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.