March 2009


More Light Presbyterians has posted an article taken from the University of Chicago Divinity School that makes the bizarre argument that defending traditional marriage is a form of “religious violence.” The article, by Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia professor Jon Pahl, deserves a thorough response. So here goes:

A recent article in The Atlantic and recently released Lutheran documents give good reasons to revisit the status of gays and lesbians across American society.  Unfortunately, few commentators to date have addressed the most troubling development of the past few years:  the growth of DOMA Laws, or “Defense of Marriage Acts.”  These laws are forms of religious violence.

The Federal Defense of Marriage Act, passed in 1996, stipulates that for the purpose of federal laws and operations, “the word ‘marriage’ means only a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife.”  According to domawatch.org – a website sponsored by supporters of these laws – thirty-seven states now have some form of DOMA Laws on the books.  The rationales for such defensive laws are often couched in neutral, “secular”, or “naturalist” language.  But the move to establish such laws came from religious groups, notably conservative Protestants, Catholics, and Mormons.  And the logic and appeal of these laws also originates in religion, and functions as a form of violence.  Six theses can clarify the contours of the religious violence embedded in these laws.

The provenance of such laws is completely beside the point (the anti-slavery movement had its origin in churches, too–does that mean the Thirteenth Amendment is illegitimate?). As for the “logic and appeal of these laws,” they are grounded in a combination of natural law theory and reference to the common experience of humanity. The fact that any particular group or individual may support them on religious grounds is also completely beside the point, which is that an “secular” and “naturalist” rationale for such laws is indeed possible, and has been offered repeatedly throughout the decade-plus that such laws have been debated.

1)  DOMA Laws violate sacred texts.  Many of the arguments against gay and lesbian civil unions or marriage appeal to biblical texts from Genesis, Leviticus, Romans, or I Corinthians.  But such arguments impose upon the texts a twentieth century understanding of sexual identity alien to the Jewish or Hellenistic cultures in which these texts arose.

This is irrelevant. DOMA laws aren’t based on “sacred texts,” but on the historical reality that, until the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court issued its ruling mandating same-sex marriage, no American jurisdiction had ever permitted it. DOMA laws, then, were simply an effort on the part of legislatures to insure that the status quo remained such in their states. Lots of state legislators, and millions of voters, have voted for such laws who are not religious believers, and whose stands have been based on a cultural understanding of marriage that has nothing to do with the Bible or first century understandings of sexuality.

2)  DOMA Laws elevate heterosexual marriage to idolatrous status.  In some communities of faith, defending “marriage” has become all but an item of confessional status (it is absent from any historic Christian Confessions).  This arrogates to a majority – heterosexuals – special privileges (economic, social, and spiritual) not available to sexual minorities.

This is simply absurd. No supporter of traditional marriage is elevating it to the level of God, which last time I checked was the definition of “idolatrous.” If it has become “an item of confessional status,” that is because it is under attack within the Christian churches, as a result of which many have come to its defense. The reason heterosexual marriage isn’t in historic confessions is that there was no disagreement about it among Christians. Pahl, who purports to be a historian of Christianity, should certainly know that the historic confessions include all kinds of odd matters (oaths, Sabbath observance, participation in government, etc.) that were included because there was disagreement about them, and so the confessors thought there was a need to take a stand. The nature of marriage has become one of those, precisely because Christians like Pahl have made it an issue; hence, there are those who disagree who have taken a public stance on their belief.

3)  DOMA Laws scapegoat gays and lesbians.  As Rene Girard argues, scapegoating is a chief manifestation of religious violence.  It is difficult to see what real threat is posed to heterosexual intimacy, much less to civil society, by the desire of homosexuals for similar rights.  It is easy to see how DOMA laws organize consent over and against a relatively voiceless and powerless group.

Right. And anti-polygamy laws “scapegoat” Mormon fundamentalists. In fact, such laws are meant to express the belief that monogamous, heterosexual marriage is the best way to organize society for the fulfillment of one of its most important functions–the birthing and raising of children. It is possible to disagree with that belief, and to make a case for alternative arragements. But to claim that the arrangement that existed exclusively throughout American history until 2004, and that has existed throughout the West until recently, is meant to somehow specifically punish gays is a view that verges on the paranoid.

