Richard Mouw and Virginia Ramey Mollenkott
Gay Marriage: Broken or Blessed? Two Evangelical Views
Virginia Ramey Mollenkott is an author and professor emeritus at William Paterson University.
Richard Mouw is president of Fuller Theological Seminary and a professor of Christian Philosophy and Ethics. He is the author of Uncommon Decency.
August 3, 2006
KRISTA TIPPETT, HOST: I’m Krista Tippett. Today, “Gay Marriage: Broken or Blessed?” We’ll speak with two evangelical Christians who are struggling with the question of gay marriage in contrasting ways, we’ll hear how they think about the religious virtues at stake, and we’ll explore their ideas about how our public conversation on this subject could move to a different level.
DR. VIRGINIA RAMEY MOLLENKOTT: Take a good look at the creation. Apparently the Creator likes diversity a lot more than we human beings do.
DR. RICHARD MOUW: I would much rather have both sides really talk about what are the hopes and fears that go into all of this, rather than just ideologically trading rhetoric.
MS. TIPPETT: This is Speaking of Faith. Stay with us.
I’m Krista Tippett. Our culture’s acrimonious debate on gay marriage has been framed in religious and largely conservative Christian terms. This hour we’ll go behind the rhetoric to explore the hopes and fears this subject arouses. We’ll name hard questions two evangelicals on both sides of this issue are asking themselves, and questions they would like to ask of others.
From American Public Media, this is Speaking of Faith, public radio’s conversation about religion, meaning, ethics, and ideas. Today, “Gay Marriage: Broken or Blessed?”
UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER #1: I, Michael, take you, Michael…
UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER #2: …to be my lawful wedded spouse…
UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER #1: …to be my lawful wedded spouse…
UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER #2: …to have and to hold…
UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER #1: …to have and to hold…
UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER #2: …from this day forward.
UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER #1: …from this day forward.
MS. TIPPETT: Same sex marriage is legal in four countries: Spain, The Netherlands, Belgium, and Canada. In the U.S., 45 states have barred it. Courts in New York, Georgia, and Washington state recently ruled against it. Massachusetts alone recognizes gay unions. More than 8,000 gay couples have legally wed there, though a movement is underway to put a constitutional ban on a future ballot.
In San Francisco, a 2004 mayoral edict allowing gay marriage was overturned, but not before nearly 4,000 same-sex couples took vows of matrimony. The first was between two women who had been together for 51 years. If one could cast a blind eye on the gender of that union, it might appear to embody virtues of commitment and fidelity at the heart of the Christian ideal of marriage.
Still, many of the slight majority of Americans who oppose gay marriage say they do so on religious grounds. And virtually every mainline Christian denomination is now engaged in a bitterly divisive debate. President George W. Bush and others have called gay unions a threat to the sanctity of marriage and to the moral foundation of our society. In June of this year, the president addressed a group of community leaders, religious leaders, and politicians.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: You are here because you strongly support a constitutional amendment that defines marriage as the union of a man and a woman, and I am proud to stand with you.
MS. TIPPETT: President Bush has stated that evangelical Christian faith influences his stance on moral issues, including gay marriage. Later we’ll speak with Virginia Ramey Mollenkott, who came out publicly as a lesbian in 1974 with an evangelical theology of homosexuality. But we’ll begin with Richard Mouw, a leading conservative Christian thinker and an opponent of gay marriage.
DR. MOUW: I want to say this as a conservative Protestant and as an evangelical: I think that it would be a tremendous step forward for the conservative evangelical community to be more compassionate, more hospitable, and more aware of the way in which God can work in people’s lives in the midst of brokenness, in the midst of the tragic, and that there can be grace in relationships that may not measure up to what, when we read the Bible, you know, we see God requiring of us there.
MS. TIPPETT: Richard Mouw challenges his fellow conservative Christians openly, and he spends a great deal of time in conversation with gays and lesbians. He believes that gay marriage is contrary to Christian teaching, though he acknowledges that some of the passages often quoted are problematic. The purity codes of Leviticus, for example, condemn homosexuality along with many other practices we now consider to be morally neutral. But Mouw is convinced by the New Testament’s most explicit condemnation of homosexual relationship, found in the first chapter of Romans, where the Apostle Paul describes ungodly and wicked practices of Roman society that Christians must reject. It is a pivotal reading within Christian discussions of homosexuality, and it’s referenced numerous times by both guests in today’s program.
