Contemporary American religious life is experiencing a very profound crisis. On one hand, this crisis is characterized by a lack of clarity in vision, deficiency in discernment, and a tendency to fall back on personalistic and individualistic interpretations of moral law. On the other hand, politically and culturally radical forces attempt to eliminate spiritual depth by replacing it with concepts of consumerism, careerism, narcissism, and a new form of critical consciousness that undermines prevailing modes of social and moral ideal. As institutions move toward a doctrine of consumer culture, with its addictive seductions and pacifications, our morality is altered in such a way that makes it hard for use to believe our sacrificial efforts are more meaningful and substantive than the institutions and networks of material reward. In such an environment, tradition is often conflated with moral law. While the former is guided by ethical norms, the latter flows from an understanding of the larger context in which action takes place and the impact of that action on humanity.
As communities disintegrate socially, economically, and spiritually across the U.S., more visible forms of violence are becoming prevalent. One of these forms is gay bashing and acts of violence against the gay community. This has resulted in an oppositional social movement that contests the mainstream for protection and inclusion, and that embraces a politics based on issues of homosexuality that have created a widespread social and moral crisis. However, it should be noted that in many traditional communities across the U.S., the issue of homosexuality has always been an aspect of everyday life. Like so many of us, growing up knowing that the schoolteacher or the church organist or lead singer in the choir was gay did not formulate a deep crisis. It was not important to target them or point them out because they were a part of the community and received the same respect any other member was entitled. Many times, the context of the sermon on Sunday morning would make certain members uncomfortable as they sat silently listening, yet gays were never chased from the church by angry crowds in hot pursuit.
Members of the community may not have thought such a lifestyle was enviable, nevertheless there existed a clear understanding between respect for an individual’s sexual preference or lifestyle and respect for an individual’s humanity. This means, that to some extent there was integration and respect for gay and lesbian members and matters of radical sexuality did not constitute an issue that divided the community. The context of the gay and lesbian liberation struggle has brought many traditions under scrutiny and impacted many vital areas of social and moral terrain. For example, unprecedented rulings in the U.S. Supreme Court and other courts in many states, controversial legislation in the House of Representatives and Senate, and oppositions formed by Christians, Jews and Catholics make this debate explosive. Some of the crucial concerns this response attempts to answer are: How do we account for the regulatory intervention by government into this issue? Does legislation that impact religious practice constitute unjustified government interference? And finally, what is the character and content of the ecclesiastical values that form the basis of our attitudes toward same-sex relations? This article will attempt to study these questions so that we can come to grips with the issue of same-sex gender relations, the impact of legislation, and the character and context of the church’s repudiation.
In the past few decades, one of the major challenges to the U.S. Supreme Court system has been the legal precedent on homosexuality, sodomy, privacy and marriage. Consider some of the key arguments Griswold vs. Connecticut (1965), Loving vs. Virginia (1967), Zablocki vs. Redhall (1978); State cases such as Baker vs. Nelson (1971); Jones vs. Hallahan (1973), the infamous case of Baehr vs. Lewin (1993), and Goodridge vs. Department of Public Health (2004). The distinctive feature of these cases is the defense of the institution of marriage and the belief that same-sex marriages redefine the institution and thereby “transforms” the notion of family. The critical assumption, which constitutes independent yet interrelated concern, is that the traditional idea of family that serves to hold America together would be radically changed or eventually discarded. In other words, that gays and lesbians want to debunk one of America’s most fundamental traditions and the collective moral conscious of the American people. Whether such descriptions re-describe our beliefs in moral or affective terms or redefine the character of the institution of marriage is one of the central questions of this debate.
Clearly, one of the most important underlying issues of this debate is the legal economic, and social benefit that flows from protections and inheritance specific to the institution of marriage. Same-sex couples call into question the social processes and rationale that denies them practical benefits such as joint tax filings, joint insurance, or the right to make decisions regarding a partner’s health, medical treatment or burial. Even Wolfson, one of the first advocates for same-sex marriage states this in his article Why We Should Fight for the Freedom to Marry (1994) in the Journal of Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Identity. Relying primarily on moral vision and social practice, the law contends that marriage has always been considered the union of a man and a woman and upholds the State right to prohibit issuance of a license to marry based on the inability of same-sex couples to fulfill the statute as the term is defined. This is especially so in those States in which a distinct moral vision has potency and vitality. Hence, religious values serve as a social and cultural source against this form of social criticism that is viewed as a challenge to the values and sensibilities of married life.
