Righting America

A forum for scholarly conversation about Christianity, culture, and politics in the US
Being Anti-Gay Is Not “Because the Bible Tells Me So” | Righting America

by Rodney Kennedy

Rodney Kennedy has his M.Div from New Orleans Theological Seminary and his Ph.D. in Rhetoric from Louisiana State University. He pastored the First Baptist Church of Dayton (OH) – which is an American Baptist Church – for 13 years, after which he served as interim pastor of ABC USA churches in Illinois, Kansas, New York, and Pennsylvania. He is now a full-time writer. His seventh book, Good and Evil in the Garden of Democracy, has recently been published. And book #8, Dancing with Metaphors in the Pulpit, will appear soon. 

A woman holds a sign saying “I heart [love] gays” standing next to anti-gay protesters. Image via Patheos.

Cal Thomas has written a scurrilous, sloppy screed attacking the United Methodist Church. He accuses the Methodists (and other mainline denominations) of losing their prophetic voice because they voted to accept the ordination of gays. 

Here’ a quote from Thomas’s piece:

To put things on a secular level, most businesses that lose customers would change their way of doing business to win them back. Not the Methodists, Episcopalians, United Presbyterians, and a branch of Lutherans among others. They are doubling down. Strongly evangelical churches that believe and preach Scripture are growing. Heresy is a bad “business model” for the church.

Interesting, Cal, that you failed to mention the Southern Baptists, who are in a membership freefall? What is the heresy they need to expunge? Would it be their tolerance of sexual abuse? Would it be their antipathy to women pastors?  

Anyway, Thomas’ self-righteous presumption that he is right about human sexuality is exactly that – a presumption. I’m not sure what motivated Thomas, because he doesn’t seem to “have a horse in this race.” He was not a delegate to the General Conference of the United Methodist Church. But he does put in popular language the basic understanding of conservatives about human sexuality. 

I am “triggered” by Thomas’ use of Scripture to defend the anti-gay stance of conservatives. In response, I make this audacious claim: being anti-gay is not about being faithful to the Bible. To suggest that anti-gay supporters are not being biblical will strike many as absurd. They may assume I am being hyperbolic. Is it not the constant claim of conservatives that the Bible completely condemns homosexuality? Yes, but I am not convinced by the pitiful little six verses so often thrown out in defense of being homophobic. But of course, using the Bible, like using God to approve a nation’s propensity for war, is not a new strategy. 

Christian conservatives in major mainline denominations – the Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church, the Presbyterian USA Church, and the United Methodist Church – have now all split over gay rights, the focus being issues of ordination and marriage. And there’s much more to it than the Bible. 


The real issue is identity. Why do conservatives feel threatened and morally outraged when gay couples are married, or a lesbian is ordained as a pastor? The explanation has nothing to do with the Bible. There can be no gays in the conservative realm. The presence of married and ordained gays is a threat to the legitimacy of the world conservatives have created. Marriage and ordination are not the real issues. The Bible is not the real issue; the real issue is identity. 

Conservatives left the United Methodist Church even though they were on a long winning streak of maintaining the language of “incompatibility” in the Book of Discipline in relation to homosexuals. They left the UMC even though they had won every argument about homosexuality at every General Conference since 1976. 

An army doesn’t desert the field of battle when it is winning. A football team doesn’t go to the locker room when leading 60 – 40 in the third quarter. Conservatives were unwilling to make accommodations for those who dissented from the severe anti-gay stance. Even one gay bishop was enough to drive them away from a denomination they otherwise controlled. The issue: identity. The conservatives did not want the UMC to have an identity as accepting of gay clergy. 

For the conservatives, The Book of Discipline was being disobeyed, and disobedience can’t be allowed in the conservative worldview. The conservative point of view is concerned with authority, with obedience, with discipline, with punishment. In the new Global Methodist Church, authority, obedience, discipline, and punishment, organized in a package. The issue is identity. 

