by Ronald Lawson, PhD  |  21 June 2019  |

This paper was originally published in 2003 in the Kinship Connection.

Two prominent Adventists have recently urged a reversal in ­our Church’s long held position of opposing the enactment of laws ­attempting to impose morality. They have urged that it take a­ public position against the recent changes in North America ­towards recognizing same-sex relationships, and publicly support ­the “Marriage Amendment’ to the constitution that is being put­ forward by conservative Republicans at the behest of the­ Religious Right. The first, by Roy Adams, Associate Editor of the ­Adventist Review, was an article published in its October NAD ­edition entitled “Marriage under Siege: Is Society Headed for­ Moral Chaos?” He reviewed the US Supreme Court decision finding ­the Texas sodomy law unconstitutional, the court decisions in ­Canada which made changes in the definition of marriage and­ ordered Parliament to enact a law that will apply this to the­ whole of Canada, the decisions by the Episcopal Church to accept ­an openly gay bishop and the blessing of same-sex partnerships ­where local bishops wish to allow this, and drew attention to a­ case focusing on same-sex marriage that was then awaiting a ­decision from the Massachusetts Supreme Court. Then, posing the­ question “What is to be our stance as a church?”, he urged that Adventists alter their usual public position on such issues: ­”Silence is not an option. The stakes are too high. And normal ­considerations of tolerance and political correctness cannot ­apply–in fact would be irresponsible. This is the time for faith ­communities to speak out…” (Roy Adams, “Marriage Under­ Siege,” Adventist Review, Oct 2003, 34-36).

Alan Reinach, Director of the Pacific Union’s Public Affairs­ and Religious Liberty Department, adopted a similar stance in a ­November 20 e-mail newsletter entitled “Church State ­Newsflash!!!: Massachusetts Supreme Court Rules in Favor of Gay­ Marriage.” He urged that Adventists officially support a­ “Marriage Amendment” to the US Constitution that would recognize ­marriage as limited to that between a man and a woman, and­ override any contrary decision by a state court. He urged that­ the church do this in order to “legislate morality that ­corresponds to majoritarian religious beliefs” (Pacific ­Union Department of Public Affairs and Religious Liberty, “Church ­State Newsflash and Legislative Alerts,” e-mail, Nov. 20, 2003).

I believe that the course advocated in these articles is ­both wrong and dangerous. It is based on a misreading of ­Scripture, the court decisions, and what the authors call “the ­gay agenda”; it would place the Adventist Church in opposition to ­what is a civil rights, not a religious, issue; and it would­ undermine our long-held position supporting the separation of church and state. I will address each of these points in turn.

Scripturally, the advocacy of support for the “marriage ­amendment” is based on a reading of Genesis 1 and 2 that is ­currently the subject of open debate among Adventists at the ­ongoing series of annual conferences on Science and Creation. It ­ignores the fact that in biblical times women were the property ­of their fathers and then their husbands (see the Tenth­ Commandment, where wives are listed as property but not even the­ first such item); polygamy was common; women did not have to be ­consulted before being married off; etc. In other words, marriage has been evolving over these thousands of years. So it should ­have been, and so it still is. It forgets that Jesus did not regard the truth enunciated in the New Testament as the final­ revelation of truth, for he promised that the Holy Spirit would­ guide us further (John 16:12-13). It also ­forgets that the Adventist commitment to “present truth” is based­ on an acknowledgment that we continue to expect further such ­guidance in our generations.

The recent decisions of the US Supreme Court, the Canadian ­courts, and the Massachusetts Supreme Court have nothing to do­ with religious freedom or religious rites. They would in no way ­force any pastor to perform a same-sex marriage. I quote from the­ Massachusetts decision: “Civil marriage is, and since ­pre-Colonial days has been, precisely what its name implies: a­ wholly secular institution… No religious ceremony has ever been ­required to validate a Massachusetts marriage” (440­ Mass. 309, 798 N.E.2d 941:7). The decisions, and the hopes ­of gays and lesbians, are about civil rights: the right to ­happiness–to choose whom we love and to whom we will commit ourselves for the rest of our lives–is a fundamental civil ­right. The Massachusetts decision recognized this: “The benefits­ accessible only by way of a marriage license are enormous,­ touching nearly every aspect of life and death… It is ­undoubtedly for these concrete reasons, as well as for its­ intimately personal significance, that civil marriage has long ­been termed a ‘civil right.'” [ibid.:11,15] When ­Reinach reminded readers that the US Constitution’s full faith ­and credit clause would force California to recognize the ­implications of a Massachusetts acceptance of same-sex marriages ­for provisions concerning “divorce, tax, inheritance, child ­custody or visitation”, etc.–areas where those in same-sex ­relationships are currently not protected–he was recognizing ­that such decisions would grant fundamental civil rights. The ­constitutional amendment would create and perpetuate a class of­ second-class citizens.

