religion

First published at 365gay.com on January 23, 2009

When Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson was invited to deliver the invocation at the inaugural kickoff event, I expected some conservative evangelicals to complain. And they did.

Forget the fact that Robinson’s invitation seemed like a token gesture after the controversial choice of evangelical pastor (and Prop-8 supporter) Rick Warren for the inaugural invocation—a far more prominent platform.

Forget the fact that Warren himself praised the choice of the openly gay bishop as demonstrating the new president’s “genuine commitment to bringing all Americans of goodwill together in search of common ground.”

Indeed, for the moment, forget common ground. As one right-wing blogger put it, a good evangelical doesn’t seek common ground with the “Bishop of Sodom.”

And so they complained. Not only about Obama’s choice of Robinson, but about the prayer itself [full prayer at https://www.episcopalcafe.com/lead/faith_and_politics/gene_robinsons_prayer_for_pres.html. ]

What grieved them so? Was it the prayer’s failure to mention Jesus? Its lack of scriptural references? Its line about blessing the nation with anger—“anger at discrimination, at home and abroad, against refugees and immigrants, women, people of color, gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people”?

Yes, yes, and yes.

But those were not the parts that worried the evangelicals who contacted me a few days ago. They were concerned that Robinson’s prayer expressed a theme that they “have been trying to warn people about for some time now,” and they wanted my comment.

What is this worrisome theme? What sinister agenda had the “Bishop of Sodom” expressed in his prayer, wittingly or unwittingly?

It turns out that the troubling line was this: “Bless us with freedom from mere tolerance, replacing it with a genuine respect and warm embrace of our differences.”

Puzzled? The line strikes most of us as innocuous, or even benign. “Genuine respect and warm embrace of our differences”—who can argue with that?

But that’s not the part that bothered them. They were worried about “freedom from mere tolerance.”

We will not appreciate the right-wing mindset—or for that matter, the culture wars—until we understand why that sentiment scares our opponents.

When Robinson says “Bless us with freedom mere tolerance,” our opponents hear “It is not enough for you to tolerate us. You ought to embrace us. You ought to approve of who we are, which can’t be easily teased apart from what we do. After all, our relationships are a deep and important fact about our lives—just like yours are. So what we are asking is for you to give up your deep conviction that these relationships are sinful and instead affirm them as good.”

That is in fact precisely what we are (or should be) asking for, and precisely what Bishop Robinson is praying for.

No, we don’t seek such affirmation because we need our opponents’ validation. Rather, we seek it because it reflects the truth: our relationships are just as good as theirs.

We seek it for another reason as well, one that frightens them even more. Statistically speaking, some of their kids will turn out gay. I want those kids to know that there’s nothing wrong with them. I want them to be able, insofar as possible, to count on their parents for affirmation and support.

And that’s where the culture war really is a zero-sum game, and “common ground” is impossible without dramatic concession: we want their kids to believe something that is diametrically opposed to what they want them to believe. There’s no point in sugarcoating that conflict.

If I were religious, I might pray over it, as Warren and Robinson do—although when it comes down to specifics, it seems they are praying for very different things.

Or are they? One need not be a relativist to recognize that we all have an imperfect grasp of the truth, a truth that we nevertheless seek. When we find it—or at least, firmly believe that we have—we don’t want it to be merely “tolerated.”

That’s as true of Rick Warren as it is of Gene Robinson.

As I pointed out to my evangelical caller, I’m sure that he wants me, a skeptic, to move beyond “mere tolerance” of Christianity to embrace Jesus as my personal Lord and Savior.

No one who values truth wants it to be merely tolerated. We “tolerate” nuisances; we embrace truth.

That doesn’t mean that we believe that truth ought to be forced upon people, as if that were even possible. And this is where I think our opponents’ fears, while palpable, are ultimately unfounded.

We want them to move from mere tolerance to embracing the truth. They want us to do the same—although they see the truth quite differently. We will attempt to persuade each other.

But we cannot force truth—not by legislation, not by court decisions, and certainly, not by prayer.

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First published at 365gay.com on December 19, 2008

Marjorie Christoffersen seems like a nice enough person by all reports, including those of gay friends and acquaintances.

But Christoffersen made a $100 donation to Prop. 8, which stripped marriage rights from gays and lesbians in California. Now some customers of El Coyote, the landmark Los Angeles restaurant where she worked for two decades, are boycotting.

After angry protests, Christoffersen has tearfully resigned. Meanwhile, some of the other 88 employees have had their hours cut, and business is down about 30%.

Is this outcome the predictable result of taking rights away from a community that has been burned once too often? Collateral damage in an ugly culture war?

Or is it a step too far—punishing an entire business (and a gay-friendly one at that) for the private act of one employee, a generally decent person who can’t quite yet wrap her mind around gay marriage?

