Part One: Religious Freedom In the Midst of the Culture Wars
Part Two: Culture Wars...and Politicians and the Media
Part Three: Onward Christian Soldiers...
Before I begin this post, let me lay out my biases first. I am an Evangelical (putting much authority on what Scripture says). I am a traditional Wesleyan Methodist (I gain my theological perspective from the theology of John Wesley and the Methodist movement of the 18th century). I believe in the Church's creedal statements from the middle of the first millennium. That means I look at the world through a biblical, orthodox, Wesleyan lens.
I also have some confessions to make. I struggle with the issue of same-sex marriage. I don't like weddings, period. I don't feel that gays deserve any more special treatment (positive or negative) than any other citizen of the United States. I do not judge another person's sins as greater than mine and I try not to let those sins diminish that person as a human being. Sometimes I mess up on that last part. My greatest fears are not grounded in my flavor of religious faith losing ground in American culture. In truth, I am afraid that my religious faith tradition has lost itself because of its prominence in the American culture.
With all of that said, I believe that there are just as many faults on the part of supporters of same-sex marriage as there are in religious corners. The demonizing language is just as present. The rhetorical fear-mongering is just as loud. The hopeless division is just as stridently maintained. Is it a reaction to the tactics of the Religious Right? Yes. Is it justifiable? Possibly. Is it right? No.
I have heard that the fight for gay rights is this generation's civil rights movement akin to the fight for blacks in the 50s, 60s, and 70s. While I disagree with that (it's one of my confessions I didn't make above), I will accept that claim for the purpose of this discussion. So, if this is a civil rights movement, whose example are you following?
As I look back on the civil rights movement, there is one person who is lifted out as the shining example of leadership for the movement: Martin Luther King, Jr. Dr. King was an amazing man to lead our nation in seeing people of different races as equal. He led with words of wisdom and grace. He lived that example as he led the movement. He faced opposition with grace. He led his followers in rejecting the status quo with a style that has marked our nation.
But as I look at the current battle for the civil rights of gays in this issue of marriage, I don't see Dr. King. Supporters of the awareness of marriage are not staging peaceful demonstrations. I don't see words of wisdom and grace toward those who are the opposition. I see demonizing and hate.
So I have to wonder if those who are supporting marriage for same-sex couples are following in the civil rights tradition of Dr. King. Or perhaps they have chosen to follow in the path of another leader of the movement: Malcolm X. The tactics of demonizing the other side, the declarations of superiority of non-religious points of view, and the prophetic calls that religious people will be destroyed are all present. And while I don't hear physical violence and attacks on religious institutions, the spirit of the words rings more true with the message of Malcolm than Martin.
If that is the case, and this is just my opinion, then this is not a civil civil rights movement. There is no effort at civil discourse. Of the incidences that have been published in the newspapers and are making the rounds on the internet, there has been few examples of civil discussion, mediation outside of courts, or reconciliation among the parties involved. There have been "civil" lawsuits brought (which I feel may be one of the great oxymoron's of modernity) in order to make a point or claim damage, not to bring about what is wanted. There have been demonstrations that have blocked businesses from operating or defamation attacks that do not focus on the services but on the owners.
If this is going to be a civil rights movement, then I feel the greatest movement and success will be found in the civil discourse of sitting down with opponents and finding the ground of what is common and good between. The greatest success comes when we work together to find a way forward. The legacy of Dr. King has brought greater movement than the legacy, as necessary as it was, of Malcolm X.
If we are going to make this a civil rights issue, then we have to also accept that civil rights are also equal rights. Civil rights are the privileges granted to all of the people under a government. Once in a while a new perspective on how those rights need to be adjusted. The founding government found that the original laws of the land (the Constitution) were not completely adequate to understand what rights were allowed to people. The Bill of Rights were written, and codified, to clarify those rights in certain circumstances. And the amendments that have been added to address the awareness that rights were being overlooked. But every time an amendment was added, it had to go through the fires of proving itself.
In our current civil rights issue, and in light of our current concerns, this is not a simple adjustment. The new frontier of gay rights is challenging because in cultural terms, gays have not been overlooked (as blacks were for so many decades). They have been hidden. I'm not saying that was right. I am only speaking to the reality. This is a "new people group" for our culture.
It is also challenging because blacks had an obvious wrong that needed to be corrected. There were two centuries of ill treatment that needed to be righted. Gays, while they have suffered in recent history, do not have the same sympathy quotient. I'm sorry to be brutal about this but it is true. I'm not saying it is right but it is a reality based on long held perceptions. If gays are going to gain equal rights, then it will take time and changing perceptions.
But in the fight for equal rights there is the conflict between rights that we, as a nation, have to find balance. The growing need for gay civil rights is running headlong into the established rights of speech and religious expression. Those rights have been fought over and established. There is precedence to carry into forward conflicts. The opinions and legal struggles that have gone before will shape and guide future rights arguments. Unless we undo the Constitutional rights established regarding speech and religious expression, then any further rights that are secured will need to be balanced to those previous established.
But I want to make one final argument. None of the current round of battles has anything to do with gay marriage. They have to do with weddings. And those two are not the same thing. Marriage is an institution that guarantees certain things for those joined. I believe that the legal guarantees that marriage offers to spouses should be offered to same-sex couples. I feel that same sex relationships are not going away. The need to protect each other in those relationships will be a necessity. If the legal guarantees that the marriage relationship offer are not present, then there will be future burdens on the civil systems (healthcare because insurance doesn't offer coverage, legal as property matters are decided, etc). There is a need for some civil guarantees in these relationships.
But the fights that are happening right now have to do with flowers and cakes and venues. And I feel that those are not civil rights issues. No one has a right to the kind of flowers or the florist. No one has a right to a cake. No one has a right to the venue. Those perceived rights are benefits of a free market society. We have convinced ourselves in this consumer society we have created that if someone doesn't have what I want when I want it, then I am the victim.
And that is what I have seen in these current battles. The rights of a couple to have insurance coverage is a necessity. The rights of a couple to have a particular florist do their arrangements is trivial. As a pastor, I have seen too many instances where weddings are of higher priority than the marriage that will follow. I have had to fight against cultural standards of what a wedding is about to clearly inform the couple what a wedding accomplishes in a church setting. When the bride is more important than God who has institutionalized marriage (for Christians), then I have a problem with weddings. It is my bias.
I want to believe that good will come of this. I want to believe that all Americans will receive equal treatment under the laws of this land. But I cannot support cases where personal choices in a free market society are not met. I cannot argue for civil rights when civil discourse is abandoned. And if violence of word and spirit, by either side, is used and justified, then you are only damaging your cause and those you claim to support.