A Robust and Complicated Debate
LDS Church Apostle Dallin Oaks gave a speech a while back at the church’s growing and impressive school at Rexburg – BYU Idaho – that received some spirited attention in religious and civil rights circles and, considering the subject – same sex unions – not surprisingly, the speech generated some controversy.
The subject has become, I think, a very difficult one for the media to handle and typically historical perspective is lacking. Framing the issue as one involving a question of conflicting rights, however, requires a certain willingness to grapple with the American experience regarding religious expression and the struggle for equality.
Dallin Oaks didn’t start this debate, but his speech in Rexburg may have sharpened it.
Oaks is an impressive fellow. He taught law at the University of Chicago, served as president of Brigham Young University, was a Utah Supreme Court judge, and now serves on the Church’s Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. In Republican administrations, Oaks has been considered a potential U. S. Supreme Court nominee.
The subject of his Rexburg speech was religious freedom and the intimidation of members of the LDS faith that Oaks believes has come about as a result of the church’s opposition to same sex marriage proposals in California. In casting his concerns in terms of religious freedom, he incensed some by drawing parallels with the 1960’s civil rights movement.
“The extent and nature of religious devotion in this nation is changing,” said Oaks. “The tide of public opinion in favor of religion is receding, and this probably portends public pressures for laws that will impinge on religious freedom.”
As the Salt Lake Tribune reported, the LDS Church urged its “followers to donate money and time to pass Prop 8, the successful ballot measure that eliminated the right of same-sex couples to wed in California. Afterward protests, including several near LDS temples, erupted along with boycotts of business owners who donated to Prop 8 and even some vandalism of LDS meetinghouses.”
Oaks said, “In their effect [these actions] are like the well-known and widely condemned voter intimidation of blacks in the South that produced corrective federal civil rights legislation.”
Jeanetta Williams, president of the NAACP’s Salt Lake branch (and a former Idahoan), told the Tribune there is “no comparison” between what members of the LDS faith have endured and what civil rights advocates suffered.
“I don’t see where the LDS Church has been denied any of their rights,” she said. “What the gay and lesbian communities are fighting for, that is a civil-rights issue.”
This is a fascinating and important discussion because it brings at least two fundamental American values – religious freedom (and religious expression, however it is defined) into conflict with a claim of a basic civil liberty. The conflict is as old as the republic and as fresh as the morning headlines. It is also a study in how an issue can be framed and packaged for public and media consumption – my religious expression versus your civil rights.
I’m reminded of the thoughtful writing of Professor Martin Marty, a Lutheran pastor and a teacher and scholar at the University of Chicago School of Divinity. Marty has written of Abraham Lincoln’s willingness to invoke the Almighty in his political discourse. In fact, Lincoln – not a church joiner – may have spoken of God more often in his public discourse and writing than any other president.
Marty’s essay about Lincoln and religion notes that the 16th president wrote in 1864 to the Baptist Home Mission Society thanking the religious group for its support of his anti-slavery and Emancipation policies.
As Professor Marty has noted: “Of course, clergy in the South were claiming the same quality of biblical warrants for their pro-slavery, pro-secession, pro-Confederacy causes, and Lincoln had to deride them for that. Only a year or two before, he wrote the Society:
“‘Those professedly holy men of the South, met in the semblance of prayer and devotion, and, in the name of Him who said ‘As ye would all men should do unto you, do ye even so unto them’ appealed to the Christian world to aid them in doing to a whole race of men, as they would have no man do unto themselves, and thus, to my thinking, they contemned and insulted God and His church, far more than did Satan when he tempted the Saviour with the Kingdoms of the earth. The devils [sic] attempt was no more false, and far less hypocritical.”
Then, as Marty says, after having identified the South and its clergy with the satanic and the devilish, Lincoln qualified his point: “But let me forbear, remembering it is also written, ‘Judge not, lest ye be judged.’”
Ironically, Marty notes, Lincoln had just judged in the interest of pressing a political, indeed civil rights, point. As I said, this is an old debate and a complicated one in that American rights regarding religion and civil rights, at least the perception of those rights by some, can be in sharp conflict.
For what it’s worth, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life has a recent survey that says support is growing among Americans for civil unions, but same-sex marriage is still opposed by a majority of Americans.
As this debate moves forward, and it will move forward, both sides will likely continue to attempt to cast the issue in terms of its own concept of “civil rights.”
Without a grand compromise that balances conflicting rights, as Lincoln might have said, both sides can’t be right.