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“God versus Gay” is a myth. It is untrue, unsupported by Scripture, and contradicted every day by the lives of religious gay people. Yet it is also among the most pervasive and hurtful untruths in America today, and people all across the ideological spectrum believe it. Religious conservatives, secular liberals, and millions of people across the gamut of American political and religious opinion talk past one another, in heated agreement that it’s either “gay rights” or traditional religion, the Constitution or the Bible. Pro-gay folks can’t see how anyone could be opposed to equality, while opponents can’t see how anyone could change thousands of years of tradition. The conversation goes nowhere.
Worse, this conflict is an internal one as well—inside each of us who has ever wrestled with sexuality and religion. I’ve worked in gay religious communities for over a decade, and in that time, I’ve met thousands of people wounded by what they see as the conflict between religion and homosexuality. I have counseled families who have been torn apart, people whose parents see them in the grocery store but won’t acknowledge their existence. And before I came to reconcile my own sexuality and spirituality, I felt the conflict myself and wondered why God had cursed me. So long as the false choice between God and gay persists, our brothers, sisters, cousins, and friends will continue to struggle, continue to torment themselves, and continue to be excluded from their families and communities.
All of this is unnecessary. Religious people should support equality, inclusion, and dignity for sexual minorities because of our religious traditions, not despite them. Not only does the Bible not say what some people claim, but the Bible and centuries of religious teaching in Christian and Jewish traditions argue strongly for what sometimes gets called “gay rights.” You read that right: for gay rights. While there are half a dozen verses that may say something about some forms of same-sex behavior, what they have to say is ambiguous, limited, and widely misunderstood. Meanwhile, there are hundreds of other verses that teach us about the importance of love, justice, and sacred relationships. I know it may sound unusual or even heretical to say so, but after substantial research (both within my Jewish tradition and, as a scholar of religion and an interfaith religious activist, in multiple Christian ones as well), years of soul-searching, and years of working with religious gay people, I sincerely believe that our shared religious values call upon us to support the equality, dignity, and full inclusion of sexual and gender minorities—that is, of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people.
So, if you are someone who struggles with the question of religion and homosexuality; if you are questioning your sexuality; if you are trying to reconcile your faith with the sexuality of a friend or family member; if you are a pastor trying to remain true to your ideals but compassionate to your parishioners; or, whatever your own religious or nonreligious views, if you are concerned about the hurtful, polarizing tone of political conversations about homosexuality, I hear you.
I was like you. And this book is for you.
Admittedly, this book is for me, too. Before I came out, I was certain that being openly gay would spell the end of my religious life. I was an Orthodox-practicing Jew, and my religion gave meaning and shape to my life. But I repressed my sexuality, acting out occasionally but regretting it afterwards, and I tried, for years, to change. Eventually, after ten years in the closet—an all-too-cozy metaphor for lying to yourself and others, and hating yourself for doing so—I had had enough. The pain, isolation, loneliness, and shame had grown so great—the futile relationships with women, the arguments with God, the hatred of myself for being unable to change—that I was ready to forsake my religion for the sake of my happiness.
But what I found was a shock: coming out was the doorway to true love, faith, and joy. My relationship to God and to my religious community grew stronger than ever before. My spiritual path began to unfold, my prayer life began to awaken, and my love for other human beings slowly unfurled itself and expanded. “God versus Gay” had very personal consequences for me, and I have written this book both to save other people from the hell I lived through, and to clarify and crystallize what I have learned over the years. “God versus Gay” isn’t just a false dichotomy. It’s a rebellion against the image of God itself.
But this is not only a personal story; it is a political one as well. After all, the “equality” in this book’s subtitle means not only that all of us are equal before God, or that same-sex love can be of equal holiness as opposite-sex love—although it does mean that—but also that this religious value has political consequences. Today, in most states, I can be fired from my job simply for having written this book and stating that I am gay. I can’t visit my life-partner in the hospital. In many countries, I could be jailed for even telling the truth about myself. And there are many churches and synagogues where I have to lie in order to fit in. Yes, the gay rights movement has made remarkable advances, and studies suggest that within a generation, struggles for LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender—the acronym is strange at first, but one gets used to it) equality will look like ancient history. But as far as American politics may have come on these issues, parts of American society are being left behind. And whether you’re for gay rights or against them, you have to be concerned about the way our conversation has been taking place. It’s been bitter and contentious, with little understanding or generosity on either side.
