The Nation's Pulse

Bells Are Ringing

America's churches react to yesterday's same-sex rulings, as those with the emptiest pews cheer loudest.

By 6.27.13

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Traditional minded Catholics, Southern Baptists and evangelicals were understandably nonplussed by the U.S. Supreme Court's same-sex marriage rulings. And declining liberal Protestants were excited but hoping for more, more, more. The LGBTQ friendly National Cathedral even rang its bells in celebration, sort of like when the church bells of England rang after Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo.

But few evangelicals were ringing any bells.

"The Supreme Court had the opportunity to uphold both marriage and democracy, and it did neither," said Galen Carey, D.C. representative of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), which had submitted court briefs in defense of the Defense of Marriage Act and California's Proposition 8. "Congress should be able to define words used in its laws and policies," he continued. The DOMA decision "misconstrues federalism," as states "do not have the right to impose their diverse definitions on the federal government."

Carey also noted that the court's failing specifically to uphold Proposition 8 "disregards the millions of Californians who voted twice to affirm the unique nature of marriage between one man and one woman." He added: "When elected officials refuse to uphold the decisions of voters, citizens should have the right to defend their decisions in court." He was grateful that at least the Proposition 8 ruling doesn't "directly affect the 37 states that continue to recognize" traditional marriage and that the court "did not unilaterally create a new right to redefine marriage," instead allowing the "conversation on marriage to continue."

The Southern Baptist Convention's new public policy chief, Russell Moore, warned that the court ruling's "grounding of this decision in equal protection and human dignity means this is not simply a procedural matter of federalism" but a worrisome "new legal reality." He also surmised: “Same-sex marriage is on the march, even apart from these decisions, and is headed to your community, regardless of whether you are sitting where I am right now, on Capitol Hill, or in a rural hamlet in southwest Georgia or eastern Idaho."

Reaching for a silver lining, he called the march of same-sex marriage "an opportunity for gospel witness" while admitting the "marginalization of conjugal marriage in American culture has profound implications for our gospel witness,” since "marriage isn’t incidental to gospel preaching."

Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, as president of the U.S. Catholic bishops, was more unvarnished, denouncing the rulings as a “tragic day for marriage and our nation" and a "profound injustice to the American people." He insisted the federal government "ought to respect the truth that marriage is the union of one man and one woman, even where states fail to do so," because the "preservation of liberty and justice requires that all laws… respect the truth, including the truth about marriage."

Dolan cited marriage's role to ensure that children have mothers and fathers. "In the face of the customs and laws of his time, Jesus taught an unpopular truth that everyone could understand," he said. "The truth of marriage endures, and we will continue to boldly proclaim it with confidence and charity." Dolan also called for "renewed purpose" in calling "upon all of our leaders and the people of this good nation to stand steadfastly together in promoting and defending the unique meaning of marriage: one man, one woman, for life."

All of the liberal Protestant denominations that have loosened their definition of marriage have suffered schism and accelerated membership loss. Seemingly they hope for the nation to endure their own sad demographic demise.

“I welcome today’s decision of the United States Supreme Court that strikes down the 17-year-old law prohibiting federal recognition of same-sex civil marriages granted by the states," enthused Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Katherine Jefferts Schori. Her example contrasts with the Archbishop of Canterbury and other Church of England bishops who gamely opposed same-sex marriage in Britain, even in the House of Lords. She added: "The unmistakable movement toward civil marriage equality in the states over the past decade reflects the will of the people in those states to grant equal rights and dignity under the law to all married couples and families, and today’s decision will appropriately allow those families to be recognized under federal law as well." Many other Episcopal bishops quickly issued excited affirmations of the rulings that that called for the church to "rejoice." As they preside over ever emptying dioceses, they presumably have more time for such pronouncements and rejoicings.

One denomination that has lost even more members than the Episcopal Church is the United Church of Christ, which issued a gushing news release. "This is a great day for marriage equality, for all couples, gay or straight, because the Supreme Court has underscored the central point that marriage is ultimately about deep commitment between two people who love one another, not prescribed gender roles," solemnly declared the Rev. J. Bennett Guess, a denominational national officer. "While we still yearn for the day when equal marriage is fully legal, granted and protected in all 50 states, this is a significant step toward full freedom and recognition for LGBT people by the U.S. federal government."

But somber congregationalists like the UCC can't match Episcopalians in ecclesial stagecraft. The National Cathedral a couple hours after the court ruling, to incarnate its "unity with the LGBT community,” performed a "quarter peal of the Cathedral’s bells in the ‘Gloria in Excelsis’ central tower at the District of Columbia’s highest point," as a cathedral news release hurried to announce. The cathedral also hosted a special interfaith celebratory service, preceded naturally by a press conference, as all worship should be.

Despite all the bell ringing at liberal and mostly empty churches, the fight over same-sex marriage is no more over than has been the 40-year fight over abortion since the Supreme Court's first ruling. Traditional churches will continue to contend for the faith and for a nation. They instinctively understand with Cardinal Dolan that the "common good of all, especially our children, depends upon a society that strives to uphold the truth of marriage."

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About the Author

Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C. and author of Methodism and Politics in the Twentieth CenturyYou can follow him on Twitter @markdtooley.