Religion

On Issuing Marriage Licenses

I was watching The Nightly Show this morning, (I time shift) and Larry Wilmore had a segment on conservative it-girl Kim Davis. For those without cable news Davis is the Democratic county clerk in Kentucky (yes, she is a Democrat) who went to jail rather than issue marriage licenses to gay couples.

There was something so surreal and vaguely disturbing in her victory lap along side presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee. When I saw the crowd waving crosses I had a similar feeling to Wilmore who called it “a little bit lynchy.” But then there was the Rocky vs. Mr. T music. (Eye of the Tiger had been a staple at my junior high school dances.) Was Davis a champion? Did she win something? What was her victory? Her court issued licenses without her and she was released on the condition that she not interfere with the process. That hardly seems like an Olympic level accomplishment. Well, she did get attention and we do admire people who manage to do that.

I found myself googling Survivor “Eye of the Tiger” and Kim Davis figuring that the band probably had something to say about its use as a “don’t marry the gays” anthem. I found the answer on a site called Consequence of Sound. And no, Survivor wasn’t thrilled with the unauthorized use of their song. But it was a snarky little aside that caught my attention.

“Eye of the Tiger” blasted from the speakers while Davis, her (fourth) husband, her lawyer, and Huckabee took the stage.

Her…fourth…husband.

So I want use this moment to point out, once again, one of my pet peeve Biblical arguments against homosexuality. When it comes to Biblical arguments against same sex romantic or sexual relations there are only a handful of passages and there are various, more or less technical reasons why a lot of them are problematic. I won’t go into that except to say that a lot of Christians who want to make a Biblical argument against homosexuality try to steer away from the two least ambiguous condemnations of sexual activity between those of the same sex. They are both in Leviticus and both refer specifically to men (so maybe lesbians are OK after all). “Man shall not lie with man” says one verse. The other says that the penalty is death by stoning. Modern people are squeemish about the death by stoning part and try to draw attention elsewhere. There is also the whole problem inherent to Leviticus– even the most ardent fundamentalists do not follow a lot of it and do not consider this contradictory with Christianity. In this very blog some time back I quoted from a fundamentalist blog that made the argument that there was nothing wrong with tattoos even though Leviticus condemns it. “If someone chose to consider a tattoo sinful, then they would have to toss all their cotton/polyester clothing too!”

But if you don’t want to give burnt offerings of animals as dictated in Leviticus, and you’re fine with eating lobster, then you open yourself up to the logical conclusion that maybe the men lying with men thing falls into that same category.

This, of course, leads to a strong desire for Jesus to have repeated the commandment. Jesus offered very few commandments, and when he was asked direct questions about law he tended to take a “context matters” approach. You weren’t supposed to work on the Sabbath, for example, unless someone needed a healing, and then the goodness of the action overrode the law. He was much more of a parable guy than a law giving guy.

Just the same, the desire to have Jesus re-enforce the parts of Leviticus some of us like is so strong that people get creative as when they cite Matthew 19.5 on billboards in opposition to same sex marriage.

In Matthew 19 Jesus is asked whether couples should be allowed to divorce. In his reply he mentions “man” and “woman” coming together in marriage. To read it as an anti-gay passage you have to ignore the actual subject of the text, which is not ambiguous. Jesus is asked if a man should be able to divorce (it is entirely the man’s prerogative, of course). He says, no. “Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery.”

So the question is should divorce be legal and the answer is only in the case of adultery (on behalf of the wife). Any other reason is illegitimate. Not only that, but anyone who marries a divorced person is committing adultery.

So let’s review, Kim Davis, who was married four times and divorced three does not want to issue marriage licenses to same sex couples because:

“To issue a marriage license which conflicts with God’s definition of marriage, with my name affixed to the certificate, would violate my conscience,” Davis said in a statement published on the website of her lawyers, the Orlando-based Liberty Counsel. “It is not a light issue for me. It is a Heaven or Hell decision. For me it is a decision of obedience. I have no animosity toward anyone and harbor no ill will. To me this has never been a gay or lesbian issue. It is about marriage and God’s word.”

