Posts Tagged ‘Religion’


Mixed feelings about same-sex marriage

May 22, 2012

“Normal Dan” Dan Liechty

I knew it would happen–that somehow the issue of “same-sex marriage” would push front and center into the politics of our nation leading up to November’s elections. For the last 20 years, this issue pops up before elections as predictably as dandelions in my front yard, assuring an energized turnout from the religious segment of the Republican base.

I confess. I have mixed feelings about the dispute centered on “same-sex” marriage. That’s probably a dangerous thing to say in relation to such a polarizing matter. Neither side wants to see this as anything other than good versus evil. Let me explain.

Certainly I support full civil and human rights for all people without exception. That is not the cause of my mixed feelings. My concerns focus on the question of marriage itself as it is practiced in the USA. If we simply open up marriage as it is currently practiced to any couple that desires it, that is in one sense a “step forward.” But in doing so we miss an opportunity to make needed and necessary changes in our current practices that would be beneficial on a number of different fronts.

Most specifically, our current marriage practices perpetuate a problem in the relationship between church and state that could be easily remedied, and the by-product of that remedy would also totally solve the problem of same-sex marriage. Presently, ordained clergy have state sanction to declare a couple legally married. Regardless of the justification this had historically, it is no longer justified. Furthermore, since this practice essentially turns every ordained minister into an ad hoc administrator for the state, a good case could be made against it on Constitutional grounds.

There are two aspects of marriage that should be conceptually separate, but which get too easily confused because of our current practices. These are the LEGAL aspect, which pertains to rights, responsibilities and privileges under the law, and the HOLY aspect, which can only be conferred by the blessings of a community, and in which the state has no place and must remain neutral. Much of the rancor related to same-sex marriage, rancor that divides our nation right down the middle, is a direct result of practices that seamlessly align these two very different aspects of marriage. One side feels that to deny same-sex partnership its recognized legal status is clearly discriminatory. The other side objects that were the state to sanction same-sex marriage, they would be forced by the state to recognize as holy that which their interpretation of true religion tells them is not holy, a clear intrusion of the state into their religion.

I would like to see the sanction to declare a couple legally married withdrawn from religious clergy and placed completely in the hands of secular state administrators, such as Justices of the Peace. It should be clear that marriage as a LEGAL status emanates from the state. Those desiring to enter into the legal status of marriage would go to a designated secular official of the state, declare their intentions, and have this legal status bestowed on them by the state official. Those who want to enter into HOLY matrimony, receiving the blessings of their chosen community for their union, would go to the official designated by that community for this purpose, for whatever ceremony is in keeping with the customs of that community.

In short, I would like to see “civil unions” for all couples, regardless of sexual orientation, as the recognized legal status for a couple, conferring upon all who enter into it with the same legal rights, responsibilities and privileges. Conferring this legal status is what the state is fit to do.

Those desiring to have their union recognized by their chosen religious community as a condition of Holy Matrimony are then free to pursue that within their chosen religious community, in addition to the civil declaration, or for that matter without the civil declaration (though they would then not enjoy the legal status of union.) While this might seem radical to Americans (and no doubt many of the professional clergy would resist having their marriage-declaration powers withdrawn) it is the standard practice in many nations today.

This approach completely solves the same-sex marriage dispute that is dividing our nation, because it dissolves the religious aspect of legal marriage. It is clearly in better keeping with the non-establishment clause of the Constitution, because it does not even temporarily put religious clergy into the position of being clerk for the state. Each religious community would be free to decide for themselves what unions they want to bless, and how to bless them with whomever designated to officiate, without overtones of legal discrimination for their customs. Whether a given religious community chooses to bless or not bless any particular union would be of no interest to the state, as indeed it should not be. Those belonging to communities that refuse to bless some unions as holy would still be expected to respect the legal nature of the civil unions of fellow citizens outside their communities, and would have no reason to feel threatened by doing so.

My hope has been that the issue of same-sex marriage would spark a much wider critical examination of current marriage practices in the USA. I fear that the current headlong rush into solidified positions on same-sex marriage, hammered out in the context of power politics and the coming election, will actually hinder the process of real critical examination of current marriage practices. Discussions quickly devolve into a bifurcated pattern of “for it” or “against it,” but “how might we agree to do this thing differently” remains off the table. Clearly a missed opportunity. That is why my feelings are mixed.


