Monday, March 22, 2004

"The Civil Rights Issue of the 21st Century"

According to Ellen Tauscher, a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Walnut Creek, California, the civil rights issue of the 21st century is same-sex marriages. The clergy of the Western American Diocese of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia who were gathered for a conference in San Francisco a few weeks ago adopted a statement which, among other points, explicitly rejects this as a civil rights issue. The statement declares that marriage "is a holy mystery, a sacrament, an avenue of the Grace of God"; and, as such, "...cannot be merely a social or civil contract entered into by two persons."

We need to be clear about this issue. We are, at one level, talking about the "separation of Church and State" when we engage the current debate. Like it or not, the current laws regarding marriage contain an inherent connection to morality and ethics which is primarily the realm of religious belief. Remove this aspect from the equation, and what remains is, indeed, a civil rights issue. Once these rights are "divorced" (pun, such as it is, intended) from this connection to morality, there are no boundaries, except those established in law.

According to Holy Scripture, the civil authority is established by God for the purpose of being a "minister unto the good"; endowed with the power of the sword to punish those who do what is evil. This is in agreement with other theories of government, which hold that the civil authority is established to maintain the common good, which, among other things, depends upon the maintenance of order. Activities permitted by the state may be practiced without fear; while those prohibited are practiced at the risk of the correction and/or punishment by the state.

The "synthesis" of Church and State in the Byzantine (read "Eastern Roman") Empire produced a dynamic in which the power of the Orthodox faith helped shape and guide the rule of law in the secular realm, which was the proper province of the State; while the State used its power to protect the Church from enemies in this world. There was, until recently (that is, my lifetime!), a similar, although far less formal, dynamic at work in the American system of government -- a direct residual effect of the fact that religious men (and women) were the ones who crafted the Constitution of the United States; which in turn embodied the beliefs and principles of the society governed according to that document. The State, here in the United States, was acknowledged to be a servant of God; and, as it became less fashionable to speak directly of the Diety, the State was the enforcer of public morality.

As the debate, and its underlying social dynamic, pushes ethics and morality increasingly from the discussion -- because these are "religious" in nature, and there is no place for religion in government, because of the "separation of church and state" -- those who wish to continue to wield the sword of the civil authority to enforce the standard of marriage as an estate between one man and one woman have an increasingly difficult argument to make. When religious beliefs are "out of bounds" for the discourse shaping public policies and laws (and the enforcement of the same), what is to stop the state from making legal same-sex marriages? Or, for that matter, legalizing polygamous (and/or polyandrous) marriages? (It is, of course, possible to push this extension to ridiculous extremes -- we won't go there now.) If the primary responsibility of the state is the maintenance of public order; and a man wants to marry a man, or a woman a woman, or a man two or three or more women, or a woman two or three men -- and everyone is at or above the "age of consent", and is willing to appear before a duly-appointed civil authority to attest their desire, freely and without coercion, to enter into such a union, why should the state, in the absence of the argument from morality, raise any barriers to such a union? It would be a simple matter to craft the marriage laws to deal with the question of what to do if and when the union is dissolved regarding the offspring and other assets of the union; even while acknowledging that this would be considerably more complicated than for a "one person to one person" union. No, it is only the persistence of religious ethics and morality, and its residual support among the society at large, which prevents the state from making these changes to marriage laws.

Brothers and sisters, I will make here a prediction. (It's not prophecy.) We are going to lose on this issue. It will become strictly a civil rights issue; and as such, without moral factors being permitted, as a civil rights issue, it will be impossible to stop the legalization of same-sex marriages. I wish I was wrong... But we'd better start now to prepare for the next step in the process: What will happen to the Church as we refuse to perform such "unions" on the basis of our Christian beliefs. Someone -- the classic formulation of "Adam and Steve" -- will request that I join them in marriage. I will refuse, citing our Christian beliefs; and the fact that they may obtain what they desire through a civil ceremony notwithstanding, they will sue, claiming discrimination. Because it is now a civil rights issue, and an action allowable by law, the Church will lose. We will lose our tax exemptions, because our continuing to speak against same-sex marriages will be defined as political action; and then as "hate speech" inciting the rejection of a certain "minority" whose rights must be protected by the power of the state. Any priests who don't "get the message" will risk time in prison for "hate crimes." Civil and criminal damages will result in the loss of church properties and other assets, to settle judgments by sale, or by outright confiscation. I don't want this to happen; but I think it is inevitable...

A Step in the Wrong Direction

My friend Steve's blog ( has a discussion posted about the recent acquittal of a Methodist pastor who was charged with violating Church discipline for being a lesbian. He's got some interesting things to say; you should take a look at the article he cites. I also want to kick in my $0.02.

It is interesting to me that the pastor responsible for the prosecution of the case, the Rev. James Finkbeiner, "said he thought jurors were predisposed to clearing Dammann, and that the verdict was 'out of bounds with the way the Discipline actually reads.'" He added, "on a personal level, I'm glad I lost."

As the newspaper article points out, the Methodist Church has held, since 1972, the position that homosexuality is "incompatible with Christian teaching." But it is apparently perfectly acceptable for a pastor in that polity to practice what they can't teach... The reported "predispostion" of the 13-pastor "jury" (which voted 11-0 with two abstentions for acquittal), despite the position of the Methodist Church, based upon established Christian beliefs and teachings, reveals a rejection of classic Christianity and an increasing embrace of the ways of the world. And so the Methodists are traveling the same road recently pioneered by the Episcopal Church, with its acceptance of an openly homosexual bishop, who left his wife and children to enter into a relationship with his male partner. I dunno... When the salt has lost its savor, what is it good for, except to be thrown on the ground and trodden underfoot?

Thank you, all of you who have read this far! Hey, Steve! How do I put in the "Comments" feature for this page?