What Do We Really Think About Homosexuality? When Gen. Peter Pace called homosexuality immoral, he prompted outrage, protest and support. The statement started a debate about what straight Americans really think about gays and lesbians, and how attitudes have changed.
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What Do We Really Think About Homosexuality?

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What Do We Really Think About Homosexuality?

What Do We Really Think About Homosexuality?

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Gay marriage was a big, polarizing issue in the 2004 elections. After voters in many states passed constitutional amendments to ban the practice, the national debate about homosexual lifestyles quieted down, at least for the most part.

Then last week there was an uproar when the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Peter Pace, told the Chicago Tribune that he regards homosexuality as immoral and that it should not be condoned by the military. His comments prompted outrage from some and support from others.

The controversy also reminded us of what many Americans really think about homosexuality. While opinion polls show that a majority of Americans accept gays and lesbians, many disapprove of homosexuality altogether.

Former NBA star Tim Hardaway learned recently it's not acceptable to say he hates homosexuals in public, but in private many share his discomfort. Others point to the Bible and agree it's immoral.

Today, Americans and homosexuality: Where are we now? Plus another edition of the Political Junkie. If you have questions about the Big Sister ad that's been airing on YouTube, critical of Hillary Clinton and supporting Barack Obama, if you have questions about the proposed presidential campaign of "Law and Order" television star Fred Thompson, you can send them by e-mail now: talk@npr.org.

But first, American attitudes on homosexuality. Have your feelings about homosexuality changed? What do you hear from your friends, your family, your co-workers. If you're gay, do you believe heterosexuals hate you? Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-TALK. Our e-mail address is talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our blog. That's at npr.org/blogofthenation.

Joining us now, Nathaniel Frank, a senior researcher at the Palm Center at the University of California in Santa Barbara, which studies how social policy affects gay people. He joins us today from BBC studios in London. Good to have you with us.

Mr. NATHANIEL FRANK (Senior Researcher, Palm Center University of California Santa Barbara): Good to be here.

CONAN: Also with us is Richard Mouw, president of the Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. He joins us today from member station WKNO in Memphis, Tennessee. And it's good of you to be with us.

Mr. RICHARD MOUW (President, Fuller Theological Seminary): Great to be with you, Neal.

CONAN: And Richard Mouw, let me begin with you. Those who argue homosexuality is immoral, many of them cite scripture. Do they have a basis?

Mr. MOUW: Oh yeah, I think it's a fairly clear basis in the scripture. Obviously, there are those texts in the Old Testament that even go so far as to speak of same-sex genital intimacy as an abomination. There's the story of Sodom and Gomorrah where at least the traditional interpretation has been that God destroyed those cities in part because of homosexual activity, which is where we get the word sodomy from.

In the New Testament, the key text is the first chapter of the Epistle to the Romans, where the apostle Paul says that when men lie with men and women with women, they forsake the natural use and God gives them over to their lusts.

CONAN: So an abomination, clearly immoral if you interpret it that way.

Mr. MOUW: Yeah, of course there are a lot of other things in the Bible that are an abomination too, for example ripping off the poor and forsaking the cause of the widow and the orphan. So it's not the only thing that gets that kind of language.

CONAN: And slavery doesn't come in for that kind of abomination language.

Mr. MOUW: Not really, but in the New Testament we see some of the suggestions that maybe slavery was on its way out.

CONAN: Nathaniel Frank, does homophobia in this country have its origins in the Bible, do you think?

Mr. FRANK: I don't really think so. I think people express their world view in the terms they have available to them, and certainly Richard is correct that there's a basis for the opposition to homosexuality, or more properly to sexual relations broadly that are outside of the family. But I think that people have their views that they derive from a number of places and that it's convenient for a lot of people to express them in terms of the religious heritage that they've adopted.

CONAN: And so they cite this as a matter of dogma, and it's fundamental to a lot of people's faith.

Mr. FRANK: That's right. It's something that if people decide to accept the world view that they've been raised with without much critical thought, it's easy to cite as a dogma. And there's nothing wrong with citing a dogma at certain times. The question is what role dogma ought to play in shaping social policy or in formulating a sound moral position.

CONAN: And what do you make of the uproar that followed General Pace's comment last week?

Mr. FRANK: Well, it's not surprising to me that these are the views of General Pace and many millions of Americans. What was surprising to me was that it seemed that General Pace in a way hadn't gotten the memo. The Pentagon had for years disguised their moral opposition to homosexuality by claiming that the ban on openly gay and lesbian soldiers was rooted in military effectiveness and unit cohesion.

