Rights, Power, Sexuality and the Church

Rights, Power, Sexuality and the Church May 7, 2013

I found an interesting pair of articles on Huffington Post’s religion page today. First, there was a story about Newt Gingrich, who claims that, by giving equal rights to LGBT people, we are in turn denying the rights of religious organizations.

Then in the second story, the Catholic Church in Ireland has threatened to excommunicate any lawmakers who vote contrary to Church teaching in an upcoming parliamentary vote on abortion.

In the Gingrich story, the primary issue supposedly is that religious-based adoption agencies who oppose adoption by same-sex couples are being denied their option not to offer children to LGBT families for adoption. “…what I’m struck with,” said Gingrich on NBC’s ‘Meet the Press,’ “is the one-sidedness of the desire for rights. There are no rights for Catholics to have adoption services in Massachusetts; they’re outlawed. There are no rights in D.C. for Catholics to have adoption services; they’re outlawed. Does [supporting LGBT rights] mean that you actually have to affirmatively eliminate any institution which does not automatically accept [homosexuality]?”

Though Gingrich familiarly  jumps to a hyperbolic extreme – suggesting that challenging the terms under which adoption is deemed acceptable is effectively elimination of the religious institution altogether – he raises an interesting question: at what point, when affording rights or choices to one group affects the rights or choices of another

group, should there be any concession to the existing (ie, dominant) group?

Actually, it seems to present more of a conundrum than there really is. Gingrich – and many others in positions of privilege and power – are operating under one important
but false assumption: that both parties are equal, operating on a level playing field, so to speak. In fact, the Church is the dominant power, though it has lost some ground in recent decades for various reasons. It is the reflex of most institutions, as it is for individuals, to seek to preserve what power they have, even sometimes at the expense of others. A common argument against accession of this power is that it’s unfair to disempower one group in order to empower another.

But again, this presumes that the two parties were equal to being with, which they aren’t.

When a dominant group or person in power asserts the sovereignty of their rights that, at their core, are intent on the denial of rights of another group with less privilege or power, this is no longer a right; it is an act of violence. And like all violence, it should be condemned, particularly by religious institutions. For a long time, the case has been made by religious adoption groups that they don’t choose to offer adoptions to same-sex couples because the children suffer in some way as a result. However, the American Psychological Association has reported extensively on this assertion, finding just the opposite. Consider this from an October, 2010 report from the APA:

New research shows that children adopted into lesbian and gay families are as well-adjusted as children adopted by heterosexual parents, and follow similar patterns of gender development, said Charlotte J. Patterson, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia…the researchers found that the children of gays and lesbians were virtually indistinguishable from children of heterosexual parents.

If, indeed, there was a quality-of-life argument to be made, the Church’s position would hold water, but no such case has been confirmed by contemporary research. So wat we’re left with is whether the organization should be able to discriminate against otherwise capable parents based on criteria other than those which affect the health and well-being of the child.

For those who lived through the civil rights era, this argument sounds remarkably familiar? Should a restaurant be allowed not to serve people because they’re black? Should they be able to require non-whites to use different restrooms, sit at the back of the bus or use different drinking fountains and schools? These old laws, like these biases against same-sex couples, were based on a similar false assumption that the oppressed parties were somehow inherently inferior, be it intellectual, moral or simply biological. And just as we clearly settled this issue some decades ago with regard to race, the same conclusions rings true when any other institution in power seeks to marginalize the rights or equal access of others, simply based on their personal preferences, historic precedent or systemically violent teaching.

Ironically, the second story demonstrates the willingness of the Christian Church to speak out of both sides of its mouth. Though Gingrich is not a formal representative of the Catholic Church, he is an avowed public and a notable public figure who meets frequently with Church leadership and who represents their interests in the public forum. So I feel comfortable in asserting that his claims are also the claims being made publicly by the Christian adoption agencies about whom he is speaking. And then we witness the same Church threatening lawmakers if they do not vote according to stated church doctrine.

The Church cannot play both victim and perpetrator at the same time. In fact, it should really claim neither role. Instead, it should be, as Jesus was, a counter-cultural voice of reconciliation, affirmation of the marginalized, empowerment of the meek and love for the historically unloved. Claims of sexual morality aside, we are, at our hearts, God-created and God-inspired children of the same Divine. It is when we place our ideologies above the recognition of this central identity as fellow Children of God that we fall terribly short of the Gospel-given commandment to love one another with all that we have an all that we are.

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  • Wonderful! I’ve had this conversation with others more than a few times recently and I was never able to find the right words to use when refuting the point of view espoused by Gingrich. Your words relating to acts of violence above are much, much better than anything I struggled to find.

  • mhelbert

    Well said, sir! “Instead, it should be, as Jesus was, a counter-cultural voice of
    reconciliation, affirmation of the marginalized, empowerment of the meek
    and love for the historically unloved.”

    In another place I wrote about how christians feel persecuted, that their rights are being violated. It’s about time that followers of Jesus spend time in the margins, with the people that Jesus spent time with. Not trying to lord it over others. If service is the goal, the issues that Gingrich and others worry about would go away.

  • Sorry if this is a double post…for some reason, it’s not showing my previous comment.

    Beyond the lovely arguments presented here, I think it’s worth noting that Gingrich’s argument is a red herring to begin with.

    Catholic Adoption services in Massachusetts was a publicly funded provider. As such, they were subjected to public regulations which mandated that they not discriminate based on sexual orientation in adoptive parents. Had they been able to raise sufficient funds, they would have been able to continue their previous practice of allowing only heterosexual couples to adopt.

    The LDS Social Services adoption only places babies with married, LDS couples. They are still operating in Massachusetts because they are not publicly funded.