Gagnon says Obama ‘audaciously’ twists Christ’s Sermon on the Mount to affirm homosexuality
A Special Report for Republicans For Family Values (www.rffv.org)
Note: RFFV has excerpted the text in question on pages 222-224 of Barack Obama’s book, The Adacity of Hope, here: “Obama’s ‘Audacity of Hope’ Passage Downplays ‘Obscure Line in Romans’ Proscribing Homosexual Sex.” The “obscure line” in the New Testament Book of Romans to which Obama refers is evidently this (all links are to the New International Version of the Bible):
Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion. (Romans 1:26-27)
Barack Obama’s Disturbing Misreading of the Sermon on the Mount as Support for Homosexual Sex
by Robert A. J. Gagnon, Ph.D.
October 23, 2008
Presidential candidate Barack Obama has written in The Audacity of Hope—a book that perhaps should have been entitled The Audacity of Portraying Myself Messianically as the Herald of Audacious Hope—that he is not “willing to accept a reading of the Bible that considers an obscure line in Romans [about homosexual practice] to be more defining of Christianity than the Sermon on the Mount.” He repeated this line in a campaign appearance in Ohio this past March. He stated that if people find controversial his views on granting the full benefits of marriage to homosexual unions, minus only the name, “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 obscure passage in Romans.” These remarks by Obama represent a gross distortion of the witness of the Judeo-Christian Scriptures.
On Romans 1
First, they misrepresent the text in Romans 1:24-27 against all homosexual practice, a text that belongs to one of the two or three most important books in Scripture, a catalyst for frequent spiritual revivals for the past two millennia. Romans 1:24-27 depicts all homosexual practice as an “indecency” and moral “impurity” that does three things. First, it violates God’s male-female standard for valid sexual relations given in Genesis 1:27 (the text contains strong echoes to Genesis 1:26-27). Second, it violates the obvious evidence in the material structures of creation that male and female, not persons of the same sex, are each other’s sexual counterparts or complements (a particularly obvious example on the plane of human interrelationships of suppressing the truth about God and ourselves accessible in creation and nature). Third, it “dishonors” the sexual integrity of the participants who engage in such activity by imaging themselves as only half their own sex in their attempt to merge with an alleged complement of the same sex. The passage is no more “obscure” than Paul’s comments on idolatry in the preceding passage in Romans 1:19-23 or his comments regarding a case of adult-consensual man-stepmother incest at Corinth in 1 Corinthians 5—another instance of prohibited sexual intercourse between persons who are too much alike (here on a familial level, already of the same “flesh”).
On Scripture Generally
Second, Obama’s remarks misrepresent Scripture generally in that they suggest that Paul’s stance on homosexual practice is somehow an oddity within the pages of Scripture. The truth is that a person would be hard-pressed to come up with an example of consensual sexual relations that the witness of Scripture opposes more strongly, consistently, and absolutely. Paul’s remarks were certainly not isolated. Every law, narrative, proverb, poetry, metaphor, teaching, and exhortation in Scripture that has anything to do with sexual relations presupposes a male-female prerequisite. The creation texts in Genesis 1 and 2 both establish such a prerequisite. Genesis 1:27 integrates the creation of “male and female” as a sexual pair with being made in God’s image, suggesting that same-sex pairing would efface that part of the image of God stamped on the sexual self (as also would adultery and incest, the latter even of an adult-consensual sort). Genesis 2:21-24 portrays a male-female sexual bond as the re-merger of the two complementary sexual halves of an integrated sexual whole. In other words, the sexual “counterpart” or “complement” of a man is a woman (and vice versa), a being both “corresponding to him” and “opposite him” (as the Hebrew word kenegdo infers).
On Jesus and the Sermon on the Mount
Third, Obama’s remarks grossly distort the message of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). The Sermon on the Mount says nothing at all that intimates either support for homosexual relationships or opposition to the kind of view espoused in Romans 1, a view that would have been held universally by Jews and Christians of the period.
The Sermon as a closing of remaining loopholes in the Law of Moses
Following the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-11), Jesus contends that he has not come to abolish any portion of the law and the prophets but rather has come to tighten its demands and close remaining loopholes (5:17-48). Six “antitheses” are put forward, the gist of which is: You use to be able to get away with the following but I say ‘no longer’ (5:21-48). Two of the six antitheses have to do with sex: adultery of the heart (5:27-28), which extends God’s requirement for sexual purity into the interior life, and divorce/remarriage (5:31-32). In between them is a warning by Jesus that if your eye or hand threatens your downfall, remove them, for it is better to go into heaven maimed than to be thrown into hell full-bodied (5:29-30). This last statement—along with Jesus’ strong affirmation of “the law and the prophets”—does not fit well with Obama’s view that applying the adage “hate the sin but love the sinner” to homosexual practice is wrong because “such a judgment inflicts pain on good people.”