So what was kind of welcoming about Pace's remarks is that they blew the cover off that rationale and showed that a large part of the opposition is based in moral dogma.

CONAN: And let me go back to you, to Richard Mouw. There was an interesting and provocative op-ed in the Los Angeles Times this week. Dear straight people, wrote Larry Kramer, the founder of the protest group ACT UP. Gays are hated. Prove me wrong. Your top general just called us immoral. Do you think he's right?

Mr. MOUW: Oh I think they're hated, yeah. I think Nathaniel's exactly right, that there are a lot of people who have an instinctive homophobia, and they go to the Bible and use the Bible to reinforce and to buttress something that they bring as a set of very strong feelings.

I think that still leaves open the question of what the Bible really does teach, and I think it's quite possible to take the biblical view, which I hold, that according to the Bible, anything outside of faithful, lifelong commitments between persons of different sexes, two persons in a faithful relationship, that genital intimacy outside of that, whether it's premarital, extramarital, homosexual activity, is from God's point of view out of bounds.

I mean, I think that's clearly what the Bible teaches, and I don't think it follows from that that you have to hate people who don't live in accordance with those norms. I know a lot of adulterers who - you know, I like them in a lot of ways. I know people who engage in premarital sex who I think are not terribly wicked people, although I wish they'd behave differently, and I feel the same way about my very close homosexual friends.

CONAN: But does that mean that homosexuals, if they act on it, are doomed to hell?

Mr. MOUW: I don't want to say doomed to hell, I want to say that they're not living in accordance with God's will for their lives in one important respect. But, you know, none of us are living up to everything that God wants us to do. I think the Bible makes it very clear that if we don't show an active concern for the poor, for the widow or the orphan, the disenfranchised, the stranger in the land, which I think includes unregistered immigrants, that God doesn't like that either. But whether people who support anti-immigrant policies are going to hell, that's a different question.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get some callers in on this conversation. Our number again is 800-989-8255. E-mail is talk@npr.org. And you can also join our blog, which is at npr.org/blogofthenation. Let's begin with Boyd(ph), Boyd with us from Milwaukee.

BOYD (Caller): Hi Neal, thanks for taking my call, interesting topic. I'm not a gay man, but I notice with the topic being on biblical scripture and what have you, I think what we all need to look at is that the Bible, as intriguing a book as it is, it was written over the course of time by many different authors, and I think they viewed the world differently from how the world is viewed now. And I think for people to justify using the Bible as a way to make certain decisions in their life in regards to attitudes toward homosexuality is not really a good choice. You know, I'm trying to be respectful of people's faiths and what have you, but I don't think that's a good way to justify what the purpose of the Bible is for.

CONAN: Richard Mouw?

Mr. MOUW: Well I think, you know, we really do need to understand what the Bible teaches. I think that we've learned a lot since the Bible was written, but on very fundamental things. You know, I think we understand a lot more about what drives people to steal, for example. But Moses brought those commandments that said thou shall not steal. That's still pretty firm even though we may understand the motivations and even maybe a genetic basis for kleptomania or something like that.

But on the very basic things I think the Bible is very clear and that we -those of us who take the Bible as our authority really need to try to live by what it teaches.

CONAN: Nathaniel Frank, I...

Mr. FRANK: I think as Richard could tell us as well as anyone, the opposition to homosexuality has not always been confined to religious faith or even moral dogma. There were specific reasons in the Bible in an earlier age for a lot of these restrictions that had to do with increasing the population of the tribe and dividing up labor and consolidating family wealth, and in some cases of maintaining racial purity.

A lot of these reasons we don't have with us anymore, so you have sort of a hollow shell at times if you just regard the Bible as a series of codes without asking what I think is the really fundamental question: Why do these moral codes - or why should these moral codes ban certain behavior? I think going back to something that Richard said earlier, the comparisons of homosexual acts or behavior to stealing or to adultery doesn't sit well with many gays and with many others. There are specific reasons that those actions are immoral and are damaging and hurtful to people, whereas expressing love sexually for someone of the same sex is not hurtful.

And so it leaves the question of what gay people should do with themselves and why they should be asked to live a celibate life while straight people aren't asked to do the same.

CONAN: Boyd, thanks for the call.

Mr. MOUW: I think those are very good issues that we haven't always addressed very well. Let me say, I agree with Nathaniel that there are some things in the Bible about homosexuality. If you take the Leviticus thing that homosexuality is an abomination, right in that same area of Leviticus it says that any married couple that has sex during the woman's menstrual period should be banished from the land. And we don't really enforce that, at least I don't think - I haven't come across any church that enforces that.

