One of America’s greatest preachers is gay — and he is coming to Kansas City Jan. 20. No, I don’t mean Ted Haggard, the former head of the National Association of Evangelicals and pastor at the New Life Church in Colorado Springs until his anti-gay marriage stance was challenged a couple months ago by Mike Jones, a former male hustler, who revealed their relationship over recent years.
Kansas City’s Baptist guest is free of scandal. He outed himself in 1991. That fall he decided he had to respond to a conservative Harvard student magazine that published a collection of anti-gay articles. On the steps of the church where he served (and continues to serve) he said, “I am a Christian who happens as well to be gay.”
True, he used to be a Republican. In fact he gave invocations at the inaugurations of Ronald Reagan and the first George Bush. When he changed his registration, he explained his former party allegiance: “A native of Massachusetts, I was brought up on a very simple political syllogism: Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves; Abraham Lincoln was a Republican; therefore, vote Republican.” He said he was also “proud that the first black senator in Congress since Reconstruction was Edward Brooke, a Republican from Massachusetts.”
When I interviewed him by phone for my Kansas City Star column earlier this month, he was scathing in his condemnation of the “deceit” about the Iraq War perpetrated by the current administration.
He has accumulated over 30 honorary degrees, has a lectureship named for him at Cambridge University, has preached for British royalty, was profiled on “60 Minutes,” was named as one of “The Best Talkers in America,” and has written over a dozen books, one of which, The Good Book: Reading the Bible with Mind and Heart, is on a list of the top 100 LGBT non-fiction books.
In that book he writes, “No credible case against homosexuality or homosexuals can be made from the Bible unless one chooses to read scripture in a way that simply sustains the existing prejudice against homosexuality and homosexuals. The combination of ignorance and prejudice under the guise of morality makes the religious community and its abuse of scripture in this regard, itself morally culpable.”
He is Peter J. Gomes, Professor of Christian Morals at Harvard University.
One of my colleagues, a Harvard alum, says he is the kind of speaker who wows you even if you disagree with him.
The Wikipedia entry on Gomes notes that Gomes is celibate.
So I asked him about that. I wanted to clear up any misunderstanding about that entry; to be sure he was not saying that being a homosexual is good so long as you do not engage in homosexual behavior.
Gomes said his lifestyle choice was personal choice and not necessarily appropriate for others. Just as Roman Catholic priests elect celibacy, so he finds celibacy suits him. ”It is a calling, not a requirement,” and he applauded committed monogamous same-sex relationships. “Sexuality goes with being human,” he said, and celibacy is one possible choice in recognizing one’s humanity.
While Gomes’ academic and pastoral positions, his scholarship, his race, and his eloquence make him a powerful spokesperson for equality, let me mention one more of his virtues.
He understands America and its ideals, which he traces back to the famous “city on a hill” sermon by a compassionate governor Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630 just before their ship landed. John Winthrop articulated the hope that, beyond material prosperity and power, America could become a place where people cared about each other, a community for ethical and spiritual life.
Gomes says that ideal has been “damaged” at home and abroad. His lecture at Country Club Community Church will focus on changes that must be made to restore that ideal. For information, visit www.cccckc.org.
The Rev Vern Barnet, DMn., does consulting, teaching and writing for religious and educational organizations here. His Kansas City Star column appears each Wednesday.