Why am I reluctant to discuss this issue? I don't have any openly gay friends, and I have to be honest: I didn't leave my Christian faith because I was upset about how evangelicals treat or view gays. In fact, I was opposed to any sort of homosexual expression and believed it ran counter not only to God's will but against nature itself (recall that I remained a believer in God for over a year after I left Christianity). And as a straight man, I confess I don't understand same-sex attraction and find it difficult to think about the kinds of things that go on physically between two gay men, for example. But then again, I found it difficult and disgusting as a preadolescent to think about the things that go on between a man and a woman when making a baby. (Honestly, I thought it was so abhorrent that I somehow came to believe that sex was something that a couple needs to do just once, and God would give the couple however many children he sees fit, all from a single act of sex!)
Some of the comments I've seen from evangelical Facebook friends leave no doubt as to their take on Obama's recent announcement of support for gay marriage. One even said that Obama is "pure evil." I'm sorry, but that's just way over the top (nor do I doubt that those who oppose those who oppose gay marriage can and do go over the top too). If you want to say Hitler or Stalin or Mao were pure evil for killing tens of millions of innocent people, go ahead and I'll join you--but in a nontheocratic society, surely granting gay couples the same rights as straight couples is not pure evil, whether or not we personally approve of it for religious or secular reasons. From a legal point of view, I have everything against a straight man who kills my child, but nothing against a gay man who leaves me unharmed and does things with another man in his bedroom that I don't care to think about. And if these two gay men want their relationship to be recognized in the same way that my marriage to my wife is recognized, it does me no harm, so why should I make a fuss? To borrow Thomas Jefferson's words from a different (but somewhat applicable) context, "The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg."
Franklin Graham, the son of Billy Graham, had this to say about Obama's stand: "In changing his position from that of Senator/candidate Obama, President Obama has, in my view, shaken his fist at the same God who created and defined marriage. It grieves me that our president would now affirm same-sex marriage, though I believe it grieves God even more." Notice how Graham uses God's authority to challenge Obama's position. This is representative of the common practice within evangelicalism of calling out one's ideological opponents in the name of God. It adds much more gravitas than merely saying, "I think he's mistaken, and here are the reasons why: ...." But what if Graham's god does not exist, or what if there's a different god out there that sees things differently? Though it may be difficult to take a "what if" point of view that's opposed to the core of what we believe, I challenge Christians to do so in considering this thought experiment: IF Graham's god does not exist, THEN Graham's accusation that Obama is shaking his fist at God is an empty assertion, and is merely a mechanism Graham is using to illegitimately elevate his opinion to that of the creator of the entire universe to whom we must all submit. In other words, IF this god doesn't exist, then Graham is taking a shortcut; rather than having a reasoned discussion about the public consequences of adopting gay marriage, he's able to brow-beat Obama as a defiant rebel against the god of all goodness and power. After doing that, there's no more dialogue that can be had; end of discussion. The intent of this thought experiment is to highlight the pointlessness of projecting the assumptions of one worldview to engage with others in another worldview that doesn't share those assumptions. The only way to move forward in the political sphere is to agree to limit our arguments to nonreligious, consequentialist considerations that we can all agree on. But such an approach seems absent from most of our discourse.
Just as evangelicals are expected to have a code to follow (i.e., the unambiguous teaching against homosexuality in the Bible), so do humanists: being gay is okay, and anyone who has any reservations about it is a hater. Hence this recent question from an evangelical Facebook friend of mine: "A real question for my non-evangelical FB friends: Is it possible in this day and age to oppose gay marriage without being automatically labeled as a hater?"
