I ran across this paper I wrote for a Religious Liberty class at McAfee School of Theology, Mercer University. I didn’t think it was half bad, so I’m posting it in my blog. It’s a little thick, so I’m adding some cat pictures.
Historical Context of the Controversy
The religion clause of the U.S. Constitution states, Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. It is included with freedom of the press, free speech, and the right to assemble and petition the government. It is the part of the first amendment upon which concepts of religious freedom—which I use interchangeably here with religious liberty—are based. According to Davis, religious liberty in the U.S. is based upon the overarching ideal of separation of church and state (p. 81). He cites a religion historian who called religious liberty, “America’s great gift to civilization and the world” (p. 81). Interpretations of the religion clause have evolved since ratification in 1791 primarily through rulings by the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) on cases involving two concepts: establishment and free exercise. As Flowers explains, cases vary according to topics, such as taxation, school prayer, human resources, and insurance—but all of these share a tension of whether the government violates establishment when it supports religious organizations or free exercise when it does not.
Understandably, decisions passed down by the Court are influenced by its makeup; it has in fact changed its position over time. Nearly eighty years ago, Justice Hugo Black famously declared, “In the words of Jefferson, the clause against establishment of religion by laws was intended to erect a wall of separation between church and State’” (in Davis, p. 84). Over the last decade, however, the idea of religious liberty itself has undergone an odd reversal. No longer is its chief principal the freedom to exercise one’s religious beliefs and practices protected by the wall of separation from the government. Rather, religious liberty is now evoked by conservative Christians in order for them to freely exercise their right to discriminate against individuals or groups whose ideologies do not align with their religious beliefs. These Christians are, then, seeking establishment via rulings to substantiate discrimination, which they consider free exercise. Tracing the course of the transformation of religious liberty is beyond the scope of this paper. From my own historical memory and research, I trace it to the overt courting of the religious right in the South by Nixonian republicans in 1968, culminating with Ronald Reagan’s alliance with the Moral Majority that led to his victory in the 1980 election—in which he unseated an incumbent President who is unequivocally a devout Christian. This was the beginning of the narrative shift of religious liberty that supports the blatant politicized overreach we see today. For this paper, I did a Google search for “religious liberty.” I focused on articles and blog posts whose topics related directly to the cultural cooptation of the idea of religious liberty as I describe it above. Left of center publication, The Week, writer Joel Mathis sums up the premise of my paper:
The term “religious liberties” sounds anodyne enough: The First Amendment guarantees that Congress shall not prohibit the free exercise of faith. And conservatives frame the recent debates with a libertarian gloss: Government shouldn’t make religious folks violate their faith-informed consciences to provide contraception to employees or make wedding cakes for gay couples. On the surface the message is: “Leave us alone and we’ll leave you alone.” What could be more American?
But that message isn’t honest.
Unless you’re a Christian — and let’s be honest, unless you’re a conservative Christian — conservative advocacy of religious liberties is a big con, a consolidation of rights and privileges not meant to be shared with Muslims, atheists, or other religious minorities.
You don’t have to reach far for examples. (https://theweek.com/articles/784953/conservatives-religious-liberty-con)
And I did not. What follows is a sampling of what I found.
The day I was writing this, May 22, 2020, an op-ed piece popped up on CNN’s website: This Isn’t About Religious Freedom (Graves-Fitzsimmons). It outlines issues surrounding Covid-19 religious liberty litigation, written as a response to President Trump’s push for governors to allow churches to re-open. The president’s invocation of liberty, prompted the author to note, “From a wider perspective, the Covid-19 crisis also reveals a new dimension to how some conservatives have distorted our treasured American value of religious freedom” (https://www.cnn.com/2020/05/14/opinions/religious-freedom-lawsuits-on-social-distancing-graves-fitzsimmons/index.html). He goes on to cite examples of the exploitation of religious liberty to further conservative agendas, he lists groups such as the Alliance Defending Freedom that spent 54 million to argue the Masterpiece Cakeshop anti-LGBTQ case at SCOTUS. Graves-Fitzsimmons connects Covid-19 religious freedom lawsuits to current and pending cases involving whether “religious or moral beliefs of an employer should be an acceptable excuse to deny people birth control and whether taxpayer funds may be used for faith-based foster care agencies that discriminate against LGBTQ people” (ibid). He points out what is a recurring theme in my research—discriminatory conservative agendas are out of sync with public opinion surrounding these issues. The twisting of religious freedom, according to the author, is about winning the culture war and thereby bolstering the conservative voting base, Trump’s lifeblood. He concludes with a call to expose the bigotry behind the thin veil of religious freedom that covers it and “reclaim a religious freedom that does no harm” (ibid).
My research led me to The Berkely Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University, an organization that examines, “the intersection of religion with global policy challenges of diplomacy, democracy, development and dialogue” (https://charterforcompassion.org/berkley-center-for-religion-peace-and-world-affairs?gclid=CjwKCAjwtqj2BRBYEiwAqfzur7FiTtxXPCn-_a4r4LjVhNdG9NLoy1QudwMV5MKW8mNOBRXOBabq3xoCW6gQAvD_BwE).
I found three essays in response to the Politics of School Prayer post in the Center’s Forum that address what one calls the “false narrative” of religious freedom. This pre-Covid post uses as a prompt President Trump’s announcement on 2020 “Religious Freedom Day” of new guidelines regarding school prayer during non-instructional time and the rights of students whose “freedom to pray has been violated” (https://berkleycenter.georgetown.edu/posts/politics-of-school-prayer). Additionally, he announced plans to remove “regulatory burdens” on faith-based social service providers that are supported by the Department of Health and Human Services—that is, by taxpayer dollars. The post suggests that while Trumpian Republicans have conducting an offensive front in the culture wars, Democrats have spent (frittered?) their energies trying to “connect with evangelical voters,” a heretofore fruitless effort.
