Civil rights movements that appeal to religion succeed. Those that do not, fail. Contrast the fates of the Civil Rights Act and the Equal Rights Amendment, or the way African American civil rights was understood before and after Dr. King’s religious message. As both pollsters and election results continually remind us, mainstream Americans do not respond to arguments about constitutional rights and equality; they respond to moral arguments, shared values, and religion—unsurprisingly, since over 90 percent of Americans profess a belief in God.
The centrality of religion to civil rights discourse is amplified when the civil rights struggle questions a status quo largely supported by religion. We may no longer remember the musty religious arguments today, but the Bible was once used to enforce segregation as much as to oppose it. God placed the races on different continents, segregationists said. God sanctioned slavery. Africans were heirs to the curse of Ham. And so on. Dr. King and his movement have so succeeded in their reframing of civil rights that these arguments may strike us today as bizarre. But just fifty years ago, they were preached from pulpits around the country.
Yet unlike the debate over African American civil rights, our current national debate regarding equal rights for sexual minorities (I will speak primarily here of gays and lesbians, though most of the arguments apply to gender minorities such as transgender persons as well—and I use the broad term “gay rights” to encompass all of these), has so far included religion on only the negative side of the argument. The Bible forbids homosexuality, we are told. Heterosexual marriage is at the core of God’s design for the universe. Traditional (read: “religious”) values have been clear on this question for thousands of years.
Liberals’ overwhelming response to these claims has been to deflect them, to talk instead about equality or the separation of church and state. This has been a tragic mistake. God, family, and societal stability all matter more to more Americans than do equality or constitutional norms. Dr. King did not succeed because he invoked the Fourteenth Amendment; he succeeded because he invoked God. And so, unless we activists engage with religion in a serious and convincing way, we will not prevail in our struggle. “God versus Gay” has only one outcome.
Nor will we speak for the millions of LGBT Americans who are religious themselves. For us, “God versus Gay” is bad spirituality, as well as bad political tactics. Doubtless, many gay activists have justifiably relegated religion to the same mental basement as other repressive ideas. But the basement is just another closet. By perpetuating “God versus Gay,” secular gay rights activists perpetuate this psychological oppression of religious gays, this spiritual schizophrenia that continues to harm and distort.
Fortunately, gay rights is a religious issue. Religious people should not be for gay rights despite their religions’ teachings; they should be for gay rights because of them. For too long, we have allowed far-rightist forces to distort our religious teachings. Politically and spiritually, this has been disastrous. And contrary to the cries of the fearful, while there are indeed some religious arguments against equality for LGBT people, there are more of them in favor of it. Here are ten of them.
1. It Is Not Good to Be Alone
Opponents of same-sex marriage remind us that in Genesis, “it’s Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.” But “Adam and Eve” is the solution to a problem: the existential crisis of aloneness. In fact, after the long series of good things God sees during the creation process, Adam’s aloneness is the first thing that is not good (Gen. 2:18). It is the first natural condition which, the Bible tells us, is not to be left as is. Love, togetherness, mutual support—these are the essential qualities of the partnership God creates.
Religious and spiritual people, then, are faced with a fundamental religious imperative to heal loneliness where we find it and to insist on the importance of human relationship in so doing. What is different today is that, unlike five thousand, five hundred, or even fifty years ago, we now understand that sexual orientation is either genetically determined or determined so early in development as to be an essential, unchangeable aspect of the human soul. Thus, for millions of people around the world, to remedy this first, fundamental flaw of the human condition requires a same-sex relationship.
Of course, sexual orientation is a spectrum, not a binary, and for bisexuals and some others, there may be mutability. But a few bisexual experiences do not undermine a great many homosexual and heterosexual ones. For many people, the only way toward healing the split recognized in Genesis 2:18 is in a loving, same-sex relationship. Indeed, this is no doubt one reason that so many opponents of gay rights have insisted that sexual orientation must be changeable: because if it isn’t, then the traditional, homophobic interpretation of Scripture cannot be maintained. Of course, that is exactly my point.
2. God Loves Us and Does Not Want Us to Harm Ourselves
The suicide rate among gay teenagers is estimated to be six times that of straight ones. Need we say more? Does this statistic not teach us both that sexuality is a trait, not a choice (it’s odd to kill yourself because of a choice, no?), and that embracing sexual diversity is a religious imperative? What more do we need to know? Gay people exist, and some of them kill themselves because of the shame they feel.
Suicide is not, of course, the only form of harm gay people inflict upon themselves. The “closet” is another. As someone who lived in the closet for over a decade of my adult life, I can attest from personal experience that it is less a closet than a tomb. Constructed of lies, fear, and shame, it beats the soul down and alienates it not only from sexual expression but from all other forms of love as well, including authentic love of God. People in the closet are like the dead people in The Sixth Sense: they don’t know that they’re dead, and don’t know the wounds they carry around. The closet is like a heavy weight around the neck, and sexual repression is a form of self-mutilation.
Of course, Christianity, Judaism, and other religions do ask us to curb our behavior, even behaviors we may really enjoy, such as wanton greed and selfishness (e.g., the kind evinced by some of our society’s most famous celebrities). Sexuality, too, is regulated by these religious traditions, in very different ways: Some permit all forms of sexual behavior within marriage; others do not. Some see celibacy as an ideal; others do not. But nowhere do we find individuals required to forego all sexual intimacy, sexual expression, or romantic love. God does not ask us to be Isaac on the akedah or Christ on the cross; we are asked to curb our impulses, but not to destroy ourselves. Were homosexuality merely a form of licentiousness (as some suggest), then one could imagine it being prohibited by religious tradition. But homosexuality is not lust; it is a quality of the soul and a pathway to the most sacred forms of love.
Can a homosexual relationship be degraded? Yes. Can it be holy? Yes. Banning homosexuality because of its potential for “abuse” would be like banning heterosexuality because of prostitution. Religious people can and should debate how best the power of sexuality is to be understood according to their religious traditions, but to demand that an entire class of people completely repress, suppress, and mutilate their sexual drives is antithetical to the fundamental religious ideal that God loves us. A loving God could not want the closet.
3. Compassion Is Holy
Spiritual progressives generally believe that, in the words of Richard Rorty, “cruelty is the worst thing we can do,” and that, conversely, to alleviate suffering is a religious mandate. Thus, even apart from the theistic principle that God loves us and does not want us to crush our basic personalities, there is the ethical principal that cruelty is wrong and compassion is holy.
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