Now, as a matter of journalistic fairness, I will note here that Davis only became a Christian four years ago. So her serial adultery (as Matthew 19 labels it) was in her pre-Christian past.

But here’s the thing, how many marriage licenses has Kim Davis issued in the past four years to divorced people? I did a quick search to try to figure out how many marriage licenses the Rowan County Clerk’s office issues in a year, and I couldn’t immediately find it.

The number of licenses Davis may have unwittingly (and probably without any twinges of conscience) issued to divorced people is not even the real issue.

Suppose Davis, or someone like her, who divorced in the past and now has been born again, wants to make a fresh start in Christian marriage. Does it matter that she is now Christian and has asked for forgiveness of her sins past, or should it be up to the clerk to decide whether her conversion is sincere? If the person issuing the license agrees that Davis has given up her sinful ways, can the clerk still refuse to give her a license because doing so would mean that she would marry after having been divorced– which would make her an adulterer? Would Davis be thankful that the clerk took that position to save her soul and relieved her of the responsibility of her own religious choices? I suggest she would not.

The First Amendment is to protect individuals from government interference in their religious practices, observance and belief. It is not to protect the government from individuals religious choices. In this instance, Kim Davis, as the county clerk is cast in the role of the government. She represents the government agency. She cannot, as a representative of the government, tell people that they are sinners. That’s how the First Amendment works.

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Who Should ‘Scape Whipping?

LORD POLONIUS
My lord, I will use them according to their desert.

HAMLET
God’s bodykins, man, much better: use every man
After his desert, and who should ‘scape whipping?
Use them after your own honour and dignity: the less
They deserve, the more merit is in your bounty.
Take them in.

“Use every man after his desert and who should ‘scape whipping” is one of my favorite lines from Hamlet. It came to mind today as I read an article in Bondings 2.0.  Bondings is an LGBT positive Catholic publication which does a lot of reporting on how the church as an organization and how Catholics as individuals respond to social change.

In one article Jesuit friar Thomas Reese makes a well-reasoned case that U.S. bishops have a tradition of making accommodations with civil laws that do not match their stated beliefs, notably the way the church responds to divorce and people who have been remarried. Therefore, he writes, there is no reason the church should expend resources and energy trying to fight same sex marriage.

(Christian ministers of many stripes have become so accommodating to divorce that they use a passage from the New Testament in which Jesus specifically says people should not divorce as if it were instead a prohibition against gay marriage.)

Bondings said Reese’s  “analytical response (to the Supreme Court’s decision on marriage equality) stands out over the rest of them for its incisive distinctions and its hopeful suggestions.”  While I applaud the article overall, one troubling thing kept jumping out at me. Reese repeatedly makes the case that the Catholic church can change its approach without “endorsing the lifestyle.”

Today, Catholic institutions rarely fire people when they get divorced and remarried. Divorced and remarried people are employed by church institutions, and their spouses get spousal benefits. No one is scandalized by this. No one thinks that giving spousal benefits to a remarried couple is a church endorsement of their lifestyle.

If bishops in the past could eventually accept civil divorce as the law of the land, why can’t the current flock of bishops do the same for gay marriage? Granted all the publicity around the church’s opposition to gay marriage, no one would think they were endorsing it.

Reese goes on to say:

…Catholic colleges and universities that provide housing for married couples are undoubtedly going to be approached for housing by same-sex couples. Unless the schools can get states to carve out an exception for them in anti-discrimination legislation, they could be forced to provide such housing.

But since they already provide housing to couples married illicitly according to the church, no one should see such housing as an endorsement of someone’s lifestyle. And granted all the sex going on at Catholic colleges and universities, giving housing to a few gay people who have permanently committed themselves to each other in marriage would hardly be considered a great scandal.

The italics in these quotes are mine. Reese re-assures his peers that churches still have the right to express anti-gay views and to fire clergy for being gay, or for whatever reason they see fit.

