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The Values Voter Summit and the Idolatry of 'Family Values'

10/13/2011 10:56 am ET | Updated Feb 02, 2016

Recently almost all the major Republican presidential candidates attended the 2011 Values Voter Summit, sponsored by the Family Research Council and the American Family Association. Both the FRC and AFA have been officially designated as hate groups by the Southern Poverty Law Center for bearing false witness against LGBT people. Indeed, many speakers at the summit engaged in the biblical and theological condemnation of LGBT people.

Ironically, the real sin that was on display at the Values Voter Summit was not homosexuality or transgender identity but the idolatry of so-called "family values" by the religious right. In my view, speakers at the Summit exhibited a remarkable disregard with respect to what the Bible and Christian theology actually say about marriage and family values.

First, contrary to what "family values" advocates would have us believe, heterosexual marriage is actually not the New Testament ideal. Rather, celibacy is to be preferred over marriage. The apostle Paul writes in 1 Cor. 7:38 that "he who refrains from marriage will do better." According to Paul, a person should marry only if she or he cannot engage in self-control; it is better to marry than to be "aflame with passion." So here is my question to the religious right: if, biblically speaking, heterosexual marriage is already a concession to human sexual desire, then why can't LGBT marriage be justified with the same reasoning?

Second, there is no single model of marriage or family in the Bible, contrary to what the religious right tells us. In fact, the scholar Virginia Mollenkott has noted in her book Sensuous Spirituality that there are at least 40 different models of marriage and family in the Bible, ranging from polygamy to levirate marriage (that is, marrying the widow of one's deceased brother) to spiritual marriage. The assertion that marriage has "always" been between one man and one woman for the sake of reproduction is simply untrue.

Third, Jesus expressly condemns the idolatry of the biological family. He chooses discipleship over genetics. In Matt. 12:48, Jesus asks, "Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?" when he is told that his immediate family wanted to speak with him. He points to his disciples and says that they are his true brothers and sisters and mothers. Indeed, the early Christian church understood itself as a radical new kind of family, a family by adoption and not by birth. From the beginning, Christian notions of kinship have trumped mere biological kinship.

Fourth, Jesus says in Mark 12:25 that there is no marriage in the resurrection, because we will be like "angels in heaven." Similarly, Paul writes in 1 Cor. 15:44 that our spiritual bodies will differ from our physical bodies. If our ultimate end involves transformed bodies, then why is the religious right so obsessed with policing certain forms of sexuality over others here on Earth? If we understand the Christian story of salvation as a grand arc from creation to separation to redemption to return to God, then shouldn't love -- and not just sexual acts -- be at the heart of biblical and theological ethics? (If anything, heterosexual sex, as argued by Augustine of Hippo, is the vehicle through which original sin spreads to all people, which is not exactly a positive thing.)

Fifth, the Bible is simply not talking about LGBT relationships as we understand these concepts today. Contemporary scholarship has shown that the notion of the "homosexual" as a classification or identity was not invented until the 19th century. In the ancient world, people were often classified as tops or bottoms (that is, penetrators or the penetrated), without regard to the biological sex of their partners. In my view, the biblical passages cited by anti-LGBT Christians are largely about same-sex rape and male anxieties of being conquered and sexually penetrated in a patriarchal culture. To say that the biblical texts unquestionably condemn LGBT relationships as we understood them today is anachronistic at best, and dishonest at worst.

For me, the real sin that was exposed at the Values Voter Summit was neither homosexuality nor transgender identity but the (mis)use of the Bible and Christian theology as a thinly-disguised proxy for politics. As Jesus teaches us in Mark 12:17, we are to give to Caesar what is Caesar's, and give to God what is God's. The extreme flag-waving rhetoric of patriotism and family values by the religious right is simply not a Christian value. Indeed, the religious right conveniently overlooks the fact that it is the political and religious leaders of Jesus' day who sentenced him to death and crucified him.

The great 20th-century theologian Karl Barth condemned the Nazi party for using Christianity to advance its own ideology and political purposes. Indeed, Barth argues in his The Epistle to the Romans that the first chapter of Paul's letter to the Romans -- commonly used by the religious right today to justify biblical and theological attacks on LGBT people -- is actually a condemnation of the idolatrous worship of secular powers, including political institutions. That, to me, is the real danger of blurring the boundaries between church and state.

I would suggest that the organizers and attendees of the Values Voter Summit go back to their Bibles and read the parable of the sheep and goats in Matt. 25:31-46. In that parable, Jesus warns us that those persons who turn their backs on the stranger (that is, the "least" among us) will be rejected by Jesus at the last judgment. Perhaps the religious right should stop obsessing about the speck of sawdust in the eyes of LGBT people and take a closer look at the plank in its own eye (see Matt. 7:3-5). Has the religious right been truly welcoming of the strangers in its midst, in both word and deed? Or has it merely been worshipping at the idolatrous altar of "family values"?