Does the Bible prohibit homosexuality? No, says Bible scholar and activist Jay Michaelson. But not only that: Michaelson also shows that the vast majority of our shared religious traditions support the full equality and dignity of LGBT people. In this accessible, passionate, and provocative book, Michaelson argues for equality, not despite religion but because of it.
About the Author
Jay Michaelson is the author of three books and numerous articles about the intersections of religion, sexuality, and law. A leading activist on behalf of LGBT people in faith communities, Michaelson and his work have been featured in the New York Times and on NPR and CNN. He is the founder of Nehirim, the leading national provider of community programming for LGBT Jews and their allies, and lives in upstate New York.
Read an Excerpt
“God versus Gay” is a myth. It is untrue, unsupported by Scripture, and contradicted every day by the lives of religious gay people. Yet it is also among the most pervasive and hurtful untruths in America today, and people all across the ideological spectrum believe it. Religious conservatives, secular liberals, and millions of people across the gamut of American political and religious opinion talk past one another, in heated agreement that it’s either “gay rights” or traditional religion, the Constitution or the Bible. Pro-gay folks can’t see how anyone could be opposed to equality, while opponents can’t see how anyone could change thousands of years of tradition. The conversation goes nowhere.
Worse, this conflict is an internal one as well—inside each of us who has ever wrestled with sexuality and religion. I’ve worked in gay religious communities for over a decade, and in that time, I’ve met thousands of people wounded by what they see as the conflict between religion and homosexuality. I have counseled families who have been torn apart, people whose parents see them in the grocery store but won’t acknowledge their existence. And before I came to reconcile my own sexuality and spirituality, I felt the conflict myself and wondered why God had cursed me. So long as the false choice between God and gay persists, our brothers, sisters, cousins, and friends will continue to struggle, continue to torment themselves, and continue to be excluded from their families and communities.
All of this is unnecessary. Religious people should support equality, inclusion, and dignity for sexual minorities because of our religious traditions, not despite them. Not only does the Bible not say what some people claim, but the Bible and centuries of religious teaching in Christian and Jewish traditions argue strongly for what sometimes gets called “gay rights.” You read that right: for gay rights. While there are half a dozen verses that may say something about some forms of same-sex behavior, what they have to say is ambiguous, limited, and widely misunderstood. Meanwhile, there are hundreds of other verses that teach us about the importance of love, justice, and sacred relationships. I know it may sound unusual or even heretical to say so, but after substantial research (both within my Jewish tradition and, as a scholar of religion and an interfaith religious activist, in multiple Christian ones as well), years of soul-searching, and years of working with religious gay people, I sincerely believe that our shared religious values call upon us to support the equality, dignity, and full inclusion of sexual and gender minorities—that is, of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people.
So, if you are someone who struggles with the question of religion and homosexuality; if you are questioning your sexuality; if you are trying to reconcile your faith with the sexuality of a friend or family member; if you are a pastor trying to remain true to your ideals but compassionate to your parishioners; or, whatever your own religious or nonreligious views, if you are concerned about the hurtful, polarizing tone of political conversations about homosexuality, I hear you.
I was like you. And this book is for you.
Admittedly, this book is for me, too. Before I came out, I was certain that being openly gay would spell the end of my religious life. I was an Orthodox-practicing Jew, and my religion gave meaning and shape to my life. But I repressed my sexuality, acting out occasionally but regretting it afterwards, and I tried, for years, to change. Eventually, after ten years in the closet—an all-too-cozy metaphor for lying to yourself and others, and hating yourself for doing so—I had had enough. The pain, isolation, loneliness, and shame had grown so great—the futile relationships with women, the arguments with God, the hatred of myself for being unable to change—that I was ready to forsake my religion for the sake of my happiness.
But what I found was a shock: coming out was the doorway to true love, faith, and joy. My relationship to God and to my religious community grew stronger than ever before. My spiritual path began to unfold, my prayer life began to awaken, and my love for other human beings slowly unfurled itself and expanded. “God versus Gay” had very personal consequences for me, and I have written this book both to save other people from the hell I lived through, and to clarify and crystallize what I have learned over the years. “God versus Gay” isn’t just a false dichotomy. It’s a rebellion against the image of God itself.
