A Religious Approach to Homosexuality

by Letha Dawson Scanzoni

Keynote address presented at the “Faith beyond  Boundaries” conference, sponsored by People of Faith for Equality in Virginia, held at the Holocaust Museum, Richmond, Virginia, Sunday, September 25, 2005. [1]

Copyright 2005, 2010 by Letha Dawson Scanzoni. All rights reserved.

The Bible and religious teachings can be used to support different—even totally opposite—viewpoints on ethical, moral, and social policy issues. Religion can be drafted into the service of putting people down or lifting people up.

Psychologist Gordon Alport wrote in his classic work, The Nature of Prejudice, “The role of religion is paradoxical. It makes prejudice and it unmakes prejudice”  (italics supplied). Alport’s book was published in 1954, the same year as the United States Supreme Court decided the case of Brown vs. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, ruling that racial segregation in public schools illegal. Schools must be integrated. Some religious people were for integration and racial equality, while other religious people were just as strongly against integration and full racial equality. And both sides quoted the Bible to support their claims.

Divisions over the question of homosexuality

But when it comes to homosexuality, many people have the impression that there is only one religious or biblical view—only one way to consider the question of equal rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people.

That view, in the minds of many, is that religious teachings insist that such rights should be condemned and denied– that any and every same-sex sexual expression is sinful in the sight of God. It’s the view presented most frequently in the media because of the zealous efforts of those who promote that view. When a person of faith says she or he believes otherwise and thus embraces the rights of sexual minorities, that person is frequently judged by other religious people as being totally misguided and maybe not a true follower of God.

For example, in a recent review of Dave Myers’ and my new book, What God Has Joined Together? A Christian Case for Gay Marriage, Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, wrote: “Their book offers positive proof that what drives proponents of same-sex marriage is a psychological worldview that is directly at odds with the worldview of the Bible.”[ 2]

The implication in such statements is that only one truly biblical perspective exists when it comes to discussions of homosexuality. The existence of another view among people of faith can be extremely threatening to those religious people who believe they alone have the truth. Thus we hear warnings about dangerous “revisionist scholars” who are reinterpreting the Bible to make it say something contrary to God’s intent, which they claim they know without a shadow of a doubt.

We’ve been here before

Over the ages, religious faiths have experienced such arguments again and again when it comes to questions of social change. One example is how the Bible was used to justify slavery. It’s an example analogous to what is happening today when some people are using the Bible to discriminate against gay and lesbian people, who are asking nothing more than to be treated with the dignity due all human beings.

During the 19th century, clergy, professors, and others who supported slavery argued that they alone were speaking God’s truth and that those who taught otherwise could be categorized as infidels.[3]

One of the most prominent Baptist ministers and educators of his time, Richard Furman, for whom Furman University is named, wrote an exposition that was sent to the governor of South Carolina in 1822. Furman referred to his essay as the “right view of the subject” and said it was a moral and religious view. He wrote, “The right of holding slaves is clearly established in the Holy Scriptures, both by precept and example,” which he went on to illustrate from both testaments, from both the Jewish and Christian scriptures.[4]

He voiced his concern because many people who were opposing slavery were saying they were doing so on the basis of the Holy Scriptures and that their desire for the freedom of slaves was an outgrowth of their religious faith.

Furman saw this idea as dangerous – the idea that people of faith, people who were religious believers and not secularists, were taking a stand opposite to his own absolute certainty about what Scripture taught. He said it would be detrimental to society if religious arguments against slavery got around and became accepted.

He predicted all sorts of disasters that would result. For one thing, slaves would become insubordinate and rebellious and infringe on the rights of citizens. And even slaves’ own spiritual lives could be harmed by making the masters afraid to let slaves be exposed to the Bible any longer. Masters wouldn’t want their slaves to get the idea that the Bible’s message was one of freedom, human dignity, and equality!

(Of course, the exposure to the Bible that the slaves were allowed at the time was usually from preachers who regularly made it a point to call attention to verses such as Ephesians 6:5: “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling in singleness of heart, as you obey Christ.”)

The Bible and today’s issue: homosexuality.

There were many such verses quoted by those who used the Bible to justify slavery in the U.S. in the 19th century, and they found far greater numbers of verses about slavery than the handful of biblical passages that are used to deny equal rights to gay and lesbian people today – the verses that have come to be known as the “clobber verses.”

