Gay Bishop Comes Up With the Worst Argument to Support Same-Sex Marriage

An atheist says Bishop Gene Robinson’s new book, “God Believes in Love,” has some major flaws.

How do we convince religious believers to accept same-sex marriage?

The opposition to LGBT rights in general, and to same-sex marriage in particular, overwhelmingly comes from conservative religion, founded in the religious belief that gay sex makes baby Jesus cry. So if same-sex marriage proponents want to persuade religious believers to support same-sex marriage… how can we do that? Should we keep our argument entirely secular, and stay away from the whole question of religious belief? Or should we try to persuade them that God is on our side?

God Believes In Love book cover
Lots of people make the second argument. Bishop Gene Robinson is one of them. And Bishop Robinson is a man to be taken seriously. The first openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church, Bishop Robinson has been active in progressive political activism for many years: he is a fellow at the Center for American Progress, is co-author of three AIDS education curricula for youth and adults, has done AIDS work in the United States and in Africa, and famously delivered the invocation at President Obama’s opening inaugural ceremonies in 2009. He’s recently written a book, published by Knopf and widely reviewed and well-received: God Believes in Love: Straight Talk About Gay Marriage
. Aimed at religious believers who oppose same-sex marriage or are on the fence about it, the book makes a Christian case for same-sex marriage: “a commonsense, reasoned, religious argument made by someone who holds the religious text of the Bible to be holy and sacred and the ensuing two millennia of church history to be relevant to the discussion.”

And I think this is a terrible, terrible idea.

I am an ardent supporter of same-sex marriage. What with being married to a woman and all. I agree fervently that same-sex marriage deserves fully equal legal and social recognition with opposite-sex marriage, and I am very glad to see Bishop Robinson, and anyone else, advocating for it in the public arena.

But the argument he makes in his new book, God Believes in Love

, disturbs me greatly. I am deeply disturbed by the idea that God, or any sort of religious or spiritual belief, should have anything to do with the question of same-sex marriage. I am deeply disturbed by the idea that any decision about politics, law, public policy, or morality should ever be based on what’s supposedly going on in God’s head. I agree completely with Bishop Robinson’s conclusion about same-sex marriage — but I am passionately opposed to the method by which he’s reached it, and the arguments he’s making to advance it.


Thus begins my latest piece for AlterNet, Gay Bishop Comes Up With the Worst Argument to Support Same-Sex Marriage. To find out why I think God should have nothing to do with the debate over same-sex marriage — including for same-sex marriage proponents, whether they’re religious believers or not — read the rest of the piece. Enjoy!

Gay Bishop Comes Up With the Worst Argument to Support Same-Sex Marriage
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16 thoughts on “Gay Bishop Comes Up With the Worst Argument to Support Same-Sex Marriage

  1. 1

    So first off, I have to say that on a philosophical level, I agree with you completely. There is no question that the arguments Robinson makes for Biblical acceptance of marriage equality are deeply flawed, nor is there in any question about the unwisdom of basing public policy on faith and dogma.

    And I don’t entirely disagree on a practical level. At the very least, even if arguments like the one put forward by Robinson are the necessary tactic that many suggest, that only makes counter-arguments like your Alternet piece all the more important — to remind us of the strategic endgame, that religious arguments in favor of social justice are at best a tactical ruse, and are not inherently virtuous.

    But I do want to bring up one point that I think is neglected: You characterize the tactical value of arguments like Robinson’s as being a way to “convince” religious fence-sitters, but I think that’s actually not where the primary value lies. I think the main target audience here is religious people who have already been convinced by secular arguments, and are simply looking for a religious justification for what they rationally know to be true.

    This seems like a trivial difference, but I think it has some relevance when you talk about the lack of epistemic justification for Robinson’s Biblical “interpretation”. It is true that Robinson has no more warrant to call his “interpretation” valid than does Fred Phelps; however, if the goal is not to convince believers of the correct interpretation, but rather to give already-convinced believes an interpretation that comports with their secular beliefs, then the lack of epistemic justification becomes less problematic.

    (This still leaves the problem that it leaves unchallenged the idea that religious belief should have anything at all to do with public policy in the first place, and as I say, your piece is important and relevant in any case for those reasons.)