But this is not only a personal story; it is a political one as well. After all, the “equality” in this book’s subtitle means not only that all of us are equal before God, or that same-sex love can be of equal holiness as opposite-sex love—although it does mean that—but also that this religious value has political consequences. Today, in most states, I can be fired from my job simply for having written this book and stating that I am gay. I can’t visit my life-partner in the hospital. In many countries, I could be jailed for even telling the truth about myself. And there are many churches and synagogues where I have to lie in order to fit in. Yes, the gay rights movement has made remarkable advances, and studies suggest that within a generation, struggles for LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender—the acronym is strange at first, but one gets used to it) equality will look like ancient history. But as far as American politics may have come on these issues, parts of American society are being left behind. And whether you’re for gay rights or against them, you have to be concerned about the way our conversation has been taking place. It’s been bitter and contentious, with little understanding or generosity on either side.
This is a shame, and a risk. Consider, for example, the contrasting cases of two national conversations—on civil rights and on abortion. In the long and continuing struggle for civil rights, Dr. King and other leaders successfully and authentically framed the case for equality in religious as well as political terms. Remember, only a century ago, the Bible was used to enforce segregation as much as to oppose it. God placed the races on different continents, segregationists said. God sanctioned slavery in the Bible. And Africans were doomed to serve Caucasians as punishment for Ham’s sin (“Cursed be Canaan! The lowest of slaves will he be to his brothers,” says Noah in Genesis 9:25). Dr. King and many others so succeeded in their reframing of civil rights that these arguments may strike us today as musty, even bizarre. But just fifty years ago, they were preached from pulpits around the country.
What Dr. King and his allies knew was that religion must become an ally of social change if that change is going to take root in people’s hearts. And so he preached as well as picketed. He didn’t just make onstitutional arguments but appealed to conscience, and spoke in the language of Scripture. He didn’t spend much time explaining why racist readings of the Bible were false—he focused on why liberating readings were true. As a result, while we still have a long way to go in terms of civil rights for everyone, few people today would argue that equality is an affront to God’s will—even though many would have a century ago.
Contrast that with our national “conversation,” if that’s what it is, about abortion. Here, the left makes secular, constitutional arguments, and the right makes religious ones. Not surprisingly, they talk past one another, and get angrier and angrier as time goes on. It’s a battlefield, not a conversation. Whatever one’s views on this contentious issue, surely we can all agree that sloganeering, political scheming, and lots of angry shouting are not the best ways to engage with an issue with so much religious and political significance.
Now, gay rights are not the same as African American civil rights. The struggles of LGBT people and African Americans are similar in some respects, but different in others. But the lesson I take from Dr. King and other heroes of the civil rights movement is that if we are to be responsible citizens of American democracy, we must engage with religious values, because these political questions are ultimately religious ones as well. We must have the religious conversation—not to win arguments, but to speak heart to heart with the millions of Americans who are not bigots or homophobes, but who are sincerely troubled by equality for gay people.
We have only barely begun this conversation today. So far, except for a few outliers, religion has been used on only one side of the argument. The Bible forbids homosexuality, we are told. Heterosexual marriage is at the core of God’s design for the universe. Most liberals, in response, simply deflect these points, talking instead about separation of church and state. This has been a tragic mistake. Dr. King did not succeed in changing hearts because he invoked the Fourteenth Amendment; he opened hearts, and changed minds, because he invoked God.
As with “God versus Gay” itself, the consequences of this failure to speak religiously about gay rights are personal as well as political. It perpetuates a kind of spiritual schizophrenia, one that is deeply wounding and painful. Now, it’s unsurprising that many gay people have given up on religion—religion gave up on them first. But to perpetuate this despair alienates family members from one another, forfeits the opportunity for religious growth and conversation, and ignores the millions of gay people who have not given up on religion. By perpetuating “God versus Gay,” secular rhetoric alienates gay people from themselves.
Yet as John 8:32 says, the truth will set you free. The Bible does not forbid homosexuality, a concept invented in nineteenth-century Europe. But it does preach the centrality of love and relationship in God’s design of the universe. It teaches how God loves us, and wants us to be happy, ethical, just, and fulfilled human beings. It demands that we create a just and compassionate world. And in both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, it demands that we sanctify physical intimacy, and open our hearts to love. (Incidentally, because I am writing for people of all faiths, I use each tradition’s name for its sacred text. What Christians call the Old Testament, Jews call the Hebrew Bible.)
