Christians, adherents of most major religions, support equality for LGBT people
In every age Christianity has had to challenge inherited norms in light of new understandings
‘Throughout the debate however there has been a mistaken assumption that those who are motivated by religious belief do not support marriage equality, and that the only theological arguments that can be made are those that would deny the right to civil marriage to gay and lesbian couples.’ Photograph: Getty Images
The forthcoming referendum in which Irish people will be asked to extend the civil right to marry to gay and lesbian couples has generated much debate about the nature of marriage, the extent of homophobia in Irish society and the status of particular religious values in a secular and pluralistic state.
Throughout the debate, however, there has been a mistaken assumption that those who are motivated by religious belief do not support marriage equality, and that the only theological arguments that can be made are those that would deny the right to civil marriage to gay and lesbian couples.
This could not be further from the truth. In most Christian denominations, as in many of the other major world religions, there are significant numbers of religious believers who, drawing on their core beliefs, promote the fundamental equality of all people, and in that context support the advancement of freedom and equality for LGBT people, including the freedom to marry.
Historically, Christianity, like the societies in which it has been embedded, has been homophobic. One only has to look at the centuries-long struggle to decriminalise homosexuality and the subsequent slow pace of reform of other institutions (like marriage) as evidence of this. Christianity has been part of this endemic societal homophobia.
Christianity has been influenced by prevailing scientific, psychological and cultural arguments that legitimised discrimination against LGBT people, and it also provided some of the justifying beliefs that reinforced this inequality.
Society vs religion
The theological objection to LGBT rights, including the right to marry, has traditionally been based on three interlocking dimensions.
These have been: a. arguments from natural law which insist on the natural complementarity of the sexes, the significance of the reproductive function of sex, and marriage based on the complementarity of the sexes; b. arguments from the sacred texts or scriptures which assert the Bible condemns homosexual sex and that this has direct applicability to LGBT rights today; and c. arguments from tradition, which claim there has been a constant tradition of denunciation and that this cannot and should not change.
However,these arguments can be marshalled to support rather than deny marriage equality on religious grounds. The assumptions about the complementarity of the sexes and the centrality of reproduction in sexual relationships have been thoroughly challenged by science, by politics, and by feminist theologians who point out this theology was based on the erroneous scientific views of the time, but persisted in theology long after the science was revised.
With the arguments from the sacred texts, literalist readings of the Bible have always existed alongside other approaches that view the Bible as simultaneously conveying a core message about justice, while also being the vehicle of the prevailing social norms, norms that now have to be challenged and reinterpreted.
More importantly, the core values around which the Christian tradition revolves, namely the values of human dignity, justice and equality, will be utterly compromised if the tradition fails to address this fundamental inequality.
In every age Christianity has had to look at its inherited cultural and social norms and ask whether, in the light of greater human understanding and scientific advancement and in the context of its own fundamental values, it should reassess some of its views.
This has been the case in relation to slavery (remember that at one time, the churches did not condemn slave-holding), in relation to the equality of women, and in relation to human rights.
In each case, Christianity has had to examine whether its position on these social and political issues reflects and promotes the core Christian values of dignity, equality and social justice, and if not, it has had to foreground these core values and change.
There is no doubt that religion can be a force for conservatism or for reform. In this crucial civil matter, it is essential that the core elements within religious traditions be marshalled in the service of human rights, and in this case, in support of marriage equality.
Dr Linda Hogan is vice- provost, chief academic officer and professor of ecumenics at Trinity College Dublin