Whether You're an Evangelical or a Rabbi, 'Religious Freedom' Is No Excuse for Homophobia

From Donald Trump’s VP pick Mike Pence to Israeli Rabbi Yigal Levinstein, free expression and religious liberty are clashing with the protection of the civil rights of LGBT citizens.


Donald Trump’s fresh-faced all-American midwestern U.S. vice presidential pick Mike Pence, now being showcased at the Republican National Convention, and Rabbi Yigal Levinstein, the grave bespectacled long-bearded head of the Israeli pre-military academy in the settlement of Eli, may look like they come from utterly different worlds.

But actually, they have a great deal in common.

Both men represent religious right-wing forces pushing back against cultures they see as having become excessively accepting of LGBT rights and the normalization of their family units. In both Israel and the United States, such relationships and families are rapidly becoming socially mainstream, even in traditionally conservative environments like the military, to the dismay of fundamentalist communities that take biblical prohibitions against homosexual behaviors literally and seriously.

On the eve of Jerusalem’s Pride Parade, Rabbi Levinstein has hit the media spotlight for expressing extreme disgust in a videotaped address, in which, among other controversial remarks, he repeatedly referred to gays and lesbians as “perverts” and decried the growing strength and mainstream acceptance of LGBT lifestyles, both in Israeli society and the Israeli military.  

"It is an insane movement whose members have lost the normalcy of life. This group makes the country mad and has now penetrated the IDF in full force – and no one dares voice an opinion and mock it."

Levinstein’s statements were decried by a wide range of politicians from right to left, and denounced by the Defense Ministry which oversees his academy, saying it viewed them “with great severity and strongly deplores them.”

But even in the face of the political firestorm, Levinstein has refused to apologize and he is being defended by the co-head of his academy. Rabbi Eli Sadan issued a statement on Tuesday saying that Levinstein should not be forced to define homosexuality as normative in the name of political correctness. “Just as we don’t impose our views on others, we won’t agree to have values forced on us that are in opposition to the Torah.”

That is the also the crux of the battle in the United States – free expression and religious liberty clashing with the protection of the civil rights of LGBT citizens.

You’d never catch a careful politician Mike Pence making fire-breathing and insult-ridden speeches like Levinstein. But, of the two men, a successful evangelical Christian politician like Pence has proven a far greater danger to the LGBT community and the forces of pluralism and tolerance than Levinstein and his crew of rabbis do to their counterparts in Israel.

Pence goes a step further than Levinstein in finding the military too gay-friendly – he has said that gays should be banned from military service entirely, stating that “homosexuality is incompatible with military service because the presence of homosexuals in the ranks weakens unit cohesion.” He has said the same about women – another thing he has in common with extreme Israeli rabbis, who would also like to see women far from the battlefield – though none of them, like Pence, has gone as far as to condemn the Disney movie “Mulan” a liberal propaganda piece promoting female fighters.

On homosexuality, it’s not just talk for Pence – he has taken real action in his positions of power in Congress and the state of Indiana, making good on the political beliefs laid out early in his political career. He actively opposed efforts to recognize homosexuals as being protected by anti-discrimination laws that shield women and ethnic minorities and that put gay and lesbian relationships on an equal footing with heterosexual married couples. He even worked to re-direct federal funds from fighting AIDS in gay communities toward so-called conversion therapy groups that “provide assistance to those seeking to change their sexual behavior.”

Pence signed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act which gave many businesses license to discriminate against LGBT people, co-sponsored the 2004 Defense of Marriage Act which would have amended the constitution by restricting marriage as a union between one woman and one man. He also attempted, before the landmark Supreme Court ruling, to prohibit same-sex marriage in his state. He has fought legislation making anti-gay statements hate crimes, claiming that it could make a sermon condemning gay sex a criminal offense.

The good news is that both of these men are fighting losing battles, as poll after poll show the cultural tide shifting toward greater acceptance and respect of non-heteronormative lifestyles, particularly among those in the younger generation. And in both countries, the courts have proven a bulwark in upholding the rights of LGBT Americans and Israelis.

Still – the fact that both men are in positions of great power and influence and are unrepentant in their views demonstrates clearly that the political battle for LGBT equality is far from over.

The job of Americans who believe that the right to live and love freely trumps a religious right to hate and fear is to oppose the Trump-Pence ticket.

The task of Israelis who feel the same is two-fold. It has been correctly argued that while Levinstein may have a right to his fundamentalist views, they must pressure the state to stop underwriting him imparting his views to young soldiers by continuing to fund an academy where he serves as its leaders.

But even more importantly – they must work to ensure that those who share his benighted views stay far away from the real seats of power, so that an Israeli isn’t able to get close as Pence is to a chance of holding the most powerful office in the land.