Hermeneutics & HJR-3

I’m working on a post to recap what was said during yesterday’s Senate Rules Committee hearing on HJR-3, which would enshrine discrimination against LGBT Hoosiers in our state’s constitution.

But I wanted to comment on a specific religious idea that came up yesterday, an idea that was most explicit in the words of Pastor Wayne Harris of Evansville. While Harris said several things that deserve to be corrected — repeatedly referring to the “gay lifestyle,” dismissively reducing LGBTQi people to “the choices they’ve made,” and his judgement that “Shame belongs to those who live and support this lifestyle.” — I want to focus on a particular aspect of his comments that serves as a near-perfect illustrative example of an ongoing, 200-year-old dispute within Christianity.

Harris began by citing the authority of the Bible, quoting from William Penn and others about the importance of Christian scripture. But then he mentioned that as slaves converted to Christianity, they realized that the white men who owned them — who claimed to be Christian themselves — were being hypocritical in their religious claims to honor the Bible. As my wife (The Professor) pointed out, a recognition of the hypocrisy of Christian slaveholders is a recurring element in slave narratives. It’s also a major theme in Uncle Tom’s Cabin and other contemporary fictional accounts of American slavery.

Pastor Harris then went on to mention Paul’s denunciation of homosexual behavior in the first chapter of his letter to the Romans1, and that acceptance of homosexuality is an indicator of a society in decline. He went on to say that homosexuality is always presented in a negative way in the Bible.

What Pastor Harris has done here is extremely common, especially in politically-conservative American Christianity. He’s using one hermeneutic to look at the verses in the Bible that promote — or even mandate! — slavery, while using a very different interpretation on the verses that, according to him, condemn homosexuality. That second, different approach is the same approach that divided the American church over slavery. In fact, it’s the same approach that the defenders of slavery used.

Lots of smart people have pointed out this contradiction in hermeneutics. Fred Clark sums up the origins of the slave-owner hermeneutic like this:

The defenders of slavery settled on the approach to biblical interpretation that best served their purpose (and, not coincidentally, that best served their economic interest). The only way to make the Bible useful in defense of slavery was to treat it as a collection of legal proof-texts. They began isolating and elevating these disparate texts and demanding that they be treated as authoritative. They asserted that this was a literal, obvious and common-sense approach to the Bible (all while desperately avoiding the glaring fact that American-style slavery is nothing like the kinds of slavery described in those passages).

Clark has blogged about this concept many times, even referring to the larger trend of inerrancy as “Round 2 of the Bible-battle over slavery.

Mark Noll, the influential professor of history at Notre Dame, wrote a whole book about it: The Civil War as Theological Crisis. In an essay that mirrors his arguments from that book, Noll wrote:

While Rice methodically tied Blanchard in knots over how to interpret the proslavery implications of specific texts, Blanchard returned repeatedly to “the broad principle of common equity and common sense” that he found in scripture, to “the general principles of the Bible” and “the whole scope of the Bible,” where to him it was obvious that “the principles of the Bible are justice and righteousness.” Early on in the debate, Blanchard’s exasperation with Rice’s attention to particular passages led him to utter a particularly revealing statement of his own reasoning: “Abolitionists take their stand upon the New Testament doctrine of the natural equity of man. The one-bloodism of human kind [from Acts 17:26]: — and upon those great principles of human rights, drawn from the New Testament, and announced in the American Declaration of Independence, declaring that all men have natural and inalienable rights to person, property and the pursuit of happiness.”

Carolyn Dupont, a history professor at Eastern Kentucky, has a new book that looks at the role of Southern white evangelicals in the Civil Rights Movement — Mississippi Praying. I haven’t had a chance to read her book yet, but my understanding is that it paints a similar picture to Noll’s history.

This conflict is even at the heart of one of the greatest scenes of American literature: when Huck Finn, faced with a choice between following his conscience or obeying his Biblical duty, declares, “All right, then, I’ll go to hell.

After Harris and the advocates of HJR-3 had spoken, others invoked a different Christian and Biblical understanding as reasons for opposing the constitutional amendment.

The Rev. Dr. Matthew Myer Boulton of Christian Theological Seminary testified on behalf of his institution that there was “no one Christian view” of HJR-3. As head of an institution founded by abolitionists, it’s unsurprising that he cited the over-arching themes of scripture, and especially of their accounts of Jesus’ activities. Boulton made multiple references to the radical inclusivity of Jesus’ teachings, calling it the hallmark of his ministry.

The Rev. Melody Merida, representing the Interfaith Coalition on Nondiscrimination (ICON), echoed his remarks and emphasized the centrality of love to Christianity and the other Abrahamic religions.

In other words, yes — we’ve seen this movie before, and we watched it played out again yesterday in the Indiana Senate. On one side, we’ve got what boils down to, “The Bible says x.” On the other side, we have a nuanced, holistic approach to Scripture. It’s a familiar conflict, and one of these sides has always been wrong. Every single time we’ve seen this conflict play out, the outcome is the same.

The hermeneutic that Pastor Harris uses to determine what the Bible says about homosexuality is wrong. It was wrong when it was used to defend slavery. It was wrong when it was used to justify segregation and apartheid. It is wrong now when used to justify denying basic equal protections of the law to gay and lesbian Hoosiers.

As Fred Clark put it:

In every iteration, the conflict is the same. On the one side are those who declare that they stand for the absolute truth of the inerrant scripture. And on the other side are those who say that such an appeal to scripture can never be contrary to the “twofold love of God and our neighbor.”

I know which side I’m on.

Further reading:

“Is abolition ‘biblical’?” by Rachel Held Evans.

  1. Lots of smart people have conducted thorough studies of what Paul actually says here. Matthew Vines, in his widely-shared talk about the anti-gay “clobber verses”, distills a lot of this study and convincingly argues for a more nuanced understanding of Paul. But he’s facing the same uphill battle as the abolitionists that Noll writes about.