A few facts are worth noting as we ponder these questions.

Christoffersen’s small contribution was a personal one, not supported by the restaurant (except rather indirectly, insofar as it pays her salary).

True, she is the owner’s daughter and a familiar fixture there, but at El Coyote she kept her Prop. 8 support to herself (unsurprisingly, given the sympathies of her coworkers and patrons). It became known only as activists scoured donation rolls for “hypocritical” Yes-on-8 donors.

Indeed, in the wake of the controversy over Christoffersen, El Coyote has given $10,000 to the efforts to repeal Prop. 8—a substantial public penance for their employee’s private $100 “sin.”

El Coyote has many gay employees, including managers. While they were aware of Christoffersen’s Mormonism and her conservative political beliefs, they got along well with her. They report that (apart from the marriage issue) she was supportive of her gay friends and coworkers.

Some of those gay coworkers are now hurting. And it’s not just because they miss Christoffersen or hate seeing her so upset—she can’t discuss the incident without crying—but also because, with business slowing down, they fear for their jobs.

Meanwhile, opponents of marriage equality have begun to use Christoffersen as an example of how gay-rights advocates want to destroy freedom of religion, speech, and conscience.

What do I think?

I think Margie Christoffersen sounds like a basically good person, someone who is wrong on marriage equality but is (or at least was) possibly winnable on that point someday.

I also think the simplistic black-and-white approach that suggests “You’re either with us or against us” works even less at the level of day-to-day life than it does for, say, George Bush’s foreign policy.

I think punishing El Coyote for the contributions of a single employee—one whose views on this subject hardly seem representative of its management or staff—is certainly overbroad and probably counterproductive.

And yet I also appreciate the outrage of those who want nothing to do with anyone and anything even remotely associated with “Yes on 8”—a campaign which not only took away marriage rights, but did so by despicably portraying gays as a threat to children.

Against that ugly backdrop, it’s hard to get worked up about a diner’s business slowing down.

What concerns me most, however, is not misdirected punishment of El Coyote, or the occasionally harsh words for Christoffersen.

What concerns me most is the right wing’s misusing this case as Exhibit N in their ever-growing catalog of alleged threats to their freedom.

For example, in the National Review Online, Maggie Gallagher refers to the protests and boycott as “extraordinary public acts of hatred” and criticizes “the use of power to silence moral opposition.”

But nobody “silenced” Margie Christoffersen. She expressed her viewpoint by contributing; others expressed theirs by boycotting. That’s how free expression works.

So call the boycott counterproductive if you like, or reckless, or even mean-spirited. I might quibble with some of your characterizations, but I see your point.

But please don’t call it a violation of anyone’s rights. Neither Christoffersen nor El Coyote has a pre-existing right to anyone’s patronage.

Don’t call it a violation of her religious freedom, unless religious freedom means the freedom to strip away others’ legal rights without their being free to walk away from you.

And for heaven’s sake, don’t call it a violation of her freedom of conscience.

Christoffersen is free to think, speak, or vote however she likes. Others are free to avoid her.

In the culture war, as elsewhere, freedom is a sword that cuts both ways.

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First published at 365gay.com on October 31, 2008

On the eve of the election, I am pleased that my fellow Democrats have finally learned not to concede “moral values” language to the other side.

In past elections, we heard a lot about “values voters”—a code-term for right-wingers on issues like abortion and same-sex marriage. Senator Obama, among his many talents, has made the case that we should all be “values voters;” that foreign, economic, and environmental policy are moral issues; and that compassion, equality, and justice are values, too.

Still, my fellow liberals often have a hard time with the language of morals—whether because of an admirable humility, a lamentable wishy-washiness, or both.

That aversion results in a number of common but dumb claims about morality and ethics. (Like most philosophers, I use the terms interchangeably—there is no “standard” distinction.) Here’s my take on these claims:

(1) “Morality is a private matter.” To put it bluntly, this claim is nonsense of the highest order. Morality is about how we treat one another. It’s about what we as a society embrace, what we merely tolerate, and what we absolutely forbid.

While morality respects certain private spheres—and while some moral decisions are best left to those most intimately affected by them—morality is generally quite the opposite of a “private” matter.

(2) “You shouldn’t judge other people.” This claim is not only false, it’s self-defeating. (If you shouldn’t judge other people, then why are you telling me what to do?)

The reason this claim sounds remotely plausible is because of a slight ambiguity in what it means to “judge other people.” Should you go around wagging your finger in people’s faces? Of course not. No one likes a know-it-all, and pompous moralizing is counterproductive.

But it doesn’t follow that we shouldn’t make any moral judgments about other people’s behavior. Doing so is often the best way to figure out what traits to emulate and what mistakes to avoid.

