Cheap morality in the Prop 8 debate

Summer hours continue. Daily Episcopalian will publish every other day this week.

By Richard E. Helmer

Thousands of articles and commentaries have been written this week on the Federal Court’s ruling to strike down Proposition 8 in California. While not a legal scholar by any stretch of the imagination, I enjoyed reading the full length of the decision and its comprehensive treatment of the questions that reside at the heart of one of our era’s most pressing civil rights struggles. But what stuck most in my heart and mind in Chief U. S. District Judge Vaughn Walker’s decision, and in the furor of commentary that has erupted since, is the use of the word “morality.” In his decision, morality was largely classified in terms of privacy and religion.

Likewise, on the other side, concerns are expressed by supporters of Proposition 8 that their morality around marriage is increasingly marginalized from the public, secular arena of debate. Morality on both sides is clearly viewed as somehow sacred. On one side, its religious sanctity leaves it beyond the realm of legal consideration. On the other, its sanctity must be protected and even enforced upon others in wider society. But there is a dichotomy about morality created in this debate that to me is artificial, and perhaps even dangerous to our understanding of morality and how it ought to be evaluated and applied both for us as people of faith, and in the wider society.

The past few days have seen cries of further moral decay evidenced by this decision, that “Christian” values are somehow disappearing from American society, and Judge Walker’s decision is only the most recent, glaring example of secularism’s whole-hearted attack on good old-fashioned religious principles. There are deep-seated fears that the morality of our ancestors is somehow being trampled underfoot by an increasingly secular world of “activist judges” and “amoral legislatures.”

But morality in the Judeo-Christian tradition means more than just sticking to longstanding traditions and principles. It’s a testable enterprise in real living, and as people of faith, we are called to ask that it be accountable to reason, experience, and fairness. A few weeks ago, we read about Abraham in dialogue with God about the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18:20-32). Ironically, these two cities are all too often epitomized as the primordial examples of sexual decadence; but their real crimes, as witnessed by references made to them by the prophets and even Jesus Christ in Scripture, were wanton violence and inhospitality towards the stranger – in contrast, for instance, to Abraham’s gracious hospitality to the wayfarer. But more to the point on the question of morality, Abraham deigns to ask if God will spare the two cities from divine wrath if even a few righteous inhabitants are found within them. Will he condemn the righteous with the unrighteous? In a memorable conversation that still provokes chuckles when read to this day, God patiently answers Abraham each time as our spiritual ancestor whittles the numbers of the hypothetical righteous down to a mere handful. Abraham insists that God’s morality be just, be reasonable, be fair in his eyes. And God accepts and even agrees with Abraham’s pleading. This kind of divine morality from the very heart of the Judeo-Christian record is not capricious or arbitrary, but accessible to human understanding, and it yields to our honest, faithful questioning. Even the morality of divine actions must be ultimately comprehensible to our human experience, as limited as we all are. This is one of the messages of the grace we have received.

American culture likes to paint the religious and secular spheres as enemies. Leaders of the Roman Catholic and Mormon Churches who led the expensive and often cynical charge to pass Proposition 8 in California seem to readily fall in line with this thinking as well. But the real test for them is not whether religion should be argued in the secular sphere, but whether or not their understanding of morality can be viewed as reasonable and rooted in reality by outsiders, by the strangers to their faith.

Jesus’ moral arguments in the gospels are squarely rooted in reality. He offers parables to address life’s difficult questions in practical terms. He talks about the spread of the Gospel and its values using language of farming: sowing, plowing, harvesting. When asked about the lawful morality of paying taxes to the Emperor, he holds up the visage of a Roman coin. When he talks about marriage, it is because authorities have brought before him a practical question about the lawfulness of divorce in a society where single women are vulnerable to harsh realities like economic destitution and prostitution. When Jesus teaches generosity, it is as antidote to a consumptive life of grasping scarcity. When Jesus teaches the hard work of love – even loving one’s enemies – it is as balm to the destructive hatreds and divisions that are common to all our human experience. He criticizes the private, self-righteous morality and condemnatory moralizing of the Pharisees. His morality is public, practically applicable, and life-giving. These are not mere divine fiats, arbitrary moral codes issued by a distant God through his inaccessibly perfect Son. They are made relevant to the listener by a God who has come among us as one of us. They can be argued. They can be demonstrated in human, tangible, relational terms.

