Americans have a long history of supporting public policies based on religious principles preached from the pulpits of its churches. But that fact is often obscured as an increasing chorus of voices denounces the participation of churches in the public square and deprecates the influence of religious teachings and principles in shaping public policy.
In the fall of 2008, I joined tens of thousands of other grassroots supporters in going door-to-door for California’s Proposition 8. I had never before joined a political campaign. For me, it was a matter of faith.
As a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I believed, as a matter of religious principle, that “marriage between a man and a woman is ordained of God.” And I supported Proposition 8 because it was consistent with that religious belief. I also felt sincerely that preserving man/woman marriage was sound public policy, but I could never deny that, at the heart of the matter, I was moved to action primarily because of religious faith. And I believe that was true for many who supported Proposition 8.
Last year, a federal appeals court held Proposition 8 unconstitutional because, allegedly, it was “born of disapproval of gays and lesbians” based on “longstanding, sincerely held private beliefs”-in other words, religious beliefs.1 In a few days, the Supreme Court will decide its fate.
For those challenging its constitutionality, the issue is a simple matter of discrimination. They argue that defining marriage as between a man and a woman treats gays and lesbians unequally by denying them the “freedom to marry” the person they love just because that person is the same gender. From this viewpoint, gay marriage is the newest civil rights movement. This makes for compelling argument, especially when coupled with the none-too-subtle threat that those opposed will soon wind up on the “wrong side of history.”
What Sets This Push Apart
But something significant sets the modern push for gay marriage apart from civil rights movements of the past. Political advocacy for gay marriage did not grow out of religious conviction. That is not to say that, presently, religious believers do not support gay marriage-some certainly do. But no one suggests that the campaign for gay marriage originated in religious belief, that it was ever supported primarily by religious organizations, or that it was pushed to the forefront of American politics by the moral force of religious persuasion.
To the contrary, the opposite is true. From the beginning, opposition to the redefinition of marriage has been rooted in deeply held religious beliefs and championed primarily by religious organizations. That was certainly the case with California’s Proposition 8. Against a mountain of opposition from prominent state politicians, famous Hollywood entertainers, powerful public unions, and large and wealthy corporations, formal support for Proposition 8 came almost exclusively from religious organizations. Most recently, a bill to legalize gay marriage in Illinois was defeated, most commentators agree, because influential African-American ministers publicly opposed it.
The prominent participation of churches in opposing the redefinition of marriage has sparked a vigorous backlash against the role of religion in the public square. In the wake of Proposition 8, some have advocated revoking the tax-exempt status of churches that actively participated in the campaign. Among public policy discussions, Biblical and other religious teachings on marriage and family are rarely, if at all, welcomed. And frequently, America’s founding principle of freedom of religion is recast as freedom from religion, with spurious claims that any political activity rooted in religious belief illegitimately imposes such beliefs upon others.
Such trends turn upside down America’s legacy of religious freedom. In his recent speech upon accepting the Canterbury Medal, Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, began with “a truth that is increasingly challenged: Religious teachings and religious organizations are vital to our free society and therefore deserving of its special legal protection.” Among the reasons that religion is so vital, Elder Oaks observed: “Many of the most significant moral advances in Western society have been motivated by religious principles and persuaded to official adoption by pulpit preaching.” As three examples, he named (1) “the abolition of the slave trade in England,” (2) “the Emancipation Proclamation in this country”; and (3) “the Civil Rights movement of the last half-century.”2
Religious Principles Put an End to Slavery
How did religious principles preached over pulpits put an end to slavery and segregation? This short column could never suffice to answer that question, but here are brief vignettes into these three inspiring faith-based public-policy triumphs.
First, the abolition of the slave trade in England.
The movement to abolish slavery in England emerged from the evangelical revival of the 18th Century. Christian abolitionists “believed passionately in the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man.” The enduring symbol of their campaign was the engraved image of an enslaved African kneeling with his manacled hands outstretched and asking, “Am I not a man and a brother.”3
The popular movie Amazing Grace introduced many to William Wilberforce, the eloquent champion of abolition in the British Parliament. Unfortunately, it did little to introduce the audience to the driving force behind his life-long crusade against slavery-his Christian faith. A wealthy merchant’s son and the youngest Member of the House of Commons (at the age of twenty-one), Wilberforce had little reason to seek a life of devout Christian worship. Indeed, religious enthusiasm was then highly stigmatized among elite British society. But Wilberforce underwent what he would later call his “great change” upon sensing his own “great sinfulness” and “the unspeakable mercies of [his] God and Saviour.”4 Though he considered a life of solitary religious devotion, friends persuaded him not to leave public life following his conversion, and Wilberforce resolved to make abolishing the slave trade the first great object of his political life.