The first response, The Debates Over Religious Freedom in the United States: What Debates?, by James W. Fraser, refutes the president’s claim of burdensome regulations of religious freedom by pointing out the new guidelines were nearly identical with previous guidelines issued by the G.W Bush and Clinton administrations. Fraser argues that the president’s fanfare over existing guidelines has deeper motives—first, to “warp the truth to stay in power,” that is, to fire up his conservative White Christian base, many of whom believe themselves to be discriminated against by progressives. If Trump can maintain the fiction of an “assault on faith” and the greater fiction that he alone can fix it, he will keep the support of his base. An even darker motive, according to Fraser, of touting his guidelines was to serve as a “cover for other policies which represent a dangerous infringement of rights”
(https://berkleycenter.georgetown.edu/responses/the-debates-over-religious-freedom-in-the-united-states-what-debates). He concludes with this stark statement, “…the obvious conclusion is that retaining voting blocs is more important to the administration than any concern for the rights of American citizens, religious or otherwise. We are better than that” (ibid). One hopes, but are we?
The second response, A False Narrative of Religious Freedom Threatens Americans’ Rights, by Rob Boston, begins by pointing out ways Trump’s school prayer guidelines in fact differ from Bush’s and Clinton’s, most significantly, that student- and teacher-initiated prayer at school functions may be legal. He then quickly turns to the problem of terminology in the evolving narrative of religious freedom, namely, that as it is used today demands religious privilege, which is very distinct from liberty. Boston offers a helpful definition of what religious freedom has historically meant in the U.S.: “the right to worship (or not) as you see fit, as long as you don’t harm others. It means the right to join together with fellow believers to build houses of worship, spread religious messages, and create a sense of community bound together by shared beliefs” (https://berkleycenter.georgetown.edu/responses/a-false-narrative-of-religious-freedom-threatens-americans-rights). Conversely, today’s conceptualization of religious freedom is a coersive and compulsive denial of the rights of others [and] is alien” to our core values (ibid). He points out that Americans are used to wrangling over issues, but this is a different age—one where polarization makes old ways of debating obsolete. When it comes to the minority voices of conservative White Christians, he concludes, “It is dangerous to accept even a little bit of oppression based on religion. The answer is always to resist it, by all legal means” (ibid).
The final article I examined from the Berkley Center Forum was A Free Exercise Argument Against Trump’s ‘Religious Freedom’ Rules by Peter Henne. His approach is somewhat different from other responses, as he approaches the issue with the onus of rectifying the cooptation of religious liberty on progressives. “The problem is that progressives have accepted the conservative framing of religious freedom”
(https://berkleycenter.georgetown.edu/responses/a-free-exercise-argument-against-trump-s-religious-freedom-rules). He charges us to retake a narrative whose subsequent policies discriminate against all but a small group of Christians. When progressives begin asserting that our own religious freedoms are infringed upon, the historical conceptualization will re-emerge. Practically, Boston proposes this: “Rather than religious freedom vs. non-discrimination, it would be a debate over the nature of religious freedom. And Trump-wary conservative Christians are more likely to be responsive to progressives explaining their approach to religious freedom than they are to calls to curtail religious freedom” (ibid). When my tax dollars go to an organization that refuses, for example, to allow a gay couple to adopt a child because they are gay—and since my faith tradition, the UCC, welcomes everyone, “Whoever you are, and wherever you are on life’s journey,” my religious liberty has been breached.
I argue that conservative White Christian America seeks to be sanctioned by the State through strategic SCOTUS rulings on the First Amendment. Let me be clear: not all conservatives nor all White Christians seek to twist the First Amendment. My complaint is with those of the population who overtly and intentionally seek to deploy the concept of religious liberty to discriminate. If we correlate them with Trump’s hardcore base, which I am taking the liberty of doing, it ends up being around 40% of Americans (https://projects.fivethirtyeight.com/trump-approval-ratings/). I am old enough to remember when Religious Liberty did not have the topsy turvy meaning it has now. Growing up a white child in the South in the 60s and 70s, God and Country had distinct meanings for me; we were a “Christian Nation.” By the 2016 election, I began to have the disappointing realization that the country I live in is not the one I thought I grew up in. As Black and Brown Americans could have told me, my imagined America was never real; it was only a narrative that kept social and political hierarchies in place. I agree with the argument that upholding both the establishment and free exercise components strengthens religious practice in this country. I hold the position that the current rally cry of “Religious Liberty” signals a license to discriminate and thereby to enforce through subterfuge a morality code that bolsters white supremacy nationalism. This is not Christian.
Again, not all conservative White Christians are white nationalists. Just as politicians like Leader McConnell who actively work to pack the judiciary with conservative judges are not all actively forwarding a religious agenda. And yet, these groups are strange bedfellows.