Yet the question for us is not the central issue of defending the institution of marriage based on the rights, privileges and benefits that state-sanctioned, legalized marriage provides or on the basis of a very deep and profound moral conviction. While it is true that these two diverse critiques are the fundamental starting point of this debate, our concern is the relational framework whereby states are fashioning legislation that proposes to determine the manner in which the church may defend against radical sexuality. On the individual or personalistic level, radical sexuality is attempting to maintain a syncretism with human responsibility and social action. Yet, as we noted earlier, the various problems that are motivated by personal, cultural, or political activities cannot always rely on the pragmatism of logical interpretation. An obvious example of this is the discrepancy in interpretation between U.S. and Hawaii of the Equal Protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment in Baehr vs. Lewin. The major tragedy of this decision is Hawaii’s interpretation in purely literal terms of the “plain and obvious” meaning of the statute. Yet in 1996, the U.S. House of Representatives, to ensure that legal same-sex marriages granted in Hawaii would not be upheld in other states under the Full Faith and Credit clause of the U.S. Constitution, passed the Defense of Marriage Act – DOMA, as it became known. In other words, although the Supreme Court of Hawaii upheld same-sex marriages, the U.S. government invoked what it believed to be the “will of the populace” in a manner prescribed by the traditional democratic process – they legislated against it.
Notwithstanding the moral issue that permeates and pervades this debate, gay organizations and progressive politicians who desire to align with them have exerted political pressure resulting in legislation that protects their community. For example, in December 2002, the state legislature of Pennsylvania passed an amendment to their hate crimes law that made Pennsylvania the fifth state in the U.S. to enact law for protection of gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered. This made Pennsylvania the twenty-eighth state in the U.S. to pass such legislation. The success of this law is attributed to a nine-year long lobbying campaign by grass root organizations and a successful collaborative effort with legislators. It may well be that the murder of MatthewShepard, a 21-year old University of Wyoming student and the beating and subsequent coma of Michael Auker of Snyder County Pennsylvania drove home the reality of the violence perpetuated against gays capturing the attention of Pennsylvania law makers. This kind of progressive legislation gives visibility and legitimacy to issues neglected by conservative politicians as well as exposes and educates American citizens to the issue of same-sex gender politics. The central question here is does this type of legislation deny the constitutional right of the church to assemble or denounce in public for religious reasons it’s disdain for same-sex issues? Clearly, the First Amendment and the fact that the U.S. Supreme Court has a long history of abstaining from any form of judicial legislation protect this right. As it stands, hate crime laws do not punish thought or speech.
Traditions – those institutions and practices that are shared and passed down – are the essence of human existence and are responsible for shaping our attitudes and identities whether the character and content be religious, social, or familial. History has shown us that traditions are fluid, dynamic, malleable and revisable and have the capacity to promote innovation that enhances human progress. Writer, Camille Paglia in her 1995 interview with 10 Percent Magazine stated: “I think it’s (i.e., same-sex marriages) a flash point for antigay backlash. It’s the word marriage, coming out of the Judeo-Christian tradition, that has caused so much resistance.”
Radicalism as a re-conception of social tradition or as a form of cultural criticism that attempts to transform institutions for the purpose of enhancing the scope of human development and achievement is inevitable. A philosophy that puts forward a new interpretation of the world based on past traditions and that is politically relevant provokes and motivates attempts to change what is something better – but not wholesale rejection of tradition. Justice Goldberg speaks to this in Baehr vs. Lewin when he stated: “Judges determining which rights are fundamental must look not to personal and private notions but to the traditions and collective conscience of our people to determine whether a principle is so rooted there…as to be ranked as fundamental…The inquiry is whether a right involved is of such a character that it cannot be denied without violating those fundamental principles of liberty and justice which lie at the base of all civil and political institutions.” Rather than serve as an oppositional stumbling block, tradition can and has served us as an impetus to human change.
