Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Same-Sex Marriage and Religious Freedom

Here's why banning same-sex marriage will not protect religious freedom:

* Conscience cannot be coerced.

* Respect for religious institutions is undermined by legislating morality.

* Those of us who are working for marriage equality are doing so because we want to protect our families and those we love. Denying us the ability to do that will diminish religious freedom and freedom of conscience, not enhance it.

Religious Freedom and Freedom of Conscience
At least some of the founders of the American Republic saw freedom of religion as the foundational freedom upon which all other freedoms are based. Why? Because, they argued, no person is truly free unless they are free in the exercise of their conscience.

Opponents of same sex marriage are motivated by a concern for morality. But moral behavior is not lastingly instilled through coercion. Moral behavior is best promulgated when moral values have been internalized, when they are freely accepted and chosen. Efforts to coerce proper behavior -- even when the ends are morally right -- produce rebellion and resistance. Denying people choices does not make them moral, and efforts to coerce morality usually produce the opposite of the ends desired.

If same-sex marriage is morally wrong, then it should be possible to convince people that it is wrong by presenting information and reasoned arguments. Amendments of the type being proposed in Minnesota have been passed in 29 other states. Despite this fact, support for same-sex marriage continues to rise nationwide. That should suggest that if opponents of same-sex marriage believe it to be morally wrong, passing laws against it is not helping them to make their case to the American people.

The power of the state should be used to police and punish those forms of behavior that are truly anti-social. Public safety is protected by laws against theft, murder, and sexual violence, for example. But our common life is not enhanced and safety and freedom are not increased by using the law to promote the values of one social group over another.

In the case of same-sex marriage, individuals seeking legal protections granted to heterosexual couples does not in any way detract from the rights of others. No one's rights are proscribed by same-sex marriage. Using the law to disadvantage a particular social group, however, does undermine the principles of freedom and equality that help ensure the safety of all people within a democratic society.

Churches opposed to same-sex marriage will not be forced to perform or solemnize such marriages. But churches that support same-sex marriage are currently being prevented from solemnizing unions they believe in.

How and Why Respect for Religious Institutions Flourishes
In the U.S. Constitution, religious freedom is protected in two ways. The first way was also the way considered most radical at the time the first amendment was passed: by banning any establishment of religion by the government. As Thomas Jefferson put it, Americans erected "a wall of separation between church and state."

In the 18th century, this was a radical move. At that time, all European nations and most American colonies had official state churches. One of the reigning assumptions among Europeans and among Euro-Americans was the notion that man was essentially fallen and evil in his nature, and that without the restraining, coercive power of the state to enforce religion and morality, society would fall into chaos. When the 1st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was passed banning any religious establishment in America, many contemporaries predicted that America would soon descend into a state of irreligion and chaos.

That prediction could not have failed more spectacularly. Not only did America fail to become irreligious, it became steadily more and more religious until the present day, when the U.S. is one of the most religious countries in the world (as measured by church attendance and financial giving to religious institutions). The vast majority of Americans (on the order of 90%) believe in God, and something like 60% are active members of churches, synagogues, mosques or temples.

Compare this to Europe, where states clung to religious establishments until the last century. In many western European nations, disbelief is in the range of 30-50%, and active participation in churches on the order of 5-10%. State promotion of religion -- who'd a thunk it? -- produced mass disaffection from religion. While the American disestablishment has allowed religion to flourish.

The founders took a gamble on a radical notion: that minimal government restriction of human moral behavior was best. Americans from time to time have lost faith in that notion, and have made a variety of attempts to legislate morality. For example, the nineteenth century concern about alcohol abuse culminated in the passage, in 1919, of the prohibition amendment. The prohibition of alcohol did not result in the reduction of alcoholism and its attendant evils. It did succeed in driving the sales and consumption of alcohol underground, giving a boost to organized crime in the 1920s and 1930s. Americans finally recognized the folly of legislating morality in this way, and ultimately repealed the prohibition amendment in 1933.

Prohibition had another unintended and unfortunate consequence. It made the religious groups that backed prohibition look puritanical and repressive in the eyes of many Americans, undermining respect for religion.

One of the major concerns expressed by opponents of same-sex marriage is that if same-sex marriage is legalized, those who do not believe in same-sex marriage will come to be viewed as "bigoted" and will perhaps even be persecuted or oppressed for their beliefs.

Americans have always lived in a pluralistic society with great diversity of beliefs and values. Having a difference of belief doesn't necessarily mean intolerance of or disrespect for others who don't share our beliefs or values. In fact, the greatness of American civilization has been in its promotion of respect for those who are different from us. Having some groups in American society who have differing views on the morality of same-sex sexuality and relationships is nothing new. It's not the first time Americans have had to learn to live together with differing beliefs and values.

Bigotry raises its ugly head when one group of people abandons the values of tolerance and respect, and begins to look down on another group of people because their values or beliefs are different. While America has always been a land of great diversity, and respect for difference has been held up as a virtue, we have also struggled with intolerance, and various forms of religious and racial hatred. Bigotry has been a problem in our country.

Religious folks who oppose same-sex relationships worry that they will be labeled as bigots, but at the same time they are trying to pass very controversial laws that would ban same-sex relationships. Is it possible to point out the contradiction, without being accused of name-calling?

If people who disagree with the notion that same-sex couples should be able to form loving, committed unions with each other were willing to respect the rights and choices of others, and replace efforts to legally ban same-sex relationships with open, respectful conversation about this issue, how would that change the social dynamic? Is it possible that it would enhance respect for their views? Could it increase the likelihood that folks will see their moral position as principled rather than as self-interested and repressive? Mutually respectful difference is the American way, and I trust that we have a wealth of social and cultural resources to create that kind of diverse, yet unified society, e pluribus unum.

While it is true that American freedom has produced a society with great love and respect for religion and religious institutions, we've seen in recent decades a decline in religiosity among the generation of Americans that has been born since the 1970s. Recent polls have suggested that 25-30% of the twenty-something generation says they have no religion, representing a dramatic increase in unbelief over previous generations. My own experience with twenty-somethings suggests that they are not unconcerned about moral values or even about faith. Many who have rejected religion are still vitally interested in matters of faith, and are engaged in lively discussions and debates about it. But they are disillusioned by decades of religious right attempts to enforce what they perceive as a narrowly defined set of religious beliefs and values on the American public at large.

If we value faith and religious values in America, we need to uphold freedom. That is what has made religion great in the past, and what will allow it to thrive in the future.

Religious Freedom and Respect in a Pluralistic Society
I am working for same-sex marriage not because I want to deprive anybody of rights. I am working for same-sex marriage because I love my husband, and because we love our son, and I want to be able to protect and care for my family just the same as anybody else wants to care for and protect theirs.

I ask people to consider what they are doing in passing an amendment of the sort that is being proposed in Minnesota. Will it really uphold and protect religious freedom? Or does it risk doing the opposite? Will it really protect families? Or will it just disadvantage mine?

If you can try to put yourself in my shoes, and in the shoes of others in my situation, I promise I want to try to put myself in yours. Please, let's talk about what our real concerns are, without stereotyping the other. Is there any way we can move forward in a way that unites us rather than divides us, that creates a state of full of haves, rather than a state of haves and have nots?


Knight of Nothing said...

Well put - this essay meets directly the concerns I was trying to express the other day. Right on!

Knight of Nothing said...

On a related note - have you heard of this book? Sounds pretty interesting...

J G-W said...

It looks like an interesting book. I have it now... Downloaded it to my Kindle.