The Problem is Not Gays but the Religious Right’s Culture of Repression

Bart Barber, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Farmersville, Texas, wrote in Canon and Culture yesterday that Obergfell v Hodges has presented “followers of Christ” with “a changed universe of possibilities.”

He claims that even a “if some modern-day triumvirate rivaling Whitefield, Edwards, and Wesley were to bring upon us a Third Great Awakening, it still would be too late to prevent this nation’s social experimentation by way of the removal of sexual taboos.”

Barber admits he is not a lawyer. He is also, despite his claims to the contrary, not a historian. Like most on the Religious Right, he insists on some monolithic and unchanging reality with regards gender roles that are not, in fact, present in the historical record, even among Christians (even King David says sleeping with his friend Nathan is “better than sleeping with a woman.”)

Like others arguing against Marriage Equality, he makes the Bible into one long anti-gay diatribe, when it is nothing of the sort, and was not recognized as such for most of Christian history.

Barber goes on to claim that “the advocates for the sexual revolution are taking us back to first-century Rome.” But here Barber is appealing to a past that exists only in the imagination:

Socially, the advocates for the sexual revolution are quickly taking us back to first-century Rome. There and then we knew we were a minority, which we’ve always been whether we recognized it or not. Our church rolls contain many unregenerate members. That situation is about to change. A red-hot commitment to Christ is about to become the only reason why anyone would join one of our churches. We are becoming the ultimate “alternative lifestyle,” and the aftermath of today’s decision could be freeing for us if we will allow it to be.

There are a couple of important things to understand about first-century Rome. Barber, the non-historian wants a dichotomy that is not there. Running on the fumes of what have become Hollywood stereotypes, he wants a decadent, moribund Paganism and absence of morality to stand in stark contrast to the vibrant and revolutionizing opposition to moral relativism represented by Christianity.

His message is clear: We have fallen back into the moral abyss from which Christianity emerged.

On the contrary, as Jonathan Hirsch has pointed out, “The ruling class of Rome was, contrary to twenty centuries of Christian moral censure, rather fussy and even puritanical on the subject of sex, especially in outward appearances.”[1]

And Ray Laurence, writing of Roman sexuality, laments that “It is something of a disappointment to discover that the Romans did not have orgies.”[2] As Laurence goes on to explain, “there is no evidence for them. They are yet another example of the fevered imagination of the modern world, which attempts to sexualize all other cultures past and present.”

“Sexuality,” says Lynn LiDonnici, “as we use the term does not appear to have concerned people in the ancient Mediterranean; specific acts drew more attention than choices about lifestyle or sexual identities in the modern sense of identification.” The problem, as she sees it, is our modern inability to think outside of our own context. She stresses the need to “understand symbols from antiquity on their own terms.”

If we separate our own tendency to eroticize all female categories from the categories of antiquity…this…may hinder the understanding of Greco-Roman people on their own terms. It is possible that the tendency to extend erotic category judgments to the art of antiquity makes it difficult for us to perceive a figure who is both unsexualized and at the same time fully gendered.[3]

In fact, as Robert L. Wilken, who actually bothers to examine the social structures and contexts of the first century, points out, “A strong current of libertinism, offensive to the sensibilities of the middle- and upper-class Romans, runs through early Christianity. It is the Romans, not the Christians, who are the puritans.”[4]

This is contrary to what modern-day Christians are brought up to believe, and Wayne Meeks echoes LiDonnici, arguing that, “we cannot claim to understand the morality of a group until we can describe the world of meaning and of relationships, special to that group in its own time and place, with which behavior is evaluated.”[5]

Insisting that Christianity today is like Christianity in the first century, is to fail to make that effort. Christians today move in a different context entirely. When Meeks points out that, “it is Plato as read by Philo and Plutarch…whom we must understand” and not as read by some modern scholar,[6] the same must necessarily be true of the New Testament.

The crux of the matter and this is something ignored by Barber and others is that in the first century, the New Testament did not exist. There were collections of writings and letters, different collections in different areas, giving rise to a multitude of Christianity’s and understandings. There was no monolithic Christianity any more than there was a monolithic Paganism for it to stand in opposition to.

In fact, Christian morality, supposedly so new and revolutionary, was informed by that of the Pagan world we are told it opposed.