Adventism was initially willing to be radical and ­nonconformist on several social issues. However, that stance was ­abandoned as we sought the approval of Fundamentalists and­ Evangelicals, and during succeeding decades we established a poor ­record in several areas of civil rights, both in internal­ practice and in failing to raise our voices on behalf of justice ­in the land. For example, during our early decades our prophet­ was a woman and women were included among the ranks of General­ Conference officers, major evangelists, and pastors. However,­ following the death of Ellen White, women gradually disappeared­ from these positions. The General Conference, in the Pacific­ Press case, responded negatively to the cry of women for equality­ and justice, and three General Conference Sessions refused to allow­ the ordination of women pastors (Kit Watts, “The Rise­ and Fall of Adventist Women in Leadership,” Ministry, Apr. 1995, ­6-10; Merikay McLeod, Betrayal, Mars Hill 1985; Kit Watts, “The Long and Winding Road for Adventist Women’s Ordination,” Spectrum, ­Summer 2003, 56-7). More recently, as our Church­ belatedly reopened other roles to women, it still continued to refuse them access to the top positions of power (they are still ­denied the possibility of being a president at any level of the­ Church structure).

Adventist history is similar when it comes to the situation ­of racial minorities in the US. Ellen White’s The Southern Work ­put us in what was then a radical position, with integrated congregations. However, this book was soon allowed to go out of ­print and the radical policy was replaced by one of “temporary” ­segregation and discrimination after a Southern segregationist ­was given the task of selecting the contents of Testimonies ­Volume IX in the name of the by then very elderly and frail­ prophet. This resulted in a long history of discrimination in­ admissions to academies and colleges, of no opportunities for ­promotion of blacks within the church structure, of refusals to ­treat black patients at white Adventist hospitals, etc., until­ educated black laymen held a press conference blowing the whistle ­at the 1962 General Conference Session in San Francisco. (Frank W. Hale Jr, Angels Watching Over Me, Winston,­ Nashville, 1996, 157-211). When black pastors demanded opportunities for promotion to positions in conference ­offices during World War II, a decision was made to give them ­instead something they had not requested–separate black­ conferences–in order to prevent them from taking positions where ­they would be “over whites.” The Methodists abandoned segregated­ conferences in the 1950s; Adventists added them in 1944 and still­ have them. I have been told frequently in interviews with ­African-American pastors that Adventists fell behind in our ­outreach within their community when we earned a reputation for­ not participating (with very few exceptions) in the cry for ­justice expressed in the Civil Rights Movement led by Martin ­Luther King, Jr. (Much of the black growth in the North American Division (NAD) has since ­been among immigrants from the Caribbean and Africa.)

Yet another civil rights failure concerns the rules applied­ to converts in countries where polygamous marriages are legal.­ Until 1931, Adventists held a radical position among Christians ­in Africa, refusing to insist, when polygamous families were­ converted, that the males divorce their wives, but only that they­ add no more thereafter. However, they then bowed to pressure from ­the other mission churches and adopted their policy, which ­frequently results in mothers being separated from their children ­and left without support–a situation, many interviewees in­ Africa told me, that often forces them into prostitution in order­ to maintain themselves. In 1988 the Anglican bishops, meeting at­ the Lambeth Conference, recognizing the evil impact of the ­policy, voted to adopt the very practice we had held until 1931. ­Adventists, however, continue with a policy that puts rules ahead­ of the needs of people.

Adventists thus have a miserable record in the area of civil­ rights. The actions urged on the Church in the two articles ­reviewed here would extend that record further. What is the ­Adventist interest in pushing the constitutional amendment?­ Reinach urged that Adventists work to “uphold traditional ­marriage because society has every legitimate interest in the­ welfare of children and the stability of families.” How does ­allowing same-sex couples to legalize their relationships ­undermine the welfare of children or the stability of ­heterosexual families? Religious conservatives have frequently ­attacked homosexuals, labeling them all as promiscuous. Surely ­the prospect of same-sex couples wanting to commit themselves to­ marriages that cannot be broken easily should bring joy to ­Adventists, and lead us to do everything we can to foster such­ stability. The alternative for the Church is that it persists with­ the advice so frequently given in Adventist circles to gay­ men–that they pray about their homosexual “problem,” date a­ woman, and marry her–in spite of the fact that the evidence­ shows plainly that such irresponsible advice is likely to result ­in the destruction of the lives of all involved in the families thus formed.

