Monday, January 05, 2009

Homosexuality, Marriage, the Bible, and the US Constitution

(First published on on 11/11/08)

[Note: I am neither a Christian nor am I gay. I have no vested interest in this issue, only a highly developed sense of justice and the willingness to use what expertise I have in the interest of setting the record straight when one side of a debate resorts to exaggerations, fudging facts, and building straw man arguments. And I admit up front that I'm in favor of legalizing same sex marriages; I see absolutely no harm in them. In fact I see much benefit, both to the institution of marriage and to the fabric of society.]

The national debate on same sex marriages seems to have reached something of a crisis point. California voters, under the influence of out-of-state funding and resources from conservative religious organizations, narrowly passed Proposition 8, which proposes an amendment to the California Constitution defining marriage as between one man and one woman, which essentially overturns the state's previous legalizing of same sex marriages and renders null and void thousands of existing marriages under the old rule. Several other states have passed similar measures. Currently, only two states, Massachusetts and Connecticut, recognize same sex marriages, and legislation pro and con is being debated in almost every state in the union.

The argument in favor of same sex marriage is really very simple: it harms no one, it concerns only the two people wishing to be married, in infringes on no one else's rights, and it's time that gays and lesbians were granted full citizenship. It's the argument against that I wish to address here, because that argument is built on several false premises and exaggerations. It sets up straw man arguments where the situations warned of don't (and can't under US law) exist.

The first claim is that the Bible condemns homosexuality. In fact there are only three passages that have anything to do with same sex activities. As it's evangelical Christian groups who are the main opposition to same sex marriages, the first two passages, Leviticus 18:22 and Leviticus 20:13, are not relevant to the argument, at least for Christians. I'll get to the reasons why in a minute. But first I want to address the only passage in the New Testament which addresses same sex sexual activity, Romans 1:26 - 27:

For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; 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 themselves the due penalty for their error.

The problem with the use of this passage is that it's taken way out of context, and those who use it totally ignore the implications of the original Greek text.

Romans 1, starting with verse 21, is Paul's denunciation of Roman Christians who abandoned their Christianity and went back to their old Roman polytheistic ways. Here's the whole relevant section:

For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.

Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.

For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; 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 themselves the due penalty for their error.

And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.
- Romans 1:21 - 31

As you can see, not only does he point to homosexual activity being a result of their reverted loyalty to their former ways, he also lists other character defects such as boasting, murder, and lying that result from their reversion.

A careful reading of the original Greek text of verses 26 and 27 shows that Paul isn't speaking about sexual activities between two loving individuals, but rather the frenzied sex characteristic of fertility rituals, whipped up by fervent chanting and alcohol and other drugs. The phrase translated above as "dishonorable passions" is pathe atimias, which is a phrase used in other Greek documents to describe the frenzied sex of these rituals. Paul also uses words/phrases like phusiken (natural), para phusin (unnatural), exekauthesan en te orexei ( literally "enflamed in the sexual excitement" and translated above as "consumed with passion"), metellaxan (exchanged), and aphentes (laid aside, left, translated above as "gave up"). What he's describing here, especially with the use of these particular words, is people who are by natural orientation heterosexual, being carried away by the frenzy and disorientation of the fertility ritual and basically having sex with the nearest warm body. A fuller description and development of this argument can be found online here.

So the passage which conservative Christians always point to as Paul's condemnation of homosexuality is really no such thing, but rather a condemnation of the excesses of the religious practices of the Greeks and Romans. The fact that most of the ministers and other higher ups in these religious bodies are educated in Greek and know very well what the real meaning of these verses is makes them disingenuous at best, and outright dishonest at worst.

Now about those verses in Leviticus... For a Christian condemning homosexuality, these verses are irrelevant. Why? Because Christianity has declared, from the Second Century CE and onward, that the Hebrew scriptures, called the "Old Testament" in later times, are to be considered just history, a "prequel" to the Christian dispensation, if you will. Doctrinal instruction can only be determined from those documents written by followers of Jesus the Christ - the books that comprise the "New Testament" and , for Catholics and the various Eastern Orthodox churches, the writings of various early Church Fathers.

How that particular situation came about is fairly simple. Christianity developed from a Jewish culture, and the earliest Christians were all Jews. But after a little time gentiles (Greeks, Romans, and other non-Jews) began to follow Jesus as well, most of that coming through the efforts of Paul of Tarsus. Many of the old-school Jewish Christians wanted the gentiles to get circumcised and follow Jewish law. But Paul argued that the Law of Moses was God's special gift to the Jews, and to the Jews only, and that God had other arrangements with the other peoples of the world. In his own opinion the coming of Jesus as the Christ was that arrangement for gentiles, and it would be unfair, if not blasphemous, to require them to adhere to the Law of Moses.

