In Religion and Politics, Will Attacking Gays Attract Followers?

Martin E. Marty is a professor of the history of religion at the University of Chicago and senior editor of the Christian Century Magazine. He directs the Public Religion Project, a nonprofit group analyzing the role of religion in public life

‘Hate the sin. Love the sinner.” That’s the slogan, some say the battle cry, in the raging Homosexuality War.

“Sin” is suddenly a political term. “Sin” is what both Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas) call homosexuality. “The Bible is very clear on this,” adds Armey. Green Bay Packer defenseman the Rev. Reggie White agrees. We must fight it. He does so by promoting antigay advertisements in the form of appeals for ex-gay ministries that will “cure” the sinners.

In “One Nation, After All,” social scientist Alan Wolfe found that homosexuality is now the most divisive issue on the scene, the one most in need of urgent address. Many have long asked why this is a perplexing issue. But since it will soon play a part in determining who gets elected, what laws are passed and whether we can survive cultural crises, we have to ask another question: Exactly why now has it reached this point?


Religion inspires homosexuality wars. Jewish communities are tense. Christians are plagued by prejudice and dispute. The bishops of the worldwide Anglican Communion recently voted 526 to 70 for a nonbinding but unbending line against gay rights and rites in the church. Homosexual acts are “incompatible with Scripture.” The United Methodist Church’s highest court has just ruled that denominational law forbids the blessing of same-sex unions. The Presbyterians this summer put the always simmering issue on the back burner for a year rather than risk seeing it boil over. The Lutherans would like to do so next year. Denominations fear upheaval, schism, loss and--if they scourge homosexuals--much grief.

Wars need two sides. Pro-gay and lesbian parties in the ministry, seminaries and congregations of Catholicism and mainstream Protestantism are vocal, and even the evangelicalism that produces troops for the antigay cause includes some advocate groups. They will be active politically, too. We hear them arming with argument: The Bible calls divorce sin far more often than it hits homosexual activity. Yet not a few evangelical ministers who are divorced and remarried blithely attack an activity seldom condemned in Scripture. Why?

The pro-gay Christians point out that hundreds of laws against sins in Leviticus and Deuteronomy go ignored. Consistent biblical literalists would have to excommunicate any evangelical man without facial hair who eats shellfish or has intercourse with his wife “while she is in her menstrual uncleanness.” Why not push these punishments in U.S. politics?

In the New Testament, we keep hearing that Jesus is silent on the subject, as is everyone else--except Paul, who wrote one disputed complex passage and two clear condemnations in catalogs of sins that would not all stir politicians today.

The Episcopal Church activists here, smarting under their Anglican bishops’ ruling, will keep affirming gay life styles. When they read surveys that locate prejudice in the churches, they charge the church ought to be the first place to fight it, in the name of Christ. They call for fresh biblical interpretation to counter selective literalism in lawmaking and church life.

To the point of why homosexuality is the obsessive hot issue just now, one gets some quick suggestions. Yes, there is backlash against gay militants. Yes, media now present and affirm homosexual lifestyles. Yes, homosexuals are gaining acceptability and homophobia is less respectable than before. But we have to look deeper for the roots in religion and hence in politics.


Religions have always had problems dealing with sexuality. Two words, “sex” and “authority,” define disputes that plague everyone from the pope to the evangelicals. Catholicism and other churches now deal positively with many expressions of sexuality, but are unsettled about others, and are torn over this one.

Current conflicts in religion and politics help answer, “Why now?” Armies need recruits. The stalemated abortion wars stimulate few new partisans. But entrepreneurs can exploit homosexuality. Ralph Reed, former head of the Christian Coalition, himself nervous about how well the issue will play, comments on Janet L. Folger. Reed calls her “an ideological entrepreneur”--she knows how to pick hot issues early. Folger’s Center for Reclaiming America is the nerve center behind controversial “pro-ex-gay” newspaper ads. Folger and her allies raise passions that rouse partisans on both sides to get involved.

National and denominational parties need causes to fight about. Their movements may have gods, but they certainly need devils. This conflict that threatens to pull parties and denominations apart also curiously holds them together, at least temporarily, as they contend for control.

Here’s another reason: In our time, as people seek and fear freedom, they concentrate on sexuality--the zone of conflict on which all are expert. What is closer to me than my sexual dimension? Who is more nervous about any unfamiliar and thus threatening ways of life? Conversely, who is more ready for liberating change than I--if I want to change? You cannot get a fight over doctrines like the Trinity in most churches. But sexual issues are close to home and heart. And, whether I am gay, nongay or antigay, I will pick a fight if someone different upsets me.

Partisans take no prisoners. If you don’t support homosexual rights and lifestyles in state and church, you will be called a homophobe or an unloving and unliberated Christian. But if you do, you are a bad citizen, a bad believer.

Wars of attrition eventually wind down. But the immediate future on this front is not bright. Pro-gay church people chide their fellow congregants to treat this cause as they did civil-rights causes. But too many believers and voters do not see the two as comparable. Martin Luther King Jr. and his company of preachers dealt with an informed, conscience-stricken public--one that biblical and democratic texts and beliefs had convinced to work for just laws. In the current case, those minds and consciences are unready or still disagreeing. While texts, traditions and taboos trouble them as they make up their minds, they do not want to be dismissed as homophobes in the cases where they are not.

A shelf-full of books arguing, as one title does, that “Religion Is a Queer Thing,” depict the agonies of gays who find the “hate the sin, love the sinner” approach hateful and condescending. They, too, appeal to the Bible in their demands for justice, but have not yet convinced enough people to act; and when they are too militant, they alienate.

Are there any distant white flags signaling truce? Some day, in politics and the churches, more will find common ground in the Bible, if only literalists turn more consistent and their opponents do not sound dismissive of inconvenient texts. Or perhaps more Christians will notice that not only pro-gay but antigay forces in the secular culture are influencing their actions. It is likely that as a scientific consensus grows that “the choice to be homosexual” is not purely choice and that the vast majority of “ex-gay” efforts fail and are destructive, affirmation will grow--or at least the distorting ads for these efforts will stop.

It may be that the large majority who now duck for cover or head for the sidelines when militants fire away will find a voice. It should be that, as the uncertain majority of heterosexuals get to know and love their gay and lesbian fellow-believers, they will be more empathic, less ready to use slogans. It may even be that the “hate the sin, love the sinner” crowd can come to the point of realizing that loving the sinner begins with listening to him or her, and hearing, as if for the first time, his or her witness as citizen and believer. Then constructive action might begin to follow. One hopes.