As Bill Clinton reminded us in 1992, “It’s the economy, stupid.” But how might corporate-forward politicians get plain folks to vote against their own economic interests? By appealing to their/our values. In 1980, when the Republicans actively courted religious leaders like Falwell and Robertson to get Christians on board, they promised Christians would have a friend in the White House, a seat at the table—that they would have a voice in governing. So Christians voted Republican. There was no real seat at the table, so the strategy changed to grassroots campaigns and gaining control of the judiciary. Aside from one setback on same-gender marriage from Obergefell v. Hodges in 2015, they have been overwhelming successful in influencing politics, which, of course, include the Courts. In his dissent of Obergefell, Justice Alito forecasted—or perhaps signaled—the ruling would have an “inevitable conflict with religious liberty” argument. I am not a political scientist, but my gut tells me that the LGBT victory with Obergefell helped the narrative shift; there would be new, more creative, ways to discriminate. If same-gender marriage was established by an unelected federal judiciary, so too then would cases be decided where refusal of services, for example, be equated with free exercise of religion.
Impact on Local Ministries
A 2019 brief from the Center for American Progress entitled Religious Liberty Should Do No Harm argues that policymakers have a responsibility to enact legislation that will, “ensure the right of religious liberty for all Americans without infringing on the rights and religious freedoms of others”
(London and Saddiqi, https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/religion/reports/2019/04/11/468041/religious-liberty-no-harm/). They offer suggestions for building a framework of inclusive, non-discriminatory religious liberty.
One option relevant to local ministries is to consult faith communities in local policymaking. This might be through the formation of interfaith councils, working groups, and task forces that represent a diversity of faith traditions, “in order to ensure that the many voices of the faith community are considered in policymaking” (ibid). This idea gets to the crux of the matter, writ large. Local politics are unduly influenced by conservative White Christians; local municipalities are unable to oppose Republican governors to mandate business closures during a pandemic, let alone establish interfaith policy consulting councils. If we were at a place in this country where rural Alabama had interfaith advisory groups, it might be a good sign that religious liberty was alive and well. But we are not.
My religious affiliation is with the United Church of Christ (UCC), an Open and Affirming (ONA) denomination toward some of the populations against whom religious liberty is being used as a weapon. The most obvious impact religious liberty laws have on my local ministry involves providing sacred spaces of radical welcome who are being discriminated against. My congregation would not only make a cake for a same-gender couple, we would perform the wedding and host the reception! As important, we would show up in solidarity at the state capital.
As Flowers and some of the writers above note, the establishment clause ensures the religious liberty of all who wish to freely exercise religious beliefs, not just of a small subset who would seek to manipulate the First Amendment to suit themselves. For example, this is not a fight for religious liberty of Muslims. It is important that local ministries be vocal in opposition to misuse and misinterpretation of religious liberty. We must, then, employ our own religious liberty to re-establish the concept of freedom inherent in it.
I will end with a story. My congregation is literally on a hill; drivers by cannot see us from the street. As one drives up the hill to the building, we have displayed really powerful signs about being the church and proclaiming that we are an ONA church. Once or twice we tried to put the signs at the foot of the hill; that way, people could see what we stand for. Both times, the signs disappeared. We do not hang a rainbow flag outside our building or display the UCC “Rainbow Comma” logo on our marquee. We do not display Black Lives Matter signs. London and Siddiqi end their brief with this cautionary word, “If policymakers do not ensure that religious liberty protects the free exercise of religion for all Americans, it will continue to be weaponized as a tool for discrimination and political gain and weaken nondiscrimination protections” (americanprogress.org). A “city set on a hill” (Mt. 5:14) can be hidden if it wants to be. We can be visible by being the church, or we can watch as inclusive religious liberty slips beyond our grasp. The work happens at the foot of the hill.
It should come as no surprise that they’re coming for Pete Buttigieg. He’s smart, frank, funny, personable, courageous~~everything in a politician that would constitute a threat to the one of the least popular incumbent presidents history. Strategically that’s why he’s already under attack. How he’s under attack represents low hanging fruit politically. Pete Buttigieg is a gay man. It’s low hanging fruit because this fact inflames–really inflames–the roughly 25% of Evangelical Christians in America who make up the president’s strongest base.
On April 25, 2019, Franklin Graham Tweeted (naturally) a response to Buttigieg’s candidacy, “God doesn’t have a political party. But God does have commandments, laws & standards. Mayor Buttigieg says he’s a gay Christian. As a Christian I believe the Bible which defines homosexuality as sin, something to be repentant of, not something to be flaunted, praised or politicized….”
Earlier in April, an NBC report suggested that Graham’s view is out of sync with that of most Americans. Polling data indicate that almost 70% of Americans would be either “enthusiastic” or “comfortable” voting for a gay or lesbian candidate (USA Today). The remaining 30% is Trump’s hard core base and includes the 25% Evangelicals who enthusiastically support him regardless of evidence of impropriety. The Fox News/fake news true believers. My people.
I come from generations of Fundamentalist Christians, growing up in the Church of Christ~~a denomination that historically refrained from political engagement beyond the civic duty to vote. But even voting was private~~between you and God. We believed that “rendering unto Caesar” meant that our faith was personal and would come full circle on Judgement Day. All of that began to change with the campaign of 1980, when Ronald Reagan challenged the Son of a so-called New South, Jimmy Carter. Precisely because our denomination had not been political, the shift was very noticeable.
On April 26, David Gushee, Distinguished Professor of Christian Ethics at the McAfee School of Theology, Mercer University, and Director of its Center for Theology and Public Life, spoke with CNN’s Don Lemon in response to Graham’s Twitter attack. Gushee’s book Changing Our Mind traces his personal and theological journey toward inclusion of LGBTQ Christians (it’s in my Kindle as we speak!). (Franklin’s remarks, incidentally, make Changing Our Mind doubly applicable in light of the United Methodist Church’s February 2019 decision to exclude LGBTQ members from ordination and marriage.) A disclaimer: I am a student at McAfee working toward an MDiv and certificate in Christian Ethics, and I will take Christian Sexual Ethics with Dr. Gushee in the spring. His ethics are grounded in Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount and outlined in the seminal book on the subject: Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context (2016), co-written with the late Dr. Glen Stassen. Although he wouldn’t do it because of his ethical convictions, I would put David Gushee’s understanding of Jesus’s teachings up against Franklin Graham any day. But again, I have a dog in the hunt.
