Being raised in a conservative, Catholic home and being gay, gives one a unique perspective on the issues of religion and freedom. On one hand, through my loving family I was raised to respect and honor the traditions of a religion, and institution that is not always known for being a pillar of equality. On the other hand, it is an institution that has given meaning their lives, and to millions of others. Indeed, religion has helped them be better people. That is one of the positive attributes of religion, and there are many to be sure. Of course there are also negative ones as well.
Largely because of those negative attributes associated with religion, there are those in the gay community who have come to view people of faith with suspicion, and in some cases stereotype them in a manner in which is both unfair to the individual and hypocritical to the cause of LGBT equality. If we don’t want to be judged, or called names, we need to lead by example and not engage in this behavior ourselves. Indeed, many vocal LGBT advocates who speak on behalf our community engage in this behavior, and I believe it only serves to further polarize people, discredit the real issues involved, and it is also simply wrong. We must always treat others the way we wish to be treated (which also just happens to be a lesson from the bible) and appreciate that in America, we are all allowed to believe what we choose to believe (see my opinion editorials on the Proposition 8 trial in the “Politics” section of my website for more on this specific issue).
That being said, as a gay man, it is hard to understand why our government and many religious institutions don’t view my relationship, my love, and indeed my equality, as an issue of importance or justice, the same way they do when it comes to race or gender? In fact in many cases, it often people acting in the name of their faith that are responsible for hindering the cause of equality for homosexuals. Why is this?
For Muslims, there are scripts in the Koran which describe homosexuals as "perverts" and condemn homosexuality, but very importantly – no penalty or torture is allowed to be prescribed. As we know, many Muslim societies take a much harsher tact on the issue of homosexuality. In fact, it is common for homosexuals to be publicly tortured, hung, or stoned to death in Islamic societies, such as 16 year old Mahmoud Asgari, and 18 year old Ayaz Marhoni who were publicly hung in Edelat Square, in Mahshad Iran in 2005. A woman I spoke to who lived in Egypt, personally witnessed a lesbian woman being stoned to death for being gay. Atrocities such as this are unacceptable, regardless of one’s religion. It does put our struggle for equality in the West into perspective when we compare what is going on in much of the Middle East, but left unchecked, legislating personal religious beliefs in the West could one day become just as deadly.
In Christianity, and some conservative Jewish sects, the anti-homosexuality belief is usually tied to a more literal interpretation of some bible verses, such as the verse in Leviticus that states “for man to lie with another man is an abomination”. However, many biblical scholars, and less fundamental believers question the wisdom of a literal interpretation of these verses. They encourage people to remember that nothing was really known about what causes homosexuality when the bible was written. All that was known was that it was a pagan ritual practiced by the Greeks and Romans in which older men had sexual relations with young boys. In fact, many biblical scholars point out that when the bible was written, a formal word for two adults of the same sex being intimate together did not even exist. Given the only context for such an act was tied to those Roman and Greek rituals, of course “man lying with another man” would be viewed as a perversion or as evil. As those who speak more than one language know, there are also often no direct translations for words or expressions between languages, and some words in one language don’t exist in another, creating contextual challenges for many of the lessons, characters, issues, and stories told in the bible. By the time Martin Luther translated the bible from Greek to German to be read by the masses, it had already been translated dozens of times. With each translation, comes the likelihood of words or ideas translating differently between the language or culture, or even a potential slant that reflected the transcriber’s world view.
The Catholic Church, prior to Martin Luther, did not allow individuals to own a bible, and refused to translate it for the masses, for the reason that they knew the average person was not capable of understanding what it is all about. I would even wager that the church’s top biblical scholars struggled then and now with many of its meanings, and knew that if even they couldn’t properly grasp it in its entirety, how could the masses? I believe they knew that the danger of misunderstanding the bible had potentially far worse consequences than limiting its availability to the general public.