Moreover, the fact that people from beyond Jesus’ own Jewish tradition, from Samaritans to Romans to Canaanites, respond positively to his teaching speaks for itself. If Christian morality is to be truly argued successfully in contemporary American society, if it is to survive the marketplace of ideas, it must be salient to the experience of everyday people, even to the experience of those outside of Christian community. The saddest thing of all, from this Christian’s standpoint at least, is that much of the talk of “Christian” morality to defend destructive legal bias against same-sex couples is made up largely of self-referential tautologies. Put another way, Christian moralizing in a rational vacuum is nonsense, and there’s too much of that going around these days.

The really hard edge for Proposition 8 supporters and all committed opponents of same-sex marriage on Christian principle is the growing experience of facts on the ground, of real life. Covenanted same-sex couples are increasingly visible in just about every segment of American society. Overwhelming first-hand and empirical evidence is that these relationships can be just as healthy and life-giving as mixed-sex marriages. Some of these couples are raising happy, well-adjusted children to adulthood. Their households contribute to the well-being of the greater fabric of our communities. In The Episcopal Church, we can demonstrate how their families and ministries are contributing to the well-being of our parishes and dioceses and to the witness of the Gospel in the wider community. It is at first somehow strange that Judge Walker cited similar arguments to merit a legal case. Although I agree with him, I think these arguments also make the best moral case, in a Christian sense. Christian morality is public in the end, after all, not private. We measure this morality by its public, relational effects, not by how it measures up to proof-texts.

True morality subsumes the religious and secular spheres, for is not God ultimately in charge of both? The real problem for Proposition 8 supporters is that an enforced arbitrary definition of marriage (being allowable only between a man and a woman), while clearly rooted in the habits of Christian history and tradition, is a sort of morality that increasingly appears to be not only woefully lacking in its basic reasoning but clearly destructive to the fundamental human dignity of some of our brothers and sisters. This kind of morality is not sacred. It is rather, in one word, cheap. And the fact that this cheap morality is, under close examination, being rejected by secular courts as legally binding is not a sign of moral decay in our wider culture, but a sign of health and justice spreading in our midst – the goal of any truly sound Christian morality.

Thanks be to God.

The Rev. Richard E. Helmer is rector of Church of Our Saviour, Mill Valley, Calif. His sermons and reflections have been published widely online, and he blogs about spirituality, ministry, Anglicanism, church politics, music, and the misadventures of young parenthood at Caught by the Light.

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6 Comments
  1. What concerns me about gay rights in general is not the concept that gay people should have the same rights to, say, marriage, as straight people. I am worried about the positive discrimination that means that gay people effectively have more rights than straight.

    This has had disastrous consequences in the past. One example I can give is that in the 1980s London’s Islington Borough Council wrote in its equality policy, without any reference to research, that gay men were less likely to abuse children than straight men. You can guess the rest – the council began a drive to recruit gay men to its orphanages/care homes, and was inundated by men masquerading as gay who were in fact paedoophiles. In addition to the suffering this caused the inmates, this added more fuel to the fire for ignorant people who like to brand gay men as paedophiles.

    Gerry Dorrian

  2. Elizabeth Kaeton

    “Positive discrimination”????? Help me out here. I’m trying to understand. You want to limit the civil rights of ALL LGBT people because of a single incident of stupidity that happened in the 80s? I’m sorry – that doesn’t sound like ‘positive discrimination’ to me. It sounds like just flat out discrimination. Education is what is required. Not more discrimination. Or, am I missing something, Mr. Dorrian?

  3. Regardless of the discussions and arguments vis a vis Gay Marriage and Prop 8, I want to take up a related statement you make, my friend and pastor Father Richard Helmer:

    You say that Christ’s teaching needs to survive the marketplace of ideas. I think I got the general point on that statement.

    Not so. Christ’s teachings enter the realm of religious truth, faith, and belief in a long tradition. The arguments of Christ and his statements are not matters for modern secular question, per se. For me, they are bound in both traditional and modern truth. Yes, there is the lense of the Church, and we all have questions and thoughts on these teachings.

    I take issue with the manner of the debate you offer, and wonder if you will clarify your meaning in this phrase you make. I don’t think it is so much nitpicking a point of question I make, but somehow illuminates the progressive drift of changing interpretations in the Church and Bible, for it appears in this article to create or belie a salient foundation of attitude and motivation.

