On Selective Literalism and Gay Marriage

Selective Literalism




Thanks to the Supreme Court’s ruling on Obergefell v. Hodges last month, same-sex marriage is now legal in all 50 states. In keeping with the precedent set by Loving v. Virginia (1967), the courts held that state bans on same-sex marriage stood in clear violation of the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment. With this decision the U.S. joins a growing chorus of nations with constitutional provisions for marriage equality.1

The Obergefell verdict came on the heels of polls indicating majority support for gay rights in America. While the tide continues to shift within certain sects of Christianity, evangelicals—the largest Christian demographic—remain overwhelmingly opposed. I’ve had the opportunity to discuss the ruling with many of these dissenters both online and off, with family and friends alike, and I’ve noticed some common threads that I’d like to address. What I find so unfortunate in many of these exchanges is how little effort has apparently been made in thinking through their position—a process that for many is no more difficult than flipping open the nearest Bible.

Before we start, a couple of brief guideposts will help keep the discussion from running aground.

First, it goes without saying that the question of whether homosexuality is a sin has exactly zero relevance to Supreme Court deliberations. This is largely a question for Christians and members of other faith groups to work out, not the courts. The U.S. is a secular democracy and, as such, does not base its laws on the canonical texts or spiritual pronouncements of any one faith. Driving a car, filing for divorce or bedecking oneself with tattoos may be considered “sins” by the lights of one religious community or “unnatural” by the lights of another; neither view makes an iota of difference in the eyes of the law.

What matters, rather, is whether there is constitutional basis for denying people in gay committed relationships the rights and benefits granted to those in straight committed relationships. The Supreme Court ruled to the contrary. As questions before the courts have never been rooted in the moral sensibilities of certain religious groups or which interpretation of which ancient Near Eastern text they deem authoritative, Christians should not be surprised when their faith-focused arguments are dismissed as irrelevant to U.S. legislation.

The second point to make is that many Christians understand this. They understand the principles that underlie the separation of church and state: they understand that their faith-based reasons for how they should live their life have no legal application to how others live theirs. Nevertheless, many on this side of the aisle still lean on the Bible to shore up their personal stance on gay marriage. That is, there are many under the evangelical umbrella who are opposed to same-sex relationships on personal grounds but not as a matter of public policy. What follows are some best practices for engaging with Christians who use the Bible to defend their view, irrespective of their commitment to secularism.

The Engines of Opposition

In a disturbing number of cases, aversion to LGBT rights manifests in the form of reflexive hostility at the very idea of being attracted to and physically engaging members of the opposite sex, notwithstanding any dogmatic approaches to the Bible that may be offered later. Otherwise known as the ‘It’s icky’ defense, a gay couple making out on television may be met with exaggerated body language and accompanied by words like “gross” and “perverted” (all while apparently failing to consider how non-straight people may view straight kissing, etc.). Unable to stomach that which falls outside their personal experience, a largely visceral and unthinking disdain takes the place of more sober consideration. Of course, when confronted most won’t admit to such an unsophisticated argument; instead, they will have a scripture or two at the ready in order to justify their antipathy.

So they will recite something along the lines of, ‘It’s against God’s Word and I believe that God’s Word is true’—an unconcealed variant of ‘The Bible said it, I believe it, that settles it’ holy mantra. This is the point where you bring up epistemological concerns, because it is not enough to simply point to Verse X and Verse Y and pretend your work is done. In fact, the real work has yet to begin: they still need to justify their assent to any one passage, just as one does with any claim or statement made by any individual since time immemorial.

Whether the Bible says it or Tom Joe says it, independent reasons must be proffered that allow others to follow you to your conclusion, whether we ascribe to the same religious tenets as you do, or hold the same regard for the authorities you do, or not.

To tell gay people they are living in sin because the Bible says so is merely to divert the discussion downwind. This vicarious mode of reasoning gets us no closer to answering the question, ‘Why do you agree with the position articulated in Bible Verse X?’ or, ‘What relevance does Verse X have for human relationships today?’. Like the atheist who appeals to Stephen Hawking’s nonbelief in defense of their own, they’ve only attempted to absolve themselves of the burden of justification by virtue of substitution. No one should get a free pass to outsource their thinking, especially when matters of constitutionality are at stake.

Barack Obama expressed this sentiment most poignantly in his Call to Renewal keynote address back on June 28, 2006:

“Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religious-specific, values. It requires that their proposals be subject to argument and amenable to reason. I may be opposed to abortion for religious reasons, but if I seek to pass a law banning the practice, I cannot simply point to the teachings of my church or evoke God’s will.  I have to explain why abortion violates some principle that is accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all.”

Christians who bring Bible-based defenses to the table presume they have secured this free pass because they hold certain notions about the Bible to be self-evident, namely that it is a manual of divine perfection. And a book that is right about everything cannot be wrong about anything. The basic structure of this argument is both painless and popular, and probably in that order. If the Bible held up in all respects to our modern lights of morality and conscience—in other words, a morally perfect book for all time and all places—then we might indeed possess sound reasons for doorstopping our inquiry at the borders of its pages. After all, an ancient compendium of texts that aligned with broadly agreed upon 21st century ethics would be remarkable in and of itself and not easily dismissed.

Yet as thinkers across the last two millennia have recognized, this is not what we have. What we have is a scattered collection of historically significant documents that reflect the values, mores and worldviews of a specific time and place. No matter one’s view of the Bible, it contains passages that not even the most ardent fundamentalist would notarize. Unless there are self-professed Christians who still subscribe to slavery, capital punishment for non-Christians and the forced betrothal of rape victims to their transgressors, even the most eager literalists are selective literalists in practice.