I’m struck by all of that hang-wringing over whether or not an institution can be considered to be “endorsing” the lifestyles of anyone it does not actively condemn. In this, the church seems to have the mindset of a junior high school student who is afraid that if she is seen with the wrong people she will be judged uncool. It is generally taken to be a sign of maturity when you stop shunning those who you think might make you look bad and stop worrying about how other people might feel about your friends.

Putting that aside, there is a practical problem with this whole “endorsing” thing. What aspects of a person’s “lifestyle” warrant scrutiny? Look around you at the vast variety in the ways of life of your friends and associates. I am willing to bet that there are life choices that almost everyone makes that you would not personally “endorse” but then, who asked you?

If you wanted to play judge, though, I am sure you could find a Bible verse or several to support your distaste for your neighbor’s choices.

Should churches allow people with poor dietary habits and sedentary lifestyles to take part in services, even to serve as ministers? Does that constitute an endorsement of gluttony and poor health? Should the faithful refuse to serve obese members at the church potluck in order to demonstrate their disapproval of the lifestyle? Should pious business owners have the right to refuse to serve fat customers to preserve their religious freedom?

If you allow parents who are too strict or too lax with their children to take part in your religious education program would doing so constitute an endorsement of their parenting styles?

If you allow the church gossip (or gossips) to take part in coffee hour, are you endorsing gossip?

Is allowing a banker to be a prominent member of the church an endorsement of usury?

Incidentally, my book Broke is Beautiful recounts the story of the 19th Century Irish priest, Father Jeremiah O’Callaghan who gave many sermons against church’s tacit endorsement of usury and his outspokenness did not sit well with his superiors. While the church was not ready to reverse its stand that usury was a sin, it was too pragmatic to be comfortable with a priest who branded some of its most influential and prominent members as sinners. O’Callaghan was dismissed. He spent years protesting his firing and writing pamphlets about the sin of usury before eventually resettling to the United States.

I really could go on and on, but I won’t. My point is that if you only want to associate with those whose lifestyles you can fully and unquestionably endorse in every way, you’re destined to be very lonely indeed.

God Spends Some of His Advertising Dollars to Promote Gay Rights

godNews from my home state of Michigan. Dearborn Heights has a new billboard. God wants the people of my state to know that he is totally cool with the LGBT population. It is a nice change of pace from his Georgia billboard campaign citing select passages of Leviticus.

The best part of the “God Loves Gays” message is that it appears on the same revolving electronic billboard put up by an anti-LGBT organization.

judgesThis billboard cites Matthew 19.5 in support of its position. This is one of my particular pet peeve Biblical arguments. In Matthew 19.5 Jesus is asked whether couples should be allowed to divorce. In order to read Jesus’s answer as a heterosexual commandment a reader needs to entirely ignore the context and focus only on the fact that he mentions “man” and “woman” coming together in marriage. I might have more sympathy for this interpretation if those who make the argument were a fraction as assertive in their insistence that divorce is a sin, which is, after all, the actual subject of the passage. The billboard doesn’t ask people to “restrain the judges” from issuing divorces or allowing second marriages.

You can read more about the “God Loves Gays” billboard at The Metro Times.

If You Wrote the Ten Commandments

The Ten Commandments Board Game

The Ten Commandments Board Game

A friend of mine posted a link on Facebook to an article on a site called Addicting Info.  The headline was “Atheists Rewrite the Ten Commandments and They Are Much Better than the Originals.” The FB post went on to ask “What commandment would you create?”

I share the link to the Atheist commandments and leave it to you to decide if they are, in fact, “better than the originals.” But I did take up the challenge of what commandments I would write. Bearing in mind that this is something I came up with at 2 AM when I couldn’t sleep, here it is. My Decalogue:

1. Even if someone is really obnoxious and horrible and stands in opposition to everything you hold most dear, you’re not allowed to shoot him or blow him up and you definitely do not get to kill groups of random people because they’re in some way associated with a nation, organization, social class or ideology you dislike.
2. Always act with empathy and compassion.
3. When you fail to do this (and you will) try again.
4. If your religion or moral framework fails to produce results consistent with commandments 1 and 2 something is wrong. Start over.
5. To avoid unnecessary ennui and distress, don’t ask “what is the meaning of life?” ask “what can I do with this life?”
6. While you are filling your life, remember to pause to appreciate the beautiful, the artistic, the mysterious and the transcendent. They matter.
7. Do not forget that you have blind spots that interfere with your ability to successfully complete commandment #2. Correct for them. (This is a long term project.)
8. Value your community but be careful not to create outcasts.
9. You have a responsibility not to perpetuate injustice in the name of just getting along.
10. Do not presume you are omniscient and know what God wants. Do not speak for God.