READER: From the first chapter of Romans: “For though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks to Him, but they became futile in their thinking and their senseless minds were darkened. For this reason, God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also, the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.” From the New Testament book of Romans.
MS. TIPPETT: Here’s Richard Mouw.
DR. MOUW: Where it’s talking about God giving people over to desires that are displeasing to God — and at one point it says very clearly, men with men, women with women, denying the natural use — to me, that’s the real text. I really do think that it refers not to just a certain kind of group of promiscuous homosexuals or temple practices of homosexuals. I think it’s talking about what is natural. And once you take that view, as I do, then you go back to all those other passages, and even by themselves — even though by themselves they don’t make the case, there’s a kind of pattern there that we see, and that’s been the traditional consensus of the Christian churches. And so you ask me, you know, where do I get my views, how do I arrive at them, it’s really trying to study all the biblical data, trying to be very honest about what’s really proven by taking this or that text. But for me, the pivotal text is Romans 1, the first chapter of the Epistle to the Romans.
MS. TIPPETT: In a panel discussion with other evangelicals that you moderated a couple of years ago, I wrote down there was a lot of language, which I think is echoing what you’re saying, that homosexual practice violates the creational order, that it’s a violation of how we are designed as human beings. But I wonder how you respond to increasing numbers of homosexual persons in our time who experience themselves to be created this way. How do you put that into this picture?
DR. MOUW: Well, you know, it’s difficult to state this case in a way that doesn’t sound like you’re tying it in with a lot of really very strange things, but, you know, the fact that an orientation or a set of desires may be something you were born with — when we’re talking about sexual orientation, we’re talking about a variety of orientations, many of them that we consider to be off the charts and unacceptable, and even if we were to find out that somehow a person was born with that orientation, I think what that does, that awareness of, say, a biological or a deep psychological basis for a certain set of desires or a certain orientation, I think what that should affect is our pastoral sense, but I don’t think it has a bearing on morality.
MS. TIPPETT: But what if what we’re talking about here, as we have before us now in our culture, are adults who love another adult in a mutual relationship and wish to have a virtuous relationship of commitment with them?
DR. MOUW: OK, you’re talking about the larger culture, and I want to say people like me — conservative Catholics, conservative Protestants, a lot of Muslims and, indeed, a lot of Jews — people like us who will base our views on deep religious convictions, nonetheless have a lot of work to do on what it means for us to live alongside of people whose practices and relationships we may not exactly approve of, but it’s in the context of a pluralistic society.
You know, there are really two different debates going on right now, and I go in slightly different directions on each of them. There’s a debate about what we do in terms of leadership in the church and in religious communities, and then there’s the question of what we do in the larger culture, in the larger society. I think that the question of the rights of same-sex couples, I think that’s an important challenge and I think we need a lot of work.
I was just asked today, before you and I talked, by a reporter who wanted to know what I, you know, thought about the constitutional amendment, and I want to say that’s a complex issue. I mean, the whole question of what a constitutional amendment is and what kinds of things ought to be covered in a constitutional amendment is a very important question. And rather than going off on some wild crusade, I think persons of strong religious conviction have a lot of work to do in trying to understand what it means to live in a constitutional democracy and what it means to amend our constitution. That’s a tremendously complex question.
MS. TIPPETT: Am I hearing you say also that when religious people become focused as they have on essentially political questions or legal questions, that maybe it diverts from the substance of what religious people need to be considering?
DR. MOUW: That’s right. What we have right now are two angry groups. We have the group that is angrily demanding that we do this and, indeed, willing to break the law in local situations and just go ahead and do it. And then we have really angry people who are upset about it and want to do anything, including a constitutional amendment, to stop the phenomenon. We really have not had an adequate public debate about this thing.
MS. TIPPETT: About same-sex marriage?
DR. MOUW: Yeah. There are a lot of implications here.
MS. TIPPETT: Evangelical leader Richard Mouw. While Americans are equally divided on the issue of whether people of the same gender should be able to form civil unions, a significant majority, like Richard Mouw, oppose gay marriage. I asked him to explain the slippery slope concern that is often cited by conservative Christians. That is, if we legalize marriage for two people of the same sex, what will prevent us from recognizing any sexual arrangement as marriage?