In his article Adams reveals his ignorance when he uses the ­term “the gay lifestyle.” This is the equivalent of looking at ­the data on the divorce rate, the frequency of premarital sex,­ and the abortion rate, and concluding that “the heterosexual ­lifestyle” in the US is one of serial monogamy and sexual ­dalliance. The statistical evidence shows that these rates are ­high among Adventists, with alarmingly little difference between ­Adventists and the rest of society. The lifestyles adopted by­ heterosexuals and homosexuals are equally diverse.

There is a strong parallel between the struggle to gain ­recognition for same-sex marriages and that to end the anti-miscegenation laws (those prohibiting inter-racial marriage) ­a generation ago, for both aimed at striking down provisions ­preventing citizens from marrying the person of their choice. The­ Massachusetts Supreme Court decision repeatedly cited decisions ­on the anti-miscegenation laws as precedents. The first colonies ­to enact anti-miscegenation statutes were Virginia (1662) and ­Maryland (1663). Amendments to put a prohibition of interracial marriage in the U.S. Constitution were introduced at least three ­times between 1871 and 1928, but never reached a vote in­ Congress (David E. Rosenbaum, “Race, Sex and Forbidden ­Unions,” New York Times, Week in Review section, December 14, 2003).

In 1948 California became the first state to find an­ anti-miscegenation law unconstitutional, when its Supreme Court ­found that its law violated the due process and equality ­guarantees of the Fourteenth Amendment (Perez v. Sharp,­ 198 P.2d 17 (Cal. 1948)). At that time 32 of the 48 states­ had such statutes. In 1967, the U.S. Supreme Court also found a ­statutory bar to interracial marriage violated the Fourteenth ­Amendment when it ruled the law in Virginia unconstitutional—a ­decision which rendered all such laws moot (Loving v.­ Virginia, 388 U.S.). Both these decisions were­ courageous, handed down in the face of strong contrary public opinion: in 1968, the year after the Loving decision, a Gallup ­Poll found that Americans, by a margin of more than 3 to 1, still ­disapproved marriages between whites and blacks (Rosenblum, op.cit.). In its 2003 decision on­ same-sex marriage, the Massachusetts Supreme Court wrote: “In this case, as in Perez and Loving, a statute deprives individuals­ of access to an institution of fundamental legal, personal, and­ social significance–the institution of marriage–because of a ­single trait: skin color in Perez and Loving, sexual orientation­ here. As it did in Perez and Loving, history must yield to a more­ fully developed understanding of the invidious quality of the­ discrimination (440 Mass. 309 op.cit.:19).

It is surely shocking for an Adventist to read, in a widely­ distributed letter by a departmental leader charged with the task­ of protecting religious liberty, an advocacy that the Church work ­to “legislate morality that corresponds to majoritarian religious­ beliefs.” Has Elder Reinach, in his recent anti-gay crusades, ­forgotten what lies behind the Adventist commitment to religious­ liberty? The danger of any democracy is that the rights of ­minorities will be ignored. Do we need to be reminded that in our­ society Adventists, like homosexuals, are a minority?

What Reinach advocates is diametrically opposed to the ­general position of the church against enacting moralty-based ­law. Both in the 1880s, when we had to fight to fend off the enactment of Sunday-sacredness laws, and now in both the US and ­Canada, religious conservatives tried/are trying to make their ­version of Christian morality the law. In neither instance was/is ­anyone’s religious liberty rights being trampled–our working on ­Sunday in no way transgressed the right of Sunday keepers to ­observe the day in the 1880s, and today no church would be ­required to perform or even recognize same-sex marriages. In each­ case those trying to enact their own morality were attempting to ­render another group second class, arguing that they were keeping­ the faith by enforcing majoritarian religious beliefs. Last time Adventists were the victims. We, of all people, should know­ better than to support attempts to enact such laws or­ constitutional amendments. Adventists have many important reasons ­to fight the proposed marriage amendment to the Constitution.


Ronald Lawson was Professor in the Department of Urban Studies at ­Queens College, the City University of New York, where he taught courses focusing on the sociology of religion and political ­sociology. He is also the President of the Metro New York ­Adventist Forum, a position he held for 41 years. He is ­completing a book, Apocalypse Postponed, that will give a­ sociological account of international Adventism, the first major ­study of a global church.

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