Proposition 8, Christian Marriage, and the Constitution

As part of the best album of all time (dc Talk's 1995 "Jesus Freak" album, of course), there is a song called "What Have We Become?" It was one of the least popular songs on the album, and people familiar with the album may not be familiar with this song. Even if we were familiar with it, we haven't heeded its timeless lesson.

A preacher shuns his brother
'Cause his bride's a different color
And this is not acceptable
His papa told him so
It was love that he'd been preaching
But this was overreaching
The boundary's stretching further
Than his heart would choose to go

The 4th line could have just as easily said, "His Bible told him so." Churches used to openly condemn interracial marriages, and did so with a clear mandate from books like Ezra and Nehemiah. Interracial marriages have beenand can becondemned with scripture. But our consciousness has been raised, and it is now much more widely accepted that if two people of a different race fall in love, they can marry.

I think it's important to remember history, look at evidence, and dig beneath the surface. However, it's clear that if you pick the wrong issue in the wrong time period, you'll get stoned to death (literally or figuratively). Before society's collective consciousness was raised about women's rights, you might have been in deep trouble if you wanted to ask some honest questions about why women were treated as inferior. Same thing with African-Americans or Native Americans or pick your minority. In the days of slavery, it was commonly defended using scripture...which can easily be done. Slavery is all over the Bible and is never explicitly condemned as wrong. On every issue throughout history, religious people have come around with some questions stemming from what they believe about the character of God and concerns with "prooftexting," and if they were too "early" in the course of history, look out. Taking all this into account, it's sometimes very hard to see how the issue of homosexuality is much different.

In some Christian circles, all you have to do is show an ounce of love and concern for homosexuals or suggest that we haven't asked all the right questions, and, as a pastor, you could lose your job. All some of us want to do is explore and discuss. "Come, let us reason together." It seems like the responsible thing to do. When it is said, "The Bible is clear!", some of us want to ask how it's more "clear" on this issue than it has been on other issues (see above). Some of us want to ask why homosexuality has become such a linchpin issue when the Bible hardly ever mentions it. When it comes to marriage, some of us look at the state of Christian heterosexual marriages and we really can't consciously conclude that the push for gay marriage is what's to blame for the decline of marriage and families in this country.

On July 8, U.S. District Court Judge Joseph Tauro ruled that the Defense of Marriage Act's denial of federal rights and benefits to lawfully married Massachusetts couples "offends" the notion of states' rights as enshrined in the 10th amendment to the U.S. Constitution. More significantly, a month later, U.S. District Chief Judge Walker in California ruled that Proposition 8, passed by California voters in 2008 by a 52% majority, is unconstitutional. (By the way, Walker was appointed by Reagan after opposition from democrats over his perceived insensitivity toward homosexuals).

It's very tempting to turn this into a religious controversy. Most Christians have. People like Al Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, are erupting over what they perceive as the continued marginalization of Christianity in America.

But this decision was not a religious one. It does not inflict a wound on religious freedom but upholds it. It will not, as some are suggesting, end in an attempt to force churches and pastors to marry homosexual couples if they don't want to. (They've never been able to force us to marry heterosexual couples; why would it be true of others?). That would be just as unconstitutional.

The judge ruled that Proposition 8 was a law based on religious belief and private moral views, and you cannot, in this country, deny a group of people something that they want purely on those grounds. You have to prove, as Prop 8's supporters tried to do, that it is harmful to individuals or society or that a legitimate state interest trumps it. The people who believe as such had their day in court, and the judge said that they did not prove their case. Judge Walker carefully explained this. "The evidence shows that the movement of marriage away from a gendered institution and toward an institution free from state-mandated gender roles reflects an evolution in the understanding of gender rather than a change in marriage," he said. "The evidence did not show any historical purpose for excluding same-sex couples from marriage, as states have never required spouses to have an ability or willingness to procreate in order to marry."

Walker's ruling says nothing about the church or Christianity but much about America. Our country's founding document is the Constitution, and there is no Constitutional ground for denying equal rights to same sex couples. Regardless of biblical or religious discussions, the state, which taxes and serves all people, cannot deny a marriage license based on tradition or any private moral or religious view. And it doesn't matter how many people hold the view...that's why we have a Constitution. Many people are saying that a judge should not be able to overrule the majority vote of the people. But in a question of rights, the majority opinion is irrelevant. Among other things, the Constitution provides that there are certain areas of society where the majority does not get its way. For example, race. If 93% of the population wanted separate water fountains, it would still be a no-go. If 93% of Mississippi residents wanted to re-segregate the schools, they couldn't do it. In a question of rights, the majority opinion is irrelevant. And in a question of American law, religion does not get a veto.

