Christian singer/songwriter Darrell Adams once introduced a song he had written poking fun at popular religious practices by saying, “There is something in this song to upset everyone.” I feel somewhat the same way about what I want to say in regards to California’s Proposition 8. Some will feel I have crossed over some sort of line, while others will be angry I have not gone far enough. So be it.
Last week the historic election of Barack Obama to the presidency was accompanied by a rising hope of a more open and inclusive spirit in U.S. society and culture. So it was with sadness that I learned of the passage of Proposition 8 in California, which overturned a California State Supreme Court decision allowing same sex couples to become legally married. In May the court had decided that the state discriminated against same sex couples when it did not allow them to marry. Since June nearly 18,000 couples received marriage licenses. Though Proposition 8 does not nullify those marriages, it does amend the California State Constitution to read “Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid and recognized in California.” So henceforth, same sex couples can not get legally married in California.
Reflecting on that result I find myself in an ambiguous position of agreeing with one side of the debate, yet fully understanding the other side. As the brother of three siblings in same sex relationships, I feel like they have been unduly denied a simple right that I and all other heterosexuals have. While part of me wonders why gays and lesbians would want to seek marriage, given the abysmal divorce rate (nearly 1 in 2) of heterosexual couples, I also recognize that the passage of such a law normalizes and legitimizes relationships that heretofore have been considered immoral by some, abnormal by others, and simply “different” by others.
Fifteen years ago I espoused the view that homosexuality was not normative in God’s eyes. I based that position on a reading of the Bible that noted that anywhere homosexuality was mentioned in Scripture it was either criticized or condemned. Over the previous 15 years I had attended numerous debates and read countless books on the topic, even writing a paper on the topic when I was in seminary. However, over time I became convinced that whatever the Bible had to say about homosexuality, it was not talking about a committed relationship akin to marriage. In some cases the Bible’s position was based on ancient views of human sexuality no longer held even by the most devout Christian. In other cases, the homosexuality mentioned was connected with pagan religions. However, the major obstacle for me was while I could discount or explain away the few passages that did mention homosexuality, I could find no statement positively affirming same sex relationships. The pro-gay Biblical argument was an argument from the absence of condemnation, not the presence of affirmation. At the same time I saw the committed relationships of my siblings and others, some of whom were dedicated Christians, and I could not accept that God would categorically condemn someone for loving someone of their own gender. I changed my position not so much on the basis of new view of Scripture, but rather the compelling evidence of the commitment and love of same sex couples I knew personally. I decided I would leave the theological debates up to God, and choose to err on the side of grace rather than judgment.
Yet even in the days when I opposed homosexuality on moral and Biblical grounds, I never believed that meant that gay/lesbian couples should be denied basic human rights. Laws discriminating against gays/lesbians in the areas of employment or housing did not seem fair. The same goes for gay/lesbian marriage. When I was a pastor, I might not have performed a ceremony for a gay or lesbian couple, but I did not feel I had the right to impose my view on society as a whole given the vigorous debate on the issue.
Today, I have changed my attitude toward homosexuality overall, and support the right of same-sex couples to marry. Nonetheless, I work for a Christian college that does not allow or support same sex romantic relationships. While I generally affirm the overall mission and culture of my school, this is one area where I personally disagree with my school’s position. At the same time a few years ago I was quite proud when Eastern University was one of only a handful of Christian schools that welcomed members of Equality Ride to dialogue at their campus. Equality Ride is program modeled after the Freedom Rides of the Civil Rights movement, where young people go to Christian schools and military academies challenging schools to reconsider their policies regarding gay and lesbian relationships. Most schools banned the Equality Riders from coming on their campuses. By contrast Eastern invited the students to come for two days, set up opportunities for dialogue and generally allowed students and faculty to interact with the guests and each other on the place of gays and lesbians in the church and in society in general.
Like the Equality Riders, many supporters of gay rights liken their movement to the Civil Rights movement of the 1950’s and 1960’s. This approach does not hold much appeal to African Americans who see their struggle for equality in quite a different light than gays and lesbians. In fact polls indicated that a majority African-Americans and Latinos in California supported Proposition 8. Tactically, I think the gay rights movement needs to come up with a different metaphor for their cause. For many people who support bills like Proposition 8 the issue is not so much about rights as it is about morality. While I may not agree with their view, I recognize that to talk about rights when people are thinking morality is to talk past one another. In that sense it becomes like the abortion debate where people are talking at each other, while not really hearing one another because they in essence are speaking a different language.
What is needed is a new kind of dialogue built on respect and listening. David Black, the president of Eastern, took a great deal of heat from the Board of Trustees for allowing the Equality Riders to come on Eastern’s campus, but I applaud him for the willingness to allow people of different perspective to engage in meaningful conversation. While in the end Eastern did not change its policies as a result of the visit, it sponsored a respectful and open dialogue conducted in a way that seems like a model that others could follow.
I am sure the supporters of Proposition 8 feel like they achieved some sort of moral victory last Tuesday, and certainly the opponents feel like a terrible injustice was institutionalized. Regardless of what the outcome had been, one referendum or even 100 referendums can not alter the fact that we can no more will away the debate over same sex relationships than we can alter the path of the Earth around the Sun. Deeply personal issues like the right of same sex couples to marry can not be solved in a court room or ballot box, but rather across a table of respect and openness. As Barack Obama embodies a new day in inter-racial dialogue in this county, my hope is that we can look at other areas such as gay rights where we as a nation disagree, and find ways to dialogue meaningfully and respectfully with the goal of finding common ground and living together constructively despite our differences.