The Clobber Verses
Let me just say right off the top, three of the verses that are sometimes considered clobber verses have nothing to do with the question of homosexuality. Putting Genesis 2:21-25, Deuteronomy 23:17 and Jude 1:6-7 in the category of anti-gay verses is nothing more than an attempt to beef up the number of verses that are supposedly “against” homosexuality. They have nothing to do with it. So, I am simply going to ignore them. If someone attempts to use them as proof of the “abomination” of homosexuality, I suggest you simply ignore them as well.
The great thing about defending the Bible against people who want to use Genesis 19:1-11 to gay bash is that you really don’t have to do any work. The Bible does it for you. For better or for worse, this is also the verse with which the general population is probably most familiar in terms of what they think of as verses about homosexuality. Even the term “sodomy” is linked to this Bible passage.
It is the story of two travelers (messengers from God) being given shelter by Lot and his family. Hospitality was a very big deal in those days. In this story, the men of Sodom decided to approach Lot’s home and to make less than hospitable demands on him and his guest. To get a sense of how important hospitality was, when the men of the town say they want to force themselves (most likely sexually) on Lot’s guest, Lot actually offers up his daughters instead. Despicable, deplorable, a great way to permanently damage your relationship with your daughters and the rest of your family (to say the least), but a sure sign that hospitality was a big deal.
In the end, the men of the town did not get what they wanted. They wanted to exert their dominance of the guests. They wanted to humiliate them, as warriors after conquering a foe might do in those days, sexually putting another male into the position of a woman (who after all was thought of as property, as weak, and as soft and therefore less than a man).
Even though the men never actually exerted their power over Lot’s guests in a male-male sex act, people still insist on using this text as proof that homosexuality is an “abomination.” Well, like I said, “the great thing about defending the Bible against people who want to use Genesis 19:1-5 to gay bash is that you really don’t have to do any work. The Bible does it for you.”
Sodom is referenced multiple times in the Bible as an example of great sinning. And what might that sin be?
In Isaiah 1:10-17 it is thought to be injustice, not rescuing the oppressed, defending the orphan, pleading for the widow. In Jeremiah 23:14 it is adultery. In Ezekiel 16:48-49 it is the sin of not aiding the “poor and needy.” In Zephaniah 2:8-11 the sin is bullying, boasting and pride. In the Wisdom of Solomon it is “the bitter hatred of strangers.”
The sin is not about being gay. It is not about non-straight sexual orientation. The sin of Sodom was lacking hospitality, not being just, bullying, hating strangers, not caring for those marginalized. Funny, they are all things Churches (and individuals for that matter) sorely need to keep in mind and be better at practicing when it comes to how we do or do not welcome LGBTQ folk into our lives. After all, in today’s society, who is more marginalized, more bullied, more treated like a “stranger,” than them? Come to think of it, not so funny.
If someone were to canonize a buzz-kill, it would look remarkably, and uncomfortably, like the book of Leviticus. Honestly, this three-thousand plus year old holiness code is not exactly a big ball of fun. For starters, just try reading it. On second thought, I like you, so don’t. Fortunately for you, I’ve done it for you. (I know, nice. Right? I’m just that kind of guy).
Among the jewels you’ll find in it are a mandate to kill disobedient children, a dietary restriction to not eat shellfish (God Hates Shrimp!), a law that would prevent bowl-cuts (or “rounding off the side-growth of your heads” – and to think I liked the Beatles), direction to not touch or eat the flesh of a pig (no bacon and cheddar soup for you!), and a prohibition on the rhythm method of birth control (you know who you are!). Oh, and presumably, gay sex (which, of course, is why I bring it up).
The section of Leviticus where we find the clobber verses is often called the Purity Code. “Purity” was mostly about two things. First, it was about keeping things the way they “should” be. “Should” is in quotes because the guidelines they used for what should and shouldn’t be were mostly made up. Said differently, they arrived at their conclusions in a time that didn’t have any science or at least not science like we have today. Which is to say, they didn’t have any science.