You can tease this out quite easily in conversation. You start out by mentioning that the Old Testament appears to frown on same-sex relations, to which they will nod along insensibly. You bring up Leviticus 18, where it is called an “abomination”. Again, preaching to the choir, moving right along. And then flip forward two chapters to Leviticus 20, where it specifies the punishment for said abomination is death.

Now, depending on the “species” of literalist you’re engaging, you may be greeted with incredulous stares—revealing their ignorance of the passage in question (I’ve encountered this too many times to count)—or you may receive some semi-comprehensible rationalization about the New Testament superseding the Old, or some other post hoc escape hatch from the tortuous marsh of cognitive dissonance to which they have committed themselves.2

Also available: ham, bacon, pork chops, mixed fabrics, shrimp, shellfish, lobster

As long as some kind of rationalization is attempted, you’re halfway there. You’ve made them take their first step inside the epistemic colosseum, where the real work can begin. So long as they concede that some passages don’t pass moral muster, they can no longer beg the question by defending a position purely in terms of its basis in scripture. They must set aside their ill-examined presuppositions and instead use their ethical intuitions to discriminate against individual passages.

Only then will they be prepared to answer why one particular passage is culturally specific and why others are not, and work out which interpretive choices are robust enough to settle disputes over contemporary Christian ethics. For the Christian, these are the questions worth considering. And by ushering them along this reasoning corridor, you have prompted them to explore different arguments and think through their position more deeply. If nothing else, this will help raise the level of debate for both sides rather than allowing it to stagnate against the shores of biblical literalism.

Wait, But That Means…?

You may have realized that getting this far would effectively require they abandon their belief in biblical infallibility. Fortunately, you’ve just illustrated plainly that this was never a tenable position for them to hold in the first place. The Bible is not the conversation stopper the infallibilists purport that it is, and mindlessly quoting it back and forth is akin to not answering the question, intellectually lazy, and unlikely to persuade other Christians or non-Christians who don’t share their narrow views of the Bible.

As I’ve written elsewhere, this so-called “prooftexting” fails both as a hermeneutical device and as an epistemological device. The Bible is composed of texts conceived by humans, written by humans, edited by humans, and filtered through history and cultural lensing. Far from an ideological monolith, the Bible is a library filled with various, often competing voices. Some of these voices may intersect with modern dilemmas and help inform our decisions in meaningful ways, while others may reflect outmoded and irreconcilable ethical values with little relevance to the issues of our time. Instead of ducking the interpretive hazards that attend any work of antiquity, those in thrall to evangelical tradition might consider accepting the Bible for what it is instead of forcing it to be something it has never been.

Bottom line: There can be no escape from thinking for ourselves. When it comes to gay marriage, Christians of all persuasions should no more pass the buck to words written thousands of years ago than cede all of their confidence to authority figures like Franklin Graham and Ken Ham. If the end goal is to find justifiable, internally consistent beliefs, we would do well to examine those positions we’ve previously taken for granted. And if in the end we find good reasons for our beliefs in absentia, perhaps it’s time we reconsider them.3

Your thoughts?



Further reading:

Homosexuality & The Bible 1: God Said It, I Believe It, That Settles It – John Corvino
Biblical Standards for Marriage
Everyone’s a Biblical Literalist Until You Bring Up Gluttony
Context!!!!!!


  1. The transcripts for Obergefell v. Hodges can be downloaded in full here.

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  2. If your interlocutor does choose to isolate his or her defense to the New Testament, they will find themselves in straits no less dire. There are several passages, such as the requirement for women to veil their heads while in prayer or otherwise shave their hair, or the injunction against women speaking in church, or the endorsement of slavery here and here and here and here, that present no less difficulty in reconciling to contemporary conscience.

    Moreover, if you’re a Christian literalist who discounts certain portions of the (Christian) Old Testament whenever problematic passages are proffered, you’ve consigned yourself to an even more theologically sticky conundrum. 2 Tim. 3:16-17 states that “All Scripture is inspired by God” (NRSV) / “God-breathed” (NIV). Well, which Scripture could the author of 2 Tim. be referring to? There was yet no Christian New Testament at its time of writing. The only orthodox scriptures extant were the Hebrew scriptures—the Christian Old Testament. The author could thus only have been referring to the Hebrew scriptures. How can you discount OT passages when the NT tells you not to?

    Thus no matter which “Testament” (a historical convention at that) they fall back on, they are still picking and choosing.

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  3. As an addendum, I am also aware that there are those who fall on the opposite side of this question, contending that the Bible in fact approves of, or is silent on, homosexuality. (See here and here for examples.) These are worthy discussions with the potential to reframe internecine Christian debates, and I encourage the communication of this scholarship to the general public. That said, the veracity of this view does not change the context above in any way. The person who argues in favor of gay marriage based on strategically chosen biblical clues is in precisely the same position as his literalist counterpart. The underlying question of which passages to regard as ethically or authoritatively meaningful for Christians and non-Christians today, and why, still remain.

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  • I’d love to hear/read some more insight on what stays in the OT and what
    crosses over and is still relevant in the NT. That homosexuality gets
    mentioned in both is why gay marriage is not
    ok but tattoos now are. That’s what I was taught, anyway.

    • Were it so simple. Did you have a chance to read Footnote 2 above? It isn’t simply a matter of lining up the ethical “Do’s” and “Don’ts” and seeing which ones made it into both Testaments. The NT isn’t a sanitary, catch-all corpus of contemporary wisdom. Like the “Old Testament”, it has its share of ethical difficulties that require we bring an assortment of external resources to bear in working through them.

      There are no transparent formulas for navigating the difficult questions of life. We must work out our morals and our ethics and meaning for ourselves. It’s what we’ve been doing all along and, for better or for worse, it’s all we’ve got 😉