05/14/2012 12:22 pm ET Updated Jul 14, 2012

Renewing a Queer (Religious) Agenda

The last couple of weeks have been difficult for queer folk. The United Methodist Church took a vote on the legitimacy of our lives and the citizens of North Carolina took a vote on the legitimacy of our love. We didn't fare too well in either church or state.

Whether our lives are deemed "incompatible with Christian teaching" or our loving relationships are deemed sub-par to straight marriages, the message is clear: there are some among us who do not believe queer people should exist.

Religion is often at the forefront of these arguments -- in both affirming and denouncing the legitimacy of queer lives. Faith played a role in President Obama's evolution in understanding and affirming same-sex marriage. And faith certainly played a role in the decisions made by Methodists and North Carolinians.

As we continue to consider the role of religion in our thinking about queer lives and loves, the following are a few of my own developing commitments toward a renewed queer religious agenda:

I am not willing to have the same biblical arguments anymore.

There is far too much to say about queer lives than can ever be said if we must always start back with argumentation over the same seven passages of Scripture.

I am always willing to point those genuinely interested to the appropriate biblical resources. We are, after all, the beneficiaries of at least two generations of astute biblical scholarship on questions of sexuality and the Bible. So if I am to take seriously that someone is adamantly opposed to the lives and loves of queer people based on the text of Scripture, then I should expect that person to engage in serious, scholarly study of the matter.

But what convinces me that these arguments lack seriousness and are largely ineffective exercises is the evidence that those wishing to have them seem not to treat the Bible with enough seriousness to be honest about "what the Bible says." Otherwise, there would be ample recognition that what we now call "traditional (heterosexual) marriage" is the result of many shifts in social norms and dramatic evolution in biblical understanding. Indeed, what we now call the heterosexual norm of marriage based upon mutual love and affection, rather than upon gender hierarchy and contractual transmission of property, would be utterly unrecognizable to Christians in centuries past.

I am not willing to compare myself to animals in order to justify my sexuality.
For those not satisfied to stop at "what the Bible says" about "homosexuality," there comes a typical recourse to what is "natural." For example, Tami Fitzgerald, head of Vote FOR Marriage NC, sums up the supposed point of the amendment, stating, "The whole point is simply that you don't rewrite the nature of God's design based on the demands of a group of adults."

And there are always well-meaning persons lining up to counter these arguments with scientific evidence for the "naturalness" of "homosexuality," the genetic markers for sexual orientation, and all of the best that science has to offer in favor of queer lives.

But I'm going to draw the line here. Because -- allow me to be candid -- if you need to know that caribou and dolphins have gay sex in order to recognize the legitimacy of long-term, committed same-sex relationships among humans, then something is very wrong.

We should be suspicious about the seriousness of these arguments as well. Because just like "what the Bible says," "what is natural" is an effective rhetorical placeholder for "the way I prefer the world to be organized." We have a long human history of justifying unequal and often violent gender relations, race relations and sexual relations through appeals to the "natural order" of things. So while many have taken delight at the display of queer folk justifying their lives and loves through self-comparison to insects and orcas, that game must come to an end.

I am not willing to leave queer "rights" up to (competing understandings of) God.

Another effective rhetorical placeholder for "the way I prefer the world to be organized" is a nod to the Divine will. And while many use "God's design" to argue against rights for queer folk, many others invert the argument to argue for God's design supporting gay rights. But neither of these ways of drawing upon one's understanding of God is an appropriate way to argue for or against rights -- those things we decide upon in legislatures, interpret and uphold in courts, and sometimes put to popular vote.

American philosopher, Richard Rorty, in his 2003 article, "Religion In The Public Square: A Reconsideration," helpfully argues:

It is one thing to explain how a given political stance is bound up with one's religious belief, and another to think that it is enough, when defending a political view, simply to cite authority, scriptural or otherwise ...The believer's fellow citizens should not take her as offering a reason unless she can say a lot more than that a certain ecclesiastical institution holds a certain view, or that such an institution insists that a given Scriptural passage be taken seriously, and at face value ... What should be discouraged is mere appeal to authority. (Journal of Religious Ethics 31(1), p. 147)

We must hold our conversation partners accountable to justify the appropriateness of public policy through more than an appeal to their understanding of the Divine. We should ask the uncomfortable questions: Who is privileged and who is disadvantaged by any given notion of "God's will" (or "what the Bible says," or "what is natural")? For whom is this or that a good thing to believe and act upon? How does this belief support or challenge oppressive and violent power relations that become frozen in institutions and public policy?

