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.