Why Religious Conservatives Aren’t Winning the Same-Sex Marriage Debate

*Originally posted at Sacred Duty.

You may not have heard, but New York passed a small bill concerning same-sex marriages this week. A few people reported on it.

Note. Sarcasm. Here.

In the words of San Diego’s finest, Ron Burgundy, the news is “kind of a big deal.”

No doubt you, the reader, heard that New York passed a bill in favor of same-sex marriage. No doubt you read articles in favor of the bill and against it. No doubt your opinion was already formed before the news broke. No doubt your opinion will not change after reading this blog, or any other blog for that matter. Your opinion is already formed based on your cultural perspective and interpretation of the Bible.

One such pre-formed opinion came from Professor Lee Jefferson of Centre College who wrote a popular article entitled “What Does the Bible Actually Say About Gay Marriage?” for the Huffington Post. In it he contends that, “the Bible is a complicated collection of documents that was never meant to ‘speak’ to our contemporary situation” and that opponents to same-sex marriage misinterpret the Bible as they use Scripture to decry marriage for homosexuals and fight to “maintain the sanctity of marriage.” Jefferson goes on to make four succinct points, asserting that: 1) the institution of marriage is a secular and social institution, 2) the Bible does not clearly endorse one form of marriage over another, 3) the Biblical arguments against same-sex marriage are not proffered from texts that deal with marriage, but from texts that purportedly deal with marriage and 4) any reference to same-sex practice by a Biblical writer or a Greco-Roman writer has no knowledge or understanding of the concept of “same-sex orientation.” He concludes by saying:

The Bible is not specific, literate, or even concerned with what we call same-sex orientation or gay marriage. But the state of New York recently had quite a lot to say about gay marriage. Those that would insert the Bible into this debate would do well to reflect upon the text itself. If only we quit focusing on what the Bible didactically “says” and converse with the text in its broader cultural context. Then one can realize the multivalent value of such a book that a narrow reading cannot service.

To say the least, there are conservative pundits and preachers who disagree with Mr. Jefferson.

The conservative exposition that Prof. Jefferson has in his sights as he writes this article is promulgated by theologians citing Leviticus 18: 22, 24; 20: 13; Romans 1:26-27; 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 and 1 Timothy 1:9-10 as speaking of homosexuality as a sin. Furthermore, conventional Christian scholars refer to Genesis 1:27-28; 2:24 and Matthew 1:24-25 to out forth the Christian ideal of marriage between a man and a woman. Their interpretation of these texts leads to them to denounce the movement to legitimize homosexual relationships, vote against expanding the marriage rights of same-sex couples and disparage moves like that of the New York legislature.

My theological interpretations and opinions aside, I believe that the whole debate regarding homosexual marriage, same-sex partnerships and whether or not Christian Scripture speaks to the issue in a clear-cut way reveals a lot more about the state of America’s religious climate in regards to sociology and interpretation of the Bible (hermeneutics), than it does on gay marriage or the Christian Scriptures themselves. In fact, I believe it is because of a sociological shift and contemporary Biblical scholarship like Jefferson’s that leads to defeat for religious conservatives on the issue of same-sex marriage.

First, the sociological development. Following an ever secularizing trend in American society the general opinion regarding homosexuality has taken a progressive turn. While this shift occurred most markedly in younger demographics, the general trend has been towards more leniency when it comes to homosexuality and same-sex marriages (see a General Social Survey from 2008). Given time, those with a favorable opinion of homosexuality and same-sex marriages will soon be in the majority.

There is also the hermeneutical shift to appreciate. At the heart of Prof. Jefferson’s article is the concept of whether or not the Bible speaks to homosexuality and same-sex marriage. Regardless of his final exposition of the source, Jefferson shows his cards to the reader in the second paragraph when he directly discloses that he believes the Bible does not speak into the contemporary scene. This is his interpretational principle. Along with Jonathan Dudley, a graduate of Yale Divinity School and guest blogger at CNN’s Belief Blog, Jefferson locks the Bible (and subsequently its proclamations) into its original cultural context. By their belief, the Bible cannot speak into the contemporary situation. It is a historical document to be understood within its own context, and not interpreted for life today. The contemporary situation acts back and interprets the Bible on its own terms, not the other way around. Such a hermeneutic is ever more popular this day and age. As is well documented in texts like The History of Biblical Interpretation: A Reader and bemoaned by conservative Christian scholars, the modern Biblical hermeneutic is far more liberal than it was in the past.

Jefferson is absolutely correct when he opines that his interpretation does little to “satisfy any opponent of gay rights or of same-sex marriage to any degree.” Particularly if the opponent is coming from a conservative Biblical background. Conventional Christian scholarship reads the Old and New Testament texts as if they are meant to speak both to their original audience and to the contemporary scene. Their interpretational principle is that the Bible is meant for all ages and its words are binding both in the past, present and future. Thus, when they read passages from Genesis, Leviticus, Romans or 1 Corinthians they believe that they speak as much today as they did then. From such a viewpoint they are able to apply the Bible’s morality to contemporary situations, and in the case of homosexuality such a hermeneutical principle clearly reveals the Christian Scriptures as condemning homosexuality as a sin and marriage as meant for a man and a woman. With such an interpretation they take their moral maxim from the pulpit to the pew, from the pew to the home, from the home to the streets and from the streets to the halls of congress.

Before the debate even begins, the juxtaposed sides are coming from two very different starting points. It makes sense that conservatives and progressives disagree when interpreting the Bible and judging the validity of same-sex marriage because neither of them can agree to view the issues through the same lens. And because of the power of culture and sociology there is little that can be done at the moment to change tac. Thus, while Jefferson and his compatriots preach to the “sociologically and hermeneutically converted,” conservative religious pundits preach their sermons to their own converted, organizing rallies and voting vehemently for conservative political candidates in line with their moral stances. All the while, the conservative religious voice on social issues such as homosexuality (and sexuality in general) diminishes more and more into the background.

Currently, liberal sociological and interpretational trends are trumping the conservative hermeneutic and essays like Jefferson’s are indicative of a wider, and well documented, liberal trend in contemporary Biblical scholarship. Thus, while state legislatures may soon pass bills in favor, or against, same-sex marriage, a rising tide of favorable opinion towards homosexuality and against conservative readings of the Bible is not likely to abate anytime soon. Because of this, those who hold to more traditional sexual values and conventional readings of the Christian Scripture will, at least for now, find themselves on the losing side of this sociological, political and theological struggle.

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