What they had was mostly superstition based on observation. A big part of this purity code was the idea that the world is consistent or follows particular preset rules. For the Israelites this meant things like: all fish have fins, animals with divided hooves chew cud, and male sperm contains the whole of life (women provided the incubation chamber). When things didn’t adhere to this particular three-thousand year old way of understanding the world, they were considered an abomination or more precisely impure.
The second thing the purity code did was define the Israelites as purely not Canaanites. That is, much like many Christians receive the mark of a cross on their forehead on Ash Wednesday or give something up for Lent, the codes in Leviticus helped define the people of Israel as the people of Israel. For the Israelites it was particularly meant to define them as not Canaanites. Basically, it’s a way of showing “we are not them.”
It is true that there are other reasons for many of the laws (just like there are many other reasons to give something up for Lent), but these are two of the larger ones, and they are ones that most directly apply to these clobber verses.
So what do we, presumably enlightened Christians of a scientific age, do with this code? Clearly shrimp are good to eat (for most of us). For that matter, as far as I’m concerned, to borrow from an old Benjamin Franklin quote, they are proof that God loves us* – that’s just how darned delicious they are.
What we do is recognize Leviticus for what it was: a good thing for the people of God based on how they understood the world some three-thousand years ago. Interestingly enough, when it comes to things like shellfish, eating and touching pigs, cutting our sideburns and beards, and stoning children who mouth off to their parents, we have already managed to do exactly that. Why? Because we understand that they are just flat out silly laws. Not all “fish” have fins. Some come in the shape of pink commas and are delicious with a nice Riesling. Because not all split hooved animals chew cud. Some roll around in the mud and make breakfast just that much better. For that matter, wrap them around a shrimp, throw them on the grill. I promise you, God will not smite you and once you bite into them you’ll agree, they are not an abomination (they might, however taste slightly “impure” if you do not devein them well).
What many people have not been able to do is extend that simple understanding to these clobber verses. We have already established that it would have been impossible for these texts, or any biblical text, to be about sexual orientation. However, they do clearly describe a male-male sex act (sorry ladies, this one’s just for the guys). But what we have to begin to understand is that the issues which these specific laws presumed to address within their society, much like the other laws I’ve mentioned here, are no longer recognized as true.
Scholars have pointed to various reasons for ancient Israel’s seeing male-male sex as taboo in Leviticus. It may be the same reason the rhythm method was thought to be wrong in the eyes of God, which presumably is that, as I have mentioned, they thought sperm contained the whole of life (how typically male-dominated-society of them). Therefore, in their way of seeing it, “Every sperm is sacred. Every sperm is great. If a sperm gets wasted, God gets quite irate.” On the other hand, it may be that they thought it was taboo because it went against their understanding that mixing of kinds, just like the mixing of two kinds of cloth was taboo. Male-male sexual relationships, in that way of seeing things, mixes up their understanding of gender roles.
Whatever the reason, the perspective in these clobber verses were based on an understanding of sex and sexuality that was just as misinformed as their understanding of the earth in relationship to the sun, of fish, of pork and of reasons for stoning children. In our scientific age, it is time to let go of archaic perspectives and start recognizing the things that are truly an abomination in the eyes of God: lacking in compassion and love, exercising judgment against others, and practicing and encouraging hate.
(*The actual quote attributed to Benjamin Franklin is, “Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.” Sadly, while Ben most probably enjoyed a mug of beer from time to time, the actual quote is, “Behold the rain which descends from heaven upon our vineyards, there it enters the roots of the vines, to be changed into wine, a constant proof that God loves us, and loves to see us happy.” In a happy coincidence, the same rains nourish the barley and hops that are changed into beer. In an even happier coincidence, wine and beer both pair exceptionally well with shrimp. God is good).
Good news ladies! Up until now, all of this clobbering has been about the guys. In Romans, you get to join in. Lucky you.
Romans is the one place the Bible speaks specifically about a female-female sex act. If you listen to Bible Thumpin’ Gay Bashers, you’d be surprised to learn that, while the counts vary on how many places the Bible directly address heterosexual relationships, it is a lot. Then again, compared to the precisely one verse the Bible has about female-female sex, even two is one hundred percent more.