Religious Freedom in the Non-Hypothetical Universe

Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act will go down as one of the worst political calculations in history. Governor Mike Pence and the party he represents have been well schooled now in just how much society has changed on the issue of LGBT rights. Trying to please the increasingly small subset of Fundamentalist Christians who feel homosexuality is a sin is no longer a winning political strategy. For those of us who are in favor of LGBT rights, this is cause for celebration.

This was an example of what author Jon Ronson (So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed) defines as good shaming. The power of the internet to amplify voices of dissent against those with power.

“When we deployed shame, we were utilizing an immensely powerful tool. It was coercive, borderless, and increasing in speed and influence. Hierarchies were being leveled out. The silenced were getting a voice. It was like the democratization of justice.”

Confronted with the fact that his “base” was a bit smaller than he had imagined (friggin’ Wal-Mart came out against this law), we watched Mike Pence scramble trying, with little success, to alienate neither gays nor the people who would discriminate against them. He fell off the tight-rope, and those in favor of gay rights enjoyed a moment of Schadenfreude. Pence’s fall-back position was that he had never intended for the law to make discrimination against gay people legal. (A claim that GLAAD has debunked rather convincingly.)

The people have spoken. We will not stand for discrimination. This is good.

That said, I don’t think we do ourselves any favors when we pretend that the question of balancing religious freedom and laws that govern all people in a pluralistic society is straight-forward or easy. We should not dismiss out of hand the arguments of those who do not want to put two brides on top of a wedding cake because we disagree with their point of view. The legal question is not whether this belief is right or wrong.

As someone who wrote a novel from the point of view of a bisexual Christian minister, I can debate scripture with the best of them to make the case that same sex love is not incompatible with Christianity, but that would be missing the larger point. (Debating scripture really does not work. Last time I got into an actual Biblical debate with a Fundamentalist on the topic of LGBT equality he called my reading “vacuous and ignorant” and went on to explain to me what Jesus meant with a level of certainty that implied he had spoken to Jesus personally. The litmus test for whether an interpretation was correct or not was whether it agreed with his own. We had such divergent frameworks for discussing theology that it was pointless to have the conversation.)

When a law designed to apply to the entire community comes into conflict with a particular minority religion’s views or practices, can the religious group opt out? (Yes, in spite of their political influence and PR success defining their type of Christianity as the main and most legitimate form, Fundamentalist Christianity is a minority religion. Most Americans describe themselves as Christian but only 30% take a Fundamentalist view of the Bible.) When is it in the public interest to allow them to do so, and when is it in the public interest to curtail their practices? These are very messy questions and the Supreme Court has not been entirely consistent in how it has ruled when the inevitable conflicts arise. There was a very good article about the difficulties of striking this balance on The Immanent Frame. The article was published in the wake of the Hobby Lobby decision.

I was reading an article today on the blog Holy Bullies and Headless Monsters. It began by saying “We all know that the anti-gay right are being highly deceptive when they whine about how marriage equality and LGBT equality in general will harm ‘religious freedom.'”

While I am in sympathy with this blog’s point of view in general, I have to take exception with this notion. Yes, there are certainly politicians on the right who are more concerned with getting the votes of Evangelicals than they are with their issues. But I do not for a moment consider all Fundamentalists to be deceptive when they talk about religious freedom. Those who believe homosexuality is sinful and morally wrong have a real conflict when they are asked to take part in a ceremony to commemorate same sex unions.

I laughed when I saw Jon Stewart’s take on Indiana’s law.