DR. MOUW: I had a friend who came to me and he said, “I’m going to ask you a very blunt question, because I know you’re an evangelical Christian and you have a very conservative view. I’m a homosexual. What do you think of that?”
And I said to him, “I got a blunt question for you. I’m a heterosexual. What do you think of that?”
You know, I haven’t told you much if I say that. I haven’t told you whether I’m a faithful husband, whether I’m sort of faithful, whether I’m faithful sometimes and sometimes I mess around. There’s just a whole range of things. Here’s what I want to ask my friends in the gay and lesbian communities: “How far do you want to go with this? Are you ready to legalize polygamy? Maybe you are, but I’d like to know. And what about that? What about — suppose that ten years from now three lesbians say, ‘We see ourselves as consenting, fully responsible human beings and we want society to call our relationship a marriage.'”
MS. TIPPETT: I think what is telling is that the first couple to appear in San Francisco to be married were two women who had spent 51 years of their lives together.
DR. MOUW: Right. And if you ask me, given the fact that I hold the views that I do, those two women who have lived together for decades, you know, I…
MS. TIPPETT: I mean, most heterosexual marriages don’t make it to 51 years these days.
DR. MOUW: No, that’s right. I mean, I heard an Episcopal priest several years ago at an AIDS conference that I attended, who talked about his lover dying. And he said for the last three weeks he just — all night he sat by his lover’s bedside, held his hand, and as he died, he whispered the love of Jesus to him. Quite apart from all the other issues, I want to say that kind of faithfulness, that kind of commitment is, in our broken world, a wonderful thing to see and I admire that. Whether I want that case then to set the precedent for a new view of marriage that gets embodied in our legal system, whether even that particular very warm and loving and long-range faithful relationship serve the cause of people who have much more in mind about where they want to go with this than those two women had, I think those are legitimate questions to ask. I would at least like to have a safe space in which to ask those questions.
MS. TIPPETT: Hasn’t it struck you that there’s some irony in the fact that, contrary to abolishing the institution of marriage, what we see now, even though the institution of heterosexual marriage is in tremendous trouble, we see homosexual people embracing that institution, wanting a place in that institution.
DR. MOUW: Yeah. There are many same-sex couples who really want the kinds of commitments that are associated traditionally with heterosexual marriage. And for those of us who do take the Bible seriously, this provides evidence that we’re sort of designed that way, that there’s something deep in our moral and spiritual DNA that says faithfulness, commitment, covenant-keeping are really a trust, a long-range trust, are really a part of what it means to be human. And however we express those motifs, those themes keep coming up.
MS. TIPPETT: I mean, are heterosexual married people in this country not standing in a glass house by accusing homosexual people of wanting to destroy the institution of marriage?
DR. MOUW: Oh, yeah. Yeah. And, you know, I’ve said this in audiences of people who are, you know, in strong disagreement with me. When I speak to groups of gay and lesbian persons who are involved — actively involved in relationships, you know, and I say to them, “Let’s start off by just admitting that our advertising is very bad on both sides.” You know, none of us has a lot to brag about. I mean, in this whole area of sexuality, it’s one of the most vulnerable areas of our lives because it’s one of the most, you know, it is, in many ways, the most intimate areas of our lives. I do think that sexual humility is a very important, required ingredient in our present debates.
I heard a minister once stand up at a meeting, a very conservative minister, and he said, “I think we normal people ought to say to these folks,” and I just wanted to scream, “You’re normal?” You know, let’s have a medal for the one normal person in the room. You know, I mean, normality doesn’t come easy in all of this. And there’s so much else that we have to admit we’re broken people about. I just wish we could lower the rhetoric on this and really talk about who we are and, I think, in the broader cultural debate, where we really want to go with all of this and what our real fears are, you know, what are the hopes and fears that go into all of this, rather than just ideologically trading rhetoric.
MS. TIPPETT: Evangelical Christian philosopher Richard Mouw. I’m Krista Tippett, and this is Speaking of Faith from American Public Media. Today we’re speaking with two influential evangelicals with different opinions on gay marriage. We’re exploring how they think the issue through and how they struggle with our public debate.
