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The Gospel On Gay Marriage

Before dismissing the religious right, progressives may find it helpful to learn more about them -- particularly that group the media lump together as 'the evangelicals.'
 
 
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In his book, "God's Politics," Jim Wallis wrote about how the religious right has narrowed faith-based values to a few "hot-button" issues, while ignoring the biblical vision of social justice in areas such as poverty, the environment, and questions of war and peace.

But hot-button issues like same-sex marriage can't be cast aside at a time when influential religious leaders are rallying the troops for a war against a minority group already suffering the pain of discrimination. Chuck Colson has trumpeted the battle cry by saying that the "number one cultural priority of Christians" should be "stopping the spread of same-sex marriage" and that "pastors, priests, and clergy of all denominations should be leading the charge."

Before dismissing the religious right, progressives may find it helpful to learn more about them -- particularly that group the media lump together as "the evangelicals," a term that has been hijacked from its original meaning of "good news." Because of this, many people now associate the term with wealth, political power, militarism, judgmentalism, intolerance, and an arrogance that is totally contrary to the spirit of the gospel (and contrary to those who retain the original meaning of "evangelical").

The hope of finding open-mindedness within the religious right may seem futile, especially since its prominent spokespersons claim they are being persecuted for their faith whenever their particular constellation of values is questioned. Back in 1985, when the religious right first began increasing its cultural and political influence, I wrote an article suggesting that instead of viewing the conservative Christian movement as a monolithic entity, we need to recognize at least four major categories within the movement:

  • Aggressive Combatants, who mobilize their followers to go to battle against whatever they consider to be the current threat (most recently, same-sex marriage);
  • Loyal Followers, who consider the Combatants to be their religious authorities, buying their books, tuning in to their broadcasts, accepting their interpretations of the Bible, and responding to their fundraising pleas;
  • Thoughtful Questioners, who were drawn to the movement by its emphasis on a personal relationship with God and the importance of the Bible in their lives but are not convinced that all issues are settled or that all the answers are already in;
  • Hurting Strugglers, sincere believers who earnestly practiced their faith and followed the rules they had been taught, yet were faced with some circumstance that turned their well-ordered world upside down -- a divorce, a gay child, a pregnant teenager, domestic violence, mental illness, job loss, bankruptcy, a suicide in the family.

What progressives need to recognize is that Thoughtful Questioners and Hurting Strugglers may be more receptive to new ideas than is often realized. Even some Loyal Followers may move over into one of these categories at some point. But to communicate with them, it's important to first acknowledge how much their religion matters to them and then seek out areas of common concern and mutually held values.

Second, an awareness of alternative approaches to biblical interpretation can help progressives resist the temptation to ridicule sincere people of faith as unenlightened "Bible thumpers."

In applying these principles to the same-sex marriage question, the right and left can find common ground in recognizing the human need to belong and the desire for legally conferred kinship status on chosen, committed life partners. We can affirm the message of marriage supporters in their valuing and promotion of marriage, while at the same time challenging the notion that including gays and lesbians in marriage would make heterosexual marriages weaker.

Might not opening marriage to gays instead add weight to the importance of monogamy and the idea that love, commitment and sex belong together in the legally recognized relationship called marriage?

Might not same-sex marriage therefore strengthen the institution as a whole?

Listening to the moving stories of gay and lesbian couples who have longed for the recognition, rights and responsibilities of marriage in their 10, 20, or even 50 years together could counter unfounded conspiracy theories such as James Dobson's charge in Marriage Under Fire that most gays and lesbians don't really want to be married but are actually advancing a gay marriage initiative as part of a 60-year plan to destroy the family.

The right has also framed the religious aspects of the debate by dogmatically asserting that the "Bible condemns homosexuality" -- a statement accepted unquestioningly, repeated in the media, and asserted even in political discourse. Progressives seem to have no way to respond except to toss out the Bible as irrelevant, which turns off many religious people immediately and plays into the hands of those who want discrimination built into the constitution.

It's important for people of faith to know that the Bible doesn't condemn "homosexuality." Neither the term nor the concept was known in biblical times.

Sexual orientation, whether homosexual or heterosexual, has been shown by scientists to be a natural disposition -- a normal variant like handedness. In the few Scripture verses mentioning same-sex acts, the emphasis is on gang rape, exploitation and idolatry. Nothing is said about loving, committed, same-sex relationships. Faulty translations have muddied the waters further.

People of faith on the left and on the right need to find ways to communicate about such matters. Only then can we reach out to one another with open arms rather than tensed muscles or raised fists.

Letha Dawson Scanzoni is co-author, with David G. Myers, of "What God Has Joined Together? A Christian Case for Gay Marriage," just published by HarperSanFrancisco.