Obama on Homosexuality

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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.

18 Comments

A lot of this turns on how you interpret "more central". You seem to interpret it as meaning that Obama accepts the Sermon on the Mount, but denies Romans 1. But that hardly seems charitable.

Nothing in the article demands a reading that Obama rejects Romans 1. As you note in point 5, there is no necessary conflict between supporting civil unions and finding homosexuality to be immoral. So what makes you think that Obama is rejecting Romans 1?

I find it far more likely that he is saying that the Sermon on the Mount is the foundation for how he views other passages of scripture (including Romans 1). I know that when I say that I find a passage of Scripture to be central, that's what I mean by it. So, for example, I find John 17 to be more central than Psalm 23 (even if far more people know Psalm 23 than John 17). That doesn't mean that I reject Psalm 23, or don't like Psalm 23. It's just that much of my theology is built on John 17 while little of it is built on Psalm 23.

So why does Obama bring up Romans 1? Not becuase he rejects it, but because he interprets Romans 1 through the SotM, not the other way around. And he brings it up because there are others who really do interpret it the other way around. (I know--I've met many.) Now, yes, there are many other passages about homosexuality that he could have referenced, but I don't think he was trying to be comprehensive here, and I don't think that the occasion warranted that. (And I agree with you that I certainly wouldn't have called Romans 1 "obscure".) But again, nothing in his words indicates that he thinks that homosexuality is moral--he just thinks that people shouldn't be discriminated against because of it. I'm sure you agree with him on that, as do I.

He further goes on to say that Christians can in good faith disagree on that. He's not trying to disparage those who interpret the SotM via Rom1, he's just saying that he disagrees with them.

So I'm not really sure that there's anything there for you to disagree with him about.

It does come across to me as if he's pitting one text against the other, and the ground seems to be Romans 1's obscurity, an argument that depends on its actually being obscure (which you and I both deny) and on there being no other passages that aren't obscure that say the same thing (and I think you're with me on denying that).

I'm not saying I disagree with him all that much. At least half of what I'm saying here is about how he's going to be perceived by evangelicals. But I do think some substantive disagreement arises from his obscurity claim and from the fact that he bases his argument on its obscurity, an obscurity that, even if I granted it, would be irrelevant if there are other, non-obscure passages teaching the same thing.

You're reading an awful lot into the word "obscure". That word seems to be the only basis you have for thinking that he pits the texts against each other and ignores one in favor of the other.

While I think that "obscure" is horrible word choice, I think that that is *all* that it is. I seem Obama using it to mean "not as central". Read the whole article again and replace the sentence in question with "If people find that controversial then I would just refer them to the Sermon on the Mount, which I think is, in my mind, for my faith, more central than an less central passage in Romans." I can see in how in an off the cuff moment he might come up with the word "obscure" when searching for a foil for "central".

When reading it that way, I don't see anything that indicates that he doesn't have a high regard for scripture or that he's ignoring any scripture. Nothing in the article indicates that he thinks that homosexuality is morally permissable.

So while I have an issue with his word choice, I really see no substantive issues here at all.

That sentence seems to me to mean something completely different from what he said, though. I have a hard time hearing that sentence the way you are. It seems more likely to me that obscurity is about clarity and not centrality. I'm certainly not the only one to think this. Hugo Schwyzer interprets him that way, and he's defending him.

And I do think it matters that he doesn't mention other passages. You don't have to list them all to acknowledge that there are others and that those who base anything on Romans 1 will also rely on those others.

I'm not sure your interpretation helps him on one score, either. The reference to Romans 1 still makes no sense. Why is he contrasting the two passages? That was the concern I had that bothered me the most. The argument against same-sex civil unions doesn't rely solely on Romans 1, so treating Romans 1 as not central doesn't remove opposition to same-sex marriage anymore than treating Romans 1 as unclear does. Why mention Romans 1 then, unless he is trying to distance himself either from the text itself or from a particular interpretation of it? We agree that he probably isn't doing the first. I took him to be doing the second in taking "obscure" to mean unclear. So I'm not sure how "less central" explains what he's up to in bringing up Romans 1.

Obscure can mean "out of the way" which would stand in contrast to "central". It doesn't have to mean "unclear", though it usually does mean that in *theological and academic contexts* (which is, notably, not Obama's context). But "unclear" doesn't stand in any good contrast with "central" so I'm disinclined to read it as "unclear" when "out of the way" makes for a good contrast (and the context makes it clear that he was going for some sort of contrast) and is also the more charitable reading. But again, I do think it is bad word choice to begin with.

