Gay Marriage Inevitable?

Jesus and God and apologeticsA century ago, America was immersed in social change.  Some of the issues in the headlines during this period were women’s suffrage, the treatment of immigrants, prison and asylum reform, temperance and prohibition, racial inequality, child labor and compulsory elementary school education, women’s education and protection of women from workplace exploitation, equal pay for equal work, communism and utopian societies, unions and the labor movement, and pure food laws.

The social turmoil of the past makes today’s focus on gay marriage and abortion look almost inconsequential by comparison.

What’s especially interesting is Christianity’s role in some of these movements.  Christians will point with justifiable pride to schools and hospitals build by churches or religious orders.  The Social Gospel movement of the early 20th century pushed for corrections of many social ills—poverty and wealth inequality, alcoholism, poor schools, and more.  Christians point to Rev. Martin Luther King’s work on civil rights and William Wilberforce’s Christianity-inspired work on ending slavery.

(This doesn’t sound much like the church today, commandeered as it is by conservative politics, but that’s another story.)

Same-sex marriage seems inevitable, just another step in the march of civil rights.  Jennifer Roback Morse, president and founder of the Ruth Institute for promotion of heterosexual marriage and rejection of same-sex marriage, was recently asked if she feared being embarrassed by the seeming inevitability of same-sex marriage.  She replied:

On the contrary, [same-sex marriage proponents] are the ones who are going to be embarrassed.  They are the ones who are going to be looking around, looking for the exits, trying to pretend that it had nothing to do with them, that it wasn’t really their fault.

I am not the slightest bit worried about the judgment of history on me.  This march-of-history argument bothers me a lot. …  What they’re really saying is, “Stop thinking, stop using your judgment, just shut up and follow the crowd because the crowd is moving towards Nirvana and you need to just follow along.”

Let’s first acknowledge someone who could well be striving to do the right thing simply because it’s right, without concern for popularity or the social consequences.  I would never argue that someone ought to abandon a principle because it has become a minority opinion or that it is ridiculed.  If Dr. Morse sticks to her position solely because she thinks it’s right, and she’s not doing it because of (say) some political requirement or because her job depends on it, that’s great.

Nevertheless, the infamous 1963 statement from George Wallace comes to mind: “I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”  That line came back to haunt him.  To his credit, he apologized and rejected his former segregationist policies, but history will always see him as having chosen the wrong side of this issue.

Christianity has similarly scrambled to reposition itself after earlier errors.  Christians often claim that modern science is built on a Christian foundation, ignoring the church’s rejection of science that didn’t fit its medieval beliefs (think Galileo).  They take credit for society’s rejection of slavery, forgetting Southern preachers and their gold mine of Bible verses for ammunition.  They reposition civil rights as an issue driven by Christians, ignoring the Ku Klux Klan and its burning cross symbol, biblical justification for laws against mixed-race marriage, and slavery support as the issue that created the Southern Baptist Convention.

Mohandas Gandhi had considerable experience as the underdog.  He said, “First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, then you win.”

(And then they claim that it was their idea all along!)

The same-sex marriage issue in the United States has almost advanced to “then you win” stage.  Check back in two decades, and you’ll see Christians positioning the gay rights issue as one led by the church.  They’ll mine history for liberal churches that took the lead (and flak) in ordaining openly gay clerics and speaking out in favor of gay rights.

If someone truly rejects same-sex marriage because their unbiased analysis shows it to be worse for society, great.  But it is increasingly becoming clear how history will judge that position.

Truth never damages a cause that is just.
— Mohandas Gandhi

Photo credit: Spec-ta-cles

Related posts:

Related links:

  • “Dr. Jennifer Roback Morse, Are Defenders of Natural Marriage on the Wrong Side of History?” Issues Etc., 5/25/12.
  • “Pure Religion: Revivalism and Reform in Early 19th-Century America,” The Dartmouth Apologia, Spring 2010, pp 20–24.

Biblical Slavery, Part 3

(See Parts 1 and 2 of this discussion.)

Let’s conclude this critique of a podcast titled “Sex, Lies & Leviticus” from that responded to Dan Savage’s criticism of the Bible.  Italicized arguments are my paraphrases from the podcast.

Slavery doesn't make the Bible look too goodDan Savage and other atheists distort the Bible by imagining it supporting slavery.  If Southerners used the Bible to support slavery during the Civil War, that was only because they distorted it.  Consider the anti-slavery books of that time: The Bible Against Slavery (1837) or God Against Slavery (1857), for example.

