Gay Rights and the Religious Right (and Left?)

My very proper Southern grandmother once wisely admonished me never to talk about two subjects: politics and religion. And yet, in light of the recent election, the relationship of those very two subjects is desperate for discourse. Since November 2nd, I have been asked to talk about religion in politics on numerous occasions, and, at first, I was concerned that I might appear too partisan or come off sounding too anti-religious. That, I fear, is impossible with this topic. So let me say straight away that I am not anti-religious. In fact, I trace my religion to the central commandment of Jesus of Nazareth: Love your neighbor as yourself. As for partisanship, I don’t care what you call yourself-Democrat or Republican -but I think it should be alarmingly clear that if you voted the Republican ticket with the issue of gay rights on your mind, you were either tricked, or you voted irrationally. I, in no way, believe that the Democratic Party is perfect or even very good at much (Gore Vidal would tell you that there is only one party-the two being elementally the same.). But on the issues of Gay Rights, the Democrats remain the more appealing option.

Now, of course, there are all sorts of projections about what kind of second term Bush’s second term will really be. Many political pundits are telling us that Bush will quickly become the lamest of lame ducks, facing opposition even within his own party. For me, at this moment, George Bush is irrelevant. He won the election, and that’s that; I must either deal with it or expatriate. What is most disturbing for me is that a sizeable portion of the electorate labors under the mistaken presumption that a vote for Bush equates with a Christian vote-and, worse, that such a vote is an imperative dictated by American “history.” But for gays, particularly gay Christians, the fallacy of that belief should be glaringly obvious. Indeed, I venture to say that whatever your religion, or your lack of the same, the fallacy should be deeply, deeply disturbing.

Notice that the number one cited issue for voters leaving the Nov. 2nd polls was “morality.” Of course, this concept of morality is amorphous. Morality can mean inclusiveness, respect for human dignity, love of one’s neighbor; it can mean what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. referred to as agape love-in that sense morality is a mirror of the selfless, encompassing, and non-judgmental love exemplified by Jesus of Nazareth in the New Testament Bible. The gay person reading those exit polls, however, knows that the morality that carried away the voting public in no sense resembles the agape love preached by Jesus or Dr. King. The “morality” that helped to re-elect George W. Bush is essentially Calvinistic in origin and philosophy. This morality tells its adherents that man is inherently bad; some actions, choices, and lifestyles, including homosexuality, are undeniably sinful. Thus, they are to be warred against as the potential undoing of the Christian civilization established in the United States because they destroy the order created by those eminently Christian, doubtlessly born-again Founders who saw fit to create America.

Sociologist Christian Smith found that evangelical Christians are most likely to adhere to a Calvinistic moral view, and, indeed, the evangelicals were so important to Karl Rove’s orchestration of Bush’s re-election that Bush fervently supported a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. (Now, with the evangelical vote safely in, Bush is endorsing a more “compassionate conservative” amendment that would leave the civil union option open to the states-which the Federal Marriage Amendment, as originally proposed, explicitly refused to allow.)

So, when gays read the exit polling on “morality,” they see it as a dangerous signal of their continued oppression. Philosopher Alistair MacIntyre bemoans the American desire to pursue “virtue.” MacIntyre believes that moral judgments are always nothing more than “expressions of preference, expressions of attitude or feeling.” MacIntyre thus concludes that debates about abortion, gay rights, and other public arguments about morality are ultimately only divisive and “interminable.” The rational answer to the dilemma he claims is, I think, the assertion of the real Enlightenment-influenced American morality which, despite the contentions of the Religious Right to the contrary, the Founders really intended. This is a public morality in which there is room for the competing views of the American polity and a morality in which none of these conflicting views is allowed to dominate or to be legislated, but where each of these views is paid an essential civic respect. This true American morality has, however, as evidenced by the 2004 election, been largely replaced (or, at least, displaced) by a fiction which tells Americans that the fundamentalist Christian morality represented by Dobson, Robertson, and Falwell was the prevailing morality of the Founding era.

