Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Recent News: Prop 8, Church of Scotland, Mainline Clergy and Gay Issues, and Obama and Human Rights

Because of the long weekend and yesterday’s holiday in the U.S., many readers may have taken a temporary break from reading the news and their favorite blogs. So I thought I’d offer today a smorgasbord of commentary from several recent news or blog articles, which touch on themes I’ve discussed in previous postings.

Today’s the day on which the California Supreme Court will hand down its verdict about proposition 8, the voter initiative that amended the state constitution to turn back gay marriage in the last round of elections. Most political analysts are expecting the California Supremes to uphold prop 8. But it’s less easy to know what the court will decide to do about the some 18,000 same-sex couples who married in California prior to prop 8.

Courtesy of Pam’s House Blend, I read an alarming article from Orcinus this weekend, predicting a violent right-wing backlash in the hinterlands, if the court should decide to void the prop 8 vote. This analysis ties into my caution in a number of previous blog postings (see e.g. here) about concluding that the power of the political and religious right has been decisively checked in our culture—particularly in areas in which it has long dominated political life.

Some thought-provoking reflections from Sara Robinson at Orcinus:

Yes, the right wing is losing on gay rights issues. That is, very precisely, why they’re more dangerous now than they have been in the past. Their impending irrelevance is not a reason to worry less; it’s a reason to worry more. And getting Prop 8 overturned in the courts would ignite the situation, because it will hit absolutely every angry-making right-wing button there is . . . .

It’s a sad irony that the best possible outcome for America’s gay movement could also turn out to be the tipping point for the biggest anti-gay, anti-liberal backlash we’ve seen yet. Tomorrow, we’ll know one way or another which way this will go – and whether a new court-ordered opportunity for America's gay community could also turn out to be a potent new source of danger from the right as well.

About a month ago, I noted an interesting editorial in the official journal of the Church of Scotland, Life and Work, which challenges the selectivity with which many Christians of the right quote the bible to challenge acceptance of gay persons. What I did not note at the time is that this editorial reflects an important conversation now underway among Scottish Presbyterians about gay people and gay issues.

In January 2009, after its then pastor had retired in June of the previous year, Queen’s Cross Church in Aberdeen chose to call as his replacement Rev. Scott Rennie—an openly gay minister, one whom the congregation knew to be gay and in a committed relationship. This action precipitated a lively discussion among Scottish Presbyterians about the propriety of appointing openly gay ministers.

An organized movement to block this appointment and the ordination of any openly gay ministers in the Church of Scotland got underway. A group of ministers within the Presbytery of Aberdeen filed a complaint about the appointment, precipitating deliberation by the Church of Scotland’s General Assembly in May 2009. A group calling itself the Fellowship of Confessing Churches formed and organized an online petition to consolidate opposition to Rev. Rennie’s appointment.

On 22 May, at its General Assembly, the Church of Scotland voted to uphold Rev. Rennie’s appointment as minister of Queen’s Cross Church. And now, Clerical Whispers is reporting today that opponents of this move are vowing to hold back contributions from the Church of Scotland.
And this is the point I want to emphasize, as I wend my way through this story. In February, I noted that the Presbytery of Arkansas had voted 116-64 in favor of striking down statements in the Book of Order of the Presbyterian church that prohibit the ordination of openly gay clergy. Though this initiative (which requires a two-thirds vote of approval from presbyteries throughout the country) failed, it came closer than ever before to succeeding in this year’s round of votes.

What I did not mention at the time I blogged about this issue was that, at the same time that the Presbytery of Arkansas voted in favor of abolishing barriers to ordination of openly gay clergy, a Presbyterian church in Little Rock, Second Presbyterian, ordained an openly gay deacon. I’ve followed the story of this ordination with some interest, since I have a number of friends who attend this church.