The idea of philanthropia was well known by Pagan society – and long before Christianity appeared, and even the idea of loving one’s enemies is well attested in Pagan writings. Diogenes Laertius (8.23) mentions Pythagoras on this score and it is found in Seneca too (De vita beata 20.5). John Whittaker’s findings are impossible to argue with: “We have no choice but to conclude that the pertinent conception was deeply entrenched in the popular morality of the ancient world.”

Whittaker goes on to say, “We may conclude that pagan critics had not been slow to note that the Christian ideal of morality, lofty though it might be, was well anchored in the Hellenistic tradition.” Indeed, “in the Iambi ad Seleucum of Amphilochius of Iconium, friend of the Cappadocians and cousin of Gregory Nazianzen, the exhortation to follow the ethics of the pagans but not their theology.” This amounts to less than a damning condemnation of Pagan ethics and morality.[7]

Pagan critic Celsus, writing at the turn of the second century, went so far as to accuse the Christians of a lack of originality in the area of morality.[8] Origen, in his response, does not even try to contest the point, but settles for asserting that “basic moral principles are by divine disposition universally one and the same.”

Whittaker notes that Christian apologists of the second century “took pains to emphasize the similarities rather than the divergences between their beliefs and the pagan wisdom of the Roman Empire.”[9] Even the bigoted Augustine insisted that philosophers converting to Christianity leave only their false doctrines behind, not their way of life.[10]

Follow the ethics of the Pagans, Pastor Barber. Not their theology. At the time, this was the dividing line between your followers of Christ and Pagans: theology, not morality. You and the rest of the Religious Right conflate the two.

If there is something to be worried about, it is that, as Laurence writes, “a dominant culture of repression can only thrive if a transgressive subculture is seen as a threat.”

It is, in fact, Pastor Barber, as part of that culture of repression, who is the problem, not “the advocates for the sexual revolution” he condemns.


[1] Jonathan Hirsch. God Against the Gods: The History of the War Between Monotheism and Polytheism (NY: Viking Compass, 2004), 121.

[2] See Ray Laurence, Roman Passions: A History of Pleasure in Imperial Rome (London: Continuum, 2009).

[3] Lynn R. LiDonnici, “The Images of Artemis Ephesia and Greco-Roman Worship: A Reconstruction,” HTR 85 (1992), 393, 409 n. 81, 411.

[4] Robert L. Wilken, “Toward a Social Interpretation of Early Christian Apologetics” Church History 39 (1970), 442. As Wilken goes on to say, “If some Christians celebrated the liturgy without clothes, it would not take long for the word to get out that Christians as a group were depraved.”

[5] Wayne A. Meeks, “Understanding Early Christian Ethics” JBL 105 (1986), 4.

[6] Meeks (1986), 7.

[7] John Whittaker “Christianity and Morality in the Roman Empire” Vigiliae Christianae 33 (1979) 210.

[8] Origen, Contra Cels. 1.4 (PG 11.661).

[9] Whittaker (1979), 212-213

[10] Augustine, Civ. Dei 19.19.

31 Replies to “The Problem is Not Gays but the Religious Right’s Culture of Repression”

  1. “it still would be too late to prevent this nation’s social experimentation by way of the removal of sexual taboos”

    Let’s not confuse “what he wishes” and “what is”. Right wingers don’t call the shots. Same as they wanted the earth to be flat and the center of the universe, they wanted many things to be THEIR way, and it didn’t turn out that way, hence I see no reason why it should be too late for anything simply because a yahoo says so…

  2. History has never been a strong suit for the religious right nor for the RW in general. But, they do love their talking points.

  3. There is a tendency to explain the religious right as misinformed, but that would include very few people. The world of these people is a fabrication, a dark fantasy where only they are the righteous and all others are the evil spawn of the devil.

    It is very true that they are a minority and are being “victimized” – by themselves. They paint themselves into a very small corner…

  4. As I recall, Rome didn’t fall until Christians grabbed power and imposed their will upon the empire.

  5. How can Libertarians believe that they can work with the Religious Right?

    And how can Christians who have the values of Jesus Christ as shown in the Bible believe they can work with the Religious Right?

  6. Why not “criminalize blow job”? Or “doggie style”?

    MYOB! Either we have freedom, or we don’t. And NO, wing nuts don’t own freedom over the rest of us.

