Confessions of a recovering evangelical

The vast majority of opposition to the idea of equal marriage comes from the Church and the followers of the other non-Christian religions. Homosexuality is a sinful state, they believe, therefore gay relationships should not be endorsed or approved of by the state. 

I should say at the outset that I consider myself a Christian. Not a very good one, I admit, but a Christian nonetheless. In a former life I was very evangelical and spent a lot of time studying the Bible and trying to “convert” my less enlightened, hellbound friends. These days I am what a parliamentary colleague rather wonderfully described as a “recovering evangelical”. I’ll settle for that. 

I still have lots of friends who were better at staying the course than I was. At least three of them are full-time leaders of their respective churches, and many others remain far more regular attendees at worship than I. So when I hear members of the clergy or lay members of the Church decrying moves towards equal marriage, or when I receive letters from local church members in my constituency warning me of the dire consequences of this move, I kind of understand where they’re coming from. I don’t agree with them, dearie me, no. I’m forthright and unapologetic in my support for equal marriage, largely on the (some might say counter-intuitive) basis that I’m a strong believer in marriage and therefore want to encourage as many as possible to give it a go. 

But as I say, I know where they’re coming from. And it’s all about the Bible. You see, there’s no getting away from the fact that there’s enough in there to justify the “God hates gays” rhetoric. And not just the Old Testament. When friends tell me that the Old Testament is all hellfire, damnation and wars, and the New Testament is all love and forgiveness, then I know they’ve never actually read either book. There’s some pretty shocking violent imagery and language used throughout the New Testament. And I’m afraid at least a smattering of it is directed at our gay friends. 

There are those on our side of the debate who claim that since Jesus Himself never mentioned the issue – there’s no mention of homosexuality in any of the four gospels – then God approves of same-sex relationships. Sadly, this doesn’t hold any water if you’re a Christian; the Word is the Word. The Gospels have no more authority than any other books; it’s all divinely inspired. And that means that when St Paul writes that acts of love between two men are “shameful” (Romans 1: 26-27) or that gays (different translations use different terms) cannot inherit the kingdom of God (1 Corinthians 6:9-10), that matters just as much as Jesus’ silence on the subject. 

So we have a fairly unambiguous divine exhortation to look askance at gay relationships. God, it turns out, had not mellowed much in the centuries since the writers of Leviticus described homosexuality as an “abomination”. 

The problem is that many Christians – and the established Church itself – don’t want simply to accept an instruction on faith; they feel the need to justify it, to rationalise it, to reverse-engineer the logic. They understand that a secular society won’t just accept the “Because God says so” argument. 

So, they start with the conclusion – gayness is bad – and look around for empirical evidence to justify that conclusion. Except, since the empirical evidence doesn’t exist, they make statements like “the gay lifestyle results in earlier deaths for men” and rely on dodgy anecdotes to back them up. In fact, like conspiracy theorists throughout history, they become convinced that the very absence of evidence is itself evidence of the truth of their case, because the only explanation for the absence of that evidence is not that it doesn’t exist, but that it is being covered up by a conspiracy of gays and their fellow travellers (er… I think that means me). 

Like creationists, they start with the God-given conclusion, then manufacture the evidence (or lack of it) to justify that conclusion. 

So, where does that leave Christians who feel strongly that a gay relationship is no less legitimate than any other? 

Well, to be honest, it leaves us in a difficult position. The integrity of Scripture, its status as the divinely inspired Word of God, is a hugely important tenet of Christian philosophy. 

There’s always denial: some Christians deny that the Bible says what it says, that it’s been misinterpreted through the centuries and its true meaning lost, its true meaning being that God wholeheartedly approves of gay relationships. And if that’s what you have to do to reconcile your faith with your political judgment, then go for it. Do what you have to do. 

In fact I have more respect, in an odd way, for the third group, those Christians who simply accept what the Bible says, whose faith is so strong that the “Because God says so” argument actually is enough for them. They don’t try to reverse engineer their moralistic arguments; they simply say, “Well, I don’t know why you’ve made this rule, Lord, but you’re the boss and I’m sure you’ll explain it to me one day.” There’s a certain amount of intellectual honesty there that’s missing from the previous two groups. 

But for me, it has simply meant I have to reject the Bible’s literal teaching on homosexuality. Leviticus was written for a nomadic people struggling to survive in a dangerous and hostile territory, a people for whom homosexuality was seen as a dangerous self-indulgence, since the most important task to aid survival was procreation. The New Testament was written by people who’d read Leviticus. 

I see friends and loved ones of the same sex enjoying rich, long-term, fulfilling relationships and I cannot choose to judge them just because of what Paul wrote nearly 2000 years ago. Well, I could. But I won’t. 

More importantly, as I have told correspondents who take a different view, it is not the job of politicians – even Christian politicians – to legislate for the saving of others’ souls. It is our job, in a secular society, to legislate for that society. We don’t live in a theocracy, thank God! 

This debate, and opposition by other Christians to equal marriage, has presented me – and, I assume, other Christians in parliament – with a fascinating and valuable opportunity to revisit aspects of our faith which we might have been able to ignore until now. Others will reach different conclusions and will vote accordingly when the time comes. As for me, I simply cannot reconcile the teachings of Scripture with my firm belief that gay men and women should be able to enjoy married relationships. So I’m not going to try any more. 

Some will say God won’t forgive me for that transgression. Others will say He will. I say He won’t need to.

Tom Harris MP, 01/08/2012

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