turn some stomachs. In short, the right wing knows that it’s losing its cultural war against homosexuality, and it’s trying to change the subject. We should steadfastly refuse to join them.

The Bible Condemned Usurers, Too

First appeared in the Harvard Gay and Lesbian Review, November 30, 1996

GAY RIGHTS ADVOCATES sometimes suggest that if the Bible condemns homosexuality, so much the worse for the Bible. Yet that position hardly works for everyone. Many people maintain that the Bible is the true word of God, and not all who do are die-hard homophobes. Some are social liberals who feel torn between their political and their religious convictions. Others are gay and lesbian youth who feel forced to choose between being gay and following God. To tell such people “so much the worse for the Bible” seems counterproductive, even cruel.

But what is the alternative? Is it possible to affirm the truth of the Bible yet deny the anti-gay conclusions the Church has drawn from it for centuries? To answer that question, I want to explore another case where the Church has re-interpreted Scripture: usury. For centuries the Church used the Bible to condemn the lending of money for interest — for any interest, not just excessive interest. Today it has more money in the bank than many major corporations. And its explanation for this shift — that cultural changes render the Biblical prohibitions inapplicable — works just as well for homosexuality as for interest banking.

The Bible condemns usury in no uncertain terms. In the Book of Exodus God says “if you lend money to my people, to the poor among you. you shall not exact interest from them” (22: 25). The fifteenth Psalm says that those who lend at interest may not abide in the Lord’s tent or dwell on his holy hill (1-5). Ezekiel compares usury to adultery, robbery, idolatry, and bribery, and asks whether he who “takes advanced or accrued interest; shall he then live? He shall not. He. shall surely die; his blood shall be upon him.” (18: 10-13; see also Deut. 23:19, Lev. 25: 35-37, Neh. 5: 7-10, Jer. 15:10, Ezek. 22: 12, and Luke 6:35)

The Biblical case against usury does not stand alone. Plato and Aristotle condemned the practice, as did Aristophanes, Cato, Seneca, and Plutarch. So did Saints Anselm, Augustine, Bonaventure, Thomas Aquinas, Jerome, and Ambrose, citing both Scripture and natural law. Numerous church councils and synods forbade usury: for instance, at the Third Council of Lateran (1179 C.E.), Pope Alexander III declared that both the Old and New Testaments condemn it and that violators should be excommunicated. Subsequent popes repeated these sanctions. In 1745, in the encyclical Vix Pervenit, Benedict XIV pronounced that “any gain which exceeds the amount the creditor gave is illicit and usurious.” Protestant opponents of usury included Martin Luther, Philip Melanchthon, and Urlich Zwingli. Nor is this condemnation unique to the Judeo-Christian tradition: the Qur’an condemns usury as well (2: 275, 3: 130). In short, the case against usury, like the case against homosexuality, appears to have strong biblical, philosophical, patristic, ecclesiastical, and theological grounds.

So what happened? Did the Church suddenly realize that it was missing out on something lucrative, and thus rescind its earlier prohibition? Not surprisingly, Church leaders offer a quite different explanation. According to them, economic conditions have changed substantially since Biblical times, such that usury no longer has the same consequences as it did when the prohibitions were issued. Therefore, those prohibitions no longer apply. As Father Richard McBrien, former chair of the University of Notre Dame theology department, writes,

The teaching on usury changed because certain theologians in the sixteenth century concluded that economic conditions had changed, making the old condemnations obsolete, and that the experience of lay Christians had to be listened to. Thus, Navarrus (d. 1586), a professor at Salamanca in Spain and author of a Manual for Confessors, argued that an “infinite number of decent Christians” were engaged in exchange-banking, and he objected to any analysis which would “damn the whole world”

McBrien’s example of Navarrus is helpful here, for it shows how the Church’s pastoral experience influenced its understanding of Scripture. Faced with otherwise “decent Christians” engaging in a traditionally forbidden practice, the Church re-examined the earlier prohibitions and found that they depended on conditions that no longer held.

Yet are we not today in a similar position regarding homosexuality? Even Christian traditionalists have begun to recognize that the stereotype of all gays as corrupt, hedonistic, sex-crazed heathens is unsupportable. On the contrary, many gay and lesbian relationships appear loving, nurturing, and fulfilling. As Richard B. Hays, a Methodist professor of New Testament at Duke University, points out, “There are numerous homosexual Christians whose lives show signs of the presence of God, whose work in ministry is genuine and effective. How is such experiential evidence to be assessed?”