<p style="margin-bottom: 0.
<hr class=’system-pagebreak’ /><hr class=’system-pagebreak’ />0001pt; line-height: normal;”>Over the course of twenty years, he repeatedly brought bills to abolish the slave trade before Parliament, while abolitionist preachers gradually built popular support through appeals to Christian conscience. Among these was the prominent Methodist minister John Wesley. Following a particularly demoralizing defeat in Parliament, Wesley wrote Wilberforce, only a few days before Wesley’s death at age eighty-seven, “Unless God has raised you up for this very thing, you will be worn out by the opposition of men and devils. But if God be for you, who can be against you? Are all of them together stronger than God? O be not weary of well doing!”5
Eventually, Wilberforce’s bill abolishing the slave trade passed in 1807, and just days before his death, Britain abolished slavery entirely in 1833.
Second, the Emancipation Proclamation.
In the fall of 1862, Abraham Lincoln wrestled with what his secretaries called, “the weightiest question of his life”-whether to use the War Powers granted unto him as President under the Constitution to abolish slavery in the Southern States then in rebellion.6
On September 13th, Lincoln received yet another delegation of ministers. (There had been many before the past year.) They urged the president that there could be “no deliverance from Divine judgments,” meaning the Civil War, “till slavery ceases in the land.” In response, Lincoln assured the ministers that it was his “earnest desire to know the will of Providence in this matter,” and even promised them, “if I can learn what it is I will do it!”7
Less than two weeks later, on September 22nd, Lincoln called his cabinet into special session and announced his final decision to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. Lincoln explained that he had made “a vow, a covenant” with God that if Union forces repelled the recent Confederate invasion of Maryland, he would take it as an “indication of Divine will” and “move forward in the cause of emancipation.”8 Union armies were victorious at Antietam, and Lincoln resolved to keep his promise, setting in motion events that would eventually free four million Americans then held in slavery.
Third, the Civil Rights movement.
For opposing racial segregation, John Lewis was jailed 40 times, and repeatedly beaten by mobs and police. Through it all, Lewis relied on faith. “Without prayer, without faith in the Almighty, the civil rights movement would have been like a bird without wings.”9
In Selma, Alabama, at age twenty-five, Lewis led 600 marchers across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in non-violent protest. On the other side, an army of state troopers arrayed in riot gear and armed with clubs awaited them. Knowing he could go neither forward nor backward, Lewis knelt in prayer. Televised images of the brutal attack that followed galvanized support for the Civil Rights movement, and just eight days later President Lyndon Johnson sent to Congress the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
Almost forty years later, in a 2004 interview, Congressman Lewis-then in his ninth term in the House of Representatives-lamented how the Civil Rights movement is remembered. “I’m deeply concerned that many people today fail to recognize that the movement was built upon deep-seated religious convictions. And the movement grew out of a sense of faith-faith in God and faith in one’s fellow human beings.”10
Lewis also lamented that religious leaders today are not as engaged on public matters. “Sometimes I feel today that maybe, just maybe, the religious leaders are too quiet. They need to make a little noise-need to push and to pull, and to be prophets. On some of the big issues, moral issues, seems like we been so silent. Somehow we need to find a way to reclaim our position as people of faith.”11
Regardless of how the Supreme Court rules on California’s Proposition 8, religious adherents can and must do more to defend the role of religion in the public square. In his recent speech, Elder Oaks counseled: “The problem of educating the public, and especially the rising generation, needs to be addressed on a front wider than preaching, lobbying, and litigating. We must employ education to broaden the base of citizens who understand and are committed to defending religious freedom. This will require better information for our religious believers and also the enlistment of other groups.”12 Religious teachings and organizations have had a vital role in shaping public policy throughout the history of the United States. In advocating today for matters of moral and public concern, including marriage and family policy, religious adherents can draw upon the America’s heritage of faith-based political activism.
2 Elder Dallin H. Oaks, “Strengthening the Free Exercise of Religion,” a transcript of which is available at www.mormonnewsroom.org
8 Stephen W. Sears (ed.), The Civil War: The Second Year Told By Those Who Lived It, “Gideon Welles: Diary, September 22, 1862,” p. 530. For more on the Emancipation Proclamation by the author, see www.ldsmag.com.
9 John Lewis, PBS interview by Kim Lawton, January 16, 2004, a transcript of which is available at: <a href="http://www.
<hr class=’system-pagebreak’ /><hr class=’system-pagebreak’ />pbs.org/wnet/religionandethics/episodes/january-16-2004/john-lewis-extended-interview/2897/.”>www.pbs.org
12 Elder Dallin H. Oaks, “Strengthening the Free Exercise of Religion,” a transcript of which is available at www.mormonnewsroom.