HEY, BE CAREFUL WITH THAT!
YOU’RE GOING TO DECAPITATE YOURSELF
I don’t know that I’ve ever mentioned this before, but I was raised as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. So much of what I was taught from infancy into my late teens has stayed with me, even if I never developed anything resembling true faith. I still know a few people– family, mainly– who are involved with the Witnesses, and I love these people dearly. Their faith is an integral part of who they are, and I wouldn’t have them be any other way. I have also made the acquaintances of Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Methodists, Quakers, Mormons, Presbyterians, and perhaps the occasional Buddhist or Hindu, as well. For all these individuals there are varying degrees of involvement and devotion, but my knowledge of their affiliation is enough to signal that faith is important to each one of them. Perhaps in most cases faith is an integral part of their identity as it is with the Jehovah’s Witnesses I know and love.
I offer that preamble as a qualifier, so that you can understand I am not the sort of liberal who reflexively derides and disparages people for the simple act of believing in a supernatural, intelligent higher power. I don’t even automatically shit on people for subscribing to earthly bureaucracies that claim to provide earthly context for such belief. I do share some of my fellow liberals’ understandable disdain and revulsion for the excesses and atrocities that are often carried out by adherents to these belief systems, particularly when the acts are done in the name of that higher power. But I am not one who will suggest that the path to further progress and enlightenment for human civilization necessitates the abandonment or prohibition of organized religion. People of faith, acting both within and outside of the structures of their religious bureaucracies, have also been responsible for some of the most wondrous acts of compassion and sacrifice. Often such actors have made clear that their actions were informed or motivated by their religious beliefs, and others might be said to have quietly acted in accord with the tenets of their faith. While faith is obviously not a prerequisite for extraordinary acts of human decency, neither must it be a barrier.
One of the most brilliant features of our nation’s constitution is the establishment clause.
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or
prohibiting the free exercise thereof.
I am not going to waste my energy or time trying to write a dissertation on what I think this clause means and how it applies to us today. I only suggest that the establishment clause is as much a protection to believer as it is to a nonbeliever. By expressly prohibiting the government from dictating faith to U.S. citizens, it allows us all to worship or not worship as we see fit. But the unwritten implication, as I see it, is that this is a two-way street. If the state is not allowed to establish a religion or interfere with the free exercise of religion by its citizens, then organized religions must not be allowed to officially interfere in the affairs of state.
This brings me to the recently passed California ballot initiative, Proposition 8. The Mormon hierarchy has not even bothered to disguise its sponsorship and organization of the ballot initiative. This article offers a thumbnail sketch of that involvement. Apparently the Catholic Church, along with some Orthodox Jews and Evangelical Christians, is also on board.
Let me add my voice to the massive chorus that is screaming to the nation that THIS IS WRONG. However, though I am first and foremost concerned with the equality and well-being of my GLBT brothers and sisters– those who are targeted by this vile and dishonest campaign– I must also offer two cents of warning to the people of faith who’ve cast their lot with Proposition 8:
People, you are on very hazardous constitutional ground.
Marriage is a contract between two people. It confers legal status upon both, and offers protections that legally unattached people must work extra hard to acquire, if they can acquire them at all. In this vein, marriage is solely a function of the state. Every faith has its own views on marriage, and its own marriage rituals. However, the vast majority of people who enjoy a faith-based marriage ritual have already acquired legal recognition for their union with the state. People understand that though they may place whatever value they wish on the religious ceremony, their marriage is legally meaningless without state recognition.
In fact, one may easily tie the knot without a religious ceremony. My first marriage was performed in the basement of Cook County headquarters in downtown Chicago, and there was no religious official present (just a very nice judge with purplish hair). My current marriage was performed in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, and the ceremony was brief and secular. All that was required was a licensed marriage performer (whatever that nice lady was called who handled our Destination Wedding); no priest, imam, rabbi, or reverend was needed. My point here is that people get married all the time without the direct involvement of religion, whether they subscribe to a faith or not.
