Did Dan Savage bully Christians?

Apr 30, 2012

Dan Savage recently spoke at a high school journalism conference on bullying, but the students may have gotten more than they bargained for when his speech turned to his critique of the Bible. Brad Hirschfield discussed Savage's thoughts on the Bible when it comes to homosexuality and bullying.

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Dan Savage was his purposefully provocative self, again.  But when he called biblical teach Bulls**t, did he go to far?


Did this well-known champion against bullying become one himself, if only temporarily?  Is that a common pitfall for any passionate advocate?


What say you, to these and other questions related to this breaking story?

Once gay people start getting laws passed that say Christians can't get married, can't adopt kids, can be deported, can be denied housing and jobs, then you can say that Christians are being bullied. Until then, the bullying has been from some Christians toward countless gay Americans. Somehow I doubt a single anti-gay Christian would be willing to swap places here - where they were denied marriage and housing and jobs and family stability, and in return they could say harsh things about gay people that denied them these things.

So your premise is that because others are doing worse, Savage gets a pass?  I don't think so.  That is pretty much the opposite of ethical behavior, and avoids taking responsibility for one's actions, which is what bullies do all the time.


That said, you are certainly right about the relative dangers and difficulties faced by gay people compared with straight.  And that has nothing to do with where one stands on gay sex, public policy related to gay people, etc.  It's about keeping people safe, regardless of their sexuality, and that MUST be something we can all agree on.

Dan Savage did the very thing he was trying to persuade others NOT to do: he misunderstood, misinterpreted, and misrepresented; he generalized the actions of the few onto the motives of the many. And he did it in a spiteful, hurtful way. This has sadly undermined his otherwise worthy cause of tolerance.

Although you may be overstating it a bit, I basically agree with your charcterization of his actions...and does he!  To be fair to Savage, he blogged about the fact that what he did was " insulting, name-calling and wrong".  If we are going to discuss this, that too has to be a part of the conversation.


In fact, how many of us, when reflecting on texts and tradiitons that have been used to cause so much pain, could turn around that fast and take responsibility for lashing out? 

So, did he bahave badly? Yes.  Did his model the very behavior against which he fights?  To be sure.  But he also models how to accept responsibilty for his own bad behavior.  I REALLY don't like how Dan Savage spoke to those kids, but I sure appreciate his self-critical awareness.  Pretty impressive, if you ask me.

Why are there so many contradictions in the Bible and why are some verses important while others are ignored?

Show me a rich and durable text, and I will show you one which contains competing and even contradictory views -- from the Bible to the US Constitution.  That complexity is what assures the long-term relevance of the document.


As to why we ignore some parts and not others, that's because reading any text is as much about the reader as it is about the document they read!  If Mr. Savage truly understood that, he could avoided his entire rant about the BS in the Bible, and simply asked people to think about the price that other people pay for any particular reading.

Is criticizing the Bible the same as criticizing Christians? People condemn Islamic extremists for sending death threats to people who criticize/mock the Koran.

Depends upon who you ask.  I am not Christian, but it seems to me that for people of any faith, whose faith teaches the literal and inerrant meaning of the scripture they follow, if you attack the text you attack them and their faith. 


Since even the most Orthodox of Jews do NOT relate to the Hebrew Bible in that way (and there are plenty of Christians and Muslims who do not either), it is not a problem if Jewish tradtion.

Certainly in the Jewish tradition, with which I am most familiar, there is a long history of rabbis and biblical scholars stating that the Torah doesn't mean exactly what it says, going back to the days of the Talmud. There certainly appears to be well-established Christian tradition of "reading out" commandments in "Old Testament" considered outmoded or irrelevant, as witnessed by the country's burgeoning pork industry. In light of these religious traditions, isn't the viewpoint that Biblical passages are not a pertinent baseline for modern conduct in a civil society at least a valid basis for discussion? Granted, that's a bit more refined that what the link you provided indicated Savage said. On the other hand, anyone who invites Dan Savage to their conference shouldn't really expect refined (or for that matter non-profane) discourse. I don't think that makes it bullying.