(3) “I don’t need anyone’s moral approval.” If this claim means that individuals don’t need the moral approval of any other given individual, then fine: there will always be those whose moralizing is ill-informed, sloppy or insensitive—and thus best avoided. But to deny that we need the moral approval of anyone at all overlooks morality’s crucial social role.

Morality, unlike law, does not have formal enforcement procedures: police and courts and the like. It relies instead on social pressure—encouraging glances and raised eyebrows, nudges and winks, inclusion and ostracism. (Interestingly, some right-wing bloggers have reacted to my recent work by worrying about “court-enforced moral approval”—as if that concept made any sense.)

Moral pressure can help us be our best selves. But in order for it to work, we need to take other people’s moral opinions seriously most of the time. Just as unreasonable or unenforceable laws erode our confidence in law itself (think Prohibition), widespread dismissal of others’ moral views erodes morality’s social function.

(4) “Morality is just a matter of opinion.” Whether boxers are preferable to briefs is “just” a matter of opinion. Whether coffee tastes better with cream and sugar is “just” a matter of opinion. To call our moral values “just” a matter of opinion, by contrast, is to ignore their social and personal significance.

The problem here is that people start with a legitimate distinction between facts and values—in other words, between descriptions of the world and normative judgments about it. Unfortunately, the fact/value distinction morphs into the much fuzzier fact/opinion distinction, which then morphs into the fact/ “mere” opinion distinction—suggesting that values are unimportant. Nothing could be further from the truth.

(5) “There’s no point in arguing about morality.” Moral problems are practical problems: they’re problems about what to do. “Agreeing to disagree” is fine when the stakes are low or when the status quo is tolerable. But when something is badly wrong in the world, we should strive to repair it. That often requires making a persuasive moral case to our neighbors.

My own experience as “The Gay Moralist” suggests that moral arguments can make a difference—which is not to say they do so instantly or easily. Sometimes they require an extended back-and-forth. Sometimes, they help us get a foot in the door so that an emotional connection can be made. But the idea that they never work is not merely defeatist, it’s downright false.

In short, we should all be moralists—liberals and conservatives, religious and secular, red-staters and blue-staters—because we all need to figure out how to live together.

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First published at 365gay.com on October 17, 2008

If the election were held tomorrow, it’s quite likely that gays would lose marriage in California.

That’s California, our most populous state, home of San Francisco and Nancy Pelosi and the liberal Hollywood elite. What progressive California giveth, progressive California may taketh away.

It surprises (and frankly, depresses) me how few gay people know or care what’s happening. Here’s the quick version: in May, the California Supreme Court declared the state’s ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional. Prior to the decision, California had domestic partnership legislation granting nearly all of the statewide legal incidents of marriage. But the Court held that denying marriage to gay and lesbian couples deprived them of a fundamental right and constituted wrongful discrimination.

Gays began legally marrying in June, making California the second state (after Massachusetts) to support marriage equality.

Meanwhile, opponents collected enough signatures for a November ballot initiative to amend the constitution so that “Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California.” (The amendment would leave domestic partnerships intact, but it would make it impossible for California to recognize same-sex marriages from Massachusetts or elsewhere.)

For several months we seemed poised to win. That changed in the last few weeks, with recent polls showing us losing 47-42%.

Why the shift? One reason is that we’re being out-fundraised and outspent, and the opposition’s advertising is effective. Recent figures posted by the Los Angeles Times show our opponents raising $26.1 million to our $21.8. A substantial chunk of the opposition’s money has come from out of state, 40% of it from Mormons.

You read that last line correctly: 40% of the financial support for one-man-one-woman marriage in California is coming from members of a church that little over a century ago was pro-polygamy (and still has many polygamist offshoots). 40% of the support is coming from a religious denomination that makes up less than 2% of the U.S. population.

What’s even more shocking are some of the individual reports about donors. The Sacramento Bee tells the story of Pam and Rick Patterson, who live with their five children in a modest three-bedroom home in Folsom. They withdrew $50,000 from their savings and donated it to Yes on 8. Pam says that it wasn’t an easy decision, “But it was a clear decision, one that had so much potential to benefit our children and their children.”

Or consider David Nielson, a retired insurance executive from Auburn. He and his wife Susan donated $35,000. They plan to forgo vacations for the next several years and make other sacrifices to cover their donation, “because some causes are worth fighting for.”

If I didn’t know better, I would think that California had just made same-sex marriage mandatory.

And this is what’s both baffling and frustrating. We gays have a direct and palpable stake in the outcome of this referendum. Yet few of us (myself included) are willing to make the kinds of sacrifices made by the Nielsons and the Pattersons—people whose marriage was, is, and will remain heterosexual regardless of what happens. They are free to choose so-called “traditional marriage” if it suits them. So what are they so afraid of?

