* to encourage a reasoned awareness of how our beliefs impact the way we interact with the world around us
* to foster intelligent and open dialogue
* to inspire a sense of spirituality that has real meaning in day-to-day life

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Freedom of Religious Thought

When I wrote a recent article Why Christians Should Back Down on Gay Marriage, I addressed some of the fallacies underneath the biblical reasons that some Conservative Christians offer against same-sex marriage.  Although I didn't address any social or political arguments directly, I did receive some feedback about why some Christians believe that their rights are being threatened in the gay marriage debate.  The fear is essentially, "By seeking the right to marry, homosexuals are trying to take away our right to define marriage the way we want to."

Since I've seen and heard this kind of thinking in multiple places, I want to address it seriously.  People everywhere have the freedom to believe whatever they want.  There are limitations on how those beliefs can be legally expressed, but no one can take away your freedom to believe something.  If I believe that Barry Manilow is the greatest singer in the world, no one can deprive me of that belief.  I can listen to Barry in the privacy of my own home, on my iPod at the gym, and while I'm driving around town, and there's no problem.  When I decide that I can play Barry at 2 a.m. loud enough for the whole neighborhood to enjoy him, suddenly there's a problem.  Other people have rights and freedoms, too.  I don't have the freedom to make other people listen to Barry Manilow just because I believe he's the greatest singer in the world.  (This is all hypothetical, you understand.)

If I define marriage as being exclusively between one man and one woman, that really only has an impact on my life.  It informs what my relationships will look like, and it might inform the people with whom I form close friendships.  But I don't get to decide what everyone else's marriage will look like.  I may think everyone should eat 13 servings of vegetables a day, but that doesn't mean I get to weigh in on everyone else's diet. If someone else defines marriage or their ideal diet differently from me, what impact does that actually have on my life?  As long as they aren't forcing me to live my life by a different set of beliefs, they don't actually threaten my beliefs at all.

There can still be an impact when I witness someone living out a different belief than I have.  If I see someone eating a diet that I consider unhealthy, or when I see someone allowing their children to behave in a way that annoys me, or when I see someone in a different kind of relationship than what I have, my beliefs may be challenged.  Beliefs can be challenged without actually being threatened.  Vegans don't actually threaten the diets of carnivorous people, but they may present a challenge to people who don't give their food choices much thought.  When beliefs are challenged, two things can happen: A person either develops deeper conviction or broadens their view of what is acceptable.  Either result is growth.  So challenge is a good thing.

No matter how deep one's conviction, though, one person's belief does not grant power over how another person lives.  That really is alright.  Vegans don't really threaten butchers, Atheists don't really threaten the church, and homosexuals who want to marry don't really threaten the heterosexual lifestyle.  Everyone has the right to believe what they choose to believe, and the freedom to live out that belief in their own lives, as long as doing so doesn't harm anyone else. 

Although I don't plan to make same-sex marriage a frequent issue for this venue, it's obviously a huge issue in the U.S. touching on religious freedom, tolerance, and human rights.  Should you want to read up on it yourself, a profound amount of information on all sides of the argument is available at http://www.religioustolerance.org/hom_marr_menu.htm.


  1. The validity of your argument depends largely on whether one views marriage as primarily a personal thing between the involved parties or if the societal construct and perception is more important.
    I think that there are many people - on both sides of this issue - for whom marriage is not just a commitment between 2 people but a public statement, and an entering into a relationship with communally defined characteristics, rights, and responsibilities. Some gay-marriage advocates reject the idea of civil unions that grant the legal rights of marriage but not the title. They see this as separate and NOT equal, because the word "marriage" carries a power that union does not, and thus they are still denied something important.
    The importance of the "public" is one's perception of marriage varies widely from person to person. Some people declare their commitment privately to each other and to God if they choose, complete no paperwork, wear no new jewelry, and consider themselves no less married than a couple who just marched down the aisle of Westminster Abbey. For others, however, the ceremony and party are not just about the internal and spiritual but the entering into an important and meaningful societal construct. Churches often call themselves "societies" or "communities" of faith; in the secular realm we speak of cultural norms and things for the "good of society." Defining something based on what you AND others think or believe is valid in the realm of public policy. (At least to a certain extent - wherein lies much of the debate).
    All of which is build-up to say that while your article will likely ring true for those who are comfortable with an individual definition of marriage, it may not for those who believe that there own marriage (not necessarily "relationship", "Marriage") is defined by society. What is your response to those that would argue that if marriage is defined by society, and society changes the definition of marriage, it is changed for everyone who is or will be in a marriage?


  2. A very astute point, and of course the societal/legal perception of marriage is at the heart of the current debate. Two points come to mind regarding the idea that if society changes the definition of marriage, it is changed for everyone who is or will be in a marriage.

    First, the individual is not obligated to behave any differently in personal decisions simply because a wider range of possibilities is permissible under the law. Many people have brought up interracial marriage in this debate, and in this instance it seems pertinent. When marriage between people of different ethnic backgrounds became legal, the breadth of possibilities for socially acceptable personal relationships was expanded. The majority of people still choose partners of similar skin color, and there are some people who still believe that it's inappropriate to do otherwise, despite the law. This doesn't give them the right to prevent other people's marriages. The legal definition of appropriate marital partners is simply broader that certain individuals' definitions of appropriate partners. In a few communities in 21st-century America, people who choose mates of a different skin color will still be treated differently, but it is important to affirm that legally they have the same rights as those who choose more homogenous partners.

    I also know there are people in committed monogamous heterosexual relationships who never go through the legal steps to become married. Eventually, they will be considered married "by habit and repute," what is known as a common-law marriage. This means different things legally in different jurisdictions, but because their relationship looks like the societal definition of marriage, they are called "married" whether they like it or not. Does this change the quality or nature of their relationship?

    I would suggest that couples of mixed skin color who are legally married define their relationship apart from how various communities may view them. They now have the law on their side, whereas at one point in time they did not. Likewise, I would suggest that couples who choose not to marry define their relationship apart from whether their community deems them to be "married by habit and repute" or merely co-habiting. Legally, there are some ramifications, but only if there is a radical change in their relationship. Couples who co-habit certainly don't undergo any special scrutiny by society because they are "living in sin", but some faith communities might frown upon the arrangement.

    The bottom line is that society as a whole has changed and evolved in its understanding of relationships. Sub-cultures within the society still have considerable freedom about what they teach and believe. In some communities it is taught that wives should submit to the authority of their husbands, even though there is no legal justification for it. There are some communities which ostracize those who divorce, even though it is societally acceptable. Granting equal rights to all people means that the scope of what is legal will be greater than what most individuals hold as ideal. Individuals and communities still have the freedom to define things as narrowly as they choose.

    (I thought of some really clever analogies that I just dismissed because they don't have anything to do directly with marriage. I realize that comparing the definition of marriage with the definition of a healthy diet may seem a bit flippant to some people.)