It is bullying to the extent that Mr. Savage used a position of power to denigrate a faith that is deeply held by members of his audience.  He did not invite them to reflect on a text, the cost of reading it in specific ways, or any other constructive pursuit.  He resorted to name-calling and profanity.  It was wrong and he has said so himself.


As to how different faiths handle their reltionships with the Hebrew Bible, that's more than we can do here.  suffice it to say though that it would be helpful for all readers of any text, but especially a religious text about which they care, tend to read in ways that confirm who and what they already are.  That's always a poor way to read, and something which all readers -- fundamentalists, conservatives, liberals, etc. could do better with.

I've always said that no matter your views, you can support it with some verse somewhere in the Bible. So I agree with Dan Savage, but why at a high school journalism conference?

I can't answer for Dan  because I am not him.  But I will take two guesses, based on what I know about him and how I think I might respond were I in his shoes.


First, he is an advocate and a provocatuer.  That means that he has a predispostion for doing things to the extreme, in ways that may often generate more heat than light.  Of course, were he not possessed of that kind of personality, he might never have worked to create the "It get's better" project.  And however one feels about gayness, you have to respect a project which encourages people not to give up on themselves and reminds them that they are not alone.


Second,  the more one struggles against something, the more the thing rubs off on them.  Savage fights against what he sees as hateful (we do not always agree about what qualifies), and the haters against whom he fights actually deepen his own hateful impulses.  Of course, within hours, he managed to offer an apology for the style, if not the content, of his remarks. 

Savage may have picked the wrong setting for his criticisms but it doesn't sound like bullying. Christianity is a religion based on martyrdom and adherents really seem to relish playing the victim. (cf. War on Religion) Sounds like the big, bad Gay Man did them a favor.

I am curious, do you think that astro-physics can be reduced to "twinkle, twinkle little star"?  Probably not.


Reducing any tradition to a single thing e.g. Chrisitantity to martyrdon, is never wise, and almost always done to the commenters rhetorical advantage.  In other words, don't do that.


And unless you yourself like being martyred, don't suggest it for others.  In fact, even if you do, don't suggest it for anyone but yourself.

In light of the questions about the contradictions in the Bible, what comments do you have about the many Jews who follow Old Testament dietary rules? As practical advice, they made more sense for people living long ago in the desert without refrigeration than they do today. Is it just a symbolic thing? Is it important?

Since those rules guide my life, and we have not one, but two freezers in our home, I can tell you that it's about much more than personal hygene.  I do appreciate that especially for Jews who choose not to observe those laws, it feels good to imagine that they are no longer necessary. 


I guess for me, the necessity of such laws, and the decision to observe them or not comes for all of us, from the inside out.  I feel genuinely compelled and commanded to observe the rules I observe, so that is what I do.  They add meaning, purpose, and ethical value to my life.  That is why I can imaging a God who wants me to keep those laws.


I don't know that reaching my conclusions is important, but asking what practices add meaning, purpose, ethics, etc, to our lives -- THAT is crucially important.

I disagree with your assertion that Savage was speaking "from a position of power." Yes, he was the guy in the front of the room with the microphone and the podium, but he's also a gay man who was speaking to an audience that contained some people who believe that who he is (and who he loves) is an abomination. Telling someone who believes you're going to hell that they're full of it isn't bullying--it's standing up for yourself.

Your claim is so backwards, it isn't even backwards!  And all I can say is that I hope the irony of using classically gay-bashing presumptions about denying who is in power and the right to speak The Truth to those who need to hear it, isn't lost on you.


Thanks for adding evidence to my earlier claim that we all run the risk of becomming that which we most oppose.

While many are getting very upset about the fact that Savage used words like "bullshit" and "apnsy-assed," no one has yet addressed his main point. Biblical interpretation on incerdibly important issues has changed from decade to decade. Money lending, slavery, and the proper punishment for premarital sex are just a handful of examples. Do you agree that activists on the right who often use rather disgusting language to attack gay people (i.e. Santorum comparing homosexuality to beastiality) are drumming up some indignation here to deflect attention from Savage's real agenda?

