There’s no one way to be religious. You’d think that progressives would appreciate this, since it’s conservatives who usually preach dogma, and progressives who are meant to counsel pluralism. But in the recent debate about Dan Savage’s statement that “we can learn to ignore the bullshit in the Bible about gay people,” some progressives seem to have lost their moral compass.
For example, in Slate today, Amanda Marcotte—who once referred to the Immaculate Conception as God filling Mary “with his hot, white, sticky Holy Spirit”—called me a “concerned troll” who has “poor reading comprehension.” Why? Because I dared to argue that not all of us have to be religious the same way, and that the Bible is not as clear as its dogmatic proponents and opponents seem to think it is.
First, a disclosure. I have spent ten years as a queer activist, am one month away from getting my Ph.D. in religion, and wrote a book on sexual diversity and religion, God vs. Gay? The Religious Case for Equality. Since Marcotte apparently didn’t bother to Google me, I thought I’d provide this information now.
My argument in the original piece was that when gay-rights advocates like Savage call parts of the Bible “bullshit,” they play into the hands of homophobes who claim that the God of the Bible hates gays. Of course it’s fine for progressive Christians and Jews to pick and choose which Biblical verses they like, and it’s fine for atheists to call the whole book a crock of Santorum. But as LGBT activists, we have a responsibility to be more responsible—especially to those who do not accept such liberal premises.
For example, about 40% of Americans believe the Bible to be the word of God. Do we have nothing to say to them, except to demand that they ignore the bullshit? Not only will they simply ignore us as a result, but taking such an offensive and ignorant line affirms every nasty thing they say about us. It tells all but the most progressive of Christians that you have to choose between inclusion and religion (as they understand it), that gays hate Christianity (again, as they understand it), and most of all, that the Bible prohibits homosexuality.
Which it doesn’t. Marcotte claims that she knows Leviticus better than I do, because she’s taken a quick glance at the King James translation of Leviticus 18:22. Now that is bullshit. Actually, Leviticus 18:22 is (a) only about men, (b) only about anal sex (mishkevei ishah in Hebrew), (c) actually only about male anal sex in the context of idolatry (toevah in Hebrew, mistranslated as “abomination” in English; see Deuteronomy 23:18 for the connection between male eroticism and Canaanite religion), and (d) of no relevance to Christians who have set aside the Old Testament’s ritual law. True, this isn’t the only way to read that particular verse. But it is one valid, literalistic, and honest way—and for more conservative Christians and Jews, it allows them to maintain their deeply held religious convictions and fully celebrate LGBT lives. Savage’s approach gives these people no hope whatsoever.
More important, Leviticus and the other five mentions of same-sex eroticism in the Bible aren’t the real point. The real point is the dozens of other passages in the Bible which talk about the importance of human relationship (Adam and Eve are about love, not procreation; see Genesis 2:18), the mandate to compassion, the pursuit of justice, the importance of diversity, and the way we learn from being in community with one another. These are real religious values, not bullshit ones, and yet they are undermined every time an activist, gay or anti-gay, focuses myopically on the “clobber texts” in Leviticus, Romans, and Corinthians. That incorrect focus mis-frames the question and dictates the outcome.
Finally, to reiterate a point I made in the original article, of course the Bible says nothing about homosexuality. That term, and the construction of sexuality it denotes, was invented in 1869. It’s a particular, modern, European concept that has no parallel in Ancient Near Eastern Biblical literature, save perhaps in the story of David and Jonathan. Leviticus 18:22 is as much about homosexuality as Leviticus 19:19 (prohibiting the mixture of linen and wool) is about polyester.
To be clear, Marcotte, Savage, and I are—I think—basically allies. Marcotte is right to call out the howls of right-wing protest against Savage as disingenuous and defamatory, and part of the Christian Right’s campaign to rebrand homophobia as “religious freedom.” But Savage walked right into it by saying exactly what they wanted a gay man to say.