Last week, Phil Robertson, the patriarch from Duck Dynasty, a popular reality show on A&E, was suspended from the network for offensive comments he made in a GQ interview. In addition to ignorant, racially insensitive remarks, the interview included a rant that called homosexuality sinful and morally wrong. The controversial suspension gave conservative and religious groups a new cause célèbre in their effort to cast gay equality as anti-Christian, a claim that is preposterous but gained steam from the fact that Robertson’s remarks were close paraphrases of what the Bible says.
In the relevant passage, Robertson has just waxed philosophical about America’s moral decline, saying: “Everything is blurred on what’s right and what’s wrong. Sin becomes fine.” When asked to define sin, he replies:
Start with homosexual behavior and just morph out from there. Bestiality, sleeping around with this woman and that woman and that woman and those men,” he says. Then he paraphrases Corinthians: “Don’t be deceived. Neither the adulterers, the idolaters, the male prostitutes, the homosexual offenders, the greedy, the drunkards, the slanderers, the swindlers—they won’t inherit the kingdom of God. Don’t deceive yourself. It’s not right.
Part of the offense here is in his apparent comparison of homosexuality to a bunch of bad things: bestiality, adultery, greed, slander, and so on. And it’s probably little comfort to the offended to point out that listing things together doesn’t necessarily mean declaring them the same. If your shopping list contains cheese and eggs, that doesn’t mean you think cheese is just like eggs. They are both foods, however, and Robertson (and the Bible) places homosexuality along with bestiality and adultery in the same category of sinful and morally wrong.
It may seem earnest to seek to use this flare-up as an occasion for productive dialogue. But the religious right and the rest of us could use a refresher on what sin really means, and what its connection is to moral right and wrong—whether or not you are a person of faith.
Sin is an offense against God. It has no meaning and no relevance if you don’t believe in God—except when religious believers impose their worldview on others by writing into civil law prohibitions or obligations rooted in their religious faith, the most basic violation of religious freedom. This is one reason it’s so preposterous when conservative Christians complain that not being allowed to impose their religious faith on others violates their religious freedom.
Indeed, the real problem arises when people blur sin and moral wrong into one, as Robertson did. The problem goes back all the way to the story of Sodom. The Bible contains very few passages about homosexuality, and Jesus never mentions, let alone condemns, it. But the story of Sodom, along with Paul’s call for the death penalty for homosexuality in the New Testament, have been taken as crystal clear denunciations of homosexual behavior.
What does the story of Sodom actually say? God sends two angels to the city of Sodom to assess its wickedness. Abraham’s nephew Lot takes the visitors in, but that night men from the city surround the house and demand to be able to “know”—probably a word meaning “have sex with”—the strangers. Defending his guests, Lot offers instead to procure his daughters for that purpose. The crowd declines his offer and prepares to invade the house, but the angels blind the mob before they can find their way in. Next morning, the angels take Lot and his family out of the city, which God then destroys with fire and brimstone.
One clear moral of the story is that Lot was a hero for prioritizing the safety of strangers over the protection of his daughters from mass rape, a message that might not sit well with modern readers of the Bible. (Not long after, his daughters return the favor, taking turns plying their father with drink until he passes out so they can rape him, impregnating themselves with their brother-sons.)
But note that the wickedness of the Sodomites is already a fact; it doesn’t stem from their rape of visiting men, which never even happens. And it’s never said why or in what way the Sodomites are wicked. The early Hebrew prophets did not view the sin of Sodom as homosexuality, an association that didn’t emerge until later Christian times, and not with Jews or early Christians—certainly not with Jesus.
Like the Hebrew scriptures, the New Testament appears to condemn homosexuality in no uncertain terms, most notably in writings ascribed to Paul. The apostle calls same-sex attraction “degrading passions” that are “worthy of death”—as are greed, envy, strife, deceit, malice, gossip, apostasy, insolence, arrogance, and disobedience to parents. (This means adherents of the Bible are obligated, for consistency’s sake, to endorse the death penalty for all these offenses.) But note two key things: Homosexuality is not the cause of evil but its punishment; and the actual offense is not homosexuality but failing to believe in God. From Romans: “For they exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen. For this reason God gave them over to degrading passions.” Yes, homosexuality is considered degrading—like other punishments, such as wearing a dunce cap—but it’s hardly the supreme evil or the cause of the massive destruction that religious conservatives would have us believe.
It wasn’t until 500 years after Jesus lived that Roman Christians began fixating on homosexuality, reinterpreting the sin of Sodom as homosexual conduct, genuinely worthy of death. In 533, as part of a sweeping revision of Roman law meant to finally wipe out Greek and Pagan ideas, Emperor Justinian applied the death penalty to all same-sex relations for the first time. The explanation offered to defend the law was based on a misreading of the story of Sodom, viewing homosexuality as the cause of the destruction of the city instead of as a punishment for prior wickedness. The decree forbade citizens from engaging in “diabolical and unlawful lusts, so that they may not be visited by the just wrath of God on account of these impious acts, with the result that cities perish with all their inhabitants. For we are taught by the Holy Scriptures that because of like impious conduct cities have indeed perished.”
Believing, as they did, that God’s judgment for this sin would rain destruction down on their cities, Romans now had a rationale for turning religious prohibitions—sins—into civil ones: For their own defense, they must ensure that no one practice this impious act.
The main difference between homosexuality and all the other items Phil Robertson and the Bible condemn—bestiality, promiscuity, prostitution, adultery, greed, slander, etc.—is that the moral harm of those other items can be explained in a rational way without resort to “because God said so.” You can debate whether promiscuity and prostitution are harmful, but the tacit standard for whether they are morally wrong (as opposed to just sinful) is whether they hurt people. By contrast, try as they might, religious conservatives have found no evidence that homosexuality hurts anyone; all it does is violate the rules of their religion.
Resorting to sin has become a lazy way for some religious people to derive their sense of right and wrong—and an unconscionable way of imposing it on others. It’s a clear violation of religious (though not constitutional) freedom, given that the real offense of many of the things religious conservatives seek to punish—certainly homosexuality—is simply the belief that it violates God’s will.
Indeed, when you actually research the Bible, what you find is this: The Old and New Testaments do condemn same-sex behavior, but quite clearly only for people who subscribe to those religions (and less vociferously than many think). That means that any principle that endorses freedom of religion must, to be logically consistent, also endorse the freedom of sexual orientation, since there’s no secular rationale for condemning it. Of course, as Phil Robertson himself told GQ about sin: “It’s not logical, my man. It’s just not logical.”