When death metal bands Black Sabbath and Judas Priest released “God is Dead?” and “Burn in Hell,” both songs criticizing and denouncing religion, they were lauded as the fathers of rock. Yet, just one month ago, when rapper Lil Nas X released the music video for his latest single, “MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name),” he was met with backlash from many Christians, who nitpicked the video’s religious allusions and made Biblical references to denounce Lil Nas X as “evil” and “heretical.” The double standard in this disparity lies in a simple truth — religious literalism, or the by-the-book interpretation of scripture, is used as a convenient excuse to disguise bigoted behavior.
On March 26, Lil Nas X’s newest music video for his single “MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name),” made waves due to its juxtaposition of traditional Christian motifs, such as snakes, the Garden of Eden, and the forbidden fruit, with a story of the turmoil that Lil Nas X faced himself as a closeted gay man. In the video, he visits the Underworld while dancing on a stripper pole and as a Satanic figure. This content shocked many, who took to social media to claim that Lil Nas X was using “Satanic references” and negatively influencing today’s youth. “Disgusted at the highest level,” Harvest Praise and Worship Center Pastor Mark Burns said in simple terms.
According to Lil Nas X, his message was not to promote Satanism but rather to express and cope with his inner conflict as a gay man who was failed by the church. “This will open doors for many other queer people to simply exist,” he tweeted a day after the song’s initial release.
Despite Lil Nas X’s wholehearted intentions, however, many have twisted the Satanic aspect of the video into an opportunity to hurl personal attacks against him. For example, South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem tweeted in reference to Lil Nas X’s “Satan Shoes.” She said, “What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their whole soul?” citing a Bible passage in her Tweet.
Satanism in music isn’t new — punk-metal bands such as Black Sabbath, Insane Clown Posse, and Judas Priest have all used it as an aesthetic in their music without members of the religious community cherry-picking verses from the Bible to attack them. It’s clear that the criticism targeted at Lil Nas X is about more than his music and the symbolism in the video. As a Black and gay man, Lil Nas X’s identity exists as a threat to the stereotypical religious beliefs that condemn homosexuality and condone racism.
In these instances, religious literalists often focus on what they perceive to be a direct interpretation of scripture, which is oftentimes an interpretation that denies the validity of the LGBTQ+ community. Many homophobic Evangelical Christians today cite two major biblical citations as a reason to deny homosexuality: Leviticus 18:19-23 and Leviticus 20:10-16. On one hand, these passages do explicitly condemn homosexuality — Leviticus 18:22 reads, “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.” However, along with banning homosexuality, the Bible bans several other common actions — wearing polyester, getting a tattoo, and eating raw meat are a few examples — yet few modern-day Christians would balk at seeing someone do any one of these actions in real life. The hypocrisy of using literal interpretations of the Bible as justification for denying the LGBTQ+ community is not lost. Clearly, this Biblical defense is only applied when it is convenient — that is, when it allows for people to support their personal biases, including the systemic biases against marginalized populations like the LGBTQ+ community.
Similarly, the Bible is still used as a defense for hate crimes and bigotry even today. In the 19th century, the Bible was used to justify slavery, as slaveholders cited passages that commanded servants to obey their masters. In the 1960s, the Ku Klux Klan used the Bible as one of their ideological texts along with the “Kloran,” which outlined the hate group’s ideology and goals. The 2012 Wisconsin Sikh temple shooting was also racially and religiously motivated, where a white shooter targeted Sikhs in a violent attack that ignored every fundamental principle of Christianity as a religion of kindness.
Religious literalism is nothing new. Many extremists have used religious texts from Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism to justify sexism, quoting phrases that place women as inferior. Some religious laws from the past explicitly state that the testimony of a woman is either worthless or given less weight than that of a man, while others bar women from seeking education or holding positions of power. In Buddhist scriptures, many weaponize the Buddha’s quote, “if women go forth under the rule of the Dharma, this Dharma will not be long-enduring,” in order to exclude women from social or work-related activities.
Religious fundamentalism — an unwavering attachment to a set of religious beliefs — is, by its very nature, intolerant of diversity, including Black, Indigenous, and People of Color and the LGBTQ+ community. Lil Nas X himself spoke out publicly about his negative experiences with Christianity, saying, “i spent my entire teenage years hating myself because of the sh*t y’all preached would happen to me because i was gay. so i hope u are mad, stay mad, feel the same anger you teach us to have towards ourselves.”
When discussing the Lil Nas X controversy, religious literalists should contexualize the role of Christianity in the ongoing discrimination that LGBTQ+ people face and the pain that queer Black people have gone through because of alienation from the church, rather than centering themselves and their perceived disrespect of their religion. For LGBTQ+ people who have faced these very real feelings of isolation and self-hatred, art like Lil Nas X’s “MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name)” isn’t about denouncing Christianity — it’s about reclaiming the supposedly sinful aspects of their identities they were once taught to hate.
Not only does the indoctrination of homophobia and bigotry in religion invalidate the lived experiences of people in the LGBTQ+ community, but it also sets up a precedent excusing these behaviors amongst other religious people in the future. In the 21st century, discrimination of any form is not permissible, despite what some religious texts might appear to state. As religion continues to be passed down through families and communities, people should view its fundamental principles of love and acceptance as an overarching truth that transcends societal development, rather than restricting themselves to a literalist definition of religion that invalidates and excludes minorities.
Rather than adopting a “literal” interpretation of religious text or cherry-picking verses that confirm one’s pre-existing political or societal biases, followers of religion should be cognizant of societal norms and expectations that are true to the fundamental values of religion: love, acceptance, and kindness. In doing so, we can create a more accepting community that is welcoming of all people, while respecting people’s rights to practice religious faith. Lil Nas X’s song “MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name)” is more than an explicit, high-budget music video — it’s a proud declaration of love from a gay, Black artist, and a reckoning for followers of religion to challenge the idea of religious literalism in their communities.
Cover graphic by Opinion Editor Aria Lakhmani