I've recently had an insight into the Bible Belt's hysteria over gay marriage. Biblists always cite Leviticus 18:22 as the reason for their opposition to homosexuality. But actually the bedrock of their fear is elsewhere in the Bible.

Leviticus 18:22 is that verse that says: "Do not have sexual relations with a man as with a woman; that is detestable." (In other translations the last word is "abomination.")

There's a very easy comeback that blunts the force of that clearly-worded command from God. That prohibition of homosexuality doesn't stand by itself in the Bible: it comes in the midst of an avalanche of rules given by God to Moses, most of which are not just routinely ignored, but openly flouted, by exactly the same people who cite 18:22 in defense of their anti-gay bigotry. When you meet, and argue with, anyone quoting that verse about homosexuality at you, you can always ask them the following questions:

Do you observe the Biblically-commanded dietary requirements? (See for a nice detailed summary.) Have you ever eaten ham? Bacon? Rabbit? Shrimp is a very popular seafood. Ever eaten any? If you have, you've violated God's orders. And if you eat meat, eggs, or milk from the approved list of animals, do you make sure it was prepared in the approved way? In short, do you stick with the "kosher" aisle in the supermarket, and when you order in a restaurant do you ask how the meat was prepared, to make sure it was done according to God's prescribed methods? All these rules are in the Bible, your Bible if you're a Christian -- in Leviticus, to be more precise.

Do you observe the Biblically-required festivals? And on the tenth day of the seventh month, do you sit at home, denying yourself any food (or other pleasure), declining to do any work whatever? I certainly hope so. If not, you're ignoring God's rules. (Various places in Leviticus)

Perhaps you are a banker. If a poor person comes to you for a loan, do you charge him interest? Perhaps you are a grocer. Do you take a profit on food you sell to those of your customers who happen to be poor? Do you, in any way, make any money for yourself off the needs of the poor? You are sinning against God. (Lev. 25:35-37)

Check your clothes. All of them. Were any of them made from two or more different kinds of material? Cotton-wool blend, for example, or any other combination of different types of fabrics? Check your backyard garden. Have you mixed different types of seed in it? In either case (clothes, garden), you're in violation of Biblical law. (Lev. 19:19) Think some more about that one. Is it really possible to get agitated about homosexuality when God puts "clothing woven of two kinds of material" at the same level of prohibition? The homosexuality rule and the clothing rule are in the same long list of commands -- in fact, in the printing of the Bible I am using, they are on the same page.

Here's a good one. The acceptability of immigrants among us is a politically touchy issue these days. What if I were to tell you that when foreigners reside among you, you must not mistreat them; that the foreigners must be treated as your native born; that you should love them as you love yourself. Don't agree with me? It's not my rule. It's God's. (Lev. 19:33-34)

Perhaps you have a maid, or a gardener. Do you pay them their wages at the end of every day? If you are any sort of employer, do you hand out your workers' salaries to them as they head home? If you don't, if you hold back their wages overnight (and wait for, say, the end of the month, or week, to pay them), you are violating God's command in the Bible. (Lev. 19:13)

I love this one. Are you clean-shaven? What were you thinking?? Leviticus 19:27 -- "Do not cut the hair at the sides of your head or clip off the edges of your beard." You are supposed to have a full beard. You are defying God if you even so much as trim it, let alone cut it off entirely. Didn't you stop to think how much you are offending the Lord??

All of the above should be enough to give pause to most of the less Bible-literate proponents of banning homosexuality and (in particular) gay marriage rights, but it won't put an end to the campaign -- not just because strongly-held religious beliefs are immune to rational discussion, but because the leadership of Bible-based churches stoking the opposition to gay rights actually have a different passage in the Bible as their underlying motivation. They cite Lev. 18:22 only because it is so clearly stated. Why do the churches assign so much greater weight to homosexuality than to any other sin against God's command, entirely ignoring all of those other rules?

The answer: It's because of the story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, in Genesis 18 and 19, those two towns that were so thoroughly evil that God decided to destroy them, raining down burning sulfer on them, killing everyone within.

