Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Bill Donohue of Catholic League Grabs National Spotlight with Giglio Controversy: Catholics and the Bible

Who'd have thought that Catholic League president and unofficial mouthpiece of the U.S. Catholic bishops in the public square Bill Donohue would be leaping into the fray over the invitation of Rev. Louis Giglio to deliver the benediction at President Obama's inauguration ceremony? Well, I'd have thought it, because, as Fred Clark notes recently at Slacktivist, the Giglio controversy provides yet another opportunity for the religious right to trot out its now-threadbare arguments about religious freedom--about how their religious freedom is being trampled on by, well, everyone else in a pluralistic secular democracy, and so religious freedom has been sharply curtailed in the U.S. 

And as the USCCB's unofficial mouthpiece, Donohue is not about to miss an opportunity to make that argument yet again, since, as Peter Montgomery notes at Religion Dispatches, the bishops still haven't given up on their fools' errand of fortnights for freedom, and they now intend to mount even more expensive public spectacles to try to convince the American public that religious freedom is really all about permitting them and theirs special privileges to trample down the rights of others. Simply because they say so. Because they claim to speak in God's name and it behooves the rest of us to listen when they declare jure divino.

This is all old news by now, but for those who may not have followed the Giglio imbroglio carefully, here's what happened: the committee planning the Obama inauguration chose Giglio to deliver the benediction because he's a friend of Obama's and has been active in the movement to end human trafficking. When the provisional inauguration program was made public, Josh Israel of Think Progress fired up his Google machine and found something that one would imagine the inaugural planning committee could easily have discovered via the same machine, had it mattered to them to vet Giglio carefully: namely, that Giglio has given at least one resoundingly offensive homophobic sermon in which he slams the "homosexual lifestyle" and endorses the bogus and dangerous notion of reparative therapy.

When news broke about Giglio's sermon, the predictable firestorm happened. Gays and those who care about gays began to ask how on earth it had happened that, after Obama was so highly criticized for inviting homophobic pastor Rick Warren to play a prominent role in his first inauguration, his planning committee had repeated the slap in the face to the gay community by inviting Giglio to this inauguration. And then within a day Giglio stepped down, with a rebarbative statement matched by an equally rebarbative one from the inaugural committee itself--and since then, he's dug in his heels and defended himself even more sharply, with suggestions that his right to free speech has now been infringed (as if we all have a right to stand on the platform of a presidential inauguration and hold forth against the gays!)--a story that Fred Clarkson follows at Talk to Action (and here--and see also Rob Boston's good statement at the same site).

Then when Giglio stepped down, the usual song-and-dance occurred, with shouts from the religious and political right that religious freedom is under attack by the Obama administration, and a predictable screed by Catholic centrist Michael Sean Winters at National Catholic Reporter claiming that "the left" exercises censorship and "activists" had forced Giglio's hand and caused his resignation from the program.

Which is, as with most anything the powerful centrist commentariat of American Catholicism chooses to say about gay and lesbian rights, essentially not different from what Dr. Donohue of the Catholic League chose to say . . . . In a statement that gained national media attention outside the Catholic press, so that many Americans beyond the parameters of the Catholic church will continue to conclude that Dr. Donohue somehow speaks on behalf of the bishops themselves . . . . 

I'm particularly struck by Donohue's counter to what Lawrence O'Donnell said about the Giglio story on his MSNBC program last week. The preceding link points to a Huffington Post article that summarizes the interchange between Donohue and O'Donnell, with links to the sites at which their statements appear.

O'Donnell maintains that the bible does, indeed, condemn homosexuality--just as (my list here, not O'Donnell's) it condemns wearing clothes made of mixed fibers, eating shellfish and pork, the bobbing of women's hair, permitting women to speak in church, and any manner of behaviors that bible-believing Christians have long since chosen to ignore and/or accept. And just as it consistently supports the practice of slavery.

Donohue zeroes in on O'Donnell's statements about the bible and homosexuality by claiming that O'Donnell implicitly recognizes that "postmodern" "savants" are incorrect when they argue that the bible doesn't, in fact, address the topic of homosexuality. And so, he maintains, President Obama surely ought not to lay his hand on the Holy Bible at his inauguration, when he supports the right of gay citizens to civil marriage: let him, instead, clasp Das Kapital as he is sworn in.

And here's my thinking about the exchange between Bill Donohue and Lawrence O'Donnell, two Irish American Catholics with very different mindsets, about the bible and homosexuality:

1. The Jewish and Christian scriptures don't, in fact, ever address the question of homosexuality. They could not have done so, when the term "homosexual" wasn't coined until the latter half of the 19th century, as scientists began to recognize that some human beings display an innate constant erotic attraction to members of their own sex. The biblical writers could not have addressed a psychological reality that became apparent to the human community only in the latter part of the 19th century, and for which a term was then coined--a term totally unavailable to the biblical writers.

2. But if we do grant that the tiny handful of biblical texts to which anti-gay Christians continue to cling are a denunciation of homosexual behavior, then we have to ask precisely why we ought to rip that tiny handful of exegetically murky texts out of the fabric of the entire bible, and make them the centerpiece of our moral thinking in the 21st century. When the obvious centerpiece of moral thinking in the bible is the call to practice compassion, mercy, and justice . . . . 

3. And so we need to ask why some of us are so fixated on a tiny handful of exegetically murky biblical texts and not on the very center of the biblical message, which runs everywhere in the bible, and which we seem to belie through our cruel fixation on isolating and judging our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters.

4. And if we are going to privilege that exegetically murky handful of biblical texts and read them as literal commands to Christians and Jews in the 21st century, then we're going to have to figure out what to do with that far larger body of biblical texts that many Christians took literally right into the middle of the 19th century, which support slavery.

All things considered, it might be better for us Americans to stop pretending that we take the whole bible literally and follow it faithfully in its every jot and tittle. When compassion, mercy, and justice seem so very far removed from our cultural mindset, in many ways, particularly every time we lay our hands on a bible . . . . 

The graphic is the bible Lincoln used at his swearing-in on 4 March 1861. President Obama was the first president to use the bible for his inauguration since Lincoln, when he chose it for his 2008 inauguration.

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