Archive for March 2013

A Church Historians look at the Same Sex Marriage Debate.

March 28, 2013

I am currently writing a dissertation on 19th century American abolitionists, so I spend half of my days in the 19th century and the other half in the 21st century.  This situation provides an interesting vantage point from which to observe the current day debate over same sex marriage.  When I am reading, researching and writing about 19th century American social reformers I have to be conscious that the Bible operated as a moral T-square in American society.  Moral decisions had to be addressed with the Bible in mind.  Today, the Bible seems to have a diminished bearing on the current debate over same sex marriage.  In fact, there seems to have been a 180 degree turn in how Americans receive the Bible in public discourse.  I know this is not a great revelation but it can be helpful to see how this gets worked out.  A caveat, this is a very complicated topic and this blog is only making a few observations. If this post gets you interested, read people like Robert Gagnon, Dan Via, Peter Gomes, Gene Robinson and the books mentioned in the post.

In 19th century America, the issue of slavery divided the nation much the way same sex marriage divides the nation today.  Unfortunately, those who opposed slavery and those who supported it, used the Bible to buttress their arguments.  Yet, as historian Mark Noll demonstrated in his book The Civil War: A Theological Crisis, the pro-slavery proponents had an easier case to make than their adversaries.  According to Noll, a simple reading of the Bible seemed to support slavery.  If someone just read the passages in the Bible that discussed slavery, without evaluating the cultural contexts of slavery in the times of Moses or the Apostle Paul, a person could use the Bible to defend slavery.  Also, most Americans read the Bible with an innate cultural racism which did not view African Americans as equal to whites.  This prevented many Americans from seeing that 19th century chattel slavery was nothing like slavery in the Bible.

On the other hand, the opponents of slavery had to do some sophisticated hermeneutics such as the work done by Bible commentator and abolitionist Albert Barnes, in his 1858 book, An inquiry into the Scriptural views of Slavery. In many ways, people like Barnes had a harder time explaining how the Bible opposed slavery.  Barnes had to demonstrate that the Bible moved in a redemptive hermeneutical trajectory gradually creating situations pertaining to slavery that mitigated the severity of slavery and set a time bomb of sorts that would lead to the abolition of slavery.   In the end, Noll believes that most Americans had difficulty wrapping their minds around how Barnes used the Bible to oppose slavery.  Therefore most Americans accepted the more simplistic reading and did not view the Bible as an anti-slavery document.  According to Noll, it took the theologians U.S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman to help Americans resolve the slavery issue.  In the 21st century, most Christians would agree with how Barnes dealt with the Bible and slavery, which is evident in William Webb’s book, Slavery, Women and Homosexuals.

Today, as the nation debates same sex marriage the biblical debate has done a 180 degree turn since the 19th century.  Fewer people in the 21st century value a simple, straight forward reading of the Bible when it comes to this issue, unless it suits their needs.  A simple reading of the Bible from the Old Testament through the New Testament condemns homosexuality. In many ways, like the pro-slavery theologians, those who do not support same sex marriage have a simpler argument to make from scripture.  I am not implying that people who read the Bible and oppose same sex marriage all read it in a simplistic way or with blinders like 19th century readers.  Many people who oppose same sex marriage based on the Bible can do so with a sophisticated nuanced perspective.

Unlike in the 19th century though, a vast majority of Americans are not as interested in this argument in the public square.  In fact, people who support same sex marriage and attempt to use the Bible to defend their position have to use far more complicated interpretations.  These interpretations make moves that Barnes and his allies would have never made.  Pro-homosexual theologians may argue that the Bible is not inerrant and that the biblical writers did not know about such things as sexual orientation.  Other interpretations argue that the Bible does not address homosexuality as it is practiced today. Another move that would have been unthinkable in the 19th century is to argue that the Bible is just wrong.  For other people, the idea that love, defined as not telling someone they are wrong trumps anything written in the Bible.   Some pro-homosexual advocates will use simple readings of the text to defend their point when it suits them.  For instance they will argue that Leviticus condemns eating shell fish and homosexuality but Christians eat shell fish now.  They may argue that in the Old Testament, polygamy was practiced and Christians do not agree with that anymore, so the definition of a biblical marriage is ambiguous at best.

In this current debate, the Bible does not appear to have the same authority in the public square unless one argues that the Bible is sexually repressive and regressive.  To make a biblical argument for LGBTQ one needs to demonstrate that the Bible is wrong or has been read wrong or side step it all together.  Yet, Americans in favor of LGBTQ are more receptive to a complicated explanation of the Bible on this issue than Americans were in the 19th century when they debated slavery.   This causes me to ponder what is the difference between 1858 and 2013?  How do Americans in the 21st century make moral decisions?    These are two huge questions which I do not plan to answer exhaustively, but I would like to put forth a few ideas.

There are many differences between the 19th and 21st century as it pertains to how Americans make moral decisions.  First, the vast majority of Americans no longer see the Bible as the T-square to measure morality.  Unlike 19th century Americans, a large percentage of Americans do not believe the Bible is the inerrant word of God.  The last 150 years has seen the emergence of seismic shifts in Biblical scholarship and cultural morality.  Second, people are more relativistic and more influenced by their own experience than an objective norm like the Bible. Third, Americans are more empathetic of LGBTQ people than 19th century Americans were of African Americans. Fourth, Americans today are in love with libertarian freedom and rights.  Fifth, sex has changed over the last fifty years.  Sex has become a right.

If Americans are not using the Bible as a norming norm for moral decisions what are they using? This question gets to the heart of why there has been a 180 degree turn in how arguments are made in the public square. Where in the 19th century both sides of an issue had to use the Bible to make their case, today people us their experience. People are more inclined to follow their feelings as a guide than an objective source.  This is due in part to postmodern critique of objective truths.  On the same sex issue, many advocates contend that marriage is a human right, but no one explains where human rights come from?  If something is a right who says?   While Christians may argue over the rights he chose to defend, even a deist like Jefferson argued that rights come from the creator.  Since the latter half of the 20th century Americans have used the Bible less and less as a moral barometer. From a historic perspective, Americans are moving into uncharted territory.  I am not arguing that America was ever a Christian nation, but there was a time that you at least had to debate a moral issue with the Bible in focus, today you can side step it or say it is just wrong.Image