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.