I think the gay-rights movement’s failure to grapple with this question is another important reason why we may lose. We frame our arguments in terms of rights and liberty, forgetting that some people want the liberty to live without exposure to certain ways of life. They want a world where no one sees marriage for gays as an option—not their government, not their neighbors, and definitely not their children.

They want that world badly, badly enough to sacrifice for it.

In a democratic society, they are free to want that simpler world, and to spend money to get it, and to vote in favor of it. We are free to fight back. But that fight must include thoughtful responses to their concerns. It is not enough to assert our rights, especially when the documents embodying those rights can be amended by popular vote.

We need to make a positive moral case to our opponents. We need to show them that our lives are good, that our relationships are healthy, that our happiness is compatible with theirs. We need to show them that marriage is good for gays, and that what’s good for gays is good for society.

We need to tell them the story of Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, the first same-sex couple to marry in California, a couple who were together for 56 years until Del Martin’s death in August at the age of 87. We need to tell them: these are the kind of people you are trying to take marriage away from.

I wouldn’t put my money on winning over the Pattersons and the Nielsons. But there are undecided voters who share their concerns—concerns about the world their children will inherit. We need to make the case to them. We need to raise money to communicate that case. And we need to do it fast.

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First published at 365gay.com on May 12, 2008

The sign read, “Focus on the Family welcomes Dr. John Corvino and the Bible Babes.” I did a double-take. “Bible Babes” sounds like the title of a really bad porn video, but there they were, listed with me on a placard at the welcome desk in Focus on the Family’s administration building. I snapped a quick photo.

Focus on the Family aims at “defending the God-ordained institution of the family and promoting biblical truths worldwide.” I was invited by my friend (and frequent debate opponent) Glenn Stanton, who works there.

“You’re going WHERE?” my friends had asked. “Aren’t you afraid they’re going to try to, um, re-program you or something?”

“Don’t worry,” I responded. “I’m wearing my protective rainbow undergarments.”

The truth is that I have long wanted to visit Focus. As a premier organization of the Christian right, Focus is one of the most influential opponents of gay rights in America. Gay-rights advocates and gay-rights opponents spend a lot of time talking ABOUT each other, and I was intrigued by the opportunity for us to talk (and listen) TO each other.

My visit consisted of a campus tour, a lunch, and a meeting with some members of Love Won Out, their “ex-gay” ministry. Although I was there for only a few hours, I learned several things.

First, Focus on the Family is a well-funded, well-organized operation. No surprise there. What impressed me is that the bulk of what they do…is to help families. Because Glenn had to leave town on a family emergency, I ended up taking a standard tour. I expected to hear plenty about how Focus fights the “gay agenda.” Instead, I heard plenty about how they help people with parenting issues, relationship challenges, and other basic life concerns.

This is not to deny that fighting gay rights is a key goal for Focus. But that goal seems to constitute a far larger proportion of its public image than of its day-to-day activity—at least based on what I saw.

A second thing my visit made clear was that the people there tend to see God’s hand in most aspects of their daily lives. “God lead us here…God blessed us with this…What God has in store…”—the language was constantly providential. This theme continued through my meeting with the ex-gays, whose stories typically included a strong sense of God’s direction. Hearing their accounts made me realize that reconciling Christianity with a pro-gay stance will require more than simply addressing bible verses. For it wasn’t (merely) the bible that convinced these people to renounce gay relationships. It was their understanding of their personal relationship with God.

These providence-infused accounts resonated with me, despite the fact that I’m now an atheist. For during my own coming-out process—when I was still deeply religious—I too felt that God was guiding me. Twenty years ago, I thought God was telling me “John, you’re gay. Not `straight with gay feelings,’ and not `going through a phase.’ Gay. It’s time for you to embrace that.” Looking back, I would now describe that voice as my conscience, or perhaps my reflective self. But at the time, I firmly believed it was God.

I recounted my coming-out story to the Love Won Out group, who listened attentively. Then one member asked me, “But isn’t it possible that was a deceiver talking? Isn’t it possible that you were wrong?”

He seemed surprised when I responded, “Of course. That’s always possible. But we have to do our best in discerning the truth, and that’s where I believe the truth lies. I’m gay.” I explained that believing in an infallible God does not render one infallible. It didn’t for me 20 years ago, just as it doesn’t for them now.

I’m a big believer in trying to find common ground with one’s opponents—after all, we all have to live in the same world together. I believe that gay-rights advocates can find some common ground with Focus on the Family. But my visit also underscored areas of disagreement that will not permit compromise.

For example: I want every child growing up with same-sex attractions to know that it’s okay to be gay. That vision is a big part of what motivates my work. That vision is deeply troubling to many (if not all) members of Focus on the Family, who see it as a fundamental threat to their values.

As long as Focus sees me as threatening their kids, and I see them as threatening “ours” (that is, GLBT kids), peaceful coexistence will be an elusive goal. Yet we still have to share the same world. I’m grateful for opportunities like this one to continue the dialogue.