Stewart criticized comparisons that those in favor of the law have made between having to serve same-sex weddings to businesses having to serve Nazis, the KKK or the Westboro Baptist Church.

“Basically, you see people celebrating love as a hate group,” he said.

A marriage between Tom and Steve is not the equivalent of a Nazi march and it is upsetting to think that there are people who are as morally offended by the former as the latter. Yet this is losing sight of the main thrust of the Fundamentalists’ argument. The point is not that these “sins” are morally equivalent. They are asking you to empathize with the conflict they face in being asked to do something that compromises their moral convictions by framing it in terms of something more widely agreed upon.

Media Matters makes a strong case that having to print a Swastika on a cake, for example, is not equivalent to making a cake for the wedding of two women. This they describe as “a fundamental inability to understand that the RFRA debate was over discrimination against gay people, not gay ‘thoughts.'” The law allows people to refuse to serve customers based on ideology– you have every right not to print pamphlets endorsing a view you fundamentally disagree with– but does not give people the right to discriminate against a certain class of people.

But the distinction between “person” and “ideology” is not as clean cut as some would make it out to be. From the pro-LGBT rights perspective gays are a type of person and a protected class. From the Fundamentalist perspective, homosexuality is a behavior. (Hate the sin, love the sinner. Incidentally, I got into a debate recently with someone who thought “Hate the sin, love the sinner” was a saying of Jesus. It does not come from the Bible at all. When you say that you’re actually quoting Gandhi.) They believe that some people are burdened with same sex attractions but God decrees that they shalt not act on them. They do not want to deny service to gay people in general, but they want the right not to have to participate or endorse the ideology that it is not sinful for “men to lie with men as with women.”  They do not want to be involved in a practice they believe is wrong. From this point of view, refusing to sell a newspaper to a man who seems effeminate would be wrong, but having two men share a bed in their B&B would force them to be complicit in sin. Putting two brides on top of a cake would be endorsing the ideology that a wedding between two women is equivalent to a wedding between a man and a woman.

Yes, the conflict is genuine.

I would like to take a quick diversion here back to the Holy Bullies article I referenced earlier. The author asks “For all of their talk about protecting the ‘religious freedom’ of folks who believe that homosexuality is a sin, one wonders how does the anti-gay right feel about protecting the ‘religious freedom’ of those who do NOT think that homosexuality is a sin?”

Indeed, this is a good question, and an important one when it comes to things like trying to ban same sex marriage more broadly. When religious people argue that same sex marriage should not be legal because it infringes on their religious rights they have it backwards. Banning the practice by law not only keeps religious people from having to participate, it prevents those whose religious and moral frameworks are in favor of same sex marriage from practicing their religion.

Fundamentalists seem to have accepted that they have lost this fight. Where once they could control the direction of the majority of the country, they are now in the minority. They are now asking to be allowed to opt out.

That is actually not what the Holy Bullies article is talking about here though. Both examples of “right wing hypocrisy” that they cite involve Christian religious leaders chastising other Christian groups for not holding what they believe to be the orthodox reading of scripture. (One who calls LGBT affirmative Christianity a “heresy” and a pair calling for the president of a Baptist university to be fired for allowing a lesbian pastor to speak on campus.) Christians are certainly free to argue amongst themselves as to how to properly practice their shared religion, and it is no business of the government or law to wade in on those disputes. The good news for those who are in favor of gay rights is that, as Bondings 2.0 reports, “faith communities are increasingly resisting such discrimination being perpetuated in their names.”

So what do you do when the law of the land is at odds with a minority group’s religious belief or practice? It’s messy and complicated. If you’re a Mormon and you want to practice polygamy, the Supreme Court says the state has a compelling interest in forbidding you from doing that. If you’re Amish and you want to opt out of the draft, the Supreme Court says you can. If you’re a Native American and you want to smoke peyote the Supreme Court says no. If you run a craft store and you want to opt out of Obamacare because you’re against birth control you can do that.

I’m not generally a fan of Russell Brand when he goes into his new age preacher mode. But there was one element of this clip that I thought was worth re-iterating.

