Tradition and Homosexuality

Why do some people care that other people are gay?  If we hope to understand Fundamentalist America, we need to wrestle with this question.  To begin, we should acknowledge that opposition to homosexuality is a deep tradition in our culture.  Some of the foundational thinkers of our civilization considered homosexuality to be a horrible thing.  For those like me who consider homosexuality simply another way to be a sexual person, this hostility toward homosexuality is difficult to understand.

Part of the difficulty must result from the infinitely complicated nature of anti-homosexual feeling in America.  Even those like me sympathetic to what we’re calling Fundamentalist America must acknowledge that some anti-homosexual feeling must result from old-fashioned ignorance and bigotry.  Some, but not necessarily all.  Many of my secular and liberal friends, colleagues, and acquaintances seem to lump all opposition to homosexuality to mere hatred.  They assume, like Morgan Freeman, that any anti-homosexual thinking results from small-minded intolerance of those who are different.

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To really understand Fundamentalist America, we need to avoid Freeman’s sort of partisan sniping.  It may be briefly satisfying, but it doesn’t help us understand.  Those who simply hate all homosexuals are likely assholes.  But while we can’t forget that component of anti-homosexual culture in today’s America, we need to also acknowledge that many of the best minds of our past have also denounced all homosexuality.


Plato denounced homosexuality in the harshest terms.  He repeatedly called it unnatural. (e.g. Laws, VIII, 836Laws, I, 636c.)  Plato’s suggestion for rooting out this unnatural practice was simple and shocking to the modern ear.  Simply convince people that homosexuality belonged in the same class as incest, and the “problem” would disappear. (Laws VIII, 838.)

The goal, according to Plato, must be to ban homosexuality entirely.  (Laws, VIII, 837).


Americans may be more familiar with the Biblical tradition on homosexuality.  After all, as we have explored in the pages of ILYBYGTH, American culture has been and remains profoundly influenced by the Bible.  In twenty-first century culture wars, the rules of Leviticus are often raised as evidence for an anti-homosexual attitude.  The book is clear: homosexuality must be viewed as an abomination.  See for example, the following snippets:

Lev. 18.22: “Do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman; that is detestable.”

Lev. 20.13: “If a man lies with a man as one lies with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable.  They must be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads.”

Those who believe the Bible to be a good moral guide must at least wrestle with these commandments.


In his Confessions, Augustine articulates a vision of human sexuality that denounces all non-procreative sex as counter to the will of God.  In Book III, chapter VIII, Augustine called the “sin of Sodom . . . abominable.”  Such acts, the Bishop of Hippo charged, “deserve punishment wherever and whenever they are committed.”  God’s purpose, Augustine argued, was not for humans to “use each other in this way.”

What do these ancient denunciations of homosexuality mean for twenty-first century America?  For one thing, it does not seem fair to interpret these ideas away.  Though some fancy intellectual footwork could likely dispute the meanings of each of these individual quotations, the overall tone of the ancient sources above seems clear: Each condemns homosexuality as unnatural, against God’s plan.  But this leaves us with one obvious question: What does it matter if these ancient sources condemn homosexual practice?  Do the attitudes of the ancients need to influence our thinking?

After all, it does seem as if Plato was an asshole.  In addition to denouncing all homosexuality, he also had complicated ideas about the permissibility of poetry, for instance.  And the lifestyle commandments in Leviticus certainly seem motivated by a small-minded legalism.  For example, we are told in Lev. 19.19 we must not wear clothes made of both linen and wool.   Is it fair to use Leviticus as a reason for opposition to homosexuality, but not use it to fight against textile abuse?  Can Fundamentalist America cite Plato’s opposition to homosexuality, but not insist—as Plato would—that children be taken away from their biological parents and raised by the state?   Such arguments seem like attempts simply to use the Bible or Plato to enforce modern prejudices.  But even if that is the case, we outsiders to Fundamentalist America must acknowledge the deep cultural roots of opposition to homosexuality.

Even more difficult, we need to wrestle with Augustine’s more nuanced understanding of human sexuality.  Homosexuality, for Augustine, was simply a variant of humanity’s depraved understanding of itself.  In an Augustinian framework, the notion of a “sexual orientation” itself reflects a flawed and dangerous understanding of the nature of humanity.  The orientation of humans ought not be sexual, but rather divine.  To live properly, Augustine argued, our minds should be on God, not sex.  This is not bigotry against homosexuals as such, but an argument about the nature of humanity profoundly at odds with our notion that any suppression of sexual feelings is a dangerous affair.

Morgan Freeman probably would not impressed by the deep tradition of anti-homosexual thought in Western culture.  Anyone who starts by dismissing all those with whom he disagrees as simple assholes does not likely desire a more profound understanding of his opponents.

But we do.  Here at ILYBYGTH, we hope to understand conservative opposition to homosexuality.  In addition to strains of bigotry and ignorant intolerance, we must also recognize the foundational element of anti-homosexuality in our shared culture.  This may be a bitter pill for folks like me to swallow, but it is true: Those who dislike homosexuality can claim a long and distinguished intellectual heritage.

Leave a comment


  1. Ed

     /  August 31, 2012

    The idea of a “distinguished intellectual heritage,” particularly in relation to all things bible, is interesting. It’s also the default position for many people who have no other way to articulate or understand their own beliefs. “God said it, I believe it, that settles it,” or “the founding fathers believed…” can both be clumsy starting points for discussing modern issues.

    Still, I have a gay friend who agrees with a bit of Leviticus and will rail at length against the true abomination of polyester, and a Christian friend who advocates for her church to accept gay parishioners, contrary to her intellectual heritage passed down for generations. I have always believed honoring our intellectual groundwork can, and must, coexist with moving forward.

  1. Tradition and Homosexuality « I Love You but You're Going to Hell | Christian Homophobia |

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