Pahl also says that it is “it is difficult to see what real threat is posed to heterosexual intimacy” by gay marriage.” On the level of the individual, there is of course none. What Pahl simply ignores is evidence from places such as Scandinavia that gay marriage has a deleterious effect on societal views of marriage as a whole. Stanley Kurtz of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University has had a series of article in National Review Online over the last several years on this subject. It is possible to dispute the significance of his data, or his interpretation of it. But what Pahl does here is simply act as though it doesn’t exist, so that any opposition to gay marriage becomes simple bigotry. That’s not an argument, it’s an act of, shall we say, rhetorical violence.

4)  DOMA Laws sacrifice homosexual rights, and damage civil society, in the interest of religious purity.  One measure of the justice in any society is how well it cares for vulnerable members.  Sexual difference marks individuals as both vulnerable and “dangerous.”  And as Mary Douglass showed, any “danger” against which a law must defend is invariably constructed around some purity interest.  DOMA Laws require gays and lesbians to sacrifice rights others take for granted, and render them subject to legalized forms of exclusion and discrimination.  They damage the deep trust that is the most important social practice in civil society.

Pahl simply asserts that DOMA laws are meant to serve the interest of “religious purity.” I’d love to know how millions of votes by African-American Baptists, Hispanic Catholics, Anglo evangelicals, Orthodox Jews, Mormons, Muslims, and conservative atheists and agnostics in California last November were supposed to foster “religious purity.” I’d love to know how the DOMA constitutional amendments in Oregon and Hawaii, two of the most secular states in the Union, were supposed to foster “religious purity.” In fact, I’d like to know what Pahl even means by “religious purity.”

5)  DOMA Laws confuse legislation with religion, and violate the First Amendment, as Ann Pellegrini and Janet Jakobsen have argued.  It is entirely permissible (although ethically subject to scrutiny) for private communities to shape the boundaries of association in whatever ways members agree upon.  It is a violation of the First Amendment’s protection of free association to inhibit by law some forms of association that pose no harm to the common good, and a violation of the freedom from an established religion when religiously-inspired exclusions are written into law.

Pahl really should restrain himself from using weaselly expressions such as “religiously-inspired” with regard to legislation. Talk like that is liable to put the Rev. Jim Wallis, and much of the Obama legislative agenda, out of action.

As for the rest, it’s drivel. The fact that people with religious convictions are among the supporters of DOMA laws no more “confuse legislation with religion” or “establishes religion” than the fact that guys in clerical collars could be seen at the front of civil rights marches makes the 1964 Civil Rights Acts unconstitutional. As for the freedom of association argument, Pahl has apparently forgotten that marriage isn’t simply a private relationship, but a pubic contract. The right of the state to regulate who may enter into that contract, using such standards as age, gender, and number, was established in the polygamy case Reynolds v. United States (1878), which upheld the power of the states to regulate marriage. The exact boundaries of that power has changed at times–for example, when Loving v. Virginia (1965) deprived states of the power to prevent people of different races from marrying–but the basic power is in no way an infringement of freedom of association.

6)  DOMA Laws perpetuate an association of sex with power, and thereby do damage to any sacramental sensibility that might remain in association with even heterosexual marriage.  As Hendrik Hartog and other historians have shown, marriages have shifted in the modern era from patriarchal patterns of coverture to social contracts in which couples seek mutual fulfillment.  Such contracts might be compatible with a sacramental sensibility, since they entail pledges of sexual fidelity and commitments to share social resources and responsibilities, along with (one might argue) other gifts of God.  DOMA Laws associate sexual fidelity with legislated forms of coercive power, and inhibit the deep trust and mutuality intrinsic to modern (and sacramental) marriage.  They establish hierarchies of relationships, and associate heterosexual unions (and sexual practices) with dominance.

This is postmodern nonsense, and is itself an effort to confuse legislation with religion. The “sacramental sensibility” of marriage has nothing whatsoever so do with what regulations the state puts on it. The fact is that if churches want to sacramentally “marry” gays, they are free to do so–they can even claim that the couple is married in the sight of God–but that action cannot force the state to recognize a contract. Nor, obviously, can the state force the church to marry those whom the church declares God has said cannot be married. As for the Foucaultian attempt to associate sex with power in the form of state laws regulating marriage, well, let’s just say that I don’t think Foucault has all that much to teach the church about the nature of marriage.

By the way, since when do Lutherans think marriage is a sacrament?

DOMA Laws have been passed with the support and lobbying of religious groups.

As have thousands of other pieces of legislation, from gun control to environmental protection to Social Security. What’s your point?

There is a reasonable argument to be made on both sides of this issue. I stand against same-sex marriage for a variety of reasons, and lots of folks both inside and outside the Christian churches agree with me. There are lots of folks on the other side of the argument, both inside and outside the churches, and it is possible to make a reasonable case on that side as well. Talk of “religious violence,” and red herrings about the First Amendment, and twisting the motivation of one’s opponents so that they are barely recognizable, is hardly the way to further the debate.

