Confronting Religious Denial of Gay Marriage: Christian Humanism and the Moral Imagination

© 2015 Catherine Miles Wallace PhD
 Interview with Cate

Chapter 1. Confronting Fundamentalism: It's Anti-Gay

 In 1979, in its first fund-raising letter, the newly-organized Moral Majority sought donations for a "war on homosexuality." This organization and its various heir worked to sustain the political engagement of those who had supported televangelist Pat Robertson's failed bid for the Republican presidential nomination. Gay people were to become scapegoats, a target for cultural conservatives outraged by the "sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll" excesses of the 1960s and 1970s.

       Those excesses were undeniable. But a vulnerable minority in effect focused acute cultural and sexual anxiety about the rapidly-changing gender roles generally. Women were working outside the home in growing numbers; we were gaining admission to professional schools. Birth control, which became legal (and only for married couples) in 1964, gave women unprecedented control over how often we would become pregnant and then committed to the 24/7 needs of infants. Men were no longer the unquestionable "head of household." None of this had anything to do with gay people, but all of it was profoundly disorienting for many people. A scapegoat was needed. And gay sex looked like the quintessential "sex without consequences," which was the promise held out by The Pill. Opposition to the "gay lifestyle" thus became code for opposition to a whole array of new lifestyles that birth control, women's liberation, and the Civil Rights Movement had made possible. And so war was declared against gay people, who became symbolic targets for opposition to all of these cultural changes.

       And today, pollsters report, 91% of Millennials believe that Christianity itself is anti-gay. Given the scope of fundamentalist campaigns on this issue, that's hardly surprising. What does "Christianity" mean? What does it stand for? That's an historical question. And I'm a cultural historian. And a Christian, but my own faith is not the point here. The point is defending both gay people and the Christian cultural heritage against this misrepresentation.


What's at stake today is subtle but centrally important: simply legalizing gay marriage will never be enough. As black people experience on a regular basis, legal guarantees of civil rights do not automatically translate into personal respect and social equality. No matter what the law says, our day-to-day experience of social status is shaped by what other people think, by what they feel, by how they act. If two men cannot hold hands walking down the street, or if same-sex parents and partners are not instantly afforded "immediate family" status in hospital emergency rooms, then fully human equality has not yet been established as the American norm. The problem at hand is how to establish appropriate honor for gay marriages. One path, I'd argue, is for Christians clearly to proclaim that gay marriages are just as holy—just as sacred—as straight marriages. "Sanctity" is the relevant, ancient cultural code for "that which deserves our respect and deference."

       The sanctity of gay marriage will never be widely acknowledged unless Christianity takes the lead. As countless observers have commented—including, most recently, the Brookings Institute—Christianity has played a major role in every important progressive social movement this country has ever seen. But Christian fundamentalism is frankly homophobic just as, in the 1950s, it was frankly racist and then vehemently opposed to equal rights for women. To the extent that fundamentalism defines what "Christian" means in this country, to that extent this necessary progress toward human rights has been stalled. And it will remained stalled, no matter what legislation has been passed, until the Christian mainstream reclaims the lead.

        There is within the Christian mainstream an older, richer tradition that welcomes critical scholarship in the humanities, in the sciences, and on the Bible. There is within Christianity an older, richer tradition that gave birth to "critical thinking" as that phrase is understood in the West. Above all, there is within Christianity an older, richer tradition that is fully committed to the image of God in all human beings, to Jesus's call for radically inclusive community, and to honest hospitality to the "stranger"—to those who do not share our belief in God. I call this tradition "Christian humanism," because it needs a name, and because that name for it has immense historical resonance. As a rich and ancient tradition, Christian humanism needs to be more widely and explicitly recognized by secular humanists, by members of other faith communities, by the religiously unaffiliated, and by politically progressive Christians generally.

       Despite the extraordinary prominence of fundamentalist Christian bias against LGBTQ citizens, other Christian religious leaders and religious communities have made vitally important public contributions to the steady national movement toward the right to marry among all citizens. This contribution must continue. And it must be recognized: too few people realize that there are now major organizations within Christianity supporting gay marriage. Some of these organizations are interdenominational. Other ones, older ones, exist within mainline Protestant denominations and within the Catholic church. Although plenty of Christian churches today both bless gay marriages and ordain married gay folks, many people remain convinced that Christianity across the board is universally opposed to gay marriages and families.

       I came out for gay marriage in 1992, arguing in the strongest possible terms and on classic theological grounds that the churches should recognize and bless these relationships. At the time, civil unions did not yet exist in the United States. That would not begin to happen until Vermont created a civil union provision in 2000, eight years later. In 1992, I never dreamed that gay marriages might be legally recognized. What mattered to me was that the churches should recognize these relationships regardless of what the legislatures did. In 1998, when I was on the Today show with a book arguing (in part) that churches should recognize the sacramentality of gay marriages, no state in the union yet provided for civil unions. Christian progressives were the only major cultural cohort who recognized gay marriages for what they are. I was not cutting-edge. LGBTQ Christians and their supporters were already well-organized.

