God versus the Gays

A consultation on the issue of same-sex marriages and religious ceremonies for civil partnerships has been launched by Scottish ministers. The Scottish Government said its initial view was that same-sex marriage should be introduced.

Nicola Sturgeon said a recent Scottish Social Attitudes survey found that more than 60% of people in Scotland felt that same-sex couples should have the right to marry, compared to 19% who disagreed. We’re delighted that Duncan Hothersall has written a guest-blog on the subject.


So the gay marriage debate has been joined with a vengeance, and the sides line up in the traditional manner. Lefty, progressive types who believe in free love and reject morals in one corner; religious, conservative types who support traditional values and biblical morality in the other.

Wait; this caricature is wrong. It’s outdated by about 20 years. Progressive views on sexuality are no longer the preserve of the left, and religion no longer means social conservatism. The slow march of decency has lived up to Gandhi’s aphorism: first they ignore you; then they laugh at you; then they fight you; then you win.

The political landscape today still has its religious bigots and social conservatives, but they are the outsiders now. The mainstream has embraced, if not free love exactly, then the freedom to love. The “moral equivalence” between gay and straight relationships, so feared by the religious right in the 90s, has come to pass, and the world has continued turning. Bringing up the proposal for gay marriage in general conversation now is more likely to engender “I thought we already had that?” than any sort of conviction on one side or the other. The discussion has been had. The argument was won.

And yet there are loud voices of condemnation still in our media, and if you listened to them alone then you would be forgiven for thinking that the scenario in my opening paragraph was real. Religious figures are raising the same deeply held and strongly convicted objections to the normalisation of same sex relationships as they did in the 90s with Section 28, and in the 2000s with civil partnerships. They are deploying the same carefully calibrated condemnation from god (love the sinner, hate the sin) and waving the same artfully constructed electoral threat (control of a supposedly homogeneous religious voting bloc). For them the repeated loss of this same argument has not dented their enthusiasm for it. Every new legislative move is the final push into the abyss, despite the fact that the abyss has consistently failed to materialise in the past.

And that’s because this has nothing to do with gay marriage. It has nothing to do with gay people at all. It never has had.

When the heroic hurled stilettos of the Stonewall Riots echoed across the west and the gay rights movement exploded in the 1970s, the blast was felt most keenly by the undisputed moral leaders of the time, the established churches. It was an astonishing moment, because it threatened to hole them below the waterline. Scripture condemns same sex relationships, both Old and New Testaments. There was little room for manoeuvre, as there had been for the civil rights movement and for women’s equality. Gay rights went against the bible. Gay rights became the conservative church’s last stand. They had to face down the “homosexual threat”; not to protect “our way of life”, as they so often painted it, but to protect their biblically-derived moral authority.

The Stonewall Riots didn’t just create the gay rights movement. It effectively created the religious right too. The challenge to orthodoxy was a klaxon to the slumbering but mighty power of the churches, and it was awoken. Churches were politicised by the appearance of the great threat. In the US first, but then in the UK, came the gradual realisation that large groups of people being preached to on a Sunday could result in large groups of people in a voting booth on a Thursday.

Sex has long been a battleground of the church, of course. Ancient peoples were consumed by the need to procreate, and family structures were critical to wealth and power, so naturally the writings produced from these times include strict controls over who lieth with whom and where seed might be spilled. But many of the sexual hang-ups of the modern church have little biblical basis. Celibacy for some and monogamy for the rest of us are more recent assertions, for example – evidence of the church following the social mores of its time rather than unchanging law.

So it was an easy, and effective, strategy for the certainties of biblical condemnation and social conservatism to be brought together to make the fight against gay rights the key rallying point for what was really the fight for religious power. The church opposed decriminalisation of gay sex because it feared the loss of its power. It opposed the equalisation of the age of consent because it feared the loss of its power. It opposed the repeal of Section 28 because it feared the loss of its power, and it opposed civil partnerships because it feared the loss of its power. Guess why it’s opposing gay marriage.