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First published at 365gay.com on April 14, 2008

I’m sometimes criticized by fellow gay-rights advocates for being too accommodating towards our opponents. Why dignify gay-rights opponents with a response?

The simple answer is that, like it or not, homosexuality is an issue on which many thoughtful and decent people disagree. Ignoring this disagreement won’t make it go away, so instead I strive for productive dialogue.

Against that background, I was especially disappointed when Aquinas College in Grand Rapids revoked my invitation to speak there on April 3rd, calling me on the morning of the event to “postpone” it, and then canceling it one week later. In announcing his decision, Aquinas President C. Edward Balog cited concerns about a policy gap regarding speakers who are critical of Catholic teaching. Local Bishop Walter Hurley was apparently among those encouraging Balog to cancel the event.

In my sixteen years of speaking on gay rights, only once before have I had an event canceled—in Louisiana, a week following Hurricane Katrina. I have presented at religious institutions, including several Catholic colleges. Indeed, I spoke at St. Ambrose College (Davenport, IA) exactly a week before my scheduled Aquinas lecture. These have all been positive events.

My visit to Aquinas was contracted months in advance, and advertising went on for some time prior to the event. Those who invited me knew my position. I aim to promote respect for gay and lesbian persons by critically examining common arguments against same-sex affection. I am not (any longer) a Catholic, and I oppose key aspects of the Church’s teaching. I believe that the case against homosexuality is unsound. That said, I have no interest in distorting Catholic teaching. On the contrary, the more clearly a position is set out, the more rigorously we can discuss it.

So when the organizers asked me how I would feel about having an official Catholic response to my talk, I welcomed the suggestion enthusiastically. This is not because I believe that every campus event needs to present “both sides.” For one thing, the idea of “both sides” misleadingly suggests that there are two and only two sides to any issue, equally balanced along a clear and non-arbitrary middle ground. In reality, social issues admit of countless possible positions—some reasonable, some less so, and some beyond the pale. It would be both practically impossible and pedagogically undesirable for every event to include every possible perspective. As one critic of my invitation put it, “What’s next? Should we invite the KKK to present their views, too?”

Of course we shouldn’t. But the KKK analogy fails, and the reason for its failure is instructive. The reason is the same point I make to my critics in the choir: unlike segregation, homosexuality is an issue on which many thoughtful and decent people still disagree. Ignoring this disagreement won’t make it go away, so instead let’s strive for productive dialogue.

In short, I welcomed the inclusion of a Catholic response because it was entirely consistent with my aims as an educator. It would manifest Aquinas’s identity not just as a CATHOLIC College, but as a Catholic COLLEGE—a place where serious discussion of controversial issues could take place. It was a win-win-win proposal: good for me, good for the administration, and (most important) good for the Aquinas students, who presumably attend college in part to learn about diverse perspectives and how to evaluate them. Shutting down the event robbed us all of a valuable teaching moment.

After the cancellation, President Balog was quoted in the Grand Rapids Press as stating, “We want to explore the issue from an academic perspective, not from the perspective of an antagonistic attack to core Catholic values.”

This is a gross mischaracterization of my approach, as anyone with even a passing knowledge of my scholarly research or my public advocacy would recognize. It pains me to see such distortion coming from a Catholic college president.

It pains me as an academic, but it also pains me as a former Catholic. I sometimes joke that I’m not a fallen Catholic, because I didn’t fall—I leapt. But the truth is that I still have deep affection and respect for the Catholic faith. Affection, because of relationships with countless priests, nuns, and lay theologians who nurtured me in lasting ways. Respect, because of the Church’s intellectual and moral tradition, which takes “big questions” seriously and strives to integrate faith and reason.

That affection and respect are sorely tested today.

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First published at 365gay.com on March 31, 2008

Though it may sound perverse, I get excited whenever religious fundamentalists speak up during the Q&A portion of my public events. While fundamentalists are hardly a dying breed, they seldom participate in such functions. And though I find their silence generally pleasing, it does rob me of what we college professors like to call “teaching moments.”

So it piqued my interest when, at a debate in St. Louis last week, an audience member concluded an anti-gay tirade with, “Haven’t you ever heard of the Sodom and Gomorrah story?!”

You see, I had actually read the Sodom and Gomorrah story the evening before—out loud, to a Detroit audience. If you’ve never actually read the story, find a Bible and read Genesis 19 (it’s near the beginning). You may be in for a surprise.

A quick summary: two angels come to Sodom and Gomorrah, and Abraham’s nephew Lot invites them into his home. An angry mob surrounds the door and demands, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us, so that we may know them.” Lot protests, offering them his virgin daughters instead. (Yes, you read that right.) But the mob keeps pressing for the visiting angels, who suddenly strike them blind. The angels then lead Lot and his family to safety, and the Lord rains fire and brimstone on the cities.

