“I think religion has always tried to turn hatred towards gay people. Religion promotes the hatred and spite against gays. . . . I would ban religion completely,” Elton John said recently.
There is a lot to support this notion. The latest effort of the Roman Catholic bishops to inject compassion into condemnation of same-sex behavior hardly trumpets the glory of love. The self-hatred that fallen megachurch pastor Ted Haggard feels toward himself exhibits the widespread homophobia, external and internalized, within the Evangelical Christian community.
But the opinion that religion “promotes hatred and spite against gays” is more wrong than right. Two-thirds of the world’s religions have accepted — and sometimes revered — same-sex relationships. Even Christianity tolerated such love into the twelfth century.
An increasing library of books documents the fascinating interplay between sexuality and spirituality. Here are two recent contributions from Harrington Park Press.
Men, Homosexuality, and the Gods by Ronald E. Long presents tantalizing pictures of sex in the ancient world, among American Indians, and in Jewish and Buddhist history. Though his Christian chapter is far too short to provide a fair overview of that faith, it does offer a couple of valuable guideposts. Here are some fun facts from the book:
“Among Romans, . . . a man whose masculinity had been challenged could defend his virility by boasting of his homosexual conquests.”
“Chinese culture in general found the fact that some men might be sexually attracted to other men perfectly natural.”
While Christian theology has often found sex justified only for procreation, “the Qur’an explicitly permits sex for pleasure’s sake.”
A custom among traditional Filipinos involved an older man greeting “a boy by reaching into his pants, cupping his genitals, and commenting on how much the boy is growing.” Long presents a parallel practice from ancient Greece by quoting an outraged father in a Greek play: “Well, this is a fine state of affairs . . . . You meet my son just as he comes out of the gymnasium, all fresh from the bath, and you don’t kiss him, you don’t speak to him, you don’t feel his balls! And you’re supposed to be a friend of ours!” Imagine parents of one of Marc Foley’s pages protesting that Foley hadn’t given such attention to their son!
So one value of this book is that it vividly demonstrates how different cultures and their faiths construct sexuality. Sex may be biological, but sexuality is conditioned by culture. But its more important virtue (the word virtue comes from the Latin vir for “man”) is its exploration of sex in terms not of gay and straight but rather in “pitcher” and “catcher” terms. As this idea is inflected in various cultures, we begin to see the possibilities of freedom from sexual categories altogether.
The other Harrington Park book is Sex and the Sacred: Gay Identity and Spiritual Growth by Daniel A. Helminiak. Though the book too defensively strains to justify homosexuality as a spiritual path, it may be exactly what some folk need to help them work through the crap they have picked up from exposure to oppressive religion.
Less a history and more a practical manual to deal with the social, political, and religious realities most Americans face, the book’s vision of spirituality embraces atheists as well as Christians. Still, the interpretation of Jesus as a “model for coming out” may inspire those whose love of their faith needs the support and repair that too many churches do not offer.
These two books are among the continuing signs of awakening and healing in society today. They’d make good holiday gifts.
The Rev. Vern Barnet, DMn., does consulting, teaching and writing for religious and educational organizations here. His Kansas City Star column appears each Wednesday.

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