I think Obama is saying that in Scripture, passages about how we live amongst sinners as sinners (e.g. SotM) are more central than passages about prohibitions of evil (e.g. Rom 1). Listing all of the passages which prohibit evil is no more necessary to make his point than listing all of the passages about how to forgive and live among those who are sinning. The fact that there are other passages that prohibit homosexuality is irrelevant for someone who isn't trying to claim that homosexuality is morally permissable.

(All that to say, Obama brings up Rom 1 as an example of a prohibition, not in order to deny that prohibition.)

I think Obama is merely saying that he interprets prohibitions in light of passages about how to love those who break those prohibitions. There are many who do it the other way around. Indeed, most in my school do.

Again, you're reading a lot into the words "central" and "obscure". Your whole argument depends on them meaning that he pits one agaist the other. They really don't have to imply that and charitably, you should be looking for better meanings for those words. "Obscure" really can mean something along the lines of "not near the center" and you admit that that shows Obama in a much better light. Why insist that "obscure" implies that Obama has a low view of Scripture when *nothing* else in the article indicates that?

If that's what he meant, then I think he's expecting an awful lot of people to get that out of it rather than all the other things people have been pulling from it. I was trying to distance myself from all the crazy interpretations I've seen that make him look either completely idiotic or grossly ignorant of the Bible. That's still not charitable enough for you, because there's a pretty unnatural way to take his language that makes his statement less theologically problematic but less able to express himself well than his reputation would lead us to expect. I'm more inclined to take his language in a way closer to face value, with some room for more charitable interpretations that don't seem like a huge stretch. It does seem to me that "obscure" meaning "less central" is a pretty big stretch, especially given that you can hold centrality and unclarity at odds as long as you see unclear passages as less central precisely because we can't depend on them as easily due to the lower confidence in our conclusions drawn from them.

In all honesty, it didn't even occur to me to take "obscure" as "unclear" until reading it in your comments. "Obscure" comes up in everyday language (not academic language) in contexts like "an obscure little town in New Hampshire", especially when you are reading coverage of primaries. So "obscure" as "out of the way" was literally my first understanding of the reading.

As soon as you mentioned "obscure" as "unclear", of course all of the academic context came breaking through and I was surprised that I didn't think of it earlier. But I certainly don't see why a non-academic would think of that first.

So basically, I don't think that it is a "pretty unnatural way to take his language" at all. I certainly think he could have made his point *better*. I just would have used the words "less central".

Obama is famed for his great rhetoric, but really his great rhetoric is in his prepared speeches, not in interviews or debates. So yes, he is "less able to express himself well than his reputation would lead us to expect", but that is because we aren't listening to a prepared speech. He's fine in interviews and debates, but he's hardly superhuman in those regards, whatever his reputation may say.

Of course, I could be wrong about this (and about the other comment thread too). I cannot say with any authority what Obama meant by what he said. But the readings that I'm putting forth really are my initial first readings of both the article listed in this post and the transcripts of the judicial confirmation hearing speeches. This is what I first thought before reading any commentary.

Now I'm quite possibly reading into them merely what I want to see. But it does really sound plausible to me.

Obama isn't a non-academic, though. He taught constitutional law for a decade, and he was the editor of Harvard Law Review. I think his academic background contributes a good deal to how he functions and how people with a less academic and less elite background perceive him. Just as race and gender don't explain everything about voter trends in the Democratic primary, this doesn't either, but there sure is a strong contingent among college students and professors and college graduates who are attracted to him, with working class people who never went to college or who are involved in continuing education programs being more attracted to Hillary Clinton.

Jeremy, I personally think you're making a big deal out of nothing. Everything hinges upon your opinion of what he meant by "obscure," which in the context of his sentence seems to mean "not as central." I highly doubt that you can make a fair claim that Obama doesn't "take the whole Bible seriously."

Joseph, what matters isn't actually whether he does take the whole Bible seriously. My point is that if you come across to evangelicals as not taking the whole Bible seriously, they're only going to see it as pandering when you present something from the Bible. That's certainly how this is going to appear to most evangelicals. That's all I was really saying.