Teaching About Religion in the Public Schools

May 10, 2012

“Normal Dan” Dan Liechty

I listened in the other day on a conversation among students sparked by a news report on a proposed Alabama bill that would allow churches to teach religion classes to public school students for credit. []. The teaching would take place off campus, would require parental and local school board approval, and the parents and churches would have to cover any cost incurred, including transportation. The conversation revolved mainly around the question of what should be taught in the public schools about religion, if anything at all. Though I have strong ideas on this topic, I remained an eaves dropper on this conversation, both to avoid professorial intrusion into the situation, and also because I have an outlet for my thoughts in this blog spot. So here goes…

Let me begin by saying that this question is more than merely academic or theoretical for me. It engages me directly, as a father of a public school child, as a citizen taxpayer, an educator, and as a religiously affiliating person. Early in my career, I taught World Religions in a secular (though private) school and history/social studies in public schools. Raised a Christian (Mennonite), I am the male partner in an interfaith marriage, a gentile father in a modern Jewish family. We are members of a small Reform congregation that is situated within an overwhelmingly Christian Midwestern town. My daughter has always been the only Jewish girl in her public school classes through the years, and one of only a few other-than-Christian students in her school.

While for religious minorities it is often most expedient to support a blanket “no religion” policy for the public school curriculum, I don’t agree. Teaching about religion should not be ignored because, as contributions to The Denial File have repeatedly underlined, religion is one of the most pervasive elements of individual and communal human life. An educated human mind inevitably seeks answers to deep questions of purpose and meaning in life, and most people naturally turn to the teachings and practices of religion in response to those questions.

Starting at the earliest levels, we can help students recognize why people take their religious beliefs so seriously. At the same time, with increasing sophistication across the curriculum, we can help students recognize that by its very nature, religious beliefs and practices are always tentative and partial. Individuals and communities of people will naturally find some types of beliefs and practices to be more satisfying for themselves than others. It is one of our strengths as a democratic people that we do not always line up together in complete agreement, but that we strive to keep the conversation vibrant and alive.

Specific content of teaching on religion in the public schools will vary, depending on the grade level. Likewise, there is a good case to be made for infusing such learning throughout the curriculum, as it naturally arises, rather than offering specific courses. But two points should guide us throughout: 1) teaching about religion should not be ignored, and 2) teaching about religion must underscore the value of religious pluralism.

Far from being a necessary threat to strong religious faith, recognition of this fundamental pluralism (including strong doubt, agnosticism and atheism) yields the most valuable opportunity we have to learn from each other, and to develop and mature in our encounter with life’s deepest questions. All religious faiths (and most secular social philosophies) place some form of the Golden Rule (mutuality in respect and concern) at the heart of their teachings. If we have the courage to infuse this basic teaching throughout the public school curriculum, not only our children but our larger democratic social institutions will greatly benefit.


Religion Versus Spirituality?

March 21, 2011

"Normal Dan" Dan Liechty

The most recent Point of Inquiry podcast was a very interesting discussion about the increased use of the term “spiritual” to describe oneself, as opposed to “religious.” The Point of Inquiry discussion revolved around whether it was legitimate to describe science as intimately connected to spirituality. The discussion more or less took for granted that science would be opposed to “religion,” but “spirituality”? Maybe not so much…

My thoughts on this topic are not directly applicable to that particular question, but I also work in a secular discipline, social work, in which discussions of the general topic have become common in the last decade. In my social work classes, when I lecture about the concepts of religion and spirituality, I use the image of a glass and water. Water (spirituality) is the substance, which can be poured into any number of containers. The glass (religion) is the particular container holding the water in one particular time and place. Both the water and the glass are conceptually separable. But the glass without any water isn’t of much use or interest, while the water without the glass just runs all over any which way, maybe more interesting but also not of much use. As with creative processes, which need both the creative energy and a concrete project toward which to direct that energy and give it form, religion and spirituality are integrally linked and in need of each other. At the same time, what is most precious is the substance, and it can be a great adventure to notice how this substance can fill itself out in many different containers. We get into trouble if we become attached to a particular container even at the expense of the substance. Most of the time, that analogy seems to be useful, though like any analogy, it is flawed if you push it too far. But anyway, see what you think!