The number of heterosexually oriented verses isn’t exactly clear. One thing is really clear, there’s plenty of them and, much like the Levitical purity code, we’ve managed to ignore many of them. So, if you aren’t also denouncing the divorced, then get off your lesbian judging high-horse, because otherwise you are just picking and choosing who to judge out of your own accord, and then quoting the one Bible verse that seems to support your choice. And even then, as we will see, it doesn’t actually support your argument. It actually does just the opposite.
In Romans, we have the most extensive discussion of same-sex intercourse in the Bible, a whole two seemingly specific verses – astounding.
There are plenty of approaches to understanding what Paul is trying to teach us in these texts. Any good exegesis ultimately points to the reality that what Paul is talking about and what people who use these verses as clobber verses want Paul to be talking about aren’t the same thing. That is, this is not about homosexual people having consenting homosexual relationships.
One convincing analysis of these texts looks at the fact that one of the most prevalent forms of same-sex sex in the Greco-Roman world was male prostitution which frequently involved boys. In that analysis, the texts become a condemnation of pederasty and prostitution, things of which most Christians (conservative to liberal) disapprove even today. There is also the perspective that Paul’s pointing to same sex intercourse as being idolatrous could be referring to the practices of priests and priestesses of Mediterranean fertility gods who regularly practiced that type of prostitution but elevated it, within a religious context, to the state of idolatry. Those approaches are valid and mostly convincing perspectives, but they do require a small leap of logic to arrive at their conclusions. Much less of a leap of logic, mind you, than believing that these texts are about something of which people at that time had absolutely no comprehension, but slight conjecture all the same.
The analysis that I find the most convincing concerns itself with the word “natural.” It is the word that has led many to speak of LGBTQ behavior as “unnatural” acts even though they occur throughout nature (in one study they were found in more than fifteen-hundred species).
As it turns out, the word is actually not “natural.” Not surprisingly, Paul did not speak English. While Paul performed a number of miraculous things, speaking English (which wasn’t around even in its earliest Prehistoric Old English form yet) was not one of them. Not to bore you too much, but the word Paul used was the Greek word, physikos. (Now that didn’t hurt too much, did it?).
It’s important to know the word in Greek because when it is translated into English, it loses a little of its original meaning. Without even knowing it, Lady GaGa has provided a better modern and contextual translation of physikos than the frequently used translation of “normal.” We will get to that in a minute. It doesn’t mean “natural” or “nature” so much as it means “produced by nature.” Those who use these verses as clobber verses tend to understand “natural” to mean something closer to “normal” than “produced by nature.” Not surprisingly, they also then define what is and isn’t “normal” based on their personal biases rather than on science or the reality of the world around them (e.g.: “I think gay people make me feel creepy, so I henceforth do hereby dub it as an act of not-natural.”).
In reality, physikos has more to do with how things naturally occur in God’s Creation. At this point, you may have begun to guess that physikos is based on the same root word from which we get the word “physics” which is, of course, the study of the realities of nature. Conveniently, the way Paul uses physikos here in Romans, it also means something very similar to “the realities of nature.” It is concerned with what is of our nature and not with what is defined as acceptable. That is to say, Paul is concerned with how God created something or someone to be. He is concerned with people going against their nature or in the words of Lady GaGa herself, if they are “born that way” he’s concerned with them behaving as if they were not.
That is the sin here in Romans, acting against the very nature of who God created you to be. In this case he seems to be addressing the idea of a same-sex sex act in which at least one of the two are not attracted to someone of the same sex; they just are not born that way.
Understood this way, it would be equally sinful for someone who is only attracted to someone of the same sex to have sex with someone of the opposite sex. It goes against their nature; they just weren’t born that way. Ironically, those telling LGBTQ folk that these verses mean they have to stop being LGBTQ folk are actually telling them to commit the very sin against which these verses warn, going against their nature. God has a wicked sense of humor.
Because these texts have been used so much to address homosexuality, it was important to address the issue directly, but the worst thing we could do is to think it is primarily about homosexuality. It is not.