Most scholars take the mob’s demand to “know” the visitors in a sexual (i.e. “biblical”) sense. Assuming they’re right, this oft-cited story is about an attempted gang rape. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that gang rape is BAD. But what does that have to do with homosexuality?

At this point fundamentalists will point to the fact that the mob declined Lot’s offer of his daughters, instead demanding the (male) visitors. “Aha,” they say. This proves that the story is about homosexuality!”

I always find this response surprising, since Lot’s offer of his daughters is an embarrassing detail of the text—for fundamentalists. Lot is supposed to be the hero of the story, renowned for his virtue. When faced with a mob of angry rapists, what does he do? Why, he does what any upstanding man would do. He offers them his virgin daughters. If you ever want an example of the Bible portraying women as expendable property, you need look no further than the Sodom and Gomorrah story.

Some biblical scholars have suggested that the true sin of Sodom is inhospitality. Inhospitality? Failing to offer visitors a drink, after they’ve traveled a long way to see you, is inhospitality. Trying to gang rape them is quite another matter. (And let’s not forget about offering them your daughters, which apparently is biblical good form.)

Lest you think Lot’s offer is a quirk, a strikingly similar story occurs at Judges 19. In this story, an angry mob demands to “know” visitors, and the host offers both his virgin daughter and his guest’s concubine. As in the Sodom story, the mob declines the women and keeps pressing for the visitor. This time, however, the guest tosses his concubine outside and closes the door. (Again, he’s supposed to be one of the good guys.) The mob violently rapes her until morning, when she finally collapses dead.

The lessons to be drawn here are several. First, most people who cite the Bible against homosexuality have little idea of what it says. Either that, or they have a rather strange moral sense. A story where the good guys offer their daughters to rapists is supposed to teach us what, exactly?

Second, the Bible contains some pretty wacky stuff. This isn’t news to those who study it carefully, but it does surprise the casual reader. For example, later in Genesis 19 Lot’s daughters get him drunk, have sex with him, and bear his children/grandchildren, without eliciting the slightest objection from the brimstone-wielding God.

After I explained all of this to my questioner in St. Louis, my debate opponent (Glenn Stanton of Focus on the Family) interjected that the Bible contains more salient references to homosexuality than the Sodom story. This is undoubtedly true, but it misses the point. The point is that the Bible reflects the moral prejudices and limitations of those who wrote and assembled it. Genesis 19 makes that abundantly clear (as do passages regarding slavery, and numerous others).

Once you grant that point, you can’t settle moral claims merely by insisting that “the Bible says so.” The Bible says lots of things—some true, some false, and some downright bizarre.

So when fundamentalists quote the Bible at my events, I don’t try to silence them. On the contrary, I ask them to continue reading.

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First published at 365gay.com on March 17, 2008

When Oklahoma State Representative Sally Kern gave her now-infamous homophobic rant before a group of fellow Republicans, she remarked that “The very fact that I’m talking to you like this here today puts me in jeopardy.” It may have been the truest thing she said that day.

Normally, I would dismiss this particular remark as a pathetic religious-right sympathy ploy. It’s hard to take seriously the persecution complex of a group that wields so much power, especially in places like Kern’s home state. In jeopardy for making homophobic comments in front of Oklahoma Republicans? Please.

Thanks to the marvel of YouTube, however, Kern’s rant received a much wider audience than she anticipated. Listeners all over the country heard Kern claim that “the homosexual agenda is destroying this nation,” that gays are indoctrinating our children, and that homosexuality poses a bigger threat to America “than terrorism or Islam, which I think is a big threat.”

Kern later claimed, rather implausibly, that her comments were taken out of context, and that she was talking about gays around the country who were contributing money to pro-gay candidates in Oklahoma and elsewhere.

I look forward to joining that group of gays. More precisely, I look forward to sending a big fat check to whatever decent candidate aims to unseat Kern in the next election cycle. I’m sure I’m not alone in that plan. So Kern’s remark about her speech putting her in jeopardy may have been surprisingly prescient. One can hope.

Unfortunately, Kern’s speech offered little else in the way of insight, unless we’re talking about insight into the fears, lies and stereotypes that dominate the religious right’s thinking about gays. Kern claimed that “studies show no society that has totally embraced homosexuality has lasted, you know, more than a few decades.”

I don’t know what “studies” Kern is referring to, but the claim is nonsense on its face. Can you name a now-extinct society that “totally embraced” homosexuality? Me neither. (While there have been societies in history that permitted particular homosexual practices, those practices were narrowly circumscribed.)

Kern added that “This stuff is deadly and it’s spreading and it will destroy our young people; it will destroy this nation.”

