Monday, July 26, 2010

Religion and Gay Marriage Redux

In an earlier post, I wrote about the recent documentary, 8: The Mormon Proposition, which traces the Mormon Church's secretive, well-funded campaign to ban gay marriage in California (about 70 percent of the funds for the "yes" campaign came from Mormons, even though they make up only two percent of California's population). Most disturbing for me was the failure of Mormon leaders to reflect on the fact that Mormon polygamists in the nineteenth century had themselves been victimized by attempts to strip away their marriage rights. Mormons do not need a Rawlsian "veil of ignorance" to appreciate what it would be like to be the target of unjust discrimination; they (or at least their great-grandparents) have first-hand knowledge of it. This, however, did not stop the leaders of a once-marginalized religious minority from pushing through initiatives to take away the rights of a marginalized sexual minority.

I ended my post by implying that organized religion fosters a kind of totalitarian mentality for their adherents whereby the only rights worth defending are those that support their religious worldview. It is worth noting, however, that opposition to gay marriage is not shared by all American churches. In 2005, the United Church of Christ (Obama's church) became the first major Christian denomination in the U.S. to officially support gay marriage. And while American Quakers are split on gay rights, Quaker communities in Australia, the U.K., New Zealand, and Canada are actively lobbying for gay marriage and same-sex unions. The Episcopal Church, too, officially sanctioned same-sex marriage in March of this year.

Many Christian clergy also support same-sex unions. A recent poll by Progressive Religion Research indicates that the vast majority of mainline Protestant clergy (Methodist, Lutheran, Episcopal, Presbyterian) support hate crimes legislation and same-sex civil unions or same-sex marriage. The position of churches and clergy matters immensely for public policy because of their impact on public opinion. For church-going people, the single best predictor of their position on gay rights is the position of their minister.

Even so, societal attitudes on gay marriage are changing rapidly, and recent ecclesiastical shifts suggest that many churches have altered their positions accordingly. There is also a generational shift in attitudes on gay rights--even among Christian conservatives. Although the vast majority of older white evangelical Christians oppose legal recognition of same-sex unions with only 9 percent favoring gay marriage, 58 percent of under-30 white evangelicals support legal recognition of same-sex unions with 26 percent favoring full marriage rights.

American churches that have changed their positions on gay marriage are right to do so, if only to remain relevant to their congregations.


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