Dan Savage’s talk holds important lessons for journalists

30 Apr

Dan Savage spoke at the National High School Journalism Conference two weeks ago and made some comments about what the Bible says about homosexuality. Savage, a sexuality advice columnist for the Village Voice, is an avid gay rights activist and has a history of commenting on the Bible as a tool in the anti-gay movements.

As chronicled by many, from Savage to theologians to For The Bible Tells Me So, among others, the Bible has many rules for how to run one’s life. These include not eating shellfish or pork, not wearing mixed fiber clothing, and not allowing unmarried non-virgin women to live.

Here’s the part of Savage’s speech that has some groups riled up:

Here’s a transcript of the speech for those of you who can’t watch the video (thanks to Blag Hag):

“People often point out that they can’t help it. They can’t help with the anti-gay bullyings because it says right there in Leviticus, it says right there in Timothy, it says right there in Romans that being gay is wrong.  We can learn to ignore the bullshit in the Bible about gay people the same way we have learned to ignore the bullshit in the Bible about shellfish, about slavery, about dinner, about farming, about menstruation, about virginity, about masturbation. We ignore bullshit in the Bible about all sorts of things.

The Bible is a radically pro-slavery document. Slave owners waved Bibles over their heads during the Civil War and justified it. The shortest book in the New Testament is a letter from Paul to a Christian slave owner about owning his Christian slave. And Paul doesn’t say Christians don’t own people. Paul talks about how Christians own people. We ignore what the Bible said about slavery because the Bible  got slavery wrong. Sam Harris in Letter to a Christian Nation points out that the Bible got the easiest moral question that humanity has ever faced wrong: slavery.

What are the odds that the Bible got something as complicated as human sexuality wrong? 100 percent. The Bible says that if your daughter’s not a virgin on her wedding night – that a woman isn’t a virgin on her wedding night, that she shall be dragged to her father’s doorstep and stoned to death. Callista Gingrich lives. And there is no effort to amend state constitutions to make it legal to stone women to death on their wedding night if they’re not virgins. At least not yet. We don’t know where the GOP is going these days. People are dying because people can’t clear this one last hurdle. They can’t get past this one last thing in the Bible about homosexuality.

One thing I want to talk about is – ha, so you can tell the Bible guys in the hall that they can come back in because I’m done beating up the Bible. It’s funny that someone who’s on the receiving end of beatings that are justified by the Bible, how pansy-assed some people react to being pushed back. I apologize if I hurt anyone’s feelings but I have the right to defend myself, and to point out the hypocrisy of people who justify anti-gay bigotry by pointing to the Bible and insisting that we must live by the code of Leviticus on this one issue and no other.”

Christian and conservative groups say Savage bullied Christians in his talk and embodied the exact opposite of tolerance.

Instead, I think Savage was refreshingly candid. He was speaking to a group of teenagers – teenagers who seek truth in their newspaper clubs – and there’s nothing teens like more than when an adult is candid and honest. In fact, to tell a group of student journalists that everything in the Bible is gospel truth would ring false to students who eat shrimp, wear poly-cotton blends, and don’t believe in slavery.

My first impression wasn’t that Savage is saying Christianity is wrong. As an avid Savage Love reader, I know he’s talked about Christianity being his childhood faith. I think he’s saying you shouldn’t use faith to hurt. In an ideal world, people would use religion to create a world of tolerance and peace, instead of pointing to verses written thousands of years ago to shun and even kill others.

There is no arguing that some people (GLBT, allied, or suspected to be GLBT) are tormented by self-identified Christians to emotional trauma, physical hurt, or death.

Savage has apologized for describing the walk-out as “pansy assed,” but he says he’s standing by his remarks about the contents of the Bible.

“My remarks can only be read as an attack on all Christians if you believe that all Christians are hypocrites. Which I don’t believe.”

I think this controversy is good for student journalists to pay attention to. It’s a journalist’s jobs to not just find the facts, but to find the truth. And the truth here is words have a heavy weight. A needlessly offensive word (such as “bullshit” or “pansy”) can take a message from being an open discussion to a polarizing debate. And that’s something everyone active in the media would do well to remember.


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