DOMA and the Supreme Court: It’s Time for the Church to Get Its Story Straight


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DOMA and the Supreme Court: It’s Time for the Church to Get Its Story Straight

March 25, 2013

By Derek Penwell

On Tuesday and Wednesday, March 26 and 27, the Supreme Court is going to hear three hours of arguments on two cases concerning the constitutionality of California’s Proposition 8 (Prop 8) and the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). Both have to do with the legality of denying marriage to same gendered couples. That the way this issue is argued, and ultimately decided, bears watching should go without saying. I along with a number of other people will be paying close attention.

Since legal analysis isn’t my area of expertise, I will leave that to the professional legal pundits. What I’m interested in taking a look at is the extent to which our attitudes about lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people have changed so profoundly that it is now possible to think that full equality, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, is within reach. So, without resorting overmuch to triumphalism, here’s what I think:

No matter what happens in the Supreme Court this week, the war against the exclusion of LGBT folks has been won; we are merely fighting rearguard actions.

“Well, that sounds awfully triumphalist.”

Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s a good thing that LGBT issues are on the way to being definitively settled culturally. But my take on the whole situation isn’t just another instance of what some people regard as my incessant cheerleading for LGBT equality. I’m just making an observation.

Clearly, I’m not the most objective observer in the whole LGBT debate, since my advocacy for LGBT inclusion has been public over the years. But my feelings notwithstanding, I’m trying to give an honest read on the cultural shift taking place.

According to a Washington Post/ABC poll released last week, the number of Americans now in favor of legalizing same gender marriage has risen to (58%) with (36%) against—a stunning reversal of attitude over the past nine years. In 2004, (55%) of respondents were against legalizing same gender marriage, with only (41%) in favor.

What’s driving this change in cultural attitudes? Young people.

Perhaps just as interesting as the overall rise in support for same gender marriage is the observation that what distinguishes people who are in favor of it has less to do with party affiliation than with age. Among those 18-49, a majority (52%) of self-identified Republicans (i.e., those traditionally opposed to the question of marriage equality) are now in favor of legalizing it, while a sizable majority of their Republican counterparts over 65 continue to be opposed to legalization (68%). It’s important to point out, however, that even that number (i.e., Republicans over 65 who are opposed) has fallen by over (20%) in the last nine years. Significantly, among Democrats 65 and over, the numbers have shifted most dramatically, from (30%) in favor of legalization in 2004 to (64%) in favor in 2013, while overall support in that age group across partisan divisions has risen to (44%).

Perhaps most striking, though, according to the poll, the number of people in favor of legalizing same gender marriage among those 18-29 has risen to (81%). There is now near unanimity among those who are entering their adult years that people of the same gender ought to be afforded the same rights to marry as heterosexuals.

Now, all this shift toward support of marriage equality would be important to watch even if the age distribution were unchanging—that is, if those in the different age brackets stayed in the same age brackets, if 18-29 year-olds always stayed 18-29. The reality of the situation, however, is that as each day passes, the older age groups are losing older people and being replaced by younger people—younger people who don’t suddenly change their moral commitments upon being welcomed to sit at the grown up table. As the Pew Research Center points out, “Millenials as a portion of the adult population have grown from 9 percent to 27 percent over the past decade.”

In other words, for good or ill, the times they are indeed a-changin’—along with the supposed moral center of the culture. You may not like it. You may think this spells the end of the virtuous American society—a society, I might point out, that bequeathed to us the “virtues” of a shrinking social safety net for the poor, both young and old; institutional racism; gender inequity; xenophobia of a particularly hispanic flavor; criminally underfunded educational institutions, infrastructure, scientific research and development, and national healthcare; and a military budget that exceeds the budgets of its next thirteen global rivals … combined.

As I’ve written elsewhere, the young people may not much care to inherit what we’ve worked so hard to give them. Turns out, the culture we’ve invested in, in many ways, is one young people don’t feel much of a stake in preserving. They’re happy about the change. No, that’s wrong. They think a change is critical, from a culture that excludes based on the accidents of birth to one that seeks to widen its embrace of diversity.

So, the question to the church is: “When the cultural bottom falls out, when opposition to same gender marriage—like slavery, racism, prohibition, the disenfranchisement of women, and mullets—is viewed as a moral failing for which we must apologize, where will the church be?”

Please understand, I’m not trying to make the case that people should shift their Christian commitments based on newspaper polling. What I am saying, however, is that full inclusion is where we’re headed. Make no mistake, this change is coming. Arguing, as Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, does that “the reality is [marriage equality is] not inevitable,” merely makes you a cultural flat-earther, someone to be mocked in the future. (I’m not saying that I think making fun of his moral position in the future is a good thing. I’m only telling you what is getting ready to happen.)

So, Christians, whether they like it or not, are going to have to come up with a response to a culture that will soon demand to know why they continue to hold “hopelessly outmoded ideas.” Again, I’m not saying those ideas are hopelessly outmoded (though, I do happen to believe that); I’m saying that that’s what will, sooner rather than later, be the conventional wisdom in our society, and that Christians need to come up with a more compelling argument about why they aren’t the modern religious equivalent of George Wallace and Bull Connor.

Look, I’m not driving the cultural bus; I’m just telling you where it’s headed.

Whatever happens in the Supreme Court this week, like it or not, openness is going to settle among us. And no matter how we view the issue now, one day soon the kids are going to ask how we could allow the cultural night sticks and German Shepherds to be set on our brothers and sisters. Fair or not, that will be the frame.

All I’m saying is “Get ready! Things are fixin’ to get interesting.”

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About Derek Penwell

Derek Penwell is an author, editor, speaker, and activist. He is the senior minister of Douglass Boulevard Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Louisville, Kentucky and a former lecturer at the University of Louisville in Religious Studies and Humanities. He has a Ph.D. in humanities from the University of Louisville. He is the author of The Mainliner’s Survival Guide to the Post-Denominational World, from Chalice Press, about how mainline denominations can avoid despair in an emerging world. He currently edits a blog on emergence Christianity, dmergent.org, and blogs at his own site at derekpenwell.net.

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