05/10/2012 12:06 pm ET Updated Jul 10, 2012

How Amendment One Distorts the Bible

Many people have been surprised to see me, a professor of biblical studies, at "Vote Against" forums and rallies. I am referring to voting against Amendment One, the unfortunately overreaching amendment to North Carolina's state constitution, the one that was voted in this week by a margin of ~20 percent. It is precisely because I see the motivation to support this amendment as grounded in how people read the Bible that I felt an urgency to speak out, then and today.

Regardless of a person's perspective on the additional unintended consequences of this amendment, it was the fact that it was tied to how to define marriage that got the "For" people out to polls. All of the other personal or social implications become irrelevant when something biblical (read "God's will") is on the line.

There is a line in the movie "for the BIBLE tells me so," which I show in my introductory courses at Greensboro College, that I identify with. One of the pastors interviewed says, "I have a soft spot in my heart for biblical literalists, because I used to be one." I, too, can appreciate how a person's understanding of God's will for humankind does resonate to her very core, and that doing whatever she can to uphold such views will take precedence over all other efforts. There is nothing more important, for this person, than holding forth the truth and even enforcing it on others if needed.

Over the course of the past month, specifically due to one exchange with a kind Pentecostal Holiness pastor, it became clear to me that the need to support Amendment One is based on two things. The first is a terribly distorted reading of various biblical passages, and the second is the fear that acknowledging who/how non-heteros love will lead to the cessation of procreation. As far-fetched as either might sound, the former-literalist in me whole-heartedly would have agreed with this assessment.

On the first issue, several key passages are at play, most specifically "go forth and procreate" (Genesis 1:28), "Adam and Eve" (Genesis 2-3), "Sodom and Gomorrah" (Genesis 19), Leviticus 18:22, and Paul's infamous invective in Romans 1:18-27. But before we can address the passages, we all need to come to an understanding that for a literalist every word in Scripture is as God intended, and is therefore not suspect to scrutiny of any kind. The problem, here, is that not only is this a very recent development in the way to read the Bible (last 100 years or so), but it also, ironically, means that the literalist is not taking Scripture seriously enough. None of the cultural, historical, social and/or political realities that went into producing the biblical content get to be taken into consideration. Thus, something as basic as pointing out that there are, indeed, two different and conflicting creation stories (Genesis 1:1-2:3, Genesis 2:4-3:24) cannot be heard simply because that contradicts the beliefs that God is consistent and clear and is the author of every biblical word.

So, the command in Genesis 1:28, to go forth and procreate, is the crux of the creation story that gives the Hebrew people motivation to make lots of babies. This was important for a small group of people who had been promised they would be so numerous as to outnumber the stars. This is lovely, but the planet as a whole has an overpopulation issue today. Thus, the only way procreation is a concern to God today, it seems to me, is that we figure out how to curb it not compound it.

When a "plain reading" is employed to "Adam and Eve," people see that God intends that a man and woman be joined together in Genesis 2:24: "For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother, and be joined to his wife; and they shall become one flesh." Our English translations put onto this passage the "wife" label, though curiously enough not the "husband" label. In short, a passage that talks about a man leaving his parents and procuring a woman has been translated to imply that a marriage has taken place, and this is the part that matters to many Christians today.

Enter here the first of many disconnects in terms of the meaning of labels or relationships as we see them in the Bible and as they play out in the 21st century. Did marriage happen the same then as today? Was a wife 3,000 years ago the same social and political creature that wives are today? Did the Hebrew people view sex the same way as we do today? No, no and no. Thus, reading these passages literally is an act of insulting the God who gave us the ability to reason, it seems to me.

The misunderstanding of the Sodom and Gomorrah passage comes from reading about the men of Sodom wanting to gang rape -- for whatever reason -- Lot's visitors. Well-meaning people today will see that as "homosexual behavior," and the years of having seen it this way do make seeing it purely as an act of cruelty quite difficult. The stories in this part of the Bible are infamous for making their point through rather extreme consequences and scenarios. This is one of them: the Hebrew people were to be hospitable. As a fun side-note, Jesus is said to have referenced this passage in Matthew 10:1-15, where he tells his disciples what to do when they are not warmly welcomed by their own people. The issue is not one of sexual practices, but of hospitality.

"Abominations" in the Bible had cultural contexts that are simply not at work for Americans, for starters, today. They were things that Hebrew people were not to do; they were things that were counter to what made them the people of God. I invite anyone who wishes to focus on Leviticus 18:22 to expand her or his horizon to include all biblical passages that discuss abominations. Most of the other references are things that people do today without blinking, such as investing money with the expectation of earning interest, eating shrimp or anything that has many feet or crawls on its stomach, wearing clothing made of more than one fabric and so on.

Paul's invective, too, is culturally specific. But even if it is not, please pay attention to the libel and name-calling he also engages in in the surrounding verses (he misrepresents the worship practices of others for the sake of denouncing them, and offers a list of judgmental labels -- gossips, slanderers, God-haters, arrogant, boastful, disobedient to parents, unloving, unmerciful, etc.). His anger and hatred are assumed to be legitimate simply because, well, he is Paul and his words are in the Bible. Again, my reasoning faculties call the whole passage into question as "God's truth" given his temperament.

It is fear that drives this issue. As I stood there trying to understand what was at stake for the Pentecostal pastor in front of me, I informed him that gays and lesbians getting together does not stop heterosexuals from procreating. In all honesty, it seemed this point had not occurred to him. I understand his fear. But it, like so many, is not a reasonable one. And the best way to dispel a fear is to understand it first and hear it out. Then and only then can something more informed take its place.