OPINION: On rights and rites in the same-sex marriage debate

Divinity School President Marvin McMickle. PHOTO PROVIDED

GUEST COMMENTARY BY MARVIN A. MCMICKLE

Since President Obama expressed his support of same-gender marriage, there has been an intense reaction among many in our nation. This debate must run its course in our society, as all major advances in civil and human rights have done in the past. Consider such hotly debated national issues as the abolition of slavery, the right to vote for women and African Americans, the end of legalized racial segregation in public accommodations and institutions, the struggle for unions and collective bargaining, the passage and enforcement of child labor laws, the adoption of minimum wage laws and workplace safety.

Each of these issues was a matter that had to work its way through an often hotly contested national debate.

What I wish for is a debate where neither side distorts biblical faith in the process. We must be sure that the civil and human rights promised and safeguarded by the US Constitution are not confused with the religious rites and rituals that are practiced and performed by various religious communities across the country. No one is arguing or insisting that any clergy person of any religious tradition must perform a same-sex wedding if their conscience or their church policy does not support such an action. That is where the idea of a RITE or a church ritual comes in.

By the same token, people of a particular religious tradition cannot and should not expect that their interpretation of any particular verse in the Bible must be the way by which national public policy is shaped and determined. The United States is not a theocracy under which religious law takes precedence over laws passed by democratically elected legislative bodies.

What is amazing to behold is how many Americans are prepared to support any bill that would ban the use of Sharia or strict Islamic law in our society, but seem quite content to impose a very conservative understanding of Levitical law from 8th century BC Israel on believers and non-believers alike in modern American society.

This nation has known earlier times and struggles when selected verses of the Bible were used to support slavery, relegate women to second-class status, justify the genocidal treatment of Native Americans, and promote “American exceptionalism” and “manifest destiny.” We have eventually condemned the distortion and abuse of the Bible in those instances, and we must do so again today.

People of religious faith certainly have a voice in all discussions about public policy, but theirs is not the only voice. That is where the use of the word RIGHTS comes in, because it is the US Constitution and in this case the First Amendment and the establishment of religion clause and the Fourteenth Amendment and equal protection under the law for all citizens that are at stake. People of religious faith should not fear that they will be forced to perform a same-sex marriage ceremony if their conscience does not permit them to do so.

That being said, does our nation actually want to deny equal access to civil rights to some segment of our society that pays the same taxes, serves in the same military, worships in the same churches, lives in the same communities, sits and labors in the same workplaces, and belongs to the same family units as everyone else in this country simply because of their sexual orientation?

There are some cautions I would extend especially to my Christian neighbors and my clergy colleagues. First, you cannot take the verses in the Bible, like Leviticus 18:22 or Romans 1: 26-27 that seem to speak against homosexuality while ignoring the other prohibitions, sexual and otherwise, that appear within those same passages. How can people condemn homosexuality while continuing to engage in or remain silent about other behaviors against which the Bible speaks with equal passion? If the answer is that most of Leviticus deals with ancient practices and communal values that are no longer binding on modern society, then how is it that these verses on homosexuality manage to avoid a similar cultural critique?

If Romans 1 is the basis for the condemnation of homosexuality, then it must be remembered that that passage does not limit itself to same-sex behavior; it goes on to speak about malice, envy, greed, hatred, murder, strife, arrogance, slander, and disobeying parents. Why do we not hear the same outrage on these topics from those who are so outspoken over the single issue of same-sex marriage? Is it possible they can live with all of these other things going on around them, but they cannot abide homosexuality and same-sex marriage? Now it seems it is they who are leaving out or ignoring what the Bible has stated; the exact same charge so often leveled against those who seek to defend the civil rights of same-sex couples. They cannot have it both ways.

I fear there is more hypocrisy than honesty in this present discussion. Same-sex marriage is a major shift in how our society is structured. We need to have an extended, civil discussion about this matter. What has already been resolved as acceptable by many is still a matter that remains unresolved for others. Each side needs to respect and consider the point of view of the other without condemning to hell those who happen to hold differing views.

However, one thing must be kept clear; this is a matter of rights and not rites. This debate is about who we are and what we believe as Americans and not who we are and what we believe as Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, atheist, and non-believers. Democratic government is always tricky business, but never more so than when some deeply cherished religious value seems to be involved.

Let the debate continue, but as it does I am suggesting that we in the various faith communities cannot pick which biblical verses we will consider and which ethical issues we will pursue while leaving many other verses and issues unaddressed and unresolved.