Our historical truth reveals quite a different Founding ethos. Following are some quotes from representative Founders regarding religion – specifically Christianity:

To the Corruptions of Christianity, I am, indeed, opposed; but not to the genuine precepts of Jesus himself. I am a Christian in the only sense in which he wanted anyone to be: sincerely attached to his doctrines, in preference to all others; ascribing to himself every human excellence; and believing he never claimed any other. (Jefferson)

Where did we get the ten commandments? [The Bible] itself tells us they were written by the finger of God on tables of stone, which were destroyed by Moses; it specified those on the second set of tables in different form and substance, but still without saying how the other were recovered. But the whole history of these books is so defective and doubtful, that it seems vain to attempt minute inquiry into it; and such tricks have been played with their text, and with the other texts of other books relating to them, that we have a right from the cause to entertain much doubt what parts of them are genuine. (Jefferson)

“This story [of the virgin birth of Christ] is upon the face of it, the same kind of story of Jupiter and Leda and Jupiter and Europa or any of the amorous adventures of Jupiter; and shows. . .that the Christian faith is built upon heathen mythology.” (Thomas Paine)

“[T] he day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus by the Supreme Being as His Father, in the womb of a virgin, will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter.” (Jefferson)

Such statements hardly indicate a “Moral Majority” view of religion. Yet, through a clever and largely successful revision of American history, religious fundamentalists have hijacked (for lack of a better word) America’s past and, consequently, its present. A fundamentalist moral view pervades legislation and sways presidential elections. Indeed, it has become a requirement of American citizenship. The fact that 11 more states enacted discriminatory amendments to bar gay marriage indicates as much. Some of these amendments are so draconian that gay people have little other choice than to move from the state if they even want to pretend equality. And, sadly, the religious bias animating these amendments is blatant.

Consider the following text of the Massachusetts amendment, not yet passed, that could potentially override the Goodridge decision, which legalized gay marriage in that state:

The unified purpose of this Article is both to define the institution of civil marriage and to establish civil unions to provide same-sex persons with entirely the same benefits, protections, rights, privileges and obligations as are afforded to married persons, while recognizing that under present federal law benefits [sic] same-sex persons in civil unions will be denied federal benefits available to married persons.

It being the public policy of this Commonwealth to protect the unique relationship of marriage, only the union of one man and one woman shall be valid or recognized as a marriage in the commonwealth.

Two persons of the same sex shall have the right to form a civil union if they otherwise meet the requirements set forth by law for marriage. Civil unions for same sex persons are established by the Article and shall provide entirely the same benefits, protections, rights, privileges and obligations that are afforded to persons married under the law of the commonwealth. All laws applicable to marriage shall also apply to civil unions.

Several inconsistencies should be evident to the reader. First, the Massachusetts legislature is taking great pains to preserve the hetero-centric, theo-centric term “marriage.” Thus, while purporting to bestow all of the benefits of marriage to gay couples, the amendment’s civil union compromise automatically relegates gays to second-class status. Secondly, after this insult, the legislature goes on to state that to be eligible for a civil union, a gay couple must meet the requirements for a marriage under Massachusetts law. The absurdity of requiring a couple to meet the requirements of marriage and then arbitrarily denying them a marriage cannot be overstated. The Massachusetts legislature has merely underscored the irrationality of a marriage/civil union distinction. The ultimate impact of this sort of legislative action on the legal and social status of gays remains to be seen, but it is obviously potentially devastating.

Measures to ban same-sex marriage reveal the undeniably religious underpinnings of the effort to “protect” marriage by separating it from another status, a “civil union” status, that might be conceded to gays. Particularly, efforts, like that of the Massachusetts legislature, to confer all the benefits and responsibilities of marriage, while avoiding the actual name “marriage,” underscore the religious nature of the argument. The argument of President Bush and others is that the status of “marriage” should be kept intact as a union of a man and a woman because of the traditional religious connotations the term evokes. This is problematic because this type of action sees government passing judgment on the religious appropriateness of various forms of “marriage” purely out of a desire to protect a prevailing sectarian ideology. If the non-establishment norm of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution means anything, it should mean that government is prohibited from passing just this kind of “moral” judgment.

Moreover, a further establishment problem is encountered when we remember that a growing number of religious denominations and groups (affirming congregations of the United Church of Christ, the Metropolitan Community Church, the Unitarian/Universalists, some independent Baptists, and others) now include the blessing of same-sex “unions” (but for the denial of a civil marriage license, I could call them “marriages”) as part of their agape love message. Under these circumstances, we might say that governmental action to restrict access to “marriage” is either an establishment of the countervailing religious preference regarding marriage, a hindrance of the agape churches’ right to free religious exercise (also guaranteed by the First Amendment), or both.

