Every Christmas and Easter, it seems, there is another shot across the bow of evangelical Christianity (often labeled with the old term fundamentalism or at least described in those terms for holding conservative or traditional views). This holiday season’s challenge comes from Newsweek with a full focus on the issue of gay marriage. The salvo comes in two blasts, one from its well-known editor, Jon Meacham, and another from its religion writer, Lisa Miller. I have been interviewed by Lisa and know her to be a competent reporter on religion. One way to respond to this effort is to simply react at how liberal and “agenda driven” the American media is. But that is too easy a response and skips over the debate that needs to take place. (In fact, Meacham, in a moment that hardly reflects prophetic gifts, expects this predictable reaction, almost baiting conservatives to it. He says, “The reaction to this cover is not difficult to predict. Religious conservatives will say that the liberal media are once again seeking to impose their values (or their "agenda," a favorite term to describe the views of those who disagree with you) on a God-fearing nation. Let the letters and e-mails come. History and demographics are on the side of those who favor inclusion over exclusion. (As it has been with reform in America from the Founding forward.)” As Newsweek sees it, the debate is about being inclusive and engaging in evolving [read deeper, more enlightened] understanding versus an appeal to what the Bible or world religion as a whole have taught for centuries about the nature of humanity. Our approach is different. We will not label, as others on both sides are wont to do, and as this piece from Newsweek’s editor does. We will engage, hopefully, with substance.
When he speaks theologically editor Meacham avers, “Briefly put, the Judeo-Christian religious case for supporting gay marriage begins with the recognition that sexual orientation is not a choice—a matter of behavior—but is as intrinsic to a person’s makeup as skin color. The analogy with race is apt, for Christians in particular long cited scriptural authority to justify and perpetuate slavery with the same certitude that some now use to point to certain passages in the Bible to condemn homosexuality and to deny the sacrament of marriage to homosexuals. This argument from Scripture is difficult to take seriously—though many, many people do—since the passages in question are part and parcel of texts that, with equal ferocity, forbid particular haircuts. The Devil, as Shakespeare once noted, can cite Scripture for his purpose, and the texts have been ready sources for those seeking to promote anti-Semitism and limit the human rights of women, among other things that few people in the first decade of the 21st century would think reasonable.”
Here Meacham attempts to do several things. By lumping the issue of slavery, sexuality and gender into parallels with race and gender, not to mention hair cuts, he suggests that just reading the Bible at the surface is not good enough. This linkage is not new and evangelicals have noted the hermeneutical questions tied to it for some time. In 2001, William Webb wrote Slaves, Women, and Homosexuals with an eye directly on this supposed equation (and overgeneralization). He argued that these three issues are not handled nor are they to be read as being hermeneutically equivalent because of the manner each issue is handled within Scripture. Yes, some have handled them the same, but a careful reading shows that the grounding for slavery did not appeal to the same types of arguments as discussions did on the role of women and homosexuality. Even more, by far the strongest arguments and statements are made about homosexuality in comparison to the topics of either slavery or women. Webb’s book has caught much flak in some evangelical circles because of his more open position on the role of women, but one should not miss the point of the overall book, to highlight how the discussions of these three areas differ in how they are handled within the Bible with by far the strongest statements appearing on the issue of rejecting homosexuality. What this means is that a major periodical’s cavalier dismissal of real conversation about the issue reflects an unfortunate turn in dealing with such an important cultural issue. As one email responder put it, an article has really become an op-ed piece. Our compliant is not that Newsweek has a view or takes a stand, that is what the public square is all about. Our compliant is that in doing so, they significantly misrepresented the nature of the actual discussion coming from a perspective they reject. So my next few posts will go in this direction and engage some of the key claims in these pieces. So we begin with claim 1: What of Meacham’s claim of a Judeo-Christian starting point for gay marriage?
Point 1. Meachem claims that “Briefly put, the Judeo-Christian religious case for supporting gay marriage begins with the recognition that sexual orientation is not a choice—a matter of behavior—but is as intrinsic to a person’s makeup as skin color.” I am not sure if Meacham’s starting point reflects a Judeo-Christian religious case beginning point or a modern starting point. Where is the case that from a Judeo-Christian perspective sexual orientation is intrinsic to a person’s makeup? Where is the religious text that says this? Why is it that these two great Western religions have historically challenged gay orientation as unnatural, even in its key texts and largely throughout its theological tradition. One may challenge this, as Newsweek does, but do so honestly, noting that the position is not one defended instinctively by the religious traditions appealed to in order to make the case. The fact is that the appeal Meacham makes in his introduction to the issue is not a religious argument; it is a claim about the nature of a person with an assumption that God made the person this way and is open to a creation operating in this manner.
This assumption is precisely what the religious traditions, both in terms of sacred text and theological reflection, have explicitly challenged through the centuries. Paul’s appeal in Romans 1 is that the exchange at a gender level is an affront to the design of God where humanity is seen as both male and female (an idea rooted in Genesis 1). It is a challenge to marriage which is about a relationship shared between genders in part in order to raise a family. What homosexuality does is to deny this differentiation in human relationships by privileging one gender to the exclusion of the other in the intimacy of oneness that marriage is supposed (designed) to reflect. The enculturation of children also fits into this issue in terms of the impact on young people who are raised with only one gender at play. Now I know the reply will come that too many heterosexual marriages today lack love or that too many children live in broken homes where only one gender participates. The point is true, but two wrongs in terms of human development and behavior does not make a right in this particular case. Our world is filled with inconsistencies in life that are still not healthy for us. It is important also that in complaining about areas like gay marriage that other human failures (perhaps even more common and taken for granted ones) also be recognized. We fail and sin in many ways, and the Judeo-Christian tradition is clear that all of us fail. That does not remove the goal we should have as humans to do better. The desire to pursue a virtuous society, which I think is a goal all good people should have, should not play favorites in dealing with questions where virtue may be distorted or lacking. And that is precisely the debate that needs to take place in our treatment of this issue. We should be concerned not merely with what makes for freedom, but what societal structures make for a more healthy society, and for a beneficial environment for our children.
Is the starting point for this discussion one that simply says that sexual orientation is a given for all who welcome this route for sexual orientation, or is this discussion far more complex, with this appeal being too facile. Why not suggest another starting point? That the divinely created world is filled with the intended diversity of male and female, which in combination makes up humanity in the image of God. So this cooperation is part of what God intended by marriage, since the core marriage text of Scripture does speak of a man and a woman being brought together. Surely if God exists and speaks (something that is a given within the Judeo-Christian tradition), he could have made it more clear that gender does not matter when it comes to marriage—and there is no such text anywhere. Now those not tied to a religious tradition are free to make other claims and make their case for the lifestyle they envision. This is certainly a part of what it means to live in a nation that is pluralistic in its structure, but let us not pretend to be appealing to Judeo-Christian values where we question at its core not only that tradition’s sacred texts and teaching, as the Newsweek piece does, but even its core description of the nature of humanity in God’s image and marriage as a reflection of the sacredness of that divine work.
This post is but an introduction. Future posts will consider additional claims and arguments. For now, the key point is this. The starting point for our discussion, at least from within a Judea-Christian perspective, which is what the Newsweek piece raised as a starting point is in how God made the world and what he has said about it in texts the tradition is said to embrace. In making this point, we do not escape the need to read these texts with care and attention, as our future interaction with the Newsweek material hopes to do and something the Newsweek piece rightfully asks of those who oppose gay marriage. However the way forward is not simply to jump in affirming a starting point that has little in common with the tradition it claims to reflect.