Again, in the United States, religion is not necessary for legal recognition of marriage. It is very important to be clear about this point. Organized religions are free to construct and profess their own ideas about the constitution and conduct of marriage, and they are free to expect their adherents to follow those ideas. It is not the place of the state to dictate the terms of those ideas to any religion. As long as the religion’s ideas do not conflict with established laws (such as those prohibiting polygamy and pedophilia), everything should be cool.
But perhaps we have brushed against a gray area here: on what basis did the state’s legal limits develop? Were there not some religious influences or at least cultural mores influenced by religion at work in deciding that a ten-year-old is too young to marry, or that three’s a crowd at the altar? Perhaps, but the establishment clause was not intended to purge or prohibit all influence of faith from governance. It was intended to prohibit government from dictating faith to citizens, and to keep organized religion from dictating the affairs of government.
By organizing a campaign to compel the state to deny equal rights of marriage to pairs of consenting adults– a denial that is in itself repugnant and anathemic to a constitution that stresses limitation of government power over individual rights– the Mormons and their Catholic, Jewish, and Evangelical allies have picked up a double-edged sword and wielded it with mortal recklessness. They have brazenly used their constitutionally protected status to attempt to curtail the rights of a group whose desired rights would cause no quantifiable harm. If this is allowed to stand, then the establishment clause will join the Fourth Amendment in being practically worthless. Any organized religion with sufficient funding and organizational skills will be able to dictate to the rest of us the limits of our civil rights and our relative status as human beings.
I understand that this drastic outcome is not the ultimate goal of those of you who are so repulsed by homosexuality that you would agree to cross this constitutional Rubicon. Some of you may not have given it that much thought, and hell, some of you might not give a damn. However, you must understand that the momentum you have instigated is in danger of rebounding against you. If you so invest your power and privilege into the workings of the state, then the state will eventually seek reciprocity. You Christians should feel a special level of shame and revulsion at this prospect; you have opened the doors of your church for the very tax collectors and money changers that your Savior tossed out of His Father’s house.
People of faith, you must search yourselves. You must ask yourselves if your faith is strong enough to allow others to assign the legal protections of marriage to the families they have chosen to form, just as you have done for the families you have chosen to form. Can you agree to leave what is God’s to God, and what is Caesar’s to Caesar? Is your faith so weak that you would jeopardize your church for the sake of denying an established legal protection to a relatively tiny minority when just minding your business would do you no demonstrable harm? You must ask yourselves why, truly, you are doing what you are doing, and if it is worth the danger.
All of us, including people of faith, must ask ourselves if the republic we claim to value, the republic which guarantees us freedom to worship as we please (or not at all), is worth keeping. If it is, then we must keep our personal, cultural, and religious feelings from dragging us between our GLBT brothers and sisters and the affairs of state. We must resist the urge to use the organizations of our various faiths as tools for enforcing our preferred social order over the simple and harmless needs of a minority of our fellow citizens.
If we fail to resist the energies of fear and divisiveness, and if we continue to enshrine these mean-spirited and exclusionary interpretations of religious doctrine into law, then we will be no better than those at whom we once lashed out* in self-righteous anger with all the force of our military-industrial complex. Worse yet, if we continue on this path we will soon find out the hard way that gay marriage is not so great a threat to the fabric of our nation, not so great a threat as what we are doing to try and stop it.
Much love to Pam Spaulding of Pam’s House Blend and Pandagon for keeping this in the public eye. I once told some gay brothers of mine that I would pick up a weapon and fight for their freedom if need be. If we keep speaking at this with intelligence and tenacity as Pam does, then maybe it won’t come to that.
*Apparently, bombing the shit out of the Taliban didn’t exactly get rid of them. Oops. So much for the first major offensive in the Global War on Terror. It looks like that old wussy liberal practice of talking is going have to be used after all.