A few days ago, following the Sanctity of Life Ministries fund-raiser her in northern Virgina, I wrote the following about pro-choice Christians:

Across the mainline denominations, as well as parachurch organizations such as the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, you will find nary a person willing to say they are pro-abortion. In fact, applying that label will result in one’s getting heated and emphatic denunciations combined with the claim that as pro-choice Christians they simply ant to see abortion be legal and safe, but also rare.

I was wrong.

The Episcopal Divinity School, a seminary of the Episcopal Church has nominated a new president and dean. She is the Rev. Dr. Katherine Ragsdale, an abortion fanatic. If ever a person could be called “pro-abortion,” it’s Ragsdale. Stand Firm commenter James Manley directs readers to Ragsdale’s sermon blog, and a speech she gave in 2007. She prefaces it by saying,

The Democrats have removed “safe, legal, and rare” language about abortion from the platform. About time!

She then offers a speech that is extraordinary in its assault on unborn children. Among other things, she said:

When a woman wants a child but can’t afford one because she hasn’t the education necessary for a sustainable job, or access to health care, or day care, or adequate food, it is the abysmal priorities of our nation, the lack of social supports, the absence of justice that are the tragedies; the abortion is a blessing.

And when a woman becomes pregnant within a loving, supportive, respectful relationship; has every option open to her; decides she does not wish to bear a child; and has access to a safe, affordable abortion – there is not a tragedy in sight — only blessing. The ability to enjoy God’s good gift of sexuality without compromising one’s education, life’s work, or ability to put to use God’s gifts and call is simply blessing.

These are the two things I want you, please, to remember – abortion is a blessing and our work is not done. Let me hear you say it: abortion is a blessing and our work is not done. Abortion is a blessing and our work is not done. Abortion is a blessing and our work is not done.

This person is not a scholar, but an activist. She is known entirely as a result of her abortion rights advocacy. She is one of the founders of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Rights, and is on the board of directors of NARAL. And now the president of an Episcopal seminary. Those who have chosen her have put their stamp of approval on one of the most extreme pro-abortionists in the country, much less the church.

So I think it is now safe to say that, in fact, there are people in the mainline churches–some of whom are even in prominent positions–who are not pro-choice at all. They are pro-abortion, and according to the ancient standards of the church–standards that go all the way back to the early 2nd century and the Didache–they should be treated as anathema.

(Via Stand Firm.)

UPDATE: Ragsdale’s complee lack of academic credentials and her extremist advocacy of abortion as sacrament of the Religion of Me has lots of folks ecstatic at her appointment. According to the Episcopal Life Online, they include Thomas Shaw, the Bishop of Massachusetts:

“I am thrilled with the appointment of Katharine Ragsdale as the president and dean of EDS. She brings a wealth of small parish ministry to her new position and it is critical that the new president and dean be able to train and form parish priests for the growth of progressive parishes across the country. She brings a wealth of experience, talent and creativity to this new position.”

They also include Dr. Angela Bauer-Levesque, acting (there’s the right word) academic dean:

“I am elated to have the Rev. Dr. Katherine Hancock Ragsdale join EDS as its first woman president and dean. As someone with stature in the church and in the world, she inspires excellence. Her commitments, energy, and clarity, combined with her astute analysis, her collaborative style, and her experience in fundraising will make EDS more boldly live out its purpose of educating lay and ordained leaders for the church and the world, dedicated to work for justice, foster diversity, and seek constructive change.”

Finally, there’s Thomas Ely, Bishop of Vermont:

“The search committee sees in Katherine the right combination of a person of immense faith, demonstrated organizational and team leadership ability, a passion for academic excellence and quality theological education, formidable development skills, and the ability to be a strong, articulate, and inspiring voice for the mission of EDS, both within the Episcopal Church and beyond. From among the many gifted candidates we interviewed, Katherine Ragsdale overwhelmingly stands out as the one best equipped and called to lead EDS into this next exciting and promising chapter of our life and mission.”

Remember: all of this effusive praise for a woman whose only real accomplishment is her unceasing, unqualified, fanatical advocacy of abortion as the be-all and end-all of women’s rights.

Priorities must be shifted from the military-industrial complex to meeting human needs. U.S. priorities need to shift to cooperation and diplomacy and away from war.

Did you know, for example, there are more people in U.S. military bands and orchestras than there are in the entire diplomatic corps? Our priorities are misplaced.

