Friday, November 14, 2008

A Modest Proposal Regarding Proposition 8

As regular Robert Frost’s Banjo readers know, I was recently in the Golden State, & along with many pleasant times, I also heard a number of folks express dismay about the recent passage of Proposition 8, which essentially bans same-sex marriage in the state. This proposition was put forward in response to an earlier California Supreme Court decision stating that same-sex marriage is a civil rights issue & should be allowed.

Now, before we wade too far into this quagmire, l
et me say a couple of things very much in the “for what it’s worth” column (& if you’re afraid you’re headed into a quagmire, you might read yesterday’s post introducing this issue). For what it’s worth, most of the people I heard express dismay are straight—these aren’t people who are directly affected, though they may well have friends or family members who are. Second—again for what it’s worth—I’m straight, & am married in a “traditional marriage” to a woman I love dearly—so again, in that sense I’m a “disinterested party,” though in the interest of full disclosure, I also have very close friends who may be affected, so these events do have a personal face for me.

I first thought about a Proposition 8 post suggesting in a satirical way that California could fix its current budget crisis by revoking the tax-exemp
t status of the Church of Latter Day Saints; after all, the LDS Church played a large role in financially backing Proposition 8, despite the fact that LDS Church members only account for about 2% of California’s population. Apparently, I’m not the first one to think of this—see the following link. However, it appears that freedom of speech considerations trump separation of church & state. This is outlined on the following very conservative site, but it appears from other sources that the info at that link is generally correct. & I suppose I can accept this, because if we want churches to be free to fight for justice (which they have done, & continue to do), we have to allow them to fight for injustice.

& of course, one could point out that the LDS Church has had its own “issues” with traditional marriage over the years—the very witty Christa Faust did so in this post to Deadlier than the Male; & for those who claim this is an anachronistic attack, check out the following: here or here.

But no, I thought I’d take a different slant altog
ether. One of the main Biblical texts used to condemn homosexuality occurs in the book of Leviticus (by the way: I’m aware it’s not the only such text). This is third book of Torah in the Judaic tradition, & the third book of the Christian Old Testament. Traditionally, the authorship of Leviticus has been ascribed to Moses, though Biblical scholars generally reckon it was composed between 500-400 B.C. by a member or members of the priestly class. Leviticus is very concerned with taboos & with proper ritual procedures, such as detailing the manner in which sacrifices should be carried out. In addition, Leviticus proposes a number of dietary & sexual restrictions. Interestingly, most (though admittedly not all) Christian denominations seem to “cherry pick” quite freely amongst these restrictions, despite a generalized insistence that the restriction against homosexuality put forward in Leviticus must be absolute (this restriction occurs both in Lev. 18 & in Lev. 20). As examples, other restrictions include the following:

1. Don’t eat rabbit or pork (Lev: 11: 4-7)
2. Don’t eat shellfish (Lev. 11:9-12)
3. Anyone who touches an insect or a dead animal needs to go through ritual purification (Lev. 11:24-40)

4. Practice circumcision (Lev. 12: 3)
5. Absolutely refrain from sex (apparently including any form of touching) during menstruation (Lev. 12: 1-2; also 15: 24; 18: 19; 20:18—which proposes exile as the punishment)
6. Don’t plant more than one crop in any field or wear a
ny clothing sewn from more than one type of thread—goodbye to your cotton/poly blends, pal… (Lev. 19: 19)
7. Execute adulterers of both sexes (Lev. 20: 10 –this of course would be illegal under U.S. law, & if carried out would have a rather devastating impact on the population, including some religious leaders—hello, Jimmy Swaggart)
8. Stop lending money for interest (Lev. 25: 35-37; also in Exodus & Deuteronomy; interestingly, in The Divine Comedy Dante places the usurers in the inner ring of the seventh circle of hell with the blasphemers and homosexuals

Now I’m aware that items 1, 2, 4, & 7 were addressed in the New Testament either explicitly or implicitly. Any argument about whether these later moral revaluations were culturally expedient or the result of an improved revelation must be by definition interminable—i.e., these are questions of belief, & not subject to “proof.” However, the change in attitude toward lending at interest (which used to be called usury) is a relatively recent development that’s become increasingly acceptable through the rise of capitalism. This practice was condemned not only by Dante, but also by St Anselm & St Thomas Aquinas among many others, because it was seen as “unnatural.” Nowadays, lending at interest is a cornerstone of our society’s economic structure. To see the real damage this practice is capable of causing, one only has to look at the current financial meltdown that snowballed from the predatory lending practices used during the earlier real estate boom. Given the very real devastation to both individual lives (bankruptcy, home foreclosure, vanishing retirement accounts for our senior citizens etc.) & to our society as a whole, I’d love to see some groups begin circulating petitions to outlaw this Biblically-banned practice that indeed tears at the very fabric of our society—let’s face it, folks: the only ones who’ll lose in this are the banks, & the banks are institutions, not people. So why do I suspect that the Leviticus-quoting folks in California & Arizona, & yes, in Idaho, aren’t going to be jumping on the anti-usury bandwagon I’m proposing? On the other hand, there’s no evidence that sanctioned same-sex marriages have had adverse effects on the social fabric of Spain, Belgium, Holland & Norway, or that legal same-sex civil unions have been detrimental to most of Europe.