The great irony, and the most important thing for those of us on the other side of this  debate to remember, is that this motivation is worthless and this argument is empty, because the church doesn’t have any power any more, and there is no abyss. Society has already gone through the changes they warned us of and emerged stronger, fairer and better – not damaged, not failing, and not immoral. Lay church members have already realised this, and come to terms with treating gay people as equals. Churches who have no wish to wield power have realised it too, and come out in support of equality. All that remains is a loud, angry rump – in Scotland chiefly the Catholic bishop’s conference and the traditional wing of the Church of Scotland together with a few evangelicals – in denial of reality.

There is a great opportunity for them here too. When they see their positions are untenable, their threats empty and their fears unfounded, they have a fantastic fall-back. Their holy book, though it may contain some unpleasant old prejudices, is absolutely littered with instructions to do good, to treat people fairly, and to love. For every condemnation of gay sex, there are 500 exhortations to love your neighbour. All they need do is point them out. The solution is in their hands.

Those of us working to make marriage equality a reality ought not to ease up – the appearance of a powerful opposition could still scare politicians into making the wrong decision, and if that loud group is well funded they could cause the same pain as happened in the Section 28 debate. But we can be confident that we have already won the argument, and that the bluster from bishops and cardinals is just that. It is the sound of a different battle being fought, and lost, and soon we’ll not be subject to its collateral damage.

Comments (24)

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  1. Liam Furby says:

    Spot on with the argument that churches are worried about loss of power in the gay rights debate. For them it’s not about what is really right or wrong or immoral, its about them losing there influence. But they seem to have failed to notice that they lost it a long time ago.

  2. vronsky says:

    “For every condemnation of gay sex, there are 500 exhortations to love your neighbour. ”

    Perhaps, but then followed by several thousand exhortations to murder him. The scriptures aren’t really that pretty. Now the churches are being conscripted as oft before to the ranks of the unionists, sectarianism being their last best hope. The collateral damage is on its way.

  3. Liam, thanks. That’s it in a nutshell.

    Vronsky, no disagreement from me about scriptures being ugly. I wouldn’t want to conflate this issue with sectarianism or independence though. As a unionist myself, I don’t recognise the suggested alliance at all, and would reject it out of hand.

  4. J Jonhstone says:

    Who is condemning? but to change laws to suit a few is wrong, I am not a Bible puncher I do have my views you cannot change peoples views by legislation, as far as the Church any denomination is concerned it is their view, seems some wish to rewrite the Bible according to their views. Last night reading my grandson some stories from a children’s Bible (horrors some will shout) well sorry I to have my values first story was the creation the next was God made Adam and Eve we all know well most of us do what comes next. You really think I am going on from there to start to explain various sexualities ? well I am not ,the Bible you take from it what you wish,I wil say this it is the best guide to living as decent a life as you can, stop Bible knocking and knock people, talk about hypocrites I know where my vote falls.

    1. SteveB says:

      Hmmm? And I thought the creation story was “in the beginning the Gods said let us make man in our image”, did you manage to explain away the use of plurals?

    2. Indy says:

      But the story of Adam and Eve is not literally true. It’s a metaphor.

      Think about it. If the human species had ever been dependent on two single individuals to procreate it would have become extinct.

    3. Who is suggesting that the law be changed to suit a few? A fair, equal society is a better thing for everyone.

      I see no reason why you would find yourself needing to ‘explain various sexualities’ to your grandson if you didn’t want to. What’s so complicated about ‘two people fall in love and decide to spend the rest of their lives together, perhaps starting a family’?

  5. Vronsky says:

    “I don’t recognise the suggested alliance at all”

    Really? Read some modern Irish history. Sectarianism was fanned by the unionists in particular and the imperial class in general as a means of obstructing the Irish quest for independence. It was resurrected to help in suppressing the growth of trade unionism in the Belfast shipyards, where pay rates had risen above those elsewhere in the UK. Protestant workers were persuaded to drop hot rivets on their catholic colleagues, and the resulting shenanigans soon ended TU progress. The British media continue to describe the politics of NI in sectarian terms, while British special forces and ‘security’ services endeavour to ensure that it is always to an extent true.