  2. 3

    The problem is that whether or not “God believes in love”, so do lots of non-believers, and where then does that leave the the classic evangelical position that only believers in Jesus go to heaven? I’m quite sure that like most liberal Christians Robinson does not believe the latter idea either. But Robinson’s support of gay marriage is intertwined with the liberal Christian point of view that Christianity is about a lot more than getting to heaven (indeed with a lot of ambiguity as to whether that was the point at all) and as such is not going to persuade born-again fundamentalists.

    What if one thinks (as I do) that Asian religions like Taoism or Buddhism make more sense than classic Christianity? What then is in this book for me?

    On the whole I welcome this book. If it signals a general paradigm shift in American Christianity that’s all to the good. However, ultimately gay marriage should be defended simply because of compassion and empathy for gay people.

  3. 4

    I agree with jamessweet that the point of religious arguments for homosexuality etc. is more to give believers who want to think it’s okay but have been taught the Bible condemns it an interpretation that makes them more comfortable with going with their secular convictions – not “God actually thinks gay marriage is okay and here’s why” so much as “here’s how you can reconcile your support of gay marriage with your faith”. Going by your summary of Robinson’s book, I would suspect that’s why he spends most of it advancing a secular argument but includes a religious one as well: he’s hoping by that point the reader will want to believe God is okay with same-sex marriage and will embrace that interpretation.

    I do feel pretty awkward reading religious arguments for something like gay marriage, simply because, well – looking at it from a neutral perspective, there is every reason to think the authors of the Bible, what with having lived thousands of years ago and all, were homophobic and meant exactly what they said when they said you shouldn’t lie with another man. Arguments that that isn’t the case tend to invisibly take as a premise that it’s the Word of God and God wouldn’t be homophobic because homophobia is wrong, so it can’t really mean that and has to mean something else. Which is great if you’re religious – obviously far better than actually deriving your morality from the Bible – but painfully circular to anyone who doesn’t already accept the premise that it’s the Word of God.

  4. 5

    Excellent essay. In addition, the case needs to be made that the Bible has a long ignoble track record of being wrong. It has been consistently wrong about the nature of reality, to the point where Bibliophlles have declared that it is not a book about science. This is because pretty much every scientific statement in the Bible is wrong. That the Bible is consistently wrong on moral issues is evident because every time that there is a dispute on a moral issue, both the Bible and the Bibliolators are always eventually proven wrong.

    The Church of England have always backed the wrong horse when any moral issue has been discussed. Then, after the dispute has been forgotten about, they have quietly changed sides and, from then on, claimed that they supported the good guys all along. Their opposition to gay civil partnerships has reversed in record time but only because it became a tool in their opposition to gay marriage. Now that they have lost that argument as well, I will watch them with interest as they change sides and pretend that they supported gay marriage all along.

  5. 6

    “But when we make a religious case for same-sex marriage — heck, when we make a religious case for any matter of public policy — we’re conceding that public policy should be based on religion.”

    Exactly this.

    I appreciate the sentiment of liberal christians who make these arguments. I can even appreciate the temptation to use the holy trump card in arguments with other christians. But “this is what we should do because this is what god wants us to do” is a justification that will never lead to a more just or tolerant society.

    With enough stretching and backflipping, one can read egalitarianism into scripture. But they have to bring it with them from somewhere else. The egalitarianism they seek is not in scripture. What is present and plainly stated in scripture? What can be taken from a straightforward reading of the christian holy book? The same hate and ignorance Robinson is trying to use his version of god to overcome.

  6. raj

    While I agree with Greta’s sentiment, I also recognize that different arguments persuade different people. If a person can’t see past “God”, then producing an argument from that point of view is valuable for them. If the only argument which can be made in favor of homosexual equality is a non-religious one, then will always some people who are not convinced and will thus be working against the rest of us. By making arguments in favor of homosexual equality from various viewpoints, it shows that the idea is not only a non-religious one, but instead is one which can be shared by many people and can be arrived at from various directions. It makes the view more universal.

    Along those, lines:
    this young man

    makes a very good argument for homosexuality from a religious viewpoint.

  7. 8

    jamessweet @ #1, and others: I agree that the purpose of this sort of argument, whether consciously or unconsciously, is to give believers a religious rationalization for a position that they know, for secular reasons, is probably right. But… well, actually, that’s sort of my point. I don’t want religious rationalizations to be part of political discourse. You can provide religious rationalizations for anything. The Religious Right provides rationalizations for what people already believe or want to believe or are most comfortable believing, as much as progressive Christianity does. And their rationalizations are as stubbornly resistant to evidence as any other faith-based worldview. When we validate the idea that religious rationalizations have a legitimate place in political decisions, we validate the Religious Right as much as we validate people like Bishop Robinson.

