On the Religion Front

The United Methodist Church is facing a possible schism between those who support and oppose same-sex marriage, the Washington Post reports. One issue:

like much of Christianity, its growth today is in the developing world—particularly in Africa and the Philippines, where United Methodists tend to vote against gay equality.

A similar problem bedevils the Anglican Communion, although the U.S. Episcopal Church has the independence to be inclusive on its own, with a small number of congregations that have chosen to perpetuate traditional discrimination breaking away so as to align with African Anglican churches that prefer hate to the gospel of love.

Meanwhile, U.S. Reform Jewish rabbis have just installed their first openly lesbian leader. Orthodox Jewish congregations remain opposed to ordaining gay rabbis and marrying same-sex couples.

Religious denominations are and should be at liberty to pursue whatever principles of faith they like, even when their tenets collide with government policy or increasingly common views of what is right and just. Things get dicey when government gets entwined with the practice of faith, as when ordering religiously affiliated organizations to pay for abortifacient drugs, or not to discriminate in hiring against gay people.

Another interesting entanglement: should military chaplains from religiously traditionalist churches be stopped from telling service members their denomination’s views against homosexuality?

If the government is going to have military chaplains, I don’t think they should be censored. Also, I’m told service members are given access to a wide variety of chaplains at military bases, both Christian and non-Christian, and from conservative evangelicals to the more liberal protestant churches. Still, this shows how government entanglement with religious faiths can work to the detriment of both.

More. Obviously, in combat situations, there is not a choice among chaplains. And yes, chaplains can take part in nondenominational or cross-denominational services and counseling as well as ministering to service members who share their faith, depending on the circumstances. This particular instance, resulting in the chaplain facing the threat of dismissal, seems to have involved conversations in which a soldier asked the chaplain about his views and those of his church.

Update. Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) recognizes same-sex marriage:

Pastors—traditionally known as “teaching elders”—have already been allowed to perform same-sex marriages in states where they’re legal since last June. The new amendment leaves the discretion of whether to conduct such ceremonies with individual ministers.

“There is nothing in the amendment to compel any teaching elder to conduct a wedding against his or her judgment,” the Rev. Gradye Parsons, the church’s stated clerk, or top ecclesiastical official, said Tuesday.

Seems like a reasonable step forward that allows same-sex couples to marry within the denomination while also respecting the rights of clergy who are not yet onboard.

The church earlier eliminated barriers for ordaining gays, reports USA Today, which says “The denomination is now the largest Protestant group to recognize same-sex marriage as Christian.”

More. The National Black Church Initiative, a coalition of 34,000 churches comprised of 15 denominations and 15.7 million African-Americans, has broken its fellowship with Presbyterian Church USA following its recent vote to approve same-sex marriage. How hatefully homophobic are some of these African-American churches? Take a look.

Obama’s Canard

At this delicate moment in the fight for the freedom to marry, the revelation that President Obama was not telling the truth while running for office and during his first years in the presidency, when he claimed he personally opposed same-sex marriage because he felt “marriage is something sanctified between a man and a woman,” is not helpful.

Yes, many assumed Obama’s position was taken for political expediency, but being cleverly disingenuous doesn’t make the side fighting for marriage equality look good; it makes us look deceitful. The story of Obama having “evolved” on this issue was a better model of how we hoped others would shift their views.

Opponents of marriage equality will present this, with some justification, as an act to manipulate the stupid yokels (who cling to their guns and religion). This is not the way to win hearts and minds of those who view marriage equality with suspicion.

More. Obama has denied lying about his views on gay marriage, saying that Axelrod confused the president’s personal views with his policy position, and that his policy position evolved. That’s pretty good spin, even if it doesn’t quite address Obama’s campaign statements that clearly sounded as if he personally opposed same-sex marriage because of the “sanctity” issue.

The truth is surely that if the polls had shown a majority of Americans continuing to oppose gay marriage, Obama would have remained in opposition as well.

Furthermore. Kerry Eleveld writes in Politico:

But the candidate voters witnessed never seemed particularly tortured by his stance. Between 2004 and 2008, Obama stated his opposition to same-sex marriage and his support for one man-one woman marriage repeatedly, robotically, and without flinching on numerous occasions. Few of those pronouncements were quite as spectacular as the one he made in 2008 on Rick Warren’s stage at Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, CA. “I believe that marriage is the union between a man and a woman,” he told Warren’s flock of Evangelicals. “Now, for me as a Christian, it’s also a sacred union. God’s in the mix.”