I think that like many public speakers, Mr. Savage had many agendas when he stepped up to the mic -- some of which he was probably aware and others less so.  I knwo that's certainly true for me when I speak, whether it's a group of 10 or 1,000, or on TV.


I certainly agree that dehumanizing another person because you disagree with one, or even many, aspect of their life is always wrong.   It's wrong when it's done to attack gay people, and it's wrong when it's done to attack believers who read the Bible as prohibiting homosexual sex. 


I don't particularly like Dan Savage, or the whole "atheist" movement for that matter, but I think it's ludicrous to call Savage a "bully". For many years, people have been using the Bible as a metaphorical stick with which to beat homosexuals and deny them rights of all kinds. When Savage demands that people stop using the Bible as such a weapon, people refuse to listen, and call him a bully? Savage was not even denying the legitimacy or sacred nature of the Bible, he was only saying that the selective way people use Leviticus is hypocritical. He and I agree on this issue.

So your insight here is that he is right because he agrees with you?  That's the whole problem!  If the category called "right" is always limited to that with which we already agree, or how we personally live, then life will be forever mean and hostile.  All that will change is who abuses whom.


You are correct that his attack was not on the entire Bible, but for the people I assume he most wanted to reach, that distinction is meaningless.  At some point, Savage, like all the rest of us, has to decide whether he wants to rain down Truth upon the rest of us, or actually engage the people who need to hear him most.  The latter is less fun, but far more productive.

I've never liked Savage because of his tone. I think saying something is B.S. automatically puts one side on the defensive instead of having an honest dialogue. (Full disclosure, I'm gay). On the other side, I think he's right and agree that it has always been dishonest for people to use religion as a means to deny gay people rights, mainly due to the fact that we do things like allow divorce, disallow slavery, and use selective biblical passages to justify law while ignoring other passages. What are your thoughts on tone vs. substance?

You ask in such measured, frank, honest ways that truthfully, what I think is almost unimportant.  I jsut wish that people could learn from your approach.  Thank  you.


But since you asked, I would say that all reading is selective and the issue is what each reader is selecting for.  Also, do YOU really believe that all readers of the Bible who conclude that gay sex is prohibited are simply haters?  I doubt that.


Seems to me that we need to read as we most honestly can, and then be prepared to admit that no matter how much we may claim otherwise, there is never only one way to read a great text.  If there were, it wouldn't be so great.

So -- to stay on Savage's point, but more politely, how should a modern American approach understanding Leviticus? As a guide to conduct, some passages are quite sensible and some seem extremely harsh.

I don't think that Americans should be legislating based on the Bible.  It's not that I don't believe in the Bible -- I do, at least as it is understood in traditional Jewish thought.  And to be sure, my understanding is also influenced by other great tradtions as well.  But there is a world of difference between choosing policy, based on my faith, for my life, and imposing my faith on others.


I believe that one's faith can, and probably should, influence their views about all of life, not simply private life.  But influence is not power, and retaining people's right to choose about as much as possible in their lives, is one of the things which has made this country great.  And anything less will render us one more dangerous theocracy in which people invoke God to prove what they wanted anyway, no matter who it harms.


I don't want to live in THAT country.  Actually no one does, unless they believe that they, and they alone, speak for God.  And if they fall into that category, then no matter how much such people claim to believe in God, the only god in whom they really believe is themselves.

That has to do it for this week.  Thanks to all of you for great questions and wonderful comments.


Don't forget that we can continue this conversation on Facebook and Twitter @BradHirschfield


'til next week,


In This Chat
Brad Hirschfield
Rabbi Brad Hirschfield is an author, radio and TV talk show host, and President of CLAL-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. His On Faith blog, For God's Sake, explores the uses and abuses of religion in politics and pop culture. He wrote "You Don't Have To Be Wrong For Me To Be Right: Finding Faith Without Fanaticism." Named as one of the nation's 50 most influential rabbis in Newsweek, and one of the top 30 "Preachers and Teachers" by Beliefnet.com, he is the creator of the popular series, Building Bridges, airing on Bridges TV, and co-host of the weekly radio show, Hirschfield and Kula: Intelligent Talk Radio. For more information see www.bradhirschfield.com.
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