Is Jay Michaelson ignoring the Bible, too?

In his now-infamous remarks at the National High School Journalism Conference, Dan Savage made two crucial points: that the Bible says some terrible things, and that we can choose to ignore these things because they are terrible. Though the resulting firestorm of controversy focused as much on his choice of words as what he was actually saying, it reaffirmed that such ideas are still unacceptable in mainstream American discourse. In two articles at The Daily Beast, author and activist Jay Michaelson further argues that Savage is simply wrong to recommend that we “ignore the bullshit in the Bible about gay people”.

As Michaelson sees it, this amounts to “affirming that one must choose between sexuality and religion, between God and gay”, leaving no place for gay religious people and reinforcing the idea that homosexuality is incompatible with religion. Yet Savage did no such thing; instead, he offered a completely viable means to reconcile one’s faith with support for the equality of gay people. Christians can just ignore the parts of the Bible which conflict with their pro-gay values.

We know this is a realistic option because, as Savage pointed out, even conservative Christians already ignore aspects of the Bible – such as its apparent support for slavery – which conflict with their own values. If they chose to accept gay people, they could likewise disregard any portions of the Bible which contradict this stance. This is not a novel proposal; it’s fully compatible with most modern Christian attitudes toward the Bible. And it offers all Christians, queer and straight, a way to maintain both their personal faith and their support for gay rights. Whatever one may think of Savage’s idea, there’s no way that it forces anyone to choose between gay rights and religious belief. They can easily choose both.

Michaelson, however, suggests that there’s no need to ignore any part of the Bible to support gay equality, as the verses which appear to be anti-gay actually aren’t. He contends that “the Bible says nothing about gay people at all”, because the idea of homosexuality as an enduring, exclusive orientation did not exist at the time it was written. Instead, he says, verses such as those in Leviticus 18 pertain solely to anal sex between men as a kind of idolatry, and can be disregarded as part of Old Testament ritual law.

I struggle to see how this is anything but a more detailed formulation of Savage’s suggestion to “ignore the bullshit” – Michaelson has just provided Christians with an easily understandable rationalization for ignoring such verses as irrelevant. (Of course, it’s unclear whether this also gives Christians an excuse to disregard other prohibitions of Leviticus – such as having sex with one’s mother – as long as one does not do so anally or in an idolatrous manner.)

Moreover, it’s plainly disingenuous to claim that the Bible couldn’t be talking about gay people merely because its authors had no explicit concept of being gay as a romantic and sexual orientation. Unless one believes that gay relationships never have a sexual component, a condemnation of homosexual intercourse does pertain to gay people, even if the Bible makes no reference to people who were identified as gay or exclusively gay in their sexual habits.

Michaelson himself later refutes this argument, describing homosexuality as “a particular, modern, European concept that has no parallel in Ancient Near Eastern Biblical literature, save perhaps in the story of David and Jonathan.” Apparently, the modern-day idea of homosexuality has no parallel in the Bible, except when it does.

In chapter 12 of his 2011 book, God Vs. Gay?: The Religious Case for Equality, Michaelson says:

What is clear is that Jonathan loved David in an intense emotional way that is far more than mere platonic love or friendship … and that both he and Saul had relationships with David that would conventionally have been understood as including an erotic element.

Even if the Bible’s authors had no concept of homosexuality, they still describe a committed emotional relationship between men that went beyond mere friendship and probably included sexual activity. So it’s clearly impossible that Leviticus 18:22 was describing homosexuality – unless it actually was.

Michaelson points out that “about 40% of Americans believe the Bible to be the word of God”, asking us, “Do we have nothing to say to them, except to demand that they ignore the bullshit?” The answer, challenging as it may be, is yes. Just as we expect people not to be prejudiced against women, racial minorities, or the disabled, we can expect them not to be prejudiced against gays – no matter what theological contortions this requires of them. Indeed, ignoring the bullshit is precisely what Michaelson teaches them to do.

The problem, however, lies in the assumption that we must always find a way to make the Bible appear compatible with modern morality for the sake of that 40%. If we’re going to develop whichever interpretations are needed so that the Bible is congruent with the prevailing values of the day, how is this not tantamount to ignoring the Bible altogether? When we can make the Bible say anything, it no longer matters what it actually does say. There’s nothing wrong with that, and as an avowed atheist, I agree that it shouldn’t matter at all. But let’s not kid ourselves about what’s going on here.

If these literalists need to change their interpretations so they can believe the Bible supports whatever they want it to, then their own values have already prevailed over the Bible. Pretending that the Bible backs our preferred values is a cheap, lazy way of harnessing the trust society has placed in the Bible to lend support to what are really our own morals. Michaelson’s proposal is actually much more insidious than Savage’s coarse suggestion to “ignore the bullshit”, because Michaelson aims to grant Christians a license to disregard the Bible at will, while still claiming they follow every word of it. At least Savage, and myself, are open about our intentions: If the Bible is wrong, it’s okay to put it away.

Is Jay Michaelson ignoring the Bible, too?

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