Brand comments on the latest human morality play the news has created, Memories Pizza in Indiana, which gained our attention when its owner said she would not cater gay weddings because it was against her belief. The comical image of pizza delivery to a gay wedding in itself probably helped propel the story to national attention. The part of Brand’s speech that caught my attention is toward the end when he points out that in the case of Memories Pizza, the entire argument is hypothetical. It is a symbolic act by the pizza shop and a symbolic act by those who picketed the shop and a symbolic act by the supporters who donated money to the shop.

But same sex couples who want to have a wedding without being shunned and shamed are not hypothetical or symbolic. Anti-discrimination laws simply don’t work if people can opt out of them. “It is illegal to discriminate against this group of people… unless you feel really strongly about it.” In a non-hypothetical universe this will not work.

Belief in a Cruel God

Belief in a Cruel GodA friend passed along this meme on Facebook. Thomas Paine said “Belief in a cruel god makes a cruel man.” It sounds persuasive, but I had to stop and wonder if it is true.

Throughout history people have used religion to justify all kinds of atrocities but was it because they believed in a cruel god? Or rather could it be that they believed in an ultimately just god and that being on the side of the just god meant that they were sure they were in the right? Couldn’t a belief in a ultimately good and benevolent god be used as an excuse not to intervene and help other people because god is good and everything is god’s will?  When one is advantaged in society and believes in a good and just god it is only a small step to believe that all of his good fortune is deserved and those who do not have the same luck must be sinners.

The ancient Greeks believed in capricious gods who were not ultimately good and loving. They were powerful and played games with humans and the only response was to be grateful when they favored you. Belief in a cruel god that you must fear could lead to humility.  Often when God in the Old Testament shows his wrath it is because humans have demonstrated the hubris of thinking they are divine. It is a forceful reminder that men are not gods and do not have all the answers. So perhaps going off and killing in a state of religious certainty is not a good idea.

My instinct is that a person who is inclined towards cruelty will interpret religious narratives in a cruel way and a person inclined towards compassion will interpret those narratives in a compassionate way. And as circumstances and contexts change different meanings in an old text will spring to life.

The Self and Other Things that are Real but Don’t have Existence

A couple of years ago I read a book by Tom Christenson called Questioning Assmptions. Christenson argues persuasively against the assumption that the existence of God is the main “problem” religion must address. He compares the concept of God to space and time, things that have no material existence and that we know by their effects and our relationship to them. God, he says, can be real without having existence.

Space is certainly a considerable reality. But is it a thing that exists? In some ways, space is such a fundamental reality that we understand the word “exists” in terms of it. To exist means to be over time in some space. Space and time are dimensions of existence, but it’s misleading to say they are things that do (or do not) exist. The debate the philosophy students are pursuing is interminable because it is mis-framed. Rather than asking, “Does space exist?” or “Does time exist?” it would be much more profitable to ask “How are the reality of time and space manifest?” Then we could talk about clocks, calendars, meters and miles, light-years, aging, cosmic expansion, acceleration, speed limits, music, dance, and so forth.

Theistic arguments assume that “Does God exist?” is the right question. But I doubt very much that it is. God is not some thing or class of things, like unicorns or men from Mars, that we can assert or doubt the existence of. God is much too fundamental a reality for that… Like space and time, it’s more appropriate to think of God as a measure of existence rather than a thing that may or may not exist.

I found the idea of things that are real but which do not have “existence” to be quite fascinating. I was reminded of the concept when reading Into the Silent Land by Paul Broks. The self is another reality that does not have existence. As Broks points out, there is no area in the brain that is the center of the self. The self is a measure of existence not a thing that may or may not exist.

Broks put it this way:

So you will search in vain for any semblance of a self within the structures of the brain: there is no ghost in the machine. It is time to grow up and accept this fact. But, somehow, we are the product of the operation of this machinery and its progress through the physical world. Minds emerge from process and interaction, not substance. In a sense, we inhabit the spaces between things. We subsist in emptiness. A beautiful, liberating, thought and nothing to be afraid of. The notion of a tethered soul is crude by comparison.