Let’s consider the Southern Baptist Convention, America’s largest Protestant denomination.  It split with northern Baptists in 1845 because it insisted on maintaining its support for slavery.  In 1995, on the 150th anniversary of the split, it published a resolution that repudiated racism and slavery.  (Good for them for admitting their error, though the delay puts this correction in the same bin as the Catholic Church’s tardy embrace of Galileo in 1992.)

Looks like support for slavery is a plausible message to take from the Bible even if not everyone accepts it.

Were there anti-slavery books at that time?  Were there Christians against slavery?  Sure!  How that gets the Old Testament off the hook, I can’t imagine.  The verses quoted in the previous post show that the Bible is very plainly pro-slavery.

Consider Philemon, a short book in the New Testament.  Here Paul sends a slave back to his master Philemon with the request that he be “no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother” (Philemon 1:16).  This was radical stuff—it was designed to bring about change within the Roman slave system.

Wow—that’s wishful thinking.  If Paul shouted in public, “Don’t you get it?  Owning another person is wrong!  Free all slaves immediately!” that wouldn’t have changed the Roman system.  Paul instead asking in a private letter that one slave be freed wouldn’t change the system, and it’s not clear he’s even asking for this.

Abraham Lincoln convulsed America in a Civil War, in part, to free the slaves.  Jesus didn’t lift a finger to overturn slavery.  In fact, the New Testament is full of pro-slavery statements.

Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything. (Col. 3:22)

Slaves, in reverent fear of God submit yourselves to your masters, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh. (1 Peter 2:18)

All who are under the yoke of slavery should consider their masters worthy of full respect. (1 Tim. 6:1–2)

Teach slaves to be subject to their masters in everything. (Titus 2:9–10)

Were you a slave when you were called [to be a Christian]? Don’t let it trouble you. … Each man, as responsible to God, should remain in the situation God called him to. (1 Cor. 7:20–24)

The Christian can respond with nice verses in the Old Testament—“Love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18), for example—but here again the Bible makes a clear distinction between Jewish neighbors and those other guys.  So back to Dan Savage and his claim that the Bible is radically pro-slavery: looks to me like Savage wins.  Whenever Christians make a careful distinction between Jewish slaves in the Old Testament and African slaves in America, they’re playing games.

Let’s take a step back to see where we’ve been.  On this podcast, two well-educated Christians spent an hour trying to shoehorn actual biblical slavery (that is: slavery for life; slavery not too bad considering that slaughter was the alternative; beatings okay unless the slave is incapacitated; etc.) into a package labeled “indentured servitude.”  They pretended that biblical slavery was far, far different from the slavery in America.

It makes you wonder if they’d be happy to see this godly biblical institution in effect here in America.  (Maybe when the theocracy comes?)

I don’t know whether to be offended that they think I’m so uninformed that I don’t see the deception or to be amazed that they honestly don’t understand.

But that’s not the crazy part.  Halfway through the second hour, the host and guest acknowledged the irony that they are both African-Americans.

So we have two African-American men defending slavery.  One of them likened biblical slavery to an “employment contract” (again, he seemed blind to the fact that the six-year Jewish slavery is not the interesting topic).  “We’re in a form of slavery when we’re working on a job for somebody else,” he said.  Uh, no—being a waiter is not even close to being a slave.  When people complain that it’s the same, they’re exaggerating.  Yes, we’re constrained when we’re employees, but who seriously equates present-day employment in America to the abhorrent kind of slavery we’re talking about?

So a white guy has to remind modern-day African-Americans on the problems of slavery.  Wow.  This is what Christianity can do to people.  It makes them check their brains at the door—not all Christians, of course, but some.  They defend the morality of biblical slavery, if such a thing can be imagined.  They reject science for creationism.  They support torture in proportion to their religiosity.  They reject stem cell research and the best methods for preventing unwanted pregnancy.  They dismiss the injustice of eternal torment in hell by saying, “Uh … the gates of hell must be locked from the inside!”  They dismiss evidence that televangelists are charlatans.  They rationalize away biblical genocide.

Slavery is a bad thing, and the Bible condones slavery.  Dan Savage was right.  Just admit it.

Morality is doing what is right regardless of what we are told. 
Religious dogma is doing what we are told regardless of what is right.
Andy Thomson at American Atheists 2009 conference

Photo credit: Wikimedia

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Old Testament Slavery—Not so Bad?

Does God exist?You’ve probably been there—you’ve read one too many articles claiming that slavery in the Bible is not a big deal, and that biblical slavery wasn’t at all like slavery in America.

