Gary Leupp is a professor of History at Tufts University who also holds a secondary appointment in the Department of Religion. In a long essay, he tries to understand the origins of Christian homophobia, using as his takeoff point the issue of whether Duck Dynasty’s Phil Robertson’s much-publicized quoting of the Bible in support of his views was accurate.
The Bible has rampant homophobia but interestingly the four Gospels, that recount the life and teachings of Jesus, say nothing about homosexuality. Condemnations do occur liberally in the Old Testament but since liberal Christians take their cues mainly from the New Testament and are often quite willing to dissociate themselves from many of the crazy things in the OT, where does their homophobia come from?
They come mainly from the letters of St. Paul to the various congregations, and Leupp takes a close look at what Paul said and the context in which he said it. It is clear that Robertson was recalling the words from Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians (6:9) that says quite explicitly “Make no mistake—the sexually immoral, idolators, adulterers, the self-indulgent, sodomites, thieves, misers, drunkards, slanderers and swindlers, none of these will inherit the kingdom of God.” He says that those liberal Christians who denounce Robertson as distorting Christian teachings are avoiding the issue of how to reconcile their views with this passage.
Thus it is not enough for Christian clerics and religious organizations to rail against Robertson for saying hurtful, hateful things. They also need to admit that those things are indeed in the Bible, and that Robertson’s homophobia has a solid biblical basis. One cannot just wish this away, or accuse Robertson of distorting the “real” Christian message.
Leupp says that Paul’s denunciations of homosexuality were particularly extreme, even by the standards of his times. This was especially so considering that while he was drawing his inspiration from the Old Testament denunciations, he was quite willing to ditch all the other OT laws in the service of the new religion.
Was it not because he announced that the Old Testament laws—the Laws of Moses–are not applicable to the Christian? As I understand it, Paul had expounded his famous argument of “justification by faith” by the early 50s at least. According to Paul, one does not obtain spiritual freedom and eternal salvation through faithfully following the ancient religious law but through sincere belief in Christ (Galatians 3:23-29).
He suggests that the answer to this seeming paradox might lie in the fact that in addition to being a Jew and thus familiar with all the OT laws and prohibitions, Paul was also a Roman citizen and from that culture and that they viewed things through the lens of what constituted manhood.
So yes, Paul was a homophobe. Some might say he was “a man of his times,” but I think he was unusually intolerant on this issue. We have to assume a range of opinions about what we now call “homosexuality” among the various ethnic groups and classes in the Roman Empire. Craig A. Williams, whose Roman Homosexuality (2010) is the leading work on the topic, argues that for the Romans themselves, manhood was defined by control over others and of self.
It was perfectly acceptable for a man (so long as he maintained control over his sexual appetites) to bugger any slave, especially a good-looking boy, or a non-citizen. But a Roman man submitting to penetration would lose status, including his right to testify before a magistrate. The modern western concept of “homosexuality” as an identity or lifestyle did not exist. Nor was there any onus attached to any particular act. There were only forms of behavior that might be more or less threatening to gender ideals and social order.
There seems little doubt that the general opposition to male-male sexual contact found in Judean society was unusual in the Roman Empire, and indeed is rivaled only by the homophobia found in Iranian Zoroastrian writings (which may well have influenced Judaism). (See Louis Crompton, Homosexuality and Civilization, 2006). It seems the polar opposite of the classical Athenian attitude, which virtually celebrated some forms of same-sex attraction.
There are a couple of other interesting things in Leupp’s essay. He says that Paul’s very existence is not a sure thing and that his establishment as a key founder of the church came much later.
(By the way: we actually don’t know that much about Paul. Some scholars question whether he ever really existed. Some argue that he’s the invention of Marcion of Sinope, the leader of a Christian faction that flourished from around 120 and circulated the earliest New Testament, including a version of what became the Gospel of Luke and nine letters attributed to Paul. But I’m assuming that Paul was real, flourished ca. 35-67, and left writings that came to shape the early Christian community from its inception. There were also anti-Paul Christian schools such as the Ebionites who retained a strong Jewish identity. Paul’s status as a “Father of the Church” was only firmly established after 300.)
And he also points out that those of us on the left should not be too smug in our condemnations of religious opposition to gays since segments of the left were also very slow to coming round to acceptance of full equality of gays.
For example: from 1975 to 2001 the Revolutionary Communist Party in this country upheld a program associating homosexuality with capitalist degeneracy and declaring that under socialism “struggle will be waged to eliminate” it, along with drug dealing, prostitution and pornography. The statement was as dogmatically homophobic as any religious text, as anything out of Paul. It was truly tragic, I thought, since the party was doing some good work (for Mumia, against police brutality, Nepal solidarity, etc.), but alienating many with a position on the gay question that was simply wrong.
(Party members could no doubt point to the fact that Marx and Engels had seen homosexuality as something “unnatural” and that the USSR had from the early 30s banned it. These people too of course were wrong. Anyway you’d think it’d be easier for a Marxist to disagree with any particular Marxist thinker than it would be, say, for a Christian to disagree with Paul, whom they might imagine to be a spokesperson for God. But there are left political ideologues as bull-headed as religious fundamentalists when it comes to upholding some piece of orthodoxy.)
I am not a Marxist scholar and so do not know why Marx and Engels took their particular stance on this issue. It should be noted that this view ascribed to them was not in any of their published works but was mined out of comments made in one letter among their voluminous private correspondence. It may be because they immediately recognized the huge scientific and philosophical significance of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of the Species and may have been influenced by the fact that people used to think that since homosexuality did not have a direct beneficial role in natural selection, it thus could not naturally emerge out of the evolutionary process.