Ted Grimsrud—July 2, 2013
I read two articles yesterday that provide a couple of interesting perspectives on the continuing unfolding of the discussion about same-sex marriage.
Virginia Mennonite pastor Harold Miller’s “A right that is wrong” (published in the June 24, 2013 issue of Mennonite World Review—the on-line article is accompanied by a remarkably civil and lively discussion from various points of view) reiterates the case for seeing same-sex marriage as inherently wrong for Christians.
Gabriel Arana is a senior editor with the liberal current affairs journal, The American Prospect. His article, “The Religious Right’s terms of surrender” (published on the on-line version of the Prospect on July 1) points to the various leaders among America’s political conservatives who seem to concede the inevitability of the acceptance of same-sex marriage. At the same time, the rank-and-file, especially Christian conservatives, continue to fight against this acceptance.
The final rationale for opposing same-sex marriage
To some degree, though writing with a more irenic tone than many who share his views, Miller represents the sentiment Arana discusses, where Christian conservatives are as yet unwilling to show openness toward acceptance.
Arana suggests that when it comes down to it, the last rationale for opposing same-sex marriage is simply religious ideology. He points out that the legal team that sought to prevent the overturning of California’s Proposition 8 that forbade same-sex marriage promised to provide evidence that the acceptance of same-sex marriage harms “the institution of marriage.” However, when actually asked by the judge for the evidence, didn’t have any to produce.
Quoting Arana: “Wondering where the goods were, Justice Vaughn Walker asked Chuck Cooper, lead attorney for the proponents of Prop. 8, directly: What would be the harm of allowing gays and lesbians to marry? ‘My answer is, I don’t know,’ Cooper relied. ‘I don’t know.’ Religious conservatives have failed to make the secular case against same-sex marriage because, quite simply, there isn’t one.”
Miller’s article, interestingly, confirms Arana’s assertions. His basic argument is simply that same-sex marriage is wrong. That is, it’s an ideological assertion. His main evidence is briefly to discuss three Bible passages—Leviticus 20:13, 1 Corinthian 6:9-10; and Romans 1:26-27.
Miller doesn’t try to show that same-sex marriage harms the institiution of marriage (it is a paradoxical assertion—how people who try to embrace a “conservative” institution such as marriage, much under threat among heterosexuals given our troubling divorce rate, undermine that institution simply due to being in same-sex partnerships). He actually doesn’t discuss marriage at all. This omission is curious and problematic. Miller seems to ignore the fact that now we all of a sudden have a whole different dynamic where homosexual people affirm the central values of the marriage commitment and live in observable committed relationships. If these are inherently problematic as he seems to assume, there should be evidence to support that assumption.
Instead, Miller simply starts with the assumption that same-sex marriage is morally equivalent to engaging in warfare and acting in a greedy fashion. It’s intrinsically wrong. He dismisses what he sees to be the main arguments for acceptance; his dismissal rests on this beginning assumption. His sense that the Bible gives “unbroken testimony against all same-sex behavior” is supported by his summary of the teachings in the three biblical texts mentioned above.
Finally, Miller discusses his sense that “our gay community” is not committed to monogamy even in the context of “long-term committed partnerships.” He concludes, “until a significant strand of Anabaptist gay writing and witness resists the tendency of the larger gay world around them and lifts up sexual exclusivity as a moral obligation in same-sex partnerships, I will worry that this community’s practice in this area is described by Paul in Romans 1 uncomfortably well.”
Responding to the anti-gay perspective
There are several ways (not mutually exclusive) that Mennonites and other Christians who support same-sex marriage have responded to arguments such as Miller’s. Some would place the focus more on the present-day experience of gays and lesbians—because they know themselves or others in intimate same-sex relationships to be blessed by God and because they in fact live in life-giving relationships of mutual commitment and (yes) fidelity they don’t think the specific verses Miller cites carry much weight. If the Bible is against these relationships, the Bible must be considered irrelevant.
Others have been more positive about the Bible, but disagree strongly with the way the Bible is interpreted by Miller and his allies. [I have written quite a bit trying to engage the debate on this level.]
As I think about these issues this time, I am struck by a sense of sorrow about the impact of Miller’s kind of argument. To the extent that people accept what he is saying about the Bible (both that specific verses in the Bible give us definitive guidance concerning this issue and that those verses universally, absolutely, and for all time condemn all possible same-sex intimacy including that in the context of a commitment to monogamy and permanency), then they will tend to move in one of two directions that are both deeply problematic.