The Bible is, at first, a little vague about exactly what the unspeakable behavior was for which Sodom and Gomorrah merited the ultimate punishment of complete eradication. But just before the destruction is to commence, two angels of the Lord arrive on the outskirts of Sodom, and pass by the home of Lot, the nephew of Abraham (God's pal), who invites the angels to stay, rest, and clean up before carrying out their mission of calling down the fire in the town square. While the angels are taking their travel break in Lot's house, the house suddenly is surrounded by a crowd consisting of the entire male population of Sodom, demanding (according to the most recent translations) that the two new (male) arrivals come out so that "we can have sex with them."

That's Genesis 19:5. That's where the Bible reveals what it is about Sodom and Gomorrah that has so infuriated God that he can't see any remedy other than complete obliteration of the offending communities.

All over America, the Biblists (as I call people who believe the Bible, many of them without knowing most of what is in it) are in a state of panic about homosexuality, and it's not simply because they see it as a practice forbidden by God. It's because they believe God is about to destroy the world over it, in the same way he destroyed Sodom. In California, that was the motivation for attorney Matt McLaughlin to submit, for voter approval, a ballot initiative legalizing the murder, by private citizens, of any homosexual -- he titled it, in fact, the "Sodomite Suppression Act." His argument is that it is surely better to kill off a small number of people rather than all of us dying in a rain of fire. In response, opponents have filed ironic parodies of McLaughlin's proposed initiative, such as the "Shellfish Suppression Act" (I especially like the "Intolerant Jackass Suppression Act"), but those variations on McLaughlin's theme are actually missing the point. A "Shellfish Suppression Act" isn't really Biblically equivalent to McLaughlin's proposed ballot initiative. Genesis 18-19 elevates the "sin" of homosexuality to a level beyond, say, wearing blended fabrics. There is no record in the Bible of God destroying any town because the residents all ate shellfish, or blasting a bank to rubble because of its lending policies, or incinerating a barber shop. Only homosexuality attracted that response from God. That is what McLaughlin, and all others like him, are afraid of.

So arguing with a Biblist about homosexuality requires a strategy different from the one so often employed. Putting Leviticus 18:22 into its context as just one entry on a near-endless, widely ignored list of Godly prohibitions won't work. To make any headway against the Bible thumpers, it is necessary to address Genesis 18-19.

One way to do that is to make a point of a much-overlooked passage in Genesis 18. At the very start of the Sodom/Gomorrah story, God Himself, with the two angels, arrives at Abraham's house, and (with a puzzling lapse in omniscience) tells Abraham he is headed for Sodom and Gomorrah to see whether what he has been hearing about them is true; if it is, he plans to destroy them. Abraham is uncomfortable with the possibility that many good people will be killed along with the bad, and requests that God spare the towns if as many as fifty good people can be found. God agrees to the request, and Abraham gradually argues him down to ten, and God gives in even at that number: "For the sake of ten I will not destroy it."

What, then, is the basis for Biblists believing that God will destroy the entire world because he doesn't like what SOME of its occupants are doing? The Bible itself, right in the middle of a story of God's wrath, says God doesn't work like that.

I admit I don't really feel comfortable making that argument, because using it suggests that I agree homosexuals are bad and everybody else is good. I have no such belief. Yet it's important to understand that the people I am arguing with already believe that anyway, and furthermore aren't about to stop believing it. The goal is to bring into question the assurance the Biblist feels that the existence of homosexuality, and the toleration of the existence of homosexuality, are going to lead to planetary annihilation. In the Bible, God doesn't destroy Sodom because its residents tolerated homosexuality in their midst. It was because -- and Genesis 19:4-5 states this clearly -- every single male resident, 100% of them, practiced it. There is no foundation in the Bible for the belief that simple toleration of homosexuality is putting the world's existence in danger.

It is very doubtful that argument will make any headway against the most committed anti-gay bigots. But when you are faced with an opponent who believes every word of the Bible, and he or she can cite a specific Bible passage that accounts for his or her fears of homosexuality, you can't just stand there with no comeback. Throwing the words of the Bible back at them is always a useful start.