Adventists & Decriminalization of Sex: Notes from the Global North
By Keisha McKenzie, October 12, 2017: This conference seems to have produced an exciting if unsettling week for the church in Jamaica and reporters at the Gleaner and Observer. Articles published yesterday suggest that they are unclear about several facts so I’ll introduce myself this way: as the child of Jamaicans, one who graduated with highest honors from Northern Caribbean University, and as a Seventh-day Adventist.
What I’m not is an employee of the Seventh-day Adventist denomination in Jamaica or anywhere else in the world. I am an active member of Adventist congregations and the wider lay Adventist community. The local church administration chose to be missing in action this week, but, as the organizers realize, the footprint of the Adventist Church in Jamaica — between a Governor-General, a Prime Minister, one of the three largest universities, and a multitude of civil society leaders and others of influence — is simply too large for there to be an empty Adventist chair in this space. So just for the next two days, I’m going to sit in this chair. Perhaps paid church employees will be more willing to engage next time.
While I will not be speaking for the church organization at any time or debating the denomination’s faith statements, I will in both panels speak about it, quoting from or referencing statements made by Adventist spokespersons, employees, lawyers, theologians, pastors, and lay members like myself, as well as several other sources that are part of the public record and as accessible to any of you as they have been to me.
At the outset, however, I’ll also say that discussing sex, sexuality, identity, and faith exclusively through the legal lens of criminalization and decriminalization means that even on topics like how humans know themselves, connect with each other, and honor God, real people are made background noise. Focusing on law and policy to the diminishment of people, while failing to name rape and abuse as such and conflating relationships of mutual care with criminal acts, overshadows the impact of generalized stigma and discrimination on ordinary people and their family systems. Rather than using civil law or religious policy to support and enlarge human life, we’re using people to prop up our attachment to law and compliance. The outcome in all three of my cultures is the demonization of people presumed to be or actually LGBTQIA (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, and asexual), who are socially stigmatized and minoritized in the legal and policy climate we have created.
As others may have said this morning, although British colonial law (now in our context Jamaican post-colonial law) criminalized specific sex acts between adults regardless of sexual orientation or mutual consent, in regions where it’s still current law, it has in practice been enforced as prohibiting those specific acts between consenting adult men. It has further been generalized and popularly understood as a sanction against all sexual expression between same-sex partners, and, consequently, a legal and social sanction against LGBTQIA people regardless of relationship status or sexual expression. Thus, a purportedly universal civil law based on presumptions about what’s decent and what’s natural has yielded very specific stigmatizing legal and social outcomes for LGBTQIA people. Those outcomes impact members of this population whether they themselves only practice penile-vaginal penetration and regardless of whether the heterosexual married people Othering or prosecuting them under the law also do.
There is a legal and social legacy of so-called “sodomy” laws here and around the world, and our respective religions bear significant responsibility for that impact. As my colleagues in Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda, and other African states have explained to me, that legacy turns visible LGBTQIA people from contributing and respectable members of society to a troubled category of “unapprehended criminals” (e.g. Mugisha, 2014; Mason-John, 2013). As I’ve argued recently, “Beliefs have real world consequences for real, live people, and real world consequences can be measured… Permitting discrimination and marginalization for one group creates vulnerabilities for all groups” (McKenzie, 2016).
So I come to this conference with a lot of curiosity about the wider context for how my religious community has engaged the LGBTQIA community. As I explored the church’s papers, journals, records, and statements, I realized that the Seventh-day Adventist approach to the lives of LGBTQIA people is rooted in our historical approaches to religious and civic law. Over its 154-year history, the Adventist denomination has engaged in religious liberty and civic activism, and as it has done so, it has acted on the premise that the church has one appropriate lane of authority, the state has another separate and distinct lane, and the church should carefully monitor these lanes so as to prevent both state interference in religious matters and religious tyranny’s “improper influence” on individual conscience or minority populations (London, 2009; Moore, 2013; White, 1911).
I like how the Adventist General Conference President Ted N. C. Wilson defined this in 2013: “keeping the church at arm’s length from the state” (Wilson, 2013). According to Wilson, the principle of religious liberty precludes the Adventist church from accepting the belief that any nation-state rests on Christianity as its official faith or source of law. It also precludes Adventists from using faith “as a cudgel” or civic legislation “to coerce” other people (ibid). This principle, which the General Conference uses to monitor official church activity around the world, is rooted in traditional Adventist theological teachings about the separation of church and state. Specifically, since the church’s founding in the 1860s, Adventists have anticipated a time in contemporary history when church members would become Othered and persecuted under civic state law. That expectation of future state persecution has understandably checked the church’s willingness to either seek civic power or use it to target other populations.