That’s where I am, so I’m afraid you’ll just have to deal with my venting.

I listened to “Sex, Lies & Leviticus” (5/13/12), a podcast from (the second hour is the interesting part, with Lindsay Brooks and guest Arthur Daniels Jr.).  It’s a diatribe against Dan Savage’s recent presentation to a group of high school students interested in journalism.  Savage’s point, roughly stated, is that we discard lots of nutty stuff from the Old Testament (no shellfish, slavery, animal sacrifice, etc.), so let’s discard hatred of homosexuality as well.

The interview begins with the guest mocking Savage’s claim that the Bible is “radically pro-slavery.”

The Bible is pro-slavery in the same way that it’s pro-commerce.  For example, the book of Proverbs says that God demands honest weights and measures—four times, in fact.  Commerce is regulated, so it’s pretty clear that God has no problem with commerce.  God is happy to set down prohibitions against wicked things, and there are none against honest commerce.  By similar thinking (the regulation and the lack of prohibition), the Bible is pro-slavery.

But more on that later—let’s follow the arguments in the interview.  Some of the arguments are truly ridiculous, but I include them for completeness and to give atheists a chance to become aware of them and Christians to realize what arguments need discarding.

The Bible prohibits lots of things, not just homosexuality.  Dan Savage is happy with prohibitions against murder, rape, stealing, and so on.  Why accept most of the Law but reject just the bits you don’t like?

Because no atheist goes to the Bible for moral guidance!  No one, including Christians, know that murder, rape, and stealing are wrong because they read it in the Bible.  They knew they were wrong first and saw that, coincidentally, the Bible rejects the same things.  Our moral compass is internal, and from that we can critique the Bible to know what to keep (don’t murder) and what to reject (acceptance of slavery).

Dan Savage ridicules the kosher food laws (rejections of shellfish, for example), but Paul’s epistle of First Timothy (4:4–5) overturns these food restrictions. 

In the first place, Pauline authorship for 1 Timothy is largely rejected by biblical scholars.  Apparently, these guys want Christians to follow some random dude rather than Jesus himself, who never questioned the kosher laws and indeed demanded that they be upheld:

Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the Law, till all be fulfilled. Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven.  (Matthew 5:17–20)

And secondly, laws aren’t considered and rejected one by one.  Do they have a counter-verse to reject death for adultery (Lev. 20:10), for sassing your parents (Lev. 20:9), and every other nutty Old Testament prohibition that no Christian follows?  Christians more typically reject the Old Testament laws with a blanket claim that the sacrifice of Jesus made those laws unnecessary (for example, see Hebrews chapters 7, 8, and 10).

The problem there, of course, is that prohibitions against homosexual acts are discarded along with the rest.  You don’t get to keep just the ones you’re fond of.  I discuss this more here.

Dan Savage is speaking out of turn.  Like other atheists, he simply doesn’t know his Bible well.

Or not.  American atheists are famously better informed than any religious group.  And we’ll see that Savage is on target about slavery.

Continue reading: Part 2

Americans treat the Bible
like a website Terms of Use agreement.
They don’t bother reading it; they just click “I agree.”

Photo credit: Wikimedia

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Word of the Day: Public Square

Remember John F. Kennedy’s famous speech assuring the public that his Catholicism would not affect his decisions as president?  While Rick Santorum was still a candidate for president, he said about Kennedy’s speech:

Earlier in my political career, I had the opportunity to read the [Kennedy] speech, and I almost threw up.  You should read the speech.

Hold on to your lunch, because we’re going to do just that.  Here’s the central theme in what JFK said to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association in 1960:

I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute—where no Catholic prelate would tell the President (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote—where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference—and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the President who might appoint him or the people who might elect him.

Santorum, who, like JFK, is Catholic, critiques this thinking as follows:

Kennedy for the first time articulated the vision saying, “No, faith is not allowed in the public square. I will keep it separate.”  Go on and read the speech.

When asked about the throwing up bit, he elaborated:

To say that people of faith have no role in the public square?  You bet that makes you throw up.  What kind of country do we live that says only people of non-faith can come into the public square and make their case?  That makes me throw up.

Huh?  The guy is a lawyer, a two-time U.S. Representative, and a two-time U.S. Senator.  Does he really not get it?  I suppose the most charitable assumption is that he’s just playing to his electorate.