If one agrees with Miller’s interpretation of the Bible and his use of that interpretation, they will tend to use the Bible as a weapon against those in same-sex relationships. If one agrees with Miller’s interpretation but disagrees with his use of it, they will in general tend to dismiss the Bible as truthful and relevant. I believe that the Bible should never be used as a weapon, and I believe that it is truthful and relevant. It seems hurtful to the cause of gospel to see the Bible misused in either way.
But has the tide turned, regardless?
In the end, one of the comments responding to Miller’s article on the MWR site gets to a key point—it appears that the tide has decisively turned on this issue in the wider culture and (if a bit less decisively to this point) in the Mennonite churches. Perspectives such as Miller’s are on the decline, at least among the communities that make up Mennonite Church USA (and Mennonite Church Canada). So, his arguments are carrying less weight and have less significance all the time.
It does seem that at least two important dynamics are at work. On the one hand, partly (I would like to think) due to some careful work that undermines the traditional anti-gay reading of the Bible and theology, partly due to the growing experience of Mennonites having family members or friends who are gay, partly due to the rapid changes in the wider American society, the numbers of Mennonites who are accepting of same-sex marriage are growing. On the other hand, many of those who reject that kind of acceptance are removing themselves from the denomination (in the same MWR issue that contained Miller’s essay, a news article reported on seven congregations leaving the MCUSA Western District over this issue).
So, it is difficult to imagine much of a future for Miller’s views in MC USA. Then the question that Arana’s article raises becomes fascinating—he portrays the conservative leaders as hoping that the anti-gay people will not be persecuted. These leaders hope that the anti-gay sentiment will be treated as simply one option among many in a pluralistic culture. Others, such as Arana himself, hope that anti-gay sentiment will come to be seen in ways that are analogous to something like racism where the cultural consensus is sharply anti-racist to the point where people in public life who express racist sentiments are severely sanctioned.
What will become of the anti-gay adherents?
So, what does that foreshadow for people such as Miller—the losers in this movement of history? As Arana points out, these actually are the people who have escalated the stakes in this debate. Will they in time be “hoist on their own petard”? Will their past efforts to exclude people who dissented from their anti-gay views actually rebound on them and lead ultimately to their own exclusion?
I can speak personally of a sea-change in the Mennonite world in relation to the public expression of support for same-sex marriage and more general acceptance of homosexual people. In February 2000, a group of Mennonites posted an open letter in the MWR that called for more openness toward homosexual people in the churches. Simply signing this letter got me into a great deal of trouble at the time. Since then, I have written a great deal elaborating on my support for acceptance (including a 2008 book where I advocate for same-sex marriage that Mennonite Media published!) without getting into any more trouble.
One has to expect that at some point (maybe we have even reached this point) people and congregations who threaten to leave MC USA if the churches don’t more strongly condemn same-sex marriage will lose all leverage. The fear of those threats played a major role in the articulation of tragically anti-gay sentiments in the 2000 Membership guidelines that formed the basis of the merger that formed MC USA (here is my critique of those guidelines). The boundaries toward inclusiveness do continue to be pushed. As they are pushed, it seems likely that the two dynamics I mentioned above (a growing number of Mennonites being accepting and those who are not accepting leaving) will continue.
Several Mennonite pastors have now openly officiated at same-sex weddings and remain in good standing. A couple of congregations have or are in the process of installing pastors in same-sex relationships. A large congregation in a conservative conference recently made public its welcoming stance. As these things happen without major repercussions, the likelihood grows of accelerated steps.
So the question in the near future might be how those in the anti-gay minority will respond to their loss of power. Arana suggests that in the broader culture, the conservative leaders (not the rank and file politically active Christian Right people) are hoping more and more than the anti-gay sentiment might be accepted as a legitimate dissenting view. That is, the “conservatives” now are hoping for tolerance of their views—a kind of tolerance they were not themselves offering to the pro-gay elements not all that long ago. But the “Christians,” Arana says, are still in a win or else mode. How will this dynamic play out among Mennonites?
Will anti-gay sentiments before long themselves be bases for exclusion from Mennonite communities? I find that hard to imagine—and I certainly am not interested in trying to encourage witch hunts against those opposed to same-sex marriage. But there could be an unspoken dynamic of exclusion, as there is now regarding support for war and racism.
The thing is, it could be that to some degree, at least, that the emergence of such a outcome will not be controllable. The unfolding of the dynamics around this issue are sure to be surprising for one and all. They sure have been so far. Who would have expected the quickness of the acceptance of gay marriage in the broader society? Churches, it seems, are likely to follow in this wake, like it or not.
[Of course, this discussion raises the question about the viability of MC USA itself—see my upcoming post, “What makes a Mennonite?”]