Bad Faith: Why the Christian Right’s Homophobia Is Indefensible

As soon as the US Supreme Court decided that denying gay people the right to marry constitutes a “deprivation of liberty” in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment, all the major Republican presidential candidates urged fierce resistance against the Court’s “judicial tyranny.” Indeed, Obergefell v. Hodges was a major blow to the Christian right—those devout Christians who have consistently opposed not only gay rights but also climate science, evolution, reproductive freedom, stem-cell research, and the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

Two months have passed since Obergefell was decided, and the Christian right are right back at it. Most of the Republican candidates, especially Mike Huckabee, are applauding Kim Davis, a Kentucky county clerk, for stubbornly refusing to comply with the ruling on the basis of her Christian beliefs. But what the Christian right fails to realize is that the biblical basis of Davis’s supposed conscientious objection is completely bogus. While conservative Christians certainly enjoy the First Amendment right to the free exercise of religion, this constitutional protection does not mean that their understanding of Christianity has any substantive merit. On the contrary, when examined closely, it simply collapses.

Far from offering the definitive interpretation of Christianity, conservative Christians seem to have missed its fundamental point. The essence of Christianity, the spirit that motivated Jesus in all his parables, was love, compassion, and justice—not just love, compassion, and justice for family and friends but love, compassion, and justice for one’s neighbors and even one’s enemies. It’s not clear how the Christian right can reconcile these ideals with Leviticus 20:13, which says, “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall surely be put to death; their blood is upon them.” How is the suggestion that gay sex is an abomination and that those who engage in gay sex should be executed compatible with the notion that we should love everybody, including our enemies?

By embracing Leviticus 20:13, members of the Christian right subject themselves to two significant problems. First, they commit themselves to the very un-Christian conclusion that God is playing a cruel joke on gay people. He has put them in a situation where they are damned if they do (because same-sex relations are an abomination punishable by death) and damned if they don’t (because they’ve been saddled with a kind of sexual desire that they are prohibited from indulging). The notion that God would “program” people to engage in same-sex relations and then denounce these people for engaging in this activity is a cruel setup and therefore precisely the opposite of what we would expect from a loving, compassionate, and just ruler.

Second, Leviticus 20:13 puts the Christian right in a bind. On the one hand, if they embrace Leviticus 20:13 in full, then they are accepting the absurd proposition that same-sex relations, which are victimless, are just as wrong as another death-penalty offense: murder. On the other hand, if they adopt the more morally plausible alternative—if they reject the “death-penalty part” and accept the “abomination part” of Leviticus 20:13—then they are in effect abandoning their position that God’s word is infallible and must therefore always be followed. And if they are abandoning this position, then it’s unclear why they refuse to abandon the abomination part as well. God’s word is God’s word; if Christians accept any of it, then they must accept all of it.

Conservative Christians do not subscribe to the abomination part, as opposed to the death-penalty part, of Leviticus 20:13 because it is God’s word. Again, the death-penalty part is also God’s word, but they reject that. Rather, they maintain that the abomination part is God’s word because they already—independently—subscribe to it. But then what is this independent source of their belief? What is the Bible-independent basis for choosing to accept this part of the Bible when they have chosen to reject other parts?

There are several motivations: (a) a desire among the Christian right leadership to maintain or increase their political power by stoking the group’s collective homophobia, (b) an aesthetic disgust at the thought or image of two men or two women having sexual relations, (c) a genuine hatred for gay people (in many cases, projected self-loathing), (d) shame for feeling same-sex attraction along with a conscious or unconscious fear of being “outed,” and (e) a fear of being ostracized for tolerating or even supporting same-sex relations. Whichever one it is—and each of these will be distributed in different measures among different members of the Christian right—the Bible turns out to be merely the cover, the pretext to disguise their true motivations.

Some or even many conservative Christians may claim that they don’t subscribe (fully) to the Old Testament but rather fall back on Romans 1:26 as a “substitute” for Leviticus 20:13. Romans 1:26 says:

Because of [certain people’s failure to follow God], God gave [these sinners] over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error.

Paul’s words here, however, do not vindicate the Christian right’s opposition to all things gay any more than Leviticus 20:13 does.

First, it’s not entirely clear that Paul is condemning same-sex relations to begin with. Some biblical scholars (including Roy O’Neill, Calvin Porter, E.P. Sanders, and Roy Bowen Ward) have suggested the possibility that Paul was articulating not his own (and therefore Jesus’s) view but rather a view that he was challenging—namely, the Hellenistic Jews’ belief that they were morally superior to the supposedly libertine Gentiles.

