“All kinds of images forever float
About us everywhere, and some are born
Of their own generation in the air
And some have more substantial origin
And some are compounds of two things or more . . . .”
— Lucretius, The Way Things Are (trans. by Rolfe Humphries)
Lucretius was marveling, in the context surrounding the passage above, at the many inventions of the mind—Centaurs, Scyllas, hounds of Hell—and reminding us, rather archly, that these things don’t exist except in our minds. And the mind is, in his words, “very delicate and sensitive.”
Lucretius was referring to illusions and our endless capacity to make bogeymen out of a few threads of this and that, sewn together with fear and animated out of dreams when reason sleeps.
Such has been the bogeyman of same-sex marriage for politicians who, putting reason aside, must accede to what their loudest constituents denounce. And then there’s Joe Biden.
In a move which must have shaken the White House and its staffers, Biden said on ‘Meet the Press’ that he was “absolutely comfortable with the fact that men marrying men, women marrying women, and heterosexual men and women marrying another are entitled to the same exact rights, all the civil rights, all the civil liberties.” That’s not an outright endorsement of gay marriage: instead, it’s an absolutely clear statement that the real issue is over denying a group of people their civil rights.
The President’s people were quick to put some air between Biden’s remarks and the President’s ‘evolving’ position, but by the middle of the week the President had declared himself supportive of same-sex marriages. Was it a historic announcement, akin to FDR signing the National Labor Relations Act in 1935 and Lyndon Johnson clearing the way for the Civil Rights Act of 1964?
It’s too soon to tell, but some public policy experts and presidential historians are hailing it as a major step in civil rights.
Peter Dreier, E. P. Clapp Distinguished Professor of Politics at Occidental College, believes that such changes are inevitable. In a blog to the Huffington Post , Dreier cites poll after poll that show increasing support for gay rights, among them the right to marriage. We’ve come a long way, says Dreier, in overcoming prejudice and fear in this area.
According to surveys conducted by the Washington Post and ABC News, a majority of Americans, 52 percent, now say marriage should be legal for gay and lesbian couples. For those born between 1965 and 1980, 50 percent believe gay marriages should be legal. For Americans born after 1981, fully 63 percent support the legalization of gay marriage.
Was the President courageous in taking such a stand? Most of the reaction, it seems, was about the effect his statement would make on his chances of reelection. Whether he boldly went where no president had gone before or whether he prudently stated the obvious, the fact is that he jerked the Romney camp—and Republicans in general—on the defensive. By recognizing it as a moral decision, not just a political calculation, Obama put the issue on firmer ground than mere ideology. In admitting his own gradual process he gave Americans a reasoned model for a significant change in one’s thinking.
There are at least two ways to regard this as more than a political IED. One is to claim it as an abomination from a religious perspective, a view based on a handful of texts in the Old and New Testaments. From this point of view the issue of gay marriage isn’t the problem, homosexuality is. The argument wouldn’t even get as far as civil rights denied. Since homosexuals have given over their humanity by committing such unnatural acts, the question of human rights is a moot point. Such ‘people’ do not qualify for equal protection under the law.
Another perspective is to separate it from its religious bindings and to regard it in a civil and secular light. If looked at in this way it is a moral issue, the denial of significant civil rights to a segment of the population that has been demonized and derided for decades.
For many thoughtful Christians this might appear as an ethical dilemma, a troubling choice between two apparent goods: the authority of the Bible vs fairness and justice for all. While this is not the venue for a Biblical exegesis on the subject, it is clear that theologians and Biblical scholars do not have a consensus on the Bible’s teaching about homosexuality. The word never appears in the Bible, for one thing, but more significantly, where the practice is condemned it’s usually in the context either of God’s command to populate the land the Hebrews had taken from the inhabitants or it’s a reaction to the degrading practice of pederasty in Greek and Roman cultures. Nowhere in the Bible is a monogamous, committed, and loving relationship between two people of the same gender ever portrayed. There are a number of reasons for this, first among them that the cultures would not have permitted it, and they did not permit it because it had no utility for the propagation of the species and the life of the community. Where survival and cultural identity are threatened such relationships are viewed with suspicion and fear.
But morality and ethics are fluid elements in human history. Once it was considered right and proper to stone people to death for religious infractions; now most cultures find that repugnant. There was a time when white Christians found Biblical support for owning slaves. That support was refuted and the larger issue of the dignity of persons and love for other persons won the day.
When religions clash with the historical evolution toward fuller and deeper human rights we should err on the side of human rights. I say this because I believe that true religion is, as the BIble puts it, ‘to care for the widows and orphans.’ That’s not all religion is good for by any means, but it’s certainly the point at which all of us could do better.
In the late 1970s, when I was in graduate school at the School of Theology at Claremont, a question about gay marriage was put to our teacher during class. The professor, the son of Methodist missionaries to China, a man who was a minister and a theologian through and through, a philosopher who was a leading exponent of process theology, an activist who was a pioneer in a biblically-based environmentalism, thought for a moment and then said words to the effect that, “I believe God wants us to experience the joy of a deep, committed relationship within marriage. Why should gay or lesbian couples be denied that kind of relationship?”
The question startled me then for I could see no argument against it. All these years later, having known and admired such couples, having seen their struggles and their triumphs in married life, I still can’t. There is beauty and strength in the quiet return to each other at end of day.
Miracle doesn’t lie only in the amazing
living through and defeat of danger;
miracles become miracles in the clear
achievement that is earned.
— Rainer Rilke, from Just as the Winged Energy of Delight