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