Those Cocky Secular Liberals!

At The American Prospect, Scott Lemieux wonders what is up with the unfortunate timing of Damon Linker of The Week, after Linker “wrote two posts urging liberals to temper their pursuit of justice for gays and lesbians in order to to respect the religious freedom of opponents of equal rights.”

Lemieux observes how odd Linker’s timing is in light of the Kansas House of Representatives’ passage of HB 2453, which essentially would enshrine the “religious freedom” to discriminate against LGBT people, who already have no civil rights protections under Kansas law. The Kansas bill is one of the more extreme of such “religious freedom” bills being introduced in state legislatures around the country, at the urging of national religious right organizations. Many of these bills are aimed at “protecting” the religious freedom rights of business owners, and, in the case of Kansas, government employees, who want the right to refuse service to same-sex couples, or someone in a same-sex relationship.

Linker says liberals risk turning into modern-day Jacobins, what with their “growing cockiness” and “flippant views — which are very widely held among secular liberals” that “pose a very real threat to the religious freedom of millions.”

Linker rejects the charge that the anti-gay animus underlying opposition to marriage equality is akin in any way to other forms of bigotry, arguing:

that strictures against homosexuality are rooted far more deeply in the Judeo-Christian tradition than racism ever was. Yes, slavery is found throughout the Scriptures and comes in for criticism only, at best, by implication. But race-based slavery — and the racism that made it possible and continues to infect ideas and institutions throughout the West to this day — receives no explicit endorsement from the Bible.

Which isn’t to say that those seeking to justify race-based slavery or racism couldn’t, and didn’t, twist biblical passages to make them provide such justification. But the Hebrew Bible and New Testament clearly do not teach (either explicitly or implicitly) that buying, owning, and selling African slaves is next to godliness.

The same cannot be said about the normative teaching on human sexuality contained within the Judeo-Christian scriptures — and even more so, within the interpretative and theological traditions that grow out of them.

Linker’s attempt to distinguish between the way the Bible treats slavery and homosexuality (and presumably marriage) is just cherry-picking certain biblical teachings and treating them as “normative” in perpetuity, while classifying others as the ones that were vague and later manipulated by self-serving bigots.

The reality is, as Bible scholar Wil Gafney has put it, “The bible is a wonderfully rich, complicated, challenging, illuminating, revelatory text. It is also horrifically violent and does not say what we want the way we want it to.”

Of course the Bible doesn’t directly address the transatlantic slave trade; the reasons it doesn’t should be obvious. But there is a lot of slavery in the Bible. Who is Linker to say that slave owners and segregationists and racists misused the Bible to justify slavery, segregation, and racism, but that opposition to homosexuality is a “normative teaching . . . contained within the Judeo-Christian scriptures”?

There are half a dozen or so “clobber verses” that have been interpreted to condemn homosexuality. Yet despite common belief that the Bible condemns the “abomination” of homosexuality, as Jay Michaelson demonstrated here, the use of the translation “abomination,” in both the Hebrew Bible and the King James Version of the New Testament, is highly questionable:

The word “abomination” is found, of course, in the King James translation of Leviticus 18:22, a translation which reads, “Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it [is] abomination.” Yet this is a thoroughly misleading rendition of the word toevah, which, while we may not know exactly what it means, definitely does not mean “abomination.”  * * * *

Now, if by “abomination,” the King James means a cultural prohibition—something which a particular culture abhors but another culture enjoys—then the term makes sense. But in common parlance, the term has come to mean much more than that. Today, it connotes something horrible, something contrary to the order of nature itself, or God’s plan, or the institution of the family, or whatever. It is this malleability of meaning, and its close association with disgust, that makes “abomination” a particularly abominable word to use. The term implies that homosexuality has no place under the sun (despite its presence in over 300 animal species), and that it is an abomination against the Divine order itself. Again, toevah is not a good thing—but it doesn’t mean all of that.

There were many other practices that were normative in the Bible. Like rape. And polygamy. And concubines. And having to marry your older brother’s widow. Who arbitrates which of these constitute a “normative teaching” and which are historical relics? Certainly not the courts — their job is to interpret the Constitution, which (God willing) will be the text the Supreme Court uses to determine whether bans on same-sex marriage should stand or fall.

It’s not cocky or flip, in a secular, pluralistic democracy, to say that constitutional principles take precedence over a particular interpretation of the Bible. (In fact, the Constitution rejects the prospect of the government putting its imprimatur on a particular interpretation of the Bible.) The question of which parts of the Bible constitute involuble societal norms and which are obsolete artifacts are theological questions, not legal ones. The Constitution, in all its wonderfulness, ensures that we will continue to have those theological debates (freedom!), and that they won’t be decided by the courts or the government. Secularism doesn’t impose or reject a particular biblical interpretation; it ensures that the government or the courts won’t decide it for us. That’s real religious freedom — not the demand that your religious freedom compels the violation of other citizens’ constitutional rights.