There are two meanings to “public square,” and Santorum confuses (or deliberately conflates) them here.  The First Amendment establishes our free speech rights and, with some exceptions, we can say whatever we want in the literal public square.  Hand out religious leaflets on a street corner.  Stand on a soap box and preach like they do in Hyde ParkWear a sign proclaiming the end of the world.  Everyone agrees that the right that allows people of faith to speak in the public square is important.  It is not under attack, and atheists defend Christians’ right to speak as strongly as Christians do.

The other public square is the government-supported public square—schools, courthouses, government buildings.  The rules are different here.  The First Amendment constrains government when it says, in part, “Congress [that is: government] shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”

Government must stay out of religion.  No prayers or religiously motivated science in public schools.  No Moses holding the Ten Commandments glaring down at you in a courtroom (as a collection of historic lawmakers, this is okay).  No “In God We Trust” as a motto behind the city council (yeah, I know that we have that, but it’s still unconstitutional).

And isn’t this best for the Christian as well?  No Wiccan or Satanist prayers in public schools.  No Hindu god of jurisprudence glaring down from the courtroom wall.  No “Allahu Akbar” in Arabic script behind the city council.

Keeping government out of the public square helps the Christian as much as it does the atheist.

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Ten Commandments have no Role in Public

Apologetics and freethoughtSome Christians have no patience with a separation between church and state and want to display the Ten Commandments in the public square—the state-supported public square.

Judge Roy Moore is an example. As chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, Moore installed a 2.5-ton granite monument in the Supreme Court building showing two tablets holding the Ten Commandments in 2001. He said, “Today a cry has gone out across our land for the acknowledgment of that God upon whom this nation and our laws were founded. … May this day mark the restoration of the moral foundation of law to our people and the return to the knowledge of God in our land.” A lawsuit was filed, Moore lost, he was ordered to remove the monument, he refused, and he was removed from office.

And now he is the leading candidate for getting his old job back. We live in interesting times.

A 2007 poll compared Americans’ knowledge of the Ten Commandments with the seven ingredients in a McDonald’s Big Mac hamburger. More people remembered “two all-beef patties” from the TV commercial than remembered “thou shalt not kill” from Sunday school. Even among churchgoers, 30% didn’t remember “thou shalt not kill,” and 31% didn’t remember “thou shalt not steal.”

One atheist wit observed that the Big Mac had an unfair advantage—it had a jingle. Solution: set the Ten Commandments to music. “Only God, no idols, watch your mouth, special day, call your mom … on a sesame seed bun.”

How big a deal is this? Does poor recall of the Ten Commandments correlate to poor morals? I say no, and I think Americans’ poor memory in this case isn’t a shocking oversight; instead, it reflects the irrelevance of the Ten Commandments in modern life. We don’t need the Commandments to remind us that killing is wrong, and they’re not an especially complete or relevant list for secular America. “Don’t enslave,” “don’t rape,” and “no genocide” are glaringly absent, and “have no other gods before me” has no place in the state-supported public square.

(Sorry, pro-lifers—abortion was obviously not top of mind for God when he dictated the Commandments, since he included “don’t covet” but omitted “no abortion.”)

To wiggle out of uncomfortable baggage, some Christians try to play the “Get out of the Old Testament free” card. They do this when they want to talk about slavery and genocide being a product of that foreign culture. Okay, but then haven’t you shed the Ten Commandments as well, since that’s also in the Old Testament?

The Old Testament is relevant today or it isn’t—it can’t be both ways.

As ancient legal codes go, the Mosaic law isn’t all that groundbreaking. It is predated by not only the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi but Mesopotamian law and Egyptian law. In fact, the pediment of the U.S. Supreme Court building, which many history revisionists claim holds the Ten Commandments, is actually a frieze of Moses along with two other ancient lawmakers, Solon (Athens) and Confucius (China). This artwork is shown in the photo above. And no, Moses isn’t holding the Ten Commandments but rather blank tablets. Moses is also depicted on a frieze inside the courtroom, but he is simply in a procession of 18 great lawmakers.

What if all people followed the basic conventions that society agrees are its moral foundation? That would be great, but if this happened, why give the credit to Christianity? That is, why point to morality and say, “Aha! That’s the good ol’ Ten Commandments they’re following!” No, morality comes from society. The Ten Commandments are a reflection of some of the best traits from society, not the other way around.

What if we discarded the religious baggage—important within Christianity but irrelevant to the secular, all-inclusive society—and distilled down social wisdom into a secular Ten Commandments? Here’s a version from A.C. Grayling’s Secular Bible.