So the question becomes, How do we, as people of faith, use our faith to promote inclusiveness and the rights of all persons, regardless of sexual orientation? How can we be supportive of LGBT efforts to gain marriage rights, assurance of nondiscrimination in housing and jobs, legislation to have sexual orientation included among categories listed in hate crime legislation, and so on—and at the same time show the world that we are taking these stands from the perspective of our religious faith? If we don’t do that, we are caving in to those who think that the case is closed and that one can’t be a religious person, a person of faith, while simultaneously supporting homosexual persons as sisters and brothers created in the image of God.

It is said that the abolitionists found that their religious arguments against slavery tended to be less convincing to most people than the religious arguments of those who justified slavery, simply because of the way most people read their Bibles, taking only a proof-text approach.

I think we face a similar situation today in taking a religious position on the question of homosexuality. Many people read the Bible in a mechanical way as though it’s a list of rules, like a traffic manual, with every single verse having the same importance and without consideration of the times, cultures, and conditions in which various passages were written. We need to help people understand more about biblical interpretation, translations, and so on.

Nevertheless, people for the most part appear to subscribe to a proof-text approach. For example, after a favorable review of the book I wrote with David Myers on gay marriage appeared on an Internet blog, one commenter responded to that book review by saying that “since Leviticus calls homosexuality an ‘abomination,’ he had a hard time seeing a “pro-homosexuality biblical argument. He said that if we wanted to make a secular argument, fine. “But when you try to establish a ‘Christian’ case for being in favor of homosexuality, you’ve left the realm of Christianity entirely.”

The commenter issued a challenge: “Please give me a verse or passage in the Bible that plainly casts homosexuality in a positive light. Please give me just one. It should be fairly simple, if it’s there.”

Referring to the subtitle of our book, he went on to say “there is no Christian case” for gay marriage and had some harsh words for those of us who think otherwise.

Nevertheless, in this address today, I am going to take up his challenge. I am going to suggest that “one verse” that I think we people of faith can use in thinking through and applying our faith to this topic of homosexuality.

A key verse for persons of faith

It’s a familiar verse. The words of the prophet Micah, verse 8 of the 6th chapter.

[God] has told you, o mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8 NRSV)

I suggest that, as people of faith, we approach the question of LGBT rights and same-sex marriage from the vantage point of these three principles: justice, lovingkindness, and humility.


Justice is an important religious principle that must be taken very seriously in discussions of marriage equality for LGBT people. Yet, sadly, some people who profess to love and serve God fail to see that justice is a religious value and a family value.

An owner of a business was invited to lead a workshop on Christian business ethics a few years ago. One of the examples he gave of how he applied Christian ethics to his company was this: A lesbian employee had come to him to ask for medical leave because her partner was seriously ill and needed her. The business owner told his workshop audience that he thought about it but decided to deny her request. He said it was against his Christian beliefs to support a homosexual relationship in any way.

His company would have granted such a leave to a heterosexual husband or wife without a moment’s hesitation, but this executive boasted that he felt he must take a stand for what is right and not endorse what he called “a homosexual lifestyle.” He did not feel his decision was unfair, even though the lesbian employee had been with her partner for many years, loved her every bit as much as any devoted spouse in a heterosexual marriage, would like to have been married to her partner but was prevented by law from sealing her commitment in marriage. But as far as the businessman was concerned, this woman’s partner was not her next of kin and therefore she did not deserve a family medical leave.

Not only did this successful business executive fail to show simple human kindness, but he had no sense of the injustice of his denial of this woman’s request. She had given her time, energy, and dedication in service to that company to the same extent or more as did her hypothetical heterosexual counterpart who would have been granted medical leave for an ill spouse. This businessman needs to read his Bible more closely–for example, Zechariah 7:8 (TNIV): “This is what the LORD Almighty said: “Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another.” Or Jeremiah 9:23-24 (CEV), which says, “Don’t brag about your wisdom or wealth. If you feel you must brag, then have enough sense to brag about worshiping me, the Lord. What I like best is showing kindness, justice, and mercy to everyone on earth.”

Marriage equality as a justice issue

Marriage equality is a justice issue and thus it is a religious issue and should be of concern to people of faith. It has to do with freedom to choose one’s own life partner, a freedom that most of us would consider quite basic. Of course, it hasn’t always been that way even among heterosexual persons in our own country, one of the most recent examples being the prohibitions of interracial marriage that existed in the laws of many states, not only in the South.

Historian Nancy Cott, in her book, Public Vows: A History of Marriage and the Nation, tells of an 1840 law in the state of Indiana in which fines of many thousands of dollars (equivalent to millions today) were to be paid if a white person and a person considered to be as little as what the law saw as 1/8 black dared to marry. In addition, the law stipulated 10 to 20-year prison sentences for the offending parties. And for the person who officiated at such a ceremony, fines of thousands of dollars would be imposed, along with the loss of the person’s job. [5]

And of course, we here in Virginia are well aware of our own state’s famous case of Loving v. Virginia in which the Supreme Court ruled in 1967 that such anti-miscegenation laws were unconstitutional. Think how different things might have been if an amendment had been passed to keep so-called “activist judges” from ruling as they did!

