The Rev. Peter J. Gomes, Harvard minister, dies at 68

By Emma Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 1, 2011; 10:33 PM

The Rev. Peter J. Gomes, a Harvard theologian, author and Baptist preacher who, after announcing two decades ago that he was gay, became a powerful voice against using the Bible to justify discrimination, died Feb. 28 in Boston of complications from a stroke. He was 68.

By turns thundering and lyrical, Mr. Gomes (rhymes with "domes") made Time magazine's list of America's seven "star" preachers when he was 37. From a family with roots in New England's black elite, he rose to one of the most visible pulpits in academia, serving as a professor of Christian morals at Harvard and minister of the university's Memorial Church.

His following transcended the campus. A conservative Republican with the patrician air of a Boston brahmin - the favored three-piece suits and a watch fob hanging from his breast pocket - he offered the benediction at Ronald Reagan's second inauguration and the sermon at George H.W. Bush's.

"I got a lot of criticism in the People's Republic of Cambridge, as you might imagine, for praying for Ronald Reagan," he told National Public Radio in 1996. "I simply said, 'Well, just think how bad things would be if I hadn't prayed for him.' "

He leavened speeches about modern anxiety with quotes from Woody Allen and confronted topical moral debates - including divestiture of university investments in apartheid South Africa - with graceful, booming sermons that spoke to wider social concerns.

Mr. Gomes's career underwent a dramatic shift in 1991 after a crowd of 200 angry Harvard students gathered on the steps of Memorial Church to protest an anti-gay diatribe printed in a right-wing student magazine.

Quoting Sigmund Freud, Ivan Pavlov and the Bible's book of Leviticus, the magazine denounced homosexuality as an "immoral" and "pitiable" path to misery and disease.

Many protests had been staged on the church steps, and Mr. Gomes had passed most of them by. This time, he spoke up.

"These wicked writings are hurtful, divisive and most profoundly wrong," he said, his rich baritone reverberating. Gay people, he continued, were victims not of religion but of "people who use religion as a way to devalue and deform those whom they can neither ignore nor convert."

He knew what he was talking about, he said, because he was a minister and a scholar, and "because I am a Christian who happens to be gay."

The crowd, shocked and ecstatic, erupted in cheers.

The moment drew immediate national attention and came to define Mr. Gomes's ambitions. "I now have an unambiguous vocation, a mission, to address the religious causes of homophobia," he told The Washington Post in 1992. "I will devote the rest of my life to addressing the 'religious case' against gays."

For the next 20 years, he used his sermons at Harvard and around the country to pick apart fundamentalist readings of Biblical verse, which had been used not just to condemn homosexuality as immoral, he said, but to justify slavery, anti-Semitism and the subjugation of women.

"The right use of the Bible," he wrote in a New York Times op-ed in 1992, "means that we confront our prejudices rather than merely confirm them."

In his writings, including his 1996 bestseller, "The Good Book: Reading the Bible With Mind and Heart," he argued against narrow interpretations of scripture.

Mr. Gomes also defended the Bible from those on the left who criticized it as a tool of oppression - and who, he said, unfairly disregarded the important role biblical notions had played in motivating social-justice campaigns, including the civil rights movement.

"I want the liberals who despise the Bible to take it more seriously," he told the Los Angeles Times in 1996, "and the conservatives to do more than massage it for their own interests."

Peter John Gomes was born in Boston on May 22, 1942, and grew up in Plymouth, Mass. His father was a Cape Verdean immigrant who worked in the cranberry bogs. His mother, a graduate of the New England Conservatory of Music, made sure her son had piano lessons and exposure to Victorian literature.

Mr. Gomes was drawn to the church at an early age and delivered his first sermon at 12. After graduating in 1965 from Bates College in Maine, he received a theology degree from Harvard Divinity School in 1968. He was ordained that same year.

He taught for two years at the historically black Tuskegee Institute in Alabama before returning to Harvard in 1970. He became minister at Memorial Church in 1974.

Mr. Gomes's public revelation about his sexual orientation had little effect on his dating habits. "I do not have a partner, I have never had a partner, and I don't expect ever to have one," he once said. "I think I am vocationally called to the single life."

He had no immediate survivors.

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