For LGBT People, the Bible Is a Weapon of Mass Destruction

The feel-good verses can’t cancel this reality
Anyone who has summoned the courage and energy to fight racism, misogyny, and anti-Semitism knows how much damage has been done by Bible texts; hatreds and unspeakable cruelties have been fueled and justified by literal interpretations of scripture.

Anger, aggression, and territoriality have been imbedded by evolution in the human brain. We have to work hard to subdue these traits, and far too much of the time we fail—as the history of warfare makes so clear. What a shame that ‘sacred’ scriptures have so often endorsed fear of the other, the alien, the unknown. If you really do believe that God had a hand in writing the Bible, what a disappointment; as I’ve noted before, his job performance was well below par on his inspire-the-Bible days.

Many Christians, I am glad to say, use their brains, powers of perception and gifts of decency to put the Bible in its place. They can look at a text and declare, “No, that can’t be right,” or “We can be better than that.”

In this article I want to address the suffering inflicted on LGBT people because of the so-called ‘clobber texts’—those Bible verses that make it ‘perfectly clear’ that God considers homosexuality one of the gravest of sins. Moderate and liberal Christians utter an impatient, “Oh, please,” and look to the bigger picture of compassion they feel the Bible provides.

Full disclosure: I am gay, and have been with my husband for forty years. We were legally married not too long after we’d been together for thirty years.

But the most aggressive, high profile Christians—by which I mean evangelicals and conservative Catholics especially—continue to press the importance, the centrality, of the clobber texts. At the very least, these texts lurk behind their policies and pronouncements.

Here are the primary clobber texts:

• Leviticus 18:22: “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.”
• Leviticus 20:13: “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death; their blood is upon them.”
• Romans 1:26-27: “For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.”

But the problem goes much deeper than the ‘clobber texts,’ doesn’t it? After all, why in the world do many Christians embrace these texts so avidly? Where does that come from? It really isn’t a Christian problem at all; traditional African, Muslim, and Asian cultures have also been virulently negative about same-sex attraction. This, I’m sure, stems from the ‘fear of the other, the alien, the unknown.’ And with respect to homosexuality, the revulsion is intense, in full defiance of rational thought.

This truth was brought home to me again by Garrard Conley’s 2016 book, Boy Erased: A Memoir of Identity, Faith, and Family. Mr. Conley was a gay boy raised in Arkansas, smothered in a cult known as Missionary Baptist—which knew, of course, that it was the only right religion.

“I had heard my father preach against Pentecostal churches…[which] were such enemies: speaking in tongues, convulsing on the floor, crying out Je-sus and waving hands. To us Missionary Baptists, the only path to God was through a literal interpretation of the Bible, through baptism, through hard work, missionary work, dedication, and rededication.” (pp. 118-119)

Of course, the clobber texts were used to justify their deeply acculturated contempt for homosexuality. I recently came upon this description, written in 1960, of the emotion driving South African apartheid: the hatred of black people “was rooted in an irreconcilable physical revulsion…[that] was impervious to rational argument.”

Garrard Conley was up against much the same thing. During his first year at college he was raped by a fellow student, who then called Conley’s parents to tell them that their son was gay. What a nightmare scenario for the kid. For mom and dad, it was urgent to get him away from the college:

“…my mother had driven me home from college, speeding through yellow lights to arrive at our house in record time. As she vomited in an adjacent bathroom, my father led me into his bedroom…and explained that what I was feeling was wrong, that I was simple confused.

“‘It’s so warm, so natural,’ my father said, ‘being with a woman.’ I felt a sudden urge to join my mother in front of the toilet, our disgust uniting us for a moment, though for different reasons.” (pp. 159-160)

Their first impulse was to get the boy cured, to eradicate the sin.

So many Christians thrive in a deep well of ignorance, and not even a staggering family crisis ignites curiosity. Conley’s parents could not think beyond the category “sin.” They accepted their deep revulsion as evidence of God’s honest truth that homosexuality was an abomination; they had no basis for mistrusting the Leviticus and Romans.

But their son stood before them, the same kid they’d known for eighteen years. How could he have become an abomination? That alone is evidence that they might be out of their depth in trying to understand sexual orientation—itself an alien concept when thinking has collapsed under the weight of sin-obsession. Why hadn’t curiosity kicked in? “Maybe we should do some homework,” would have been an appropriate response. And as we read the story now, our curiosity kicks in as well: “How had these folks remained so isolated—and stunted in their understanding of the world?”

But we aren’t at all surprised; arrogant and aggressive ignorance keeps Bible literalists in business. They do not understand evolution and rail against it; they do no understand atheism, and rail against it. And they hate fags as much as God does. Why study homosexuality when God’s verdict was rendered centuries ago?

Conley recalls that, during his father’s ordination ceremony—when he was required to give assent to Missionary Baptist beliefs—

“…the pastor spoke a simple question into the microphone—‘Will you do everything you can to fight the sin of homosexuality in the church?’—and my father’s clear unequivocal answer swept through the congregation…‘Yes, I’ll do my best.’” (p. 232)

How, why, had these folks become so obsessed with homosexuality that this question was included in the ordination ceremony? We suspect that this smacks of ‘protesting too much.’ Human sexuality exists on a spectrum, so it’s no surprise if those who are even ‘a little bit gay’ freak out that sin is creeping up on them; some of the southern states rank the highest on Internet searches for gay porn.

