Confronting Religious Denial of Gay Marriage: Christian Humanism and the Moral Imagination

By Catherine M. Wallace
Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books, 2015

Reviewed by Virginia Ramey Mollenkott

Confronting Religious Denial of Gay Marriage: Christian Humanism and the Moral ImaginationDr. Catherine Wallace is a cultural historian at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University. Thus she is in an ideal position to write books refuting cultural errors, and has already written several books on confronting Fundamentalism, such as the forthcoming title, Confronting Judgementalism.

In her preface to Confronting Religious Denial of Gay Marriage, Dr. Wallace explains that each of her books exemplifies two basic concepts: humanism (a commitment to humane treatment of people and honest use of language) and moral imagination (ability to cope with paradox, recognize patterns, and think symbolically). Since my first book (Adamant and Stone Chips, 1967) was subtitled A Christian Humanist Approach to Knowledge, and my second book (In Search of Balance, 1969) was all about attention to paradox, I felt that I was reading the work of a kindred spirit.

Calling herself a “Jesuit-educated Catholic brought up by a generation of gutsy, radical nuns” (p. 5), Wallace acknowledges that she began public support of gay marriage in 1992, before even civil unions existed in the United States. Her 1998 book For Fidelity: How Intimacy and Commitment Enrich Our Lives, helped to establish that support. For Fidelity was published just one year before the Moral Majority sent out one of its first fund-raising letters for a “war against homosexuality.” Those were hard times for gay Christians like myself, despite Harper San Francisco’s publication in 1978 of Letha Scanzoni’s and my book Is the Homosexual My  Neighbor? and an updated version in 1994; or John McNeill’s The Church and the Homosexual, already in its third edition by 1988.

Wallace begins with a very important question: why is the Religious Right so upset by gay marriage rather than by child poverty, or handgun violence, or military spending? She then proceeds to build evidence for her thesis: while “Christianity slowly separated from its Jewish origins, sexual renunciation took the place of kosher dietary restrictions and purity rituals as a boundary maker for Christian community.” And “none of this goes back to Jesus… Christian humanism fearlessly returns to scholarship on the moral teaching of Jesus, unencumbered by slavish deference to what the Vatican or the televangelists have said or thought in the meantime.” (pp. 27-28).

The influence of Plato (about 400 B.C.E) and Neoplatonism thereafter, with its dismissal of the body and the emotions, has shaped early Christian theology and continues to dominate many theological statements. Especially in Wallace’s own tradition, Roman Catholicism, “the past is a prison” because no error can ever be corrected, including the error that only procreation can justify sexual congress—and this despite the fact that 98% of sexually active Catholic women of child-bearing age have used birth-control! (p.36).

Wallace provides an excellent chapter on biblical interpretation, demonstrating that because of the radical inclusion described in Acts 10:9-48, neither Romans 1:20-32 nor Leviticus 18 can be properly interpreted as calling anyone unclean because God created them clean (see verses 15 and 28).

I do have one reservation about the chapter on the Bible: Wallace’s sweeping condemnation of all casual sex as being “exploitative” and “self-denigrating” (p.49). There are some individuals who are sufficiently damaged that casual sex is the best that they can manage in their yearning to reach toward meaningful relationship. So I bear in mind the advice of my mentor, John McNeill: “Never put down anybody’s attempts to relate.” In context, however, Wallace is thinking primarily about exploitations such as sex trafficking, clerical pedophilia, and the bullying encouraged by the Right’s “war on homosexuality.” And in such cases her condemnation is crucial and deserved.

In her wonderful chapter exploring whether gay marriage is sinful or sacred, Dr. Wallace defines marriage as “an agreement to work hard forever after to be a responsible grown-up in this relationship” (p.70). In fact, she argues, “the marital relationship mirrors in finite and fallible human ways the infinite and steadfast love that God is” (p. 71). And the blessing of enacting a sacred relationship does not depend on the gender of the parties, but rather on their reciprocity and mutual intimacy, their moral commitment to the relationship.

Hence, Wallace concludes, “churches should honor and celebrate gay marriages, because authentic marital relationships symbolize the human encounter with God” (p.73). To deny this in the name of Christ is nothing short of blasphemy (i.e. speaking evil of that which is sacred). And Wallace reminds us that the “only people Jesus harshly condemned were religious authorities who condemned others in the name of God” (p. 83).

Dr. Wallace’s personal stories enhance her style, and her rigorous rationality illuminates every page. She has provided Christian churches with a brief and concise book that is ideal both for individual study and for discussion in groups.

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© 2016 by Christian Feminism Today

Virginia Ramey Mollenkott
Virginia Ramey Mollenkott (1932-2020) is the author or co-author of 13 books, including several on women and religion. She is a winner of the Lambda Literary Award (in 2002) and has published numerous essays on literary topics in various scholarly journals. In 1975, she spoke at the first national gathering of the Evangelical Women’s Caucus in Washington, D.C., and delivered plenary speeches at almost every gathering of the organization over the next 40 years. She has lectured widely on lesbian, gay, and bisexual rights and has also been active in the transgender cause. Mollenkott was married to Judith Suzannah Tilton until her death in 2018, and has one son and three granddaughters. She earned her B.A. from Bob Jones University, her M.A. from Temple University, and her Ph.D. from New York University. She received a Lifetime Achievement award from SAGE, Senior Action in a Gay Environment, a direct-service and advocacy group for seniors in New York City in 1999. In 2017 she was awarded the inaugural Mother Eagle Award. Even in her late 80s, Virginia Ramey Mollenkott continued to use her doctorate in English to share insights with folks who visit the EEWC and Mollenkott websites, and with elderly people in the Cedar Creek Community educational programs. She deeply regretted that her severe arthritis forbade her presence at the social justice protests during the Trump presidency.