The critique of sexual immorality according to scriptural text sets the terms for this debate in a religious context. The moral status of these terms does not accept subjectivist notions that put respect for a person’s individuality or civil rights foremost especially within the domain of religious thought. Here then is the dilemma we face, either to accept claims for equality based on our sympathy for the persecuted or redefine the character of our moral beliefs and social values. Notwithstanding the philosophical and social-analytical propositions of the gay movement’s argument, the Bible is quite emphatic about its denouncement of homosexuality as evidenced in the books of Genesis, Leviticus, Romans, 1 Corinthians, and in several other references to uncleanness and sexual immorality. What is distinctive about these references is that they provide an acceptable authority for the idea of sexual immorality, an acceptable authority that is directly linked to the justification and rationale of social policy, namely, the institution of marriage. Yet, gay liberation advocates attempt to move the focus from questions concerning the authority of biblical revelation to tenuous discussions regarding civil rights combined with power politics.
It has long been noted that moral law and ethical norms guide acceptable modes of social behavior and cultural practice in the U.S. In matters concerning the good of society, loving relationship and any of the serious dimensions of human experience, Judeo-Christian religious doctrine is the standard that dictates accepted and obligatory social roles. Therefore, it is not surprising that the initial basis for the idea of marriage is to be found in relevant passages of scripture. For example, Genesis 2: 18-24 refers to a man leaving his father and mother and cleaving to his wife. In this context, marriage presupposes a sexual differentiation, i.e., Adam (man) and Eve his wife (woman) specifically for the purpose of procreation as stated in Genesis 3:20 and 4:1, and signifies the emergence of the idea of family as an object of social value. It is precisely this response that indicates the naturalness of the human condition and repudiates homosexuality not only in terms of moral law but in social value as well. This point was clearly stated at the National Conference of Catholic Bishops in 1996. Clergy Joseph Charron and William Skylstade stated: “…We wish to make it clear that the institution of marriage, as the union of one man and one woman, must be preserved, protected, and promoted in both private and public realms…the principled defense of marriage is an urgent necessity for the wellbeing of children and families, and the common good of society.”
What is most revealing in this poignant moment of critical debate is that marriage is more than the relationship of two people – it is and always has been about generativity. While it is true that in some instances this goal may not be achieved, due to infertility or some other cause, the symbolism of marriage as the social form for the re-genesis of humanity has been established, regulated and perpetual for centuries.
This article argues that the meanings given to same-sex gender issues derive from a combination of social criticism and political power that attempts to transform the institution of marriage. Also, it argues that inextricably bound to the view of marriage is a moral vision that is responsible for regulating social practice and attempts to account for the complexity, multiplicity, and specificity of human experience. In this view, the role of moral vision acts to scrutinize in a rational manner social analysis and critiques that are sustained in secular traditions that have their own presuppositions about the human dimensions of intimacy and sociality. To this end, the courts speak with insight and power to the multiform character of this debate.
Finally, history has shown us that some forms of secular traditions are indispensable while other forms of analysis and criticism are not acceptable. Often, those modes that are considered acceptable have been guided by moral visions and ethical norms and the enabling power to motivate human action in a rational capacity. In many instances, the enabling ability of oppositional activity has been constrained by ideals of what is considered human or for the good of society. Despite the claims of same-sex gender advocates, we must realize there are very profound moral ideals that hold together the biological, relational, and procreative dimensions of the institution of marriage. And for the great majority of Americans, the character and content of this debate will be answered in the context of their spiritual relationship and thus in their communities of faith. In this context, biblical injunctions give us some sense of the fundamental purpose of social practice and the religious importance of moral ideal.
Source: Turner, N. Man’s Law and Moral Law: A Christian Response to Same-Sex Gender Politics in the US and the Relational Framework of Legislation. Philadelphia: unpublished manuscript, 2004.