Reforming Sodom: Protestants and the Rise of Gay Rights

Reforming Sodom: Protestants and the Rise of Gay Rights

Reforming Sodom: Protestants and the Rise of Gay Rights

Reforming Sodom: Protestants and the Rise of Gay Rights


With a focus on mainline Protestants and gay rights activists in the twentieth century, Heather R. White challenges the usual picture of perennial adversaries with a new narrative about America's religious and sexual past. White argues that today's antigay Christian traditions originated in the 1920s when a group of liberal Protestants began to incorporate psychiatry and psychotherapy into Christian teaching. A new therapeutic orthodoxy, influenced by modern medicine, celebrated heterosexuality as God-given and advocated a compassionate "cure" for homosexuality.

White traces the unanticipated consequences as the therapeutic model, gaining popularity after World War II, spurred mainline church leaders to take a critical stance toward rampant antihomosexual discrimination. By the 1960s, a vanguard of clergy began to advocate for homosexual rights. White highlights the continued importance of this religious support to the consolidating gay and lesbian movement. However, the ultimate irony of the therapeutic orthodoxy's legacy was its adoption, beginning in the 1970s, by the Christian Right, which embraced it as an age-old tradition to which Americans should return. On a broader level, White challenges the assumed secularization narrative in LGBT progress by recovering the forgotten history of liberal Protestants' role on both sides of the debates over orthodoxy and sexual identity.


A certain mechanism, which was so elfin-like that it could
make itself invisible, …in a game that combined pleasure with
compulsion and consent with inquisition, made it tell the
truth about itself and others as well.

—Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality

In 1946, the term “homosexuals” appeared for the first time in an English Bible. This new figure appeared in a list of sinners barred—according to a verse in the Apostles Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthians—from inheriting the kingdom of God. The word change was made by leading Bible scholars, members of the translation committee that labored for over a decade to produce the Revised Standard Version (RSV) of the Bible. With an approach inspired by text-critical scholarship, many of their choices upset readers of the older King James Version, the favored Bible of Protestant America since the colonial era. Amid the outrage over other changes—to the red-letter words of Jesus and the old Shakespearean idiom—another modernizing innovation went virtually unremarked. Two enigmatic Greek nouns, referenced in the King James as “effeminate” and “abusers of themselves with mankind,” now appeared as a single, streamlined “homosexual.” Subsequent Bible commentaries approached the new term as age-old tradition. The Interpreter’s Bible, in a side-by-side comparison of the RSV and KJV, insistently smoothed over the difference between translations. “Obviously,” wrote the commentator on the Corinthians passage, “the apostle is perturbed by the influence of the immoral pagan community upon the lives of the church. …There is special reference to unnatural vice, homosexuality …against which Christianity set itself uncompromisingly from the first.” The crossreferences regarding this passage linked it to a set of texts that similarly expounded upon this “obvious” biblical prohibition. The Genesis Sodom account, two verses in Leviticus, and the first chapter of Romans, along . . .

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