Monday, July 20, 2009

The "Other" Accomodationism: Are the Abrahamic religions compatible with a pro-LGBT stance?

Last weekend was our town's Pride parade, and just like last year, there are about a half a dozen or more churches that march in the parade, with signs like "All our welcome" and "God loves you the way you are," etc.

I always have mixed feelings when they go by. It would probably be an understatement to say I am not exactly fond of religion. On the other hand, it's hard to really be all that upset at people for promoting tolerance.

I think there is a parallel here to the Creationism-centric accomodationism/"New Atheist" debate. Namely, is a religion that accepts Leviticus as scripture compatible with a stance that is tolerant and accepting of homosexuality?

The Bible seems pretty unambiguous on this point, so I would tend to answer "no". And until a little over a year ago, I viewed attempts by LGBT people and their families to reconcile their religion with the reality of their lives to be rather superfluous. The whole philosophy is based on intolerance; why go to all the mental gymnastics to remake it into something tolerant when you could just discard the whole godforsaken thing?

I command you to see this movie.
I have since adopted a somewhat more "accomodationist" standpoint on this, and it was the result of seeing the movie For the Bible Tells Me So. It is a documentary about conservative religious parents who have an LGBT son or daughter, and how the family chooses to deal with it. Some of the parents, as with the straight-laced looking family on the poster, eventually come not only to accept their son, but to embrace the cause of promoting LGBT rights and helping other families to reconcile their faith with a tolerance for homosexuality. Other families have a much harder time, coming only to a tacit acknowledgment, still disapproving strongly of their childrens' lifestyle.

The movie is heartbreaking, and helped me to understand just how important this issue is. Some families are simply not going to give up their beliefs no matter what. For them, finding a way to reconcile their faith with homosexuality is not just an exercise in academics, but rather it is critical to maintaining their familial ties. In some cases, it could even be a life-or-death issue, as the shockingly high suicide rate among LGBT teens demonstrates.

For the Bible Tells Me So puts forth some arguments addressing the passages in the Bible condemning homosexuality and how they can be interpreted in ways other than the obvious one. The most convincing was a reframing of the story of Soddom and Gomorah, which basically argued that the cities were destroyed because they failed to show proper hospitality to travelers, and that teh buttsex was just a red herring. I actually buy this one, but it still leaves numerous other passages that are pretty explicitly anti-gay.

To deal with Leviticus, they have a rabbi who argues that the word "abomination" is not a particularly good translation, and that the original Hebrew word would have been close to "against tradition" -- so therefore, Leviticus was not saying that homosexuality was evil, it was merely saying that the Jews in the time of Moses just traditionally didn't do it. This sounds compelling until you remember that the penalty proscribed in Leviticus is nothing short of death, which makes it a bit hard to swallow that this was just intended as a style issue. (And anyway, the historicity of the story of Moses is extremely dubious, which it makes it sort of meaningless to talk about the "cultural context" of a culture that was made-up...)

Other mentions of homosexuality in the Bible are similarly framed as an issue of "this is our culture" as opposed to "this is what is right and wrong". To me, it's a bit ho-hum -- but if it means the difference between a family loving their son or daughter and embracing them for who they are, vs. estrangement and resentment.... Hey, I'm all for it.

So I roll my eyes a bit when the churchies march past in the Pride parade. But I'm glad they are there, anyway. It's progress.


  1. It's nice to have tolerant voices within the Christian community, but I fear that, as Michael Shermer predicted after Prop 8 was passed in California, that these are the people that Christian apologists will point to in years to come, claiming it as justification for their moral superiority.

  2. True... 150 years on and people are still trying to credit Christianity for taking a stand against slavery -- even though there were just as many pro-slavery Christian groups as anti-slavery (if not more). Not much to be done about it though. I'm not going to say, "Please, could you be less tolerant so that people won't be able to use your existence to justify intolerance in the future?" heh...

  3. Well, if some fears about them mean, nasty New Atheists prove out, they might drive the tolerant faithful into frothy-mouthed bigotry with their more literalist brethren.

  4. I think you make a good point (if I understand it correctly). I am highly sympathetic to those struggling with their various conflicts, and I understand how accommodationism - whether for gay rights, or NOMA, or whatever - is an acceptable and even natural inflection point in reconciling those conflicts. (I say this as someone who was in that very position for many years.) Like you say, it's progress, and I welcome that.

    I am less sympathetic to those coming from the outside and entrenching that viewpoint, because their intentions (as I see them) are largely political and always patronizing. I also consider it damaging, because it arrests the progress of people similar to myself, who are slowly trying to disentangle themselves from religion, but whose desire to finally break free is dampened by the notion of a kind of truce. If you are led to believe that hedging your bets is popular, you'll never fully resolve the doubts that led you that far in the first place.

    I realize that last sentence is something of a strawman, and I wish I could word it better - I hope you get my meaning though :)

  5. I think I understand where you are coming from... if people inside a religion want to move the religion in a more tolerant direction, that's progress -- but if people outside of the religion try to promote accomodationist arguments in the hopes of shifting the religion's direction from the outside, that's not acceptable, because they should know better.

    I can dig that. I guess on the LGBT issue I'm only an accomodationist insofar that if a religious person wants to argue that the Bible doesn't condemn homosexuality, I'm not going to go out of my way to point out that it clearly does.

    I suppose we could ask if the movie I referred to, For the Bible Tells Me So, might inadvertantly be doing some harm by promoting ideas that might make it easier for someone to temporarily stifle their doubts. My feeling is still that it does more good than it does harm, but I hadn't really thought about it that way before...

  6. I'll definitely try to check the movie out. And hopefully I don't sound too harsh. Anyone striving to lift barriers between themselves and others should be welcomed and encouraged. Without even seeing the movie yet, I imagine they will deal with complicated, agonizing, and very human issues, that cannot be reduced to a simple soundbite.