A closer look yields a more mixed picture. Highlights from the church’s 154 years of religious liberty activism include A. T. Jones’ testimony to Congress in 1888. Jones advocated for Adventists’ ability to observe the Sabbath in a climate where Sunday sacredness was being grafted into local, state, and potentially national law. In his testimony, Jones noted that “religious bigotry … knows no such thing as progress or enlightenment; it is ever the same.” He also said, “No man can allow any legislation in behalf of the religion, or the religious observances, in which he himself believes, without forfeiting his own religious freedom” (1989).
Another historical highlight is an appeal for liberty from the denomination’s Southern Union Conference temperance and religious liberty secretary, S. B. Horton, to the Louisiana state legislature in 1908. Both Jones’ and Horton’s appeals address religious liberty in terms of civil rights and not only in terms of sectarian theology. Interestingly, the Horton address, mostly about alcohol, also records a church spokesman “welcom[ing] restrictive legislation” against sex or marriage between White and Black people — in the name of pure morals and civic order. That should be a familiar argument to the people in this meeting (Horton, 1908, p. 4).
But Horton also foreshadowed Wilson’s argument about using Caesar to establish religious convictions: “Even if Sunday was the true rest day given to the church,” Horton wrote, “it would be wrong for the state to enforce acceptance of a purely religious tenet… the passing of [religious] laws is a long step toward the union of church and state” (p. 10). And he further opposed such laws because “their primary purpose is to protect a religious institution, rather than to protect all citizens in the enjoyment of their natural and inalienable rights” (p. 11).
In the last thirty years, though, the Adventist denomination’s North American Division, which serves the United States, Canada, Bermuda, and parts of Micronesia, has mostly sought to avoid public controversy on matters of civil law. Its staff members engage civil rights topics indirectly, through national or regional public affairs and religious liberty offices and legal “friend of the court” briefs. The church’s brief strategy allows it to engage the current US Supreme Court, which through cases like Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC (2012) and Burwell v. Hobby Lobby (2014) has been unusually deferential to religious agents, organizations, and businesses providing public services to the general public.
More recent cases such as Gloucester County School Board v. G.G. (vacated) and Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission (pending) explore the place of LGBTQIA people in civil society, and have inspired the church’s lawyers to narrow their scope to how the legal questions are defined and skip over the theology or ethics of sexual minorities’ morality, dignity, or rights.
There have also been exceptions. In 2004, the religious liberty director of the Adventist Church in Canada argued in print that civil marriage for “our neighbors who are struggling with immoral sexual inclinations” was part of “the greatest assault on religious freedom in recent memory” (Bussey, 2004). As California considered adopting civil marriage equality, the General Conferences Administrative Committee (ADCOM) issued a statement about “same-sex unions,” the Pacific Union Conference of Seventh-day Adventists publicly supported Proposition 8, and the North Pacific Union Conference of Seventh-day Adventists “urge[d] all state governments in the Northwest to reject any attempt to re-define marriage” (GC, 2005; NPUC, 2005). Seven years later, General Conference and North America Division staff promoted “no” votes on civil marriage referenda in two states, including at a large congregational forum in Spencerville, MD.
Outside the United States, the Southern Africa Union opposed South Africa’s LGBTI-supportive constitution (2006) and subsequent marriage equality (Charles, 2006). The South African constitution was the first in the world to protect citizens from discrimination based on sexual orientation by the state or between individuals. To preserve equality and dignity, the constitution also specifically banned employment, healthcare, foster and adoption service, and public accommodations discrimination (SA History, 2011). In 2011, administrators of the denomination’s British Union Conference used the church’s official newsletter to encourage members to sign petitions against civil same-sex marriage. A union staffer called the proposed equality laws “a personal challenge to Adventists,” and the BUC president alleged a nefarious LGBT “strategy” to “desensitize” the public to non-heterosexual immorality.
Finally, at the denomination’s mostly heterosexuals-only conference on gender and sexuality (in 2014), the General Conference general counsel made an about-turn from the church’s 19th century position on using civil law to benefit religious institutions rather than to benefit all people. The GC general counsel told delegates that denominational hiring, firing, and policy practices would be easier if more countries criminalized homosexuality and if the church opted out of non-discrimination (that is, opted into discriminatory practice) in countries where decriminalization has already happened (cf. Charles, 2006; Cruz, 2014). Here in Jamaica, representatives of the Jamaica Union have repeatedly declared that LGBT civil rights aren’t human rights, and that the union “stridently opposes” repeal of the laws we’re discussing today (Gilpin, 2016).