  8. raj

    Yep, Greta, I see and agree with your point. I missed that this was an argument being made in a political framework. I thought it was simply one author publishing a book and giving a religious based argument. I see nothing wrong with that. If the religious based argument is brought into a political framework, however, then we have problems.

  9. 10

    In reply to Greta @#7: I’m being a bit of a pedantic douchebag at this point, but to quote from the AlterNet piece:

    We have two problems here. First, we have the whole “correct interpretation of the Bible” thing….[Second], [w]hen it comes to questions of politics and law, why should we even pay attention to the Bible in the first place?

    (emph. added)

    The first problem is only a problem if your intention is to convince — if your intention is to merely provide rationalization, then it’s less of an issue.

    But yes, the second problem, I agree, is a problem either way 🙂

  10. 11

    To Greta Christina: I read the alternet article with great interest. As for my own opinion, I find myself agreeing with jamessweet and antialiasis. You argue that public political arguments should not be based on religion. In general, I agree with you. But I don’t think that the bishop is addressing the larger public sphere with an argument in favour of gay marriage. He’s addressing “bible believing” Christians, and trying to show them how they can reconcile their faith in scripture with the world as it is. It’s more of an act of reconciliation than an act of argument. (At least that’s the impression I get from your article. I haven’t read the book. Admitting that makes me feel like a kid who forgot to do his homework…)


    To dantalion: You wrote “The egalitarianism they seek is not in scripture”. I’m not so sure that’s true. What about the idea that all humans are made (equally) in the image of God? Also, I’m sure there are a few passages that are explicitly egalitarian. For example: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).
    Of course, that’s from St. Paul’s letters… and in those same letters Paul also says that slaves should obey their masters and wives should obey their husbands. (Collosians 3:18, 22). I’m not arguing that the bible is egalitarian. I’m just arguing that one can indeed find egalitarianism in Christian scripture.

  11. 15

    I’m wondering if, rather than making a general argument on religious grounds for same-sex marriage with Christians at large as his intended audience, Robinson’s book is really aimed squarely at the other Episcopal bishops who aren’t quite on board with it yet. At the last General Convention a resolution was passed approving the blessing of same-sex marriage generally, but giving the bishops final say in whether it could be performed in their dioceses. My parish is almost unanimously in favor, but we’re in a conservative diocese with a bishop who is either opposed to it or is not willing to alienate some of the more traditional parishes who chose to remain rather than defect with the Southerners. It’s so frustrating! We have two different male couples in our congregation who really, really want to get married in our church, and our parish really, really wants to let them have the weddings there.

    So, church politics, in other words.

    But I agree with you that one’s ethical motivations for a given stance, particularly when it comes to public discourse and the ballot box, should not be dependent on one’s religious beliefs. Aside from giving the fanatical more power over our lives, it’s simply intellectually lazy. When I taught college English, I got called on the carpet once by my department chair because a student claimed I was teaching atheism in class (it was a Jesuit university), when what I had actually said was simply that the Bible was not considered a final authoritative source outside of religious studies and could not be used to support one’s position out of context.

    And morality runs far deeper than religion. I was raised in the UCC and met my husband, an atheist, in college. It was far more important to me that we agreed on issues from abortion and women’s rights to gay rights (this was the 90s, when gay marriage was not yet close to being a reality) to social and economic justice, to nuclear disarmament, than whether or not he’d be willing to sit next to me in church and read out the Nicene Creed. His politics, as it happened, told me far more about his ethics and values than his lack of belief in an all-powerful deity ever could.

  12. 16

    I disagree entirely. The truth of the matter is that we don’t need to convince atheists that gay marriage is okay; most straight atheists are happy for our gay friends to get married! It’s the religious that need convincing, and you’re not going to get anywhere with the deeply religious if before you can convince them that gay marriage is a moral imperative you have to convince them that god shouldn’t be involved in marriage. For the religious, that’s a deeply held core belief. This bishop’s argument isn’t meant for the general population. It’s meant for the religious, and it uses the language that they believe in and are willing and ready to accept: talk of god’s love.

    Equal rights for gay people are too important to set aside until after we’ve obtained equal rights for atheists. Not to mention, there are plenty of gay christians out there who do believe that marriage is a contract between people and god, and who need the affirmation from someone with authority that their marriage is sacred too.

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