The Supreme Court decision to legalize same-sex marriage drew such a strong reaction from every side that it seemed to reflect that Americans live in a country riven by irreconcilable theological values.
In arguing for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy contended that same-sex marriage was in harmony with the highest ideals of religion: love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, family and dignity.
To the court’s detractors, however, the ruling turned Bible teachings on their head. “Today the Court is wrong again,” the US Conference of Catholic Bishops stated. “It is profoundly immoral and unjust for the government to declare that two people of the same sex can constitute a marriage.”
Pockets of resistance have kept the issue in the news. Best-known is Kim Davis, the Kentucky clerk who was jailed after refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, citing religious objections. Other clerks have voiced similar objections.
This is not simply another political debate over what policies are best suited for Americans. Instead, it is part of a long-running battle over what God wants of American Christians. As such, compromise will not be possible until the combatants discern the religious underpinnings that motivate and guide their political adversaries.
As an advocate of reconciliation, I have spent years engaged in interfaith and interethnic work. So I recently set off from my home in New York City, looking for the seeds of a more productive national discourse on same-sex marriage.
With my research team, we visited a dozen Christian churches of different denominations, from Georgia Pentecostals to liberals in New England. I chose churches from a variety of regions, whose members had different levels of wealth and a variety of racial makeups. I cannot name the churches because I promised anonymity to those interviewed.
A shared interest in public policy
As different as the congregations were, they had one thing in common – they all engaged in public policy issues as one aspect of their religious calling, translating the values they hold dear into beliefs about how American society should function.
That religion helps shape the culture of which it is a part should seem cliched. A healthy society will meaningfully address core values if it is to flourish. Researchers like Jonathan Haidt and others who study how cultures evolve, argue that all societies share values such as compassion, fairness, respect for authority and loyalty.
In visiting churches, our goal was to test how these values are expressed and translated into public policy. Although we conducted surveys that probed many of these values, for conservatives one question seemed to trump the others – a concern about purity and pollution.
All societies – religious or secular – have an idea about what is pure or sacred, and attempt to protect the pure. This is not just about religion. Cultures may be unique, but they all teach human beings, whether religious or not, to respond to what their society considers sacred. In some places, dogs were considered deities; in others, dirty. To burn the flag can be seen as an ugly defilement – or a sign of a vital democracy.
In the Hebrew Bible, certain diseases, menstrual blood and pigs are examples of pollution. Many Christians also turn to the Bible to ground their understanding of the pure and impure. For conservative Christians, sex can be the great defiler and challenge to God.
This may lead one to expect that conservative Christians would exhibit severe homophobia and hatred against those whose sexual practices and beliefs diverged from their own. There certainly is homophobia in America . Yet in my conversations with congregants of every denomination, homophobia wasn’t much in evidence.
Instead, what emerged in our conversations was a central shared belief that we are all sinners, we have no right to distinguish one sin from another, and God wants all of us to repent.
As a minister in Georgia said to me, “If I were to shut my doors to my brother for being gay, then what does that say about the church and Jesus’s message?”
In Kentucky, I heard: “We teach that you could be clear in what you teach [about] same-sex marriage, and also teach that those people are beloved of God and should be welcomed.”
So if it is not homophobia, what is at the core of such anger and pain over same-sex marriage?
A clarifying question
Digging deeper into the mindsets of the religious Americans we surveyed, I found a clear distinction in the ways conservative and liberal Christians see the world. This distinction was highlighted by a specific question we asked churchgoers and clergy:
Though you may believe in both, which better reflects your views:
The world is primarily a dangerous place filled with the potential for sinful and evil forces.
The world is primarily filled with the potential for goodness, care, and cooperation.
Those who chose the first response, that the world is dangerous with sin and evil, held consistently negative views on everything from same-sex marriage to premarital sex, abortion and condoms for minors.
Those who believed the world is filled with goodness, care and cooperation chose the opposite responses on each of the issues.
To the Christian population that sees the world filled with sin and evil, same-sex marriage represents a pollution. It undermines the core of what is sacred and holy. And the sin, the pollution, is not limited to the sinners alone.
As my father-in-law, the noted biblical scholar Jacob Milgrom, explains, evildoers “[b]ring down the righteous with them. Those who perish with the wicked are not entirely blameless, however. They are inadvertent sinners who, by having allowed the wicked to flourish, have also contributed to the pollution of the sanctuary.”
For Christian believers in the United States, such pollution threatens to overwhelm the society of which they are a part and undermine its moral fiber. Same-sex marriage wreaks havoc on the core belief that America can be a fulfillment of biblical prophecy and moral rectitude.
However, this was not the case for the great majority of mainstream Christians we surveyed and interviewed. Their focus was on compassion and fairness, as theologian Katherine Henderson declared:
“As people of faith, we believe that every human being is created in the image of God and has sacred worth. Laws that grant rights and protections to some but not to others, simply because of gender or sexual orientation, are moral outrages.”
Our survey showed conservative congregants experienced their opposition to same-sex marriage as a desire to make whole something they see as ruptured that endangers all of us. Mainstream Christians saw same-sex marriage as an expression of divine love and justice. Interviews and focus groups confirmed these two core responses to same-sex marriage extended to the other questions, such as distributing condoms in schools and premarital sex in general.
Hope for the future
I came away from my recent journey with a much better appreciation for the coherent, theologically based value systems that fuel bitter red state/blue state divisions. Yet, I also saw opportunity for understanding and reconciliation.
Same-sex marriage is here to stay – America does not take away rights and privileges. And while I do not anticipate seeing two men kneeling at their own Catholic church wedding any time soon, there is ample evidence that while purity values are a constant, the object of “contamination” changes over times.
As gay and lesbian couples marry, have children, send them to school, attend church, participate in the civic, social and business life of the community, and are out as members of our own families, homosexuality may well cease to trigger the types of negative responses seen today.
As one congregant in Georgia noted, her now multiethnic church once preached segregation. Perhaps, she mused, her grandchildren will view church views on homosexuality with equal disappointment.