The two-sexes foundation for Jesus’ view of marital twoness
The remarks against both divorce and marriage to a divorced person are pertinent to the issue of homosexuality. While we permit both in our society it would be invalid to argue from this to acceptance of homosexual unions; first, because Jesus’ remarks implicitly forbade polygamy, which we continue to reject today; and, secondly, because Jesus regarded a male-female prerequisite for marriage (and thus for any sexual union) as foundational for, and hence more important than, the definition of a valid sexual union as a lifelong commitment between two persons.
What we see in Matthew 5:31-32 is only the outcome of a reasoning that is more fully put forward in Matthew 19:3-9 (which parallels Mark 10:2-12). There Jesus bases his view of marital monogamy (the ‘twoness’ of the sexual bond) and marital indissolubility on two Scripture texts: Genesis 1:27 (“male and female [God] made them”) and Genesis 2:24 (“for this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his woman/wife and the two shall become one flesh”). The “cleaving” text in Genesis 2:24 is obviously relevant to Jesus’ remarks about marital permanence, even as it presupposes a male-female prerequisite. But of what relevance is the terse quotation that God “made them male and female”? Apparently Jesus extrapolated from God’s creation of two primary sexes that sexual unions should be limited to two persons, whether serially (no divorce) or concurrently (no polygamy). The twoness of the sexes, their binary or dimorphic character, was for Jesus the foundation for limiting sexual unions to two persons. Otherwise, there would have been no reason for Jesus to have cited Genesis 1:27 and no basis for limiting marriage to two and only two persons.
Confirmation for this interpretation of Jesus’ remarks can be found among the Essene community at Qumran, the Jewish sect whose opposition to polygamy was closest to Jesus’ views. They rejected “taking two wives in their lives” because “the foundation of creation is ‘male and female he created them’ [Genesis 1:27]” and because “those who entered (Noah’s) ark went in two by two into the ark [Genesis 7:9]” (Damascus Document 4.20-5.1). Once the two primary sexes came together in a sexual union a third party was neither needed nor desirable.
What this means is that Jesus thought the male-female paradigm given by God in creation was the foundation for the twin principles of monogamy and lifelong commitment. The foundation is obviously more important, not less so, than any superstructure predicated on the foundation. Since we don’t permit polygamy today, even between three or more persons with a polysexual orientation in a loving relationship of lifelong commitment, there is even less of a basis for permitting homosexual unions. Once the twoness of the sexes is rejected as a basis for extrapolating a monogamy principle, there is no nature-based or logical reason for limiting the number of persons in a sexual union to two persons at any one time.
Jesus and “born eunuchs”: no sex for them
In Matthew 19:10-12 Jesus compared “eunuchs who made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven” to “eunuchs who from their mother’s womb were born thus.” The former were people who did not get married, and thus abstained from sexual relations, out of a pragmatic missionary desire to further God’s kingdom (i.e., a single person would have greater freedom of movement and might be more willing to take risks than someone who had a family to worry about). The latter, the “born eunuchs,” were men who did not experience sexual desires for women, whether because they were asexual or, possibly, homosexual. Why does Jesus compare “eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven” with “born eunuchs”? Answer: Like the “born eunuchs,” the “eunuchs for the kingdom” are not having any sexual relations. If the “born eunuchs” included men attracted only to other men—a reasonable interpretation given the ancient evidence—then Jesus was presuming that men with exclusive homosexual attractions should not be having intercourse with other males. This is consistent with his argument from Genesis 1:27 and 2:24 earlier in the same passage (Matthew 19:4-9), where the only link between the two creation texts is the insistence that marriage—and thus all sexual unions since Jesus permitted sexual intercourse only in the context of marriage—be between the two sexes, male and female, man and woman. Those who cannot find sexual satisfaction in such relationships, Jesus believed, were not permitted other forms of sexual relationships, including same-sex sexual activity.
Other indications of Jesus’ embrace of a male-female standard for sexual unions
There are many other arguments to which one can point in order to establish Jesus’ embrace of a male-female prerequisite for valid sexual unions. These include:
- Jesus’ retention of the Law of Moses even on relatively minor matters such as tithing, to say nothing of a foundational law in sexual ethics; and his view of the Old Testament as inviolable Scripture, which Scripture was absolutely opposed to man-male intercourse.
