Religious Right groups don’t have a lot to crow about from last month’s elections. They failed to put John McCain in office, and several of their House and Senate allies were defeated. Their enthusiastic support of McCain running mate Sarah Palin was not shared by the voting public.
But Nov. 4 was not a total loss for these groups. The Religious Right led successful ballot initiative drives to ban same-sex marriage in Arizona, Florida and California. In addition, Arkansas voters limited foster parenting and adoption to married couples, a move seen as aimed at blocking adoption by same-sex couples.
The California results have attracted a good bit of attention. Some polls leading up to the vote showed the measure trailing. Proposition 8 was pushed aggressively by the Religious Right and the state’s Roman Catholic hierarchy, and many believe it was put over the top in large part by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons). The church’s leadership appealed for its members to donate money and time to the effort. Many did. An estimated $20 million in Mormon donations poured into the state.
Many Californians are angry. They resent the fact that a church based in Utah was able to meddle in state politics. Some gay rights activists are calling on the Internal Revenue Service to revoke the church’s tax-exempt status.
Such demands are unlikely to bear fruit. If the Mormon leadership had used church money or resources to endorse a specific candidate for office, the IRS would probably be interested. But church-based issue advocacy is broadly protected. In this case, the hierarchy simply activated its membership.
Having said that, it’s perfectly understandable that many people in California don’t want to live under the rules of someone else’s church. It doesn’t seem to pass the theocratic smell test.
Consider what happened in California: A group of powerful religious traditions banded together, raised a lot of money and used it to persuade a majority of the voters to take away the civil rights of a minority group. The pro-Prop 8 ads may have been divisive and deceptive, but they worked.
To Religious Right strategists, that’s democracy in action. If the majority of voters decide to write the marriage doctrines of the majority faiths into civil law, they say, that’s their privilege.
What these organizations fail to grasp is that the United States was never intended to be an anything-goes, majority-rules nation. We are a constitutional republic that uses democratic principles in voting. Candidate A runs against Candidate B. The people vote, and one of them wins. That’s democracy.
Our government, however, exists within the framework of our Constitution, which protects the rights of minorities from overweening majority tyranny. The Constitution is our founding document, and its Bill of Rights enshrines a list of freedoms that are beyond the reach of any popular vote.
The framers didn’t set it up this way because they distrusted democracy. Indeed, they supported it – within limits. They also realized that majorities sometimes make bad decisions. Emotions and passions can run high, leading people to trample on the rights of others.
In the 1950s, many people in the South were greatly offended by the idea of whites and blacks marrying. Several states had laws banning this practice. The Supreme Court eventually struck down these laws, but what if that hadn’t happened? What if they had instead been put to popular vote? Does anyone seriously think that Mississippi in 1955 would have voted to legalize interracial marriage?
The people who opposed interracial marriage in the ’50s felt passionately that they were right. Some even made arguments based in the Bible and religion. God did not intend for the races to mix in this way, we were told. Interracial marriage, it was argued, was bad for children. Such unions were called “unnatural.”
Many of these arguments sound familiar because they are now being used to block same-sex marriage. If anything, this time around the religious objective of the drive is all the more obvious. The leaders of Religious Right groups talk openly about same-sex marriage being an affront to the Bible and spout lines (which they mistakenly think are clever) like, “God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.”
The Religious Right does not like it, but the United States separates religion and government. Our laws are based not on scriptures and religion but on a Constitution that guarantees religious freedom for all. That guarantee does not include the right of any religious group to use the power of government to impose its specific theological tenets on others.
Richard Land, a lobbyist for the Southern Baptist Convention, once opined, “We believe that marriage is a divinely ordained institution…. In a representative democracy like the United States, if we believe that certain lifestyles should be affirmed and other lifestyles should be merely tolerated, we have a right to have that made into law. And that’s not called a theocracy; [it’s] just called representative government.”
That’s debatable. Some may call that democracy; to us, it sounds a lot like theocracy slipping in through the back door.
Opponents of Proposition 8 have gone back to court to test the validity of the recent referendum. A lot is riding on what the California Supreme Court decides.