The supreme court has decided, so now in all of the USA same sex marriages are legal. With this landmark decision the USA has joined the many nations in the world where such a union has become official, and from the Netherlands, the first country where these marriages became official, we extend a warm welcome to America. Great that you joined the swelling crowd who thinks that LGTB should not be discriminated against, also not in marriage issues. You are becoming a ‘modern nation’ now (I hope you recognize a European ‘tongue-in-cheek’).
In an earlier blog I explained how preciously little impact this SSM issue has had on the members, wards and stakes in the International Church. i.e. in the largest part of the LDS Church, a notion repeated by many bloggers and commentaries. That means that the recent church statement has very little bearing on the situation outside the USA and will raise questions and eyebrows when read in the International Church. As Wilfried Decoo showed in his blog, the official standpoint of the Church, when brought without adaptation, is awkward for us. Our experiences in Europe are clear: this is a marginal issue, so we are happy to see this US debate resolved in favor of gay marriage. The backlash of Proposition 8 has reverberated even across the Atlantic. Some battles are better lost – and LDS history has shown a few of these. The important thing is not so much to win each and every war, but to win the peace.
From across the ocean, our own experiences indicate that three issues inform that peace. The first is that the public space in our countries no longer is based upon Christianity, surely not the WASP kind; WASM is not far from that. In the Netherlands this has been going on longer and at a quicker pace: our country has been secularizing at high speed since the ‘60s. It took ceremonial form when the customary prayer was taken from our yearly state of the union address (we have a king doing that); some people missed it at first, but we now appreciate that it no longer fits in the present religious situation with not only multiple religions but also various types of irreligion.
This leads to a good look at civil society. In the USA the churches have always been the pivot of civil society, more so than in Europe where churches went from being a handmaiden of power to quick marginalization. But also in the US religious institutions realize that they are losing power, that the ‘market of meaning’ no longer is strictly religious and counts an increasing number of non-religious ‘stalls’. For an increasing number of people ‘freedom of religion’ has come to mean ‘freedom from religion’, and their number will grow. That shift has repercussions that are much more fundamental than a minor issue as gay marriage.
All denominations are now in an essential minority position, politically, and in secular countries such as in Europe – and such as the US might well turn into in the future – people adhering to any faith at all are becoming a minority. This different political arena has to reflect in the agenda of the churches, also in ours. In the past (in Europe) and the present (in the USA) they tried to impose specific rules, based on particular moralistic acts, the ‘don’ts’, as in these issues the churches had the ‘power of definition’: what is a proper Sunday, a proper marriage, proper consumption. Thus, in the Netherlands we lost the shopping-free Sunday: no officially imposed Sabbath’s rest any longer, so Dutch Christians can no longer define what is a Sunday. When one cannot set the moralistic agenda, and loses this ‘power of definition’, one has to turn towards more general and more fundamental issues. So we lost the Sabbath-Sunday, but surely there are more important issues: while we bickered over shop openings, the Middle East caught fire and now the Mediterranean is becoming a graveyard.
Thus, my second point is that winning the peace after losing a struggle, should stimulate a shift from marginal moralistic issues – such as Sunday observance, SSM, prohibition – to core principles: compassion, love, human dignity, equity, freedom. See how pope Francis does just that. Is SSM a marginal issue? Definitely. Marriage is important, there is no question about that. But the issue was never the institution of marriage as such, but the definition of marriage: the LGTB people do not want to abolish marriage, far from that, they want to embrace it, to be included in its definition; this skirmish they won, and for some very good reasons based on fundamental principles, equality and human dignity. The debate had a by-effect. As said in an earlier blog, any issue that stimulates a fierce debate, gains in importance, meaning in this case that marriage is alive and kicking, just a little expanded. SSM marriages form only 2% of all Dutch marriages, really marginal, but the Dutch experience points at an increase in marriages per se. After legalizing SSM also the number of heterosexual marriage rose. In the 80’s many couples opted for cohabitation contracts – easier, cheaper, more flexible – legalizing children as they came along. After the SSM debate and legalization in 2001, DSM (different sex marriages) flourished, with even old cohabiting couples exchanging – slightly belated, one might feel – vows. An example.
I recently attended the wedding of a niece: she and her husband exchanged vows in a nice ceremony at a natural reserve, after 10 years of lawful cohabitation. The official marriage act was co-signed by the couple’s two children, aged 6 and 9: with his father’s assistance, the little boy meticulously drew all the letters of his name on the document, and everybody loved it. In the last decades a new civil servant arose, a non-paid volunteer who opts for specialized administrative authority just to conduct civil marriages. This is part of a blooming of civil wedding ceremonies: special rooms in castles, beaches, nature reserves and the like. So civil weddings, a prerequisite for all marriages in our system, became more ritualized and much more interesting. Having a mandatory civil weddings before any religious service is a great help, and would especially be good for our own peculiar LDS situation, where we have no proper wedding ceremony, just a sealing.
The church tried to define the SSM issue in terms of freedom of religion. That obfuscated the debate. First of all, when the church expressed its opinion, and tried to influence law making, it was acting on a political platform, using democratic freedoms, not religious ones. But, also one important distinction was lost this way, between the freedom of religion and the freedom of conscience, my third point. Freedom of religion is a collective freedom to worship wherever and however one wants, while freedom of conscience is the individual freedom to measure action against personal conscience, a conscience invoked with or without a religious factor. Though both freedoms inform each other, they are not the same. An example, again from the Netherlands.
We have a region populated by staunch old-school Calvinists, our Bible belt – we have been a very religious nation, and in some regions we still are. These, quite fragmented, ultraorthodox protestants are part and parcel of our national heritage, and of course completely free to organize and worship as they like: they have religious freedom. But they tend to refuse inoculation against infectious diseases, based on a specific Bible interpretation. Not all of them do, just some. That is defined as freedom of conscience; Dutch society has tolerated it because their numbers are not large enough yet to make it a public health hazard. But voices are rising that it might become so in our densely populated country, and then the government might have to step in with mandatory inoculation. If so, this will not be seen as an infringement on their freedom of religion but as a limitation on their freedom of conscience. In the wake of the SSM legalization, some of the Dutch civil servants had conscience problems to conduct those weddings, mainly from the same Calvinist persuasion. We solved this problem of the ‘weigerambtenaren’ (refusing civil servants) in typical Dutch fashion: colleagues took over these cases. But in the long run they will disappear: new civil servants who have this conscience problem, no longer will be hired for this position.
This distinction between freedom of religion and freedom of conscience might alleviate some of the heavy emotional charge of the debates. The whole debate was definitely not about freedom of religion, but about the democratic freedom to influence law giving, official definitions and the culture of the public space. In actual fact, the church did not fight for religious freedom – that rallying cry was a smokescreen – but instead was a player in a political arena, using democratic freedoms to get its voice heard, a freedom that should be cherished and nurtured. Also, when one loses.
In the end, even with some gnashing of teeth, this whole thing might well be for the good of the church: the debate boosted the institutional importance of marriage, civil weddings gain in importance, and democratic freedom and freedom of conscience are highlighted. And above all, we are helped to focus on the things that really count. Losing the ‘power of definition’ in the political arena, and not succeeding in imposing moral details on the general population, just throws us back on that wonderful verse in D&C 121:41: ‘…only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned.’ That is the way to win the peace.
Walter van Beek