    It should also be familiar from other contexts: attacks by Arab resistance fighters are usually described as ‘sectarian’ in spite of research showing mostly nationalist motivation. The principle project of the occupying forces (or so it looked) in Afghanistan and Iraq was to fan local factionalism select one gang as the new ‘democratic government’. Instability guaranteed, mission accomplished.

    As for the relevance to sectarianism to the unionist cause in Scotland, there has always been a steady stream of poisonous commentary, mainly from New Labour. Jack MacConnell was usually the man appointed to tag the SNP as sectarian, a clear case of the slag heap calling the polar bear black. Jack even blamed his travails with his personal accounting on bigotry. The banner has been picked up by Paul McBride QC, explicitly linking independence to sectarian disaster. I’m not sure whether he’s warning or threatening.

  6. Reuben Addis says:

    As an Evangelical (who goes to an Evangelical Edinburgh Church with Gay members on the vestry) I don’t recognise this portrait of Evangelical Christians. You can always find angry quotes that lump whole groups together. (John Barrowman was recently reported as calling church leaders evil hypocrites ruining peoples lives). It’s easy to say every moral issue is really about political power – but it seems legitimate for religious or other communities struggle together to work out a shared moral approach (not just what is wrong but also what is a virtuous life). As for the Gay Marriage there is an issue of rights and justice, which is clear cut, and separate issue of the socially and spiritually constructed meaning of various concepts (husband, partner, lover etc) which seems a legitimate area of debate. I know there is a similar nuanced debate between my catholic friends.

  7. J Johnstone:

    You ask who is condemning? Bishop Tartaglia, Cardinal O’Brien, the unnamed spokesperson of the Free Kirk, that’s who.

    Changing laws for the few is wrong? A ludicrous assertion. All steps toward equality involve bolstering the rights of the minority against the tyranny of the majority. On top of which, a clear majority of Scots support gay marriage, as stated at the top of the page.

    I have no wish to rewrite the bible – I merely assert that it should have no sway over the laws of this country. Why should it? We live in a democracy, not a theocracy.

    Feel free to tell your grandson whatever stories you like, but please don’t tell him his innate sexuality can be judged “wrong” or “right” on the basis of those stories. It cannot, and it must not.

    1. J.Johnstone says:

      Right or wrong? sorry I do not judge it is not my role in life to judge ,I have my view which I would not inflict on my grandchildren,they have to grow up in a world which has changed dramatically from when I was a child. This does not mean I accept or agree with current thoughts and trends. To be truthful my only and soul vision for my grandchildren is to see them grow up in a free Scotland with the right of their own self determination, I will not let myself be side tracked by scurrilous attacks on individuals of any ilk trying to score points off our present government in Edinburgh, which I know from other mediums is being done by certain political persuasions Mr Hothersall. Need I say more?

      1. Of course you judge. Both your last post and this one are full of judgements from beginning to end.

        I suppose it’s not surprising that you and others have tried to turn this into an independence/defend the SNP argument, given the raison d’etre of this site, but I do find it utterly bizarre. I’m SUPPORTING the policy of the SNP government in this piece! I am certainly a vocal opponent of some of their other policies elsewhere, but if you only ever want to hear the voices of those who agree with you 100% I fear for the Scotland you wish to create.

  8. Reuben:

    Had I asserted that this description applied to all evangelicals I would certainly accede to your argument. But I didn’t. The fact is that some evangelicals hold these views, and that is what I said. I’m absolutely delighted to agree, as I stated in the article, that most Christians do not hold them. I’m also delighted to learn that you are clearly among that number.

    I don’t disagree that there can be nuanced debate over terms used. In essence the entire argument about gay marriage is about semantics, since civil partnerships have already dealt with structural equality. But anyone arguing that the words “marriage” or “husband” or “wife” should be preserved for mixed sex couples is actually arguing for same-sex couples to be treated as second class. That’s the core of the debate – equal treatment.

    One final point – we’re talking about civil marriage. The government has no control, and wants to assert none, over religious marriage. It strikes me that the artificial combination of civil and religious marriage, embodied in the right for a priest or minister to create a legal marriage at the same time as he/she delivers a religious blessing, could be the main problem here. Perhaps the simplest solution is to separate the two. It works in many other countries where couples follow up a religious ceremony with a legal one. I might point out that this will be opposed by the conservative church movement I talked about above because… it reduces the church’s power!