Finally, people need to be sure that their support of or disagreement with a presidential candidate should not stand on a single issue. This may obscure other key issues, like high unemployment, a depressed housing market, the continuation of the costs associated with the war against terrorism, staggering levels of student debt, and an unstable global economy, that face our country today. People need to consider which of the presidential candidates seems to them to be best able to effectively address these concerns.

Even if persons cannot support a candidate’s stance on same-sex marriage, they should remember that if they decide to stay home on Election Day because of that one issue, then they are “throwing the baby out with the bath water.”

Dr. McMickle is president and Professor of Church Leadership at Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School.

9 comments

  1. Perhaps if the so-called “people of faith” spent more time reading the Constitution and less time thumbing through their Bible in an attempt to apply millenium-old biases and prejudices to modern day issues they, and society, would both be in far better shape.

  2. All of you liberals supporting ‘gay marriage’ must also then support polygamy as long as you’re redefining marriage. If not, you’re a bigot for limiting marriage right to couples only.

    1. Bart – Since you apparently are speaking as a “person of faith” I am shocked that you reject the Old Testament’s acceptance of polygamy …..

      “If he take him another wife; her food, her raiment, and her duty of marriage, shall he not diminish.”
      (Exodus 21:10)

      “If a man have two wives, one beloved, and another hated, and they have born him children, both the beloved and the hated; and if the firstborn son be hers that was hated:

      Then it shall be, when he maketh his sons to inherit that which he hath, that he may not make the son of the beloved firstborn before the son of the hated, which is indeed the firstborn:

      But he shall acknowledge the son of the hated for the firstborn, by giving him a double portion of all that he hath: for he is the beginning of his strength; the right of the firstborn is his.”
      (Deuteronomy 21:15 – 17)

  3. Bart, you need to read the article again, carefully, with the intent to understand what is being said. Federal Law has already dealt with polygamy quite some time ago. In time, it may consider it again, but right now the topic is marriage equality of same-sex couples. Right now we are using the basic tenants of the Constitution to ferret out discrimination against US citizens and correct that discrimination. Under no circumstances will you be required to enter into a same-sex marriage unless you wish to. If you ever do, then it will be your Right under the Constitution.

    P.S.
    Don’t change the topic in order to avoid the conversation.

  4. He lost me, and credibility in general, when he couldn’t see fundamental differences in the basis of DOMA and Sharia. A naked public square indeed, and now theologians are helping with the stripping.

  5. Betsy Swain · · Reply

    I found Dr. McMickle’s commentary profoundly compelling, completely rational, comprehensive, and fully supported. I live in Georgia, so “hearing” such commentary from Black clergy is indeed a sweet clarifying breeze in an otherwise stultifying environment. (That’s also why I love my Congressman, John Lewis!) But the antis . . .It’s like trying to open the door on a room so crammed full of useless junk that the door can’t budge even an inch. Reminds me of the hoarders, people overwhelmed and suffocated by their own waste but unwilling and unable to let go of any of it. Anyway, thank you, Dr. McMickle! Wonderful piece! I wholeheartedly endorse it and have passed it on to others.

  6. j.a.m. · · Reply

    The writer is correct in saying that the defense of marriage is not primarily a matter of theology. The institution of marriage in its very nature is the union of the two naturally distinct and complementary sexes as husband and wife. That universal truth is rooted in natural law and the most basic facts of life. Thus it transcends societies, faiths, ideologies, traditions, creeds, languages, cultures, races, colors, nationalities, and legal systems.

    But neither is it a matter of civil rights. The right to marry is well established. There is, however, no “right” to pretend marriage is something that it manifestly is not.

    It is interesting to note that the handful of jurisdictions around the world that recently have attempted to redefine marriage have this in common: all are historically or culturally Christian. No Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist or atheist countries have done so. The Bible truly has nothing to do with it.

    1. “The institution of marriage in its very nature is the union of the two naturally distinct and complementary sexes as husband and wife. That universal truth is rooted in natural law and the most basic facts of life.”

      Where in “natural law” do you see this “universal truth”?

      I am unaware of any other species which has developed the concept of marriage. Have you seen centipedes marching down the aisle? Or robins winging their way to Las Vegas to marry? Perhaps you’ve seen honey bees leaving on their honeymoon? Or ring neck quail wandering to Tiffany’s for a ring? Did your gold fish invite you to their Golden Wedding anniversary party?

  7. “Natural law” isn’t about what happens on Wild Kingdom. May not agree with it, but if one’s going to make fun of it, he or she should probably have a rudimentary familiarity with the term.

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