I was fortunate enough to be able to hear Jay Michaelson, author of God vs. Gay?: The Religious Case for Equality, speak at the Washington DCJCC in October, as part of the Hyman S. & Freda Bernstein Jewish Literary Festival. At the end of his excellent talk, a man in the audience stood up, ostensibly to ask a question. He announced, “Well, I wasn’t going to come to this event, but then I saw a picture of you.” We all laughed. A shallow disclosure perhaps, but Michaelson is indeed good-looking — and I think anything that gets people in the room is good. As many as possible need to hear what he what he has to say.
First and foremost, Michaelson is a scholar. He has a J.D., an M.F.A., an M.A., and he’s working on his Ph.D. — and all of these degrees are from Columbia, Sarah Lawrence, Yale, and Hebrew University. He’s also what I would probably call a Conservadox Jew. He makes learned, articulate, and persuasive arguments. This last fact is fortunate, because he covers in this book one of the more contentious issues of our time: what the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament say about homosexuality. And Michaelson doesn’t think those texts even come close to what every day we’re told they say.
Note: I am using the word “homosexuality” because it’s the word that Michaelson uses, and because many of the arguments that have been made against equality are based on verses that are concerned with “homosexuality” in the strictest sense (that is, same-sex sexual behavior), the Hebrew Bible and Christian scriptures having nothing to say about the social or cultural concepts of “being gay” or the same-sex relationships we’ve come to know in modern society. I do acknowledge, though, that the word can be clinical, distancing, and archaic.
Michaelson begins with the premise that while for him — and many others — the secular, constitutional argument for equality is sufficient, many religious people feel conflicted (at best) by the understood condemnation of homosexuality in scripture. He wants to meet these people where they are and address their concerns. “I sincerely believe that our shared religious values call upon us to support the equality, dignity, and full inclusion of sexual and gender minorities — that is, of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people.” It is said that only Nixon can go to China; similarly, only someone truly committed to the importance of religion could convincingly make this argument. And one of the things I like about this book is Michaelson’s willingness to take seriously the concerns of self-identified religious people. I don’t know that those of us who are absolutely committed to civil and legal equality for LGBT folks get anywhere by telling people their religious teachings don’t matter (and indeed, I would say we haven’t gotten anywhere).
I can see how some might feel that this endeavor is either a fool’s errand or completely irrelevant to the current debates about how our governments should treat LGBT folks. It might be both. Michaelson was preaching to the choir with this reader, so it’s hard for me to say objectively how convincing his arguments are, especially in the face of the constant drumbeat from places of worship of “Man shall not lie with another man as with a woman; it is an abomination!” As for relevancy: like it or not, religious beliefs inform opinions about secular issues; I think anything that addresses the motivations of prejudice is a good thing.
Michaelson divides the book into three parts: why our fundamental values support, rather than oppose, equality for sexual minorities; what the “bad verses” really say about homosexuality; and why inclusion of sexual minorities is good, not bad, for religious values. I found the first two more compelling than the third, and the second most of all. I am a fan of close textual readings, and it always amazes me when really important issues (like how we treat our fellow human beings) are decided on the basis of modern and often agenda-driven English translations of ancient texts. As Michaelson points out, only seven verses, out of more than 31,000 in the Hebrew Bible and New Testament, make reference to same-sex sexuality activity. So we don’t have much to go on — and we’d better make sure to get right the limited text that we do have. Indeed, the first part of Michaelson’s book is concerned with the values that should and must drive our understanding of LGBT folks in that absence. For instance, Jesus never made one recorded statement about homosexuality. Christians, then, are left with his teachings about love, compassion, mercy, tolerance, and justice for guidance about this issue.
I did have a few quibbles with Michaelson: More than once he mentions Eddie Long, who has been accusing of sexually abusing teenage boys, in the same sentence as other clergy condemning homosexuality found to be engaging in same-sex sexual behavior. But the problem with Eddie Long is that not that is he a closeted gay man or a hypocrite, as the others — it’s that he’s a perpetrator of child sexual abuse! Michaelson also uses the judgment-laden word “promiscuity” and similarly makes negative judgments about prostitution.
Overall, though, this book was excellent: persuasive and well researched. I picked it up because as a religious person, it’s important to me to know what my tradition says about homosexuality. I had assumed that mainstream interpretations were more or less accurate; I’d just dismissed them as archaic, as much use to me as the prohibition on wearing clothes made of linen and wool. Sadly, I’m not sure of the book’s chances of gaining a wider audience. But I can’t think of a book that our country needs more.