On a serious note: One thing that’s neglected in this
debate about same-sex marriage: in legal terms, marriage in the US isn’t a religious ceremony; it’s a contract. This legal contract may or may not be entered into through a religious ceremony. After all, some percentage of marriages (it’s difficult to determine how high a percentage through cursory internet research) are entered into through civil ceremonies, & exist outside the provenance of religious authority. In this sense, marriage in U.S. law is a contractual agreement—it involves certain financial benefits & certain financial obligations. It seems highly questionable whether churches have any say in dictating who can enter into legal contracts; & while I don’t believe churches should be obligated to perform marriages they consider contrary to their beliefs, I don’t see how these churches should have any right to dictate how these beliefs affect a large number of citizens who don’t share their worldview. Sharon Kyle of the LA Progressive has a thoughtful editorial about this subject here. In addition, while I’d agree that at its best marriage has a strong spiritual component (though I vehemently disagree with the view that this component can only be present in heterosexual marriage), I’ve seen enough married couples in my time to know that this spiritual component is neither a requirement (legal or otherwise) to stay married nor even to get married in the first place.

The Constitution promises a right to “the pursuit of happiness” (not happiness per se, but its pursuit). For many people, the right to marry is integral to the pursuit of happiness. I haven’t seen versions of the Constitution that guarantee this right only for straight folks, or only for Christians, or only for any one segment—however dominant—in our population. In fact, the rule of law ideally is established for the protection of min
orities, not for their suppression or oppression.

As Dani Leone & I were driving around Sonoma County, we came across a picket line of college age kids. They were protesting Proposition 8 in a peaceful but boisterous way. Afterwards, Dani & I discussed how the kids may save us after all (the Whistling blog has a post on this same topic here)—you know, even a short while ago I wouldn’t have believed that a black man, especially one with a name like Barack Obama, stood any chance of getting elected president; & speaking of President-Elect Obama, let me make one final po
int. Mr Obama was the child of an interracial marriage. Until 1948, 30 of the then 48 states enforced what were known as miscegenation laws—i.e., for young folks out there, interracial marriage was illegal. This continued in law in 16 states well into my lifetime (& in fact into Mr Obama’s lifetime) until the Supreme Court decision in “Loving v. Virginia” struck down the last of such laws in 1967. There's further discussion of links between miscegenation laws & same-sex marriage bans here. Consider this wording from a legal decision invalidating a marriage between a black man & a white woman in 1878: “…connections and alliances so unnatural, that God and nature seem to forbid them, should be prohibited by positive law…”

My last thoughts on the subject? The quality & depth of love isn’t dictated by anatomy but by what two people have in their hearts, & by the commitment they’re willing to make to each other’s welfare.

Amor Omnia Vincit: Californian feminists and gay-rights activists Del Martin, 87 and Phyllis Lyon, 84 got married in June 2008, after a 56-year romance.


  1. Wow! Interesting post.

    In forming my own views of the subject, I have to come down on the side of equal protection. How about throwing out marriage as a legal contract altogether, and leave that to churches? Then install civil unions for anyone who wants 'em.

    From a religious POV (my own, anyway), you could make an argument from Romans 1 that homosexual behavior is prohibited by the New Testament as well as the Hebrew Bible. Of course, if you go there, you also have to deal with certain texts in other Pauline letters that seem to relegate women to a secondary role.

    Dealing with Leviticus and the seeming continuity of problems with human rights in the New Testament can be explained at least in part with the idea that "God meets people where they are." The ancient Hebrews were surrounded by cultures who had certain purity laws, and since those were expected, they were given those. (Sharp contrasts with the surrounding cultures can be noted as well.) When it comes to the time of the NT, Jesus and some of the apostles treated women as on par with the men viz. discipleship; for example, Mary sister of Martha is said to have "sat at the feet of" Jesus which is a Jewish phrase used to refer to the students of a rabbi. In other words, despite many setbacks, the New Testament itself plants the seeds of equal rights for women. God meets people where they are.

