Can Progressive Churches Avoid a Double Standard in the Public Sphere?

Earlier this May, the Minnesota state legislature legalized gay marriage, making Minnesota the twelfth state (in addition to Washington, DC) to recognize same sex marriages. A couple of days after the vote, I stumbled across a photo gallery of activists from both sides rallying at the state capitol. As I scrolled through the gallery looking for people I knew, I was struck by the number of clergy showing support for the bill. Seeing clergy speaking out in favor of gay marriage filled me with thankfulness, pride, and a little bit of relief. But it also made me question if I’ve been holding others to a double standard.

Most of the arguments against extending marriage equality seemed to rest on some form of religious belief. Sometimes it would be explicit, such as “Gay marriage is not what God intended” or “This goes against my religious beliefs.” But other times it was a step removed, such as “Don’t redefine traditional marriage” or “Don’t erase moms and dads.” Ask what makes a marriage “traditional” and you’ll usually find yourself back in a religious argument. While I heard a few speeches that argued against extending marriage equality for totally separate reasons, they were far outweighed by explanations that either spoke of religious beliefs in coded language or gave an explicitly religious answer.

When I talked to people who supported the bill, many of them expressed frustration over these religious arguments being brought into the legislature. One activist’s sign summed up the feeling well: “This is not your church.”  Even some of my friends who consider themselves religious expressed similar misgivings. “You can’t,” said one, “bring the Bible into policy. It should negate the rest of everything you say.”

While I sympathized with their frustration over religious arguments being brought into a political issue, I couldn’t help but wonder if I was holding the people I disagreed with to a double standard. If I don’t believe that we should base our public policy on religion, why was I glad to see clergy speaking out in favor of the bill’s passage? As I thought about it more, I could think of lots of times I had used religious arguments in deciding how to vote or support a cause. When clergy cite Biblical narratives in support of prison reform, are they really doing anything different than those who use the Bible to argue against gay marriage? When I call my representative to express my opposition to cuts in the SNAP program, am I making the state legislature into my church?

Is there a way to judge between good and bad uses of religious arguments in the public sphere? The easiest metric seems to be whether or not we agree with them. But is there a metric we can use that asks us to step outside of our experience? Some of the metrics we often toss around appear promising, but ultimately rest solely in our own views. One could argue, for example, that religious arguments should only be used if they are advocating for justice or advocating for those who are shut out of the legislative process. But this merely permits us to define justice according to our own a priori beliefs. Another argument often used is that religious arguments should only be used if they use they are correctly formulated. The shortcomings of this argument are apparent: who defines what “correct” is?

So are there any ways we can tell between good and bad religious arguments? To be frank, I am not aware of any. What I do know is that the discourse we are currently using perpetuates a double standard that seeks to let us into the public sphere while keeping others out.

One reason for the development of this double standard is our endless focus on finding common ground and looking for ways we can work together. If someone shares our views on an issue, then we often feel justified in overlooking what means they used to get there. While this focus on outcomes can foster innovative and unexpected partnerships, it can also construct a double standard that drives us further away from people that we disagree with. It is possible that we will become so focused on achieving our desired ends that we will become oblivious to the fact that we are using the same methods as those we disagree with.

Should progressive communities of faith advocate for justice in the public sphere? Certainly. But we should not do so without being critical of our own methods and arguments. While we must focus on achieving goals, we should not let ourselves become ignorant of the double standards that our arguments may create.


Credit flickr user fibonacciblue

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7 thoughts on “Can Progressive Churches Avoid a Double Standard in the Public Sphere?

  1. Another great post, Joseph, thank you.

    I can share similar musings from my own tradition: ‘Listen patiently and seek the truth which other people’s words may contain for you. Avoid hurtful criticism and provocative language. Do not allow the strength of your convictions to betray you into making statements or allegations that are unfair or untrue. Think it possible you may be mistaken’ (QFP §1•17).

    I have been pondering the paradox of intolerant tolerance for a while now, and your words shed clarity. Thanks.

  2. Joseph,

    I really appreciated this article. So often how we define “good” use of religious arguments in the public sphere is profoundly personal. Of course, from my perspective, clergy fighting for queer empowerment or immigration reform represent the very best of their religious tradition, but this article made me stop and consider what my foundational assumptions are. I think your final conclusion is spot on – it’s not that people of faith should stop letting their faith speak into the political sphere, but we do have to keep in mind our double standards.

  3. Thank you for this honest and insightful post. When one is working to make a positive impact in the world, it’s easy to lose sight of other perspectives and see oneself on some moral high-ground, so I think this kind of self-reflective questioning is a great reminder to all of us.

    Regarding the question of how much we should allow personal religious beliefs to inform our political decisions, I think it is certainly a tight-rope walk. There is a sense in which on an individual level, it is impossible to separate our beliefs and values from how we cast our ballots, since our very motivation for casting ballots in the first place is our beliefs and values. For this reason, I have to concede that just as I have a right to vote for (and openly support) marriage equality according to my beliefs, the “other” has the same right to do so according to theirs. That said, I do hold elected officials, and particularly supreme court justices to a higher standard of objectivity. To be sure, they are only human as well, but I believe it is their responsibility to set aside their personal beliefs and values as much as possible, and act instead on the collective values we established in our creation of the Constitution.

  4. Thank you for your honeset opinion on this issue. This is definitely an often overlooked issue and at times it does feel as if many of us already have our conclusions in our minds and we look for premises to back those conclusions, in the current case the premises happen to be rooted in our respective scripttures. In the American context we can even trace this issue all the way back to the abolition debates where both sides of the debate had their reasoning rooted in scripture and yet were coming to opposite conclusions. It may be the case that there is not resolution to this issue and one keeps one faith in MLK Jr’s maxim, “I have not lost faith. I’m not in despair, because I know that there is a moral order. I haven’t lost faith, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

  5. Thanks for your thoughtful essay. I would say that opinions on any subject can be guided by religious belief. That’s true for both progressives and conservatives. But on secular matters, religious arguments carry no weight. Again, that’s true for both progressives and conservatives.

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