They tell me that the day on which the vote to ordain this deacon took place, one of their ministers reminded them of how their church has always been at the forefront of movements to defend human rights. The congregation sent participants to the Selma march in 1965. It also sent representatives to protests against American involvement in the Vietnam War. Its commitment to gay rights is an extension of its longstanding commitment to protect and defend human rights in many areas.

My friends tell me that the decision to ordain a gay deacon took place without rancor and with very little opposition in the congregation. However, following the vote, a number of well-heeled families informed the church (or so I am told) that they are withdrawing their membership and going to a more “biblically-correct” church.

This is, unfortunately, an all-too-common story. The primary reason many churches do not do what they know is right in the case of gay brothers and sisters has to do with money: fear of financial reprisal, if they put their words into action, in the case of gay brothers and sisters, holds many of our churches captive. It will be interesting to see how right-wing groups twist the screws, as they apply their financial blackmail to the Church of Scotland now—and whether they are successful in holding the church hostage to well-heeled interest groups that oppose gay rights.

Dirty business . . . .

And speaking of debates within the Presbyterian church about gay persons and gay rights, I should note the Clergy Voices Survey of Public Religion Research. This survey was conducted last year, and its results were recently released.

The survey polled clergy from seven mainline Protestant denominations in the U.S.—the United Church of Christ, Episcopal Church USA, United Methodist Church, American Baptist Church, Disciples of Christ, Presbyterian Church USA, and Evangelical Lutheran Church. The survey finds strong support among mainline clergy for laws prohibiting discrimination against gay and lesbian citizens. Two-thirds of mainline clergy support hate crimes legislation and workplace protections for gay and lesbian persons. A majority supports adoption rights.

However, on the issue of same-sex marriage, the survey notes some stark differences among mainline denominations. While 67% of UCC clergy and 49% of Episcopal clergy support gay marriage, only 25% of United Methodist clergy and 20% of American Baptist clergy do so.

I find the response of United Methodist and American Baptist clergy to questions about whether the churches should refuse to work actively to make homosexuality acceptable particularly disappointing. While 51% of all mainline ministers agree that the church should not work to thwart society’s acceptance of gay persons (this includes 81% of UCC clergy, 77% of Episcopal clergy, and 61% of ELCA clergy), among United Methodist and American Baptist ministers, fewer than 4-in-10 agree.

And finally, I want to mention a persuasive article asks about what seems to be going wrong with the Obama administration, when it comes to issues of civil liberties. Bromwich focuses in particular on the president’s national security speech on 21 May, which simultaneously repudiates Bush-Cheney policies while appearing to accept some of that administration’s infringement on constitutional rights in times of perceived danger to the American public.

A provocative quotation:

Let us say it: something is seriously wrong in this administration -- though we are not yet in a position to judge the cause. We do not know who the lawyers are that gave Barack Obama advice that goes against a long career of ostensible commitments. And it is too early yet to say at what point a new president, confused by the depth of his burdens and uncertain how much even now he believes of what he used to say, becomes instead a man we are compelled to see as lacking in convictions. It cannot be a virtue that he sheds the Constitution with a gentler demeanor than George W. Bush. . . .

A misjudged statesmanship has allowed Obama to think himself magnanimous when he declines to expose the wrongs he has come to know. The way to right a wrong is not to install a somewhat reformed version of the wrong. People, by that means, may be spared embarrassment, but their instinct for truth will be corrupted. It is a false prudence that supposes justice can come from a compromise between a lawful and a lawless regime. On the contrary, the less you tell of the truth, the more prone your listeners will be to commit the next barbarous act that is proposed to them under the cover of a national emergency or a necessary war.

On the whole—and sadly—I agree. I agree, in particular, with Bromwich’s insistence that they way to right a wrong is “not to install a somewhat reformed version of the wrong,” and that “the less you tell of the truth, the more prone your listeners will be to commit the next barbarous act that is proposed to them under the cover of a national emergency or a necessary war.” And this is why a href="http://bilgrimage.blogspot.com/2009/05/on-truth-commissions-parallels-between.html">I support the call for a national truth commission