by Brian D. Sadie
5 February, 2015
This post contains a longer editorial version of an op-ed written at the same time and submitted to the major papers, including the Washington Post, the first week of February, when Mike Huckabee and others gained coverage for their stated notions of selective religious freedom and the obligations and duties of political and civil office holders. If you’re interested in such stuff, you’ll enjoy this. Good reading and good day.
On 3 February The Economist reported that Mike Huckabee said that the government must respect the rights of religious Christians who believe that marriage is for heterosexuals only. The remark is silly: the right of religious Christians to believe whatever they want is not at issue, but permitting those that hold public office from interfering in the rights and lives of others is.
Enter various government officials in Alabama, Oklahoma, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas and Utah seeking a way for such Christians to avoid granting marriage to consenting homosexual adults. It appears they are preparing for a time when the Supreme Court has finally indicated to the public at large that – heaven forbid! – marriage isn’t just for heterosexuals after all. So those Southern and Southwestern politicians intend to allow certain judges in their states to deny same-sex marriages because, they claim, that to not permit them such right of refusal would violate the judges’ personal religious beliefs.
I’m not opposed to judges or politicians acting as people normally do by following moral and ethical principles. However, those with restrictive and bigoted religiosity who feel impelled or compelled to behave antithetically to the basis of our civil society shouldn’t seek positions of authority in government and law. This nation’s accepted founding principle is the acknowledgement and protection of every citizen’s right to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness as long as they do not seek to violate or prevent the rights of others. Typically-occurring social coercion is enough to deal with, but remember that life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness means the right of privacy and to being left alone in one’s beliefs, practices, and chosen life.
Moral and ethical sensibilities should guide decisions, particularly when others would be affected by them. But the point of asserting one’s rights is to assure them and also to enable those seeking protection from or recompense for injustice and harm to receive it. That is a fundamental right for every human being. In the case of marriage, if the parties consent without discernable coercion or other nefarious extraneous factors then no one has the moral or ethical right to forbid or prevent them from doing so.
Accordingly, anyone wishing to become a judge or assume political authority must accept and be regulated by the fact that they are not to interpret or enforce law in a way that punishes innocent people or ignores and denies them their rights. What a judge or politician thinks and believes is their own business, and no one has any right to demand of them anything about it unless the judge or politician seeks, especially using the power and reach of office and law, to impose those personal thoughts and beliefs on others.
Such religiose public officials as those now attempting to mask their totalitarian bent behind the assertion that the right of religious freedom allows judges and law-making politicians to cite obligation to outmoded customary strictures either ignore or are ignorant of history and human behavior. But should they cram a little world and US history for just one day they’d see the universality of these issues and problems and would learn that their intention is folly.
Incumbent Republican Christians fretting about other people’s marriages could learn a thing or two about personal religion and national politics from events and people in twentieth-century Palestine. Jews referred to themselves as Jewish Palestinians: they were socially and politically Palestinian. Many of the then-recent immigrants also felt that being Jewish and Palestinian was not exclusive and disagreed vehemently with Zionists and other Jewish groups about taking political authority because they feared the moral predicament posed by upholding personal religious law and belief while involved in nationalist affairs would compromise their religious obeisance.
Judaism and Christianity are no different from any other religion in that they result from personal choice and serve as guides for behavior and practice when moral or ethical questions arise in the minds and hearts of congregants. For Palestinian Jews, just as for the progressive Jews of nineteenth-century Germany and Hellenistic Roman Alexandria long before, religion was personal, intended to guide the inner life without constraining or causing tension in the public arena. To those people, religious belief was not, as had been claimed in Old Testament texts, to vindicate heinous or iniquitous actions or be called upon to restrict the rights of others, and especially not by self-proclaimed true believers occupying public or quietly-appointed legal office.
Today’s conservative Christian politicians and judges should also think about the wars of the middle ages that proponents claimed God had sanctioned despite questionable hermeneutics and pursuit of socio-political aggrandizement. Mr. Huckabee and his comrades just might benefit from such a lesson.
Those agreeing with Mr. Huckabee would do better to acknowledge the bases of this nation as expressed in its founding declarations and keep their noses out of other peoples’ lives. Personal religious doctrine might be regarded by a believer as sacred, but privacy is sacrosanct and never rightly violated. As today’s right to marry derives from the notion of privacy, the right of consenting adults to do so is guaranteed and everyone who holds public office or exercises some public authority is required to uphold it.
Part of the current political and legal problem is a fundamentalist notion that the Bible is the word of God and not subject to critique as a collection of texts made by different people of various cultures over an extended period of time. True believers even insist that discovery and understanding are trumped by the cultural thinking recorded in the Bible and that faith requires them to dismiss lessons of archeology and advancements in medicine, arenas directly illuminating the very texts and worlds they claim to know so well. They and the politicians and judges emerging from their regions would have us all accept that prejudiced customs are non-negotiable articles of Faith and Divine Law that no one may overrule.