Second, if by “unnatural” Paul means deviating from standard male-female sexual relations, relations that potentially lead to reproduction, then it remains to be seen why this kind of behavior is morally wrong (“shameful”) to begin with. Plenty of men and women engage in sexual relations without intending or hoping to reproduce; indeed, many can’t reproduce. If only sexual relations that were intended to lead to pregnancy were morally permissible, then it would be morally impermissible to use sex as a means of expressing love or affection. And this proposition seems entirely antithetical to the entire enterprise of the New Testament.

If the people to whom Paul is referring were harming each other, then their behavior would be morally wrong. But consensual gay sexual relations do not necessarily involve any harm. Likewise, lustful behavior may be morally wrong because it involves exploitation—using another person as a mere means to one’s own end (sexual pleasure)—rather than the expression of genuine love or affection. But if this is the problem, if it is not same-sex relations per se but rather exploitation that is bothering Paul, then these passages may not be used to condemn all, and only, same-sex relations. They may be used to condemn only sexual relations that are exploitative. On this interpretation, the Christian right must accept same-sex relations that are non-exploitative—and condemn heterosexual relations that are.

Many conservative Christians insist that they bear no hatred “in their hearts” toward the LGBT community, and that their opposition to gay marriage is based solely on the fact that God laid down a straightforward rule (in, for example, Genesis 2:24, Mark 10:6, and Romans 7:3): marriage is between one man and one woman. But according to Matthew 19:6 (“So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate”) this is a sacred covenant that Kim Davis has violated three times (through four marriages). So why aren’t Mike Huckabee and the Christian right generally condemning her in just the same way that she condemns the LGBT community for violating other biblical passages? Davis has additionally violated Matthew 7:1, which declares “Judge not, lest ye be judged.” She has used one part of the Bible to denounce the LGBT community while hypocritically exempting herself from other more “inconvenient” parts of the Bible. A true Christian, recognizing his or her own limitations, would be charitable and empathetic, not callous and unforgiving.

Even if it’s not hatred (but rather disgust, shame, or fear) that animates some on the Christian right, the consequences of their harsh rhetoric about gays—rhetoric that flows naturally from Leviticus 20:13 and arguably from Romans 1:26-27—are equally inconsistent with the Christian tenets of love and compassion. Given that the power structure has always been dominated by straight people (or at least people who purported to be straight), the Christian right’s opposition to same-sex marriage conveys a distinct, negative message: “LGBT individuals are not part of our community and therefore should not enjoy any of the rights and privileges that attach to an ancient, sacred institution available to the rest of us.” Because this is the very same kind of demeaning message that courts, rightly or wrongly, routinely convey to and about felons, we end up with a grossly false equivalence. Felons generally commit acts that inflict harm (dignitary, psychological, physical, or proprietary); people who engage in consensual same-sex relations do not. (I put aside the Christian right’s doomsday predictions that legalizing same-sex relations will unleash divine fury upon all humanity. Fire-and-brimstone predictions are not very good arguments, especially when they lack any supporting evidence.)

The basis of Justice Kennedy’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges was primarily psychological. His main premise was that excluding gay people from marriage, what he calls this “central institution of the Nation’s society,” constitutes a serious dignitary and psychological harm to both gay people and their children. Because the insulting rhetoric, uncharitable policies, and bullying behavior motivated by the Christian right’s interpretation of the Bible have caused serious dignitary and psychological (and sometimes physical) harms to many people in our society, members of the Christian right must justify all of this inhumanity. The burden is on them to explain exactly how and why a loving, compassionate, and just God would stand behind this kind of vicious persecution, why he would make some people gay and then condemn them for being that way. There doesn’t seem to be anything loving, compassionate, or just about any of this.

So, contrary to what some Republicans are telling us, Kim Davis is not a hero or a righteous martyr. Just the opposite: she is a heartless, if not pathological, bigot and hypocrite who subscribes to a patently inconsistent interpretation of the Bible.

  • Pietro Sabatino

    Mr. Levy,

    While I applaud your intent and the manner in which you convey your ideas, I feel that we are in essence banging our heads against the wall here.

    It does not seem possible to use logical arguments to parse the actions of the religious. Those individuals have accepted religious ideas merely because they were told to do so; not through a process of rational thought and inquiry. How then can we dissuade them by using a process that they have already shown a distaste for?

    I can present only anecdotal evidence here, but every time I try and engage a family member in a logical discussion about their beliefs, their final volley is usually along the lines of, “well, god just said it is so and that’s what the church tells me to do”, and the debate ends there.

    Thank you.

