Why religious people are against gay marriage.

Religion, spirituality, and sacrilege.
Nov. 19 2003 4:12 PM

A Common Missed Conception

Why religious people are against gay marriage.

Is the institution of marriage really at stake?
Is the institution of marriage really at stake?

It's hard to overstate just how upset religious conservatives are about gay marriage. Gary Bauer's e-mail newsletter about the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruling declared, "Culture Wars Go Nuclear." Brian Fahling of the American Family Association said it was "on an order of magnitude that is beyond the capacity of words. The Court has tampered with society's DNA, and the consequent mutation will reap unimaginable consequences for Massachusetts and our nation."

A new poll from the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found, not surprisingly, that opposition to gay marriage and homosexuality is highest among the most religious.

Poignantly, homosexuality would seem to be the one topic that unites the leaders of the world's faiths—an issue over which Franklin Graham and Malaysia's Mahathir Mohamed could break bread. Even the Dalai Lama views it as "sexual misconduct." (But don't mention this to the liberal Hollywood Buddhist set.)

Why exactly are religious folks opposed to gay marriage? The most fashionable argument against it is that it undermines the institution of marriage (and therefore family and therefore society), but I can't help but think this is a poll-tested idea that doesn't really get at the true feelings of the advocates; in the Pew poll, few people opposing the notion of gay marriage offered that up as the main reason. Most said, instead, that gay marriage and homosexuality were inherently "wrong" or violated their religious beliefs.

The world's sacred texts are silent on the question of gay marriage, as it was not really an issue when they were written. However, those same texts do have strong opinions on homosexuality itself. Though there are differences in the views of different faiths, conservative Protestants, the Catholic Church, Mormons, traditional Jews, and Muslims share two fundamental antigay arguments.

The first is that homosexuality is wrong because it involves sex that doesn't create life. In the case of Judaism, a key Bible passage is the story of Onan, who sleeps with his dead brother's wife but, to avoid giving his brother offspring, doesn't ejaculate inside her. Instead, he "spilt the seed on the ground." God slew him, which some might view as a sign of disapproval.

The Catholic catechism decries homosexual acts because "they close the sexual act to the gift of life." Early American antisodomy laws discouraged all forms of non-procreative sex (including, incidentally, heterosexual oral and anal sex). Islam shares a similar view. One Islamic hadith explains that Allah "will not look at the man who commits sodomy with a man or a woman."

But if non-procreative sex is the issue, society started down the slippery slope not with the recent Supreme Court ruling but with production of the pill—or, really, even earlier, when birth control became common. We've been into the non-procreative sex thing for some time now. Even most religious conservatives don't have the heart to go after this. If sex without the possibility of creating life is wrong, then religious leaders would have to go back to warring against masturbation. And what about sex among the infertile? Or sex among people over 70? Only the Catholic Church has maintained logical consistency, gamely reasserting its opposition to birth control on those same grounds as recently as this week.

The other moral argument put forward by the world's great faiths is that homosexuality is "unnatural." God created man and woman with certain complementary capacities, and not to use them is an insult to the Creator. Sort of like getting TiVo but not learning how to use the record feature.

Christian Bible scholar Ben Witherington explains the views of the apostle Paul this way: "For Paul, not unlike other early Jewish writers, homosexual behavior is perhaps the clearest example of how flouting sexual distinctions is ultimately a rejection of the Creator, who made such distinctions."

But Witherington, a conservative scholar, goes on to point out that all sorts of sins involve the implicit rejection of God or His commandments and that homosexuality is on par with covetousness, malice, envy, murder, slander, insolence, rebellion against parents, ruthlessness, deceit, pride, and the like—not one destined to destroy society. (And liberals, of course, believe the Bible does not discourage homosexuality at all.)

In other words, many of the world's faiths do argue against homosexuality, but they don't raise it to the level of moral calamity: It's bad but not that bad. Privately, religious conservatives are appalled and grossed out by homosexuality but realize that the more common American view is modulated. So, they choose to focus on the idea that marriage in general is under threat. Read their public statements, and you'll see a surprising shortage of outrage about homosexuality itself. Perhaps they've been reading their Bibles more carefully. More likely, they've figured out that the most effective argument for religious conservatives is not, in fact, a religious one.

Steven Waldman is editor in chief ofBeliefnet, the leading multifaith spirituality and religion Web site.