A lot of people are discussing Barack Obama's recent off-the-cuff remarks about the Bible and same-sex civil unions. I want to delve a little bit into the contrast he draws between the Sermon on the Mount and Romans 1. The gist of his statement is (1) the Sermon on the Mount is more central to Christian faith than an "obscure" passage in Romans, and (2) the Sermon on the Mount should influence our attitudes toward civil unions in some positive way.
1. I don't think Romans 1 is all that obscure. I think he means that it's difficult to interpret, but there actually isn't all that much disagreement among serious biblical commentators who have bothered to connect their exegesis with a serious study of the whole book. Virtually everyone in that category acknowledges that Paul saw male-male and female-female sexual acts as bad and as the consequence of sin, and most recognize that he saw them as immoral. That doesn't count as obscure in my book, even if a few of the details in the passage might be debated. It's certainly no more obscure than the Sermon on the Mount, which has plenty of contested questions.
2. Romans 1 is not the only passage relevant to homosexuality. The Torah expressly forbids the same thing Romans 1 discusses, and it does so in pretty clear terms in two places in Leviticus and by implication in Genesis 19. I think the prophets may refer to it once or twice, too. In any case, just dismissing Romans 1 wouldn't be enough, but he treats it as sufficient.
3. Romans 1 isn't even the only New Testament passage relevant to this issue. Terms used for the passive and active partners in male-male sex appear in a vice list in I Corinthians (and one of those words appears in I Timothy). Jude 7 also assumes the Torah background.
4. What in the Sermon on the Mount does he mean? His argument seems to be that he's more willing to go with a passage he sees as more important over one that's "obscure" (and thus less important?). But what important passage in the Sermon on the Mount does he mean? It has to be a clear enough implication from what Jesus says that it's strong enough to outweigh all these other parts of scripture. Does any part of the Sermon on the Mount have such a clear implication for the issue of civil unions?
Some have suggested that he means the command not to judge, which of course is not a command not to call wrong things wrong, or else the biblical authors would all violate it repeatedly.
Others have put forth the many aspects of the Sermon on the Mount that have to do with loving your neighbor. I wonder if that would be question-begging. Some of the people he is taking issue with do not consider it loving to support same-sex unions, because they see such support as endorsing something immoral and in fact against the well-being of all involved.
5. More important, justifying civil unions by the Sermon on the Mount doesn't remotely require rejecting anything Paul says in Romans 1. Romans 1 is about the unnaturalness and immorality of gay sex. It isn't about what legal rights gay couples should have. So even if you think the Sermon on the Mount requires supporting civil unions for same-sex couples, that doesn't require denying anything in Romans 1. So why hold the two in opposition the way he does?
6. The Sermon on the Mount contains within it one of the most significant passages defending a high view of scripture in the entire Bible. Jesus says not one tiny mark from the Torah will ever pass away. He does argue that people have used the letter of the law to go against its spirit, and he does suspend some particular applications within the Torah for Israel at the time that are no longer the best applications in the new covenant he is initiating of the general principles behind the Torah (which may suggest a third possibility for what part of the Sermon on the Mount Obama meant). But that doesn't mean you can just take any particular application and deny it. Jesus never addresses homosexuality explicitly, although he does several times implicitly exclude it from his definition of marriage. In first century Palestine it was hardly an issue the way it was in the wider Greco-Roman world to whom Paul wrote his letters, though, so it's not surprising to see it explicitly treated in the epistles but not the gospels. But the point is that Jesus expresses such a high view of the Torah in the very passage Obama points to, and Obama acts as if everything rests on that one passage in Romans, ignoring the Torah passages that Jesus says will never pass away.
This whole incident reminds me of what Howard Dean and John Kerry kept doing in the 2004 election. They'd try to show their familiarity with the Bible in order to win over the faithful but in so doing alienated themselves from evangelicals. There is a difference. Barack Obama almost certainly knows the Bible better than either Kerry or Dean. But he's still alienating evangelicals by acting as if he needs to get rid of the majority interpretation of a passage that seems to have a very clear teaching. Then he's acting as if another passage somehow outweighs it when there's no conflict between the two passages and even no conflict between the view Obama wants to defend and the passage whose clear teaching he's trying to reject.
If you don't take the whole Bible seriously, don't try to pander to evangelicals with the parts you do take seriously. It isn't going to work. John McCain seems to know better than to try this sort of thing, even though he probably knows the Bible less well than Obama does. But he's politically astute enough (not that Obama isn't) and has had enough contact with evangelicals (which, I suspect, is Obama's problem; he probably doesn't know very many) that he knows to stay away from this kind of thing if he wants to avoid looking insincere to a large bloc of voters.
For some good critique of the media handling of this incident, see Mollie Hemingway's post at GetReligion.