From where I stand, the powerful positive and supportive role of faith communities in the fight over marriage equality has been entirely misunderstood by even secular proponents of marriage equality.
It may come as a shock, but all the mainline Protestant denominations are embracing this week’s Supreme Court ruling. What do you see in the media about this? Nothing. On television and in print you hear only the angry voices of the Religious Right who populate Evangelical and especially Pentecostal branches of Christian religious institutions.
You are not hearing from United Church of Christ that this week holds its national synod in Cleveland, OH with members rushing from the conference and dancing in the rain with LGBT activists all celebrating the decision. You are not hearing from the Episcopal Church that has been performing weddings for years, and on July 1 voted on full church incorporation of same sex weddings into the formal sacrament. You are not hearing from all the other denominations such as the Disciples of Christ, Evangelical Lutherans, Presbyterians, and many others as well.
Only the United Methodist Church has yet to embrace the view, and that’s due to the weight of the Southern branch. But the Western regional congregations have taken matters into their own hands and announced they will do what they think their moral principles call them to do – perform weddings for loving, committed couples. The church as a whole has refused to sanction them.
This full acceptance of LGBTQI people has long but enduring historical and theological roots. It is largely my own view for which I see little written support, that the move toward full inclusion of LGBT people stems in no small part from the Protestant world coming to penance and reconsideration over what they did historically as missionaries. In religious fervor, too many missionaries helped perpetuate cultural and sometimes actual genocide alongside their good work in other areas such as Abolition. In the latter 20th century it became impossible to move forward on Civil Rights until they took full responsibility for the damage and dehumanization the institutions had done to First Nations people and those overseas.
From renouncing their own dehumanization of those they supposedly served in the field, the march toward full equality of all people was essential and inevitable. Bluntly, if you believe we are “all God’s children” then what part of “all” can you eliminate? The mainline Protestants coming from a tradition of social justice had to claim full equality or lose all credibility in their own eyes.
Unitarians, often a step ahead, embraced LGBT equality very early along with the United Church of Christ-Congregational Church. Both ordained openly gay clergy in the early 1970s and made support for LGBT equality a centerpiece of their work. What makes the UCC commitment so important is that they are the direct descendants of the Puritan Congregationalists. As full participants in key social justice movements such as abolition and the eradication of child labor onto the Civil Rights and anti-war movements, one can see that UCC is not your grim church of yore. Today they are the nation’s most arguably progressive Christian denomination, loathed and under attack by the Religious Right. Still they carry on, their embrace of full equality, unstoppable despite the harassment.
The Episcopal Church followed suit in the 1990s including ordaining the first openly gay Canon who then became the first ‘out’ bishop, Gene Robinson in New Hampshire. Soon other bishops, canons, and deacons followed, and the Episcopal Church embraced “Integrity” a group devoted to securing full acceptance for LGBTQI Episcopalians. Some of the churches’ leading theologians such as John Shelby Spong, wrote passionately about the need to do deep scriptural and theological analysis on the issue, rejecting the simplistic notions of sexuality and prompting a reassessment of what the infamous “four verses” actually y meant. It did not come down in favor of exclusion or rejection of marriage equality. The impact was great, penetrating even the southern hemisphere with South African Bishop Desmond Tutu a powerful ally, and Bishop Christopher Ssenyonjo challenging the Pentecostal-driven “death to gays’ laws in his home nation of Uganda.
This scholarship and discernment did not stop significant numbers of American Episcopalians from withdrawing from the church. The majority population of California’s San Joaquin diocese voted to leave the church and affiliate with the Argentinean Anglicans (with whom they had nothing in common other than rejection of LGBT people.) However, the diocese itself remained part of the denomination, kept the church properties, and found they remarkably filled quickly with people and families who had previously left in disgust with the homophobia and anger that once surrounded them. The diocese has become one of the fastest-growing parts of the church in the US.