The implication was that, in his view, same-sex unions were not holy enough to count as marriages. It wasn’t the statement of a candidate who was squeamish about the consequences of his comments. Rather, it revealed a candidate who was perfectly willing to leverage religious homophobia in his quest for the presidency. In fact, the only hesitation Obama experienced in that moment came from an interruption of excited applause from the crowd.

The president’s loyal LGBT base seems split between two responses: (1) Obama was struggling with the issue for many years and eventually thought it through to the correct conclusion, and (2) Obama, being a smart politician, had to say he opposed same-sex marriage in order to get elected and (eventually) support marriage equality. And the correct answer is (3) Obama followed the polling.

Final word? Via Reason:

It’s not difficult to imagine a pro-choice candidate winning the presidency. But imagine, if you can, a president whose position on abortion “evolves” after the election. Imagine this president advocating that all innocent human life is worth protecting. Imagine that she appoints judges to solidify her new pro-life attitude. And then imagine that the president’s top adviser informs us that the president was a pro-lifer all along. I imagine that would be a pretty big story.

I’m glad Obama has appointed pro-gay-marriage judges. But I can also see why his being duplicitous is so unsettling. It’s reflected in other campaign deceits aimed at wooing the center, including his promises to bridge the partisan divide and to cut the budget deficit by half (a pretense with immense consequences).

The Mormon Bargain

I want to be as supportive of the new Mormon position on anti-gay discrimination as possible.  Their leadership has agreed to support legislation that protects against housing and employment discrimination, as long as it includes religious liberty protection as well. This is a major announcement from a major religion that has spent a lot of time and capital fighting against our equality in the civil sector.  I am grateful that they took this bold step.

Unfortunately, I think it’s a bad deal.  Not for the reasons the Human Rights Campaign articulates, though.  They are concerned that the religious freedom protections would serve as a loophole. I can’t argue with that, and I have a lot fewer problems with it than HRC does.

For me, the problem with the deal is what church leadership is willing to fight for. Nearly all of the problems we have had with religious liberty over the last couple of decades have been due to the anti-discrimination laws the church now finds worthwhile. HRC has illustrated exactly why that continues to be the problem.

The one thing the church leaves off the table is support for civil marriage equality. Virtually all of the lawsuits, government actions and agita that religious individuals and businesses have brought to public attention have not been over the legality of same-sex marriage, they have been because of laws that prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation itself.

If I can have anti-discrimination laws or marriage equality, I’ll pick marriage equality every time.

I do not want to diminish the significance of this move.  It will have positive repurcussions both among gay LDS members (not to mention their families) and the broader faith community.  But by choosing to support the kinds of anti-discrimination laws that are most subject to civil abuse, and then carving out only the abuse that they are most subject to, they have done the political thing rather than the right one. There is more wrong with anti-discrimination laws in today’s world than just religious difficulties.

Worse than that is the necessary implication in the whole deal: denying that the civil laws prohibiting same-sex marriage are, themselves, the core discrimination that undermines the liberty this nation guarantees. The church will now be able to say that it opposes discrimination based on sexual orientation, while continuing to support civil laws that demand discrimination.

On balance, this concern may make little difference. I am hoping the Supreme Court will ultimately resolve marriage equality the right way, and call that form of discrimination what it is. That decision will make not a bit of difference to the Mormon church, or any other religious denomination.

But years after that happens, we will still have to deal with the legacy that anti-discrimination laws, long past their sell-by date, have left us. This may give them a bit more legitimacy than I think they deserve.

Marriage and the State, Revisited

Last November I posted about traditionalist Christian ministers proposing a separation between religious and civil marriage—meaning that legal marriage would be performed and recognized by the state, but couples also could partake of a religious ceremony, if they chose to do so. Clergy, however, would not be licensed by the state to perform marriages. Proponents of this are asking conservative clergy to pledge not to sign government marriage licenses.