The reason that the right to marry across race lines was so important was that it symbolized social equality as opposed to considering persons of color to be somehow inferior and thus kept subordinate.  Nancy Cott sees a parallel in today’s world. She writes:

Lesbians and gay men seek legal marriage for some of the same reasons ex-slaves did so after the Civil War, to show that they have access to basic civil rights. The exclusion of same-sex partners from free choice in marriage stigmatizes their relationship, and reinforces a caste supremacy of heterosexuality over homosexuality just as laws banning marriages across the color line exhibited and reinforced white supremacy. (Public Vows, p. 216)

This is why it is a justice issue. But it’s far more than symbolic of equality. It has to do with the practical matters of everyday life, the more than a thousand federal statutory provisions that confer protections, privileges, rights, and benefits which are determined by marital status. As Dave Myers and I wrote in our book, What God Has Joined Together: The Christian Case for Gay Marriage: [6]

What do you think: Should life partners Jim and Tim or Meg and Peg, like their married next door neighbors, Bill and Jill, be able to

  • file joint tax returns?
  • leave an inheritance to one another tax free?
  • make life-and-death decisions if the other is incapacitated?
  • be included on one or the other’s health insurance plan?
  • be granted family leave or bereavement leave in the case of the other’s illness or death?
  • have co-parental rights so that both partners are considered parents of their children in all situations?
  • have hospital visitation rights/
  • receive spousal discounts from auto clubs or other organizations offering family rates?
  • have a legal system for equitably dissolving their relationship should it end?

Note that this is not an issue of “special rights,” but of equal rights conveyed by marriage. Unlike cohabitation, domestic partnerships, and even civil unions (each of which are separate from and unequal to marriage) same-sex marriage entails the same rights for all married couples,” regardless of sexual orientation. (pp. 118-119)

It’s a matter of basic fairness.

What then does God require of us? To do justice.


To do justice. And to love mercy, loving-kindness, compassion. Justice and mercy go hand in hand. These are religious issues, and people of faith must face them today.

Some people resent such calls for justice and compassion. They’d like to feel comfortable and not bothered by having injustices pointed out to them.

Speaking out for justice and compassion

I’m reminded of a story my son Steve told me years ago when his first son (and my first grandchild) was a toddler. Baby Bryan was just learning to talk, but mostly in single words. He hadn’t begun putting many words into sentences. Steve, my son, sometimes dressed Bryan in a hurry, including shoving his little feet into his shoes with a push and a tug.

One day, as Steve was speedily shoving Bryan’s shoes on, he was startled to hear a tiny voice pipe up: “Stop it! It hurts!” Steve told me he smiled as he told his wife, Karen, about the incident. He said to her, “You know, it was easier before he learned to talk.”

Maybe it was easier, too, for many people before gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people and other minority groups found their voices and began speaking out, challenging the dominant culture. In an article condemning social acceptance of same-sex marriage, Charles Colson wrote, “Homosexuality was once called ‘the love that dare not speak its name.’ Nowadays, it won’t kept quiet” (Breakpoint, online,July 29, 2003).

But the message of all groups who have experienced discrimination is the same as Baby Bryan’s “Stop it! It hurts!”  It hurts to be joked about. It hurts to be considered a stereotype. It hurts to be ignored. It hurts to be told you’re unacceptable. It hurts to be lied about. It hurts to be denied access to economic rewards and power. It hurts to be denied basic rights.

It hurts to be told God condemns you and doesn’t want you to serve in ordained ministry, no matter how devoted to God you are. It hurts to be mocked and ridiculed and laughed about. It hurts not to be taken seriously. It hurts to have to live in fear of losing your job or losing a friend or being rejected by your family or even losing your life. It hurts to know you might be beaten up or even killed because of who you are and whom you love. STOP IT!  IT HURTS!

It is hearing that message with our hearts as well as our heads that can stir up compassion among us as people of faith.

True compassion equals empathy

True compassion is synonymous with true empathy, which comes from the Greek words for “feeling with” – in other words, imaging ourselves and our own feelings if we were in the situation of someone else, so that we can truly love our neighbor as ourselves and do unto others as we would have them do unto us. There is a sense of solidarity – that what is happening to that other person is also happening to me.