  7. The answer to why don’t they criminalize that, is that they like to do those things.

    They don’t mind ‘certain activities’ when its they themselves doing it- they’ve got a Wide Stance to such.

  8. The BEST solution and one that will fix EVERY problem on this planet would be to “criminalize RELIGION!! Since it is the biggest instrument of repressing freedom, the biggest reason for stealing land and treasure and the most feared and most illogical thing ever CREATED BY MANKIND!!

  9. Exactly! If you were to stop and ask why these pseudo-Christians are so anti-gay, and so hung up on what kind of sex acts everyone else is engaging in, then there are just one or two obvious conclusions…….!

    As my former Cdn Prime Minister Trudeau said in 1967 (when he was Justice Minister, talking about the decriminalization of homosexuality) “The state has no business in the bedrooms of the nation”.

    Of course, his Conservative enemies started the rumour that he was obviously gay. Three years later, he married and subsequently went on to have 3 sons!

  10. The problem with forbidding something- is that by doing so you give it an allure.

    When I was a good Mormon Boy (or trying to be), there were many things forbidden to me.

    When I fell away from Mormonism, I started trying those things.

    Most of them, weren’t worthy of my time, a few were, a couple I whole heartedly enjoy.

    Criminalizing Religion? No. Religion is invariably predicated upon the notion that the adherents of such- are ‘persecuted’ for their beliefs. Making it illegal would just play into that mentality.

    No, better to allow it and let the curious folks figure out on their own (and with help) discover just how buffoonish religion really is.

  11. The premise of the golden rule wasn’t too shabby for a
    community organizer who paid the ultimate price. Jah

  12. self-victimized, yes…

    I see it as some kind of sadomasochistic belief system whereas self-inflicted pain, torture of the soul is considered purifying, morally just…um.

    So…pain is used to purify the soul (blood of some sacrificial lamb) and is the answer to all human woes, but Satan, incarnate of evil, causes all human pain and suffering and must be purged…so self-inflicted pain (self-victimization on every imaginable level) is good for you?

    Oh, these are just, sick, sick people…

  13. Christianity today is a product of European culture, not reality. Christianity only took hold in the wilds of Europe, where it was shaped into the raison d’etre for invading and conquering territory. Their entire society was built around the notion of subduing the wealth of the earth for White males.

    When Europeans emerged from their Dark isolation, they exploded across the globe, dragging their bloody religion with them. The overwhelming violence of their dogma was stunning, but advancements in mass communications have neutered their single-minded tyrannies.
    300 years isn’t a bad run. But they’ve shot their wad. The task at hand is to ease them off the public stage before they kill again.

  14. I truly respect the vast majority of the people who share their opinions here but “SOME” of my liberal friends here get carried with their rants about christians, the RELIGIOUS RIGHT isn’t a christian organization, NEVER was christian NEVER will be christian! it’s a political organization that runs a scam using christianity as it’s hook. ANYONE who has read the bible, knows the religious right is a CON GAME! BTW the bible has a name for these phony religious jokers! they’re called PHARISEES! Jesus himself got so disgusted with these fakers, he actually went into the temples and over turned the money tables! So lets NOT take a page from the GOPS playbook and lump everybody who calls themselves christians with the GOPS GRIFTERS! The TRUTH be known, the RELIGIOUS RIGHT, HATES Jesus! they HATE his message of tolerance and love! I’ve studied these fakers for over 25 yrs!! My parents were RELIGIOUS RIGHT followers!! so believe me! it’s ALL a sham!!

  15. Unfortunately, the Religious right is the brand to whom the conservative politicians pander; the ones that are the most vocal and visible while the moderate, Christian folk quietly go about their business being Christians without the ‘look at me, look at me’ mentality of their more ‘conservative brethren.

    It is the same old story. Liberals and moderates have a live and let live attitude while conservatives insist that everyone must follow their way or the highway.

  16. I agree with you @Junesxing, I look at it this way, anyone can call themselves anything they choose but the reality is, actions speak louder than words and the RELIGIOUS RIGHT actions completely contradicts Jesus teachings, PERIOD!!

  17. So, now that the christians in the US have lost all their freedoms due to same sex marriages, would someone please tell, just what freedoms they have lost and how life is different for them?

