Gene Robinson, the Episcopal Church’s first gay bishop, restates his case for gay marriage with a gentle blend of personal experience and theological argument in a new book, God Believes in Love. He talks to David Sessions about how religious believers change their minds.
As you describe in your “Why Gay Marriage Now?” chapter, many Americans have been forced to confront their beliefs by a close friend or relative—or even a child or spouse—coming out. Obviously, that makes the debate more than an abstract argument over Scripture. But what about people who aren’t affected as closely? Have you seen a particular argument or way of looking at the issue be effective in changing people’s minds? What seems to be the X factor?
There is no question that knowing someone gay or lesbian is the most compelling motivator for becoming an advocate for gay marriage. But those without those personal connections might come to that same advocacy by another route. For those who were a part of the civil-rights movement for African-Americans in the ’60s, or the women’s liberation movement of the ’70s, this struggle for full and equal (not special) rights for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people has a familiar ring. Fair-minded people want to live in a nation whose laws protect those who are discriminated against by a majority prejudiced against them. Some take up this fight when they see teenagers committing suicide because they have no hope for a fulfilling and happy life as a gay man or lesbian. For followers of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, there is always the call to care for the most vulnerable, to welcome the stranger, and to fight for the marginalized and oppressed, and so their advocacy for gay marriage is an expression of their faith commitment. There are many roads to advocacy for gay marriage.
What was the missing piece for you? Did it take a crucial bit of scriptural or intellectual evidence in addition to your personal experience?
The first step, for a gay man like myself, was accepting my own sexuality as a gift from God, rather than a curse. Once I believed that it was good to be gay, I then wanted to be able to imagine a happy and fulfilling life for myself. But marriage for two men or two women seemed like an impossibly unreachable goal. And that’s why I credit Evan Wolfson, executive director of the national Freedom to Marry Coalition, with singing this song solo for years until many more of us believed it too and began to sing along. The hard part was loving myself and believing that God loved me as a gay man; believing in marriage for gay or lesbian couples was an easier leap into the joy and meaning of relationships and commitment.
Your denomination is one of the most liberal in the U.S., but as you point out, acceptance of gay marriage is not a done deal there, and even less so in the global Anglican communion. It’s perhaps easier to see how individuals change their minds, but how do you see the shifts happening on a church level? Does the Episcopal Church’s position influence others?
Actually, the Episcopal Church has dramatically changed in a very short period of time. Historically speaking, institutions are slow to change and usually resistant to any sudden moves—churches especially so. In 2003, when I was elected bishop, it was not at all certain that the Episcopal Church would consent to my election. They did, however, and in 2010 consecrated the second gay bishop in Los Angeles, the Rt. Rev. Mary Glasspool. Within seven short years, a controversial flashpoint had turned into something fairly routine and accepted. In 2012, the Episcopal Church authorized a provisional liturgy for the blessing of same-sex relationships and authorized its use for the blessing of marriages in those states where it is legal. These are astounding developments and would have been unthinkable only a short decade ago.
As for influencing others, I think it’s safe to say that other mainline denominations (Lutherans, Presbyterians, Methodists) have been watching the developments in the Episcopal Church, to see if this controversy would weaken or even destroy us, before undertaking change themselves.
One doesn’t have to look far back into history to see how much religious traditions have changed on big issues over time and in some cases even apologized for their previous positions. More than a few times, those shifts have been attacked as fatal to the true faith. Why do you think that bigger history is so difficult to see when we’re fighting over contemporary issues?
Left to our own devices and passions, we human beings have a hard time seeing beyond what is immediately in front of us. While the issue of slavery and its grotesque inhumanity seem obvious to us now, it was not so obvious to slave owners then who argued—from scripture, no less—that slavery was a part of God’s plan. We have similarly rethought our understanding of women, disabled people, and the mentally ill. Rather than being “fatal to the true faith,” it seems to me that these changes have argued for a more true following of God’s will for us than past understandings of the faith have allowed. Faith is a dynamic and ever-changing process, not some fixed body of truth that exists outside our world and our understanding. God’s truth may be fixed and unchanging, but our comprehension of that truth will always be partial and flawed at best. Over time, hopefully, we get it righter and righter!
