I was glad to read recently that popular moderate evangelical Tony Campolo recognizes what many others do not: That for better or worse, the Religious Right is here to stay for a very long time. (And as Bill Berkowitz has pointed out, he should know.) Then I read a subsequent Campolo essay about “homosexual marriage” and saw that his sensible essay about the durability of the Religious Right and his liberalism not withstanding, he is on the side of the Religious Right in a way that could matter profoundly for the future of religious pluralism and separation of church and state.

Writing at The Huffington Post, Campolo recently wrapped a distinctly theocratic idea in the language of apparent moderation and called it a compromise.

Let’s unwrap it and see what’s inside.

Campolo first offers a series of false premises:

President Bush once said that marriage is a sacred institution and should be reserved for the union of one man and one woman. If this is the case — and most Americans would agree with him on this — then I have to ask: Why is the government at all involved in marrying people? If marriage really is a sacred institution, then why is the government controlling it, especially in a nation that affirms separation of church and state?

Campolo suggests that because George W. Bush once said something, we should therefore treat it as true. And if we accept Bush’s truth, we should feel right about it because a popular majority is said to agree with him. Of course, just because a politician expresses a view on the sacred, that does not mean the view is either sacred or true. And we are left to wonder what strange thinking has gotten a hold of Campolo who identifies himself as both a Democrat and a liberal. (We find out all too soon.)

Quite independently, liberal columnist Leonard Pitts recently wrote about the meaning of polls showing that a majority of Americans now support same sex marriage. (What are we to make of the views of Bush and Campolo now? Is their notion of traditional marriage no longer sacred because a majority favors same sex marriage?) While Pitts is pleased with the progress, he averred:

“In extolling the fact that the majority now approves same sex marriage, do we not also tacitly accept the notion that the majority has the right to judge?”

Here in Massachusetts where the right of same sex couples to marry was first recognized by the state Supreme Judicial Court in 2003, the overwhelming majority of citizens opposed same sex marriage at the time. Now, the overwhelming majority supports it. What’s more major religious communities such as Unitarian Universalism and Reform Judaism before the decision, and the United Church of Christ — the largest protestant denomination in the Bay State — since the decision, view same sex marriage as sacred as heterosexual marriage. Majority or minority view — shall Campolo and Bush’s sense of the sacred trump what is sacred to such historic religious communities as these? Or should each religious organization be able to decide this for itself?

Pitts continued:

One shudders to think what sort of nation this would be if Lyndon Johnson, before signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 or the Voting Rights Act of 1965, had first taken a poll of the American people.

We tend to regard America, proudly, as a nation where human rights are given. But that stance is actually at odds with the formulation famously propounded by one of the first Americans. Thomas Jefferson, who, after all, wrote that human rights are “unalienable” and that we are endowed with them from birth.

If you believe that, then you cannot buy into this notion of a nation where rights are magnanimously doled out to the minority on a timetable of the majority’s choosing. You and I cannot “give” rights. We can only acknowledge, respect and defend the rights human beings are born with.

Campolo continues:

Personally, as a Baptist minister, I always feel a bit uneasy at the end of the weddings that I perform when I have to say, “And now, by the authority given unto me by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, I pronounce you husband and wife.” Having performed a variety of religious exercises, such as reading scripture, saying prayers, giving a biblically-based homily and pronouncing blessings on the marriage, why am I required to suddenly shift to being an agent of the state? Doesn’t it seem inconsistent that during such a highly religious ceremony, I should have to turn the church into a place where government business is conducted? Isn’t it a conflict for me to unify my pastoral role with that of an agent of the state?

This is a strawman argument in the form of a rhetorical question. Campolo is not required to serve as an agent of the state. Nor is he required to merge his religious ceremonial duties with legal officiating. That is his choice. But he nevertheless has a solution for the problem that does not exist.

I propose that the government should get out of the business of marrying people and, instead, only give legal status to civil unions. The government should do this for both gay couples and straight couples, and leave marriage in the hands of the church and other religious entities. That’s the way it works in Holland. If a couple wants to be united in the eyes of the law, whether gay or straight, the couple goes down to the city hall and legally registers, securing all the rights and privileges a couple has under Dutch law. Then, if the couple wants the relationship blessed — to be married — they goes to a church, synagogue or other house of worship. Marriage should be viewed as an institution ordained by God and should be out of the control of the state.

But of course, this is the way it is in America as well — except we call it marriage whether one gets married by a clergyperson or by the Justice of the Peace. There is no reason why people can’t have a religious service if they want one and legal process before a Justice of the Peace or other designated official. (Unless, as in most states, said people happen to be gay.)

