’God vs. Gay?’ :: Jay Michaelson on The Questions People of Faith Should Be Asking
Religious scholar, writer, and activist Jay Michaelson knows a thing about spirituality and how to make it fit well with this earthly life, having engaged in personal struggle for years. Central to Michaelson’s jpurney has been reconciling the fact that he is gay with the equally important and ineradicable fact that he is a person of religious faith.
What Michaelson has discovered through prayer and comprehensive Biblical scholarship is that the Word of God, as contained in the Old and New Testaments, does not, in fact, condemn loving same-sex couples. Contrary to the accusations of anti-gay pastors and the faith-based excuses of homophobic legislators, Michaelson’s latest book, his fourth, titled "God vs. Gay? The Religious Case for Equality," demonstrates that the God of the Judeo-Christian faith traditions wishes for no person, gay or straight, to live lonely or dishonest lives, but rather intends for every single person--gay and straight alike--to lead full, genuine lives.
Moreover, Michaelson argues, it is the sacred duty of every devout person to respect, uphold, and advocate for the fundamental and equal rights of GLBTs. "God vs. Gay?" may well be the single most comprehensive book ever written on the subject; in a calm, rational, and yet compelling manner, Michaelson dismantles anti-gay religious messages from the inside, and discovers a God of peace, compassion, and loving kindness in the process.
Michaelson spoke with EDGE via email about his new book and the slow progress that LGBTs are making even among some of the strictest and most conservative of faith traditions.
EDGE: Your basic argument is that the Bible does not condemn gays, but the way Scripture is presented makes it seem that way, and the result is a conflict between the loving, compassionate message of the New Testament and the virulently anti-gay message of many faith traditions. Will gays be willing to hear this? Will evangelicals and others with anti-gay religious views? Can the two sides approach some sort of reconciliation?
Jay Michaelson: I have seen the reconciliation happen, personally, dozens if not hundreds of times. Once there’s an understanding that these few verses are actually ambiguous and capable of being interpreted in many ways, people can get to the real question, which is how we relate to one another as human beings rather than as stereotypes or objects of fear. And that’s when hearts soften.
The verses are not the real issue, but they are a kind of gateway to getting to the positive ethical and religious obligations to reflect and second-guess what we thought we knew.
LGBT people have been wounded by religion for a long time, and I certainly understand their reluctance to have anything to do with it. That said, most of us have religious people in our extended families or communities, and religion still sets the terms for much of our public debate. At the very least, we should know how to "fight back" when it’s used as a weapon. But I hope we can have a more productive dialogue with those with whom we disagree.
Survey data tells us that most people are neither committed to an anti-gay view, nor marching in pride parades. Most people are in the middle, and that’s where this work can happen.
EDGE: One thing I can imagine some in our community asking is, Why should we dialogue with people of faith when our system of laws theoretically should keep religion out of public policy? Rather than learning to speak to religious conservatives in their own language, why shouldn’t we focus on getting religious bias out of the legal code and doing something about the increasingly blatant politicking by churches and faith leaders?
Jay Michaelson: It’s not either/or, it’s both/and. Yes, separation of church and state is a principle we need to uphold and fight for--especially if we’re religious ourselves, because political power corrupts religious institutions. But that doesn’t get to the root of the problem.
Contrast two other civil rights struggles, that of African-American civil rights and that for reproductive rights. In the first case, Dr. King and others made civil rights a religious imperative--not just a constitutional argument. His message resounded with people because it called up their deeply-held values and called them to conscience.
In contrast, reproductive rights have never been more imperiled than they are right now, in part, I believe, because activists have refused to engage in the underlying moral and ethical debates. There are other reasons too, of course, but in general, when we leave these deep concerns unaddressed, our "victories" will be shallow.
EDGE: Something else I can imagine are people in the faith community simply dismissing gays who want to engage in dialogue in good faith--deciding that what they "know" about the Bible, and about gays, is all they need to know. How should we respond when we encounter that sort of response?
Jay Michaelson: We should respond with compassion, and by showing up as human beings. I once had a heckler ask me, "What about bestiality?" What I did was, I showed him my engagement ring, and asked him to look me in the eye and tell me that my love for my partner was no different from the lust a person might feel for a sheep or a goat. Of course, he couldn’t do that.
By showing up without anger but with our human dignity, we give the lie to the claim that someone can "know all about gays" without actually meeting one as a human being.
EDGE: You make a convincing and detailed argument that religion should support, and not condemn, committed same-sex relationships and offer support to gays and lesbians rather than demonizing them in order to allow them to blossom into the best individuals--and the best family spouses and parents--that they can be. But is it realistic to expect that the anti-gay religious crowd will allow this to happen, given that preaching bias on the backs of gays has proven so successful and profitable?
Jay Michaelson: Within the evangelical community right now, there is a lot of sincere questioning about whether the focus on LGBT people has really been so profitable, and Christian, after all. Within the Orthodox Jewish community, there are calls for greater compassion and inclusion. So, it’s not just realistic to expect it--it is already happening.
Even when it is used as a tool of oppression, religion has within it the seeds of liberation, because it calls upon people to reflect, introspect, and hold themselves to their highest values. That process often takes a long time, particularly when there is so much fear involved. But it does happen. Again, I look to other civil rights struggles--despite all the many real differences between this one and those--for inspiration.
EDGE: In the course of "God vs. Gay," you systematically and comprehensively destroy just about every anti-gay stereotype that those who promote faith-based prejudice have in their toolbox. Many of the observations and arguments you present have been made elsewhere--indeed, your bibliography constitutes a library in itself. Why, then, has the message still not sunk in? Are we simply being out-shouted at every turn?
Jay Michaelson: Well, religious communities move slowly. Let’s remember we’ve only been seen and heard for thirty-odd years. The progress we’ve made has been astonishingly fast, and we should take a "reality check" if we think that isn’t so. I do think we’re at a uniquely powerful moment in this struggle for equality, which is why I think the book has gotten such a positive response in religious communities.
EDGE: If gays are demonized and subject to faith-based bias, atheists suffer even more. Do the struggles faced by gays and atheists in a culture dominated by religion run in parallel? If there is hope for gays and lesbians of faith, can GLBT atheists also hope for some sort of perestroika with religious conservatives?
Jay Michaelson: I don’t think atheists suffer more than LGBT people. Atheist kids are not bullied the way LGBT people are, and of course atheists have full legal rights in all fifty states. I’m not sure there even should be an atheist/conservative perestroika, because I think ethical and even theological debates are good for a society.
I think atheists do religion a favor by pointing out that hyper-literalist views are incoherent, and miss the point of religion itself. (They’re also quite new--Biblical commentators in the tenth century noted that the "six days" in the creation story doesn’t refer to 24-hour days.) And I think religious people do atheists a favor by insisting on the importance of ethical reflection and spiritual experience. These are debates we should welcome.