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Osteen, Haggard and Piers Morgan: Strange Bedfellows

We cannot rely exclusively on scripture or tradition for understanding sexual and gender identity today.
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I'm sure it's just a coincidence that Pastor Joel Osteen declared homosexuality a sin the same week we learn that former leading evangelical pastor Ted Haggard says that he is bisexual. Think of the ratings had Piers Morgan had them on together!

Osteen told Morgan, "The Scripture says it's a sin ... I don't believe homosexuality is God's best for a person's life." As a religious leader, I am always suspect of those who believe that they alone know God's will for all of us. Osteen surely knows that there are a growing number of religious leaders and faith institutions who affirm that sexual and gender diversity is part of God's gift of creation and that all of us -- bisexual, lesbian, gay, straight and transgender -- are created in God's image.

There is no arguing that the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures present four to seven verses that condemn sexual behavior between two men -- what we call the "clobber texts" -- but Osteen conveniently ignores that there are many verses that condemn or uphold practices that conflict with contemporary ethical insights. As we move toward a more just society, we approach our texts and traditions with fresh questions and new understandings. For example, biblical texts that condone slavery, regard women as property, forbid divorce or equate disease with divine retribution are no longer regarded as authoritative by any contemporary religious body. We honor instead those hundreds of scriptural messages that invite us to welcome the stranger, love our neighbor as ourselves and view all people as created in God's image.

We cannot rely exclusively on scripture or tradition for understanding sexual and gender identity today. The word or concept for "homosexuality" did not even exist when the Bible was written, and many religious historians understand those "clobber texts" as denouncing ritual prostitution. An increasingly large body of scientific research demonstrates that adult sexual orientation and gender identity in all their complexities are probably formed by a combination of genetic and prenatal influences, and are neither a choice nor a preference.

Mr. Haggard presumably realizes this as he discloses his own struggles in the GQ interview. He says, "I think that probably, if I were 21, in this society, I would identify as a bisexual," and then goes on to say he is choosing to be monogamous now in his heterosexual marriage. Surely we know that many people who are bisexual fall in love with a person and make a successful commitment to not have sexual relationships outside of their primary relationship. In Mr. Haggard's case, we can hope that his compulsive sexual behaviors are now in the past.

But I'm struck by what Mr. Haggard didn't do in this interview, which is to disavow his words and his calls for discrimination against people who are not heterosexual -- words that were often far more inflammatory that Pastor Osteen's on Wednesday night. To my mind, the sin is never homosexuality, but heterosexism and homophobia -- the denigration and denunciation of others because of the gender and genitals of whom they love. Surely Mr. Haggard knows that words such as his from clergy have disparaged and in some cases destroyed people who were sharing his struggles coming to grips with their sexual orientation and in some cases even have led to violence, suicide and murder.

As I finished this piece, I was shocked to read of the brutal murder of Ugandan LGBT rights defender David Kato. His name had been recently published on a list of "Top 100 Homosexuals in Uganda" with an appeal for their deaths. Ugandan activist Jose Ortiz puts it well: "[People] must wake up and realize that horrible acts of inhumanity invariably follow hateful and bigoted rhetoric ... especially when the rhetoric is clothed in religious, 'pious' fervor."

I wish that Haggard's lamentation had been followed by acceptance of the diversity of sexual orientation. I wish I could sit down with Pastor Osteen and former pastor Haggard and tell them stories of the faithful LGBT persons and the clergy throughout the world who understand that sexual and gender diversity is a blessing. Mr. Morgan, I'm ready.

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