This week I led the second part of what was to be my church's two-part discussion on homosexuality and the church. However, parts one and two went so well that, by popular demand my plans to teach on the two creation myths of ancient Israel found in the opening chapters of Genesis next month have been scrapped in favor of parts three and four of this two part series. If Douglas Adams can write a five book trilogy, then I suppose I can use four weekly forums to hold a two part discussion.
After years of being the token liberal at conservative evangelical churches it surprised - even shocked - me to find, in the first two parts of this church-wide discussion, that our congregation almost unanimously favors the full inclusion of all persons, regardless of sexual orientation, in both the worship life and leadership of the church. While I had prepared a rather even dialog which would not reveal my own position, and would try to be respectful of all views, I ended up leading a rally to reform the church.
Within that rally, though, I found something that disturbed me. As an evangelical youth minister and then pastor, I was always frustrated by the general tendency of Christians - and I suppose all people - to reach conclusions without having some general understanding of how they got there, and how they might persuade others to arrive there as well. As such, conversations on hot topics like homosexuality generally begin with some sort of defined position, and then try to work out why that position must be both
1.) the right position, and
2.) imposed on all true believers.
Surrounded by people who share many of my political and theological views, and, as such, teaching for once in a relatively safe environment, I was disappointed to find that, in this respect, liberals are no better than conservatives. That shouldn't surprise me. People are people, regardless of their values and ideologies. And people have a hard time trying to understand positions which are not intuitive to them. But as I tried to have a theological discussion on the nature of religious authority, helping the congregation understand and form the theological grounding for their moral, political, cultural, and social intuitions, I found that most of them, at least at first, wanted to skip that step. They didn't see the value in talking about why they believe what they believe, and how it fits into a theological framework consistent with the primary concerns of Christianity. They just wanted to declare their opinions, and then try to change the world.
I admire that activist spirit. I wish I had more of it. I've always been reflective, not necessarily active. For someone often accused of having an activist agenda, I don't really share anything in common with actual activists. But my church is full of activists who have a passion for reshaping the world in accordance with their beliefs; beliefs which I think often best represent the ministry of Jesus in his age. There are, however, two big problems with such unreflective activism:
1.) It has no means by which to effectively communicate with those who do not have the same moral intuitions, and
2.) the activists in my church are not the only activists who claim the name of Jesus.
I just read this article by Alexandra Marks of the Christian Science Monitor, wondering if "Wednesday's New Jersey Supreme Court ruling in favor of full rights for gay couples" might galvanize socially conservative voters. Gay marriage has often been used of late as a "wedge issue" designed to motivate conservative voters to turn out by preying on their cultural fears. It has been an effective political tool, increasing ideological voter turnout by playing into the appearance of a moral crisis in our country. Here is what I wrote about it in my gigantic post on homosexuality from last December (the language in it may get revised, thanks to Amy's comments here - I'm not sure I agree with her position, but I have to take her seriously):
In the last election cycle a number of states, including my home of Kentucky, considered constitutional amendments banning "gay marriage" by defining marriage as being exclusively between a man and a woman. These constitutional amendments were considered necessary because of the very real fear that mere laws passed against gay marriage would be overturned as unconstitutional.
These constitutional amendments had various motivations. One very real motivation was simple power politics. This is, of course, always the case when elections are involved. Conservative politicians (particularly national Republican figures) fan the flames of the culture war in order to rally their base to vote. If one of the major issues being discussed nationally and locally is a so-called "moral" issue on which almost all conservatives agree, and if this issue is seen as part of a larger war for the soul of America, then it is easy for morally conservative voters to overlook other, more messy issues such as the state of the economy and the war in Iraq.
Another motivation was the prevailing cultural confusion about sex, and the decline of traditional marriages. Gay marriage was seen, in this time of marital crisis, as yet another threat to traditional marriage. Of course this is a nonsense argument. I am a married heterosexual. My wife and I have had some problems in our marriage. We struggle to communicate to each other openly and honestly, without passing judgment. We struggle to listen to each other attentively. We struggle to truly understand and cater to each other's emotional needs. We struggle with how best to deal with our financial issues. I would say that, by and large, we have a very good marriage, but there have been times when I have understood why some people find it easier to get divorced. One thing which has never affected the health of our marriage, however, is the idea that some day gay people might actually be able to get married too.
Republicans - and social conservatives tend overwhelmingly to be Republican - have been depressed of late by the war in Iraq, the economy (even though the Bush administration claims that we are in a recovery, the recovery has overwhelmingly favored the rich, leaving the majority of Americans in no better - and in some cases much worse - shape than they were before it began) and especially the Mark Foley scandal, which has at least temporarily knocked them off their pedestal of perceived moral superiority. But, in the wake of this New Jersey Supreme Court decision, they can once again fan the flames of the culture war by attacking two of their favorite scapegoats:
1. "activist" judges, and
The question is, will it work? Will voters once again overlook pressing social and economic problems, along with the serious moral problem of an unjust war and the occupation of a sovereign nation, because they have been distracted by the distasteful notion that relationships are not to be judged exclusively by the gender of the persons involved?
That's the question the article asks, albeit in a less loaded way. And, in the typically evenhanded nature of quality journalism, that's the question that I still can't answer, even after reading the whole thing twice.
What do you think?
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