Professors Cornel West and Robert George ’77 came to campus on Monday, February 10th, to discuss the meaning of the liberal arts and to model respectful dialogue across the ideological spectrum. In spite of their many moral and political differences, both men emphasized their intellectual respect for and ongoing friendship with one another. They discussed the purpose of liberal learning as an exercise in what the Greeks called paideia, the formation of learners in wisdom traditions of personal growth and social engagement. The pursuit of truth, they said, is not about mere intellectual assent to notional propositions, but about living into the great wisdom traditions of the humanities with intellectual clarity, heartfelt passion, and the abiding willingness to change one’s mind on important, even life-altering, questions. Both men cited President Rebecca Chopp’s recent work on the liberal arts as a journey toward critical thinking, cultivation of moral subjectivity, and pursuit of the common good in wider social settings. The presentations by and conversations between both academics was dialogical, convivial, and enlivened by many references to the heritage of Western philosophy along with personal anecdotes and reciprocal gestures of affection.
After both professors enlivening talks, the afternoon’s spirit of geniality was immediately challenged by student interlocutors. A number of important issues were raised in this context, but I was especially struck by Jacob Adenbaum’s ’14 query to Professor George about his many writings denouncing LGBT persons as engaging in immoral behavior, on the one hand, and his question to Professor West about whether aligning himself with Professor George in forums such as this one gave Professor George’s heterosexism the imprimatur of legitimacy, on the other.
While I appreciated the spirited defense of the liberal arts and good humor between both intellectuals, I felt Mr. Adenbaum’s points went to the heart of the matter for me, and I think others attending this forum: What is the place of deeply held moral and religious views that oppose same-sex relationships in a college environment committed to diversity, integrity, and equality? In the case of Professor George, while he did not discuss his writings about LGBT issues, Mr. Adenbaum highlighted Professor George’s opposition to queer values and underscored, in my judgment, the irony of showcasing a prominent intellectual, in an institution of open and mutually affirming inquiry, who has spent his life working hard to deny gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender persons the right to enjoy full inclusion in public life and civil society.
Today, Professor George stands shoulder-to-shoulder with other right-wing Americans opposed to same-sex relationships who claim the Bible supports the regnancy of traditional marriage and the family. Within Republican political circles, some faith-oriented conservatives think cultural warfare about social issues will doom their party to irrelevancy, but many values-based conservatives, such as Professor George, believe the soul of their party is at stake. For Professor George et al., it is crucial to battle social liberals in the public square lest the foundation of Western society, the traditional family, be undermined. And so religious conservatives’ ongoing denunciations of marriage equality continue apace. Groups such as the National Organization for Marriage, the Family Research Council, and the Faith and Freedom Coalition — inheritors of the Moral Majority mantle — soldier on to defend traditional ideals of marriage and family in a shifting cultural environment.
Professor George is one of the primary spokespeople for this position. As a member of the drafting committee of the “Manhattan Declaration: A Call of Christian Conscience,” and chairperson emeritus, and founding board member, of the National Organization for Marriage, Professor George and his colleagues cite the Bible in support of equating same-sex relationships with various forms of “sexual immorality” sweeping across the landscape of Western civilization. But unfortunately for Professor George and other conservative Christians, the Bible says little, if anything, about the politically charged issues he and his ilk champion, and what it does say runs counter to their right-wing assumptions.
Professor George writes that “the common good of civil society is damaged” whenever laws allowing same-sex marriage and LGBT adoption are put into place. “Where marriage erodes,” he says, “social pathologies arise.” Citing the Bible, he says marriage equality and family well-being are mutually exclusive. He writes, “We acknowledge that there are those who are disposed towards homosexual . . . relationships, just as there are those who are disposed towards other forms of immoral conduct. We have compassion for those so disposed . . .” For Professor George and others, the biblical ideal of marriage is exclusively monogamous and heterosexual, and any threat to this ideal destabilizes a cornerstone of civilized society.
While right-wing Christians’ one-man-one-woman paradigm is an important scriptural value — this model is upheld by some of Jesus’s teachings and the household rules for couples inspired by the Apostle Paul in the New Testament — the Bible also upholds the sanctity of polygamous relationships: the patriarchs Abraham and Jacob and the great kings David and Solomon all had more than one wife. Moreover, Jesus and Paul, while valorizing monogamy at times, are also eager to champion celibacy, with Jesus highlighting the value of voluntary celibacy in the Gospel of Matthew, and Paul saying it is better to remain single than to marry in 1 Corinthians. Just as important, their lives spoke volumes on this issue: both Jesus and Paul were unmarried, signaling, perhaps, that this is the supreme ideal of the true believer. For Jesus and Paul, healthy living consists of freeing oneself of family entanglements and living the life of God’s obedient servant. The Bible, then, endorses three views of marriage — monogamy, multiple wives, and celibacy — assigning no preference to one model over and against any other.
In reality, however, religious conservatives’ defense of marriage is a stalking horse for a wider cultural argument about why homosexuality in general and marriage equality in particular are bad ideas. The Southern Baptist Convention and the Family Research Council’s public condemnation of the Boy Scouts of America’s recent decision to admit gay members makes this corollary argument clear. As Professor George makes clear, standing strong for conventional marriage means that one is anti-gay and, by implication, opposed to same-sex marriage and civil unions.
So what does the Bible say about homosexuality? Unfortunately for right-wing Christians, even as the Bible is open-ended about what sort of marriage is desirable (or even whether marriage itself is desirable), it is even more open to the question of same-sex relationships. This is the bottom line: the Bible contains no prohibitions against mutually affirming LGBT relations as practiced today. Scattered comments against same-sex relations in the context of abusive Gentile practices are mentioned in the Bible, but these context-specific and historically bounded statements can hardly be used as justification for prohibiting all loving and committed gay and lesbian relationships today. Although Jesus is very specific about divorce (he categorically forbids it), he says nothing about homosexuality, even while the Bible itself is suffused with beautiful love stories between people of the same sex — Ruth and Naomi, for example, or David and Jonathan — that offer endearing portraits of LGBT-friendly affiliation that have endured for millennia. The Bible comes nowhere near denouncing homosocial relationships; in reality it provides the theological warrants for the very type of trust and mutuality that is at the heart of genuine LGBT relationships today. Professor George and other biblical traditionalists’ defense of marriage is a pretext for their real focus — slamming same-sex relations and gay marriage — but, paradoxically, this defense runs counter to the actual celebrations of same-sex relations within the sacred texts that they prize as the source of their moral crusades.
Professor George and other traditionalists cloak their moralistic values in the mantle of the Bible when, in fact, the Bible is consistently laudatory of homosocial relationships, and says nothing negative about same-sex marriage and partnership between loving persons. Politically, I fear, values-based Christians are using fear and anxiety about LGBT communities as a wedge issue to divide faith-oriented communities on the right from everyone else in the middle and on the left. What a sad legacy today for the Bible and Christian values: religious conservatives, while purporting to defend the Bible in politics, in reality are hijacking the Bible to defend their brand of conservative politics, a brand, paradoxically, at odds with the Bible’s central teaching that all persons are God’s children and, thereby, are to be celebrated and loved accordingly.
Mark I. Wallace is a professor of religion and coordinator of the interpretation theory program at Swarthmore.