In his book, A Spirituality Named Compassion (ch. 1), Matthew Fox has written, “Compassion is not altruism, but self-love and other-love at one.”[7]

He also emphasizes that pity and compassion are not the same. “Pity connotes condescension,” Fox says, “and this condescension, in turn, implies separateness—[the idea that] ‘I feel sorry for you because you are so different from me.’”

There is also the implied sense of regarding the other as inferior. He quotes the late Gestalt therapist Frederick Perls as warning that “most of what passes muster as pity is actual disguised gloating.” Fox quotes another author’s observation that sometimes there is an underlying element of “sadistic glee in the afflictions of others.’”

(An example of that was the shameful reaction of numerous religious people at the beginning of the AIDS epidemic that first showed up among gay men in the 1980s. Some religious people seemed to take pride in claiming that this was proof positive of God’s disapproval of homosexuality and God’s punishment of homosexual people.)

Fox says the “surest way of discerning whether one has pity towards or compassion with another is to answer this question: Do you celebrate with this same person or these same people?” (p. 3)

Clearly, many religious people, who claim to operate on a “hate the sin but love the sinner” philosophy and insist they love homosexual persons, nevertheless would never dream of celebrating the joy of these two persons as they speak their wedding vows to each other.

Instead, we hear claims such as Charles Colson’s statement that “the number one cultural priority of Christians” should be “stopping the spread of same-sex marriage” and that religious leaders should be leading the charge. Or we have James Dobson’s warning that what he calls the homosexual activist movement is working “to implement a master plan that has had as its centerpiece the utter destruction of the family” and that only the institution of marriage and the Christian church stand in the way of a 60-year plan to achieve this and other goals (Marriage under Fire, p. 19).[8] He claims that this “gay agenda” is what lies behind the efforts to legalize same sex marriage. The cover on his book shows two wedding rings being viewed through the crosshairs of a rifle scope.

Demonizing a group to block empathy toward the group

Demonizing a group is an intentional way of impeding feelings of empathy. Demonizing means spreading the idea that a group is either morally corrupt and worthy only of disdain, or else is profoundly different and lacking the same human feelings that other people have, and thus their feelings are not worth considering.

When people are demonized as members of a group, others feel they can justify treating them in less than humane ways or empathizing with their pain. Thus, under the slavery system in our country, slave owners and others who condoned slavery could convince themselves that the enslaved people didn’t have the same sort of family love as their white masters—that seeing their spouses and children sold off to other masters never to be seen again was somehow experienced differently by black people in slavery. And if they did show grief, they could be whipped.

I saw a PBS program about the history of Broadway recently. The narrators referred to one taboo that no one dared to challenge until 1921 when the musical Shuffle Along was produced. That taboo insisted that “romantic love between black characters was never shown on stage” if performances were in front of white audiences. (from jass.com, “Early History of Jazz)

The African American writer, educator, and civil rights activist James Weldon Johnson also referred to this early 20th century taboo. In his 1930 history of African Americans in New York and the story of Harlem, he wrote that“If anything approaching a love duet was introduced in a musical comedy, it had to be broadly burlesqued. The reason behind this taboo lay in the belief that a love scene between two Negroes could not strike a white audience except as ridiculous” (Black Manhattan, p. 171) [ 9]. Johnson went on to explain that theater managers deferred to a cultural superiority stereotype whereby white people believed that black people’s romantic love was different from that of white people – that it occurred “in some sort of “minstrel fashion or in some more primeval manner.” (p. 171). Hence, the belief was that white audiences wouldn’t be able to tolerate any challenge to this prejudiced belief.

But when African-American songwriting partners Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake were writing their musical Shuffle Along, they dared to challenge the taboo by including a love duet between an African-American man and woman.

During the first performance, the production team stood ready to rush out of the theater if violence erupted. But when the duet, “Love Will Find a Way,” was sung, the only thing that erupted was thunderous applause. The song not only tapped into the empathy that comes from recognizing a universal experience of any two persons in love, but it went on to become a hit love song that was sung throughout America. A barrier had broken down. (You can listen to an audio clip of the song here.)

Love will still find a way.

I’m persuaded that in time “love will find a way,” too, for those men and women who want to seal their commitment in marriage to their same-sex partner. But in the meantime, many people will use religion to ridicule the idea and imply that it is absurd to think of such love between two women or two men. Or that it is a religious duty to deny the pastoral gifts that LGBT people could bring to religious institutions. Empathy can help us as people faith to hear the pain—and yes, anger—at the injustice of it all. In view of the news this past week that the Vatican is going to bar from the priesthood men whose orientation is homosexual, even if the men are celibate, one 40-year-old priest wrote:

I find that I am becoming more and more angry. This is the church I’ve given my life to and I believe in. I look at ever person I come in contact with as someone who’s created in the image and likeness of God, and I expect that from the church that I’m a part of. But I always feel like I’m ‘less than’” (NY Times, 9/23/05)

Humility and Wisdom

Besides justice and compassion, there is a third requirement that the prophet Micah says that God asks of us: “to walk humbly with your God.” To walk humbly, according to the Jewish Study Bible, can also be translated “to walk wisely with your God.”