Before the Supreme Court ruling this week, virtually all major denominations had come to full inclusion of LGBT people and now embrace marriage equality. Immediately prior to the Supreme Court decision, Public Policy Research Institute found 62 percent of white Protestants vs. 28% of white Evangelicals embraced marriage equality. Presbyterians, that once defrocked an “out” California minister before later reinstating him, now support marriage equality by 69%. Episcopalians and UCC 68%, and even mainline Methodists share the sentiment not yet of their church with 67% in full support.
This had weight in a number of political and policy arenas. In 2001 the national “Religious Institute for Healthy Sexuality” opened to support all issues of sexual justice within and for a broad interfaith spectrum. “Faith for Equality,” an alliance of clergy and laity dedicated to marriage equality, officially incorporated in 2006. It was strong in many states, particularly California and Virginia but could be found in even Tennessee. Other groups such as “The Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists”, “Believe Out Loud”, “Faith in America”, and many others working at state and national levels, appeared across the nation to affirm full equality, stand for full inclusion. Many became advocates for all manner of equality issues, not just marriage, standing as grassroots activists for supportive or against harmful legislation, ballot measures, and court cases.
CA Faith for Equality, one of the strongest groups, got its greatest challenge in 2008 around defeating Proposition 8, a ballot measure to confine marriage to “one man and one woman”. Despite offering huge support throughout California and wanting, along with Integrity and other groups, to have a voice in defeating Prop. 8 the secular LGBT community dismissed this work outside of what congregations and group would do internally within their own denominations and churches. Leaders said the faith community “had nothing to say”.
A trusted public policy organization, California Council of Churches IMPACT that has long issued ballot guides legally on non-partisan ballot measures as a 501-c-4 , also opposed Prop. 8 but were equally dismissed. The net result is that there was no public voice for faith in this opposition. At the same time, CCCI offered support to defeat Proposition 4, a similar sexual justice ballot measure trying to demand parental notification for minors seeking abortions. It was funded by secular allies to issue a special faith statement to members and others on the reasons for opposition. No such funding came from the Proposition 8 campaign. No clergy were invited to make No on 8 ads, no faith people were asked to speak outside their own churches. Without funding, there was too little anyone could do. The night of the 2008 election, Prop. 4 was defeated by 4%, exactly the percentage by which Proposition 8 won. What might have changed had the wide range of faith organizations actually been front and center publicly on marriage equality?
CCCI’s sister organization, California Council of Churches, did receive a small amount to send activists to congregations in two conservative areas, Fresno and San Diego. They developed a study guide, Living Lovingly, that talked about theological reflections on marriage and equality. In the two areas where the guide was given to congregations, the polling data reflected a significant shift away from support for Proposition 8. But it was not reflected in any statewide effort, it came too late, and Prop. 8 won anyway, setting back the right to marry by several years. The study guide is accessible at: http://www.calchurches.org/resources--study-guides.html
By contrast, in the Obergefell v Hodges case that was successfully heard this week, California Council of Churches headed a diverse faith contingent that submitted an amicus affirming faith organizations’ support for marriage equality. It was a powerful antidote to the screeching media that cited conservatives but never progressives in faith circles. No longer could the religious right claim marriage equality was a threat to “Christianity”. It doesn’t stop that noise, but it undermines the hegemony.
The best work pro-marriage equality faith groups do is help the “worried middle”, those people of traditional practice but of very good hearts. It is this teaching and affirmation of human equality that gets scant coverage in media. Each act of support for marriage equality is depicted by media as an ‘outlier’, something alien to the body of faith. It is not. While the progressive faith communities have grown to be the mainstream (liberal and ultra conservative groups are about equal in numbers) the shrill voices of opposition still triumph in the public square.
Those who believe that “all means all” keep the message and the work in the forefront along with all social justice issues. Alongside the secular equality groups, these quiet voices will prevail. We can already see the change that has come. There is no going back.