–United Methodist General Board of Church and Society  General Secretary Jim Winkler, objecting to the ferocious killing power of military musicians

You may remember Klaas Hendrikse, the atheist pastor from the Protestant Church in the Netherlands (PKN) who apparently gets paid to play word games. (I wrote about him here and here.) According to the Ecumenical News Service, not one but two different regional judicatories within the PKN have decided that disciplining him isn’t worth the effort:

Two regional church authorities in the Netherlands are reported to have decided to take no disciplinary action against a self-proclaimed atheist pastor, Klaas Hendrikse.

The decision of the authorities in the southern Dutch province of Zeeland was published in a letter to their congregations, the Protestant daily newspaper the Nederlands Dagblad reported on 24 March.

The church authorities said disciplinary proceedings against Hendrikse, who is a pastor of the Protestant Church in the Netherlands, would be likely to lead to, “a protracted discussion about the meanings of words that in the end will produce little clarity”. The letter also noted that people have debated the issue of “God’s existence” throughout time.

Well, yes, but the church doesn’t generally put one of the debaters on the other side in charge of any of its congregations.

The abdication of responsibility here is breathtaking. Because Hendrikse insists that words are merely animal noises that have no relationship to anything in the real world (thus making communication impossible because of the lack of common referents, and making anyone who has plunked down money for his book a real sucker, since nothing he says in print means anything more than “booga booga!” or “jdcjbcbcibck?”), the PKN bodies shrug and say, appropriately enough, “whatever.” Of course, I can imagine the conversation if they brought him in:

Church official: So you say you don’t believe that God exists?

Hendrikse: Oh, I love Manos, the Hands of Fate–it’s my favorite movie.

Church official: But what about God?

Hendrikse: I like pie, too.

Church official: But is God real?

Hendrikse: Did you know that if you take cranberries and stew them like applesauce they taste much more like prunes than rhubarb does?

Church official: Please answer my question.

Hendrikse: I am. Booga booga!

I can see that would be a frustrating experience. But the end result of it shouldn’t be, “oh, well, then, since we can’t communicate with you, go back and mess with the heads of the people who pay your salary.” It should be, “why don’t you demonstrate some integrity and get yourself a real job.”

John Calvin said that there are three marks of a true Christian church: the Word rightly preached, the sacraments rightly administered, and church discipline rightly exercised. At the very least, the PKN has shown that it is incapable of the last of those marks, and should no longer be considered a true Christian church. But their buildings would probably make really neat condos.

Last night, Maryanne and I went to the annual fund-raiser for Sanctity of Life Ministries (SLM), the primary pro-life crisis pregnancy organization here in northern Virginia. We had a good time, enjoyed the company very much, and were treated to an exceptional keynote by Bishop Marytn Minns, former rector of Truro Episcopal Church and founding bishop of the Convocation of Anglicans in North America.

Minns’ primary message had to do with the increasing devaluation of human life, and the world’s tendency to divide life into what is valued and what is disposable. He told of visiting a mass grave in Rwanda holding over 250,000 bodies from the 1994 genocide, and how the relentless propaganda-driven dehumanization of the Tutsis led directly to the genocide. It was a chilling reminder of what my people went through earlier in the 20th century. The connection to the dehumanization of the unborn child, and the subsequent ease with which those who are unwanted are dismissed and disposed of by the pro-abortion movement, was equally chilling.

He also told us about his daughter Rachel, a young lady with Down’s Syndrome who has been an inspiration and joy in the Minns family’s life. She has reminded the bishop on occasion of the need to draw the circle of humanity in such a way as to include every human being, even those whose actions are evil. Minns also related, to the obvious horror of many in the audience, how 90% of babies who are diagnosed in utero as possibly–not even definitely–having Down’s Syndrome are aborted. Listening to him talk about Rachel, it was difficult to believe that so many people do that, but that’s the reality.

I also was struck by a thought during the evening as it pertains to our pro-choice brethren. Across the mainline denominations, as well as parachurch organizations such as the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, you will find nary a person willing to say they are pro-abortion. In fact, applying that label will result in one’s getting heated and emphatic denunciations combined with the claim that as pro-choice Christians they simply ant to see abortion be legal and safe, but also rare. That being the case, I found myself wondering, why is there no support for organizations such as SLM from mainline denominations and lower judicatories? Why no love from folks like those at RCRC? Crisis pregnancy centers like SLM are rarely if ever involved in political efforts to restrict abortion (though their supporters may well be); they are simply working in the lives of women in crisis to help them make a choice for life, and supplying them with the support and resources they need to be able to do that. Surely, if the assertion that our brethren aren’t pro-abortion but pro-choice has any meaning, they should be doing all they can to ensure that this choice, the choice of life, is one that is available to every woman considering abortion. But such is not the case. In fact, crisis pregnancy centers are regularly denounced for a variety of reasons (most of which are figments of the accusers’ imaginations), and are certainly not supported in the work they are doing.