MS. TIPPETT: Let’s talk about this virtue of marriage, and you said you’d like people on both sides of this issue to really talk about their hopes and fears. So talk to me about what your fears are, and your hopes, with this new conversation that we are having, whether everyone wants to have it or not.
DR. MOUW: Yeah. Well, my hopes are that we can find a way of living together that respects our different visions of what it means to raise children, what kind of displays of sexuality will be permitted to shape the patterns of public life and public morality. I personally believe strongly that we ought to keep the traditional definition of marriage. At the same time, I certainly am willing to explore just and reasonable ways of acknowledging the integrity of the relationships of persons who are not married who live together, and I would say heterosexual couples who aren’t married as well as same-sex couples. But to me, marriage is something that, you know, every time I go to a wedding, that ceremony says, and it doesn’t matter pretty much these days which denomination it is, marriage is an honorable estate instituted by God.
MS. TIPPETT: And so it’s that definition that would exclude homosexual couples from it because their estate would not be honorable? I mean, is that it?
DR. MOUW: I cannot bring myself to acknowledge a same-sex relationship as an honorable estate that is instituted by God.
MS. TIPPETT: You know, there’s a line in something you wrote, “The God whom we worship is nothing if not a God of surprises.” Are you open to the idea that you might be surprised that, in fact, as with some other social constructs like slavery again or, let’s say, women in ministry where our common imagination has been opened about what’s right and what’s wrong and what scripture allows or can make room for, I mean, is it conceivable to you that there will also be a new kind of revelation on this subject of loving relationship between homosexuals?
DR. MOUW: You know, I was almost ready to say yes until you said “new revelation.”
MS. TIPPETT: OK. Well, what would you say yes to and then tell me what went wrong with the word “revelation.”
DR. MOUW: You know, if I could be convinced that when the Apostle Paul said that men with men, women with women, denying the natural use, if he really did not mean to cover — or the spirit who inspired him to write those words — and I take a fairly high view of, you know, biblical authority and inspiration. If the spirit who inspired, the God who wanted him to write those words did not mean to rule out a faithful, gentle, loving relationship between two women who committed themselves, better for worse, sickness and in health, till death do us part, if I could be convinced that I was just misunderstanding God’s intentions in inspiring the writer to write those words, I would be very open to that kind of surprise. But to me, it really is struggling with those texts because I know that — I’m a Calvinist and we are so capable of self-deception and that means that I may be guilty of self-deception in accepting the traditional reading of those texts, but it also may mean that I’m allowing my good feelings about experiences and things that I see to influence me in such a way that I’m refusing to hear what God is saying, and I think that’s a real danger.
Here’s an interesting question to pose to — say, as a Presbyterian, to people who advocate gay unions and gay ordination: “What would it take to change your mind?” You know, and I haven’t heard a good example of that yet; I haven’t heard a good answer to that question yet.
I talked to a group of gay men who were in a Bible study group. The only commitment was that they were there to study the Bible. They hadn’t made any big lifestyle commitments and, you know, we talked about–and I said the kind of thing I talked about earlier, you know, “I’m broken too.” And they said, “Yeah, but you get to go home to your wife, you know, and the only thing you have to say to us is be celibate or try to change. And what do you have to say to those of us who can’t do either?”
I’ve got to say that is the tough question that we really need to struggle with, because I read those passages like Romans 1. I read that as a person who tonight is going to go home to my wife, and I don’t know what it’s like to read that as a 22-year-old person like the one that I talked to recently, who has never felt any attraction of any sort to a woman, and a whole life ahead of him. And it’s pretty easy for me to say either change or be celibate. But when he sat there and sobbed, those aren’t easy words to speak. And we just need to struggle with that. I think all of us, on all of these issues of sexuality, need to — we have a lot of work to do and the church has had a terrible record on this. I mean, you know, I’m talking about tradition and I’m talking about the church, but I have to acknowledge that it’s hard to think of an area where the church has failed more miserably than in dealing with questions of sexual temptation across the board, of all sorts. And so we just don’t have a lot to be self-righteous about in this.
