Review: John Corvino’s “What’s Morally Wrong With Homosexuality?”
December 19th, 2007
I’m sure our postal delivery person is confused by some of the mail she delivers to our house. Catalogs from Christian booksellers and mailers from Focus on the Family often arrive in the same day’s delivery as my copy of the Gay and Lesbian Review Worldwide and fundraising solicitations from Wingspan, our local LGBT center. My partner, who has little stomach for much of the mail I receive, just piles it on the dining room table for me to sort through when I get home.
So one day last week, I was sorting through my mail and opened a package containing a DVD titled, “What’s Morally Wrong With Homosexuality?” He glanced over my shoulder and muttered, “Great! Another freak show…”
Before I even had the chance to pop the DVD into the player, I already knew that John Corvino was really onto something with his latest DVD offering. That title — “What’s Morally Wrong With Homosexuality?” — challenges us to confront one of our most glaring problems in the debates over homosexuality today. It’s the idea that the word “morality” is automatically associated with anti-gay positions. In fact, in today’s cultural debates, all one has to do us utter the words “moral” or “morality,” and right away he has signaled that that every word that follows will be hostile to gays and lesbians.
The problem though is that this suggests that pro-gay positions cannot be articulated from a moral standpoint. And we really can’t blame the religious right for that. Too many pro-gay advocates won’t touch the subject of morality with a twenty-foot pole.
There’s a reason for it, even if it’s not a good one. We should care deeply about moral principles, and I’ve argued that in fact, we really do build our lives around deeply held moral precepts whether we acknowledge it explicitly or not. But we’ve been afraid to talk about morality, or even to acknowledge that moral standards are important and ought to be espoused. Instead, we instinctively shrink back wherever we hear the word “morality” because we’ve too often experienced the word as a bludgeon and not for what it really is:
moral: moÌ‡r-É™l, mÃ¤r-) adj. [Middle English, 14th century, from Anglo-French, from Latin moralis, from mor-, mos custom] 1 a: of or relating to principles of right and wrong in behavior : ETHICAL <moral judgments> b: expressing or teaching a conception of right behavior <a moral poem> c: conforming to a standard of right behavior d: sanctioned by or operative on one’s conscience or ethical judgment <a moral obligation> capable of right and wrong action <a moral agent> …
Dr. John Corvino, associate professor of philosophy at Wayne State University, is a prolific author and an engaging lecturer on the moral dimensions of gay rights. He writes the bi-weekly column called “The Gay Moralist” for 365gay.com and he’s a regular contributor at the Independent Gay Forum. He also appears with Focus On the Family’s Glenn Stanton several times a year in a series of debates on same-sex marriage.
This latest DVD captures the lecture by the same title that Dr. Corvino been giving in various forms since 1992. It’s a great topic and one that’s rarely explored, which is a shame since the discussion of homosexuality as a moral mode of existence is every bit as vital today as it was when he started fifteen years ago. Lectures often come across as dull and dry on DVD, but Corvino tackles the often eye-glazing topics of morality and ethics with a sharp wit, engaging empathy, and an intellectual rigor that is both accessible and memorable. Who knew philosophy could be so much fun?
The DVD begins with three simple questions: what is wrong with homosexuality? If it’s wrong, how do we know it’s wrong? And if there’s nothing wrong then what is all the fuss about? And he tackles these questions from the anti-gay activists’ home turf: theology (It’s wrong because the Bible condemns it), social science (It’s wrong because of diseases or it harms families/children), and nature (It’s wrong because it’s unnatural).
This web site routinely delves into the social science and the “nature” aspects on homosexuality. Regular readers will find Corvino’s take on these topics familiar, so I won’t go into them in much detail. But that first aspect, theology, is something we generally try to avoid on this web site. Sure, we discuss homosexuality as it relates to how different religions and denominations talk about it, but we generally avoid explicitly theological discussions. A lot of this has to do with the fact that I’ve never really seen this handled this convincingly — by this, I mean in a way that a Christian fundamentalist, for example, might shake his head and say, “Hmmmm. There might be something to this.” And when it looked like Corvino was going to tack the theological objections himself, I feared he would fall prey to the same problems that have plagued so many other well-meaning apologists.
The problem with getting into theological arguments about homosexuality is that they often devolve into discussions of what this word means in the original Hebrew or what that word was referring to in the Greek, or which cultural influences play what role in which passage. You know, context. The word that everyone uses to try to explain out passages or explain in others. But the problem with this approach is that once we reach this level of Biblical exegesis, it requires that everyone be on the same page in how they view the specifics of Biblical understanding. And this simply never happens. Whenever one side of a debate like this begins to make headway, the other side invariable says, “you’re taking it out of context.” And since nobody can agree on the proper context to begin with, we quickly reach a stalemate.