Immediately following verse 28, Paul provides an extensive list of sins. It is so extensive that we all fall into at least one of the categories. “So there you have it,” says Paul, “we all sin. Don’t try to deny it.” And let’s face it, we all go against who we know we were created to be. How many times have you done something, felt guilt or shame, and then said, “I shouldn’t have done that. That’s not who I am.”?
As Paul says in the very next chapter, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” As he also says to start that chapter, “Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things.”
So, remember back a few paragraphs ago when we talked about a Greek word? And remember how it didn’t even hurt one little bit? Good. We are going to do it again.
I have put the 1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy clobber verses together because they both use a particular Greek word in a particularly similar way. The word is arsenokoitēs and it means “male prostitute.” (Behold the Greek scholarship. See that it is good and rejoice). Actually, it could also mean “the customer of a male prostitute,” or “boy molester” or “someone who abuses themselves with a man” or “using sexual manipulation to acquire money” or … (eh hem, “Behold the great and powerful Greek Interpretation!” <insert flashing light and crashing thunder>).
So, the word in these two verses, that is frequently interpreted as “homosexual” (which is absurd because, in Greek, it is clearly only a word referring to men) or “sodomite” (which is absurd, among other reasons, because that was not the sin of Sodom, as we have already discussed), is really difficult to translate. Why? In part, because it is only found in these two places and also, in part, because it is entirely possible that it is a made up word. It is very likely that Greek speaking Jews created this word to port a Hebrew word to Greek and over time the meaning has been lost. So, it is just hard to translate. So difficult, in fact, that scholars can’t agree on a single best translation. What most biblical Greek scholars can agree on is that it is not meant to be a blanket statement about a male-male sex act. Moving on.
There is another word used in 1 Corinthians 6:9: malakos. The good news about this word is that it is found in lots of literature, so there are plenty of references about its typical intended meaning. It literally means “soft.” Some say it means “soft” as in “effeminate, but not in terms of sexual orientation.” Others, say it is connected with being wasteful of sexual and financial resources. Still others convincingly point to it singling out a particular type of male prostitution involving young boys. Also in the list of contenders: sexual perverts, sodomites, weaklings, the self-indulgent. (“Behold the great and powerful Greek Interpretation!” <insert flashing light and crashing thunder>). Like with arsenokoitēs there really is no expert consensus on this.
Malakos was a word that could be used to refer to things as diverse as men who were weak in battle (or who were “soft”), to men who lived extravagant and pampered lives (or who were… well, “soft”). It was not specifically about sexual relationships. If Paul was actually trying to describe something about a submissive male in a male-male relationship (which is still not the same as homosexuality as we understand it today), it’s very likely that he would have used kinaedos, which was frequently used to describe that very relationship. But he didn’t. So, stop acting like he was.
In summary of my look at the Christian Church’s use of the clobber verses, if you want to call homosexuality a sin, go ahead. But you are going to have to admit that it is not biblically a sin. Which means you are also going to have to admit that you are calling it a sin simply because that’s what you want to do. Because of that, you are going to have to admit that you are a sinner for using God’s name for false pretenses (it’s a little thing we like to call using God’s name in vain). And then, Paul has something to tell you, “…you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things.” (Romans 2:1).
In this widely presented lecture (recorded here in 2007), John Corvino dismantles common arguments against same-sex relationships, including those based on nature, harm, and religion.
You said somewhere in another interview — I’m always a little bit careful about quoting other interviews because they don’t always get written down correctly. But I wanted to ask you about this because it’s very intriguing — that some of these sexual issues that are so galvanizing and so polarizing in our time in churches and outside them — you said that you really don’t think that’s about particularities of guilt or sin, but about a sense of impending chaos, which goes back to that first prophetic text you read. Are you saying that people have a sense of impending chaos, and for some reason, maybe because these things are so intimate, this is what they latch onto?
