Born and raised in rural Tennessee, Oliver "Buzz" Thomas came from a devoutly religious Southern Baptist family, like many who lived in that part of the Bible Belt. Issues of faith and morality were so important to him that he decided as a young man to be ordained a Baptist minister.
After preaching several years as an adult, though, Thomas had what some traditional Christians might call a spiritual crisis — and others would describe as an epiphany. One evening he heard his daughter on the telephone, tearfully consoling a high school classmate.
"You don't have to be a preacher to know what fear sounds like," Thomas says.
The boy on the other end was the son of a deacon in a local church whose mother had died. The boy's father had just discovered that his son had homosexual feelings and promptly kicked him out of their house.
Thomas and his family took the boy into their home so he could finish his senior year in high school and figure out what he wanted to do.
"I prayed with that boy and sat at the table with that boy and listened to his struggles," he says.
Over time, Thomas began meditating on his own views toward homosexuality, while also researching the Bible, history books and scientific articles.
What he discovered changed his hard-line fundamentalist views toward gay people.
"This boy didn't choose to be gay," Thomas says. "He was born gay. It just became personal for me. It was a matter of justice. God wants us all to live with dignity and respect."
Why not stoning?
Thomas, 52, has since become a popular and controversial USA Today columnist and is the author of 10 Things Your Minister Wants to Tell You (But Can't Because He Needs the Job). In the book, he expounds upon themes from his columns and sermons, addressing such matters as how the universe began, whether miracles really occur, women's role in the church and what the Bible really says about homosexuality.
For too long, extremists have hijacked the Christian faith, he says, causing many Americans to turn their back on religion as a means of moral reflection and an aid to people who want to live lives of purpose and meaning.
"I think the American people, in their heart of hearts, are a kinder, gentler people than many of our religious leaders give us permission to be," Thomas says.
It's the role of clergy to address such topics that hit upon morality and the world around us, he says, but he believes too many religious leaders — especially fundamentalist Protestants — subscribe to an overly narrow and literal interpretation of the Bible when it suits their preexisting beliefs and prejudices but conveniently choose a more liberal interpretation at other times.
To make his point, he notes that many preachers cite passages from the Old Testament — primarily those in Leviticus and Deuteronomy — such as, "And with a man you shall not lie with as a man lies with a woman; it is an abomination." Many of the same ancient Hebrew texts offer stern warnings against other behavior that's now routinely accommodated. For example, the Old Testament states that people who disrespect their parents should be publicly stoned to death.
"Those same passages also condemn the handling of pig skins, so maybe we need to stop playing football or at least wear gloves when we do it," Thomas says.
In what Thomas views as a parallel to the current religious debate on homosexuality and gay marriage, he notes that both the Old and New Testament treat the owning of slaves as a typical way of life. Pro-slavery factions used such passages during the 18th and 19th centuries as an argument that God permitted the keeping of slaves.
"One hundred years from now, society is going to look back and be ashamed of what's going on right now," Thomas says. "No one is debating the slavery issue anymore, and it's going to be the same way with gay rights."
The Bible reflects God's intent but is filtered through the men who put the texts into writing, Thomas says. Those men, like all of us, were fallible creatures influenced by the culture and views around them.
"The Bible is a holy book inspired by God, but it also has a lot of the world of man in it," he says.
As a result, a literal interpretation of the Bible is foolhardy and debates about evolution and other scientific topics are misguided, Thomas adds.
"Our Bible is not a math book, it's not a science book," he says. "The first book, Genesis, was written in the form of a poem and probably was sung by the early Hebrews. We shouldn't be afraid of what science is learning and trying to teach us. It's a useful tool."
Thomas has never been conventional. As a Baptist minister, he decided to attend law school and become a lawyer specializing in constitutional law. For years he was general counsel for the National Council of Churches in Washington, D.C.
He eventually left that post but now serves as executive director of the Niswonger Foundation, a charitable organization that promotes education and community growth through scholarship programs and leadership training.
Thomas preaches as a guest minister at churches across the nation. He will appear at 9 a.m. Saturday at St. John United Church of Christ in Bellevue.
"What I hope my work does is shows Americans that the interpretation of the Bible they've been exposed to for so long isn't the only one," he says. "Other interpretations exist. We're all speculating when it comes to matters of faith. That's why we call it faith: We don't know these things for sure." ©