The XX Factor

Accurately Describing the Bible Is Not Oppression

Dan Savage.
Dan Savage speaks during the 15th Annual Webby Awards on June 13, 2011 in New York City

Photograph by Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images for The Webby Awards.

The manufactured outrage over Dan Savage’s remarks about the Bible that inspired what appears to be a staged walkout at a high school journalism conference may appear on its surface mostly to be a last stand of the anti-gay movement to regain ground by attacking one of the most compelling pro-gay activists in the country. And it is, but winning the immediate battle is really only the tip of the iceberg of what the right is trying to accomplish with this feigned outrage and claims that Savage is a “bully” because he accurately recounted what is in the Bible. It’s an attempt to redefine acceptable discourse so that statement of uncomfortable facts is considered off-limits, and, in fact, is redefined as “bigotry.” Unfortunately, some people are taking the bait, such as Jay Michaelson writing for the Daily Beast, in a tone that made it clear he would prefer to write from a prone position on his fainting couch, smelling salts strapped to his laptop. See, Michaelson is incredibly concerned that criticizing Christian teachings on homosexuality is bad for the gays.

Michaelson would be easy to write off as a concern troll, but to make things worse, he speaks a falsehood about Savage’s remarks. He says Savage’s remarks “represented a notable gay leader affirming that one must choose between sexuality and religion, between God and gay.” This is demonstrably untrue. In fact, if you actually read Savage’s remarks, he said the opposite: 

We can learn to ignore the bullshit in the Bible about gay people. The same way, the same way we have learned to ignore the bullshit in the Bible about shellfish, about slavery, about dinner, about farming, about menstruation, about virginity, about masturbation. We ignore bullshit in the Bible about all sorts of things.

What Savage was clearly saying was that it’s homophobes who are presenting a false dilemma with their claims that you have to denounce homosexuality to be a Christian. He was pointing out that it’s easy to reconcile pro-gay sentiment and Christianity by just doing what Christians are already doing when it comes to shellfish and slavery, which is preferring their own moral judgment over the Bible. So either Michaelson is lying about what Savage said, or he didn’t bother to read the comments he’s denouncing, or he has poor reading comprehension.

He does try to suggest that it’s the last one when he claims that the Bible’s condemnations of homosexuality “can be understood literally, narrowly, and with virtually no application to loving, same-sex relationships.” Well, no, not if you have basic reading comprehension skills. Leviticus is straightforward on this: “Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination.” Unless Michaelson believes that sexual penetration between a man and a woman can’t be loving, then this is straightforward: Gay sex is like straight sex, and therefore it’s an abomination by Biblical standards. (Plus, is Michaelson suggesting that it’s okay to be anti-gay in those cases where gay sex, as straight sex often is, isn’t in the context of committed, loving relationships?) Savage is closer to the truth of how Christians (and Jews, too) handle these kind of Biblical verses they don’t agree with: They ignore them. His advice is how religious people actually reconcile their faith to reality; Michaelson taking umbrage is, at best, nonsensical, and at worst, some kind of weird ax-grinding that has no respect for the truth.

Which is basically what this entire Savage dust-up is about. The American right is undertaking a huge project of trying to put right-wing politics beyond criticism by shouting “religious bigotry” any time someone gets in the way of their political agenda. If they can create a consensus that it’s somehow off-limits to criticize teaching that gay people are subhuman as long as you wrap it up in religion, that gives them a huge political advantage. Taken far enough, merely stating out loud in public that you don’t believe gay people are evil could be cause for the fainting couches to be pulled out and accusations that Christians are being oppressed. Sounds ludicrous? Well, consider that we’re currently debating whether or not it’s oppressing Christians to accurately state what’s in the Bible. Anyone who is actually supportive of gay rights shouldn’t be playing along with this feigned umbrage. It won’t stop until opposing anti-gay actions is considered completely off-bounds on the grounds that it’s an attack on religion.