Today President Barack Obama endorsed same sex marriage. His reasoning was mature, compassionate, honest, and principled. He spoke as a man who, though sharing the dominant culture’s traditional view that marriage is a relationship between a man and a woman, evolved in his understanding on the basis of the human dimension of the issue. He was able to let go of his own paradigm enough to allow differing data in, and that data- i.e. the experience of friends and colleagues in committed healthy same sex relationships, and the openness of his own daughters to their friends who are being raised by same sex couples- persuaded him that he needed to alter his own position.
The ideologues of the religious right will fulminate, and probably attempt to use the president’s comments to decry his leadership and paint him as some sort of Godless, deluded Socialist, or something. With the smug assurance of being privy to God’s thoughts, they will quote the Bible to insist that “God says” that homosexuality is “an abomination”, an unforgivable sin (conveniently and selectively avoiding the fact that the Bible also says that eating pork or shellfish is equally “an abomination”). The extreme right, who tends to be both anti-intellectual and anti-scientific, also insists, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that homosexuality is simply “a choice” inspired by evil and temptation, not a inborn propensity, (and that AIDS is God’s punishment for the sin of homosexuality- even though there are more heterosexual victims of AIDS than homosexual ones). And all this heated rhetoric is couched in religiousity with an spiritual arrogance and superiority that simply uses Biblical passages taken out of context to justify a particular political and social bias. All of this misses the point, both factually and spiritually.
The question that must be asked of those who claim to be religious or people of faith is, “If you could reduce the message of scripture to a single word, or its teachings to a single precept, what would they be?” Historically most would come up with some variant on “Love” or “The Golden Rule-Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”. Jesus himself summarizes the essence of Torah to two “commandments”: Love God with all your heart, mind, and being, and love your neighbor as yourself. What then, does this imply in regards to either overt or covert homophobia?
If, as scripture claims, we are all God’s children, sprung from a single source, and are created in the image and likeness of God, then the next question to ask is, “How can one love God and hate one’s neighbor- who is created in God’s image?” The reality is, if we hate any one of the triad of God/neighbor/self, we cannot truly love either of the other two, for they are all intrinsically intertwined.
Sincere religious conservatives will counter, “I don’t hate the homosexual, I hate the homosexual act”. That sounds good enough- after all, people can legitimately disagree without having to hate those with whom they differ, and one does not have to like homosexual actions to like a homosexual person. But twisted faces of hate, the shouts and placards of condemnation of the “sin” of homosexuality, and the hysterical allegations that homosexuality is threatening the institution of marriage or corrupting the very fabric of society, break forth regularly in the evening news and belie the claim. Moreover, however plausible the attempt to disavow their homophobic hatred, this begs the issue of whether hatred itself isn’t in fact antithetical to love- where the one exists the other cannot.
The distinction between who we are essentially (the imago dei) and what we do or how we are is, spiritually and experientially, an important one. But let us not deceive ourselves. Belief- whether religious or political- is not purely rational. In fact, ideological rigidity of any kind eventually causes the ideologue to confront situtations in which belief and experience are at odds with each other. The ideolgue denies their experience and holds to the ideology- a square peg in the round hole choice fraught with frustrations and disappointment. The wise learn from experience and recognize that belief is an organic, evolving thing that changes and grows over time. That is the path toward wisdom.
Swami Vivekananda, the eloquent disciple of the great Hindu saint from Calcutta, Sri Ramakrishna, was credited in the 1890’s with bringing Eastern wisdom to the West. From his work was born the Parliament of the World’s Religions- which has met every four years in a different city around the world since it first was convened in Chicago in 1898. Vivekananda was famously quoted as saying, apropos religious ideologues, “Religion is a very good place to start, but a very bad place to end up”.
Religion is a vehicle to a more expansive understanding, not a rigid pursuit of agreement. If true religion opens us to a more universal comprehension, then perhaps President Obama’s courageous ackowledgement of his own evolving understanding should be seen as a model of faith, not of the faithlessness the right so fears.