It is interesting to wonder what we accept today as morally just and good, which over time the world will come to understand as unjust and immoral. What I love about believing in a living God is that I believe God is constantly revealing God’s self to us over time, and with each succeeding generation, we come a little closer to understanding the mind of God. Perhaps we might be a little kinder to past generations in their misperceptions, in hopes that future generations will be kind in understanding and forgiving our own faults and cruelties.
There are intelligent Christians who say outright that tampering with what they call the “Biblical sexual ethic” is a compromise of the fundamental meaning of the gospel. (And I don’t just mean Tony Perkins or Maggie Gallagher!) How did this issue become, for some people, so central to the credibility of their faith?
Homosexuality and gay marriage has become, in the minds of some, the litmus test of faith. If one does not support the traditional understanding of scripture and 2,000 years of Christian traditional teaching on homosexuality and marriage, then he or she must not be a believer at all! Somehow, if one does not follow the traditional “party line” on sexuality, then one must have thrown out all the traditional teachings and understandings of one’s faith, which of course is simply not true. I would go so far as to say that conservative Christians—I would include conservative evangelicals, the religious right, and the Roman Catholic hierarchy in this group—have made an idol of sexuality and homosexuality. That is to say, they have placed the comparatively lesser issue of sexuality above the greater issues of faith in importance: the Trinity, the humanity and divinity of Christ, God’s saving act in Jesus Christ, to name a few.
I believe that these people have mostly been taught to think this way by their ordained leaders. The reasons for this, I believe, are more about politics, power, and money than about theology or faith. Manipulation of laity by some of their clergy leadership is the subject for another book, but let’s at least note that the demonization of gay people and gay marriage was intentionally chosen to divide us and to raise lots of money. Somehow, these lesser understandings, about which good people of faith can disagree, are being placed on a pedestal high above those essential assertions of traditional faith that have been our foundation for two millennia, and are being used as a litmus test to separate the false from the true believers. At the end of the day, this seems to me to be idolatry. Our understanding of the faith has always been in a state of change as we better and better comprehend God’s will for us. This change in our understanding is no more a challenge or threat to “the faith” than the changes that have preceded it.
You spend a considerable portion of the book revisiting the person of Jesus and the lessons about family values drawn from his ministry. I think Terry Eagleton said Jesus’ relationship to the traditional family is “one of implacable hostility.” You don’t go quite that far, but you show that Jesus was far less interested in a bourgeois ideal than some Christians seem to think: he was first and foremost concerned with the marginalized and seemed to have a conception of family that transcended biology. Maybe they have always done this, but corners of American Christianity seem to have read their historical moment into the New Testament. How much do you think the gay marriage conflict is a bigger battle over an Americanized social ideal that feels like it’s slipping away?
Religious people are always in danger of reading themselves and their preconceived notions into the texts they hold sacred. That is true for any religion, and we must always read those texts in the community of fellow believers and in light of the critique of non-believers, to ensure that we aren’t seeing and hearing what is not there. Even then it is difficult not to hear what we want to hear. Jesus did seem to prefer his family of choice over his biological family and surrounded himself with a group of men and women, 12 men of whom were selected for special tutoring, three of whom were groomed for special leadership, and one of whom was described as “the one whom Jesus loved.” That is simply descriptive of what is in the text. It is better not to be too ambitious about extrapolating from that description to conclusions about what that means. But it would be hard to construe from the text that Jesus was a big supporter of a husband-wife-and-2.2 children as the only model for a family.