For the sake of argument, even if we conceded that homosexuality is indeed a sin, I would ask why this sin is always elevated above that of other sins often committed by self-proclaimed Christian’s everyday such as premarital sex, divorce, greed, or gluttony. I have yet to see any national organizations, or well-funded political campaigns led by the church to outlaw divorce, ban premarital sex, limit how much money one can make, or limit how much food one can eat. You would be hard pressed to even hear any of these issues discussed at Sunday services anymore. Many of those that have been the most ardent opponents of gay marriage or even LGBT workplace discrimination protection legislation have taken part in many or all of these sins. Whatever happened to “let he who is without sin cast the first stone”? It doesn’t make them bad people, but it does make them selective about what sins they choose to get worked-up about, and which sins they feel compelled to legislate. It exposes a certain hypocrisy within a portion of the religious community, and it almost appears that by condemning the sin of homosexuality which doesn’t personally affect them, that allows them to appear pious while also providing a certain amount of leeway with their own lower profile sins that do personally affect them. Whatever the motivation, it isn’t in anyway illegal, or un-American. What one chooses to believe, and how one chooses to live is their-own personal right. What one attempts to legislate though, is a very different obligation.
And that’s where my most fundamental disagreement comes in with some members of the religious community. I realize that my argument against a literal interpretation of the bible isn’t likely going to change someone’s mind who truly believes in the literal words of the bible, just as their argument in support of such an interpretation isn’t likely to convince me of its virtue. And that’s okay. I would never want to force anyone to believe what I do, because I know that can cut both ways. As Americans, our differences should be respected. And just as I would never support laws that limit the rights of Christians, or Muslims, I would expect that others show the same respect towards me. While many American’s believe it is their duty to vote based on what their religion or faith calls for them, I would argue that that’s never been the proper obligation of the U.S. citizenry.
Every society needs something that binds us, that we all agree is the standard for how people are treated, and for what our laws are based on. Since America is a multi-ethnic society, our own specific cultures are not something that we necessarily share with our neighbor. The same goes for religion. America is composed of many faiths, and even those with the same faiths often times have a very different way of viewing and living that faith. The first obligation as U.S. citizens is to uphold the virtues and laws of the U.S. Constitution. It is the one document that binds us all. It is the one document that we must all agree on as the basis for which our society is governed. As a result, it is the U.S. Constitution first and foremost that citizens must look to for guidance when voting. That isn’t to say that what your faith compels you to do will always be contrary to what the constitution compels you to do, but when they are at odds, the constitution must take precedence.
Remember that this doesn’t impede how you personally live your life, or what you believe. You can choose to believe and live the way you want to. But how you vote must be about staying true to the constitution, and idea’s set forth by our Founding Fathers of equal rights and equal worth, not simply what your personal religious beliefs are. If my faith held that church services can only be held on Sundays, does that mean I should pass legislation banning Jews from celebrating on Saturdays? Just as this makes no sense in a civil, secular, democracy, it does not make sense to vote with your religion when that vote comes at the expense of another’s rights or protections. What has kept American society so free and so stable for so long is that the majority of its citizens have understood the obligations of being a citizen in this great country and put aside the own personal beliefs and preferences for the good of the whole. But this virtue requires continued vigilance on the part of the citizenry in order to keep it alive. It is not a given that we will always have such freedom and protections. I for one do not want to wake up one day to an America that treats its minority populations the way some Islamic majority countries treat their Christian and Jewish populations. We are better than that, and Muslim Americans would be the first ones to agree. For the record, I still consider myself Christian, and I still believe that the broader lessons of the bible, such as the Ten Commandments, and the stories of Jesus’ ministry, have an intrinsically good value to all individuals and to society as a whole. I just don’t believe that my personal interpretation should be the basis for which I determine how other people can live their lives, nor do I believe it should be used to negatively affect the life and liberty of those who aren’t causing me or society any harm.
That’s how our Founding Fathers envisioned American. They were persecuted in their home countries by the majority who believed and worshiped differently than them. They wanted America to be different. They wanted America to be better than that. All people, left and right, gay and straight, American, and non-American, Christian, Jew, or Muslim, should be able to practice their faith while also being treated as an equal part of society. Religion and freedom are not mutually exclusive. Someone can personally choose to have a literal interpretation of the bible, just as much as I choose not to. But all people should agree that the rights and protections of American citizens should always come first, and should never be subject to one’s religious beliefs.