Mr. Brueggemann:That’s exactly what I think. I’ve asked myself why, in the church, does the question of gays and lesbians have such adrenaline. I’ve decided for myself that that means most of what we’re arguing about with gays and lesbians has nothing to do with gays and lesbians. It is rather that the world is not the way we thought it was going to be. I think what has happened is that we’ve taken all of our anxiety about the old world disappearing, and we’ve dumped it all on that issue. I have concluded that it’s almost futile to have the theological argument about gays and lesbians anymore because that’s not what the argument’s about. It is an amorphous anxiety that we are in freefall as a society. I think we kind of are in freefall as a society, but I don’t think it has anything to do with gays and lesbians particularly.
The Washington Post reported earlier this month that moderators for YouTube are trained to treat the most popular video producers differently than others by, for instance, allowing hateful speech to remain on the site while enforcing their policies more stringently against creators with fewer followers. YouTube denied the claims.
YouTube was buffeted by allegations in June that it failed to act against a popular video creator who repeatedly mocked a journalist for being openly gay and of Mexican descent.
Bria Kam and Chrissy Chambers, whose BriaAndChrissy channel has about 850,000 subscribers, allege that YouTube’s enforcement against their channel reduced their monthly revenue to around $500 from $3,500.
However, according to the lawsuit, YouTube routinely restricts content that is allowable by, among other things, labeling videos aimed at LGBT communities for restricted audiences only or altering thumbnail previews of the videos that serve as enticements for potential viewers.
The lawsuit mentions a BriaAndChrissy music video titled “Face Your Fears,” which features the couple standing in front of anti-gay protesters, kissing. The song lyrics encourage people in the LGBT community to be themselves. “No more hate, no more shame,” the song goes. For reasons that are unclear to the creators, the video has been placed in “restricted mode,” making it invisible to viewers at many schools, libraries or to anyone who has activated the mode meant to limit offensive content.
The couple say these restrictions have “stigmatized” their videos and limited their audience, causing their earnings to dwindle. The lawsuit also says YouTube has allowed anti-gay groups to place obscene advertisements before the BriaAndChrissy videos.
Bret Somers, whose Watts the Safeword channel has about 200,000 subscribers, claims in the suit that his average monthly sales of $6,500 fell to around $300 as a result of YouTube’s actions against him, including restricting most of his videos to small audiences. Somers, in the suit, said that videos such as those describing his experience traveling to events, festivals or conventions do not appear for many viewers. His channel also depicts more adult content such as people watching virtual reality pornography and discussion of sex toys.
Lindsay Amer, another plaintiff and the creator of “Queer Kid Stuff,” says the channel’s videos, meant for kids aged 3 to 17, initially gained traction. But after a neo-Nazi website accused her of encouraging homosexuality, the comments sections underneath the videos were bombarded with hate speech that referred to Amer as a pedophile and attacked the LGBT community. Amer says parents wrote in to say that while they supported the content of Amer’s videos, they would not allow their children to watch them because of the comments.
In their dissenting opinions in Obergefell v. Hodges, Justices Roberts and Scalia lamented the way in which the Supreme Court’s ruling would close off public debate about same-sex marriage.
That debate, though, has been increasingly lopsided and narrow. It is increasingly lopsided because public opinion has moved dramatically in favor of legal recognition of same-sex marriages in recent history. It is increasingly narrow because, at least in the case of Christian discourse, opposition to same-sex marriage has abandoned Biblical argumentation and relied more exclusively on natural law arguments.
The American Family Association increasingly appeals to “natural marriage,” rather than “biblical marriage” in its attempts to stem the tides of sin and relativism. The Republican Party’s 2016 platform praises “natural marriage” and never appeals to the Bible in its opposition to marriage equality. And today the most influential scholarly arguments against same-sex marriage also come from natural law thinkers, such as Sherif Girgis, Ryan T. Anderson, Robert P. George, not from scholars who rely on biblical texts.
How to explain this phenomenon? Perhaps opponents of gay marriage believe Biblical arguments have little traction in a pluralistic society. Perhaps they have been persuaded that the biblical cases against homosexuality are unpersuasive.Or perhaps there is general embarrassment at the prospect of being associated with Westboro Baptist Church’s protestors and their lewd signs invoking Leviticus.