I had an “ah-ha!” moment as the CNN interview concluded:
LEMON: ...I think it’s interesting that you say that the Christian right has been in the grip of the Republican Party for 40 years now and it’s getting worse….
Forty years. Reagan, the Moral Majority, Trickle Down Economics, strengthening the military-industrial complex, unregulated capitalism, corporate tax cuts~~the most significant political and economic ideological shift in U.S. history~~and I was there. I saw. From the pews of a little country church in North Alabama. My people~~those 25% die hard Trump supporters~~were the strategic targets of the Republican machine in 1980, and we remain in its grip today. I am not suggesting we are absolved of our complicity; we have not yet repented of our collective sin of racism, for example. I’m saying the Republican Machine (not persons who vote Republican, whom we love as Jesus loves) is like a crooked preacher: it knows the Bible well and uses it to sway the sheep. It uses cultural context or insists on literalism, whichever best advances its agenda–which is, again, to inflame good people to vote. Over nearly half a century, it has accomplished an astonishing goal, really: creating god in a Republican image and we, my people, worship at its feet. That’s called idolatry, y’all. Gushee’s Kingdom Ethics suggests a different way, a Jesus way, to do politics together as a people, but to see it we will have to melt the Golden Calf of the Republican god.
My people believe~~really believe~~that electing a gay man as president will doom the U.S. as God turn’s His (no gender free God here!) back on us. In fact, we see plenty of examples of how He is already exacting His punishment on us as a call to repentance~~a call to return to being a Christian Nation, God’s U.S. chosen people. I know a good man~~a Godly man~~who believes God is sending a meteor toward Earth as retribution. “We better turn back to God,” he says, “or He will destroy this sinful nation!” When Franklin Graham reminds Evangelicals that God’s “laws, commandments, and standards” supersede political parties, he gives them no option save worshiping the carefully crafted Calf. And yes, he precisely politicized Buttigieg’s sexuality. I know what my people will say to an interpretation of scripture toward a new Christian Ethic where Pete is evaluated as a candidate by his qualifications rather than as a person based on his sexuality. They will say, “Even the demons believe, and tremble” (James 2:19). They will be suspicious; they will believe they are being tricked by fast talkers and twisting scriptures. They will gather more closely around the Calf.
In a speech in early April, Pete said his relationship with Chasten had made him “more compassionate, more understanding, more self-aware and more decent.” He then directly addressed Mr. Pence, “as one man of faith talking to another,” the New York Times aptly puts it: “And yes, Mr. Vice President, it has moved me closer to God.”
That’s my favorite part because I identify with it. My relationship isn’t just a good fit in which I found a life companion~~it has brought me, in-relation, closer to God. It is in my relationship that I can feel the kind of love that God pours down on us, the kind God expects us to pour on each other. Not only that, it inspires me to act with love and compassion to others~~that’s pretty big! Jesus Ethics can be planted and take root in places where we talk to one another about compassion and decency and relationships that bring us closer to God. We can change our minds and decide to love.
It is Holy Saturday, God, the day good Christians celebrate Jesus’s body lying in the tomb while his soul descended into hell, the Harrowing of Hell, they call it. Holy Saturday is coming home from a funeral. Everybody is exhausted, and the loss is starting to get real. You have to eat~~people have brought food~~but you are not hungry, might never be hungry again. After Big Mama’s funeral, I sat at the familiar kitchen table with her old friends, who told stories. Those of us at the table laughed until we cried, but the sisters—my mother and Lois and Mary and Judy and Barbara—were in the dark bedroom where their mother had taken her last breath; they did not laugh. They could hardly hold themselves up, so they held each other. It was raw and ugly, and if any of them had dared, they might have cursed you, God. They were groaning in their utter desolation. Holy Saturday started like that, with women holding vigil in their sorrow.
There is another word I first (and pretty much only) heard in the Bible: iniquity. Iniquity is to wickedness what groaning is to grieving. You are good, God, and trust in your goodness outweighs my worry; but my fundamentalist conscience tells me our United States will give an accounting for our iniquity. We sin together, all of us: we are inhospitable to neighbors at our borders, we march in hatred to maintain an apartheid state, and we lay offerings at the feed of corporate gods. We do not merely turn our heads as our poor fight to live—and often lose the fight—but we defiantly jut out our chins at them because they got what they had coming. It helps that they are different colors than we are. We incarcerate young men of color to prove our point. We busy ourselves with what goes on in one room of the house—the bedroom—with little concern with what goes on in the rest of your world. Longsuffering God, batter our hearts, as the poet cried (John Donne). Lay us bare again so that in our nakedness the only place our eyes can turn is to you. On this Holy Saturday, harrow our souls toward reconciliation with you as we keep vigil for the terrifying Resurrection we (don’t) know is coming. Amen.