As the New York Times has just run an article about this debate within conservative Christian circles, let me reiterate. Clearly, these traditionalist (or, anti-gay-equality, if you prefer) clergy are motivated by their theological opposition to same-sex marriage. So be it, I still think it’s a good idea. I’ll repeat what I said before: religion is better off the less encumbered it is by the state and its dictates. And individual liberty is better served when the state does not intrude into matters of religious conscience. As the Times article notes as it concludes:

Dr. Radner, the pledge’s other author, is on sabbatical in France, which has long separated religious marriage from civil marriage. Seeing the separation up close has only made him more of a fan.

“Just living here made me realize that the church can function rather well,” he said, “and also avoid some of the conflict that we seem to get all embroiled in in the U.S. over sexuality matters, by being somewhat disentangled, practically, from the civil marriage system.”

The Hitching Post Controversy

Is a wedding chapel “a place of public accommodation” that can’t turn away same-sex couples wanting to wed? What if the chapel is run by two ordained ministers, like the Hitching Post Lakeside Chapel in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho? Eugene Volokh writes:

“I find it hard to see a compelling government interest in barring sexual orientation discrimination by ministers officiating in a chapel. Whatever interests there may be in equal access to jobs, to education, or even in most public accommodations, I don’t see how there would be a “compelling” government interest in preventing discrimination in the provision of ceremonies, especially ceremonies conducted by ministers in chapels.

What if the wedding chapel originally advertised it performed civil as well as religious ceremonies? But now states “ordained ministers will marry you using a traditional, religious ceremony”?

LGBT activists of a progressive bent are making much of the fact that the Hitching Post changed its services following the legalization of same-sex marriage in Idaho. To my way of thinking, it makes no difference. People should be free to marry, including same-sex couples, and the government should not be forcing businesses owners, whether they be ministers or not, to perform services for same-sex weddings. But I’d add with Volokh, “especially ceremonies conducted by ministers in chapels.”

More. An evangelical gay man on why he’s raising money for the defense of Portland-based Christian bakery owners who refused to make a cake for a lesbian couple’s wedding. I don’t share his view that, in this case, “a pastry is not moral approval of a religious ceremony.” Would requiring an anesthesiologist to perform his services at an abortion be ok because he’s not actually killing the fetus? (No, abortions and weddings are not the same thing, but the principle of not compelling behavior that violates religious faith is).

However, raising the defense money as an act of love is a nice gesture.

Furthermore. Walter Olson shares his take at Overlawyered.com. It’s a tangled web with much mischief on the right in an effort to create religious-liberty panic. But some on the left would have no qualms with forcing the ministers to perform their marriage (a shotgun wedding, perhaps?), so no side is looking especially good in all this.

Another Update. Resolution:

The city of Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, said a for-profit wedding chapel owned by two ministers doesn’t have to perform same-sex marriages. … Initially, the city said its anti-discrimination law did apply to the Hitching Post, since it is a commercial business. Earlier this week, Coeur d’Alene city attorney Mike Gridley sent a letter to the Knapps’ attorneys at the Alliance Defending Freedom saying the Hitching Post would have to become a not-for-profit to be exempt. But Gridley said after further review, he determined the ordinance doesn’t specify non-profit or for-profit.

If this looks like a “win” for the anti-gay rightists, it’s only because of over-reach by the city on behalf of its anti-discrimination statute. Deciding to force conservative evangelicals (especially, you know, ordained ministers) to engage in behavior supporting same-sex marriage (especially, you know, performing marriage ceremonies) makes supporters of LGBT legal equality look like modern-day Robespierres.

But you can see the thinking motivating the city and LGBT activists: If we can force religiously conservative bakers and photographers to service gay weddings or be put out of business, why not?

More still. Kathy Trautvetter and Diane DiGeloromo, the lesbian owners of BMP T-shirts, are speaking up on behalf of a conservative Christian t-shirt maker who ran afoul of the state (and progressive LGBT activists) when he declined to print shirts for a gay pride festival that he believed compromised his religious values. DiGeloromo said:

“We feel this really isn’t a gay or straight issue. This is a human issue. No one really should be forced to do something against what they believe in. It’s as simple as that, and we feel likewise. If we were approached by an organization such as the Westboro Baptist Church, I highly doubt we would be doing business with them.”

