By Rev. Kevin Johnson,
President Barack Obama recently expressed his support and endorsement of same-sex marriage. This is the first time that a sitting United States president has affirmed marriage between persons of the same sex. President Obama’s decision to support gay marriage is not only historic, but also demonstrates his commitment to ensuring that all Americans are treated equally under the law. All American citizens, including persons like myself who maintain the traditional, Biblical view that marriage is “between a man and a woman,” should respect the president for taking such a courageous stance on such a very sensitive and political issue.
I share the aforementioned because Obama is not a pastor. He is a political leader. He is the president of the heterosexual and homosexual, the rich and poor, Black and white, Christian and non-Christian. He has to make decisions that he believes are in the best interests of all Americans, so as to maintain every citizen’s Constitutional rights.
Given these parameters, his recently articulated position on gay marriage should come as no surprise. The debate on same-sex marriage or civil unions is not new to Americans, its presidents or religious institutions. To date, same-sex marriage/civil unions have passed in six states (Iowa, Vermont, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York and Connecticut) as well as in the District of Columbia. It will be legal in Washington state effective June 7, 2012, and in Maryland effective Jan. 1, 2013. In addition, 31 states (including Pennsylvania) have already banned same-sex marriage. The reality is that this is still very much a state-to-state issue rather than a federal issue. There is no federal legislative foundation supporting same-sex marriage. The president’s position does not make it law.
Moreover, the issue that is at the crux of this debate, and is often overlooked by those for and against gay marriage, is: How can we maintain the separation of church and state while giving individuals freewill to be in committed, monogamous, legal relationships that are heterosexual or homosexual? That’s the real dilemma we, as Americans, must resolve.
As an ordained minister of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, I am called to love all persons regardless of one’s sexual orientation, race, gender, class or pedigree. Anyone who comes to Bright Hope Baptist Church will concur that I make every effort to make every worshipper feel welcomed in God’s house. I do not judge, lest I be judged. I do not condemn, lest I be condemned.
However, as the Apostle Paul said in 1 Corinthians 9:16, “Woe is me if I do not preach the Gospel message of Jesus Christ.” I cannot and will not abdicate this responsibility. As a pastor, it is my responsibility and obligation to exhort the teachings of the Bible, including the Biblical principal that defines marriage as being “between a man and a woman.” And while I have never made a big issue of homosexuality in the church, everyone who attends Bright Hope knows where I stand and that I firmly maintain and uphold the Biblical definition of marriage “between a man and woman.”
Given my beliefs on marriage and Obama’s beliefs on it, one may ask: “Can a Biblically-based pastor support the president’s recent decision while also maintaining one’s religious belief?” My answer is “yes.” People of faith can still believe in the Constitution of the United States of America and still maintain their religious convictions and beliefs.
Certainly, the religious right would have us to believe that this is not possible — that people of faith have to choose between their faith and what is constitutionally right. I beg to differ. I believe one can be governed by and maintain one’s religious beliefs while also living in a democratically governed, and pluralistic society.
Indeed, that is what makes America so great — that we can live in harmony with others even if we do not agree with their politics, faith, beliefs or decisions. If a group of individuals’ goal is to legislate faith in America, then maybe they should consider moving to a religiously governed society. However, if they choose to live in America, then they must understand the tenets of democracy and how it allows for individuals to co-exist even when there are major differences and beliefs amongst them.
Lastly, while Obama and I share different opinions on how the “institution of marriage” is defined, I nevertheless support his effort to advance human and civil rights for all. If the president’s recent position on same sex unions will 1) affirm the separation of church and state and 2) allow for religious leaders to not be criminalized or prosecuted because they hold firmly to their religious beliefs that “marriage is between a man and woman,” and therefore are not forced to perform such ceremonies in their religious organizations, then I can support him. I support the president not because he and I agree on same sex marriage — we do not and never will — but rather I support his efforts to bring equality of human and civil rights to all Americans, which is President Obama’s obligation as the leader of the United States of America.
Anyone who understands the importance of the separation of church and state in American history will have to agree that one can support civil laws for same sex unions as long as they do not infringe upon the rights and freedoms on religious institutions. Both can co-exist just as Christians, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists and other believers co-exist and practice their religious beliefs in America. We are Americans and live in a pluralistic, democratically governed society. We must find a way to affirm one another’s individual beliefs even if we do not agree with them. We have done so in the past and can do so in the future.
Reverend Kevin R. Johnson, Ed.D. is senior pastor of Bright Hope Baptist Church.