MS. TIPPETT: You know, we’ve talked about the scriptural passages, especially the teachings of the Apostle Paul, but there is the figure of Jesus and He, in fact, was sort of an ambivalent figure when it came to marriage and He modeled celibacy rather than intimate relationship that we know of. And I want to ask you the bracelet question, the bumper-sticker question. As an evangelical, because I think it might have some interesting answers, you know, what would Jesus do in this conversation we’re having in our culture, where religious people have a very loud voice about love and marriage between homosexual people.
DR. MOUW: No question that Jesus was very much against adultery, but when confronted in a situation where there were self-righteous Pharisees condemning a woman, quote, taken in adultery, unquote, he was pretty tough on the Pharisees and pretty gentle toward the woman. And I think that does directly apply to the contemporary debate.
MS. TIPPETT: Richard Mouw is the president of Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. He’s the author of many books and writes a column for Beliefnet, “The Evangelical Mind.”
This is Speaking of Faith. After a short break, another kind of evangelical perspective on gay marriage, Virginia Ramey Mollenkott, a lesbian and a writer on theology and gender.
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I’m Krista Tippett. Stay with us. Speaking of Faith comes to you from American Public Media.
MS. TIPPETT: Welcome back to Speaking of Faith, public radio’s conversation about religion, meaning, ethics, and ideas. I’m Krista Tippett. Today, “Gay Marriage: Broken or Blessed? Two Evangelical Views.”
My next guest, Virginia Ramey Mollenkott, was raised in a conservative Christian home. She attended the fundamentalist Bob Jones University, married in her twenties, had a son, and later divorced. Mollenkott said she was radicalized in midlife by the Bible. She became a professor of English literature, and she began to read her Bible with the same attention to narrative themes that she gave to Shakespeare or Chaucer or Milton.
DR. MOLLENKOTT: I got to teach Paradise Lost and I got to study Milton, and really he taught me how to read scripture with the law of love as my central norm, to love God and to love your neighbor as you love yourself.
MS. TIPPETT: In 1978, Virginia Mollenkott came out publicly as a lesbian and published a groundbreaking evangelical book on homosexuality, Is the Homosexual My Neighbor? She had struggled to reconcile her sexual orientation with her religious faith for as long as she could remember. Like Richard Mouw, she had taken the first chapter of the book of the Romans seriously, and it convinced her that she was fundamentally sinful and ungodly.
DR. MOLLENKOTT: I grew up in a fundamentalist Christian home and realized very early on that I was different, and gradually came to realize that the difference was that I was attracted to people of my own gender-sex. And that was pretty horrifying because to the degree that anybody said anything at all about it, it wasn’t good. And I had my first relationship when I was very young, and she told me that there were other people like us and they were called homosexual. So I tried to look that up and what I found was horrific, that either I was sick, I was emotionally stunted or terribly sinful, and I could take my pick. When I was 13, I tried to kill myself because the high school I was sent to, which was a fundamentalist high school, the administrators told me there was no cure for people like me but, on the other hand, God had no place for people like me. I crawled away for hours. I would say to God, you know, “How can it be that you made me and yet you have no work for me to do in the world? I want to be Yours. I only want to be Yours. I want to do Your work.”
And my aunt read me Romans 1 and told me that that meant…
MS. TIPPETT: Romans 1 is this passage in a letter from Paul…
DR. MOLLENKOTT: Yeah, women — well, it’s about lust really. It’s a passage about lust, which was the way Paul, a Jew, understood the Roman and Greek cultures. And she told me that the whole list of horrors in Romans 1 described homosexuals. So it was — I lived with a lot of terror.
MS. TIPPETT: If I ask you if you start thinking or speaking with someone about this subject of homosexual relationship — gay marriage, but obviously if you’re talking about gay marriage, you’re also talking about how you come at sexual orientation. I mean, where do you go in your Bible to think about where you’ve come out theologically?
DR. MOLLENKOTT: Well, for one thing, I learned in my secular studies and also in a good biblical book on hermeneutics, which is the science of interpretation, we’ll say, that you should read for the overall, over-arching themes, not just for little passages here and there that you can yank out, you know, proof texts that you can yank out of context and use to let somebody have it. And when you look at scripture, you stand back and you look at the over-arching principles of scripture, there is a trend toward inclusiveness of sexual and gender minorities in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. And that really ought to be the modern church’s guide and inspiration, it seems to me, the overall movement of scripture.