This is the conversation I want to have, because it connects me to my values, and to the values I share with other religious communities. Christian and Jew, progressive and conservative, Protestant and Catholic—we differ on many important details, but our shared fundamental values lead us to a different kind of conversation than the noisy shouting of TV talk shows and radio call-ins. If, like me, you have wrestled with the conundrum of how a loving God could possibly ask gay people to repress and distort themselves, then this book is about the good news that the God of Christianity and Judaism wants no such thing. If, like me, you despair of dialogue between religious and secular people on this divisive issue, then this book offers a way forward into meaningful, heartfelt, and sincere conversation. And if, like me, you are searching not only for tolerance but for authentic, spiritual, and respectful affirmation, then read on, because once the closet doors are opened, light comes streaming in.
I want to be clear about what this book is, and what it is not. It is a religious case, not a political one. It is affirmative, not negative. It is neither biblical apologetics nor an apology for acceptability of sexual diversity. And it embraces hard truths, not easy answers.
Table of Contents
A Note from the Series Editor xi
Part 1 Why our fundamental values support, rather than oppose, equality for sexual minorities
Chapter 1 "It is not good for a person to be alone" 3
Intimate relationship heals the primary flaw in creation
Chapter 2 "I am asleep but my heart is awake: the voice of my beloved knocks" 15
A loving God could never want the "closet"
Chapter 3 "Love your neighbor as yourself 24
Love demands authentic compassion for others
Chapter 4 "By the word of God were the heavens made" 30
Sexual diversity is natural and part of God's creation
Chapter 5 "Thou shalt not bear false witness" 41
Honesty and integrity are sacred; "coming out" is a religious act
Chapter 6 "Justice-justice shall you pursue" 48
Inequality is an affront to religions values
Part 2 What the "bad verses" really say about homosexuality
Chapter 7 Leviticus 55
One form of male intimacy is related to worship of foreign gods
Chapter 8 Sodom 67
Cruelty and inhospitality are the "sins of Sodom"
Chapter 9 The Gospels 73
What Jesus didn't say about homosexuality
Chapter 10 Romans 78
Men not being dominant is a consequence of turning from God
Chapter 11 Corinthians and Timothy 86
Christians should not mingle with a pagan, idolatrous, lascivious society
Chapter 12 David and Jonathan 94
Love between men in the Bible
Chapter 13 Sexual diversity in Christian theology 103
How did we get here from there?
Part 3 Why inclusion of sexual minorities is good, not bad, for religious values
Chapter 14 "You shall be holy, for I am holy" 115
Equality for LGBT people is good for families, marriage, and sexual ethics
Chapter 15 "When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me" 129
The growth of religious values is good for individuals and religious communities
Chapter 16 "Everyone whose spirit moved him brought an offering to God" 146
Sexual diversity, like other forms of diversity, enriches religious lives and communities
Chapter 17 "And I have filled him with the spirit of God … to devise subtle works in gold, silver, and brass" 154
What is homosexuality for?
Chapter 18 "For nothing in creation can separate you from the love of God" 161
Table of Scriptural Authorities 164
For Further Reading 166
LGBT Religious Organizations 170
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I'm still reading the book but I have been quite pleased with what I have read. He has a diverse background in Judeo-Christian theology as well as a law degree. He teaches religion at the college level. His work requires anyone to re-evaluate his/her stance regarding our brothers and sisters who experience same-sex attraction.
If you've found yourself feeling unable to respond to the people around you who constantly throw the bible in your face regarding the LGBT issues; this book will offer some strong responses that you can use. Jewish author Jay Michaelson presents an important religious discussion about our sexuality-more than just sex, takes apart the so-called Old Testament Bible verses that are used to demote gays and indicates the New Testament; The Gospels and The Ten Commandments state nothing about homosexuality. Perhaps more importantly this book confirms what I have long believed; God is a loving, accepting God of everyone. Thank you for a great book. I will be recommending this book to those who have nothing better to do than stir up conflict when it comes to gay people.
This is a timely book by a highly informed writer. He writes from personal experience, telling of the guilt laid on him by religious authorities, the lies he lived, the fears he endured, and then the sense of "being born again" coming out of the closet. He has done his research, a real scholar, without being pedantic. He is fair. He is ecumenical: a Jewish rabbi familiar with and quoting Jesus and the New Testament.