I'm happy to answer my friend's question in the affirmative: I know many Christians who are uncomfortable with homosexual marriage, including the friend who posted the Facebook question, and I don't consider them to be haters. (No doubt others would disagree with me and say that anyone who expresses the slightest reservation concerning homosexuality is a hater, but I'm not one of them, and I can only speak for myself.) Certainly there are many haters out there, and I would probably consider the person who branded Obama as "pure evil" as one of them. But I'd like to dig a little deeper into my friend's question. On the surface, it expresses a legitimate complaint: "Why can't I express my conservative views without getting my head chewed off?" What this misses is the loaded historical baggage that accompanies any such discussion. The topic du jour is gay marriage, but it was less than a decade ago (2003) that the U.S. Supreme Court struck down all standing state antisodomy laws that made it a punishable crime to engage in homosexual behavior, even in private. It would be safe to say that the same sentiments and religious ideals that underpin opposition to gay marriage today underpinned the criminalization of homosexuality in the past. Perhaps it's unwarranted guilt by association, but can you see how a homosexual could feel that anyone who opposes gay marriage is likely to be a part of a long tradition of opposing all gay rights, not just matrimonial ones? And very roughly speaking, this same tradition is the one that originally opposed all participation of gays in the military, interracial marriage, women's rights, and civil rights for racial minorities. Are these associations coincidental, or is there a common wellspring that feeds them all?
Let me pause to discuss this Christian expression most of us have heard in relation to homosexuality: "Love the sinner, hate the sin." You may not have heard the tongue-in-cheek rejoinder from a secular point of view: "Hate the superstition, love the superstitious (i.e., religious people)." If you're religious and you find this in any way offensive or demeaning or arrogant, then perhaps you can understand why homosexuals find the above Christian expression offensive. But we live in a free society, and Christians have a legitimate right to criticize homosexuality, just as unbelievers have a right to criticize religion. It's just that I shouldn't be surprised when Christians take offense when I challenge their beliefs, nor should Christians be surprised at the pushback they receive when they challenge the appropriateness of homosexual lifestyle; in either case, the challenge goes to the heart of the other person's identity, and it feels like an attack on the person himself.
Within the two camps lined up in opposition to each other on homosexuality (let's just break them down into evangelical and nonevangelical for the sake of this discussion), there is a small minority that deviates from the party line; for example, evangelical leader Tony Campolo has this to say about gay marriage and civil unions:
“Allow me to suggest a way out of this conflict and the difficult questions being raised these days about whether our country should approve of homosexual marriages. I propose that the government should get out of the business of marrying people and, instead, only give legal status to civil unions. The government should do this for both gay couples and straight couples and, leave marriage in the hands of the Church and other religious entities. That’s the way it works in Holland: If a couple wants to be united in the eyes of the law, whether gay or straight, they go down to city hall and legally register, securing all the rights and privileges a couple has under Dutch law. Then, if the couple wants their relationship blessed--to be married--they go to a church, synagogue or other house of worship” (Campolo 2008, 94).
To me this makes perfect sense. Perhaps we should take a look at the Netherlands and see how things are working out for them, taking care to learn what we can from their mistakes and successes. If their population is by and large supportive of this arrangement, if God hasn't cursed them in any obvious way, if their society isn't spiraling out of control with crime or poverty rates higher than in the U.S., then why not give it a shot? Or are we as Americans beneath learning from other, smaller, less religious nations?
If we were living in a Christian or Jewish theocracy, then it would be entirely appropriate to ban gay marriage and all homosexual activity; I fully concur with the evangelicals who hold that the Bible has nothing good to say about homosexuality (though it also has a lot of other things to say about other matters--like wealth, warfare, polygamy, stoning rebellious children--that would make them uncomfortable if taken to heart). But in America the Bible is not our constitution; we live in a secular democracy, so let's just take Campolo's recommendation and put this public issue behind us. If churches wish to continue an intramural discussion about how to view homosexuality, that's fine; but it shouldn't be a public issue in a secular democracy.
I'll close by posting a couple of links to recommended reading on this topic. Rachel Held Evans, a "progressive evangelical" who has left the local church while preserving her faith, is pained by the evangelical response to gays. Another Christian blogger, though she considers homosexuality to be a sin, wants a solution like Campolo's.
By the way, I apologize for my general lack of responsiveness to comments and messages. There's been a lot going on with work and family lately, and I'm generally not the most responsive correspondent to begin with, but I do read and appreciate all your messages and posts. Thanks so much!