Seems simple enough.

Houston’s Subpoenaed Sermons

This story is all over the conservative blogosphere, but that doesn’t mean it can just be dismissed. As the Houston Chronicle reports:

Houston’s embattled equal rights ordinance took another legal turn this week when it surfaced that city attorneys, in an unusual step, subpoenaed sermons given by local pastors who oppose the law and are tied to the conservative Christian activists that have sued the city.

Opponents of the equal rights ordinance are hoping to force a repeal referendum when they get their day in court in January, claiming City Attorney David Feldman wrongly determined they had not gathered enough valid signatures to qualify for the ballot. City attorneys issued subpoenas last month during the case’s discovery phase, seeking, among other communications, “all speeches, presentations, or sermons related to HERO, the Petition, Mayor Annise Parker, homosexuality, or gender identity prepared by, delivered by, revised by, or approved by you or in your possession.”

Houston, in deeply conservative Texas, is the largest American city with an openly gay or lesbian mayor, and she has championed the anti-discrimination measure. Well and good, but sorry, this looks awful, as if they are trying to embody the charge that the true objective of LGBT activism is to outlaw the expression of disagreement with the LGBT rights agenda, especially by churches.

So why issue subpoenas for the ministers’ sermons? It makes sense, maybe, if you view churches as nothing but political action committees that happen to meet in buildings with stained glass windows—and/or you think (1) only liberal churches should be able to advocate on political issues, and (2) freedom of speech means the right to engage in speech that supports progressive activism.

As Megan McArdle wrote last summer discussing the contraceptive/abortifacient mandate: “The secular left views [religion] as something more like a hobby… That emotional disconnect makes it hard for the two sides to even debate; the emotional tenor quickly spirals into hysteria as one side says “Sacred!” and the other side says, essentially, “Seriously? Model trains?”

Update. Damage control: Houston mayor criticizes city lawyers’ subpoenas of sermons.

More. Walter Olson blogs: Scorched-pew litigation: Houston subpoenas pastors’ sermons:

Massively overbroad discovery demands are among the most common abuses in civil litigation, and it’s hard to get judges or policymakers to take seriously the harm they do. But the City of Houston, represented by litigators at Susman Godfrey, may have tested the limits when it responded to a lawsuit against the city by a church-allied group by subpoenaing the pastors’ sermons along with all their other communications.

Furthermore. Mayor’s decision to drop subpoenas fails to quell criticism. This will be a millstone around her neck, and quite probably the end of any further political aspirations.

The Vatican Rag

Those who are knowledgeable on these matters say the announcements from the Vatican Synod are radical. One document stated: “Without denying the moral problems connected to homosexual unions it has to be noted that there are cases in which mutual aid to the point of sacrifice constitutes a precious support in the life of the partners.”

Rev. James Martin, a Catholic writer with the Jesuit magazine America, told the Washington Post:

“The Synod said that gay people have ‘gifts and talents to offer the Christian community.’ This is something that even a few years ago would have been unthinkable, from even the most open-minded of prelates—that is, a statement of outright praise for the contribution of gays and lesbians, with no caveat and no reflexive mention of sin. … That any church document would praise same-sex ‘partners’ in any way (and even use the word ‘partners’) is astonishing.”

While it’s good to see some forward movement from the Church of Rome, it seems to me that these are baby steps compared to where, say, the Episcopal Church and a few other denominations have gone, in term of celebrating same-sex marriages and ordaining gay clergy, for starters. Still, one can say of the Vatican’s moves, they’re in the right direction.

Update. Yes, very small baby steps: “Amid an outcry from conservatives over the document, organizers of the synod insisted Tuesday that the report was merely a working paper that would be amended and that its value had been overstated by the media.”

More. Andrew Sullivan shared his views, which are much more positive toward the RCC (his church) than mine.

On Joseph Bottum, “A Catholic’s Case for Same-Sex Marriage”

A formidable, subtle, and wide-ranging exponent of orthodox Catholicism, Joseph Bottum has long held a high place on my (not all that lengthy) list of writers I really wish we could convince. So I join Steve Miller in thinking it’s a pretty big deal to see him write a piece for Commonweal entitled, “The Things We Share: A Catholic’s Case for Same-Sex Marriage.” (More from the reliably interesting Mark Oppenheimer in the New York Times.)