Holy God, we must speak the names. St. Mary Baptist. Greater Union Baptist. Mount Pleasant Baptist. Louisiana smolders. In the names and the smoke our sin is manifest. We do not speak of their pain because the pain is their own—it belongs to their hearts. We do not get to cry those tears. Theirs is not our story to tell. Our story is a 21-year-old in an orange jump suit staring back at the camera. “His dad has been a sheriff for a number of years, he’s a good fellow,” said a state congressman. “My understanding is the son has had a troubled past.” Yes. Sons of the South have troubled pasts. “Not guilty,” he pleads. It is we who need to plea, yet ours can be no other than guilty. In 1963, two other sets of eyes looked back at the camera, in Birmingham; our pasts are troubled. “I tremble for my country,” Jefferson said, “when I reflect that God is just; that his justice cannot sleep forever.” Louisiana burns, God, and we tremble in our transgression. Do you yet sleep?
God, we trust you~~that we are not condemned to forever suffer the consequences of our sin by perpetuating evil. At the hearing, the 21-year-old arsonist’s father, the deputy, left the courtroom in tears. What did he cry for? His “good boy”? A lost youth? A youth lost? His boy took pictures of himself. Pouring gasoline. With a blazing building. Among the ruins. He claimed this.
God of justice, God of righteousness, we trust you and we offer you all praise~~but we do not know exactly what to ask you. Has nothing been asked before? Have we not prayed for forgiveness? Have we not prayed for good relations? Have we not prayed white prayers that our white children would not detect our locked-away resentment of freedom ringing? Correct us. Guide our hearts to pray those prayers. Awaken your justice, God, and direct us toward reconciliation and love—discernible in the photographed eyes looking back at us. Amen.
First, I need to acknowledge my white privilege and citizenship in a colonizer nation. Additionally, I am a U.S. Christian in a missionary culture, which has contributed to colonization. That said, I am also a gay female Christian from a rural Fundamentalist denomination, so I also can speak from intersecting places of marginalization.
In late February, the United Methodist Church voted to maintain its traditional stance against same-sex marriage and non-celibate gay clergy. This could very well be the issue that splits the UMC; in fact, the fissures started as soon as the vote was counted. The “Traditional Plan” passed with 438 votes in favor and 384 against, 53% to 47%. Yet in 2014, a PEW Research Study reported that 60% of U.S. UMC members believed that same-sex marriage should be accepted. On the eve of the 2018 General Conference, informal guestimates predicted that 66% of U.S. delegates would vote for the One Church Plan, which would allow individual churches and regional conferences to decide whether to ordain and marry LGBTQ members (https://mainstreamumc.com/blog/groups-are-misusing-survey-results/ and https://religionnews.com/2019/02/25/united-methodist-committee-rejects-one-church-plan-which-would-allow-lgbt-clergy/). So what happened?
The UMC has around 12 million members globally, about half its members. Methodists from outside the U.S. are generally more conservative and favor traditional positions on sexuality, reports Christianity Today. At the General Conference, 41% of the 864 delegates were non-U.S, 30% of those from Africa. I don’t even have to break out my calculator to know that without global delegates in the mix, the Traditional Plan would almost certainly have been defeated. (Take a look at the UMC World Map here: https://www.christianitytoday.com/news/2019/february/united-methodists-lgbt-vote-umc-general-conference-denomina.html).
There are several issues to eventually unpack, such as how to reconcile the U.S. UMC and whether or not it will lovingly include its LGBT members and clergy within its community. Very briefly, though, I want to consider another ethical dilemma the UMC faces: how to be Christ’s universal church when the majority of half its members oppose changes taking place in U.S. culture. “In this case,” says Mercer University ethicist David Gushee, “culture looks more like the gospel than churches do” (Changing Our Minds, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7oO81hxbmGM). One delegate from Mozambique said the Traditional Plan “is what God Wants in the church in this world” (https://www.christianitytoday.com/news/2019/february/united-methodist-lgbt-vote-conference-plan.html). Is it? More important here, is it what U.S. Methodists believe?
Gushee, whose book Changing Our Minds gives his account of changing his mind about the inclusion of LGBT persons in the church, notes that he is, “convinced this is not a sexual ethics issue, but it’s about human dignity” (YouTube). He goes on to pose three questions for which I propose the UMC hold itself—locally and globally—accountable. Who counts as equal? Who counts as having dignity? And at a level fundamental to the gospel—Who counts as included within the reach of the good news that God loves human beings in Jesus Christ? After all, he reminds us, sexuality is but a “tertiary concern” compared to issues of the sacredness of life and human dignity.
After nearly 250 years, the Methodist Church has accomplished one of the greatest missionary feats in history—preaching Jesus the Christ throughout the world and adding over 6 million souls to its count. Problem is, in many of these areas, it is not even safe to be “out” as a LGBT Christian. And, the UMC usually holds a mainline, moderate stance on most issues in U.S. culture. In February, the conservative global element nudged the church in a direction against itself. At least I hope that is the case—for herein lies its denominational ethical dilemma. What is the Methodist Church today?
I’ll turn once more to Gushee, who argues if we aren’t in solidarity, we’re part of the oppression. He notes profoundly, “this solidarity will be costly” (YouTube). It will indeed. If the UMC—as a microcosm of the greater church—does not actively seek to recover the broader narratives laid out by Gushee—the Kingdom of God, justice, the example of Jesus, love of neighbor, the Golden Rule, and compassion for those who suffer—then it admits its own ugly complicity in rejecting human dignity. It will have nearly literally have gained the whole world but forfeited its soul (Mk. 8:36). Now is its chance to do both.
This week’s post is an updating of a one that began as a paper I presented at the 2017 South Eastern Women’s Studies (SEWSA) Conference called Intentional Monogamy: Not Your Grandma’s Sexual Ethics. I’m thinking about monogamy as an act of queer intentionality.