  18. freeportguy,…”Right Wingers don’t call the shots” Exactly and THAT is what pisses them off the most! They are petulant spoiled little bible thumping brats who would rather break a toy out of greed and spite rather than let the toy be enjoyed by all.

  19. Reading & interpreting the Bible or any religious text, will always be subject to the social norms of the day. As such, a person reading the Bible in 1515 will interpret its meaning differently than a person who it in 1815, 1915, 2015 & so forth. At one time, the thought of divorce & female clergy was scandalous; today they’re no-brainers. Years from now, gay marriage will be the norm & this is what drives the Religious Right crazy!

  20. To our unabridged sex police, in bedroom windows across the U.S.: Listen up you peeper-voyers, you’re too damn nosy and perverted. Be aware that the urge to reproduce IS the most powerful thing on the planet, got that, we know you’re not scientists, we get that. You have, nor ever will get control of this fact of life. Don’t like this fact, don’t indulge in what you don’t want to do. Leave the rest of the fun loving population alone, worry about your own urges. Normal human beings are not concerned with your bedroom antics. Love your fellow human beings as the Bible shows you, in it’s teachings. What you attempt to do is, not witnessing to others as it reads, you want it done your way. That’s very un Christianlike don’t you think? And by all means, do unto others as you would expect them to do for you. For your own sanity. Leave other human beings to live the life they desire and mind ya’ own business, stop peeping in others bedrooms, it’s un Christianlike. Amen.

  21. Let’s get down to the hard cold truth. For the religious right (and let’s face it that includes most evangelical, conservative, fundamentalists) this isn’t about sexuality or moral depravity. It never was. It’s about them wanting to control the government, the media, and the money. It’s a power grab. Unfortunately for them it backfired. The genie is out of the bottle and there is no putting it back. People will always choose equality and justice once they’ve had time to reflect, get to know people, and realize that these people used fear to illicit a knee-jerk reaction. That’s all this flurry of state constitutional amendments were, knee-jerk reactions caused by the fear-mongers preaching “save the children.” The only tool they have left is their false prophecies of doom and their little civil disobedience. Even that will go by the wayside as they are ignored or shunned by the greater society.

  22. Yes it is. I think of it every morning with my cup of joe, and every time I spend a couple of extra bucks on something Italian sounding.

    And there are a few other things forbidden by the Morg- that are just simply fun. But they were more fun when it was forbidden.

    Such as anything more racy than a “G” rated movie.

  23. The premise of “easing them off the stage” would be the end result; it’s the ride before hand that is tricky. They are a “strain” of people for whom “popularity” is everything, even though they feign opposite (humble X-tains).

    They desperately need attention, plus, an a authentic, present day charismatic martyr leader to legitimize their reason for being…without either, they fail. And right now, Donald T-rump epitomizes their “legitimacy”…it’s just starting to sink in that T-rump ain’t shy nor speaks in “dog-whistle code” on stage. Their stage is now riddled with trap-doors and no curtain to hide behind.

  24. I’m sorry, but after reading all these comments in my heart I believe the evangelical, conservative is Americas Terrorist/ISIS. They have such strong beliefs using the Bible as their excuse to hate and punish. And we all know their need to control women’s bodies. And if America’s laws don’t suit them then they just refuse to obey and call themselves patriots. Thank God I retired from the USN overseas where its still safe from evangelical, conservatives.

  25. The Roman economic system was slave based. Prostitution of all kinds was promoted and tolerated.

    In the New Testament, the Apostle Paul condemned the practice of pederasty. Apparently Greek men were using their adolescent male partners as catamites, putting them up for prostitution.

    It was the economic exploitation of these boys that Paul was criticizing. Paul was more interested in changing the economic system than he was any sort of cultural change. Paul even advocated paying slaves a living wage. He called it fair and just. (Colossians 4.1, NKJV)

    Paul was using religious language to cover his criticism of the Roman economic system.

  26. Sir, my concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God’s side, for God is always right.
    Abraham Lincoln

  27. Around here, we call ‘Libertarians’ WEASELS.

    There are about 35 different definitions.

    Ron & Rand Paul/Grifter comes to mind.

  28. I got a deal with God, if he kills me, I win.
    If I kill me, God wins.
    I’m not a loser any more than God is, but I expect he ultimately wins in the end, if he in fact exists.

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