The purpose-driven justification

There was a time in our history — 1860 to be specific — when church pulpits were filled with preachers who defended slavery. Black people were chattel, to be owned, used and traded. Families were divided, auctioned off like so much wheat, and scattered to various farms and plantations, a tragic and forced diaspora. Endemic slavery was also the institutionalization of a repugnant and immoral form of racism and discrimination, built on a corrupt foundation, known as the slave trade. Morally it was debilitating, contradicted our own Constitution, and yet it was defended with bankrupt laws and overt violence, the worst being arbitrary lynchings that still defy understanding.

And yet the deeply religious saw no contradiction between the Scripture that admonished Christians to treat one another as they would be treated and the belief in slavery. Instead, the core message of the Bible and the teachings of Jesus were twisted into elaborate justifications.

The same template could be used in describing the struggles of women for true equality and the right to be treated not as property but as coequal partners. Like that of blacks, theirs has been a journey of a hundred thousand steps and one that is not yet over.

Today, evangelical pastors and their congregations, filled with righteous belief, are once again piously using Scripture as a rationale for discriminating against a minority, in this case the gay community. Rick Warren, religious leader of the mega Saddleback Church, has gone on the record as equating homosexuality with pedophilia and incest, insisting that for 2,000 years, marriage has been defined as the union between a man and a woman. Because it has been so, however, does not mean it is right.

What is just as egregious is that Warren and his followers, to include the Mormons, have left their pulpits and set out to institutionalize their extreme views constitutionally, case in point being the passage of Proposition 8 in California. In other words, they have lobbied to use the state Constitution as a means to deprive a group of citizens of their civil right to marry. No one is concerned about their religious right to marry, for it is not the church which grants visitation, care and custody of children, and inheritance. To name but a few. Those are civil rights and this debate, at its core, is about civil rights.

If pressed, Warren can, of course, reach for the Bible and begin quoting Scripture. But that is a slippery slope and quickly reveals the arbitrary and decidedly unChristian nature of this form of discrimination. It is as morally vacuous as were the rants of those ministers who filled their sermons with anti-black and pro-slavery rhetoric and it is just as despicable. What is stunning is that Warren and his ilk cannot see it. But then the vision of the righteous is often narrow and distorted, reality viewed through a prism darkly. Over the centuries much damage has been done in the name of biblical truth.

In a recent essay in Newsweek, Lisa Miller makes the case that Scripture counsels inclusiveness and love and not bigotry. And, in fact, the Bible is not a tome which favors any kind of union. "Shall we look to Abraham," writes Miller, "the great patriarch, who slept with his servant when he discovered his beloved wife Sarah was infertile? Or to Jacob, who fathered children with four different women? Abraham, Jacob, David, Solomon, and the kings of Judiah and Israel — all these fathers and heroes were polygamists." There was a time, Miller points out, quoting Barnard University Bible scholar Alan Segal, when marriage was between one man and as many women as he could pay for.

Biblical literalists, writes Miller, can, of course, point to Leviticus, which refers to sex between men as "an abomination." But then this begs the question: Do the literalists heed Leviticus regarding animal sacrifice, cleanliness during menstruation, how to treat leprosy, or the lengthy passages devoted to the price of a slave? And Paul's rants were more about denigrating debauchery than about homosexual love and marriage.

What is profoundly disturbing is that President-elect Obama has chosen to give Warren a place in his inauguration that is far more than a simple invocation on any given Sunday. This choice is an affirmation of Warren and, by extension, his views. How can it be otherwise? Obama argues that he wants to demonstrate that people of different views can still engage in civility and dialogue. What Obama is not weighing, it seems, is a larger point: By including Warren, Obama cannot obviate his extreme homophobic and prejudicial views. In the same way that he would never have invited a pastor to give the inaugural prayer who was misogynistic or racist, why would Warren's views be granted greater latitude? It is puzzling and disappointing, for Obama, as he has formed his cabinet and his government, has made few, if any, missteps. Until now. In his desire born of inclusiveness, to build bridges, he has turned to a man who preaches exclusivity and judgment with a righteous fervor. It's regrettable.

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