Hays is appealing to a familiar Biblical principle here: “By their fruits ye shall know them” (Matt. 7:20). Surprisingly, however, he ultimately concludes that homosexual relationships are immoral. I suggest that Hays, and countless other theologians like him, have dropped the ball. They notice that many gay and lesbian relationships manifest themselves as good, but then opt for the prohibitions of Scripture over the evidence of their own experience. What they fail to notice is that the Church’s history on usury provides a way out of this apparent dilemma.

Consider the first chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans, perhaps the most problematic text for gay and lesbian advocates. Paul writes of Gentiles who have given themselves up to “dishonorable 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 due penalty for their error” (1:26-7).

It seems fairly clear that Paul viewed such acts as a sign and consequence of the Fall. (Some, like John Boswell and William Countryman, have argued that Paul’s use of “unnatural” — para physin — carries no moral force. My argument does not require this conclusion, but if it is true, so much the better.) Granting (for the sake of argument) that Paul morally condemned such relationships, must contemporary Christians condemn homosexual relationships as well? Not necessarily. Suppose that in Paul’s time homosexual relationships were typically exploitative, paganistic, or pederastic — as virtually all scholars would agree. If Paul condemned homosexuality because it had such features, but such features are no longer typical, then Paul’s condemnation no longer applies. Substantial changes in cultural context have altered the meaning and consequences — and thus the moral value — of homosexual relationships. Put another way, using the Bible’s condemnations of homosexuality against contemporary homosexuality is like using its condemnations of usury against contemporary banking.

This context-sensitive approach preserves not only the inerrancy of the Bible but also the authenticity of experience. For the religious believer, both are important: surely the Creator of all things reveals himself in lived experience as well as ancient texts. Indeed, to accept the text at face value while ignoring the evidence of experience would be to betray a rather impoverished view of revelation — one that has been rejected by centuries of official Church teaching.

But does this approach leave any room for mystery or for faith? If we need only consult experiential evidence to determine God’s will, of what use is the Bible? I have not suggested, however, that we need only consult experiential evidence; I have merely suggested that experiential evidence, like Biblical evidence, is an important source of revelation. Nor have I denied that Biblical evidence may contradict experiential evidence and thus result in mystery. In this case, however, the contradiction is merely apparent. There is still room for mysteries of faith; this just happens not to be one of them.

The usury analogy also provides a better model for re-interpretation than do the more commonly cited issues of divorce and slavery. The Biblical case against divorce is at least as strong as that against homosexuality; indeed, Jesus forcefully condemns divorce (Matt. 5: 31-32) but never mentions homosexuality. This fact is startling when one considers how many advocates of “traditional Christian values” — Newt Gingrich, Bob Dole, and Phil Gramm, for instance — are divorced. Perhaps they consider divorce a one-time failure as opposed to an inveterate sin (though Jesus, who likened divorce to adultery, apparently disagrees). Or perhaps they accept an argument similar in strategy to the usury argument: divorce during Jesus’s time had disastrous social consequences for women that it no longer has; thus, the Biblical condemnations are obsolete. The problem with the divorce analogy is many fundamentalists maintain that those who divorce and remarry are inveterate sinners, just as Jesus’s words suggest.

By contrast, virtually no one wants to maintain the Bible’s approval of slavery. Nevertheless, the Bible’s position appears clear: Leviticus states, “You may acquire slaves from the pagan nations that are around you” (25:44). St. Paul writes, “Slaves, be obedient to those who are your earthly masters, with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as to Christ” (Eph. 6:5). Are such pronouncements (and many more like them) context-specific in a way that renders them inapplicable today?

Many believers think so. They argue that during Biblical times slavery was significantly different from its antebellum American form; specifically, Biblical masters were much kinder to their slaves. This argument concedes that cultural context is relevant to interpretation, and thus buttresses the case in favor of homosexuality. But it also concedes that under some certain circumstances human beings may own one another — a repugnant conclusion. Some believers try to avoid this conclusion by noting that according to St. Paul, “there is no longer slave or free” (Gal. 3:28). Yet this response also buttresses the pro-gay case, for the same passage says, “there is no longer male and female.” Erase that distinction, and homosexuality becomes a non-issue.

Perhaps the slavery example shows that the revisionist approach — or at least, the assumption that the Bible is inerrant — inevitably leads to absurdity. Perhaps it is time for gay rights advocates to bite the bullet and say, “Look, the Bible’s just wrong sometimes.” For those unprepared to make that concession, the Church’s stance on usury suggests a useful and coherent alternative.

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