       How I came to make this claim, and what that did to my career as a writer, capture in miniature the arc of the American conversation about human rights in the last sixty years. The arc of this conversation offers a vitally important context for understanding where we are now and where we might be headed.

       My advocacy wasn't exactly accidental—although heaven knows it had many elements of serendipity. My role was inescapably shaped by the political and sexual-political context of the 1960s and 1970s. My experience with the upheaval of these decades prepared me to recognize what was at stake with gay marriage rights—with gay human rights. But what gave me a conceptual language for talking about what I saw was my training in Christian theology and cultural history. Having an appropriate—and accessible—conceptual language made all the difference in the world.

       Theology matters. What should we hold sacred? What claim does what we hold sacred make upon our lives? What difference does it make—what difference for our own lives, what difference for the impact we have on the lives of others? That mattered to Jesus. It matters to me. I think it matters just as acutely to a great many people who are not Christian—and who have no intention of ever becoming Christian. The labels we use for ourselves matter far less than the love in our hearts. And the courage such love demands.

       If we want to share what we feel and what we think, we have to have words for it. But words come with traditions attached. Christian theological tradition has offered me some potent language for the defense of gay marriages, as you will see. What I had learned as a garden-variety cultural historian—and as a Jesuit-educated Irish Catholic brought up by a generation of gutsy, radical nuns—launched me into a most unexpected adventure.


I will begin here, as always, with a story. As I said a minute ago, I came out for gay marriage in a lecture I gave in 1992, "A Sexual Ethics for My Children." That lecture had a backstory dating to 1979. And it had a legacy: For Fidelity: How Intimacy and Commitment Enrich Our Lives, published in 1998.

       This story continues in chapter 2: the arc of my experience from 1979 to 1998 testifies to the recent cultural construction of "gay marriage" as an issue exploited by the Religious Right for its own purposes. Understanding that recent cultural construction provides a framework for looking at the deeper cultural history I explore later on in this volume. When we are talking about sex, we are always talking about other things simultaneously.

       In chapter 3, I'll pull the cameras back for a wide-angle, full-frame look at Christianity and sex. What is it with Christians and sex? Why does the Religious Right tie itself in knots over gay marriage rather than, say, child poverty? Handgun violence? Military spending? Why gay sex? Some of the answers here will feel improbable. For instance: men in the ancient world worried that having sex too often would render them "unmanly." But I assure you that my sources are beyond reproach. It adds up to a stunning demonstration of how profoundly our moral thinking about sexuality is shaped by our own cultural context.

       In chapter 4, I'll look at two of the usual biblical "texts of terror" cited to condemn gay marriages, one from Paul's epistle to the Romans and one is from Leviticus. Both are fascinating. Neither have anything whatsoever to do with gay marriage. I will also examine a famous passage in Acts of the Apostles (volume two of the gospel of Luke) in which Peter is told three times not to call anything "unclean" that God has created.

       In chapter 5, I'll examine gay marriage as an issue in moral theology quite aside from what the Bible says. Does it pass muster as a "sin"? It doesn't. But the moral logic involved in that conclusion is illuminating.

       Here's another difficult question: even though gay marriages are not actively sinful, are they morally equal to straight marriages? They are. In the second half of chapter 5, I will summarize an argument I first made in 1998 in my book For Fidelity. Understanding the moral foundation of marital fidelity is a crucial imaginative issue for all of us, regardless of our sexual orientation and regardless of our religious and ethical traditions. In chapter 6, I'll conclude with another story—an evening I spent in very serious conversation with LGBTQ Millennials at my own church. That evening demonstrated how little I understood about the suffering inflicted by the Religious Right "war on homosexuality." Anyone who came of age after 1979 came of age amidst this hate-mongering campaign.

       It's no wonder, then, that gay and lesbian teenagers commit suicide in such terrifying numbers. My greatest hope is that this little book—the one you are reading right now—finds its way to vulnerable teenagers. I was bullied mercilessly as a teenager. I remember. And I am as unabashedly ferocious as any survivor when opportunity arises to protect someone else.

[1] Kinnamon, UnChristian, 32.

[2] Interdenominational groups include the Institute for Welcoming Resources, New Direction Ministries of Canada, The Gay Christian Network, the Galip Foundation, the Welcoming Community Network, the Not All Like That Project, and the Progressive Christian Alliance.

[3] Denominational groups include Integrity USA (Episcopalian), Reconciling Ministries Network (Methodist), More Light Presbyterians, Dignity USA (Roman Catholic), the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists, the Brethren Mennonite Council for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Interests, the UCC Coalition for LGBT Concerns, Reconciling Works (Lutheran), the Glad Alliance (Disciples of Christ), Room for All (Reformed Church), and Friends for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer Concerns (Quakers).

Copyright © 2024, Catherine Wallace. All Rights Reserved.