The fall-out from the California Prop-8 battle continues, and not all of it is bad news.
The "mainline" Protestant denominations have largely trended with progressive values for years. This progress has not come without rupture and hard words, but it has continued nevertheless. What has often been missing from the mainline, however, is a willingness to elbow their way to a seat at the table of public discourse.
As a result, the far right of the religious community has been allowed (and encouraged) to define the "faithful" positions on many questions. Most notably, their flag has flown in the face of equal rights for gays, lesbians, bi-sexual and transgendered citizens.
Following the passage of Prop 8 in California, some mainstream clergy are finally beginning to take a more assertive approach:
Religious leaders across the state held news conferences Thursday to urge Mainers to end marriage discrimination against gay and lesbian couples and called for the state to create same-sex civil marriages.
While this clearly isn't the same as privately conspiring with the Catholic Church and encouraging all your Mormon brethren to bankroll discriminatory legislation, it represents a big step for groups who have preferred to fly low on the radar. In part, this was out of sensitivity to their membership, many of whom have struggled to expand their personal understanding of their closely held faith.
...more than 120 religious leaders from 14 different faith traditions across Maine have formed the Religious Coalition for the Freedom to Marry in Maine. The coalition, [Presbyterian Rev. Marvin Ellison] said, is not a political action committee, but a group of clergy acting as individuals to raise awareness about the issue of same-sex marriage.
Ministers who joined the coalition signed a declaration. They agreed to "commit ourselves to public action, visibility, education, and mutual support in the service of the right and freedom to marry."
"Visibility" is the big missing piece in mainline churches' effort to promote respect, understanding and equality in this struggle for rights.
If you agree that homosexuality, lesbianism, or gender difference or ambiguity (or disambiguity as the case may be) are inherent -- as most educated people do -- then this is very clearly an issue of civil rights. These faith communities are gradually coming to the understanding that advocacy and visibility on these questions is every bit as compelled as their support for the civil rights movement of the 60's and 70's, which focused on race and, latterly, sex.
Some tentative steps had been taken already. The UCC launched a publicity campaign for their beliefs entitled "God is still speaking," encouraging a fresh and renewing approach to faith and famously featuring television commercials that cleverly showcased a message of inclusion.
The Steeples ("All the People")
This campaign was famously banned by the traditional media.
The creation of this coalition seems to indicate that, at least in Maine, mainline churches now recognize that on a question of theology, the Right has made their religion a public policy. If, as they profess, the mainline stands for the oppressed, they must speak out.
This is one small, but important, step in that direction.
Maine law does state that marriage is between a man and a woman. Our constitution remains, for the moment, unstained.
The Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland would oppose efforts to legalize same-sex marriage in Maine, Marc Mutty, director of the Office of Public Affairs, said Thursday after the press conference.
The Family Policy Council of Maine, formerly the Christian Civic League of Maine, also has said it would be "working to defend marriage." Executive Director Michael Heath announced in September that opponents of gay marriage were forming a group called Marriage Alliance. It would work to amend Maine’s constitution, according to information posted on the council’s Web site.
The Christian Civic League has become a punchline here in Maine. Mainers have consistently refused to legislate hate, and a petition drive they attempted last year had to be scrapped because there just wasn't any money out there to support it.
The Catholic Church, however, is becoming (has become?) an embarrassing case.
Clergy who appeared at the press conference in Bangor represented the United Church of Christ and the Unitarian Universalist Church. Both denominations, along with Reform Judaism, allow the blessing of same-sex unions and the ordination of noncelibate gay and lesbian clergy.
The list of clergy who support the coalition, however, includes ministers in the United Methodist, Episcopal and Presbyterian denominations that continue to debate the issues of gay marriage and the role of gay clergy on national and international levels.
The declaration stated that the signers respected the fact that debate and discussion would continue in many of their religious communities concerning the theological and ethical issues of marriage. It also said that members of the coalition supported the right of all religious communities to make their own decisions about whom to marry within their faith traditions.
"We draw on our diverse religious traditions to arrive at a common conviction — the state of Maine should allow same-sex couples to share fully and equally in the legal institution of marriage and do all that it can to eradicate current discrimination and the lingering effects of past discrimination against our lesbian, gay bisexual and transgendered brothers and sisters," the declaration continued.
Taking this stance reflects a distinctly mature approach to living (and hold a faith) in a pluralistic society. It separates the health and righteousness of the civic body from the integrity of a given body of faith. It acknowledges that we differ, and will continue to differ, on issues of moral theology (and, dare I say, science), but that equality in civil society does not permit the enforcement of only one creed. Down that road lies religious war. Down that road lies theocracy. Down that road lies the Taliban (if I need be so blunt).
Of course, if you believe you have the one, true, faith, this approach is anathema.
One wonders: If the Catholic Church and the Mormon Church of LDS both got substantially what they wanted, how long would it take before they were at each other's throat?
"I don’t think [the coalition] represents a great majority of the religious community in Maine," Mutty said. "They represent marriage as a civil right and believe that anyone that meets certain criteria should be able to marry.
"Marriage is the building block of society and includes procreation," Mutty continued. "Without procreation — and same sex couples can’t — they’re missing out on a huge piece of the puzzle. The argument is not any more complicated than that."
Marriage, sanctioned by the state, is a civil right, Mark. Whatever you want to recognize within the walls of the Church is up to you.
I'm not even going to touch the weak "procreation" argument, which would disqualify thousands of hetero men and women from marriage.
Marriage should be dropped from the law altogether, in my opinion. The contractual, financial and privacy privileges which the state sees fit to confer on that arrangement between consenting adults should be available to everyone interested. If we see fit to qualify eligibility with a legal pledge of "love and support" or something similar, that seems fine to me. It would promote the social benefits of joining people together in small mutual enterprises and help glue the community together. But the definition of "marriage" as a spiritual state could easily be left to individual congregations.
It's their institution, after all.
"I have seen many loving, committed couples in my life," the Rev. Becky Gunn, pastor of the Unitarian Universalist Society of Bangor, said at the press conference. "Some choose to marry, some do not. But there are those who would choose to marry that are not currently allowed to marry. These same-sex couples do not have the same civil rights as married heterosexual couples. This is ethically and morally untenable."