In my short time being a pastor, I've already declined to perform a marriage ceremony for two couples. Why? Because I didn't think they should get married and I couldn't join them in marriage against my conscience. Both couples were heterosexual, and both couples, had they decided to, could have gotten a marriage license without my blessing. This is how it has always been, and this is how it always will be. It would be just as unconstitutional for the government to tell a church or a pastor who to marry. Regardless of what happens with gay marriage, churches will always have the right to deny a religious ceremony to anyone they want. Thanks to church and state separation, churches can deny anybody virtually anything, including a wedding ceremony, based on their religious beliefs and policies. The state, however, must produce entirely different reasons for denying it.

I believe there is something that should be done to "go the rest of the way" with regard to church/state separation. Currently, a pastor performing a wedding ceremony serves as an agent of the state. A couple goes to get their marriage license, and it can be signed and validated by a pastor should the couple choose to have a religious ceremony. But I believe this is an entanglement of church and state and it should be changed. Religious marriage and civil marriage should be completely separate. Marriage is historically a very religious concept, and I don't believe the state should be involved in it. The state should simply regulate contractual commitments between any legal, consenting adults that want one. Couples who desire to exchange vows within a religious context can then do so. In the current state of affairs, the state still can't force me to marry someone I wish not to, so why not solidify the separation and end the practice of ministers signing marriage licenses?

As it stands, marriage is one big mess, in more ways than one, and as someone who does relationship counseling, I can guarantee you: gay marriage is not the culprit.  The "decline of the family" started long before this controversy.


Saintly Encounters (a parable)

One day, two Christian men approached God.

"We've read the Bible every day for our entire lives, and we know what it says." they said. "What could we do to gain more understanding?"

God said, "Continue on your way, and I will reveal to you men of faith to help you understand the scriptures."

The following day, as the men were walking downtown, they heard yelling. As they followed the sound, a rugged, elderly man came into view. He was holding an old, worn Bible in his hand and speaking emphatically. But the closer they got, the more they realized that he was barely understandable. His speech was unsophisticated and he stuttered frequently. Unlike other preachers of his kind they had encountered, this man appeared to have a following with him. But they all looked tired and frustrated. When the old man walked, the people walked with him, grumbling the whole way. Unable to get to the speaker, one of the two men approached a follower and asked, "Why do you stay with him?"

"We are stranded and have nowhere to go," the follower replied. "We used to live comfortably and never lacked food or water, but we foolishly chose to follow this man and now we are going to starve."

A discussion arose among some of the followers as to how they could go back. Desperate for the familiar, they began to sing a song of worship they had known since childhood. Hearing them, the old man turned, red in the face with fury. He threw down his old, worn Bible which tore apart into several pieces on the street. He began to shout even louder.

The two men quickly ran away, bewildered. They prayed to God and said, "What a dreadful sight! We are so glad most of your people are not like that. What should we do?"

God responded, "Continue on your way, and I will reveal to you men of faith to help you understand the scriptures."

The next day, the two friends were having coffee together, and a solo musician came to play there. The two men were very impressed with the man's music. As he sang, they were enraptured by his deeply passionate lyrics about God. Thinking this might be one of the "men of faith" that God had promised, they approached the musician after his performance and asked if they could visit with him.

"Sure!" the attractive, well-dressed young man replied. "I'll host you at my mansion."

Even more intrigued, the men follow the musician to his residence. It was clear as they pulled into his sprawling property that he was very wealthy and successful. But as soon as they came inside, they were overcome with a scene unlike any they had experienced. All over the walls were weapons, pictures of war, and maps that seemed to depict battle strategies for conquering neighboring countries. They also quickly noticed that the musician had quite a bit of female company in the mansion, some of them caring for children.

The men asked, "Who are all these women?"

The musician smiled and winked, and then left the room.

Stunned and without words, the men were whisked off into another part of the mansion and served a large meal by the musician's cooks and butlers. They ate sitting next to a window, looking at each other quizzically, trying to figure out what to do next. Near the end of their meal, they looked out to see the musician in the yard of a next door neighbor, trying to peak inside a fogged up window.

"What could he be doing?" they ask themselves. It wasn't more than a few minutes later that the men noticed the musician back inside, walking upstairs to a bedroom with another woman they hadn't seen yet.

Unable to take anymore, the men excused themselves and ran out of the house. They prayed to God and said, "What a dreadful sight! We are so glad most of your people are not like that. What should we do?"

God responded, "Continue on your way, and I will reveal to you men of faith to help you understand the scriptures."