Adam was originally created — according to Genesis, he was male and — it was male and female, the earth creature, the creature of earth. This creature was lonely and God said, “It is not good for the earth creature to be alone,” so put Adam into a deep sleep and divided Adam into the male and female as we know them. And then God brought the female to the male and Adam said, “This is bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh.” Notice there was no priest there, there was no pastor there, there was no civilly elected official there. There were two people and God and, according to scripture, they became one flesh and Eve is described as Adam’s ezer after that, which means a power equal to him. I mean one flesh is a beautiful image, and it’s the image that scripture uses concerning married people. But apparently it occurs because of mutual commitment, desire, and concern for one another.
MS. TIPPETT: Is that how you understand the tenor of the writings in the New Testament that stress marriage between a man and a woman?
DR. MOLLENKOTT: That it’s one flesh, I understand it to be, yeah. Scripture says, be subject to one another out of reverence for the Christ in both of you. Now, that seems to me very clear. So I believe in marriage as a matter of one flesh between two human beings who care tremendously about one another and are willing to make a whole life commitment and concern toward one another.
MS. TIPPETT: Evangelical feminist Virginia Mollenkott. She writes widely about theology and gender, and lives in a long-term relationship with another woman. In recent decades, the larger feminist movement developed a critique of marriage as an inequitable, failed institution, but Virginia Mollenkott believes in holy matrimony. For her, to exclude homosexuals from marriage is to deny their full humanity, and she doesn’t believe that restricting marriage to a man and a woman is true to the spirit of key New Testament symbolism about marriage, such as the often-cited image of Christ as the bridegroom and the church as the bride.
DR. MOLLENKOTT: Well, if, you know, namaste, what the Hindus say, “The holy place in me salutes the holy one in you.” When you dearly love somebody and you make love with them, you’re not just making love to another body. This is your avenue to love the maker, the Creator of us all. I think that’s the important thing about comparing marriage to Christ and the church, that it opens you up to the entire human race, not just to this one person.
It’s not just what nuclear marriage has so often been depicted, as you and me and baby makes three, and we pull everything in over the top of us and we don’t care about anybody else’s family because we’re a family and we’re number one to each other. No, it’s that loving one other opens us up to loving the entire human race, all of whom have this place in them, this divine light in them, the light which lightens every human being born into the world, according to John, chapter 1. And to me, that’s — this is transcendent, this is beautiful. And to tell somebody they cannot have access to this worshipful act is tragic.
MS. TIPPETT: As I’ve been reading into the conversation that’s taking place within, say, evangelical publications like Christianity Today, there is a sense that some evangelical Christian theologians have — not just them, that religious traditions need to be the keepers of central moral values. And one argument that’s made by Christian ethicists is the sort of slippery slope, right, that if gay and lesbian people are married, then there will be movements for other kinds of configuration of marriage that sound patently immoral.
DR. MOLLENKOTT: Where do we hear the last time about a slippery slope, if we do this, everything goes down to here in a handbasket?
MS. TIPPETT: Where did you hear it last time?
DR. MOLLENKOTT: I heard it in the civil rights movement, is when I heard it, you know, and miscegenation laws, you know. It wasn’t that long ago, you know, when Loving versus Virginia came up to the Supreme Court and Virginia state law was struck down that it was wrong for a white person and a black person to be married to one another. And so the National Black Justice Coalition has demonstrated recently in favor of everybody’s access to civil unions — and that’s the terminology I prefer — equal access to civil marriage. They said we all deserve the freedom to marry, and these black people asserted it because they remember.
MS. TIPPETT: Virginia Mollenkott. She’s a feminist theorist and an early member of the Evangelical Women’s Caucus. I’m Krista Tippett, and this is Speaking of Faith from American Public Media. Today, “Gay Marriage: Broken or Blessed? Two Evangelical Views.”
Conservative Christians arguably have the strongest religious voice in our culture’s continuing debate over gay marriage. Today I’m drawing out two evangelical thinkers on both sides of the issue. Just as Virginia Mollenkott finds acceptance of sexual minorities in scripture, my first guest, Richard Mouw, opposes gay marriage on biblical grounds. Opinion polls suggest that he is in sync with a slight majority of Americans, but Mouw also argues that there’s a need for more nuanced religious conversation across the gulf of opinion. I wondered how Virginia Mollenkott would respond to that idea.
