Posts filed under ‘Separation of Church and State’

The Religious Violence of “Defending Marriage”

This piece was written by theologian Jon Pahl, Professor of the History of Christianity in North America at The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia (and all around great guy!).

Published by Sightings from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

A recent article in The Atlantic and recently released Lutheran documents give good reasons to revisit the status of gays and lesbians across American society.  Unfortunately, few commentators to date have addressed the most troubling development of the past few years:  the growth of DOMA Laws, or “Defense of Marriage Acts.”  These laws are forms of religious violence.

The Federal Defense of Marriage Act, passed in 1996, stipulates that for the purpose of federal laws and operations, “the word ‘marriage’ means only a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife.”  According to – a website sponsored by supporters of these laws – thirty-seven states now have some form of DOMA Laws on the books.  The rationales for such defensive laws are often couched in neutral, “secular”, or “naturalist” language.  But the move to establish such laws came from religious groups, notably conservative Protestants, Catholics, and Mormons.  And the logic and appeal of these laws also originates in religion, and functions as a form of violence.  Six theses can clarify the contours of the religious violence embedded in these laws.

1)  DOMA Laws violate sacred texts.  Many of the arguments against gay and lesbian civil unions or marriage appeal to biblical texts from Genesis, Leviticus, Romans, or I Corinthians.  But such arguments impose upon the texts a twentieth century understanding of sexual identity alien to the Jewish or Hellenistic cultures in which these texts arose.

2)  DOMA Laws elevate heterosexual marriage to idolatrous status.  In some communities of faith, defending “marriage” has become all but an item of confessional status (it is absent from any historic Christian Confessions).  This arrogates to a majority – heterosexuals – special privileges (economic, social, and spiritual) not available to sexual minorities.

3)  DOMA Laws scapegoat gays and lesbians.  As Rene Girard argues, scapegoating is a chief manifestation of religious violence.  It is difficult to see what real threat is posed to heterosexual intimacy, much less to civil society, by the desire of homosexuals for similar rights.  It is easy to see how DOMA laws organize consent over and against a relatively voiceless and powerless group.

4)  DOMA Laws sacrifice homosexual rights, and damage civil society, in the interest of religious purity.  One measure of the justice in any society is how well it cares for vulnerable members.  Sexual difference marks individuals as both vulnerable and “dangerous.”  And as Mary Douglass showed, any “danger” against which a law must defend is invariably constructed around some purity interest.  DOMA Laws require gays and lesbians to sacrifice rights others take for granted, and render them subject to legalized forms of exclusion and discrimination.  They damage the deep trust that is the most important social practice in civil society.

5)  DOMA Laws confuse legislation with religion, and violate the First Amendment, as Ann Pellegrini and Janet Jakobsen have argued.  It is entirely permissible (although ethically subject to scrutiny) for private communities to shape the boundaries of association in whatever ways members agree upon.  It is a violation of the First Amendment’s protection of free association to inhibit by law some forms of association that pose no harm to the common good, and a violation of the freedom from an established religion when religiously-inspired exclusions are written into law.

6)  DOMA Laws perpetuate an association of sex with power, and thereby do damage to any sacramental sensibility that might remain in association with even heterosexual marriage.  As Hendrik Hartog and other historians have shown, marriages have shifted in the modern era from patriarchal patterns of coverture to social contracts in which couples seek mutual fulfillment.  Such contracts might be compatible with a sacramental sensibility, since they entail pledges of sexual fidelity and commitments to share social resources and responsibilities, along with (one might argue) other gifts of God.  DOMA Laws associate sexual fidelity with legislated forms of coercive power, and inhibit the deep trust and mutuality intrinsic to modern (and sacramental) marriage.  They establish hierarchies of relationships, and associate heterosexual unions (and sexual practices) with dominance.

DOMA Laws have been passed with the support and lobbying of religious groups.  Such laws point, unfortunately, to a deep tendency of religions to consolidate power through exclusion, as Miroslav Volf has so cogently shown; these laws have no rationale for their existence apart from that exclusion.  People who wish to “defend” corrosive influences on marriage – and I count myself as one – might actually find allies among gays and lesbians who desire public recognition for their pledges of fidelity and their commitments to share resources and responsibilities with one another.  A true defense of marriage would not involve mean-spirited exclusions, but would embrace practical policies that strengthen deep trust and support families facing economic challenges.


Paul Elie’s article in The Atlantic,”God, Grace, and Sex,” is online as “The Velvet Reformation” at

The Social Statement “Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust” and the ECLA’s recommendations on ministry practices are online at

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March 18, 2009 at 6:02 pm Leave a comment

George Carlin, I’ll miss him

Carlin on religion, from the first Saturday Night Live show,

June 30, 2008 at 5:26 pm Leave a comment

Battle over religion in the public square: Round 2?

A local pastor decided to use my letter to the Star as a springboard for his comments – Some try to limit our personal faith to a private world. My reply:

I think Pastor Barry misunderstood my point. I stated in my letter, “The issue is not about prayer in a public venue as much as it is the majority religious view – Christianity – flexing its muscle over the minority – non Christians.” I find it both arrogant and insensitive that one would publically pray in a manner knowingly offensive to others. I certainly respect everyone’s right to their religious beliefs, just don’t assume they’re mine!

