Sex, Race, and Religion: The Lessons of Proposition 8

Since the passage of Proposition 8 in California, a new Web-based group called “Join the Impact” has launched a remarkable campaign in support of same-sex marriage. Their initiatives include a “Day without a Gay,” which made news on December 10, and a short musical comedy with an all-star cast called Proposition 8: the Musical.

The musical begins with brightly-dressed gays and lesbians dancing in celebration of Obama’s election, who are rudely interrupted by a ridiculously somber, dark-clothed contingent of religious Christians.

“Abomination! Abomination!” the Christians call out, oddly ignoring the word’s resonance (evident to us viewers) with “Obama-nation.” Jesus, played by Jack Black, shows up to settle the issue, singing the praises of shrimp cocktail and church-state separation. The Christian right, although not completely swayed by Jesus, is finally won over when it’s brought to their attention that in gay marriage, “there is money to be made.”

LGBT Rights as Religious Freedom?

This snappy bit of political humor nicely encapsulates the tropes of race and religion that for decades have structured national discourse about homosexuality. Since Proposition 8, these tropes are returning with a vengeance—literally—due to the facts that the Mormon Church sunk some $20 million into Proposition 8 and that 70% of African Americans voted for it.

Anger at religious opponents is nothing new for gay rights activists, but anger at opponents who themselves are part of an historically oppressed group is a new and touchy thing. Proponents of gay rights (among whom I count myself) often assume that by virtue of their racial experience, African Americans should feel bound to support full civil equality for gays and lesbians. But to reduce African Americans to race is to deny the religious convictions that lead many of them to reject gay marriage. And to reduce religion to Mormonism, or to the religious right as a whole, is to vastly understate—and underutilize—the complexity of religion.

It took many millions of Californians who were neither Black nor Mormon to pass Proposition 8. So the post-Proposition focus on these two groups says more about the fixations of public discourse than about the real causes of the victory of Proposition 8.

Religion and race are old tropes in the national melee about sexuality, and each belongs to an ideological frame that can’t be translated into the other. Opponents of gay rights use the language of their religion and morality, and they claim their right to free exercise under the First Amendment; LGBT people assert their sexual identities, point to the establishment clause, and insist on the separation of church and state.

Many opponents of gay rights still insist that sexual orientation is a choice—and a bad choice; proponents generally insist that sexuality is not a choice (which is a peculiar logic, as if choosing homosexuality could not be good). Opponents refer to God, tradition, civilization, and other value-laden terms; proponents claim the authority of science and argue that religious values, simply because they are religious, can have no claim on public life. And both sides attempt to manipulate the African-American community, reductively pegging them as either holding (conservative) religious values or (progressive) racial politics.

Scholars of religion (among whom I also count myself) can see that these discourses seriously misrepresent the realities of religions. We also see that these discourses wrongly assume the existence of a secular sphere ruled only by the maxims of cool reason. To many of us, it’s quite clear that the category of “religion” is continually reconstructed in responses to conflicts of power—conflicts implicating race, class, nation, gender, and, of course, sexuality.

These points may seem erudite to groups like “Join the Impact,” or the Mormon church, or to ordinary people who relate to religion mostly as a matter of personal belief or disbelief. But to mediate the polemics around homosexuality, we all ought to think at least a little more about religion in its relations with race, sexuality, and our constitution. In this light, Proposition 8 leaves us at least two questions to ponder:

First, could it be that the strategy of comparing gay rights to racial civil rights needs to be reconsidered?

And second, might same-sex marriage and other LBGT rights be better understood as a matter of religious freedom rather than a matter of quasi-racial equality?

Psychologically Sick? Or Just Morally Vicious?

A number of African-American leaders have effectively compared gay rights and racial civil rights. But when the demand for solidarity comes from (or is perceived to come from) white activists, it can appear to be a type of moral coercion. That’s especially so when the demand is accompanied by the threat that those who cannot conscientiously support gay rights will be called homophobes (read: psychologically sick) or bigots (read: morally vicious). If, instead, gay rights are compared to religious freedom, the conversation shifts—at the very least, both sides are now talking about the same thing: religion. After all, nearly every religious group in America is internally torn by disagreements over homosexuality. Moreover, many LGBT people are very actively religious.

But even for LGBT people who are (perhaps understandably) allergic to religion, it’s worth reflecting that to affirm oneself as gay or lesbian is always matter of personal integrity. Being gay may or may not be a choice, but to leave the closet and live with pride is most definitely a choice. Most LGBT people speak about this choice both as a liberation and as something we felt compelled to do. But this strange combination of freedom and obligation is precisely what characterizes a moral choice or a religious commitment. And, like other moral and religious choices, the decision to come out is made at personal risk and sustained at personal cost.

As Stephen Carter has written, religious differences are not trivial; they pertain to matters of the utmost seriousness. Muslims and Unitarians, Orthodox Jews and Catholics may disagree sharply about how to raise children. We don’t expect them to agree, much less to bless each other’s homes. But nor do we allow them to take each other’s children away. The marriages of evangelical Christians often are built on a principle of male headship that liberal Protestants abhor, while liberal Protestant marriages attempt a gender equity that evangelicals might find anarchic. These differences are serious; each regards the other’s patterns of marriage and family to be not benignly different, but wrong. But nobody is deprived of marriage or family on their account.

That is, unless your conscientious beliefs include sexual commitment to somebody of the same sex, or the desire to marry or adopt a child in the context of that commitment. In that case, you’re probably out of luck, as sadly implied by the passage of Proposition 8 in California and Act One in Arkansas.

Disagreements about sexuality may be very serious, but are they more serious than, say, questions about God or salvation? We live with the latter disagreements all the time. Maybe it’s time to treat disagreements about sexuality the same way. To compare gay rights to racial civil rights is in some ways to ask for too much—a level of acceptance that cannot be fairly expected when disagreements are moral or religious. At the same time, it asks for too little, because it reduces sexuality to a bare fact and erases the moral dimension of gay and lesbian lives.

Religious and moral disagreements are the most profound differences we have, and for that very reason religion is the first constitutional freedom. We are constitutionally bound, not to condone or celebrate those disagreements, but to recognize them and to live with them. For disagreements about marriage, we need do no more, and we should do no less.

Kathleen.Sands@umb.edu'

Kathleen Sands is Associate Professor of American Studies at the University of Hawaii, Manoa.