It may be surprising, then, that when Uganda, Nigeria, and several other African and Asian nations began a new round of LGBTQIA criminalization, the denomination’s public affairs staff weighed in on them. Public Affairs and Religious Liberty staffer Dwayne Leslie wrote that the Ugandan Anti-homosexuality Bill, which imposed a constellation of severe sanctions against LGBTI people and heterosexual people who “counseled” them or failed to turn them into authorities, was “abhorrent” and “incomprehensible” (Leslie, 2014). In the same article, Leslie plainly stated that it was “wrong to criminalize” homosexuality and also claimed that the denomination “vehemently oppose[s] governments passing legislation to compel morality.”
Whether the church does in fact vehemently oppose using state force to constrain or compel social minorities is debatable, but it was telling that it felt compelled to declare that it does. The denomination has not publicly addressed LGBTQIA criminalization initiatives in Nigeria, Kenya, Russia or India over the last decade to the degree it addressed the issue in Uganda, if it has addressed them at all. Church papers and statements have instead underscored status quo theological and policy hostility to the LGBTQIA population rather than rein in what Leslie described — at least in Uganda — as an “abhorrent” use of the church’s moral and social authority against minorities. It might be relevant that there has been unique international attention to the links between American evangelicals like Scott Lively, the Family Research Council, and The Family and legislation criminalizing LGBTQIA people, relationships, sexual expression, and free association in Uganda (Blake, 2014; Mugisha, 2014). There has been far less attention to the slow decriminalization process in the United Kingdom since 1967, civil equality in continental Europe, or Adventist administrators ministering creatively to LGBTI people in the Netherlands Union Conference (2014).
I hope this survey shows that sometimes a denomination’s moral interventions in civil society may have a self-interest motive even if they also have theological justifications. But what benefits the church corporation — for example, making norms so explicit that it is easy to hire and fire employees and disfellowship members — isn’t always what’s beneficial for the church body. Despite the moral imperative to “make men whole” that Adventist faith draws from scripture and its earliest founders (Nichol, 1956), the global church has largely failed to learn from its clinical professionals, particularly psychologists and social workers whose disciplines require them to navigate the territory between affirming professional ethics and restrictive religious teachings about LGBTQIA people (e.g. Patrick, 2012; Ruben, 2015; VanderWaal, Sedlacek, & Lane, 2017). In one recent survey of LGBT Adventist millennials and college students, for example, Andrews University researchers found that Adventist “caregivers, clergy, and religious congregations were generally not considered to be good sources of social support for respondents” (McKenzie, 2017). I don’t believe this impact is because Adventists are bad helping professionals or intend to serve this population poorly. Rather, any ambivalence toward LGBTQIA people flows from the only beliefs about LGBTQIA people that church workers are authorized to hold or publicly express. [This again partly explains their absence today.]
Yet, back in 2014 when Uganda attempted to criminalize its LGBTI population and Ugandan Adventist leaders advocated turning state law against their neighbors, global church leaders asked their colleagues to consider, “How are we to behave in the face of behaviors with which we disagree? Clearly, with love.” And Wilson, who does not affirm LGBTQIA people, more directly said: “My fellow Seventh-day Adventists around the world and I believe that we serve a wonderful and mighty God who cherishes religious liberty and grants each individual the right to believe or not to believe in harmony with the dictates of their own conscience” (Wilson, 2013).
So according to the current General Conference president, it is against Adventist teaching to use the force of the civil state against other people even if so doing appears to protect the church’s institutional or legal interests. While it is not against consistent church practice to do so, the General Conference and LGBTQIA Adventists around the world including those represented by Seventh-day Adventist Kinship International agree on that basic principle (SDA Kinship, 2012; SDA Kinship, 2014). As they spoke up for LGBTQIA church members being stigmatized and criminalized in East Africa this decade, Kinship’s communications team wrote:
“[The criminalization of LGBTI people] violates fundamental human rights, is a vehicle for discrimination, and is contrary to the character of Jesus Christ and the value system that our church promotes. We are each part of the diverse human family, and God calls us to love one another, to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. That includes loving our LGBTI neighbors, not scapegoating them, ostracizing them, or imprisoning them for consensual relationships. Regardless of the church’s stance on human sexuality and gender roles, we believe that the Seventh-day Adventist church should never actively or passively promote the violation of basic human rights.”
The open question for Adventism on this topic is how to go beyond sentiments of love and kindness and actually deal justly with others, per Micah 6:8. As Cornel West has said, justice is what love looks like in public. Perhaps that’s especially true where parties disagree. President Wilson has outlined a way for the church to move forward, honoring both its convictions and religious liberty. It is up to all of us to wrestle with the implications for our context.
Keisha E. McKenzie, PhD, is a principal with McKenzie Consulting Group and works with nonprofit clients in the United States and internationally. She is a member of the governing board of the Adventist Today Foundation, the publisher of Adventist Today media.
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