March 11, 2010
Failing to Talk about Proposition 8
— Gregory C. Syler
The trial in California to determine the fate of Proposition 8 – that state’s 2008 referendum which defines marriage as a compact between a man and woman – rested in late January, although final arguments and a ruling might not come until later in March. Besides the obvious issues raised by the case, much of the media attention focused on the partnership between one-time courtroom rivals, Ted Olson and David Boies, and Olson’s argument that supporting gay marriage is, in fact, a conservative cause.
Just before the trial began, a Newsweek cover story gave eight full pages to Olson, six of which were written in his own words. Calling marriage “one of the basic building blocks of…our nation,” Olson claims that “same-sex unions promote the values conservatives prize.” He also refutes potential counter-claims that marriage has always been between a man and woman (just because we’ve always done something one way doesn’t necessarily make it right); marriage is for procreation (the state regularly marries heterosexual couples who don’t intend to have children); or that homosexuality is a lifestyle (no, sexuality is not chosen, and anyway that sounds like an argument designed to cloak discriminatory practices which contradict constitutional principles).
Olson also takes on what is, in reality, a bedrock opposition to his case, stating outright that he “understand[s], but reject[s], certain religious teachings that denounce homosexuality as morally wrong.” To this point, there are many, specifically Christian, voices lined up ready to push back. Time gave space (though not six pages’ worth) to the Rev. Albert Mohler of the Southern Baptist Convention, who argued that marriage is a vital institution for continuing the species, and Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, speaking on behalf of the U. S. Conference of Bishops, who reiterated the classic argument from natural theology – God made us male and female to covenant together and form a new, harmonious union from our respective biological differences.
Of particular interest, however, is that robust theological conversation on this matter seems relegated to the margins of discourse, and in its place the American public is fed nothing more than the contending voices of Ted Olson, whose biography adds an alluring dimension to the story, and a few predictable, mostly conservative Christian voices. Take, for instance, Olson’s claim that, for too long, many religions have reinforced outdated stereotypes and effectively endorsed sexual discrimination. “The antidote,” he maintained, “is understanding and reason.” But aren’t the claims of the Reverends Mohler and Kurtz, above, also grounded in a form of reason, albeit a different kind than Olson used last month in federal court?
This is not the first time there has been a divergence between courts and pulpits, and it won’t be the last. To this, we are reminded that Proposition 8 passed with 52 percent of the vote, thus leaving a sizable minority who were either opposed to its language or uncertain whether they should, in effect, legalize discrimination.
Such numbers might indicate that vibrant dialogue about this issue is, in fact, going on, even though it may be well below the surface. Remember Rick Warren’s foray into this issue? Warren, a California mega-church pastor who’s given purpose to millions, clearly endorsed the intiative just before the November 2008 election day. “Now let me say this really clearly,” he said in a video posting, “We support Proposition 8. And if you believe what the Bible says about marriage, you need to support Proposition 8. I never support a candidate, but on moral issues, I come out very clear.” By April, however, Warren seemed to flip-flop, and told CNN’s Larry King that he is not anti-gay and he “never once gave an endorsement” of the proposition. Following that interview, his church attempted to clarify matters, saying that Pastor Warren was specifically distancing himself from the organized campaign effort for Proposition 8, not necessarily what he said about moral issues. Nevertheless, more strident evangelicals and Rick Warren suffered a falling out that might only heal with time.
Interestingly, we haven’t heard Warren’s voice this time. Perhaps he learned his lesson and will stay out of the fray. Yet it raises the question whether Rick Warren’s November point / April counterpoint exemplifies the ways in which contemporary religious and, indeed, Christian voices, in attempting to stay above the chatter, only neglect their public voice and fail to engage in responsible, theological conversation. Until this debate emerges from the underground, we may not have what looks like a national conversation about justice but only counter-claims, with occasional shouting, from side to side.
Gregory Syler is a graduate of the University of Chicago Divinity School’s ministry program, and an Episcopal priest in the Diocese of Washington, D.C.