I am not willing to prattle on when lives are at stake.

I will not stop talking with others about religion and queer lives. I will accept invitations to speak publicly when they come and converse with those in coffee shops when the books I am reading are intriguing to them -- all because I believe in the efficacy of conversation and debate to change individual minds and institutional policy. But these cannot remain abstract conversations detached from the reality of the queer lives at stake.

So long as our queer children are bullied in their schools, so long as our queer teenagers kill themselves after years of suffering public torment, so long as our queer neighbors are victimized by hate crime violence, we must give attention to the ways our Christian tradition and religious rhetoric perpetuates suffering and death in the lives of queer people. From the Crusades, to the lynching tree, to queer hate crime murders -- we must hold our conversation partners accountable to say what they will say before the shadowy spectacle of the violence and death toward which some beliefs inevitably lead.

I am not willing to overlook the glairing interconnectedness of oppressions.

These debates about religious belief and public policy are not just about queer lives. North Carolina's Amendment One is itself a helpful reminder of this fact. An amendment specifically targeting queer lives would also have deleterious effects on other vulnerable populations, eroding the protections against domestic violence for unmarried couples (i.e., primarily targeting women victims of male violence) and detracting from the best interests of children in decisions about custody and visitation rights.

But more importantly, the power to define reality according to "the way I prefer the world to be organized" cuts across oppressions, serving the insidious ends of racism, sexism, heterosexism, ableism, classism, etc. Oppressive understandings of reality -- supported by appeals to "God's will," "what the Bible says" and "what is natural" -- place some in higher, privileged positions opposed to myriad "others" in lower, targeted positions, making some ever vulnerable to the oppression, injustice and violence of those with the power to define reality for the rest.

The great Mennonite theologian, Gordon Kaufman, explains this relation well, stating:

In such a society power and knowledge are ordered so as to move from their source on high down through the hierarchical layers of society, each higher rank having authority over those below and the whole structure legitimated by the divine king ruling over all. Those who know (or believe they know) what God wills, have inside information on the ultimate ordering activity in the universe, and feel authorized, therefore, to carry out whatever course of action seems required to implement this. To 'serve God' is to try with all the resources at one's disposal to impose this order on whoever or whatever appears disobedient or rebellious. ("In Face of Mystery," p. 77)

Right now, this hierarchical ordering is evident in the ways certain persons who "know the will and order of God" impose this order through institutionalizing heterosexuality as the only legally and religiously legitimate way to live and love. But after gay marriage debates come to an end and the inevitable day arrives when gay marriage is legalized across the land, our queer religious agenda will not be over. Nor should it be so narrowly focused in the present.

We must take our passion for increasing freedom and decreasing suffering forward, recognizing that our fight is not for the betterment of queer lives only. Our struggle is for the well-being of those made vulnerable to oppression, injustice and violence whether due to race, religion, gender, immigration status, sexuality, ability or class. Our work will not be over when the Methodists embrace us and North Carolina marries us. All oppressions are insidiously related and our queer religious agenda must develop the complexity of thought necessary to bring these connections to light and to work across the lines that have been constructed to divide us.

I am not willing to forfeit religion to those who believe they own it.

It is understandable that many queer folk have had to leave our churches, our denominations and our faith traditions to forge new paths. Religiously inspired abuse and rejection has driven many away. Some have found new churches, others have taken uncharted spiritual journeys and still others have distanced themselves from all things religious.

But as queer as it may sound, many queer people find their religious identity to be as important to them as their sexual identity. And while many wish not to admit it, we've been serving as your ministers and your musicians, your Sunday school teachers and your deacons all along.

We must not allow the conversation-stopping trump cards of "God's will," "what the Bible says" and "what is natural" to unquestioningly dictate what is appropriate in the way of public policy. And we must stand just as doggedly against forfeiting our queer place within our religious traditions under pressure from those within who believe we do not belong and those without who believe it is time we gave up the fight for religious inclusion. A queer agenda indeed.