Having announced his support for gay marriage, President Obama now faces the wrath of people who quote the Bible in opposition.
They have reason to be worried. A growing plurality of Americans accepts gay unions, and approval is strongest among the young. So, changes in law are probably inevitable.
But those who base their opposition on scripture should have a deeper cause for concern. Time and again, history has shown that people who cite the Bible as a reason to deny rights to others have almost always lost. Their arguments, in the judgment of posterity, have discredited them and their faith. Simply put, a static, selective reading of scripture has been no match for the dynamism of ever-expanding rights in America.
Few today would think of using the Bible to defend the divine authority of kings or to argue that seizing land from the Native Americans was ordained by God. Such beliefs, once taken seriously, now seem self-serving and misguided.
Opponents of gay marriage can easily find Bible verses to buttress their case. They may have forgotten that before the Civil War defenders of slavery did exactly the same thing.
For example, in 1832 Thomas Dew of Virginia argued that many of the patriarchs of the Old Testament, God’s chosen people, owned slaves. God’s covenant with Abraham was an agreement with a slaveowner. God even rewarded him by giving him more slaves.
Among the many Bible passages cited by Dew was this one from Leviticus 25:44-46: “Both thy bondmen, and thy bondmaids, which thou shalt have, shall be of the heathen that are round about you; of them shall ye buy bondmen and bondmaids. Moreover of the children of the strangers that do sojourn among you, of them shall ye buy, and of their families that are with you, which they begat in your land: and they shall be your possession. And ye shall take them as an inheritance for your children after you, to inherit them for a possession; they shall be your bondmen for ever.”
Read literally, what could be clearer? The Bible seemed to approve, unambiguously, of the ownership of human beings.
“When we turn to the New Testament,” Dew continued, “we find not one single passage at all calculated to disturb the conscience of an honest slaveholder.” Jesus nowhere preached abolition. Paul, in his letter to Philemon, appeared to call for the return of escaped slaves. Ephesians 6:5 enjoined them to “be obedient to them that are your masters.”
Small wonder, then, that Confederates proclaimed that slavery had been decreed by God. And their beliefs had terrible consequences for those they owned.
In the experience of Frederick Douglass, the former slave and abolitionist, religion served only to harden the hearts of slaveholders. In his Narrative (1845), Douglass recounted how one of his owners tied up a lame young woman and whipped her naked shoulders until they bled, all the while quoting scripture: “He that knoweth his master’s will, and doeth it not, shall be beaten with many stripes.” This was a close paraphrase of Luke 12:47.
No master was good, Douglass insisted, but religious slaveholders were the worst.
The Bible could, of course, be read in more than one way. Some Christians gave priority to the letter of the law, to those verses that seemed to ordain slavery, while others, like Douglass, stressed what they took to be the spirit of the whole Bible, a message of inclusiveness and equality. For them, slavery and Christianity were incompatible. These contrasting approaches parallel the divergent scriptural interpretations of those who now support or oppose gay marriage.
In our current debate, ironies abound. Some of the strongest resistance to gay marriage has come from African American ministers who quote scripture as literally and selectively as Thomas Dew did when condoning slavery.
Meanwhile, Mitt Romney, who recently declared that “marriage is a relationship between one man and one woman,” is descended from men who, in the name of their faith and with Biblical precedent, took several wives. His family’s history is a reminder that religious truths are always subject to change. What is accepted as Bible-based truth by one generation of Christians may well be discarded by the next.
We all have the right to speak out, basing our arguments on whatever authorities we value. But we are also free to ignore those who quote scripture to limit the extension of rights to others. Remembering how the Bible has been used to justify America’s greatest sins, our consciences might well be clearer if we did.
Almost 170 years ago, Frederick Douglass wrote, “He who is the religious advocate of marriage robs whole millions of its sacred influence.” Douglass was speaking of masters and slaves, but his essential point remains true today.
Fred Nielsen teaches U.S. history at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.