However, a close reading of an accurate translation of salient New Testament texts might further understanding for Huckabee and company. Fundamentalists call upon the purported words of Jesus in Matthew 19:3-12 and the later, reduced version of Mark 10:2-12 as proof that marriage can only be practiced by heterosexual couples, but the dialogue is a discrete response to a narrow question and doesn’t address, let alone prohibit or preclude, the ultimate message of an open table that Christianity was based on.
Early Judaism treated male homosexuality and female adultery and prostitution with violence and death, but early Christianity did not. The gospels counter draconian Jewish law and cultural norms with a message of acceptance, communion, and love. Among the more memorable episodes illustrating that message is that of Jesus eating with, and defending the humanity and lives of, prostitutes: that act of familiarity and kindness boldly dismissed tribal taboo and persecution for sexual relations. The intimate social custom of breaking bread was central to society and family: doing it with outcasts broke with Jewish tradition and made clear that consenting sexual behavior warranted neither murder nor eternal supernatural damnation. Today’s conservative Christians would do best to learn from the story of the human Jesus and remember that, regardless of their beliefs, theirs is but one approach to the practice of marriage.
After reading Jesus on the above and about sex, sexuality and the treatment of others, continue to Paul’s letters, especially 1 and 2 Corinthians. Reading him is good because he admits that he is giving his personal opinions, most of which uphold custom – even when unjust and harmful – and he does so merely by permission, not with Higher Authority. Paul sought with those letters to inspire the sagging or troubled spirits of a tiny minority of nascent Christians wishing to define, maintain, and spread their beliefs while bolstering their position within the influential non-Christian city of Corinth, a major trading center that archeologists estimate had a population between 200,000 to 1.3 million in the 1st century AD. 1 Corinthians is largely concerned with questions of Christian behavior, particularly in the city, where, among others, the Temple and cultic religion of Isis reigned supreme. 2 Corinthians followed soon after in response to doubts of Paul’s authority. The two letters to Timothy are also worth a gander for additional insight into Paul’s notions of managing Christian community and personal belief, public demeanor, and worldly authority.
Paul was but a man and we’re asked to consider that the elusive figure of Jesus existed as one, too. Whether or not either or both did in fact walk the earth, they exist in the pages of the New Testament, and interpretations of and beliefs about that collection of writings are what we’re dealing with. The point matters because the bulk of American Christian notions, including those espoused by the people from the states responsible for driving this controversy, largely derive from misinterpreted and misunderstood snippets of Biblical texts, most of which are attributed to Paul. Thus, when the world’s Huckabees play politics and cite the purity and authority of their personal religious beliefs to determine and regulate policy, we are all embroiled in old arguments born of ignorance, racism, and desire for power.
To fully appreciate such material as that of the Bible – to better understand it and even the people loyal to it – requires fair consideration of more than just a few selected words: regardless of what one might choose to believe, those writings originated long ago in a world quite different from ours. So, too, did the notion and practice of marriage, which has varied through the ages and by culture.
And so it is that the waste of public money and other resources on this argument today by entertaining such ridiculous posturing as that of Mr. Huckabee and those agreeing with him has no justification. There are important, worthwhile things for our political representatives and government officers to do, and this is not one of them.
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Notes for those interested:
Matthew 19:3–12; – Jesus answers the question of whether or not it is lawful for a man to get rid of his wife for every reason. The answer asserts that no man may break a bond that God has joined (no man shall put asunder…). It acknowledged the question’s two implicit cultural norms that marriage is between man and woman and for life. The remark was used to support the idea that nature proves the creator God’s intention of mating for reproduction as the purpose of life. Given that belief, the idea later emerged that marriage between man and woman is normative for the church of Jesus Christ, that sex may only be permitted between people married to each other, and that only adultery by the woman was grounds for divorce.
Mark 10:2–12 – is a briefer distillation of the above passage from Matthew.
Romans 1:26-27 – Hellenistic culture and tradition, including the Stoics, considered homosexuality contrary to nature. Society, including religious customs, generally forbade it. Jewish religious belief was the same and forbade the practice, too, but it also condemned it. Despite no argument against the more obvious physical basics of nature, sex, and procreation, New Testament writing seems less determined about denunciation of homosexuality and adultery. Romans 2 warns of judging others at all, indicating that like and permanent judgment will result. Notions of tolerance and minding one’s own personal business are indicated instead.
Corinthians and Timothy also contain relevant passages.
John 7:53-8:11 – About the woman taken in adultery and casting the first stone.
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The Economist reports (3 February, http://www.economist.com/blogs/democracyinamerica/2015/02/gay-marriage?fsrc=scn/fb/wl/bl/resistancebands)