Inventing Sin: Religion and HomosexualityDec 1, 2005
No matter their own scandals, religious institutions through history have a consistent scapegoat: homosexuals.
There they were, lined up in all their finery across the top of the front page of The New York Times of March 31, 2005, occupying perhaps the most prime piece of real estate in all of journalism: Sheik Abed es- Salem Menasra, deputy mufti of Jerusalem; the Rev. Michel Sabbagh, the Latin patriarch; Archbishop Torkom Manoogian, the Armenian patriarch of Jerusalem; Rabbi Shlomo Amar, the Sephardic chief rabbi; and Rabbi Yona Metzger, the Ashkenazi chief rabbi. What brought together these religious leaders more accustomed to squabbling over slivers of land in the Holy City? They came together to denounce plans by international gay leaders to hold a WorldPride festival and parade in Jerusalem, saying it would desecrate the city and convey the erroneous impression that homosexuality is acceptable.
"This is not the homo land, this is the Holy Land," said Rabbi Yehuda Levin of the Rabbinical Alliance of America at the news conference, adding that the proposed celebration of the right to be gay would mean "the spiritual rape of the Holy City."
On Sunday, April 24, 2005, as described by Frank Rich in The New York Times, "Justice Sunday," the judge-bashing rally being disseminated nationwide by cable, satellite and Internet from a mega-church in Louisville, Kentucky, focused the hostility of "people of faith" against that perennial target of the right: activist judges. But, what sort of judicial "activism" has roused the ire of these defenders of the faith? Rich continued:
The "Justice Sunday" mob is . . . lying when it claims to despise activist judges as a matter of principle. Only weeks ago it was desperately seeking activist judges who might intervene in the Terri Schiavo case as boldly as Scalia & Co. had in Bush v. Gore. The real "Justice Sunday" agenda lies elsewhere. As Bill Maher summed it up for Jay Leno on the "Tonight" show last week: " 'Activist judges' is a code word for gay." The judges being verbally tarred and feathered are those who have decriminalized gay sex (in a Supreme Court decision written by Justice Kennedy) as they once did abortion and who countenance marriage rights for same-sex couples. This is the animus that dares not speak its name tonight. To paraphrase the "Justice Sunday" flier, now it's the anti-filibuster campaign that is being abused to protect bias, this time against gay people.
On Nov. 29, the Congregation for Catholic Education, the Vatican department in charge of seminaries, published a long-awaited "instruction" ordering seminaries to bar candidates for the priesthood who "practice homosexuality," have "deeply rooted homosexual tendencies" or support "gay culture."
These apparently disparate events reflect a current reality: At the start of the 21st century, religion remains intertwined with politics, and few topics arouse as much religious fervor as those concerned with sexuality-as we are witnessing in the battle today over gay marriage. Indeed, for the three Abrahamic religions, as they're sometimes called, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, homosexuality has provided a rare example of a truly common cause-the unusually harsh and virulent condemnation of homosexuality by religious authorities through the ages.
In nearly all societies throughout human history, religion offers answers to fundamental questions concerning the origin and meaning of things. Religious systems of explanation offer accounts of the creation of the world, as well as specifying the rules for proper behavior-and the consequences for infractions-that have been imposed by the Creator. In "Civilization and Its Discontents," Freud summarized what "the common man understands by his religion-the system of doctrines and promises which on the one hand explains to him the riddle of life with enviable completeness, and, on the other, assures him that a careful Providence will watch over his life and will compensate him in a future life for any frustrations he suffers here."
In Western culture, the dominant religious traditions for the past two millenniums have been Christian, built upon, but significantly differing from, Judaism. In contrast to most other major world religions-Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism and Islam-Christianity has been marked by what sex historian Vern L. Bullough terms a general antagonism toward sexual expression. However, homosexuality has been singled out in Judaism and Christianity for condemnation far greater than that directed toward most other forms of sexual behavior.
Old Testament views on sexuality were shaped by principles that resulted in hostility to homosexual acts. The first was a focus on procreation as a necessary goal and duty, embodied in the commandment to "be fruitful and multiply." This fundamental injunction led to the expectation that everyone would marry as early as possible and engage in marital sexual intercourse on a regular basis. In this context, any sexual act that could not promote appropriate procreation was sinful. Thus, because conception was viewed as the product of male semen planted in the female womb, lesbianism did not evoke the same sort of condemnation: As one Biblical scholar put it, "In lesbianism there is no spilling of seed. Thus life is not symbolically lost, and therefore lesbianism is not prohibited in the Bible."