Capital Clerical Control Checkmated: D.C. Pastors Learn There Are Limits To Their Power

If the United States were a theocracy, religiously-based arguments against same-sex marriage might carry some weight.

Some members of the clergy in Washington, D.C., are angry because the city council will no longer automatically do what they want.

As The Washington Post reports today, clergy in the nation's capital are used to having their calls returned promptly; they expect the council to be responsive to their demands.

That may be changing. A battle over legalizing same-sex marriage in the city has angered many religious leaders. They oppose same-sex marriage and can't understand why 11 of the 13 members of the council say they'll vote for the measure.

"Ministers who oppose same-sex marriage say they now feel belittled, ignored and isolated by a government that no longer views the clergy as a mighty political force," reports The Post. "Activists, political leaders and some ministers who have come to tolerate, if not embrace, same-sex relationships argued that socially conservative ministers just chose to fight a battle they had lost years ago as the city changed around them."

Shifting cultural norms in the city may be part of the reason things are changing in D.C. But I see an often-overlooked aspect as well: The clergy just aren't putting forth a very good argument.

I've had the misfortune to hear Bishop Harry Jackson, a prominent same-sex marriage opponent, speak at several Religious Right gatherings. Jackson (who, by the way, pastors a church in the suburbs and owns two houses that aren't in D.C.) basically argues that the Bible condemns same-sex marriage and therefore it should not be permitted. Other opponents of the practice have pointed to papal decrees or other explicitly sectarian statements to buttress their view that gays should not be allowed to marry.

If the United States were a theocracy, these arguments might carry some weight. But our country is a republic that rests on a Constitution that separates church and state and guarantees that no religious group will have its theological views enshrined in law.

In such a country, assertions that same-sex marriage is against the Bible or offends the pope just don't cut out. The Supreme Court has said that U.S. laws are supposed to be based on secular rationales, so what else ya got?

Religious Right leaders occasionally make a stab at advancing a non-religious argument against same-sex marriage. Peter Sprigg, who works at the Family Research Council (FRC), once read an earlier blog I wrote on this topic. In response, he sent me an FRC position paper and a booklet listing secular reasons why gays should not be permitted to marry.

I appreciate that Peter took the time to send me the material. The problem is, most of his arguments weren't criticisms of same-sex marriage – they were criticisms of same-sex parenting. And to my mind, most of them really worked better as arguments against divorce.

Peter and the FRC believe that children do best in a two-parent home. Generally speaking, I think they are correct. Where we differ is that I believe loving and dedicated parents can be of the same or opposite gender.

But of course not every couple that marries chooses to have (or can have) children. Barring gays from getting married because their unions might negatively affect theoretically children that such couples might or might not ever have (an assertion not supported by research, by the way) is nonsensical. One could just as easily argue that we ought to ban opposite-sex marriage as well. After all, 50 percent of those end in divorce – and that's bad for children.

At the end of the day, opponents of same-sex marriage in D.C. and elsewhere don't much like gay people and seek to curtail their rights because religious precepts teach that homosexuality is sinful, evil, immoral, etc. When you hear them speak to their fellow travelers at the Religious Right gatherings, as I have done many times, all pretenses are dropped. Their arguments become explicitly religious. Here's an example from Spriggs' own pen.

D.C. Council member Muriel Bowser put it best, telling The Post, "I don't think we can make a decision in our state institutions based on the church."

Bingo. Maybe the reason clergy in D.C. are losing influence is because they have unrealistic expectations: They want government officials to pass laws that reflect their narrow theological views. They expect the right to use the force of government to impose their religion onto everyone. That is a power no democracy that hopes to remain vital and free can ever grant.