The Puritan heritage still casts its long shadow over American culture, even if very few Protestants today would identify with Puritan theology in its original form. Puritanism survives in its moral rigidity, its legalism, and its exaggerated notions about the historic mission of the United States. At least among American Protestants, it also survives in the assumption that God is enormously interested in the way in which human beings deploy their genitalia. With the exception of the redemptive role of the United States, all these themes are very much in play in the current controversy about same-sex marriage—on both sides of the issue.
Churches and Christian groups are involved on both sides. There are differences on this between Catholics and Protestants. Rome is very clear on the matter—decisively opposed to same-sex marriage—so that Catholics with the opposite view are immediately put in an adversary position against the hierarchy. Generally, of course, the Puritan heritage is much stronger among Protestants, though it has also influenced Catholic culture in America, probably due to its long domination by Irish clergy and monastics. Perhaps the Catholic Church has been so preoccupied with the issue of priestly pedophilia as to leave little energy to focus on the matter of same-sex marriage (fortunately, nobody has advocated marriage between priests and altar boys). Protestants have divided over the issue across all major denominations. The division has mostly not been between denominations (with the exception of the Southern Baptists and smaller Evangelical churches), but between conservatives and progressives within denominations. Most conservatives have been, broadly speaking, Evangelical (with the exception of Episcopalians, where Anglo-Catholics have joined with Evangelicals in opposing the liberal attitudes of the national church).
Advocates of same-sex marriage frequently compare the issue with that of inter-racial marriage, which of course had been illegal in many states until fairly recently. More generally, the comparison is between homophobia and racism, both prejudices deemed un-American and un-Christian. The comparison is indeed quite instructive, though there are obvious differences between sexual orientation and race. Major Protestant churches—Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists—split over the question of slavery, taking positions depending on their location north or south of the Mason-Dixon Line. So far no denomination has split over homosexuality, though the Episcopalians are coming close. One new denomination has emerged on the basis of a religiously legitimated pro-homosexual (“inclusive” or “welcoming”) agenda—the Metropolitan Community Churches, founded in 1968. Not surprisingly, this group has also been progressive on other issues, just as the Southern Baptist Convention tends to be conservative on issues both above and below the beltline.
I have been intrigued by this comparison, and have just read a book by Mark Noll (arguably the dean of American church historians), The Civil War as a Theological Crisis (2006). Like other works by Noll, this is a superb exercise of historical scholarship. Of course it does not deal directly with the current debate on same-sex marriage. But the understanding of the latter is helped by such a look at the debate over slavery before and during the Civil War.
American Protestantism in the middle of the nineteenth century was overwhelmingly Evangelical, so that, unlike the current debate, the debate over slavery was mostly intra-Evangelical. What all Evangelicals have in common, now and then, is a very high regard for the authority of the Bible. Not all Evangelicals subscribe to the doctrine of inerrancy (which proposes that the Bible contains no error, at least not in the original Hebrew and Greek text). But there is the inclination to look for Biblical “proof texts,” no matter what the issue. Both pro-slavery and anti-slavery proponents shared in this inclination. As Noll shows, the pro-slavery types had an advantage. The same can be said about some pro- and anti-homosexuality advocates. The inclination is nicely summed up in the bumper-sticker question “What would Jesus say?”
The pro-slavery proponents could argue persuasively that the Bible nowhere condemns slavery. Throughout the legal texts of the Hebrew Bible there are numerous provisions concerning slavery, with important distinctions made between Israelite and non-Israelite slaves. Generally speaking, Hebrew law was much more humane on the treatment of slaves than the law of other ancient peoples. But nowhere is slavery as such deemed illicit. The same can be said about the New Testament. The Apostle Paul’s letter to Philemon (rather surprisingly, part of the canon) counsels this Christian slave owner to be kind to a runaway slave, even to accept him as a brother in Christ. But nowhere does Paul tell Philemon to free the slave. Paul’s attitude to slavery is made clear unambiguously in another epistle (Ephesians 6:5): “Slaves, be obedient to those who are your earthly masters, with fear and trembling…. as servants of Christ, doing the will of God (my italics – Paul’s word processor didn’t have any). In other words, slavery is not only okay, but is in accordance with God’s will. As far as I can tell, Jesus had nothing to say on the matter. Against this array of Biblical “proofs”, anti-slavery proponents had to fall back on a more general argument about the central thrust of the Bible and especially of the New Testament – emphasizing God as a God of love, and pointing to Jesus’ numerous expressions of compassion for the poor and the marginalized. This approach to the Bible has, of course, been characteristic of liberal Protestantism for a couple of centuries.
The Bible is also very specific in its condemnation of homosexuality. The Hebrew Bible is ferocious on this: “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall be put to death” (Leviticus 20:13). Incidentally, Leviticus also mandates execution for adulterers—by stoning—in a disturbing anticipation of Islamic law. (Fortunately for our modern sensitivities, there was no Jewish state for nearly two thousand years and thus no opportunity for the criminal legislation of the Hebrew Bible to be carried out—and, as far as I know, not even the most ultra-Orthodox have proposed these penalties for the contemporary state of Israel.) Paul lists homosexuals among those who are excluded from the kingdom of God, along with idolators, thieves and drunkards (1 Corinthians 6:9). Again, the Gospels record no statement of Jesus about this matter. Christians sympathetic to homosexual causes have to fall back on general arguments about the Biblical picture of God as loving all human beings and as having special concern for all those marginalized in society.
What would Jesus say? About slavery and same-sex marriage, and about homosexuality in general, apparently nothing. It is plausible to think that he was not very interested in these matters.
One lesson from this comparison is that it is difficult to deduce modern moral sensitivities directly from Biblical “proof texts”. Noll proposes that the theological crisis generated by the Civil War was, precisely, that this kind of Biblical exegesis became implausible for many American Protestants, and that it gave a strong impetus to theological liberalism in the mainline churches. Furthermore, this theological liberalism opened up space for other progressive causes for which no direct Biblical warrant could be found. The split between conservative and progressive Protestants has deepened ever since, to the point where moving across that division feels like traveling to a different country.
There is yet another, more general lesson to be drawn from these cases: Religious symbols are malleable. The same rhetoric of Evangelical Protestantism was used to defend and to attack slavery, and later on to do the same with regard to Jim Crow versus the Civil Rights Movement. To a lesser extent (because Evangelicals are much less dominant today), this is done today with regard to the so-called “social issues”. Of course this is not unique to Protestants or to Christians in general. Throughout history priests have prayed for the victory of opposing armies, and prophets have proclaimed divine blessing for opposing causes. Christians of all theological persuasions can subsume this phenomenon under the heading of original sin (once described by Gilbert Keith Chesterton as the only Christian doctrine for which no faith is required – one can verify it by just looking around). As to recourse to Biblical authority, liberal Protestants are better equipped to handle the ensuing cognitive dissonances, because they have accepted the historical contexts in which the Biblical traditions were formed. Without putting on my hat of lay (liberal Protestant) theologian, let me just give you a hint: Conservative/Evangelical Protestants say, “the Bible is the Word of God”. Theologically liberal Protestants may say, “The Bible contains the Word of God”. The two sentences seem to be the same. They are not.