Even before I started my MDiv at Mercer, I had been playing with God-talk (theology) in my curriculum theory writing. For example, I believe that Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s notion of ethics and existentialist theologian Paul Tillich’s conceptualization of God and Christ are not just relevant to our world today, they are essential. Three semesters in to seminary, I’m just learning what I do not know about Christian Ethics, so I will start small, with the most common state of being in a relationship in Western practice—monogamy—I’m thinking about it in the context of the current issue of same-sex marriage. We have constructed a God to suit our dominant White Western culture, just as we have constructed normal, normative sexual ethics. The god we crafted has a preference, which we codified into morality, for matrimony. Marriage is one man, one woman, monogamous. You know the Wedding Vow: “I, ___, take thee, ___, to be my wedded husband/wife, to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death do us part, according to God’s holy ordinance; and thereto I pledge thee my faith [or] pledge myself to you” (https://www.theknot.com/content/traditional-wedding-vows-from-various-religions).
In Mimi Schippers Beyond Monogamy: Polyamory and the Future of Poly Queer Sexualities (2016), she extends Adrienne Rich’s idea of compulsory heterosexuality to include compulsory monogamy as a “regime of sexual normalcy” (Kindle loc 183) and offers a critique of mononormativity. She points out, There have been very few theoretical interrogations of how monogamy is implicated in and productive of gender, race, and sexual hierarchies or the role of monogamy as an organizing rationale for regimes of normalcy and social structures of inequality (loc 254). Schipper didn’t leave much space for conceptualizing a postmodern, queer monogamy. Intentional monogamy is queer monogamy–even if the participants are heterosexual, cis-gender participants. It holds similar queer possibilities for disruption. How? Because of its intentional nature. Hence, intentionality is transgressive.
Intentional monogamy confronts monogamy by default, which renders monogamy invisible, unconsidered. Also by default is the assumed and legitimized feature of monogamous couples to reproduce the heterosexual, heteronormative family. There is a whole other discussion here—for another time—on how the re-production of “the family” also reproduces the hierarchies and inequities—personal, political, institutionalized, time-honored. There is a lot hinging on monogamy.
So, in this space, I want to look finally at the intentional part of Intentional Monogamy. For this, I need a story. In Beyond Monogamy, Schippers makes a very interesting point that I will admit I had not thought about, but of course should have: that cheating narratives are important to maintaining mononormativity and leaving monogamy invisible as the hegemonic norm (loc 742). Cheating is the threat that keeps couples within monogamous bounds. Cheating holds monogamy together. It is to relationships what sin is to Christianity. Like sin, cheating is a transgression of the vow to be in right relation. But again, what if we flip this thought so that intentionality is the transgressive turn?
About a year and a half into our relationship, Sarah and I began discussing the terms for our future together. Knowing Sarah, this in fact is romantic. One evening she entered the room, stopped in the middle of it, and said, “I’m monogamous.” I half-looked up from emails or the tv, or whatever I was doing and said, “Yeah, so am I.” And that, as they say, is when it started getting real. She got my complete attention by telling me that to her, I wasn’t at a place to make that assertion. It’s true: I had been living under a few assumptions, stretching all the way back to adolescence and dating. Yet I thought our own commitment had been understood when we had made a commitment. Exclusivity, to me, had implied monogamy, and that was her point. Implied monogamy was not sufficient grounds for a long term relationship. I argued, cajoled, reasoned—used all my skills to persuade her—and myself—that I was a confirmed monogamist. And then she said something so shocking and profound that I knew it to be true: You say you are monogamous when what you really want is someone who won’t cheat on you.
Sarah’s declaration of monogamy, her intentionality, was a disruption of heteronormative compulsory institutional default relationship form. For me, it troubled the cheating narrative, which played right into reinforcing hetero- and mononormativity. From Beyond Monogamy: Monogamy needs cheating in a fundamental way. In addition to serving as the demonized opposite of monogamy, the mark of the cheater is used to push individuals to conform to monogamous behavior and monogamous appearances (loc 748). Wow. You have to confront your monogamous privilege just like you do your white privilege. You have to know that there are other ways of being in relationships–ways that involve more than two partners, she said, and then you can come back to monogamy. Of course, my first question for her was, “Good lord, do I have to try them?” “Not necessarily”, she said,” just as long as you know enough to make an informed decision.”
My students often ask whether anyone can be queer; that is, can you be a straight cis-person and be queer. Sometimes I give them a simple answer. Queer has a political requirement to it; it is purposefully disruptive of normative structures (yes, that’s part of my simple answer to them). It is intentional. So, I tell them, to be queer, you have to believe yourself to be. And that is part of how monogamy can be a queer act—in its intentionality. Monogamy is not a condition to be bound to, a “till death” sentence of imbalanced power. It is a state of free, into which we might freely enter. After about a month of my coming to learn that, Sarah was satisfied. We married on the day the US Supreme Court ruled on Obergefell, June 26, 2015.
Untheorized, monogamy brings its heteronormative baggage into sexual ethics, thereby invalidating its very underpinnings. There’s a famous line from Our Town: People are meant to go through life two by two. ‘Taint natural to be lonesome. Along my journey toward monogamy, I have learned that ‘taint necessarily natural to go two by two, but if we want to, it’s queerer than we might think.
Schippers, M. (2016). Beyond Monogamy: Polyamory and the Future of Polyqueer Sexualities. New York: NYU Press.