Whatever the causes, Christians’ shift toward natural law argumentation calls for deeper consideration. It is not at all clear to me that the natural law must lead one to oppose legal recognition of same-sex marriage. In fact, I want to suggest that the basic premises of the natural law can lead us to endorse same-sex marriage as a matter of legal policy.
The public debate Roberts and Scalia sought to protect is not as vibrant as they presumed in part because the natural law is the last vestige of Christian opposition to marriage equality. And even this last remaining source of opposition cannot ultimately provide stable intellectual grounding against same-sex unions.
Natural law cases against same-sex marriage frequently have at their core high regard for the nuclear family as both an institution that allows for the full flourishing of individuals and also a foundation for a functional society. Let’s accept that idea, and also the basic natural law concept that rational reflection on the natural order of creation yields a network of moral norms with which human beings can and should align their behavior.
Even accepting those premises, it is not clear that one must oppose the legal recognition of same-sex marriage, because it is not “homosexuality” that threatens to destroy families, but rather “homophobia” that does so. I follow the meaning of “homophobia” Dale Martin offers in Sex and the Single Savior. By “homophobia,” I mean “the loathing of homosexuality that arises from a deep-seated…fear of homosexuality.”(61)
This fear of homosexuality destroys families by causing conflict between parents and children. Nuclear families are torn apart when children realize that they have same-sex attractions or that they deviate from commonly-accepted standards of masculinity and femininity in any way. Realizing this, children face the terrible decision: they can either keep their secrets to themselves, or they can reveal them to parents who may condemn them. Indeed, many parents do condemn and ostracize children who fail to live up to social norms surrounding sex and gender.
Vast literature exists about how to “come out” to parents, how parents can overcome fear, grief, and anger conjured by encountering a child’s homosexuality, and how parents can move to greater acceptance of their gay children. (cf. Carolyn Griffin et. al. in Beyond Acceptance and Robert Berstein at. al. in Straight Parents, Gay Children). All of this literature is a testament to the terrible fact that fear and hatred of homosexuality destroy familial bonds by estranging gay kids from their parents. This phenomenon ought to be of great concern to any natural law thinker, given that the basic premises of the natural law prioritize whole, unified, and loving nuclear families.
How would natural law thinkers advise families in the throes of such crises? What can parents and children do when faced with the threat of familial estrangement? One option is for gay children to try to change their sexual desires and identities in order to gain acceptance from homophobic parents. Typical natural law objections to homosexuality might once have counseled young people to defeat their impulses to same-sex attraction, admit that opposite-sex attraction is the norm for all humans, and simply live in accordance with that norm. But this option has been widely discredited.
Evidence suggests that trying to change same-sex desire is not effective, and may even be harmful. The dissolution of Exodus International, one of the leading Christian groups dedicated to helping people pray the gay away is a strong indicator that this tactic is rightly on the wane. John Paulk, one of the leaders of Exodus International, addressed the damage this approach causes in a statement explaining the group’s disunion. The statement read, in part:
Today, I do not consider myself “ex-gay” and I no longer support or promote the movement. Please allow me to be clear: I do not believe that reparative therapy changes sexual orientation; in fact, it does great harm to many people…From the bottom of my heart I wish I could take back my words and actions that caused anger, depression, guilt and hopelessness. In their place I want to extend love, hope, tenderness, joy and the truth that gay people are loved by God.
We should heed Paulk’s reversal on the possibilities of changing homosexual desire to align more closely with opposite-sex attraction. Social scientific research and trustworthy human experiences, two sources that natural law thinking can accommodate, are increasingly leading us to the conclusion that familial estrangement caused by homophobia cannot be solved by forcing kids to conform to hetero-normative social custom.
Another option for gay kids who have been ostracized by their parents is simply to sever ties with their families. They can live with alienation from their parents by moving away from them, avoiding discussions of their sexuality, and/or cutting off contact altogether. Sadly, this is a common way of dealing with familial rifts created by homophobia. Literature on homosexuality abounds with stories in which parents and children live with some level of alienation following a child’s decision to come out of the closet.
