In the latest issue of Newsweek, editor Jon Meacham explains: “To argue that something is so because it is in the Bible is more than intellectually bankrupt–it is unserious, and unworthy of the great Judeo-Christian tradition.” Indeed, he continues, “this conservative resort to biblical authority is the worst kind of fundamentalism.” Curiously, he intends this as a defense of Lisa Miller’s cover story, which announces that we should approve homosexual marriage because the Bible tells that Jesus would want us to.
On any plane of argument, the contradiction would appear stunning, but, then, neither Jon Meacham nor Lisa Miller are engaged in argument. They’re speaking, instead, in familiar tropes and fused-phrases and easy clichés. They’re trying to convey a feeling, really, rather than an argument: Jesus loves us, love is good, homosexuals love one another, marriage is love, love is loving–a sort of warm bath of words, their meanings dissolved into a gentle goo. In their eyes, all nice things must be nice together, and Jesus comes to seem (as J.D. Salinger once mocked) something like St. Francis of Assisi and “Heidi’s grandfather” all in one.
In truth, of course, Meacham and Miller actually know what everyone else knows: The Bible offers no support for homosexual marriage. Christianity teaches love, mercy, and forgiveness for those who do bad things, true enough. Look, for example, at the story in the Gospel of John where Jesus offers his divine love, mercy, and forgiveness to a woman guilty of adultery. He shamed those who would stone her. He taught us all that we are sinners and often hypocrites. And then he told her, “Go and sin no more.” He did not reinterpret the Old Testament to proclaim adultery another life-style choice.
Miller demolishes the distinction between sin and sinner, thus eradicating any real conception of sin and guilt. But without sin and guilt there is no need for forgiveness–and no basis for morality. An amoral world may be a quite suitable environment for gay marriage, but it is hardly the kind of world in which most Americans want to bring up their children.
Those who tried to live by the Christian understanding have come to amazingly similar conclusions about what God wants in marriage. We have had centuries to try out many different ideas and test them against the text of the Bible and experience. Only traditional marriage has stood. The Orthodox of Russia came to the same conclusion as the Roman Catholics of Italy. The Pentecostals of Kenya came to the same conclusion as the Reformed Christians of Scotland. Over time, different accommodations have been made to extreme or difficult situations, but the ideal has been clear: God’s will is for marriage to be a covenant between a man and a woman. Nothing else will work.
The case for gay marriage in the Bible depends on the trick of taking a single idea and insisting that anything in the book that disagrees with it must miss the “spirit of the book.” Do not underestimate how comforting this method of reading is. It allows us to pick up any text and discover that it agrees with our own insights. Of course, it also traps us in our assumptions and prevents any different voice from being heard. Reject the Bible, if you will–but don’t pretend it means just what you want it to mean. The plain fact is that when the Old Testament talks about homosexual behavior, it condemns it. And when, in the New Testament, the followers of Jesus encountered homosexual acts, they quickly and universally condemned them.
Proponents of homosexual marriage suggest that the Bible has been twisted to support many dubious moral positions, which is true enough–and the metaphor most often used in this context is race. Didn’t some Bible readers once condone negro slavery? Well, some Bible readers today object to same-sex marriage.
The comparison is facile and self-congratulatory. As the vote in California this November revealed, it is overwhelmingly rejected by African-Americans, who are, after all, the ones who should know. For that matter, the racial epithets hurled at African-Americans in California after the election suggests that gay activists aren’t serious about the comparison, anyway. It is, for them, merely a handy stick with which to beat those Newsweek dismisses as fundamentalists.
And yet, there is a comparison to be made between advocacy of African slavery and same-sex marriage–though it works the other way around. Christian slave owners had to read race-based slavery into the Bible, and their arguments resemble in form all the other attempts–ancient and modern–to read into scripture what they wanted to find there.
Suppose we were to take the Bible seriously–where it agrees with us, and where it doesn’t. We might do this not merely because the Bible asserts that God inspired it. Rather, over centuries, against critics who have used arguments and torture against Bible believers, we have developed reasons for our knowledge that the Bible is God’s word. Through the long years, the Bible has been found to describe the human condition with force and accuracy: We will die, we are sinners, we exist in a world we did not make, we live through both joys and sorrows, we must train our children to carry on the work of this world, and we sense from time to time a higher reality beyond ourselves. Further, the Bible points us to the person of Jesus Christ, whom the practical experience of millions has found the best and highest hope of an answer to the human condition.
One thing the Bible never suggests is that the world must work the way we desire it to. Jesus loves us enough not to let us do whatever we want. Every generation attacks biblical ethics in some new way, but the Bible endures. Hypocrites pretend they have no sin. Hedonists pretend their sins are good. Honest people repent.
Joseph Bottum is editor of First Things: A Journal of Religion, Culture and Public Life. John Mark Reynolds, an evangelical, is associate professor of philosophy at Biola University. Bruce D. Porter is a member of the First Quorum of the Seventy, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.