- The fact that the man who baptized Jesus, John the Baptist, was beheaded for defending Levitical sex laws in the case of the adult-incestuous union between Herod Antipas and a woman who was both the ex-wife of his half-brother Philip and the daughter of another half-brother. The rejection of homosexual practice in the same two chapters of Leviticus from which the incest laws stem (18 and 20) is the closest analogue to the incest laws inasmuch as both types of law’s reject sex between persons too much alike in embodied structures, whether in terms of kinship or in terms of gender.
- Early Judaism’s univocal opposition to all homosexual practice—no exceptions anywhere within many centuries of the life of Jesus.
- The early church’s united opposition to all homosexual practice. This completes the historical circle and underscores the absurdity of positing a homosexualist Jesus without analogue in his historical context: cut off from his Scripture, from the rest of early Judaism, from the man who baptized him, and from the church that emerged from his teachings.
- Jesus’ saying about the defiling effect of desires for various forms of sexual immoralities (porneiai, Mark 7:21-23), which distinguished matters of relative moral indifference such as food laws from matters of moral significance such as the sexual commands of his Bible and connected Jesus to the general view of what constitutes the worst forms of porneia in early Judaism (same-sex intercourse, incest, bestiality, adultery).
- Jesus’ affirmation of the Decalogue prohibition of adultery, which in early Judaism was treated as a rubric for the major sex laws of the Old Testament, including, prominently, the laws against homosexual practice.
- Jesus’ saying about Sodom which, understood in the light of Second Temple interpretations of Sodom (Matthew 10:14-15, with parallel text in Luke 10:10-12), included an indictment of Sodom for attempting to dishonor the integrity of the visitors’ masculinity by treating them as if they were the sexual counterparts to males.
- Jesus’ saying about not giving what is “holy” to the “dogs” (Matthew 7:6), an apparent allusion to Deuteronomic law (Deuteronomy 23:17-18) and texts in 1-2 Kings that indict figures known as the qedeshim, self-designated “holy ones” identified as “dogs” in Deuteronomy for their attempt to erase their masculinity by serving as the passive-receptive partners in man-male intercourse.
- The fact that Jesus developed a sex ethic that had distinctive features not shared by the love commandment (love for everyone does not translate into having sex with everyone); reached out to tax collectors and sexual sinners while simultaneously intensifying God’s ethical demand in these areas; insisted that the adulterous woman stop sinning lest something worse happen to her (i.e., loss of eternal life; compare John 8:3-11 with John 5:14); appropriated the context of the “love your neighbor” command in Leviticus 19:18 by insisting on reproof as part of a full-orbed view of love (Luke 17:3-4; compare Leviticus 19:17: you shall reprove your neighbor lest you incur guilt for failing to warn him); and defined discipleship to him as taking up one’s cross, denying oneself, and losing one’s life (Mark 8:34-37; Matthew 10:38-39; Luke 14:27; 17:33; John 12:25).
Obama claims that his advocacy for homosexual unions receiving full marriage benefits is in keeping with Jesus’ own views in the Sermon on the Mount and elsewhere. As an assertion about the Jesus of history or even about the living Christ (assuming significant continuity between the two), this claim is preposterous. It is nothing but a fantasy, a figment of Obama’s imagination imposed on the text of the Sermon. The Sermon does speak about loving one’s enemies (Matthew 5:43-48) and about not judging others over relatively minor matters while ignoring larger problems in one’s own life (7:1-6). However, these themes provide no more support for homosexual unions than they do for loving, committed polyamorous or polygamous unions or for adult-consensual incestuous unions, both of which Jesus obviously opposed. If in the Sermon Jesus warned against men marrying divorced women, even women divorced by their husbands on invalid grounds (i.e., on grounds other than adultery), the idea that Jesus would have opposed “hurting the feelings of gays and lesbians” by not treating such unions as the functional equivalents of a valid marriage represents revisionist history at its worse. Obama’s argument, carried to its logical but absurd conclusion, would force Americans to provide full marital benefits for adult-committed polygamous unions and incestuous unions, since such persons too deserve to have hospital-visitation privileges, health insurance coverage, and all the other benefits of marriage every bit as much (and more so) than homosexual unions.
Obama’s image of Jesus is that of a person who, rather than lovingly calling sinners to repentance so that they might be reclaimed for the kingdom of God that he proclaimed, tells others to stop judging them. This is not the picture of Jesus’ mission to “sinners and tax collectors” in the Gospels. Instead, we find a picture of a Jesus who aggressively reaches out in love to the biggest violators of his ethical demands while simultaneously maintaining that demand; a Jesus who encourages offenders to “go and no longer be sinning” lest something worse happen to them, namely, exclusion from the kingdom of God. Obama does not love more or better than Jesus. That would be carrying a messianic complex a bit too far.