In this context—the fundamentalism, his father’s status was a preacher—Conley was put into a conversion therapy program, Love in Action (LIA), under the auspices of Exodus International; it was taught by graduates of the program. The ‘treatment’ turned out to be grounded in heavy-handed bad theology and totalitarian discipline. Modern study of human sexuality was not brought into the equation at all; this could have no merit or bearing at all since homosexuality was sin. Period.

Participants were asked to draw their family trees, inserting labels, namely the sins by which their predecessors and relatives could be identified: alcoholics, gamblers, wife-beaters, deadbeats, adulterers, etc. This graphic offered the context in which their own sin of homosexuality could be seen in perspective. It was different in kind, perhaps, but surely was more of an abomination than so many of the other sins on the chart.

Another constant theme was how much of a disappointment they were to God if they failed to be cured of this addiction, homosexuality—which would be a triumph for Satan, of course.

“The Addiction Workbook went on to say that everything in our sinful, sexual deviant lives had been co-opted by the world, by Satan. In a section titled ‘You Are a Product of the World (and the Devil!),’ we were told that ‘Satan is the god of this world,’ that he has free dominion over everything not directly issued from the church or the Bible…”

“‘Also remember that now, as a Christian, you are NOT YOUR OWN, but you have been bought at a price (1Cor. 6:19), you must see Jesus as Master.’ We had to give over our memories, our desires, our ideas of freedom to Jesus our Master.” (p. 92)

Our desires. ‘Satan is the god of this world…”? How does this possibly make sense in a theology that embraces an all-powerful God? One of the facilitators affirmed this very thought: “We are under the control of a sovereign God who reigns over all aspects of our lives.” “…but as human beings, we were also subject to Satan’s temptations…We are affected by a sinful world system, our sinful flesh, and the manipulative attacks of Satan.” (pp. 86-87)

Galatians 5:16-17 is not one of the clobber texts, but ranting about our sinful flesh—hey, that’s how nature built us—is based on the apostle Paul’s unhealthy, unrealistic advice: “Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh…” Paul was a nasty piece of work, and if even one percent of mainstream Christians today share his views on heterosexual relationships, I would be surprised.

The righteous warriors who ran the Love in Action program obviously had no grasp of the damage they could do. Or maybe they did. No one ever becomes ex-gay. We suspect they lived every day with the torment of denying who they were, even to the extent of getting married and leading a pretend straight life; to stay on God’s good side.

Conley expresses honestly what it was like being himself, his normal healthy self as a teenager:

“…being secretly gay your whole life, averting your eyes every time you saw a handsome man, praying on your knees every time a sexual thought entered your mind or every time you’d acted even remotely feminine—this gave you an embarrassment of sins for which you constantly felt the need to apologize, repent, beg forgiveness. I could never count the number of times I’d sinned against God.” (p. 86)

When God heads the ultimate totalitarian regime—he knows even your thoughts—it’s so easy for his minions to become enforcers as well:

“Reading secular literature was discouraged at LIA—patients could ‘only read materials approved of by staff,’ our handbooks said, which usually amounted to only fundamentalist Christian authors—but even going a few days without reading had sent me into a nightly depression that made it difficult to sleep.

“During my high school years, I’d spent so much time and energy guarding myself against enjoying books too much, afraid that a compelling narrative might turn me into a heretic, send me rushing off on one of the sinful life paths I’d enjoyed seeing my favorite characters follow.” (p. 82)

Thank you, again, apostle Paul: “For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God.” (1 Cor. 3:19) The Bible is a Weapon of Mass Destruction for straights and gays alike.

One of the LIA techniques was forced confessions in group sessions, and it was during one of those that Conley walked out. “You’re crazy,” I said, “You’re all completely crazy.” “I took one step forward then found I had enough strength to take a second one…if I kept focusing on each step, I thought I might have the strength to reach the door…I didn’t look behind me. I didn’t look at the others. I kept my eye on the red exit sign.” (p. 324)

Walking away from the fundamentalist craziness wasn’t so easy. In the book’s epilogue Conley writes:

“I’ve had to spend so much time catching up with other people, learning how to believe in a world that no longer teems with angels and demons. Every time I’ve read a book or ingested a new historical fact that my Baptist upbringing taught me to reject, I’ve had to fight against the sneaking suspicion that I am being lead astray by Satan.” (p. 334)

He also notes a final irony. One of the LIA facilitators would later confess: “The transformation for the vast majority of homosexuals will not include a change of sexual orientation.” (p. 332). Which therapists have been saying for decades. Same sex attraction has been part of the human story forever; not because it’s a sin, but because some brains are wired that way.

There was a time, long ago, after I’d given up my ordination and left the church, that I gave lectures to church groups on the Bible and homosexuality, commonly under the title, “Is the Bible Really Anti-Gay?” My patience ran out, however. “But it says, right here in Leviticus, that man-on-man action is an abomination.”

Well, yes, but think it through: there’s not much in Leviticus that Christian take seriously. Why would those verses carry any weight today? And the apostle Paul gave bad advice about heterosexuality; he was wrong about so much. There must be compelling reasons for taking him seriously on anything.

Earlier I mentioned “…moderate and liberal Christians who look to the bigger picture of compassion they feel the Bible provides.” Three texts come to mind that can be used to knock out the clobber verses, i.e., love your neighbor as yourself, judge not, and let the one who is without sin cast the first stone. And, yes, it’s a matter as well of listening to the informed voices that have been speaking about sexual orientation for the last few decades.

It’s hard to save the Bible’s reputation at this point, but Christians themselves can recue their reputations. “We can be better than that.” Absolutely. What are they willing to do about it?

David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. His book, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith, was recently reissued by Tellectual Press with a new Foreword by John Loftus.

The Cure-for-Christianity Library is here.