My Spiritual Formation this week is from What Matters Most: Ten Lessons in Living Passionately from the Song of Solomon by Renita Weems. She takes takes the “ten lessons” from the Shulammite woman’s fearless living and loving in the Song. Interestingly, I’ve heard the Song of Solomon called “The Porn Book of the Bible,” which reinforces masculine patriarchal dominance of Scripture. Weems allows the Shulammite woman to claim her identity through characteristics of liberation. Three quotations from this week’s reading on Choice stood out to me. Here they are with my reflections:
The Shulammite risked ridicule, criticism, challenge, failure, and embarrassment for the possibility of living a bigger life than the one society assigned to her as a woman (Kindle, p. 80).
Societal rules are powerful, so powerful that we internalize them and regulate ourselves. Growing up, I wanted to be a CIA agent or a lawyer. It was inconceivable to me, my parents, my friends—everyone who knew me—that I would not go to college on a scholarship straight out of high school. But gender role norms are deeply embedded in how we think and act and move about in the world. By my junior year I was “engaged,” in a relationship just like the other girls. I was married at age 18 and had a baby when I was 19. I look at those numbers and shudder—so young! I gave up my own bigger life.
Being passionate means living your life fearlessly. What if I make a mistake? What if something goes horribly wrong? What if I lose more than I gain? What if I make a fool of myself? (p. 83).
Before age 35, I had never lived outside of Alabama. That year, I got divorced, came out to myself, got a job at the Louisiana Department of Education, enrolled in a doctoral program at LSU, and moved to Louisiana. After escaping with my identity—which I had fought for 16 years to hold onto—I did not once ask myself these questions. Like the Shulammite, I was living fearlessly. However, and this is important, my communing with God was a one-way conversation. Although God was ever-present with me, I continued to press through under the delusion that I was accomplishing these things by myself. I give thanks now in retrospect.
But what if the path you’re about to take leads you off the beaten path and falls outside the norm of what others deem acceptable? (p. 87).
On the day I moved to Louisiana, my mother was seeing me off. It was a poignant moment. Two women whose love for one another most often went unspoken, said goodbye. “Mother,” I said, “I’m sorry. It’s hard. I just…” trailing off, not knowing how to speak the things that were in my heart about my life, about her, about all the years I felt I had lost. She thought for a minute, trying hard to blink back tears so that I would not see them—something I learned years later she had often done. “You go ahead. I know you need to. We always knew you’d leave one day.” The beaten path, my parents knew, was not for me, no matter how hard they had tried—through church, modeling, instructing, shaping—to guide me along it. That day, when the strongest women I have ever known blinked back tears and let me leave, was the day I began to live without a net, yes, but in vivid color.
Two words concerning prayer life resonate with me this week: intention and attention. I sometimes fret about my prayer life, especially when I hear my fellow seminarians openly talking about theirs; I even have a professor outside of this class who returns our attention to prayer life. This week’s reading reminds us that naming our longing to be always in relationship with diving (intention) and by paying attention to where we see God in our daily life (attention) remind us of divine presence and grace.
Reflecting this week, I sought connections between my praying self and embodied self. I realized that an important connection is the esteem in which I hold my spiritual and physical being–or the regrettable lack thereof. So I would like now to discuss body issues and return to embodied praying.
I came across two pictures of myself a few months ago. The first was of myself on my wedding day, taken by my new husband. It was a snapshot, and I was looking at him over my shoulder. My first thought was how young and beautiful I was–and at the time I did not realize it. I was never not weight conscious. Realizing the many gaps of pertinent information here, I will say that my husband, who struggled with his sexuality throughout our marriage, had no words to express his inner turmoil; however, he did have words to turn his issues around toward me. One example: I never fixed a plate of food for myself in sixteen years that he did not look at and comment about my weight. As you can imagine, this affected me deeply. I have apologized to the girl in the first photo.
The second photo is of me at about age 37. I am bloated and look unhealthy. No longer married, working on my doctorate, in a new relationship, starting a great adventure in a new state–my body tells a deeper tale. It is one of insecurity, uncertainty, and a different kind of unhappiness. More gaps, I know, but I was struck by this picture in which I looked like a completely different person, one who was dancing–and apparently eating–as fast as she could. I apologized to the beautiful woman in that picture, too.
Reaching middle age–I am 55–has forced me to communicate with my body. I am aware of new aches and pains; it takes me a few seconds of walking before the muscles catch up (I call it having a “hitch in my getalong'”); and I am having to become acquainted with the grayed and wrinkling woman in the mirror. Thing is, I know this body has fewer days left than it has experienced, and that’s ok. When I do see that lady in the mirror, I assure her that she is beautiful and that I appreciate her–that face, that body. I promise her to live in such a way that I will mindfully value her now, in this moment, so that I never look back with regret at failing to do so.
This is what praying with my body feels like–gratefulness to God for my body as a presence in God’s divine creation–no fear of scales or mirrors or photos. Just thankfulness for this familiar likeness.
Coda: I read somewhere that 65% of women report that they have cancelled a doctor appointment because they do not want to step on the scale at check in. I myself have done this. Yes, read that again because it is in fact incredulous. Last week I had my check up. In I walked with the nurse who held my chart and directed me to the scale. “We have to do this,” she said, “but don’t worry, it’ll be over in a minute.” I boldly stepped up on the scale, keeping my shoes and jacket on this time. “It’s ok,” I replied, “I’m good.”