Unlike some readers, I admired the essay’s meandering and discursive quality. To fall back on metaphor: if you’re feeling extremely conflicted on a topic, take a long walk for some fresh air. Those who don’t have patience for the entire thing and want more of a political statement might want to skip to the remarkable section where Bottum writes about how he regrets signing and helping draft the Manhattan Declaration (Robby George, Charles Colson, etc.), a manifesto of resistance to the modern liberal polity which attempts to link and in the process deeply confounds the three causes of abortion, religious liberty and same-sex marriage. As critics have already noted, Bottum makes no attempt to take down George’s position on the basis of logic, but then it’s not as if logic was the basis of that position in the first place.

The obloquy from former allies has landed like the ton of boulders I would have anticipated, including (in ascending order of charity and interest) Mark Shea at Patheos, Matthew Franck at First Things (where Bottum served long as editor), Rod Dreher at Patheos, and Sam Rocha at Patheos. Then there are the online commenters, proffering every turncoat trope one might expect. He’s just trying to curry favor with the NY Times? Check. He’s just trying to sell copies of his next book? Check. No matter how many times one has seen this process in action — from Norman Podhoretz’s Breaking Ranks to what happened to David Blankenhorn last year — it’s hard to imagine being the one it happens to. And Podhoretz’s and Blankenhorn’s are essentially secular examples: imagine the pressure when religious orthodoxy itself is perceived as being at stake.

Those looking for a more syllogistic as opposed to literary attempt to square same-sex marriage with Catholic orthodoxy may want to check out Paul Griffiths’ essay in Commonweal nine years back. But not to subtract from the respect owing to Griffiths, it is Bottum’s essay I expect to revisit again and again.

The Sin

I am unqualified to criticize the theology in Robert Gagnon’s hefty essay on the biblical errors in Alan Chambers’ leadership of Exodus International.  But what’s at stake here is pretty considerable, and more than just theological.  Chambers is president of Exodus, the group that assists Evangelical Christians with “same-sex attraction.”  Exodus had famously supported the notion that gays could change their sexual orientation, but Chambers – a gay man who is satisfactorily married to a woman, though he does not deny he continues to be sexually attracted to men – says now that he doubts such change in orientation is possible.

His change about change is important, as the sheer length of Gagnon’s critique (35 pages, with appendices) suggests, because it lets us see what Maggie Gallagher and the NOM Choir try so furiously to obscure: all that is left of the debate over homosexuality is the vestigial tail of a religious question about sin.

Gagnon starts out with religion (the entire first three pages are devoted to the writings of the Apostle Paul), but it’s soon clear he is quite exercised about the fact that Chambers may be removing Exodus from the political playing field.  Chambers’ comments have made “homosexualist” groups “smell blood in the water.”  They will take advantage of Chambers’ naïve attempt to be apolitical.

Religion vs. Politics is now the gold standard for discussing gay equality, and Gagnon’s invocations of that framework show how closely he has been listening to his brothers and sisters in Christ who don’t wear their theology on their sleeve.  Gagnon explicitly adopts Maggie Gallagher’s “they’re out to get us” mentality (perfected by Frank Schubert), charging that Chambers’ abdication threatens “foisting on us laws that will attenuate our own civil rights and coerce acceptance of homosexual unions in the civil sphere.”

That kind of talk, in an essay that purports to be almost exclusively about what proper theology has to say about the sin of homosexuality (and sin, in general) is telling.  Chambers’ comments about sexual orientation and change would not be all that consequential but for the fact that they undermine the entire religious foundation of the remaining phantoms about homosexuality.  Gagnon frets about “serial-unrepentant homosexual practice,” and sees acceptance of that as sending us all down the slippery slope to committed homosexual unions.  To Gagnon, this is a moral disaster in the making because it erodes the moral superiority that religious believers so love to lord over ignorant or vicious homosexualists:

. . . my main concern is that Alan’s comments to those living a homosexual life are ultimately unloving and ungracious. I don’t doubt that Alan intended his comments to “gay Christians” to be otherwise. Yet the actual result is to leave such persons deceived by giving them a message of “peace and security” when instead danger hangs over them (1 Thess 5:1-11). Who is gracious and loving? The parent that assures a child that crossing a busy intersection without looking both ways will produce no harm or the parent that does everything in his or her power to warn the child about the potential harm? Obviously the latter, for the warning is part of the makeup of a loving parent. In fact, state social services agencies count the former as abuse.