  • Norman Chagnon

    This is a waste of our time. The position of humanists should be the Bible is superstition and it doesn’t matter what the “correct” Christian interpretation may be. All citizens are due equal protection and civil rights under our Constitution period.

  • AtheistManifesto

    While Norman and Pietro have some good points, I still find it valuable to examine these situations along Ken Levy’s line of thinking. By pointing out specific areas of the bible that conflict with the christian’s voiced beliefs, we can help remove the ability for them to employ counterpoints such as Pietro mentioned: “well god just said it is so,” etc. We can point to other examples from the very same book they are referencing to show that their claim is not absolute. I understand that there are higher levels of logic that could easily be used as legitimate logical arguments to more broadly refute such christian beliefs, but this hits closer to the belief system of the indoctrinated christian mind.

  • Ken Levy

    Thank you very much for your feedback. There are three ways to refute a toxic religious
    belief. The first is to argue that all religious beliefs are automatically false (superstition, empirically unsupported, etc.). The second is to use modern knowledge (scientific and moral) against the belief. The third is to show that the reasoning behind the toxic belief is fallacious.

    I don’t really endorse the first approach, at least not by itself, because I think that many religious beliefs – especially Buddhist – are morally correct. I also believe that religion *can* be a force for good. For example, Buddhism motivates greater compassion to animals, non-violence, and self-awareness – three very good things. Still, I certainly recognize that religion can also be – and has too often been – a force for evil. (I am assuming that good and evil are a priori standards by which to evaluate religious beliefs rather than the other way around.)
    I believe that a combination of the second and third approaches, which is what I used in this article, is the most effective way to refute any toxic religious belief, including the Christian right’s belief that same-sex relations are immoral. By using modern moral principles (e.g., the proportionality principle in criminal law) and both the text and spirit of the Bible against it, I am completely depriving the Christian right of any escape hatch. Because I am hoisting them on their own petard, they can’t just dismiss what I say out of hand (as they do with the first approach and often with the second approach). They must instead either confront the hard truth and concede defeat or insist that they are right without offering any plausible counter-argument. In other words, their only two options are either enlightenment or looking even more exposed and (therefore) ridiculous.

    • AtheistManifesto

      Yes, this was my point exactly. Although there are multiple angles of logical recourse, the best methodology is to use the same logical manner as the other arguing party. By “agreeing” to these terms of approach, it places both parties on the same level so that a more productive argument can be instantiated. Great work and great article, Ken.

      • Ken Levy

        Thank you. I appreciate your thoughtful remarks and kind words.

  • Harrytttttt

    Article is right on point. Only some Christians choose to hate and harm others. Problem for all Christians is that they have to decide how to handle all the contradictions in their religion.

    While I agree that she is a “heartless, if not pathological, bigot and hypocrite”, I think she does not really intend to be so. She is just so impressionable, and brainwashed into blindly following one interpretation of the bible.

    I actually like all the attention that this case is getting. It helps to expose these confused brainwashed people, and their legal counsel, and even Presidential candidates! Maybe it will even help some of them to appreciate that reason, ethics, and basic human/civil rights will rule the day and the law of modern society. Reason as the basis for law, must supersede these attempts to cite the bible or other mythological or superstitious sources.


    I’ve long been fascinated and horrified by the way very vocal right wing christians justify themselves, not in the words supposedly uttered by Jesus, but rather by the worst parts of the old testament. Is there really anything about the christian right that is defensible?

  • genie goldring

    It is true that the logic and compassionate view of Mr Levy is one that cannot be reconciled when one is guided by blind faith that does not allow for personal interpretation. There is a segment of our population that is doomed(or graced, whatever one’s vantage point)to self righteously do what the literal interpretation of the Bible dictates. We cannot condemn or judge her actions. It is best to accept her reality and hope her example isolates and does not infect the greater population, those you welcome open, progressive thinking and greater inclusiveness.

  • Sourgu

    OK, but there is absolutely no evidence that Jesus ever existed. There is, however, evidence that Jesus is a retelling of older saviours from older religions. You cannot talk about a mythical character as if he ever existed.

    Also, I would question the benevolence of the character (Jesus). All the talk about love and compassion sounds nice, but don’t forget that his father “Yahweh” is shown in the bible as a childish vengeful god who practised genocide and commanded so many morally questionable premises. Jesus agrees with all aspects of his father, Yahweh, whatever Yahweh says and does is correct thus Jesus sees nothing wrong about his father practising genocide, condining slavery, killing of gay people, forcing women to drink bitter water that could end up in forced abortion, etc and etc.