Today, more than 300 religious leaders are gathering in Washington under the auspices of the Human Rights Campaign, a leading advocacy organization for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people. I will be among them, and I want to tell you why.
I grew up believing that being gay was about the worst thing in the world, especially if you were religious. As a nice Jewish boy, I knew that Christians and Jews disagreed about a lot -- but somehow I got the message that all religions everywhere uniformly condemned homosexuality.
It took me the better part of a decade to learn that wasn't true. As I describe in my book, "God vs. Gay? The Religious Case for Equality," not only do the tiny handful of biblical verses often used as brickbats against gay people (six out of 30,000 in the Bible) not say what some people think they say, there are hundreds of others which demand that religious people support equality and respect for LGBT people. That's right: The majority of our religious teachings are for "gay rights," not against them.
Examples? That "it is not good to be alone" (Gen. 2:18) and that, as a result, finding intimate companionship is a sacred religious value. That the essence of the religious life is love (Deuteronomy 6:5, Matthew 23:38), and that to shut off our capacities to love -- as happens in the "closet" -- tears us away from what some of us call God. That, while the science of sexuality is relatively new, religious teaching grows when it adapts to new understandings of how the world is (Numbers 27:1-7, 1 Corinthians 13:11) rather than hide its head in the sand. Can you imagine where religion would be if it still said that the sun revolves around the Earth?
It is not theologically difficult to interpret the handful of ambiguous verses about sexuality in a narrow way -- most only apply to men, for example, and only certain sex acts in certain contexts. Over the centuries, scholars have squared much trickier circles of biblical text. That's the easy part. The harder part is doing the work of religious conscience, to come to know LGBT people as they are, not as they are feared to be -- and to respond accordingly.
These concerns are not "gay issues." They matter to everyone who considers herself or himself religious. And that's why the majority of the clergy coming to Washington today are straight -- because they recognize that LGBT equality is one of the defining moral, political and spiritual questions of our time.
For too long, the religious response to that question has been on one side only: the antagonistic one. And for too long, many gay people have been quite content to leave religion to the bigots. To be honest, I can't blame LGBT people for wanting to consign religion to the dust-heap. They've been abused by religious leaders, and often by their own family members, for decades -- and leaving the faith is often a sign of personal emotional health.
But religion has been abused as well, precisely by those who purport to speak in its name. I believe that, for all its many faults, and its great susceptibility to abuse, religion has the capacity to be a force for good in the world. I think discarding it would be a loss to humanity and a shame. This is not because of any particular belief or dogma, but because I have seen, precisely in my work with LGBT religious communities, that the language, myths and rituals of religion can provide meaning, solace and inspiration. I refuse to throw out this baby with the bathwater of bigotry.
I know that the hundreds of religious leaders I will be joining in Washington for HRC's "Clergy Call for Justice and Equality" feel the same way. We refuse the false choice between God and gay, and on the contrary recognize the LGBT community's call to justice as another in a long line of civil rights struggles that have moral significance.
In recent months, events in Japan, the Middle East and elsewhere have rightly eclipsed the spate of LGBT suicides from last fall in our regular news cycles. There are many issues about which religious people should be concerned today. But equality for LGBT people is still one of them -- not least because, shockingly, some on the right have now begun opposing anti-bullying laws, on the grounds that they are part of the "homosexual agenda." It's astonishing to me that bullies now have advocates in Congress.
But the real "homosexual agenda" is not different from the religious one: a world in which people are free, safe and respected; in which spiritual values guide our individual choices; and in which no one is regarded as less than fully human. Not only is this so-called agenda not a threat to our values -- it is an affirmation of them. It is a call to our better selves.