So we have to ask, how does the homosexual thing fit in with a lot of other stuff about eating pork and various other - how we treat lepers - all of those sorts of issues that I don't think we follow today. And so it's not fair just to pick out that one thing in Leviticus. And if that's all that was there, my views would be more like Nathaniel's. But I think in the New Testament we get something different.

CONAN: We're talking about attitudes towards homosexuality in America. Coming up after a break, more of your calls and e-mails. 800-989-8255 is the phone number. The e-mail address is talk@npr.org. There's also a blog we started up called Blog of the Nation. Go to our Web site, npr.org/blogofthenation, all one word. We'll be back after the break. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

We're talking about what straight Americans really think about gays and lesbians, and of course what gays think about the attitudes of straight Americans, a conversation renewed by General Peter Pace's recent comments where he described homosexuality as immoral. We want to hear from you: 800-989-8255. E-mail us, talk@npr.org. Our guests today are Nathaniel Frank, who teaches a class at NYU about homosexuality and politics, and Richard Mouw, president of the Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California.

Let's see if we can get another caller on the line. And this is Robert. Robert with us from Portland, Oregon.

ROBERT (Caller): Hey Neal.


ROBERT: Yeah, I just wanted to say as a gay man living in Portland, Oregon, it's really hard for me and for many of my friends to feel anything but hated in general by straight people. Here in Oregon over the past ten years or so we've had two very contentious ballot measures which would restrict greatly our civil rights. And even our advocates out there who are heterosexual have the luxury of being able to debate the philosophical and theological aspects of our lives. But it's really us who struggle with this constant threat of marginalization, and in fact marginalization in our everyday life, it's very, very difficult.

CONAN: Nathaniel Frank, again it was Larry Kramer who noted in his op-ed piece that when asked about General Pace's comments, Senators Clinton and Obama, Democratic stalwarts, both hesitated and dithered for a little bit before coming around and saying well, he's wrong about that.

Mr. FRANK: Right. It was rather disappointing. I think that Democrats have been fearful of coming out on the wrong side of the moral values question for a while. And I think what they need to learn is that Americans want leaders who have courage and strength of conviction and are willing to say what they believe and not be cowed by the polls, and that that would have been better for them, as evidenced by the fact that they had to turn a little bit and, you know, clarify their comments afterwards. It would have been more impressive if they would had come up with those comments to begin with, as some of their Republican colleagues even did.

CONAN: And Richard Mouw, I wanted to ask you, you wrote something recently about quoting a friend of yours who said, you know, it's a little uncomfortable being portrayed as being on the homophobic side.

Mr. MOUW: Right. Yeah, I mean there were those of us, you know, who were active in supporting the civil rights movement. I've marched against the war in Vietnam and I've marched against the Iraq War. We're concerned about global warming, all these other things. But on this issue, as Christians who take the Bible seriously and have certain strong views about what the Bible teaches, we don't go along with a lot of the people that we've marched with on other topics. And on this issue, all of a sudden people are looking at us as if we're right-wing kooks and homophobes.

And, you know, I think the caller has a really good point, and it must be very difficult to be struggling with this in a very personal way in your life and to hear people calmly debating the pros and cons and often glibly quoting the Scriptures. I think that's - I think he's getting at something very important there. But there are those of us who have really worked at this. We've really tried to be clear about it. And we too have to be allowed to have the strength and courage of our convictions to take a stand that may be unpopular in other circles than the religious right.

CONAN: Robert?


CONAN: Any response to that?

ROBERT: None really other than, unfortunately, I don't see any middle ground there. I've come to a point in my life where I just don't see a bridge that exists between myself and that kind of attitude. And, you know, I firmly believe that there ought not to be the power given to people based on their religious beliefs to make policy in my government, my state, my country that affect my life so personally. I just - yeah, I don't see any possibility of a reconciliation there.

CONAN: Robert, thanks very much for the call. But go ahead, if you would, Nathaniel.

Mr. FRANK: Yeah, I think it's instructive to look at some of the similarities between religious belief and the emotions of sexual minorities. Both people often speak of feeling a kind of a calling or a need to heed a feeling that comes from something greater than just our individual whim. And I think that there are some similarities that people need to focus on. I would add to that that what we know from polls is that familiarity breeds tolerance. And the most effective and radical step in expanding gay rights over the past generation or two has been simply people coming out to their friends, families and coworkers. And the polls show that when you know a gay person, you're more accepting of them.

So I think, you know, it's nice to hear someone like Richard Mouw, who seems to be really grappling with these issues and to consider what it's like for the gay people themselves. I think a question I would like to put to him is about the strictures on divorce in the Bible. There's far more written in the Bible about divorce and about that sort of conduct of breaking asunder what God put together. And that's what makes, I think, a lot of gay people suspect that some of the social conservatives who are using religious terms are using selective reasoning. And how do you grapple with something that's so strongly against divorce and seem to let that slide but not homosexual relations?