    With thanks for your usual patience and indulgence,

    I am,

    Peter Menkin

    Mill Valley, CA USA

    (north of San Francisco)

  4. Bro Karekin Yarian

    Mr. Dorrian, your post here is scandalous!

    You dare to conflate the pedophilia ring of Islington in the 1908s with anything having to do with the consequences of gay rights?! By what proof do you lay claim that this Islington scandal was the result of a concerted effort to recruit gay men, or that it had anything to do with a so called “equality policy”?

    You have merely used an underhanded tactic to continue to conflate the gays with pedophilia. And you dare to suggest that marriage equality – or any other advancement for equality – is tantamount to giving gays MORE rights than straights?

    You illustrate nothing but an irrational fear and the far-fetched conclusion (without any rational basis in fact) that the Islington scandal has anything to do with the dangers of giving gays equal rights?

    Your attempt to cloak your own biases is appalling. And scandalous. And you don’t even have the courage to own up to it yourself. Shame!

  5. Peter,

    Many thanks for the question, as it gets to the subtle but critical tension that occurs at the edge of the Church, where we intersect with the wider world.

    As a colleague once put it to me, in Anglicanism, at least, this boundary is much “fuzzier” than it is in other Catholic traditions (the Roman tradition, in particular, comes to mind.)

    That said, I tried to be careful with my choice of words. I did not say that Christian morality (however we define it) needs to survive in the marketplace of ideas in American society. I said, if it is to survive.. .

    We can argue therefore about the needfulness of Christian morality in American society. I would say, as a Christian, that American society needs Christian morality for all kinds of reasons. And if so, it needs a Christian morality that speaks cogently to contemporary conditions in American culture. And this morality needs to be able to stand up to secular questions, sound reasoning, and the best sense of fairness and justice that are not just part of the best of American jurisprudence, but also have cognates very much part of our Judeo-Christian heritage.

    It is to say that we cannot simply retreat into saying x is not Christian, therefore, we oppose it. We have to always endeavor to explain ourselves better than that: Why is it not Christian? How does it oppose Christ’s example? Why is Christ’s example more life-giving than x? To me, this is evangelism as it ought to be.

    Back to my post, this is where many Prop 8 proponents who oppose same-sex marriages on Christian principle have most fallen down. It is not enough to say “The Bible says. . .” or “Christian tradition holds. . .” when speaking to the wider world. Mere assertion is the lowest order of argumentation, and it rightly only garners silence or laughter in our diverse, post-modern society.

    To be clear, I am not a defender of Proposition 8, but if we are to have a truly effective conversation between Christianity and wider American society on this pressing civil rights issue and many other moral questions of our time, we need more than sloganeering and what I call a cheap moral assertion made in Christ’s good name.

    Frankly, the Roman Catholic Church at this point offers the best constructed argumentation in favor of Prop 8, although again I entirely disagree with both their premises (which assumes an anthropology which I believe to be clearly erroneous and self-contradictory at many levels) and therefore their conclusions, and also the consequences on real human lives of this teaching.

    I find it more sad, though, that at great expense, they apparently sold out to the most banal of appeals to raw bigotry in the Proposition 8 campaign. The nonsense that clergy might be forced to marry same-sex couples against their conscience, that same-sex marriages fundamentally undermine different-sex marriages, the implication that mere conversation about homosexuality might “infect” our children, or that a different understanding of morality in human relating than standard Catholic doctrine means no morality at all. . .these are just a few examples of the red herrings and appeals to gross prejudice they and the marketers they employed generated.

    In that way, they served no one in the long run, least of all their perspectives or the name of the Church and, most critically, the name of our beloved Christ.

  6. Gary Paul Gilbert

    Gerry Dorrian, The issue here is not gay rights in general but the irrational exclusion of same-sex couples from civil marriage in the State of California. The court said that California domestic partnerships, which convey many of the rights of marriage, are not acceptable because they deny same-sex couples the equal protection and due process of American law. England’s courts have not advanced to this point yet because same-sex couples in the UK are only offered civil partnerships, which offer many of the rights of marriage but not all.

    This is about allowing same-sex couples in the State of California to enjoy the fundamental right to marry like all other couples.

    This is not about affirmative action, which I assume is what you mean by “positive discrimation.” And I agree with others that the comparison of LGBTs to pedophiles is outrageous.

    Gary Paul Gilbert

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