Eventually gentiles outnumbered Jews in the Christian community, and after the end of the First Century there were no longer any claiming to be Jews in the community. So the argument of Paul became central to the early church, and it was determined that the Law of Moses wasn't applicable to Christians, and indeed that the Christian scriptures superseded the Hebrew scriptures. It became dogma that: "The Old Testament is history, and the New Testament is doctrine." Martin Luther and the other leading figures of the Protestant Reformation made that one of the centerpieces of Reformation theology.

So the use of the verses in Leviticus can't be used by Christians to condemn homosexuality because all varieties of Christianity reject the Old Testament as a basis for determining doctrine. In fact it's common to hear evangelicals throw out the accusation of "legalism" and "legalistic" when someone pays too much attention to the Old Testament (for instance the common accusation of "legalism" directed at Seventh Day Adventists who celebrate the sabbath on the Jewish day, Saturday, rather than on Sunday). So it's a no-no no matter what flavor of Christianity you adhere to.

Another argument the opponents of single sex marriage make is that allowing it will "redefine marriage"; they go on to state that the Bible defines marriage as between a man and a woman. But it does no such thing. There are plenty of references to marriage in the New Testament, but in all cases they refer to the preference for marriage over unlicensed partnering, often referred to as "adultery". But nowhere is marriage actually defined as anything other than the recognized legalization of sexual partnership. Gender doesn't come up.

As to redefining marriage, all you have to do is Google "marriage" to see just how many definitions of marriage there are in the world. The definition of marriage as one man and one woman is just one among thousands of definitions. So accusations of redefinition are more than a little disingenuous.

All of these religious arguments are moot, however, in the face of the US Constitution. The First Amendment of the Constitution says:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

The key to the argument against the opposition to same sex marriage is what's called the Establishment Clause: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion..." The best explanation of the Establishment Clause I've ever read come from Wikipedia's entry on the First Amendment:

The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment prohibits the establishment of a national religion by the Congress or the preference of one religion over another, or religion over non-religion. Originally, the First Amendment only applied to the federal government. Subsequently, under the incorporation doctrine, certain selected provisions were applied to states. It was not, however, until the middle and later years of the twentieth century that the Supreme Court began to interpret the Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses in such a manner as to restrict the promotion of religion by state governments. For example, in the Board of Education of Kiryas Joel Village School District v. Grumet, 512 U.S. 687 (1994), Justice David Souter, writing for the majority, concluded that "government should not prefer one religion to another, or religion to irreligion".

And there it is: according to the US Constitution and the rulings of the Supreme Court of the US the government can't create and enforce legislation based on the doctrines of a particular religion. Given that there are world religions which have no objection to same sex marriage (and there are adherents of those religions who are citizens of the US), and given that even the many denominations of Christianity can't agree on the subject, creating laws that forbid same sex marriage falls into that category; it would be advancing one religion over all others, and you just can't do that in this country.

Evangelicals often argue that this violates their freedom of religion, but it doesn't. Evangelicals can bar gays and lesbians from their congregations, and they can refuse to officiate at a same sex wedding or allow one to take place in their churches. What they can't do is force others who do not believe the same as they to follow suit. Why can't they be satisfied with that? What other believers (or non-believers) do outside their (the Evangelicals') congregations is none of their business.

Another thing I've heard from Evangelicals is that the various rulings and proposed laws allowing same sex marriage carry measures to punish churches who refuse to allow same sex marriages. No such measures exist; it's a straw man argument constructed specifically to scare the general believing populace. The same First Amendment that protects everybody else from being forced to obey laws adhering to Evangelical theology protects Evangelicals vice versa. If you Google on "same sex marriage Massachusetts", "same sex marriage Connecticut", or "same sex marriage California", you'll see that no such measures were ever proposed. Go ahead, I'll wait.

In conclusion (yes, I'm done now), there is no legitimate reason for not legalizing same sex marriage. It's not condemned in the Bible, nor is general homosexuality. And making same sex marriage illegal is a violation of the First Amendment of the US Constitution. There really is no excuse for this opposition except one - bigotry. That may be harsh, but it's the truth. It's mean-spirited and cruel and it has nothing, absolutely nothing, to do with the words of Jesus, which were all about love. You want to be a real Christian and follow Jesus? Let gays and lesbians marry. I'll bet you it's what Jesus would do.

© 2008 by A. Roy Hilbinger

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