As a bill allowing government employees to share health benefits with their same-sex partners headed toward passage in the Colorado state senate a couple of days ago, one dissenting Republican legislator used a line from the Bible to provide the context for his dismay.
“Homosexuality is seen as a violation of this natural creative order, and it is an offense to God,” said Sen. Scott Renfroe, who noted that one biblical passage declares that homosexual relations are punishable by death.
Leviticus 20, the source of Renfroe’s citation, is not for the faint of heart. In addition to prescribing death by stoning for “men who would lie with mankind as with women” (20:13), the chapter is a veritable catalogue of smite-worthy offenses and transgressions, including adultery, sorcery and sacrifices to an also-ran deity named Moloch.
And it’s not surprising that it should be so. Leviticus was most likely composed during and immediately after the Israelites’ captivity in Babylon, when earthly powers much greater than themselves uprooted the Jews and plunked them down in a cosmopolitan society synonymous—then and now—with cultural confusion.
For a deeply spiritual people trying to hold on to their distinctive identity in a violent world, drawing sharp boundaries between the sacred and profane is an understandable response to collective trauma.
In terms of their respective powers of self-determination, the society that produced Leviticus and the modern-day Christian movement that has appropriated it couldn’t be more different than night and day. But apart from the fact that the statutes in the rest of Leviticus (on matters as diverse as the preparation of burnt offerings and the disposal of bodily fluids) seem not to concern them, the most curious thing about conservative Christians’ obsession with 20:13 is their recreation of the siege mentality that afflicted a small community of exiled Jews two and a half millennia ago.
This hallucinatory duress is apparent in statements from Sen. Scott Renfroe and other conservative lawmakers who believe that granting equal rights to LGBT folks will imperil everyone else.
Gay activists are “probably the greatest threat to America going down” said Chris Buttars, a state senator in Utah who last Friday lost his seat on the judicial committee he chaired after he likened gays to radical Muslims.
“The homosexual agenda is just destroying this nation,” Sally Kern, a state representative in Oklahoma, said last May. More recently Kern was one of 20 Republican members of Oklahoma’s House of Representatives who voted unsuccessfully to exclude from the chamber’s official record a prayer that had been delivered by an openly gay pastor from Oklahoma City’s Cathedral of Hope.
That maneuver brings to mind a moment from the documentary “Eyes on the Prize” when a young black civil rights activist asks a white police officer to pray with him.
“I don’t think your prayers get above your head,” the officer replies.
Christian conservatives resist the notion that advocacy for gay and lesbian equality is a natural extension of the Civil Rights Movement. That strategy of denial depends on the notion that sexuality is indelible if you’re a straight Mormon or Southern Baptist but somehow becomes a matter of choice if you’re a gay minister with the MCC. It also overlooks the fact that, if you take a step back from the situation, the language and behavior conservatives employ to rationalize their disenfranchisement of queerfolk bear the marks of the same psychosis of bigotry that plagued many Southern whites a generation ago—that is, a powerful group imagines itself victimized when a formerly subjugated minority gathers the wherewithal to ask for a place at the table.
While the evocation of the specter of sexual terrorism in the statehouses of Colorado, Utah and Oklahoma is a vivid example of this loose relationship with reality, perhaps the most disturbing expression of it can be found in an hour-long “documentary” produced by the American Family Association and hosted by conservative media personality Janet Parshall. “Speechless: Silencing the Christians,” which premiered last March on the Inspiration Network, makes the case that the contemporary LGBT rights movement heralds an new era of oppression for the faithful.
“It creates a context where violence is being perpetrated against Christians,” says one man interviewed for the film.
So those who cling to a harrowing scrap of an otherwise marginal biblical text want the rest of us to believe that it amounts to persecution to ask them to unclench their fists so that all of us can live together in peace? Irony and tolerance must share a deep link in the human psyche—by refusing to cultivate the latter Christian conservatives seem to have lost their sense for the former.
For me—a former seminarian from Alabama who now spends half the year in deep retreat at a Buddhist temple in Los Angeles—venturing into the dark, violent corners of right-wing American culture triggers sensations that are at once alien and familiar. On the one hand, just as a picture-postcard is a meager substitute for the direct experience of a sunset on the beach at Santa Monica, I no longer imagine that the biblical hodgepodge of primitive tribal taboo and secondhand revelation captures the wonder and full meaning of the cosmos as it unfolds all around (and through) me.
But like Scott Renfroe, Chris Buttars, Sally Kern and their tens of millions of fellow travelers, I still clutch old habits of mind that cloud over creation and that tend to keep me trapped in a nightmare world where I see menace and imperfection at every turn. What I hope for them as well as for myself is that we all come to realize the truth that there is no need to spin and toil. If we can just see that this is so, then the demons of anger and ignorance are sure to go the way of that musty old Moloch.