Mr. MOUW: Nathaniel, that's a good point. And let me say, I - you know, Robert asked about a bridge, and I'm not sure I can build the bridge that he wants. But I really do think that we'd all be a lot better off if those of us on the conservative side on this particular issue would emphasize three things, and it's going to take a change of heart for many of us to do it. But one is simply that we do need to allow this to have a human face. I mean, I know very conservative people who haven't been swayed in their understanding of what the Bible says, but they have gay sons and lesbian daughters and they love them and they show an acceptance of them in spite of the fact that they disagree with lifestyle or with certain kinds of practices.

And I think it is important for us to take our abstract theological formulations and really bring them to bear on very real people and to struggle with very real people. Secondly, I think it's important for us to get rid of our own hypocrisy. A lot of us - you know, the evangelical movement that has been so outspoken on this certainly doesn't have anything to brag about in terms of sexual purity or sexual righteousness. We've been an embarrassment in a lot of other areas of sexuality. And so maybe the best thing is just to admit that we're all broken people who struggle with this most intimate area of human relationships and the human condition.

But then, Nathaniel, I think your point is also a good one, and that is: What about our own inconsistencies? We - 30 to 40 years ago in many of our denominations, it was impossible to get a divorce and to stay in the ministry or to stay in a position of respectability in the Christian community. And things changed without a lot of careful theological change. We've just sort of gone with the culture on that. And I think our gay and lesbian friends have a perfect right to say, how come you went so quickly along with the cultural flow in light of what the Bible does say about those things, and you're holding the line on this one? I think that's a very important point.

Mr. FRANK: But, you know, as much as I appreciate that effort, I think, you know, expressing my love for my boyfriend is not an aspect of my brokenness. I would agree that we're all sinners, but the comparison still is far from perfect because, you know, if I had cheated, then that would be one thing. But simply to live out my feelings that are not harmful and are in fact productive of happiness, that's not an aspect of sin to me.

Mr. MOUW: That's where we disagree.

CONAN: Let's go to an e-mail. This from Matt in Independence, Missouri: I'm 53, was a Southern Baptist for about 15 years. During that period I was extremely prejudiced against the gay lifestyle. Having given up on religion and now working with a really wonderful person who happens to be gay has changed by my viewpoint 180 degrees. What business is it of ours who someone loves as long as it's mutual and of legal age? And Richard Mouw, I guess that goes back to Nathaniel Frank's point of, if you know people who are out, the more likely you are to be accepting.

Mr. MOUW: Yeah. But, you know, the questioner poses an interesting challenge, I think, for those who want to argue along those lines. And that is, suppose for example that we establish on a widespread basis gay marriage - marriage between two persons of the same sex. And then suppose five, ten years from now three lesbians come along and say we would like to call our three-way relationship a marriage. We would like to have all the rights. And who are you to limit it to two persons, whether it's of the same sex or of different genders?

And I think a lot of us have some questions about where are you going to draw the line on this. And, you know, he says of legal age but, I mean, suppose that the Man-Boy Love Association was successful in giving much more visibility to their views and that there came a point where a 40-year-old man and a 12-year-old boy, with the boy's enthusiastic approval of his parents, said these two are really in love and we want the rights of marriage to be granted to that relation. Where are we going to draw the line on this? I want to ask that to Nathaniel.

CONAN: And he has written on that. I'm going to have to ask you to keep it fairly short, if you would.

Mr. FRANK: Sure. I think that is a good question, and I think the slippery slope has a place in argumentation. But if that's the best you can do, it's sometimes the sign of not having an argument for what marriage between two people is for.

That's why you have to look at what is marriage for, what purpose does it further? And it furthers keeping people in stable environments and promoting a good environment for children. Those are things that three-ways and four-ways and marriages between a 12-year-old and a 40-year-old don't do.

So again, it's a good question, but there are answers and they come from looking at what purpose does marriage serve. And does gay marriage fit that purpose? I think it does, and I don't think that marriage with young people or groups does.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get another caller on the line. And this is Gabe(ph), Gabe with us from Boston.

GABE (Caller): Hi. Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

GABE: On the one hand, I'm really, you know, just feel - I'm a gay man and I'm filled with sadness for the people whose hearts and minds are so closed to what really, finally, should not be a matter for their concern. On the other hand, I very actively lament the microphone being offered to them by shows like this, who have long ago conceded that other similar forms of bigotry deserve no further forum.