As I write this, another heinous mass shooting has taken place by white supremacists, this time in New Zealand. Almost 50 of our Muslim neighbors were murdered and 20 seriously injured, killed while they were praying. This attack is on my mind and heart as I contemplate this week’s Core Forum on prayer. As one public figure tweeted this morning, “Whether it is antisemitism in Pittsburgh, racism in Charlottesville, or the xenophobia and Islamophobia to day, violent hate is on the march at home and abroad….Silence is complicity.” I include this because the connection is made to multiple groups that are targeted for no other reason than hatred of any particular difference. The city where this atrocity occurred is called, ironically or not, Christchurch.
I have a chaplet that has inspired my prayer this week. If any of you are like I was and do not know what a chaplet is, it is a kind of small rosary–a prayer object–that usually has a saint medallion/object attached to the beads. Mine has two medallions. The first is St. Francis, whose prayer I have always loved, and the other, newer one is Julian of Norwich, whose mystical experiences inspire me. Julian’s words also comfort me like a gentle voice and touch soothes a child: All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well. I also made this quote my phone wallpaper–a postmodern engagement with the 15th century mystic. Still, when I see the words, I pray them. I’m thinking Fundamentalist Evangelicals do not a rule pray chaplets or contemplate icons in our prayer life. That’s unfortunate because for me it has deepened my prayers. Henri Nouwen says, “Icons…lead us into the inner room of prayer and bring us close to the heart of God” (p. 61). Whether icons are kinesthetic like mine, or natural, they open us to the Mystery of God’s presence.
The politician’s quote, above, suggests to us that the end to hatred and violence–peace–comes at a great price: our psychological, emotional, and embodied engagement. I am reminded that when the messages of MLK, JFK, and RFK turned from civil rights to peace, their lives were extinguished. The work of peace is a work of justice, and justice is the nature of God. Thoughts and prayers are not acts of peace in the world; prayer is that place of mystery where we might know that all will be well. Prayer is the interior castle (Teresa of Avila) where we are lost with and strengthened by our Beloved. Prayer is not what we do for the oppressed; prayer is what we do for ourselves so that we can have the strength to do the hard work of justice. God waits for us.
Coda: When John Lennon’s “Imagine” was released in 1971, it scared people–Christians who feared the new peaceful, global social order it suggested. In an interview with Playboy magazine, Lennon said that Dick Gregory had given Ono and him a Christian prayer book, which inspired the concept behind “Imagine.” A prayer book. He said,
The concept of positive prayer … If you can imagine a world at peace, with no denominations of religion – not without religion but without this my God-is-bigger-than-your-God thing – then it can be true … the World Church called me once and asked, “Can we use the lyrics to ‘Imagine’ and just change it to ‘Imagine one religion’?” That showed [me] they didn’t understand it at all. It would defeat the whole purpose of the song, the whole idea. (Wikipedia).
They were right to be scared, for it calls for an end of systems of domination, by definition the domain of the dominant culture. I wonder if we are any more willing to pray it today.
The lyrics are below.
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Living for today (ah ah ah)
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion, too
Living life in peace
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will be as one
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Sharing all the world
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will live as one
Maybe at some point in your life you have been called by God for some purpose. If you have and you realize it, all I can say is wow. How did you know? Did you hear a voice? Did you have a feeling around your heart or stomach area? Was there only circumstantial evidence?
A call is different from a calling. I’ve heard teachers and nurses say that that they felt a calling toward their profession; a calling is a strong urge toward a particular thing, usually a vocation. A call is a divine summons. Let that sink in.
I grew up in a church that did not believe in divine summons or of being led by the Spirit. We were fundamentalist Christians who believe that the Bible is literal, mostly, unless it isn’t. People who talked about being called by God to the ministry were obviously Jesus freaks, most likely Baptists. And then, again, God laughs. Yeah, I was called. I’m not sure if I can stress how hard it is to understand that a call is a call when you don’t believe in calls at all. I think I would compare it to a dog being leashed for a walk for the first time. At first, it’s like, “Hey, wow, what is this I’m feeling?” And then, “Wait a minute….what is this thing?” Next, is pulling back and tugging, followed by flailing around from side to side. Until finally, you’re completely worn out from fighting it. Then you’re ready to walk. This is the first part of a process that is known as discernment.
Have you ever felt like God was just putting things in your way? Not obstacles, more like lit up “Entrance” signs in strange dark rooms. In that situation, what are you going to do but go in? That’s what happened to me. It started when I read the liturgy at church one Sunday morning (nope, I’m not fundamentalist anymore, nor Baptist either). I felt that leash for the first time. I’ll just take a course on Progressive Christianity, I said. I like this course; I’ll see if I can find a really good online program. Then, if the M.A. in Christian Ministry is this rewarding, I want to pursue the twice-the-credit-hours Master of Divinity. What was God putting in the way? Time, opportunity, scholarship support, people who kept saying, “Oh! You’d be so great at ministry!”
So what about the pulling back and flailing around part of this walk? It’s pretty much been ongoing to this point. I mean, I have a job, a doctorate, and an established writing presence in my academic field. I’m at the place where people usually arrive, not where they jump off from. Luckily, the first class you take in seminary is called Spiritual Formation, where you learn that discernment is being still and listening for God. It’s ok not to know what to do, just don’t get tied up in knots over it, which is my default. When I got serious about listening to God, I settled down and started walking.
So here I am: MDiv student at the McAfee School of Theology. I’m still working full-time at a job that is truly not bad. I’ve put academic writing on pause until the next page is revealed to me, no pun intended. That’s the background of it, and I think it’s sufficient for now.