MS. TIPPETT: I spoke with Richard Mouw. One thing that he said — and I’d like your reaction to this — is that he feels that there’s a large part of the conversation that needs to take place in terms of our common grappling with the issue of homosexuality and homosexual marriage, that sort of gets shoved out when the debate becomes politicized. And he said we all, all of us on both sides of this issue, really need to be asking and listening to what each other’s deepest hopes are and what our deepest fears are.
DR. MOLLENKOTT: Absolutely. I teach the same thing. I believe that. That would be the place to begin. If I were teaching a class, for instance, that I had some time to come back and back and back to the issue, you know, really to get into depth, the first thing I would ask — or we’d spend the whole first session everybody telling what their deepest fear is and everybody telling what their highest hopes are surrounding the issue. And I have heard, in the course of that, people actually saying, “My deepest fear is that if the church ever says it’s OK to be gay, there will be no ongoing human race.” And my answer to that is, “My dear, you know, you can have much more faith than that in the heterosexual orientation.” Believe me, nobody is going to become — and that’s behind the fear also of teaching young people that there are such things as gay people in society. The fear is you tell them that and, bingo, you know, they’ll all run out and start behaving homosexually. Not a, not a chance.
MS. TIPPETT: But, you know, that also can sound a little bit simplistic. Sexuality in general is such a very confusing and intimate part of life. We haven’t figured it out in the 21st century. Again, it’s a complex of fears that all get confused.
DR. MOLLENKOTT: Well, what I would say is take a good look at the creation. Apparently the Creator likes diversity a lot more than we human beings do. I mean, it’s built into the creation, so it seems to me high time that the human race, instead of telling God what God should have done, we say, “Oh, this is what we have here.”
MS. TIPPETT: Again, I want to return to Richard Mouw. He said, “If someone tells me they’re homosexual, it doesn’t tell me any more about them than if I tell them I’m heterosexual, that there needs to be more conversation about what we mean when we talk about our sexual orientation.” And I guess my question I’d like to ask you is do you have a critique of gay and lesbian people, of how they might — I don’t know — even more compassionately contribute to the discussion and respond to fears that people have?
DR. MOLLENKOTT: Well, I think that a great many gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people have been so hurt that they have become defensive. It’s not easy to be told that you’re sinful or sick all your life, and it starts, for some of us, at a very, very early age. One of the things that’s taken me years to learn is that if somebody attacks me for something I did not choose and cannot change, the problem lies with them, not with me. And so I don’t need to be defensive. I can hear this as a cry for some kind of love.
But I think it’s a lot to ask the minority, the one who has been squeezed out of being respected as a decent human being, to be the one to be loving. I mean, we — as white people — we have expected black people to be so forgiving and so loving, and to explain to us over and over and over again what it’s like to be black and to be representative of their entire race and so on. And it just hasn’t been fair at all. I mean, I think some of us can learn to be a little more — I may not sound very patient to you today, but I really have sat for long, long periods of time with somebody — I will spend hours and hours and hours with somebody if they truly show me that they are willing to hear. But if they only want me to talk so that they can bring up opposition to everything I say, they don’t really want to hear who I am, then I’m through, because I have been — I’ve been hurt.
MS. TIPPETT: Has the conversation gotten any better? How are reactions to your homosexuality different now than they used to be, or to young people? Have you seen a change?
DR. MOLLENKOTT: Oh, sure. I mean, the fact that we’re having this conversation that the society is even arguing…
MS. TIPPETT: Is a good thing?
DR. MOLLENKOTT: Yeah, it’s a good thing, yeah. At least it’s talkable now, you know. This was the love that dared not speak its name. Now it speaks its name — perhaps too loudly sometimes, but at least it’s speaking its name, you know. I know there are many people in the gay community who get embarrassed about some of the flamboyant stuff that’s done, but I think every movement needs its flamboyant fringe frankly, some people who really, you know, really insisting on radical change. It’s not my idea of a moral way to dress or behave, but it’s — hey, it’s very important that some — a major contrast be made.
