Is Religious Right Conceding on Gay Rights Issues?

by Peter Cassels

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Monday March 28, 2011

Some religious right leaders see DOMA's end as recognition of marriage equality

Some conservative religious leaders have seen the handwriting on the wall and are beginning to acknowledge that marriage equality eventually will be the law of the land.

President Barack Obama's decision not to defend the Defense of Marriage Act seems to have opened their eyes to the fact that it's unconstitutional. House Speaker John Boehner has said Congress will pick up the court defense but it is still unclear how that will happen.

A major sign of fundamentalists throwing in the towel was what the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary said during a recent appearance on a Focus on the Family radio show.

"I think it's clear that something like same-sex marriage is going to become normalized, legalized and recognized in the culture," Albert Mohler said. "It's time for Christians to start thinking about how we're going to deal with that."

A lawyer for the anti-gay American Family Association also has said DOMA is unconstitutional. Mohler said fundamentalists shouldn't give up the fight against marriage equality, but cautioned that they need to cope with the shifting culture and realize that they may lose some of their flock.

He urged parents to talk with their children about the new definition of marriage.

"We have to prepare our children to be in a context in which they're going to be in a playground with children who have two dads or two moms," Mohler emphasized.

One of several LGBT experts EDGE interviewed about the shift in attitudes among religious groups said declaring DOMA unconstitutional would encourage internal dialogue.

"It's important for religions to be able to have the conversation about their support or non-support of marriage equality independent of the government," said Sharon Groves, director of the Human Rights Campaign Foundation's Religion and Faith Program.

"DOMA repeal is actually good for religion" she contended. "It's about how we see our relationship to one another in a faith context, rather than it being interfered with by government mandates."

Young Evangelicals, Several Denominations Support Gay Marriage

Asked about the prospects for all religious groups to recognize marriage equality, Groves replied: "I think we're getting there. I don't think it's going to happen tomorrow, but Mohler's on to something."

There's evidence that attitudes are shifting. She cited a recent Pew Research poll showing that 52 percent of young evangelicals support same-sex civil unions or marriage.

"They are not in the same place as their parents were," Groves pointed out. "They are hearing sermons that are homophobic but they are not influenced by them."

The American religious landscape represents a broad spectrum of attitudes toward same-sex marriage.

The Metropolitan Community Church, founded by gays, as well as Unitarian Universalists, the United Church of Christ, the Episcopal Church and African-American groups like the Unity Fellowship Church recognize and perform same-sex weddings. One U.S. branch of the Old Catholic Church also does, as do the Reform and Reconstructionist branches of Judaism.

Further along the spectrum are religions where attitudes towards marriage equality are evolving. Among them are Presbyterians and Lutherans. Recognition of marriage equality will come first to those groups, according to those EDGE interviewed.

Then there are the die-hard anti marriage-equality congregations like the Roman Catholics, Southern Baptists, Pentecostals and evangelicals. Although not officially recognized, there are LGBT organizations that are working to change policies within religions that are fiercely anti-gay, such as Catholics and Eastern Rite and Orthodox Christians. There are even groups of gay Muslims and Mormons.

Changing Attitudes a Major Challenge

Changing attitudes among conservative religions is a challenge (to put it mildly), say two ministers with whom EDGE spoke.

"I think it is going to take enormous amounts of work and intentionality," said Rev. Rebecca Voelkel, faith work director at the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. "It took the Catholic Church 500 years to apologize to Copernicus, so I don't want to be naïve about the kind of opposition and fear that is out there."

'It took the Catholic Church 500 years to apologize to Copernicus, so I don't want to be naïve about the kind of opposition and fear that is out there.'

The United Church of Christ pastor said it's important for religions to recognize marriage equality because "as a person of faith I believe the primary message of Jesus is that love manifests in the world. It is those relationships, families, communities that are going to be the hope for the future, so it feels like a theological imperative for me."

Voelkel is optimistic that the example of love same-sex families show eventually will prevail.

"I do believe that the core of our religious traditions is this affirmation of love, covenance and family," she said. "At the end of the day that is what marriage equality is all about and our colleagues will come to recognize that."

She encouraged same-sex couples to form relationships with straights who are against marriage equality "so they can see that there is love, justice and commitment and this is a sacred union like heterosexual marriages are."

Rev. Dr. Cindi Love is executive director of Soulforce, a national organization based in Abilene, Texas, that advocates nonviolent resistance against religious oppression of LGBTs.

She said it's important for religions to recognize same-sex marriage because "it represents our human encounter and relationship with God. If you're a follower of Christ, you have to believe we are all really important."

Love said the consensus among political and religious circles is that the trajectory toward marriage equality "at this point is not stoppable. In my personal opinion, socially, culturally and even religiously, there is now enough critical mass in the U.S. for civil unions and/or marriages to be authorized in every state."

But Love emphasized that the religious right won't give up easily. She had just returned from the National Religious Broadcasters convention, where it was clear the highly influential organization does not intend to concede.

"There will be at least a flurry if not a full-court press to drag out the process in the courts," she observed. "I think they still hold out hope that there have been enough people in the radical right who have been elected to office to prevent full marriage equality."

'Dominionism': Turning the U.S. Into a Theocracy

Among the last to throw in the towel, Love predicted, are the fundamentalists, particularly a fairly new branch called the dominionists, which holds a growing influence and has become emboldened.

"Dominionism is basically Christian reconstructionism," the former executive director of the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches (MCC) explained.

Dominionists want to turn the U. S. into a theocracy, according to Love. They believe George W. Bush "was sent by God to reclaim America for Jesus Christ." It's a doctrine that wants to remake society to conform to the Old Testament, she contended.

"Dominionists would replace the Constitution with the Ten Commandments and the Mosaic laws of the Bible," Love said. "They maintain that the second coming of Jesus Christ will never happen until these laws are established. What has shifted is that they acknowledge they will not be able to do that in the U.S."

Marriage equality and abortion are the major issues Dominionists are fighting against, she added.

Fundamentalists are practicing what Love describes as "a much softer kind of compassionate conservatism." Gone are the days of the vitriolic, vengeful speech when they said gays are recruiting young people to molest.

"They now say we are caught in this sin of homosexuality and they will support us in finding Christ and coming out of that sin," the minister explained.

The fundamentalists now are exporting their homophobic vitriol overseas to places like Uganda, "where they are still saying things like gays are destroying the fabric of society and recruiting young people," Love reported.

Both Love and Groves believe many gay and lesbian couples would be more comfortable if they were married in a church or synagogue.

"We all have a deep need for ritual, such as those of our childhood--baptism and confirmation--all the things we went through if we were part of a religious community," Love observed.

Those who grew up in a faith have a desire to have such rituals for their children, she added. She mentioned a couple who wanted their child confirmed by the Catholic Church, but it refused, so the ceremony took place in an MCC church. "The child's grandmother and great grandmother wanted that," Love said. "It's a part of their history."

"Same-sex couples, like straight couples, come from all religious backgrounds and non-religious traditions," Groves pointed out. "They should be able to decide where they get married based on their positions."

Peter Cassels is a recipient of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association's Excellence in Journalism award. His e-mail address is [email protected].