You must know there are many people who believe still that blacks are inferior, Jews are inferior. There are even still many people who believe that women should be kept down. The Vatican forbade anesthesia during childbirth until the 1960s. Why is it still okay to discuss this, my lifestyle, and not those?

CONAN: I guess that question goes to me rather than to any of the guests. And I think it's a matter of how many people believe that. I don't think people these days, any significant majority of people, any significant numbers of people would oppose anesthesia for women in childbirth or that any significant numbers of Americans would seriously argue that African-Americans or Hispanic Americans or other ethnic groups ought to have fewer rights than other people.

I think these are settled issues. This clearly is not a settled issue when you have majorities in any number of states across the country voting to ban homosexual marriage as part of their state constitutions. I think this is still a live issue. It's certainly still a political issue, and it's still worthy of conversation. But I thank you for your point.

GABE: May I just respond briefly?

CONAN: Sure.

GABE: I think, yes, you're right; the numbers are different. On the other hand, there was a point when they were not, and it was not so long ago. And it took a certain strength and moral character from many people to stand up when the numbers were not with them and say yes, intermarriage between races is not supported right now largely, but we are going to set a model and stop the discussion. These are things not worthy of the back and forth anymore...

CONAN: Well, Gabe...

GABE: That's my feeling. Thank you.

CONAN: Okay. Thank you for your point, and we thank you for your call. We're talking about attitudes towards homosexuality in America today. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's go to another e-mail. This is from Leslie(ph) via our blog.

I have a family member who was married for 20 years, has two teenage children and has recently gotten divorced and has become a lesbian. I think living a lie for the past 20 years and turning the lives of your children upside down is much worse than being gay. How do the guests feel about people who do this? I still love my relative, but I am not close to her and feel that I don't really know who she is. Nathaniel Frank?

Mr. FRANK: Well, I think it's a reminder of how difficult it can be in this society to live out the life that, you know, your nature dictates, given some of the attitudes that are out there. But I think - I also want to say while I have the floor that, you know, I still appreciate Richard Mouw being here and trying to struggle with these issues. And I don't think the conversation should be closed down.

I think that it's important to look at the impact of homosexuality on society and to understand how we formulate our moral positions about it. And what I object to is those who simply choose to adopt the world view that they inherit without asking, hmm, do I have good reason for believing what I believe?

CONAN: Richard Mouw, there's another op-ed that was in the Washington Post today. I'm just blanking on the name of the author at the moment. But there was an argument that - does it matter to you and those who believe as you do, does it matter if God created homosexuals or if this is a choice?

Mr. MOUW: Yeah, of course it matters. And I think it matters primarily, though, on a pastoral level. I think that, you know, it's very clear what's right and wrong. But how we deal with people, the kind of empathy that, you know, that I experience when I hear even some of your callers, including the person who wants to shut the mic off for me because, you know, because he sees even my views as a kind of bigotry that ought not to be allowed. I feel for that. I mean, I sound like Bill Clinton, you know, I feel your pain, but I do feel for that.

And I want to say that I think that the church, my kind of church, has to do a much better job of listening and understanding the pain, understanding the complexities, understanding the dilemma for people for whom - however the science turns out on this - really do not feel like they have a choice. And I think that's a very important phenomenon that we need to address quite apart from whether we accept the science on it or not.

CONAN: And quickly from both of you, do you think this is a generational issue as we heard very early in the program of the Pew study, saying basically people under 35 feel very differently that those over 35? Is this something that's going to go away 20, 30, 40 years from now? Richard Mouw, quickly.

Mr. MOUW: I hope not. But I think that we're in a social situation where a lot of important things that are deep and important values are being lost. I mean, the whole culture of divorce is the fact that people can be in relationships for 20 or 30 years and simply say, well, you know, in spite of the fact that we've had children together and the like - and I understand divorce has to happen in many situations - but, you know, to be able to say I just don't feel fulfilled and I can just turn my back on all that, I don't want to live a lie anymore.

I have a question about the culture that gives rise to what often sounds like a kind of narcissism. And I worry about that, and I worry about these changes as well.

CONAN: And Nathaniel Frank, I'll give you 15 seconds. I apologize for that.

Mr. FRANK: I think it's certainly a generational issue. As all the polls show, that as people become familiar with gays they are more tolerant. But I think it will go away and I can tell you, talking to you from London, that Britain and much of Europe has settled these questions with respect to military service and marriage, and this society is thriving.

CONAN: Nathaniel Frank, senior researcher at the Palm Center, UC Santa Barbara; he was with us from the BBC in London. Richard Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena with us today from member station WKNOW in Memphis.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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