  9. Andrew McCarron says:

    I find the whole thing boring, I am catholic I don’t care what Anybodies sexual preference is, I Love all men/women as Brothers & Sisters, I also love my Faith, I can understand why folk would not want to give up their faith because of their sexual preference, they don’t have to God is Very forgiving, But as it stands same sex Marriage is not permitted, I don’t believe the 60% quote from the survey, and i think most people just say they are for same sex marriage as they want to avoid being called a bigot, Sticks & Stones,

  10. Indy says:

    The fact is that most marriages in Scotland are civil ceremonies. Most couples who get married in Scotland have chosen to do so in a specifically non -religious setting and without any reference to religion.

    So while I completely agree that religious bodies should be free to refuse to marry gay couples,, just as they should be free to refuse to marry any other couples they disapprove of, that has no relevance or bearing on the majority of marriages in this country.

    Most couples do not seek the approval of any church when they get married so it doesn’t actually matter if a church disapproves of their relationship.

    That is what is at the heart of this issue for me. I don’t understand why religious bodies believe that their disapproval matters to anyone but their own flock.

    Or to look at it another way if you were to ask me if I approve of women being forbidden from doing the same job as a man I would say no I don’t approve of that – I disapprove quite strongly. But on the other hand if you were to say to me do you think that a church should be made to ordain women I would say no, it is up to them to decide on that. I don’t believe my disapproval should mean I have the right to impose my values on their church.

    So why can’t the religious bodies who are against gay marriage take the same position? Why can’t they say we disapprove of gay marriage and we are not going to conduct them but we are not going to try and force our values on everyone else? The only conclusion is that they DO want to force their values onto everyone else, whether or not everyone else subscribes to their religious beliefs.

    Although I should make clear that I am only talking about the religious leaders who have been making statements about the issue. Most of the people I know personally who have religious beliefs aren’t at all bothered by the idea of gay marriage and think it is all a fuss about nothing.

    1. JB says:

      “Most couples who get married in Scotland have chosen to do so in a specifically non -religious setting and without any reference to religion.” – And that’s got absolutely nothing to do with the fact it’s a lot cheaper to get married in the registry office than the church!

  11. Scottish republic says:

    Religion is poison but in any case, living in the 21st century makes it hard for reasonable people to find objection to gay marriage.


    1. JB says:

      “Religion is poison” – So’s football!

  12. I think the core point of Duncan’s article is that the battle is in the past; gay marriage is here and is as God given a right as any other type of marriage. Although the churches as a whole are often held up as villains in this argument, many churchgoers actually struggle with the issues and spend time trying to work out peacful and loving solutions, rather than calling for fire and brimstone. On top of that, the real resistance to this subject doesn’t come from the churches anyway; it comes from attitudes that are prejudiced against homosexuality to begin with. Oddly, the churches get the flak becuase they are the only ones that stick their heads above the parapet to speak up on this subject, whereas a far larger amount of people don’t like the idea but keep their thoughts private. The reason these opinions are kept private is that they have no grounds, they are simply prejudicial, and they people that hold them know that. As grounds, churches have authority; that is the ability to broadcast any opinion they like; and Christians have the Bible, which is a shame because great as it is, the Bible’s age (not its authority) make it ripe for multitudionous interpretation.

    1. Thanks Peter, you got my point absolutely, and your assessment of the groundlessness of the prejudice which some church leaders now represent is very well made.

  13. JB says:

    This is a one-sided article. Nothing about gay-friendly churches, or gay ministers/priests etc. Not all forms of religion are homophobic.

    1. JB says:

      One other thing – all references in this are to churches. What’s the Muslim/Hindu/Jewish/Sikh response to this? I suspect we’re less likely to see gay weddings in the Mosque, although Muslim cultures frequently have a “don’t ask, don’t tell” attitude to pre-marital gay sex.

    2. Almost the entire thrust of the article is that most religious people are not homophobic. I’m sorry that you’ve not understood that.

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