Jimmy Carter, Jesus, the Huffington Post and Homosexuality
A popular meme misrepresents Jesus, Christianity and a former U.S. president.
Recently, a meme with a quote from former U.S. President Jimmy Carter about homosexuality that came from a Huffington Post interview began making the rounds on social media, no doubt spread by many with the best of intentions. But what particularly caught my attention was that the quote invoked the name and authority of Jesus as support. This is the text of the meme:
“‘Homosexuality was well known in the ancient world, well before Christ was born, and Jesus never said a word about homosexuality. In all of his teachings about multiple things — he never said that gay people should be condemned.’ — Jimmy Carter”
The meme then ends with the statement, “This is what a real Christian sounds like.”
Whenever someone attributes an important teaching or belief to another person, especially on social media, it’s a good idea to verify it. But this is particularly true when it’s attributed to Jesus, because of his unique identity and authority. From a Christian perspective, it’s critically important to faithfully convey the teachings of Jesus — or any of the Scriptures — on matters of faith and morals because God gave us that teaching to show us the way to him and heaven. To confuse or misrepresent that teaching (even if unintentionally) is to risk pointing oneself and others down the path that leads away from God and heaven. And, for those who believe in God and heaven, I hope we can all agree that would be a bad and dangerous thing — regardless of one’s intentions.
So, with that concern as my motivation, I decided to first verify whether Carter had actually said what the meme attributed to him. It was worth checking, because while he did say it, the meme omits some context that provides a different and important nuance.
First, the question the Huffington Post interviewer asked Carter was: “A lot of people point to the Bible for reasons why gay people should not be in the church, or accepted in any way.”
So, Carter was responding to a loaded question that expressed an extreme, exclusionary view — specifically, that those who are sexually attracted to people of the same sex “should not be in the church” or “accepted in any way.”
It seems clear that Carter wanted to distance himself from such an extreme view. And, in fact, the Catholic Church — the largest body of Christians in the world — also explicitly and unequivocally rejects such a view, teaching that those who are sexually attracted to people of the same sex “must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided” and that “by the virtues of self-mastery that teach them inner freedom … by prayer and sacramental grace, they can and should gradually and resolutely approach Christian perfection” (Catechism, 2358).
Then, Carter went on to say something else that the meme again omits. He said that while he supports civil ceremonies for same-sex couples, he opposes any laws requiring churches to marry them. Once again, this provides a different nuance that runs counter to the narrative of the meme.
But much more importantly, while Carter was technically correct that Scripture doesn’t record Jesus as having said anything explicitly about homosexuality, it’s false to conclude — as many have from this meme — that Jesus therefore had no objection to sexual activity that is not between a husband and wife (which would necessarily include sex between two people of the same sex).
First, Scripture itself tells us that there is a great deal Jesus said and did that was not written down (John 21:25). So, the fact that Scripture doesn’t record Jesus as having said anything explicitly about homosexuality doesn’t mean that he never actually said anything about it.
Second, Jesus was a faithful Jew who stated, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matthew 5:17). And the Old Testament’s moral law was clear in regard to sex between two people of the same sex. The Jews of Jesus’ time didn’t dispute that teaching. As such, there was no pressing reason for him to address it.
It’s also worth noting here that the Gospels don’t record Jesus as ever having said anything about rape, either — which was also well known in the ancient world. Yet, would anyone seriously contend this means he approved of it, or at least didn’t disapprove of it?
Third, the only time Jesus mentions sex in Scripture as part of God’s plan is within the context of the marriage of a man and woman. And he said that God made man and woman for each other in marriage (Matthew 19:4-5).
Fourth, in Romans 1 and 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 the New Testament provides clear teaching against sexual relations between two people of the same sex. Christians believe that the entire New Testament is inspired and protected by God the Holy Spirit from error, not just the parts that quote Jesus.
Fifth, Jesus demonstrated the correct way to understand and apply God’s moral law by making a crucial distinction between a person and the sins that person commits. He is merciful and compassionate in regard to the former, but unbending on the latter. This is perhaps best illustrated by the story of the woman caught in adultery (John 8:3-11).
Here, when the Pharisees dehumanize a woman by using her moral failing (adultery) to try to trap Jesus, he does three key things. He points the finger right back at those who used and dehumanized her by reminding them of their own moral failings. He refuses to personally condemn and humiliate the woman in public for her moral failing. And Jesus does something that many people forget: He firmly upholds the truth of the law against sex outside of marriage and tells the woman to sin no more. He doesn’t tell her that he supports her choice to have sex with someone who is not her husband and that it’s not a sin. Far from it.
In fact, in Matthew 5:27-28 and 19:8-9, Jesus interprets the law against having sex outside of marriage in a far more demanding way than even the Pharisees and Sadducees. So, Jesus demonstrates great mercy and compassion with human beings who struggle with sin, but firm resolve against sin itself. Why? Because he loves us, but knows that sin harms us and leads us away from eternity in heaven with him.
So, in summary, this meme misrepresents Jesus and Christianity and even arguably misrepresents Jimmy Carter to a degree. While the intention behind the meme was no doubt to be kind and compassionate toward those who are same-sex attracted, it’s misguided and dangerous to misrepresent what God has taught us about the path to Him and Heaven. No one is more compassionate and interested in our welfare than God, as demonstrated so clearly in the life of Jesus Christ.
The Church he established faithfully echoes that authentic love and compassion, consistently distinguishing between a person and the sins that person commits. Or, as the renowned Father Garrigou-Lagrange once so beautifully expressed it in Volume II of God, His Existence and Nature, “The Church is intolerant in principle because she believes; she is tolerant in practice because she loves” (p. 412). Faithful Catholics believe with the Church that God intends sex to be between a husband and wife. We believe that we’re all sinners in need of a savior, and that his name is Jesus. We believe that we all have sinful inclinations we struggle with, and so we have no right to look down on and condemn those who have different struggles than our own.
We believe that if we judge people in such ways, Jesus taught that we will be similarly judged at the end of our lives. We believe that we are all called to conform our lives to God’s teaching as expressed through Scripture and Christ’s Church, rather than trying to conform his teaching to fit our lives.
We believe that God has called us to support, challenge and encourage one another in the battle to become the people God wants us to become. We believe that true love means being willing to speak the truth to our brothers and sisters on important matters, even — or especially — when it’s painful to do so.
We believe that God loves and will help all those who sincerely seek it. We believe that God will forgive all those who sincerely seek his forgiveness and try to change — regardless of how many times we fail. And we believe that God wants us all to be with him one day in heaven, and will bring us home to him, as long as we truly want to be there.