MS. TIPPETT: You described yourself as an evangelical, and part of that is a reverence for scripture. I mean, are you someone within your community who will bring scripture into conversation among gay and lesbian people…
DR. MOLLENKOTT: Oh, absolutely.
MS. TIPPETT: …as something that’s important, even when it’s not naturally there?
DR. MOLLENKOTT: Absolutely, yes. And if you talk to a lot — GLBT Christians, many of them will say that it’s actually harder to come out as Christian in GLBT circles than it is to come out as GLBT in straight society — to use a term I loathe, but anyway — among majority heterosexual society. And it is difficult, again because there has been so much harm.
MS. TIPPETT: Evangelical lesbian activist Virginia Mollenkott. Of the handful of biblical passages that address homosexuality, many conservative Christians find the first chapter of Romans to be definitive. It describes homosexual acts as degrading passions. Given Mollenkott’s own reverence for scripture, I asked how she discusses this biblical teaching with her fellow evangelicals.
DR. MOLLENKOTT: I would point out the context of it, the flow of it. Romans chapter 2, verse 1, says, “Therefore” — now, “therefore,” you know, in the English language means, “because of what I’ve just said, now I’m going to say something else on the basis of it,” doesn’t it? That’s what it means. OK, so, “Therefore, who are you who judge, oh man,” I’m quoting the King James [version], “because you who judge are guilty of the same.” So what does Paul mean there? If really the entire Romans 1 is a condemnation of homosexuals, then Paul must be saying that anybody who judges homosexuals is homosexual.
Well, nobody really wants to take that interpretation, do they? So then we all have to admit that Romans 1 is not about homosexuals, that Romans 1 is about people who put themselves into the place of God, and that men with men and women with women was just one illustration that popped into Paul’s mind as somebody who really wasn’t a member of the Greek or Roman societies but who looked on from a distance and disapproved of them. And then he says, “OK, you who judge, you who put yourselves into the place of the seat of God and pass judgment on other people, you, too, then, are making an idol out of yourself, letting your own ego take the place of the Creator, who is the only one who is in a position to judge.”
MS. TIPPETT: I would like your thoughts on how this conversation that we are now going to be having for some years on whether marriage can be expanded to include homosexual people, you know, how you might imagine this conversation could be more constructive and fruitful, and even maybe more Christian, because I think that’s something you care about.
DR. MOLLENKOTT: Oh, I think that we need to learn to speak to each other from the Christ to the Christ. By the Christ, I; it’s OK with me if you want to say from the Buddha nature to the Buddha nature, from the holy to the holy. If we would approach each other that way, instead of saying, “I am holy and you are not because I’m good and you’re not good” — we’re all a mix as a matter of fact and we’re all human beings together, but we all also have that light in us that John talked about, the light that enlightens every human being born into the world. And I think we could really have meaningful conversation with one another…
MS. TIPPETT: Even if we disagreed.
DR. MOLLENKOTT: …even if we disagreed, if we spoke from the holy to the holy. I just pray that it happens.
MS. TIPPETT: Virginia Ramey Mollenkott is the author of several books, including Is the Homosexual My Neighbor? Earlier in this hour, you heard Richard Mouw, the president of Fuller Theological Seminary.
These two distinctly Christian, distinctly learned, and reflective people, have spent lifetimes with scripture, probing its complexities and its meaning for their lives. Between the lines, I hear very near agreement on the question of civil unions for gay and lesbian people. In good faith, they find themselves in basic disagreement about gay marriage. But even as they stand in opposition about what the Bible says and means, both call for a new kind of public conversation on this issue, one not defined by polemic and dueling biblical texts, but shaped by virtues they both see as central to the Christian message, virtues such as compassion, sexual humility, and a desire to realize the sacred in human relationship.
Finally, Richard Mouw and Virginia Mollenkott suggest together that the question of gay marriage requires more than political and legal resolution, and more than moral posturing. It may also demand that we use a different language, a language that looks behind opinion to the fractured human heart where our deepest hopes and fears reside.
At speakingoffaith.org, look for the Particulars link, which provides fuller explanations of biblical references and links to interactive maps of the legal status of gay marriage in the United States. Download an mp3 of this program and other programs in our Archives section, or subscribe to our podcast and our e-mail newsletter, which brings my journal on each week’s topic straight to your desktop. That’s speakingoffaith.org.
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