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.