1. The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream (Crown, 2006), 222.
2. Cited in: Michael Foust, “Obama: Sermon on the Mount supports gay civil unions,” Baptist Press, March 3, 2008 (online: http://www.bpnews.net/BPnews.asp?ID=27532); Sarah Pulliam, “Obama Cites Sermon on the Mount for his Support of Civil Unions,” Christianity Today, Mar. 3, 2008 (online: http://blog.christianitytoday.com/ctliveblog/archives/2008/03/obama_cites_ser.html).
3. Audacity of Hope, 222. Obama refers to a woman in a lesbian relationship who was hurt by his not going all the way to endorse “gay marriage”—a silly observation in retrospect since Obama wants to repeal the federal Defense of Marriage Act (which he has called “abhorrent” [see RFFV article at http://rffv.wpengine.com/2008/10/18/obama-calls-defense-of-marriage-act-doma-abhorrent-in-letter-to-chicago-gay-newspaper/] and whose main purpose is to prevent “gay marriage” adopted in one state from being foisted on all other states), strongly opposes California’s Proposition 8 (which merely limits the definition of marriage to a “marriage between a man and a woman”), has stated that he “respects” the California Supreme Court decision foisting “gay marriage” on the state, opposes any federal constitutional amendment to define marriage as a union between a man and a woman, and strongly endorses granting every single marriage benefit to homosexual unions, not to mention every “sexual orientation” special protections law imaginable. To take such positions is obviously to support the foisting of “gay marriage” across the country. The only reason why Obama doesn’t say that he supports “gay marriage” is because it is not a popular position around the country and would make him look like the extremist that he is on homosexual issues. Yet even in his 2006 book he coyly stated that he wants “to remain open to the possibility that my unwillingness to support gay marriage is misguided” (an unwillingness that, at any rate, is nothing more than political expediency, opportunism, and pragmatism) and that his main reason for not coming out for “gay marriage” is that, “in the absence of any meaningful consensus, the heightened focus on marriage [is] a distraction from other attainable measures to prevent discrimination against gays and lesbians” (ibid.). Translation: Obama will come out publicly for “gay marriage” just as soon as feels that he can do so without significant harm to his political aspirations, and not a day later. In the meantime, he will do everything possible to advance the ‘cause’ for “gay marriage” without declaring that he is for “gay marriage” itself.
4. The issues of hospital visitations or health insurance coverage are red herrings. Few hospitals today, if any, reject visitations by a limited circle of very close friends. No law has to be passed here affirming homosexual relationships as marriage equivalents. At most a law could be passed entitling a person in a hospital to name any person of their choosing, within a limited number, as someone entitled to full hospital visitations. The insurance coverage issue is invalid because homosexual unions, which are as immoral as adult-committed incestuous unions and more immoral than heterosexual polygamous unions, should have no greater claim than any close friendships between unrelated persons. Obviously it is not fiscally practical to extend insurance coverage to all one’s close friends. It is not violating any principle in the Sermon on the Mount, in spirit or letter, to take such stances.
About the author
Robert Gagnon (www.robgagnon.net) is associate professor of New Testament at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and author of The Bible and Homosexual Practice (Abingdon, 2001). The views expressed herein are Dr. Gagnon’s own and do not speak for Pittsburgh Theological Seminary as a whole. Gagnon came to PTS in the Fall of 1994 after a one-year position as Visiting Professor of Religion at Middlebury College in Vermont. He has a B.A. degree from Dartmouth College, an M.T.S. from Harvard Divinity School, and a Ph.D. from Princeton Theological Seminary. His main fields of interest are Pauline theology and sexual issues in the Bible. He is a member both of the Society of Biblical Literature and of the Studiorum Novi Testamenti Societas [Society of New Testament Studies]. He is also an ordained elder at a Presbyterian Church (USA) in Pittsburgh. In addition to being the author of The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001; 520 pgs.), Gagnon is co-author (with Dan O. Via) of Homosexuality and the Bible: Two Views (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003; 125 pgs.); and, as a service to the church, provides a large amount of free material on the web dealing with Scripture and homosexuality. In addition, he has published scholarly articles on biblical studies in Journal of Biblical Literature, New Testament Studies, Catholic Biblical Quarterly, Novum Testamentum, Zeitschrift für die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft, Horizons in Biblical Theology, and The Christian Century.
For a partial curriculum vitae of Dr. Gagnon go HERE. To contact Dr. Gagnon send an e-mail to: email@example.com or call 412-441-3304, ext. 2205 or 412-362-5610, ext. 2205. If you would like to be included on his mailing list and notified once a month or so regarding new materials on his website, e-mail Dr. Gagnon with the request. To view his superb website, go to www.robgagnon.net.