This is a shame, and a risk. Consider, for example, the contrasting cases of two national conversations—on civil rights and on abortion. In the long and continuing struggle for civil rights, Dr. King and other leaders successfully and authentically framed the case for equality in religious as well as political terms. Remember, only a century ago, the Bible was used to enforce segregation as much as to oppose it. God placed the races on different continents, segregationists said. God sanctioned slavery in the Bible. And Africans were doomed to serve Caucasians as punishment for Ham’s sin (“Cursed be Canaan! The lowest of slaves will he be to his brothers,” says Noah in Genesis 9:25). Dr. King and many others so succeeded in their reframing of civil rights that these arguments may strike us today as musty, even bizarre. But just fifty years ago, they were preached from pulpits around the country.
What Dr. King and his allies knew was that religion must become an ally of social change if that change is going to take root in people’s hearts. And so he preached as well as picketed. He didn’t just make onstitutional arguments but appealed to conscience, and spoke in the language of Scripture. He didn’t spend much time explaining why racist readings of the Bible were false—he focused on why liberating
readings were true. As a result, while we still have a long way to go in terms of civil rights for everyone, few people today would argue that equality is an affront to God’s will—even though many would have a century ago.
Contrast that with our national “conversation,” if that’s what it is, about abortion. Here, the left makes secular, constitutional arguments, and the right makes religious ones. Not surprisingly, they talk past one another, and get angrier and angrier as time goes on. It’s a battlefield, not a conversation. Whatever one’s views on this contentious issue, surely we can all agree that sloganeering, political scheming, and lots of angry shouting are not the best ways to engage with an issue with so much religious and political significance.
Now, gay rights are not the same as African American civil rights. The struggles of LGBT people and African Americans are similar in some respects, but different in others. But the lesson I take from Dr. King and other heroes of the civil rights movement is that if we are to be responsible citizens of American democracy, we must engage with religious values, because these political questions are ultimately religious ones as well. We must have the religious conversation—not to win arguments, but to speak heart to heart with the millions of Americans who are not bigots or homophobes, but who are sincerely troubled by equality for gay people.
We have only barely begun this conversation today. So far, except for a few outliers, religion has been used on only one side of the argument. The Bible forbids homosexuality, we are told. Heterosexual marriage is at the core of God’s design for the universe. Most liberals, in response, simply deflect these points, talking instead about separation of church and state. This has been a tragic mistake. Dr. King did not succeed in changing hearts because he invoked the Fourteenth Amendment; he opened hearts, and changed minds, because he invoked God.
As with “God versus Gay” itself, the consequences of this failure to speak religiously about gay rights are personal as well as political. It perpetuates a kind of spiritual schizophrenia, one that is deeply wounding and painful. Now, it’s unsurprising that many gay people have given up on religion—religion gave up on them first. But to perpetuate this despair alienates family members from one another, forfeits the opportunity for religious growth and conversation, and ignores the millions of gay people who have not given up on religion. By perpetuating “God versus Gay,” secular rhetoric alienates gay people from themselves.
Yet as John 8:32 says, the truth will set you free. The Bible does not forbid homosexuality, a concept invented in nineteenth-century Europe. But it does preach the centrality of love and relationship in God’s design of the universe. It teaches how God loves us, and wants us to be happy, ethical, just, and fulfilled human beings. It demands that we create a just and compassionate world. And in both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, it demands that we sanctify physical intimacy, and open our hearts to love. (Incidentally, because I am writing for people of all faiths, I use each tradition’s name for its sacred text. What Christians call the Old Testament, Jews call the Hebrew Bible.)
This is the conversation I want to have, because it connects me to my values, and to the values I share with other religious communities. Christian and Jew, progressive and conservative, Protestant and Catholic—we differ on many important details, but our shared fundamental values lead us to a different kind of conversation than the noisy shouting of TV talk shows and radio call-ins. If, like me, you have wrestled with the conundrum of how a loving God could possibly ask gay people to repress and distort themselves, then this book is about the good news that the God of Christianity and Judaism wants no such thing. If, like me, you despair of dialogue between religious and secular people on this divisive issue, then this book offers a way forward into meaningful, heartfelt, and sincere conversation. And if, like me, you are searching not only for tolerance but for authentic, spiritual, and respectful affirmation, then read on, because once the closet doors are opened, light comes streaming in.
I want to be clear about what this book is, and what it is not. It is a religious case, not a political one. It is affirmative, not negative. It is neither biblical apologetics nor an apology for acceptability of sexual diversity. And it embraces hard truths, not easy answers.