Perhaps, given such considerations, government would be better off, certainly more constitutionally sound, to distance itself from any sacramental definition of marriage and to focus on its legitimate interest, the conferring of benefits. If government has decided, as it has and probably has a right to do, that the right to certain benefits will only be triggered for individuals once they have entered a marriage partnership, perhaps government would be better off issuing “civil unity” licenses, as opposed to “marriage licenses.” It could, thereby, keep track of relationships triggering certain benefits without becoming bogged down in the morass of disagreement over the proper sectarian definition of “marriage.” Conversely, if the institution of marriage is now sufficiently secularized that it no longer involves these sectarian identity issues (doubtful), I can discern no truly secular purpose, as most religious liberties scholars would agree is required by the First Amendment’s non-establishment norm, for perpetuating a distinction between real marriage and some other form of union. In that case, the distinction should be eradicated.

So, I suppose my observations leave some people asking: Is Professor Gilreath just plain overreacting? If people exiting the November 2 polls had said that they voted for George Bush because they felt “safer” because of his stance on terrorism, for example, I may have disagreed, but I would not be nearly as alarmed as I am now, knowing that exit polls showed a fundamentalist moral view as the predominant reason explaining votes cast to re-elect Bush. Not to mention anti-gay amendments to the constitutions of eleven more states. Emboldened, evangelicals, supported by traditionalist Catholics, renewed their demands for a federal marriage amendment, to say nothing of challenges to the teaching of evolution in favor of creationism in Georgia’s public schools and demands that textbooks adopted by Texas schools be altered to reinforce the man/woman marriage definition.

What, then, can be done?

Today, millions of legalistic Christians try to tell us that if we don’t believe the Bible says what they say it says then we aren’t Christian at all. Not Christian and not equal citizens. They are consumed with what they say we should be. Quite simply, we must engage anti-gay religion. We must stop regarding its arguments as taboo and start refuting them. To counter the Religious Right, we need what some have called a Religious Left – but what I prefer to call Churches of Love.

For me, the most powerful part of Jesus’ ministry is his constant accent on presence. God is not in the “should be,” but in the “is.” If God is really the great “I Am,” then he is all of us. Saying to a gay person, “I love you, but I hate this core part of you,” creates a constant atmosphere of public contempt and derision that is as equal to an attack on the soul as any human being can feel in this life. But if God is the “I Am,” if he is present in each of us, then it is equally an attack on Him. That is the message that should – and must – resonate.

The public forum that men like Jefferson envisioned may not have included such an intense intermingling of religion and politics, but, for better or worse, such is the present state of things. Thus, the Churches of Love in this country must confront homophobia head-on; so far, many of them are doing a poor job of it. They must shout Christ’s greatest commandment, “love one another,” from the rooftops. They must demonstrate by direct action the love of God to the homosexual. If the fundamentalist fiercely clings to manipulated untruths about the “unnaturalness” of homosexuality at the expense of the commandment to love, the Churches of Love must proclaim the manifest truth of love with equal tenacity. Perhaps if we teach this love lesson with conviction, homosexuals will learn that to be gay does not automatically correlate to being a secularist. In the least, it should signal that being gay does not make one less human.

And if the churches must announce God’s love with more conviction, gays must embrace an equally important truth: Gays are loved. Gay people are loved despite what particular congregations of the “faithful” have to say about homosexuality, and gay people of Faith have a right to disagree – to assert themselves and their inherent equality as children of God and as members of the human family.

Recently, a young gay artist living in London presented me with a reinterpretation of a rather famous Klee painting entitled Angelus Novus. The painting is said to depict the angel of history, caught up in a storm blowing from Paradise that propels him, perhaps unwillingly, into the future. I remain hopeful that a wind now stirs in Paradise for the Gay Rights Movement. Perhaps, in the long-run, religion will be the gay person’s liberation, just as it has been his yoke. As a minister friend of mine said, “I know that the Lord will not abandon his church, but I hope He keeps reforming her over and over … ’til we are formed into the image of Christ.” In the meanwhile, we have only to embrace our faith as we know it and tangibly experience it. And sometimes, at bottom, that is to have faith in ourselves; because, in matters of faith, there is never a “that’s that” and there never will be.

Variations of these thoughts were originally shared in the form of three lectures given to the Gay/Straight Student Alliance at Wake Forest University, the Gay/Straight Alliance at Wake Forest University Bowman Gray School of Medicine, and the New York University Canterbury Club. My thanks to the participating students and faculty of these institutions. I also thank Suzanne Reynolds and Wilson Parker for beneficial conversations.

So far as I can tell, the term “Churches of Love” was coined by Bruce Bawer in his excellent book Stealing Jesus: How Fundamentalism Betrays Christianity (Crown Publishing Group 1997).