Recently two special interest groups I’m second degree connected to have been involved in scandals around religious attitudes to homosexuality.

The leader of a tiny UK political party, the Liberal Democrats, resigned because

To be a political leader — especially of a progressive, liberal party in 2017 — and to live as a committed Christian, to hold faithfully to the Bible’s teaching, has felt impossible for me.

And a tiny UK Jewish denomination, Orthodox-aligned Sephardim, are up in arms because R’ Joseph Dweck taught something about homosexuality in Rabbinic sources and commented:

I genuinely believe that the entire revolution of…homosexuality…I don’t think it is stable and well…but I think the revolution is a fantastic development for humanity.

This stuff is minor on the scale of things, but the media love the narrative of gay rights versus religious traditionalism. Anyway lots of my friends are religious Jews or Christians who are also gay or supportive of gay people and other gender and sexual minorities. So lots of my circle are exercised about one or both of the incidents.

It’s easy for me to just point and laugh at people tying themselves in knots over whether it’s religiously permissible to be fractionally less horrible to gay people. My approach to religion already doesn’t accept any authority, whether God or scripture or religious leaders or institutions, telling me to be horrible to anyone. But I don’t think that’s really a worthy response; there are lots of ways in which a hierarchical, authoritarian approach to religion appeals to many people, including people from gender and sexual minorities (GSM) and I want to do what I can as an outsider to help those people to exist as their whole authentic selves within all their communities.

I have a lot of admiration for both Farron and R’ Dweck. Farron is that rare creature, a principled politician. He belongs to a Christian community whose mainstream teaching prohibits “homosexuality” (whatever they may understand by that), and he is a committed liberal who really works for equality for everybody in the political sphere. It’s possible to read his resignation statement as saying he feels it’s wrong for him to promote the welfare and rights of gay men when his religion prohibits their relationships. He’s also very aware that being perceived as a homophobe is damaging to his Liberal party and is putting off voters, and it seems to me that the second is the bigger driver for him stepping down as leader. R’ Dweck is likewise a compassionate and courageous leader, and one who really does accept Torah authority about prohibited homosexual behaviours. Note that the comment that’s got him in hot water for not being sufficiently homophobic really looks quite homophobic from a mainstream liberal perspective: he doesn’t think homosexuality is “stable and well”, and he upholds “the Torah’s prohibition of male homosexual intercourse”.

The reason why my response to these news stories is more than just Schadenfreude is that making a scapegoat of Farron and R’ Dweck closes up the space in which gay people can live their lives. Yes, I want gay people and other GSM folk to be fully included and not have their rights curtailed, and that very much includes the right to be members of conservative religious communities. I think there is a lot to be said for the approach that religion is homophobic so people who care about the welfare and rights of GSM people should give up religion. But I also think that religion isn’t inherently homophobic and that people, whether Queer or their allies, shouldn’t be forced to reject all the good things it offers.

The thought I’m trying to shape is something like, this isn’t in fact a conflict between “religion” and “homosexuality”. It’s a paradigm shift away from the late 19th to early 20th century Western nuclear family system, where the only permitted relationship was marriage between one man and one woman. And the woman was wholly responsible for raising a couple of future capitalist children, and the man had to work at least 40 hours a week in waged employment. I’m pretty confident that it’s wrong to force that model on everybody, especially legally, but socially also. But the new permissive liberal paradigm that’s replacing it is still somewhat in flux, and I don’t assume that it’s already the most perfect form of organizing human society. The consensus seems to be forming towards something that’s quite individualized; there’s no central moral authority, whether that’s religion or tradition or the state or general social norms. And because it’s individualized it tends to be quite identity-focused; people have a sexual orientation and a gender identity which is fundamental to who they are, and it’s absolutely wrong to discriminate based on those. I don’t know if it’s possible for a system of moral authority to coexist with liberty and equality, and if I have to choose between them I choose liberty every time. For me, visionaries like R’ Dweck and people like Farron who are both religiously conservative and politically liberal, are trying to hold on to both, and I want to at least admit the possibility of that. After all, the point of being liberal is to make as much space in society as possible for everybody, including up to a point some less liberal approaches.

Some religious institutions are (IMO mistakenly) investing religious authority in the really quite recent capitalist nuclear family paradigm. But it’s not “religion versus gay rights”, by a long chalk. Like recently with the development of legislation around same-sex marriage, a vocal conservative minority within the Church of England insisted on banning religious same-sex marriages. But that’s not even the whole of the CoE, let alone all Christians, let alone all “religions”; plenty, including my own denomination of Reform Judaism, consider same sex marriage and other positive measures for LGBTQ+ inclusion to be very much part of our religious tradition. I know it’s possible to survey historical Christianity and find evidence that Christian same-sex marriage and all kinds of different approaches to relationships and gender have always been part of the huge complex Christian civilization, and it’s also possible to cherry pick texts to justify the view that anyone gender non-conforming in any way is deserving of exclusion and violence. And it’s the same within Judaism; R’ Dweck is by no means the only teacher who is working with extremely traditional methods of bringing about social change, adding to the tradition rather than rejecting it when it doesn’t match ethical values. We in liberal traditions benefit quite a lot from this kind of work, because while we’re much more willing to throw out prejudiced ideas, we also do want to be part of tradition and not just a society of people who are vaguely nice to eachother, and having access to these interpretations really helps with that.

Maybe it’s ok that people trying to hold this balance have very few allies. I can understand that authoritarian homophobes see their authority threatened by leaders who try to introduce compassion and nuance into interpretations of anti-gay views. And I can very very much understand that GSM people and all of us who love them have little time for any attempt to work within a paradigm that classes loving same sex relationships and non-standard gender identities as a moral problem at all. I really want to support holding the balance, though, above all for my friends of any number of genders, orientations, relationship styles etc who belong to conservative religions.

I support and develop active collaborative learning at Anglia Ruskin, and volunteer with the Jewish community & interfaith groups. All views my own.