Back at the beginning of his essay, Campolo asked a rhetorical question that now bears answering.

If marriage really is a sacred institution, then why is the government controlling it, especially in a nation that affirms separation of church and state?

Campolo’s demagogic, tea-partyesque appeal to the idea that “government” is somehow “controlling” a “sacred institution” is reckless and wrong. State governments, representing all of the people, and not merely sectarian interests, have always issued marriage licenses. Marriage is “sacred” only to the extent that people within the marriage and the community to which they belong consider it to be so. No religious institution or coalition of the theocratic gets to define the sacred for the rest of the citizens and make it part of the legal code.

The way we define the sacred in America is as a right of individual conscience that is protected by our constitutional doctrine of separation of church and state. We have the right to marry whom we choose in whatever ceremony we choose from any institution that will have us, or no institution at all. No institution is required to preside over weddings, gay or strait, and I have heard no one argue that they should be required to do so. Really. All that is required is for those who are marring each other, to get a marriage license. Extending this right to gay people is consistent with our national ethos and constitutional framework of the rights of conscience free from undue influence from the government or powerful religious institutions.

If Campolo is uncomfortable functioning as a legal officiator and signer marriage licenses — all he has to do is tell people that is not his department and send them to the Justice of the Peace.

Campolo continues:

Of course, homosexual couples could go to churches that welcome and affirm gay marriages and get their unions blessed there. Isn’t that the way it should be in a nation that guarantees people the right to promote religion according to their personal convictions?

If such a proposal became normative, those like myself who hold to traditional beliefs about marriage would go to traditional churches where conservative beliefs about marriage are upheld, and we would have our marriages blessed there.

Of course, people can already attend the church of their choice and Campolo’s proposal does nothing to change that. But all this a a prelude to the theocratic idea behind his supposed compromise which he expresses with a remarkable spirit of bigotry against non-religious people.

And secularists who are unlikely to do anything that smacks of religion would probably just throw a party to celebrate a new union. Marriage would be preserved as a religious institution for all of us who want to view it as such, and nobody’s personal convictions about this highly charged issue would have to be compromised.

Listen to Campolo as he sneers about what “secularists” would “probably” do. As if commitment ceremonies by non-religious people are inherently meaningless and lack any form of reverence or solemnity; or as if expressions of exuberance and joy cannot be part of a marriage or commitment event. And good grief — as if people who get married in religious ceremonies don’t also sometimes party — and sometimes mighty hard. Campolo’s bigotry and sanctimony may be less obnoxious than Falwell’s and his participation in the campaign to tear down the wall of separation between church and state less obvious, but we should not mistake any of this for moderation or compromise.

Another key phrase, in which he rephrases the theme of his proposal is this:

Marriage would be preserved as a religious institution for all of us who want to view it as such…

Here he suggests that something about marriage is being changed when it is not. Marriage has always been a civil institution in America. It has always been a religious institution as well, for those who are religious. But these aspects of the institution of marriage are as separate as church and state should be. The law does not require religious blessing to be legal, and marriage in a particular religious institution does not require legal sanction to take place — but at some point a marriage license needs to be obtained from the state. It ain’t rocket science. Those who want their marriage to have a religious dimension can do so. Those who don’t, don’t.

But what is important to underscore about The Campolo Compromise is that it is not really about gay marriage. It is a fundamental reframing of the entire argument into a theocratic stalking horse against the rights of non-religious citizens.

Campolo proposes a two-tiered system: For religious people, commitment ceremonies will be called marriage; for everyone else, something else. As insulting and politically tone deaf as this is, it is also unlikely to pass constitutional muster. Here is what happened when traditionalist pols proposed that the Massachusetts high court consider a compromise. The State Senate asked the state’s highest court whether civil unions would be an adequate way to address the matter of same sex marriage. The court said no.

“…the Supreme Judicial Court advised on February 4, 2004, that “civil unions” would not suffice to satisfy the Court’s finding in Goodridge. The 4 justices who formed the majority in the Goodridge decision wrote: “The dissimilitude between the terms ‘civil marriage’ and ‘civil union’ is not innocuous; it is a considered choice of language that reflects a demonstrable assigning of same-sex, largely homosexual, couples to second-class status.” They continued: “For no rational reason the marriage laws of the Commonwealth discriminate against a defined class; no amount of tinkering with language will eradicate that stain.”


[Crossposted from Talk to Action]

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About the Author

Frederick Clarkson

Frederick Clarkson is an independent journalist, author and editor who has written about politics and religion for thirty years. He is the co-founder of the group blog Talk to Action, Senior Fellow at Political Research Associates, and lives in Massachusetts.

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