I think it’s time to challenge those who say they want to see fewer abortions to put their money where their mouth is. Instead of supporting Planned Parenthood (which between their abortion business and government support is flush with cash), why not support SLM and its sister organizations across the country? The abortion industry has all the help it could possibly use. Those who are actually trying to reduce the number of abortions, on the other hand, are frequently limping along on a shoestring. Give them a hand, and help women choose–choose life.

Did you know that tomorrow is “Vote Earth Day”? Yeah, me neither. I found out about it courtesy of the Presbyterian Peacemaking Program’s “Swords Into Plowshares” blog:

Your Light Switch is your Vote: Vote Earth
Saturday, March 28, 8:30 – 9:30 pm (20:30 – 21:30)

This year, Earth Hour has been transformed into the world’s first global election, between Earth and global warming. For the first time in history, people of all ages, nationalities, race and background have the opportunity to use their light switch as their vote – Switching off your lights is a vote for Earth, or leaving them on is a vote for global warming. World Wildlife Fund urges the world to VOTE EARTH and reach the target of 1 billion votes, which will be presented to world leaders at the Global Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen 2009.

Okey dokey. Even as more and more people are getting the word that global warming hysteria is a symptom of a religiously-based environmental fundamentalism, impervious to facts but in love with apocalyptic prophecies, there are more and more gimmicks to get us to do whatever it is that the hysterics are advocating on any particular day. So I’m going to fire up every light in the house tomorrow evening, as a way of saying that I want no part of this particular cult.

UPDATE: It wasn’t a very good joke, so not everyone got it. My apologies. I am not going to be turning on every light in our house this evening. And just for the record, I’m not in favor of wasting energy. I’m against junk science being used to scare people into doing things that are unnecessary, turning control of their lives and futures over to the government because of a trumped-up threat, and dooming poor people to continuing poverty for no reason. But I’m certanly not against a clean environment, or in favor of wasteful use of resources. Weare stewards of God’s creation, called to use it for the benefit of all humanity.

The Human Rights Campaign, which is a secular gay rights organization that also has an outreach to like-minded people in the mainline denominations, weighs in on the Lisa Larges decision:

“The decision today sets up another roadblock of confusion for lesbian and gay candidates for ministry,” said Harry Knox, director of the Human Rights Campaign’s Religion & Faith Program. “The Church needs these gifted ministers and it is time to make the denomination’s policy plain. All should be welcome to serve God and humanity through the Presbyterian Church USA.”

As I indicated in my previous post, this decision is nothing more than a procedural item that delays Larges from moving ahead in the ordination process until the next presbytery meeting. Apparently the HRC thinks that Christian churches following their own procedures is a “roadblock” to their political goals. Of course, they are probably just taking their cue from Ms. Larges, who writes at That All May Freely Serve today:

Last week, I sat all day observing the proceedings in a Presbyterian Church trial on whether I could be moved forward in the ordination process as an out lesbian. The decision that came down yesterday was a mixed bag, but the reality is that I am looking at a longer struggle that includes advocating for a change in church policy to include LGBT people, not just ongoing individual fights where candidates for ordination struggle in a system that blocks them at every turn.

Once again I saw little of the Jesus or church I know in the proceedings. No out queer voices were heard at that trial, including mine. Opponents of LGBT equality in the church are rightfully wary of the personal testimonies of queer people of faith, and likewise wary of conversation, dialogue, and any live-and-let-live compromise.

The reason the court didn’t hear any “queer voices” was, as the court made clear in its decision, because they were irrelevant. They weren’t deciding the future of the gay rights movement in the PCUSA, they were deciding a narrow procedural issue. Larges sounds like she wanted to turn the trial into a bathos-soaked, emotionally-driven civil rights rally rather than a judicial process, in order to get what she wanted without any delay. What she needs to do is get a grip, recognize this as nothing more than a delay in achieving an inevitable result in the presbytery, and stop acting as though the SPJC is the modern-day equivalent of George Wallace standing in the schoolhouse door.

(HRC quote via TAMFS.)

Next Page »

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 70 other followers