The arrogance of such christianity is what drives many truer Christians mad.  Lesbians and gay men are not the only ones who have been so lovingly parented by christians who claimed to have only the best interest of fully adult “children” at heart.  This is the same brand of tender love that christian men were expected to exercise over their wives (and all women), and that christian whites had toward blacks.

But the toxic paternalism is not just for christians.  That reference to “state social services agencies” is another slip where Gagnon reveals that while his concern is religious in concept, he intends it to be civil in application.  His religious critique shows that his real interest is secular politics.

It’s certainly fair for religious people to participate fully in American politics.  But there is a disconnect between arguments believers find religiously persuasive and those that will change the minds of non adherents.  Sin, in particular, has always been a tricky notion in interfaith contests, and leaves nonbelievers cold.

But it’s not just in the political realm where Gagnon overestimates his own brand of expertise.  He acknowledges Chambers may be right that homosexual orientation might not be entirely changeable, but says even incremental changes could still be valuable:

It is not necessary that reparative therapy achieve complete transformation from “gay” to straight in order to be helpful. One or two shifts along the Kinsey spectrum or a change in intensity of homosexual impulses can be beneficial.

I don’t know what is known about how or whether sexual orientation can be changed, but I’m pretty confident that no one yet has studied whether something as inherently subjective as sexual attraction can be moved – or measured – fractionally.  In any case, I’m not persuaded that theological scholars are the ones best suited to be pronouncing on the prospect.

Gagnon’s primary point is that social acceptance of homosexuality “regularizes the sin.”  I can’t judge the merits of his theological case, but this is, in the end, only a theological case, and only one of those.  Other theologians obviously disagree, as do other non-theologically inclined Christians.

But that divide within Christianity itself, endangers the monopoly that the fundamentalist brands of christianity demand, and in their worst moments have tried to foist on the general public.  While Christian thinking has been all over the map on so many other issues, the more fundamentalist tribes have generally been able to hold the line on homosexual sin.  But for them, too, that line is fading, and Chambers exacerbates the problem.  If sexual attraction can’t be changed, and if homosexual attraction in particular can’t be stamped out or ignored, then the case for just accepting gay people within the civil law is not just strong, its opposite is inhumane.

This is the turning point for religion today.  The possibility that lifelong heterosexual marriage may not be exactly at the center of the moral universe is as threatening to Gagnon as the location of the earth itself was to Pope Urban VIII when Galileo was sentenced to prison.  Gagnon is fighting every bit as hard (with more limited resources) for the status quo.

Galileo and Copernicus did not eliminate the earth, they just noticed – and said — that it was located somewhere other than where the Vatican had always placed it. That’s a religious problem only if you are under the impression that earthly religious leaders are as inevitably correct in their scientific thinking as they are in their theology.  But the Bible isn’t an authority on everything, and sometimes people use the Bible’s words to make moral issues out of things that aren’t properly moral.  The earth is no less important because it circles a larger body, and heterosexual marriage is no less important because it is not in every human’s nature to be attracted to the opposite sex.  There is plenty of room in the universe for God, still, and morality — even sexual morality.  And maybe God approves when humans acknowledge their errors.

Chambers isn’t Galileo, just as Gagnon isn’t Pope Urban; but today’s evangelical Inquisition is every bit as vainglorious as its Catholic predecessor, every bit as contemptuous of unbelievers, and every bit as likely to expose the sin of its own excess of hubris.

“My generation is tired of the culture wars.”

Rachel Held Evans calls on fellow evangelicals to “end the culture war on gays and lesbians.” Relatedly, a survey reported in Baptist Standard finds that by a ten-point margin, respondents would be less likely rather than more likely to visit or join a church if they knew it taught that homosexual behavior was sinful.

Plus, Sarah Bessey: “I’m an evangelical Christian. And I think same-sex marriage should be legal.” And Mark Osler, “The Christian case for gay marriage.” [CNN “Belief Blog”]