I share Kern’s concern for our young people, which is one reason I’m eager to unseat her. I remember what it was like to hear such stereotypes as a teenager and to think, “No, no, no—that can’t be me.” I remember how ugly myths about homosexuality exacerbated my coming-out struggle. I don’t want other youths to suffer that.

Kern also claimed that homosexuality “has deadly consequences for those people involved in it; they have more suicides, they’re more discouraged, there’s more illness [and] their lifespans are shorter.”

Again we have unsubstantiated myths and outright falsehoods, this time mixed with a grain of truth. Who wouldn’t be “discouraged” in the face of attacks like Kern’s? Should anyone be surprised that in Kern’s world, gay people—and especially, gay youth—find that their lives are more difficult than others’?

In this respect, Kern behaves like a bully who punches a kid on the playground and then justifies his attack by saying that he’s troubled by his victim’s bleeding. Yes, Rep. Kern, gay youth are at a higher risk for suicide. But their problem is not homosexuality. Their problem is people like you.

I realize that such accusations of “bloody hands” don’t do much to promote dialogue. I have no doubt that Sally Kern is sincere in her beliefs. What’s more, some of those beliefs may even stem from virtuous motives—respect for tradition, concern for future generations, love of country and so on. But virtuous motives don’t make such beliefs any less false, ugly, or dangerous.

I’m particularly irritated—though by no means surprised—by Kern’s attempt to cloak her homophobia in religion. At one point in her original screed she opines that “Not everybody’s lifestyle is equal—just like not all religions are equal.” She’s right about that, too. I’d say that any religion that permits spreading lies or demonizing people because of whom they love is scarcely worthy of respect.

In the wake of this fiasco, Kern has complained that her critics want to deny her free speech. “Obviously, you have the right as an American to choose that lifestyle,” she said, “but I also have the right to express my views.”

Yes, Rep. Kern, you do. But free speech doesn’t give anyone a free pass to say stupid things without repercussions.

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First published at 365gay.com on March 3, 2008

People often ask me what I think about ex-gay ministries. I have no objection to them in principle, but serious problems with them in practice.

I have no objection to them in principle because I believe we should give others the same respect that we ourselves demand. That includes giving people wide latitude about living their lives as they see fit. If you really believe that you’re heterosexual deep down, and you want to take steps to help realize that identity, far be it from me to insist otherwise. I’ll let you be the expert on what you feel deep down, as long as you show me the same courtesy.

In fact, many ex-gays do not show me the same courtesy. I’ve had several tell me, “C’mon—deep down you know that being gay is wrong.” I know no such thing, and I resent it when other people tell me what I know “deep down.” So let’s make a deal: you don’t tell me what I know deep down, and I won’t tell you what you know deep down.

I’m not denying that people are capable of deep self-deception; indeed, I know it firsthand. For years I insisted that I was “really” straight, even though (1) I had gay feelings, (2) I had no straight feelings, and (3) I knew that people with gay feelings but no straight feelings are gay. (This, from someone who would later teach elementary logic.) Somehow, by not letting my thoughts “touch,” I could avoid drawing the feared conclusions from them.

Maybe ex-gays are engaged in similar self-deception; maybe not. The point is that it’s their feelings, their life, their decision to make. So I won’t oppose their efforts in principle.

In practice, I have at least three serious problems with ex-gay ministries.

The first is their tendency to promote myths about the so-called “homosexual lifestyle” by generalizing from some people’s unfortunate personal experiences. Ex-gay spokespersons will often recount, in lurid detail, a life of promiscuity, sexual abuse, drug addiction, loneliness, depression, and so on. “That is what I left behind,” they tearfully announce, and who can blame them? But that experience is not my experience, and it’s by no means typical of the gay experience. To suggest otherwise is to spread lies about the reality of gay and lesbian people’s lives. (The best antidote for this is for the rest of us to tell our own stories openly and proudly.)

The second problem is the ex-gay ministries’ abuse of science. Many of its practitioners are engaged in “therapy” even though they are neither trained nor licensed to do so; some of that “therapy” can cause serious and lasting psychological damage. Ex-gay ministries tend to lean on discredited etiological theories—domineering mothers, absent fathers, and that sort of thing. They also tend to give false hope to those who seek such therapy. By all respectable accounts, only a tiny fraction of those who seek change achieve any lasting success. Even then it’s unclear whether feelings, or merely behaviors, have been changed. While we shouldn’t reject individuals’ reports of change out of hand, nor should we pretend that their experience is typical or likely.

The third and related problem is that many ex-gay ministries promote not merely a “change,” but a “cure.” “Cure” implies “disease,” which homosexuality is not. Insofar as ex-gay ministries promote the long-discredited notion that homosexuality is a psychological disorder, I oppose them. (“Spiritual” disorders are another matter, but then we’ve left the realm of science for that of religion. Ex-gay ministries have an unfortunate habit of conflating science, religion, and politics.)

I am not at all threatened by the notion that some people can change their sexual orientation, if indeed they can. In reality, it seems that at best only a small number can do so, and only with tremendous effort. But if they can, and that makes them happy, good for them. I’m confident enough in my own happiness that I need not doubt theirs.

Nor do I feel the need to insist that I was “born this way.” Maybe I was, maybe I wasn’t. What I can say with confidence is that these feelings are a deep and fulfilling part of who I am, and I see no reason to mess with them. Quite the contrary.

So when ex-gays announce, from billboards and magazine ads, that “Change is possible,” I say: Possible? Maybe. Likely? No. Desirable? Not for me, thanks.

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First published at 365gay.com on February 4, 2008

No one was surprised when the Phelpses announced plans to protest Heath Ledger’s memorial services. Known for their “God Hates Fags” message and their obnoxious funeral pickets—they now demonstrate against fallen American soldiers for defending our “doomed, fag-loving nation”—the Phelpses are nothing if not attention whores. What’s surprising is how much the Phelpses can tell us about ourselves.

Let’s admit it: deranged people, like car wrecks, are fascinating to watch. While everyone would be better off ignoring the Phelpses, doing so is hard sometimes. (I feel the same way about Britney, Paris, and Lindsay—my willpower against media “junk food” is only so strong.) So it was that I recently found myself listening to Shirley Phelps-Roper—daughter of Fred, who founded the infamous Westboro Baptist Church—when she appeared on a Washington D.C. radio station.

Phelps-Roper condemned Ledger for Brokeback Mountain, in which he plays a cowboy who falls in love with another man. Ledger is in hell because he mocked God’s law, she claimed, and “if you follow his example, you will go to hell with him.”

Predictably, the show’s callers attacked Phelps-Roper; sadly, they often made little sense. One insisted that, according to the bible, God doesn’t judge anyone. Say what? Phelps-Roper’s reading of the bible may be selective, but apparently, so is everyone else’s: it doesn’t take much searching to find a judgmental, even wrathful God in the bible.

The show’s host then attacked Phelps-Roper for her picket signs, which often thank God for disasters: “Thank God for 9/11.” “Thank God for maimed soldiers.” “Thank God for Hurricane Katrina.” and so on. Phelps-Roper had a ready comeback:

“Exactly. You better thank him for all of his judgments because the scripture says that God is known by the judgment that he executes in this Earth, so you thank him for everything.”

This answer is interesting, and not as bizarre as it might first appear. Theologians have long pondered the problem of evil—if God is all-knowing, all-good, and all-powerful, why does he allow evil in the world?—and some quite respectable ones have concluded that evil doesn’t really exist. From our limited human perspective, things may look bad, but that’s just because our minds are too feeble to comprehend God’s design: ultimately, everything is just as God planned it.

The problem is that, pushed to its limits, this position quickly yields practical contradictions. By this logic, we ought to thank God for Heath Ledger’s death; but by the same logic, we ought to thank God for Brokeback Mountain’s box-office success. We ought to thank God for Hurricane Katrina; yet we ought also to thank him for sparing the (delightfully debaucherous) French Quarter. We ought to thank God for AIDS, yet also for protease inhibitors. If God should be thanked for everything, then God should be thanked for EVERYTHING.

Yet somehow I don’t expect to see the Phelpses with signs thanking God for same-sex marriage in Massachusetts, or the passage of ENDA, or the increasing acceptance of GLBT people. If I were on a radio program with Shirley Phelps-Roper, I’d want to ask her “Why not?” If all of God’s judgments are “perfect,” why not these?

My guess is that she’d answer that these events result from human free will rather than divine will. But then how do we distinguish them from 9/11? Was it God’s will for Islamic extremists to fly planes into buildings? If so, do they escape hell, since they were only doing God’s will? If not, then why are we thanking God, rather than blaming the extremists?

I wouldn’t expect a satisfying answer to these questions, but that’s not because Phelps-Roper is deranged (which she is) or stupid (which she isn’t, as far as I can tell). It’s because centuries of philosophical theology have failed to produce satisfying answers to the problem of evil. Instead, we pick and choose: even though God is supposed to be responsible for everything, we thank him for the things we like and call the rest a mystery. In this respect Phelps-Roper resembles most biblical believers: she just happens to “like” rather different things than sane folks do.

A talented and likable actor dies in his prime. The Phelpses thank God, while mainstream believers declare God’s will a mystery. Had the paramedics saved him, mainstream believers would thank God while the Phelpses declared God’s will a mystery. In either case, divine providence remains unquestioned. Heads, God wins. Tails, God wins.

If there’s a mystery here, it’s why believers seem to have lower expectations of God than they do of local weather forecasters. That, and why a loving God lets the Phelpses continue to spew hate in his name.

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