The phenomenon of familial estrangement following a “coming out” moment should be troubling to all natural law thinkers, in light of the basic commitment to the importance of the nuclear family for individual flourishing and social functioning. And yet, I have never read a natural law case against this sad reality. Most natural law engagements of homosexuality purport to “defend the family” by arguing that same-sex partnerships cannot sustain this institution, without noticing that parental homophobia bears significant blame for destroying families.
A third option for healing familial estrangement is for parents to accept their gay children without condemning same-sex attraction as such. This means letting go of a moral vision of homosexuality as sinful and disordered. It means letting go of the idea that the best way to relate to one’s gay child is to “love the sinner and hate the sin.” It also means supporting children in their encounters with homophobia in society at large. Parents of gay and lesbian children who initially rejected their children’s sexual identity report that acceptance is the most effective way to reunite families torn apart by this revelation.
In their book What is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense, Girgis, Anderson, and George attempt to develop a natural law case against same-sex marriage that does not denounce same-sex relationships as such. They try to argue that they have no moral objection to homosexuality. They claim a natural law position that ostensibly accepts same-sex attraction and relationship, while at the same time denying the legitimacy of same-sex marriage.
Same-sex relationships can be valuable, they say, in the same way that friendships can be valuable. Such an admission apparently qualifies as acceptance. The problem with their argument, though, is that they cannot both accept same-sex attraction and relationships while also denying the legal right for people in such relationships to marry. Despite the fact that they want to appear “accepting,” the moral reality, for Girgis, Anderson, and George, is that same-sex love is inferior to heterosexual love for the purposes of sustaining families and society. As natural law thinkers, they base this judgment on the possibility of procreation.
Heterosexual couples can engage in coitus, while homosexual couples cannot. Coitus is supremely important for our society, given its role in producing offspring. Because homosexual couples cannot engage in coitus, their love and relationships cannot be classified as “marriage.” Thus, Girgis, Anderson, and George undermine their posture of acceptance by writing that homosexual partners “merely touch or interlock” (25-26, 36).
Denigrating same-sex activity in this way reaffirms the idea that homosexual love is inferior to heterosexual love. Add to this denigration the condescending argument that same-sex partners should think of themselves only as “friends,” and the conclusion that these partners should not be given the right to marry, and it becomes clear that, protestations aside, the authors view homosexuality as inherently inferior. However much Girgis, Anderson, and George want to develop an “accepting” natural law account of sexuality, their arguments still constitute homophobia.
How would Girgis, Anderson, and George have a parent respond to a child who summons the strength to come out of the closet? If such a parent responded by saying, “You can still form valuable bonds of friendship!” or “Your bodily touching and interlocking may fall short of coitus, but I’m sure it can be pleasurable!” a reasonable person would conclude that this response is not fully accepting. Full acceptance would, at the very least, regard same-sex love as equally valuable and fulfilling as its heterosexual counterpart.
One would think that natural law ethicists would welcome such acceptance, as it promises to reunite estranged families, and whole, loving families are—at least ostensibly—of great value to natural law theorists. And yet, one looks in vain for such theorists to advocate parental acceptance of gay kids in the interests of keeping families together. Natural law thinkers may not want to admit that accepting homosexual kids is better for families than condemning such kids because such an admission would lead to major revisions of basic natural law ideas about human sexuality. Recognizing that we may have been wrong in discerning the natural order of human sexuality can be a difficult thing to do.
Of course, a natural law case for moral acceptance of homosexuality in the interests of keeping families united has strong implications for our thinking about the positive law. Specifically, the civic laws in states affected by the Supreme Court ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges become relevant.
Based on this natural law argument that families can be repaired by accepting rather than condemning homosexuality, natural law thinkers should welcome the Supreme Court ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges. This is because, consistent with a natural law account of legislation, the civic law can train us in the virtues necessary to participate well in social life, including family life. In the natural law theory of Thomas Aquinas, one of the effects of the human law is to make people good (ST I-II, 92).