This problem isn’t unique to the topic of homosexuality. Take a look around. There are literally tens of thousands of independent Christian denominations worldwide, mostly because people can’t agree on Biblical context or interpretation on one point or another. And so it often seem that trying to throw another interpretive argument into the mix ends up looking like trying to throw a teaspoon of fresh water into the ocean and hoping it will make a difference.
So as I said, I had a lot of trepidation when Corvino began diving into the theology of homosexuality. Thankfully, Corvino avoids this pitfall. Sure, he brushes lightly into some of the pro-gay theological arguments but he doesn’t invest much energy there. Instead he quickly arrives at what I think is a much stronger position: discussing not so much the theology itself, but how the anti-gay theology is derived and used in the debates. To illustrate this, Corvino uses two well-chosen passages from Leviticus. The first one is Leviticus 18:22, the one we all know very well:
Do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman; that is detestable.
Most translations (including the translation Corvino read out) use the more famous word “abomination.” But either way, the passage is unmistakable to one who holds to a literalist Biblical point of view. If one were to take everything from the Bible in a consistently literal light, then there’s no way around it: The Bible says that homosexual acts are “detestable” or an abomination. And for one who derives their morality from a literal view of the Bible, it logically follows then, that all homosexual acts are immoral — no if’s, and’s or but’s.
But as Dr. Corvino points out, the Bible holds a lot of things to be immoral that we no longer condemn with such fervor (for example, divorce, or women speaking in churches or wearing slacks), and the Bible gives explicit approval — and even instruction — on some things that we today consider to be immorally outrageous. The best example of the latter comes from an equally unmistakable passage of Leviticus. This time it’s Leviticus 25:44-46:
Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves. You may also buy some of the temporary residents living among you and members of their clans born in your country, and they will become your property. You can will them to your children as inherited property and can make them slaves for life, but you must not rule over your fellow Israelites ruthlessly.
The passage is as unmistakably clear as the first one. And if one were to take everything from the Bible in a consistently literal light, then there’s just no way around it: the buying and selling and inheriting of people as chattel slaves is not immoral; it is instead expressly permitted — with rules laid down for its proper execution. But there are very few Christians who are so consistent in their literalism that they would always “approve what the Bible approves and condemn what the Bible condemns” when it comes to slavery. Only Christian Reconstructionists and a few other theonomists are able to sustain this kind of consistency.
So why is it that some people are consistent with literalist interpretations of Scripture where homosexuality is concerned, but when the subject of slavery comes up it’s suddenly all about context, original language and cultural norms? Corvino suggests that we either have to commit ourselves to the idea the authors’s concerns and ours might be very different, and understanding that difference is vital to understanding the text. But understanding context still might not get us to a satisfactory explanation for some of these passages:
I”m not convinced that any amount of context is going to help the slavery passages. I think when we look to those passages, we have to admit that the prejudices and limitations of the Biblical authors crept into the text. And if they did that with respect to slavery, it could happen with respect with homosexuality.
Corvino tackles the other objections with great wit and grace, whether they are the more profound and complex arguments (the implications for both sides of the nature/nurture debate, or the roles that sex play in the lives of ordinary people) or the trivial and silly ones (“The parts don’t fit” — yes, they do!). But through it all, he never takes his eye off of the bigger picture: the impact that morality — more specifically, a moral code that is illogically derived — has on those it is cast against:
One of the biggest misconceptions about the work that I do is that people think I’m out to attack morality, that I’m out to espouse some kind of moral relativism…
Nothing could be further from the truth. So much of what I’ve said tonight is based upon my moral convictions — convictions about fairness, convictions about justice. I think the way gay and lesbian people are treated in our society is wrong. Not just irrational, but morally wrong. I think there’s something perverted about the fact that we hate people because of whom they love. We do violence against people because of the affection that exists in their lives. And the effects of that treatment are a far greater moral tragedy than sex between consenting adults could ever be. …
You see, morality has a point. It’s about enabling us to flourish as human beings in a society where other people are trying to do the same thing. And that’s everybody’s concern. Conservative or liberal, red state or blue state — all of us have a responsibility to stand up for morality.
So let me make myself very clear. I am not asking you to stop making moral judgments or to keep your judgments to yourself. I’m all about the moral judgments. I’m asking you to make sure you have reasons for the moral judgments that you make. I’m asking you to put yourself in people’s shoes before you judge them. And I’m asking you to judge people not on whom they love, but on whether they love. That’s my moral vision. That’s my “agenda.”
You can buy a copy of “What’s Morally Wrong with Homosexuality?” at the Gay Moralist web site, where you can also find the DVD’s trailer. And this shorter clip has just been posted on YouTube by the DVD’s director, Marc-Antoine Serou: