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.