On the specific question of homosexuality and familial stability that I have been addressing here, the relevant virtue is parental acceptance of a child’s same-sex attraction, toward the good end of familial reconciliation. Following the Supreme Court’s elimination of state bans on same-sex marriage, I predict that many parents will come to accept their children’s sexual identities and families will recover from estrangement.
Such virtuous acceptance should be both welcome and unsurprising to natural law theorists who already believe that human law makes us grow in virtue. The shifting rhetoric in psychiatric discourse around homosexuality may be a good predictor of the way law will influence parents’ acceptance of gay children. The American Psychiatric Association’s decision to declassify homosexuality as a mental disorder has fostered greater acceptance of same-sex attraction, especially among parents struggling with a child’s “coming out” moment.
Institutions such as the APA and the Supreme Court have enormous influence over individuals’ perception of homosexuality. Natural law theory will recognize that their definitions and rulings can and do shape us. I submit that these definitions and rulings are currently shaping us toward the virtue of acceptance and the good of familial reconciliation.
But the challenge to natural law engagements of homosexuality and same-sex marriage that I offer goes deeper than mere reflection on a specific Supreme Court ruling. On the one hand, natural law opposition (exemplified by Girgis, Anderson, and George) to same-sex marriage is based on a selective and incoherent evaluation of the nuclear family. On the other hand, though, it seems inevitable that natural law theory will have to revisit some basic commitments as it moves to greater coherence on questions of sexuality and the family.
The easiest ways for natural law theorists to achieve greater coherence on these questions will be to abandon their reverence for anatomical complementarity and to relax the ethical requirement that sexual partners intend procreation for sex to be permissible. Departing from these two positions will allow natural law thinkers not only to accept same-sex attraction and reunite families, but also to avoid awkward and unconvincing responses to questions about infertility. (For example, Girgis, Anderson, and George say that infertile heterosexual couples can still engage in coitus, which is socially beneficial, but they never consider the case of erectile dysfunction.)
Although letting go of these long-standing evaluations of anatomical complementarity and the intent to procreate may be difficult, it is not impossible with a small dose of humility. Indeed, humility is necessary for religious people who face the unsettling reality that sources like the Bible and the natural law cannot deliver specific moral norms that are timeless and universal.
Martin makes this point effectively in the context of sexuality and biblical interpretation. “We should remember,” he writes, “that Paul begins invoking Scripture only after appealing to other kinds of arguments and ‘sources’ of knowledge, including his own and the Galatians’ experiences.” (152)
Martin’s point is that we cannot read the Bible for moral guidance without already having our reading informed by our experiences and those of others. The same is true for natural law reflection: in reasoning toward moral precepts in light of what we think is the natural order of creation, we necessarily bring our experiences and those of others to bear on our reasoning processes. As we consider a wider and wider circle of experience (that is, one that includes LGBTQ+ people more than it used to), we may find that our ideas about order and our specific moral norms need revision.
Such recognition would not weaken the natural law’s moral authority. On the contrary, it would gain integrity by demonstrating enough humility to admit fallibility. The only thing natural law accounts of human sexuality have to lose is their dual status as the last holdout against marriage equality and as the last voice against the full dignity of people who do not conform to heternormative social standards.
Speaking at an LGBTQ Victory Fund brunch in Washington, D.C. on Sunday, possible 2020 presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg discusses all the problems he wrestled with when he came out as gay.
Sometimes, the process of reporting a column is infuriating, and that happened with this column. I’m writing about some of the latest sex scandals in the Catholic and Baptist churches, in particular the revelations (first reported in the Houston Chronicle) that hundreds of Baptist figures committed sexual assaults, including rapes of children as young as three.
What’s infuriating is not only the sexual assaults themselves, but also the way some prominent Baptist blowhards like Jerry Falwell made a name for themselves thundering against gays, even as rapes were unfolding with impunity in their own church network.
But I think it’s also worth exploring whether the problem doesn’t go beyond individual pedophiles; to me it seems the problem is also of unaccountable and patriarchal church structures that relegate women to second-class status. Read my take!