The Theory of Essences

Why did homosexuality become the deciding issue? Why not divorce and remarriage? Mainline Christians have never all been of one accord on all matters of doctrine, but there are almost no debates at general conferences and synods about divorce and remarriage. Only one issue has been selected as the proverbial line in the sand: gayness. In this one case, conservatives have decided there must be an absolute right and wrong, and the category of human sexuality must be absolute. 

George Lakoff offers an explanation: If category lines are fuzzy, it could be hard to tell if a rule or a law was broken. Absolute categorization requires essences, properties that define absolute categories. Though it took Aristotle to spell out how the theory of essences worked, he was simply noticing the everyday version in the cognitive unconscious. There is an unconscious but pervasive folk theory of essences, in which essences define strict categories. Essences in this folk theory are inherent, don’t change over time, and are the causal sources of natural behavior.

The logic of essences dominates conservative thought. In human sexuality, if a baby has the if essence of a heterosexual being at birth, then they had the essence of a heterosexual before birth… all the way back to conception. The folk theory of essence is not conscious. It just defines intuitive “common sense.”

In other words, “folk common sense” has more influence on conservative ideas about gays than the Bible. Essences existed long before the appearance of Christianity. As such, the theory of essences has more of a pagan origin than a Christian one. 

The theory of essences has gradually evolved into an American belief in “common sense.” Stanley Hauerwas argues we are “trained to believe we are capable of reading the Bible without spiritual and moral transformation.” We “read the Bible not as Christians, but as democratic citizens who think our ‘common sense’ is sufficient for ‘understanding’ the Scripture.” 

The reduction of interpreting the Bible according to “common sense” occurs in every conservative flagship issue from creationism to nativism. Absolutes are good companions for “common sense.” American evangelicals possess an unshakable faith in common sense. I think this attitude can be traced to the political philosophy of fundamentalism. One sees in particular Francis Bacon’s influential inductive reasoning and Scottish “common sense” philosophy. Bacon is as necessary to fundamentalism as eggs to breakfast. But I will not attempt to make that case in any detail here. 

In contrast, mainline denominations have not been defined by absolutes. What preachers believe and preach has been an odd assortment of beliefs ranging from one end of the theological spectrum to the other. 

For evangelicals to insist the Bible is the only guide for decisions on human sexuality opens the door to a bewildering array of sexual ideas, beliefs, and behaviors within the Bible itself. The Bible doesn’t have a developed theology of sexuality. But the reality is that conservatives can’t stand to be told that other Christians have as much epistemic and hermeneutical right as they do when it comes to the Bible

For example, conservatives would never tolerate the interpretative principles offered by Old Testament scholar Ellen Davis, which she develops in her seminal article, “Critical Traditioning: Seeking an Inner Biblical Hermeneutic.” Davis says: 

  • First, the text is difficult — that is, it presents ethical difficulties for its interpreters.
  • Second, the difficult text is worthy of charity from its interpreters.
  • Third, ethical consciousness, informed by prayerful life within the faith community, is a legitimate hermeneutical tool.
  • Fourth, the validity of a given interpretation does not depend on the interpreter’s proximity to the authorial source, since an authoritative text is one authorized for repeated rereading and reinterpretation within the faith community.

But mainline Protestants and other Christians now live under the suspicion, held by many conservatives, that we do not take the Bible seriously as a guide for faith and life. And that is because conservative Christians assume they have all the religious “experience” they need to know exactly what the Bible says.

The conservative argument here borders on the absurd. Claiming total epistemic control of the Bible, they cry: “The Bible as we read it – love it or leave it.” “Obey what we say the Bible means, or leave it.” That is to say, the issue is one of obedience, not biblical content. And love of the Bible is never to be equated with blind obedience to fundamentalist dictates. 

When evangelicals shake the Bible in our faces and claim we no longer believe the Bible, I have to stifle a laugh. It may actually come as a shock to some conservatives how seriously liberals take the Scripture. We take the Bible seriously, but not literally. To assume otherwise can only mean conservatives have completely ignored the rich contributions of biblical and theological scholars to the faith over the last one hundred years. 

