“Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error.”
Romans 1:26-27, NIV
“You can’t choose who you love, love chooses you”
Decades ago, when I was at Stanford, a man worked at Campus Ministries. I think I remember his name (Don Caughey), and I think I remember the church whose ministry he served (Methodist). But I know I remember his take on Romans 1. In those days, what’s often called “Side A” (a defense of same-sex relationships even in otherwise sexually conservative Christian circles) wasn’t current. There were no openly gay bishops ordained in the Episcopal Church. Liberal Quakers had yet to make their gradual way around to blessing same-sex marriages. The first openly gay elected official in the US, Harvey Milk, had only recently been assassinated. Legal civil same-sex marriage was on no one’s radar. And in the Christian world, support for gay and lesbian relationships was on the fringe, and didn’t extend much beyond college campuses. Even John Boswell’s ground-breaking book, Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality, was perhaps a year away from being published when I met Don. Don, though, was a determined advocate of Christian acceptance for all sexual orientations. His take on Romans 1 was that the speech was a set up for Romans 2; Paul was quoting a stock sermon against the actions of the pagans to set his readers up for Romans 2, where he makes his real point, about not judging.
There are only a handful of passages in the Bible that reference homosexuality at all, perhaps half a dozen. Romans 1 has a special place among those passages, as the most explicit condemnation you can find in the New Testament. While interpretation of other passages in Paul’s epistles (the gospels are silent on the matter) turns on the interpretation of Greek words (Boswell argues that words translated as referring to homosexuality actually meant something else entirely), the debate over Romans is less about the meaning of particular words than about the context of those words. Is this passage a warning that God means us not to act on any same-sex desires that we may have? Is it a reflection of the prejudices of the man my friend Peggy calls “that stinker Paul,” someone whom Christians aren’t particularly bound to mind? Is it, as Don described it, a reference to stock sermons that doesn’t even necessarily reflect Paul’s views, let alone God’s? Or is it, perhaps, a real condemnation, but a real condemnation of something entirely different from loving, mutual relationships between two adults of the same sex who fall in love? Is it, perhaps, a criticism of Roman fertility cults, or of exploitive relations between adult men who sleep with young teenage boys on the side?
Since this post is already part of a digression from a series that I mean to be more about DNA than about theology, I’m not going to go too far into the Biblical part of this discussion. I only want to raise one question. Romans 1, in particular, talks about exchanging natural relations for unnatural ones. Does your understanding of this passage change if it turns out that some people are genetically predisposed to be attracted to their own sex? Does it change if the genetic component is very strong (if, let’s say, 80% of sexual orientation is genetic)?
There are two simple answers to this question, neither of which, by itself, feels quite right. One is to say “born that way,” as if, by itself, that settled the matter. Of course, it doesn’t. (The reason that people speak as if it does is that, from their point of view, the rest of the argument has already been made.) Later in this series I’ll discuss how we react to evidence for a possible genetic component in behaviors that we all agree are wrong, ones that we judge to be wrong because we see obvious harm to other people coming from them. The other is to say, simply, that is isn’t the same as ought, and so our genes have no bearing on the question of what we should do. But that doesn’t feel quite right, either. Is isn’t the same as ought, but what’s natural to us isn’t an entirely separate thing from ethics, either.
We all derive views about ethics, politics, etc. at least partly from our beliefs about human nature. This Funny Times cover cartoon is making an argument about guns, but it’s also making an argument about human nature, and how people tend to react to carrying guns. Ta-Nehisi Coates has been carrying on a blog discussion of Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes (first post here); Hobbes’ philosophy of government is clearly influenced by his beliefs about human nature.
A “gay gene” (or, more likely, several) doesn’t change the argument in the sense that everyone will switch beliefs if the evidence for such a gene is strong enough. Hugo Schwyzer actually seems to see sexual orientation as a good deal more malleable than Eve Tushnet does (I disagree with Hugo on this point, and think he tends to overstate that malleability), but, because Hugo doesn’t see the least bit of harm in sexual and romantic relationships with people of your own sex, while Eve is bound by the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, Hugo winds up way more gay affirming than Eve.
A “gay gene” does, though, make a difference to many people’s beliefs because of the kind of thing that many people believe sexual orientation to be. If you see a gay or lesbian orientation as, perhaps, something akin to a slight handicap, not doing harm but replacing something you see as a greater good with something you see as a lesser one, perhaps you will change your mind if you find that people really are “born that way.” Or, if gay and lesbian relationships seem wrong to you precisely because unnatural, then perhaps they’re right, after all, for those to whom they’re natural. “Born that way” will, then, settle the matter for you because of the kind of thing you’re talking about, something that you might see as best not chosen if you think everyone can reasonably marry opposite sex partners and have children, but that looks better than demanding celibacy of a lot of people who don’t find celibacy to be their vocation, and whose relationships don’t seem all that hurtful or disordered.
There’s another point, though, that matters even for those on “Side B,” one that applies whether you believe that a “gay gene” should guide your judgment of sexual ethics here or whether you think something else should have the final word. And this is the point that made me think my Alexandria co-blogger Hector’s discussion of miracles made a good lead in to this post. A large segment of Christian preaching about homosexuality has been directed toward urging people to seek to change their sexual orientation. All evidence points to this not working. True, some people’s sexual orientation does prove mutable, to some degree or other, over the course of their lives. (To some degree, I’m one of these people, as I tend to be attracted to people who look like whatever particular person I’m most attracted to at any given time.) But evidence points to people not being able to consciously change who they’re attracted to all that much, to reparative therapy generally not working, and to a lot of the “salvation through panty hose” suggestions that people fix their sexual orientation by acting out their gender roles more being superstition. Dr. Robert L. Spitzer, the one big gun psychiatrist who used to be cited in support of reparative therapy, has recanted and concluded that critiques of his study were correct and the study fatally flawed. “Gay genes” may make a large contribution to sexual orientation or a small one, but it appears that, either way, our sexual orientation is like our vocal range, more mutable for some than others, but not something one can flip from contralto to colorature soprano simply by having enough faith or putting in enough effort.
In that context, asking people to seek to change their sexual orientation, or asking people to marry other people with the hope and expectation that their gay spouses will gain the ability to find them attractive after the marriage is formed, strikes me as asking people to demand and depend on a miracle. And I don’t believe in a faith that demands miracles. God isn’t a tame lion. Stop telling God what to do.