The next day was Sunday. As they did every week, the men got dressed and walked with their families to their church. Everything was as it should be, until the men entered the church and heard a loud racket down the hall. As they turned a corner, they froze in place as they saw a lanky man who smelled and looked homeless knocking over tables where volunteers were taking orders for Sunday School curriculum and signing people up for church activities. No one knew what to do. The man seemed defenseless and had other people with him the likes of whom no one in this suburban church had ever seen: like the woman who was shockingly dressed, or the man with cuts all over him.

The pastor emerged from among the members and, using a tone the men had not heard from him before, said, "How dare you come into this holy place and carry on like this? What do you think you're doing?"

Without missing a beat, the homeless man - calm but firm - then launched into a tirade against the minister. He accused the pastor of hypocrisy and misguiding his people.

He then turned to the parishioners standing by and warned them to repent, accusing them of basing their faith on trivial matters and safe pursuits.

As the homeless man continued to talk and offend every good believer there, the two men were amazed by his knowledge of the scriptures, and how no one, not even the pastor, had an answer for him.

Furious and overwhelmed, the men ran out of the church and prayed to God once again:

"How can you allow such a man in our church? We are thankful that we are not like any of the dreadful people we've met in the last few days. We know what the Bible says and how wrong they are in their thinking and acting. But now, what about our request? We asked for a deeper understanding of the scriptures...when are you going to reveal these men of faith that you promised?"

"My dear friends," replied God, "you have met Moses, David, and Jesus, recognizing none of them. Go and learn the scriptures, for your journey has just begun."


Excuse Me, Your Exclusion is Showing

In college, I took a sociology class called "Who is an American?" Yes, that was the name of the class. I remember hating the class, especially when the professor would call on me as he noticed I was drifting off to sleep.

It wasn't until I was an adult that I realized the potency and importance of this question, "Who is an American?" especially in terms of the recent debate about the "ground zero mosque."

I try not to take the bait and get wrapped up in one particular news story. I typically fail. It's time to fail again.

One thing that bothers me is that this proposed structure is being reported all over the news as a "ground zero mosque." It's not a mosque, it's not at ground zero, and it's not scheduled to open on Sept. 11, 2011. There's already a peaceful Islamic presence in the area. The imam behind the project has been working for decades to foster understanding and peace between Islam and the West. But no matter...the news outlets need their ratings and the politicians need their votes, so we're going to present it in a way that we know will get people riled up.

But what bothers me more is how people apparently define an "American." First let me say that there are people out there who oppose the project but are opposing it with respect and civility (unlike a Gainsville, FL church). In today's political climate, I applaud them for that. But even these people are revealing an ingrained but faulty assumption. Here's what someone said wrote online:
In my mind, it is like rubbing salt into a wound. For all those who lost loved ones, it is just too much. I think it is fine if they want to build their "community center," but they should pick a different location.
Here's the problem with such statements: Hundreds of the people who lost family members or their own lives on September 11th WERE Muslims. Muslim Americans just trying to work and provide for their families like everyone in the towers, buildings, and planes. Why is it "us" versus "them"? In just a few words, millions of Americans are revealing their subconscious assumption that the attack was carried out by Muslims on Christians. Another person said it well: "I think as long as we use 'us and they' language there is a problem. All Americans grieved that day, regardless of ethnicity or religion."

Who is an American? Who gets that status? Are some "more American" than others? Clearly, in the minds of far too many, the term "Muslim American" is an oxymoron.

To oppose the building of this community center because those behind the project are Muslim is to hold all Muslims responsible for the actions of their most deplorable extremists. Are Christians willing to do the same? As another online commenter asked, "Would there be an uproar if Christians decided to build a church at the site of a bombed abortion clinic?" Terrorists and extremists exist in all religions. I will grant that one could make a case that Islam has more extremists than other religions, but that's just an accident of the era we live in. Rewind 800 centuries, and Christians are the worst.

Newt Gingrich compared the building of this community center in New York City to Nazis putting up a sign next to a Holocaust museum. That is a deplorable comparison and we are better than that.

Anyone can be an American, regardless of ethnicity, religion, or anything else. The Constitution and the values of freedom allow us to say no less. If you claim to be Christian, our faith demands that we say even more. A Christian stance says that Muslims, along with everyone else, are all children of God, uniquely created in His image, and infinitely loved by Him. Do we even come close to saying this with our actions and words? 1 John 4:20 says, "If we say we love God yet hate a brother or sister, we are liars."

I understand there's a strip club close to ground zero as well. We mysteriously haven't heard as much opposition to that. I do not believe the location of this Muslim project is the real issue. Recent opposition to other Islamic buildings would suggest that other factors are at work.