Lacking the copyright, the patent to the Holy Word of God, conservatives don’t have the right to cut off the biblical readings and interpretations of other Christians. But I argue this is the exact move they have attempted to pull off. In their view, they are the true defenders of the Bible. The rest of us are unbiblical and most likely no longer even Christians. 

This reaches the nub of the issue. Conservatives insist on reading the Bible within the frame of Aristotle’s “essences.” No other reading is allowed. The conservative love for Scripture and reason has crashed right into and up against a limit: a lover of truth and reason doesn’t have the right to deny epistemic status to other readers. 

Essences and a monarchical epistemic attitude – these are the twin pillars of the conservative onslaught against gays. 

The tragedy here is that both sides in this Christian dispute have had a basic resource at their disposal – a resource provided by the people who gave birth to Christianity – the Jews. Christians, imprisoned by Descartes’ insistence that if two people are disagreed, one must be wrong, have not noticed that such dualism is ineffective. 

What if when two people disagree, both may have reason on their side? What should be done with members of a community disagree? How should the conflict be adjudicated? What sources of authority should be privileged? 

There’s a rich irony at play here. Conservatives, the group most likely to be anti-scientific, have embraced a Cartesian dualism that defines reason in scientific and mathematical terms and assumed that there was only one right answer to a given question. 

Let me offer an alternative from the teachings of the rabbis. Talmudic reason is plural, revealing many answers to the same question. 

A historical example is the conflict between the schools of Hillel and Shammai. As David Frank has pointed out,

The school of Hillel very often tended to allow what the school of Shammai forbade. One controversy lasted three years, each school claiming that the Law conformed to its teachings. The Talmud tells what Rabbi Abba in the name of Rabbi Samuel says. The latter addressed himself to Heaven to know the truth; from on high a voice responded that both interpretations expressed the word of the living God. The two diametrically opposed interpretations command equal respect because they express thoughtful and recognized ways of thinking and in this they are both reasonable. 

As Frank goes on to say, 

The schools of Hillel and Shammai held opposing views, but both revealed dimensions of a truth that could not be expressed in one opinion, contained in one ideology, or owned by one school …. In the Jewish tradition, the search for truth was seen as contested and elusive.” 

The story of the Oven of Akhani is a famous Jewish tale. Rabbi Eliezer claimed the Oven of Akhnai was pure. The majority of the Rabbis disagreed and held that the Oven was impure. In defense of his position, Rabbi Eliezer called on heaven for proof. And heaven responded to his plea as a tree was uprooted and thrown one hundred ells; the current of a stream was reversed; and the walls of the academy started to fall. The other Rabbis were not persuaded by these miracles. So Rabbi Eliezer appealed to God and the Divine Voice declared Rabbi Eliezer in the right. Rabbi Josue, speaking for the majority, said, “The Torah is not in heaven.” 

The story teaches us that decisions about what is pure and impure are to be made by the human community. The choice is between humans and is not the affair of God. Chaim Perelman reminds us that “Jewish law authorizes the creation of actions which are tailored to the needs of the moment.” This may include “adding flexibility to the texts by resorting to general principles and every to fictions.” 

Majority and minority points of view are emphasized and sanctified. Majority rule, while privileged, was held in check by dissenting voices that could at some future point move the community, through persuasion, in a different direction. 

Conservative Christians, impatient at the difficulty of the democratic processes of debate, argument, consensus, and dissent, have put down the epistemic hammer and declared an end to the discussion. 

In the conclusion of the story of the Oven of Akhani, God is asked what God thought when Rabbi Josue declared “The Torah is not in heaven.” God responds with laughter and joy, declaring, “My Children have defeated me, my children have defeated me.” 

Identity, common sense, and essences turn out to be less than admirable defenses for the anti-gay Christians. Let those who have ears to hear, hear what the Jewish masters have taught.