1. Love well
2. Seek the good in all things
3. Harm no others
4. Think for yourself
5. Take responsibility
6. Respect nature
7. Do your utmost
8. Be informed
9. Be kind
10. Be courageous

At least, sincerely try.

NYC Atheists has an excellent version here (search for “Atheist Freedoms” on page 4). And here is Christopher Hitchens’ version (skip in the video to 6:30)

The Ten Commandments is nothing more than a fragment of an interesting historical document. An example from Georgia shows the problems with treating it as if it’s more than this. Poverty in that state has recently increased so that it is now the third-poorest state. What is its legislature spending time on? Getting the Ten Commandments in all public buildings, including schools.

I guess it’s easier than actually solving problems.

Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully
as when they do it from religious conviction.
— Pascal

Photo credit: djv2130

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  • “National Capitol,” Snopes.

Are Churches More Like Charities or Country Clubs?

Christian apologetics and atheismMost churches do good works—soup kitchens, food banks, and so on—so they’re like charities.  But they also provide a social connection like a country club.  Which is the better fit?

Let’s look at the financial statements of organizations that are clearly charities.  The American Red Cross has an annual budget of $3.3 billion.  Of this, 92% goes to program services, with the rest going to “management and general” and “fundraising.”  Or Save the Children—91% of its $450 million budget goes to program services.  Or World Vision—85% of $1 billion.  Or the Rotary Club of Eagle Grove Iowa—100% of $3.3 million.

Organizations that help the disadvantaged are just one kind of nonprofit.  The ACLU (86% of $70 million) defends individual rights and liberties.  Or, for an organization on the other side of the political aisle, take the Alliance Defense Fund (80% of $32 million).

Surely many country clubs host bake sales for good causes, organize projects that help charities, or even donate money, but let’s assume that the good works done to society by country clubs amounts to a few percent of income or less.  We have 80 to 100% of revenue going to good works for regular nonprofits vs. (say) 2% for country clubs—that’s why donations to nonprofits are tax exempt and dues to country clubs are not.

How do churches compare?  The short answer is, we don’t know.  With very few exceptions, the financial statements of churches and religious ministries are not available to the public.

But there are estimates.  For example:

Every year churches collect some $100 billion in donations. But most donors do not know that the average congregation in the U.S. gives only two percent of donated money to humanitarian projects. Some 98% goes to pay staff, upkeep of buildings, the priest’s car, robes, salary and housing.

This came from Roy Sablosky.  But he’s on the board of the American Humanist Association of Greater Sacramento.  Might he be biased?

Christianity Today is another source.  A survey gave this breakdown of the average church budget: 43% for salaries, 20% for facilities (mortgage, etc.), 16% missions, 9% programs, 6% administration and supplies, 3% denominational fees, 3% other.

So where is the money to good works?  Presumably “missions” includes this, but this is a nebulous category.  A dollar spent on the First Baptist Church soup kitchen certainly counts as a charitable expense, but the dollar spent supporting a missionary doesn’t.

That estimate of 2% to humanitarian projects may not be too far off.

These survey numbers are suspect in my mind because less than a quarter of the 1,184 surveys were returned.  Did churches who were embarrassed by their numbers—perhaps the fraction devoted to salaries or facilities was even higher—not bother to respond?  I’d like to have more reliable numbers, but when they’re kept secret, we simply don’t know.

What are churches embarrassed about that they need to make up excuses to avoid showing how they spend their tax-exempt donations?  Again, it’s hard to tell.  But there are estimates:

The January 2011 issue of the International Bulletin of Missionary Research reported that Christian religious leaders will commit an estimated $34 billion in financial fraud in 2011. 

(I presume that’s worldwide, not just in the U.S.)  And that’s just fraud.  The money going to inflated salaries, lavish living, and other embarrassing expenses may be a far larger amount.

There are groups within Christianity that are also working on financial transparency.  For example, MinistryWatch said,

We wish Senator Grassley success in his quest for the truth [in his investigation of six high-profile televangelists].  It is time for these televangelists to come clean; otherwise it could seem that they are running nothing more than money laundering schemes in the name of Christ.

But MinistryWatch has an uphill battle.  They’re told by fellow Christians that it’s not right for anyone to judge, that it’s not Christian to be critical, that examining a ministry shows distrust in God, and that they should focus on God and not the works of man.

But shouldn’t churches be on the forefront of modeling what’s right within society?  When pastors enumerate all that’s bad with American society today, the list should include the financial secrecy of their own organization.

The overseer must be above reproach as God’s steward
— Titus 1:7

See the first post in this series: What do Churches Have to Hide?

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