But you raise a terrific point in your question. Isn’t some of the conflict over gay marriage related to the larger issue of a loss of nuclear family stability? I would answer, “Absolutely!” There is a lot of anxiety around. Have you noticed? Divorce and remarriage are common; people change jobs frequently, rather than working for one employer for a lifetime; middle-class wages have stagnated; and for the first time in American history, the next generation may not have a better life than their predecessors. Add to this the new fluidity of the family—blended families, single-parent families, same-sex-partnered families—and everything seems up for grabs. And when we’re anxious, we look for someone or something to blame. In this case, the tremendous changes occurring in American families and the anxieties that accompany those changes are sometimes blamed on gay and lesbian people and their quest for marriage equality. That’s easier than taking a hard look at the real stressors on the institution of marriage and family and trying to do something about them.
In my book, I argue that in such a situation that is motivated by anxiety and fear, it is helpful to speak to those fears directly and assist people in seeing that they have nothing to fear from gay marriage. Gay marriage is not the cause of their problems, and making gay marriage go away will not make the real problems facing the institution of marriage go away along with it.
There’s no question that the gay rights movement has played a major role in our cultural shift over the past two decades or so, and some conservative believers see that as a plot against them. I’ve talked to people who realize that their prejudices are wrong but simultaneously feel embattled and defensive about being categorized as “anti-gay” or “homophobic” or “hateful.” Are there ways that gay-marriage supporters have also failed to see their opponents as full human beings? Does that hurt the conversation?
By my reading of scripture, God calls us to do two things simultaneously: one, to denounce evil when we see it and advocate for those marginalized by evil; and two, to love our enemies and those who harm us and others. By that, I think scripture means that we are to resist and even fight against evil, but we should never treat anyone as less than the child of God they are. This is tough to achieve, but it is doable. We can boldly fight against and advocate for policies and practices which hurt human beings, human institutions, and the earth, without treating our opponents with disrespect and fighting “below the belt.” Just because someone treats me poorly, it does not relieve me of the responsibility I have to treat him as the child of God that he is.
To this end, I think it is unhelpful to use the word “homophobe” or “bigot” to describe another human being. No one likes to be labeled, because a label freezes an identity into place, allowing little possibility of change in attitudes. And I can guarantee you, after calling someone a homophobe or bigot, that person will cease to meaningfully hear another word you have to say. It’s a total conversation stopper. Advocates for gay marriage or for the full acceptance of LGBT people in the culture and in religious institutions would do well to treat their opponents as human beings, beloved in the sight of God. Certain policies and practices can be questioned and condemned without relegating supporters of those practices and policies to the dustbin of humanity.
What strikes me about the marriage equality debate in general and your book in particular is how fundamentally conservative an effort it is. Unlike some of the early activists and queer theorists, you are not arguing for radical change, just a small broadening of the status quo. Do you think that reality can be made clear to those who are concerned about radically changing social institutions? Does it make a difference to emphasize that marriage equality is a cautious, even conservative solution?
I am delighted that you got this from my book, because it is exactly the argument that I am making. That, far from radically changing the definition of marriage, the marriage equality movement seeks to bring its benefits and responsibilities to a far larger, broader set of practitioners. While the institution of marriage might well undergo a thorough critique (e.g., its patriarchal roots and history), the quest for marriage equality is mostly not about that critique. Rather, the contemporary movement to extend marriage rights to same-gender couples affirms the values and responsibilities of traditional marriage (the gender equality of a same-sex relationship by definition undermines marriage’s patriarchal roots) and seeks to offer that traditional institution to the gay and lesbian members of society.
Andrew Sullivan, who is both gay and a Roman Catholic, made this argument early on: that the case for gay marriage is at its core a conservative one. As marriage is abandoned as largely irrelevant and unnecessary by many young heterosexuals, it is gay men and lesbians who are most defending and yearning for this traditional institution. I mention in the book how my clergy colleagues and I experience gay couples as very much more serious about their premarital counseling than their heterosexual counterparts, who largely see the church as a beautiful backdrop for their wedding photo album. Wouldn’t it be interesting and ironic if the marriage equality movement, rather than destroying marriage, actually saved it?!