I don’t know what else to say – check out the online comments. Fortunately, most are rational rebukes of Pastor Barry. Thank God!

November 30, 2007 at 9:20 pm Leave a comment

Battle over religion in the public square: Round 1

Russ Pulliam, the associate editor of the Indianapolis Star, wrote the following:

The drive for a religion-free public square has been set back by an appeals court ruling about public prayer in the Indiana General Assembly.

The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana, which wanted to banish prayers in the name of Jesus to open legislative sessions.

But the ruling hardly settles the long-term debate over whether the public square ought to be stripped of diversity in prayer or religious references from the Bible.

The court ruled that the plaintiffs didn’t have legal standing to file the suit.

For those opposed to federal court censorship of prayers in the legislative chambers, the ruling was a victory, even on a technicality.

“We’ll take the win anyway,” said House Minority Leader Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis. “A hole-in-one is a hole-in-one no matter if it hits a tree or you hit it right in the cup.”

To extend Bosma’s golf analogy, there are still many rounds to play in this debate over the right relationship between personal faith and government in the public sphere.

On one side, the ACLU and its allies have waged a 60-year campaign to make the public square barren with respect to religious faith. Behind this campaign is an assumption that faith belongs to a bygone age of superstition and that it should be confined to the private sphere or individual expression in the marketplace.

From another side comes the argument that the Jewish and Christian faiths are the foundation of representative government, providing the basis for the best strengths of Western civilization.

In the middle of this debate is the question of who should be the referee.

Advocates of a religion-free public square look to the federal courts to manipulate the Constitution on behalf of their cleansing campaign.

The First Amendment prohibits a federal religious establishment, or a state church, such as the Church of England. But a divided Supreme Court has been tempted to swallow the notion that religious faith is a problem in American life, instead of a foundation for solutions.

Thus the justices have encouraged this campaign with a bewildering series of rulings about when prayer is acceptable or not, or when Bible verses can be cited in public and when they can’t. The court’s rulings have only invited more lawsuits instead of providing for civic harmony.

Clearly, the authors of the Constitution would not object to prayer in the name of Jesus. In starting the nation, they prayed together, cited the Scriptures for wisdom and authority, and looked to the Bible and Christian faith for the roots of a new nation.

Maybe the Founding Fathers were wrong. Maybe the Constitution is wrong. But if that is the case, opponents of public prayer need to propose a direct constitutional amendment to advance their cause instead of tying up the courts with their efforts to outlaw religious expression in public places.

In Indiana, critics of prayer in the Statehouse have an option that works much quicker than the federal courts. Members of the House of Representatives stand for re-election every two years.

Here was my reply:

I guess I shouldn’t be shocked at Mr. Pulliam’s flagrant misstatements and generalities, but I am. I see no evidence that the ACLU has ever made any attempts to “make the public square barren with respect to religious faith.” I would argue the contrary – the ACLU protects each religion’s right to express itself in its own way.  The argument at hand is not prayer in the statehouse – it is sectarian prayer in public.

I would also take issue with Pulliam’s statement that “Clearly, the authors of the Constitution would not object to prayer in the name of Jesus.” While most were Christian and this would have been their  method of prayer, America was founded on religious tolerance, not Christian doctrine. A few Google searches will net numerous quotes from the Founding Fathers about upholding religious neutrality and tolerance. George Washington even thanked the Jewish community for reminding him that plurality was more important than unanimity.

The Constitution is not wrong. It upholds the rights of everyone, especially those in the minority. We don’t need an amendment to outlaw public prayer. What we need is a good old fashioned dose of common sense, decency, and respect for others.

Sometimes I’m embarrassed to live in such a backward state!

Added 11/15/07:
Check out the online conversation – unbelievable!?

November 10, 2007 at 9:01 pm 1 comment

Prayer in the State House

This is a letter to the editor sent to the Indianapolis Star, 10/31/07 (which I’m sure they won’t print!) – I was wrong, they printed it!:

I am discouraged by the recent turn of events regarding prayer in the Indiana Statehouse. While I respect the due process of law, I am concerned by the smug attitude of Brian Bosma and others who see this as a victory. The issue is not about prayer in a public venue as much as it is the majority religious view – Christianity – flexing its muscle over the minority – non Christians. While this intolerance is nothing new, it is disappointing that the state of Indiana is a proponent of such narrow-mindedness.

I tried to express my outrage as moderately as possible. What I really wanted to say was “What the f$*k are you doing?”

Brian Bosma and his posse seem determined to make Indiana a Christian state. Rabbi Arnold Bienstock was quoted as saying, “It is very hard to encourage people to come to a state that basically seems to be exclusivist. The bottom line is that non-Christians feel uncomfortable, and they don’t feel like they are part of the group.” He’s absolutely correct – Christian exclusivism dominates this state, at least in public. Since I live here I know there are intelligent, tolerant, accepting Christians who value and support their non-Christian friends and neighbors. The question is, where are they in this public debate?

October 31, 2007 at 2:19 pm Leave a comment