Humility is crucial in discussing God’s will for us as human beings, whatever our orientation—the realization that we do not fully understand everything about God or about what God wants. God is mystery, far beyond our human reasoning. We do not have all the answers.

There is a certain arrogance in an attitude reflected in yesterday’s newspaper about the move toward a split in the Anglican Church based on the belief “that homosexual activity is so clearly counter to the will of God expressed in the Bible and Anglican and Christian tradition that there can be no reconciliation without repentance, no agreement to disagree” (Washington Post, 9-24-05).

Many people are quick to say that God detests homosexuality, and they are fond of smugly using the word “abomination” to be uniquely applied to homosexual acts as God’s opinion of all same-sex relationships, based on an interpretation of two verses in Leviticus (and without regard to their context).

But not only does the Bible never mention the word homosexuality—or even the concept of sexual orientation as scientists understand it today—but Proverbs 16:5 reminds us that “All those who are arrogant are an abomination to the Lord.” The same word is used there as in Leviticus and is again translated as “abomination.” But have you ever heard anyone speak of pride and arrogance as being an “abomination,” detestable to God? Probably not. The word is almost always applied to gay and lesbian people as a category uniquely condemned by God.

God calls us to humility. We see that throughout the Jewish and Christian Scriptures. Jesus talked a lot about it over and over again. So did the prophets.

We are also told to walk humbly with God. Walking means not standing still. Learning what it means to love God with all our heart and strength and mind and what it means to love our neighbor as ourselves is an ongoing process, as walking is, step by step.

As we walk humbly and wisely, we will always be seeking more understanding, always open to learning and growing, always aware that all the answers are not already in, and that we all have much to learn as people of faith.

[God] has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8).

Amen. So be it.



1. The September 25, 2005 gathering where this speech was given was held as the commonwealth of Virginia was planning a referendum on amending the state constitution to ban same-sex marriage. The amendment passed 57% to 43% in November 2006. Its wording was some of the harshest of any such amendments passed by various states. It read:

“Shall Article I (the Bill of Rights) of the Constitution of Virginia be amended to state: “That only a union between one man and one woman may be a marriage valid in or recognized by this Commonwealth and its political subdivisions. This Commonwealth and its political subdivisions shall not create or recognize a legal status for relationships of unmarried individuals that intends to approximate the design, qualities, significance, or effects of marriage. Nor shall this Commonwealth or its political subdivisions create or recognize another union, partnership, or other legal status to which is assigned the rights, benefits, obligations, qualities, or effects of marriage.”?

2. Quotation from Albert Mohler review, August 26, 2005

3. See Robert L. Ferm, ed., Issues in American Protestantism: A Documentary History from the Puritans to the Present (Garden City, New York: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1969). Introduction to Chapter 7, “Slavery.”

4. Richard Furmon’s “Exposition of the Views of the Baptists Relative to the Coloured Population in the United States.” As president of the Baptist State Convention, Rev.Dr. Richard Furman wrote this letter to the governor of South Carolina, John L. Wilson, dated December 24, 1822. The letter, as reprinted online, is introduced with a request on May 28, 1823 by a B. Elliot requesting that the governor give his approval for distributing the letter to the general public. This historical document is from Furman University’s online “Nineteenth Century Documents Project.” Furman University, Greenville, South Carolina.

5. Nancy Cott, Public Vows: A History of Marriage and the Nation (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000), p. 43.

6. Our title was slightly changed between the 2005 hardback edition (What God Has Joined Together? A Christian Case for Gay Marriage) and the 2006 paperback edition, (What God Has Joined Together: The Christian Case for Gay Marriage). The 2006 edition also tells how we, the authors, came to the views expressed in the book.

7. Matthew Fox, A Spirituality Named Compassion (Minneapolis: Winston Press, 1979).

8. James Dobson, Marriage under Fire (Sisters, OR: Multnomah Publishers, 2004), p. 19.

9. James Weldon Johnson, Black Manhattan (New York: Knopf, 1930; DaCopa reprint with new introduction, 1991).


Copyright 2005, 2010 by Letha Dawson Scanzoni. All rights reserved.