    You could make the leap, I suppose, to saying that those seeds should provide equality for homosexuals. (While I believe in equal protection under the law, it's very hard for me, as per Romans 1, to justify homosexual behavior for Christians. People who don't share that faith are not obligated by its prohibitions.)

    What's so interesting is that, as near as I can tell, universal human rights come out of the monotheistic traditions. In the Hebrew prophets you get the idea that the king as well as the peasant are accountable for their actions. In the gospels, Jesus says, "Blessed are the poor," (those who are regarded even today as failures in every way), "for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." IOW even the poor, for Jesus, have access to God. You marinate on that for several hundred years and you figure out if everyone is equal before God, then everyone is equal.

    Fast forward to our time, and countries that come out of those traditions usually do better about universal rights than those that do not.

    What this amounts to is an argument that homosexuals can think about equal rights in our time based on presuppositions coming from Judeo-Christianity. I say "in our time" because the ancient world knew homosexual practice--and it's important to note that they never even thought of it as being an equivalent to a heterosexual marriage.

    It's interesting that the medieval church prohibited usury, which is why Jewish people got into banking; they were allowed to do it. Tossing out usury would end our financial system, but perhaps an interest-ceiling would be a good first step.

    Final notes: a lot of the support for Proposition 8 comes from the erroneous notion that the United States was founded as a Christian nation. If this was specifically founded as a Christian nation, you could perhaps justify it.

    It irks me how little of history Christians know; the United States was founded as an alternative to the religiously corrupted regimes of Europe. The Puritans did have a theocratic state when they first got here but they were not the ones who framed our Constitution. The Puritans were incapable of seeing that the religious freedom they came for, should be extended to everyone else. While the framers expected a moral people, and expected that morality to be framed by religion for most people (by reason for the elites), a religious state did not appeal to them at all--because they remembered the religious wars in Europe.

    Christians who do recognize these facts tend to oppose homosexuality based on natural law and the history of civilizations. That's a discussion for another day, I suppose.

  2. Thanks for the very thoughtful comment, Tom, & for taking the time to wade thru such a prolix post. I'm aware of the Romans I argument, & at least from a non-religious point of view it seems one is always balancing texts to consider why one statement is considered absolute & another relative. I guess ultimately that's what I was driving at.

  3. People being people (Chesterton used to say that Original Sin was the only doctrine that was empirically provable), they tend to take the texts that they agree with and say they're "for all time" and take the ones they don't like and call them "cultural context." I have my own sets, LOL.

    It makes me ashamed that conservative Christians are known mostly for opposing abortion and homosexual rights. If they were known for what they were FOR viz the good of the larger world, I'd feel better about being one.

    I can't seem to source this thought, but it's worth quoting: "The gospel ought to be good news even for people who never choose to believe it." I don't think Proposition 8 represents that, unfortunately.

  4. As a non-Christian, I definitely acknowledge a lot of good that's been done by various Christian churches: the liberation theology nuns & priests in Latin America, the Dorothy Day workers, the many churches who participated in the 60s civil rights struggles, & churches that continue to work for peace. Also, in fairness, I should note that some churches also worked to defeat Prop 8. It does seem that in this country at least, a certain right-wing faction has hijacked much of the discourse about Christianity-- at least that's my impression from the outside looking in.

  5. I felt privileged to read this thoughtful & thought-provoking discussion- & heartened by the respect friends with different views can show each other.

  6. Robert, you have made very good points. I believe much of the hope for tolerance and change is with the young kids. I recently had a conversation with two kids I met at my neighbors: an 18 year old, voting for the first time for Obama, and against Prop 8. I asked her and her 16 year old brother if they learned to accept diversity from their parents, or ...? and she shrugged and said simply, "We're all alike, doesn't matter." Her brother said, "Religion is what trys to separate and take away rights." I think their mother was surprised by her bright and thinking kids.

  7. Hi again Linda:

    Yes, I agree about the hope with kids, who've fortunately grown up in a different environment. Thanks for following, too.

  8. Well, and one thing I think the younger folks will catch onto is that you can embrace/tolerate without agreeing. I've gotten in touch again with a dear college friend who would definitely agree more with the original post than with my comments.

    The friendship is bigger than this issue, because people are bigger than their sexual orientation. While I take issue with some of his positions, he is more important than his views. Moreover, following the Scriptural principle "by their fruits you will know them," he's become much more grounded and directed in his overall life since he accepted his orientation.

  9. Hey Tomm:

    Good to hear from you. As Eberle pointed out earlier, it's important to have a forum where friends & friendly people can discuss topics like this in an understanding manner, even if they disagree on some points. I certainly respect your willingness to do that.


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