Incidentally, thanks for saying it: I only know of this incident from reading the above, and I've found your discussion fascinating. I know nothing of these matters, but I'm guessing that wink is right about the word "obscure," and that Obama would've phrased it differently if he'd been discussing the matter with some particular evangelicals, in private (it would be irresponsible for him to try to speak the whole truth at present). Presumably the word "obscure" was just summing up, appropriately succinctly, his take on the result of such discussions. But most evangelicals would deduce that Obama does not take the whole Bible seriously? What would they say if someone said that the straight numerical contradiction in Numbers was basically a typo, and that it was not important that it had not been corrected; i.e., that it not having been corrected was no evidence at all that the rest of the Bible was not divinely inspired? Would they take that person to be not taking the whole Bible seriously? Well, in a way they would be right; but so what? Such evangelicals should ask themselves why they are making such a fuss about Romans. Personally I think that Romans is less important than the Gospels because Paul is more likely to be wrong than Jesus (not just that Jesus would beat Paul were they to disagree, but that Paul might be wrong about gays anyway, whereas we can be sure of what Jesus said). I found Obama's remarks absolutely perfectly balanced (since all those evangelicals who would be very upset by "obscure" would never vote democratic anyway). No way someone so reasonable is going to be President of USA!

In the Numbers case, most evangelicals recognize that it's the original manuscripts that inerrancy requires to be inerrant. So they wouldn't have a problem of subsequent manuscripts have copyist errors.

If they were, however, to take such a person as not taking the whole Bible seriously, then they would not in any way be right. Those copyist errors are not actually parts of the Bible.

If the Bible is infallible, then the chances of Paul being wrong are zero, same as the gospels.

Enigman left the following comment twice (March 15, 2008 4:27 AM and then again at 4:30 AM). I deleted one of them, and the other disappeared at the same time. I'm not sure what happened. Fortunately, I still had the page open in my browser, so I still have the content:

Ah I see, thanks... same as the chances of such evangelicals voting democrat then! (It's way off topic I know, but how do such evangelicals know that there were not other typos, ones that happened not to contradict other parts of the Bible, ones that one would expect to be more common than those that do?)

My response:

Typos only occur in the modern age. I assume you mean copyist errors.

I didn't say anything about anyone's knowledge of which things in the current manuscripts are errors and which are original readings. I'm not sure what's wrong with standard text-criticism for figuring out what's likely to be original. I never claimed that anyone has infallibility about such matters. What I claimed to be infallible is the Bible. We have probabilistic, fallible knowledge about which parts are original. But when something is in fact original, and we believe it, it is indeed a grounded process of coming to believe something authored by the Holy Spirit that God is at work in using to bring us to knowledge of what is true.

Our knowledge would then be infallible if it is actually based on the Bible when communicated through the work of the Holy Spirit, but our second-order knowledge, i.e. our evaluation of our first-level knowledge, would be fallible. Questions about which manuscript reading to believe go on the second-order level, which is clearly fallible on a reliabilist view. Questions about the first-order things communicated by the Bible are on the first level and can easily be part of an infallible process given a divine role in our coming to believe things when reading the Bible (and not all first-level questions need to be infallible). Because the second-order questions are fallible, some will end up with false beliefs at the first level. But when God is operating to lead people to true beliefs at the first level, that is indeed an infallible process. So there's no inconsistency once you recognize the epistemological level distinction.

Thanks again (I hope movabletype's in a better mode today)... So now I'm thinking that the apposite words in Romans (etc.) might, if read within a relationship to the divine made imperfect by one's homophobia, be false about gays (in ways that would be deceptively similar amongst similar readers); and conversely, beliefs inspired by those passages infallibly might be as Obama's. If so then an apposite obscurity could be that imposed on the text by the homophobia of many evangelicals? And if so, "obscure" would have been a very politic choice of description!

Also (I just posted a short reply; maybe, I got an error message but it was the same one I got yesterday, and I didn't need to repost it then, since that left those 2 posts), I was wondering what your take on copyists' errors is? I think that prima facie the presence of such errors being so obvious (unequivocal errors about numbers, in a book called "Numbers") is a sign of something important, given that the Bible is divinely inspired by a God who (as it says) performed physical acts (so that moving the copyists' ink or whatever back to where it should have been, in order to get a true book to the readers, without even restricting the copyists' ability to make such mistakes, would have been very possible).

If you mean reasons why God may have allowed it to happen, I do have at least one suggestion. It prevents us from idolatry of the text, since we don't (for all we know) have any original manuscripts that are 100% accurate to the original, while at the same time giving us manuscripts that in all likelihood are pretty close to the original in most things, certainly the most important things. It prevents us from sacralizing the process of transmission or the physical object containing the text but leaves only the message itself as sacred.

Hmm... Sounds reasonable, thanks.

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