Spring 2004, Vol. 7, No. 1

Table of Contents
Spring 2004

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Articles in this issue

From the Editor:
Journalistically Ignorant

God the Poppa

Gendering the Religion Gap

Hindus and Scholars

Godawful Numbers

Georgia Evolves

Bare Naked Christians





Marrying in Massachusetts by David W. Machacek

After Massachusetts’ highest court fired the shot heard round the world on same-sex marriage on November 18, the big religion story in the Bay State became the Catholic Church’s public campaign to overturn the ruling.

Uncowed by two years of public battering for its handling of clerical sexual misconduct, the church, led by new archbishop Sean O’Malley, tried everything from public rallies and mass mailings to private arm-twisting to preserve what Jennifer Peter of the Associated Press called its historically “strong influence at the State House.”

The church’s high-profile opposition to same-sex marriage led many journalists, like Kenneth J. Moynihan of the Worcester Telegram and Gazette, to raise “the old questions about the possible power of the church to control government policy.” In Massachusetts, that invokes the legacy of John Fitzgerald Kennedy. 

On February 5, Kathleen Shaw of the Telegram and Gazette reminded readers that “in a 1960 speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association,” the man who would become the nation’s first Catholic president told Protestant ministers: ‘I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute—where no Catholic prelate would tell the President (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote.’” 

In the winter of 2003, Catholic bishops were “putting increasing pressure on Catholic politicians to vote their way on issues or face being banned from receiving communion,” Shaw wrote.

 “The pastors are standing up in the churches and telling people that they need to tell us to stop gay marriage,” Rep. Vincent A. Pedone complained to Shaw. “Preprinted postcards were placed in pews of all Catholic churches in the Worcester diocese last weekend and people were encouraged by priests to fill them out and return them to their legislators.”

For the most part, journalists found that, among Catholic legislators in Massachusetts, Kennedy’s promise remained the often explicit standard. “Church teachings against and aggressiveness toward gay marriage have made Catholic legislators uncomfortable,” Bill Zajac of the Springfield Republican, wrote on January 13. His subject, Rep. Steven J. Buoniconti, told him “I can’t be just a Catholic as a legislator.”

Rep. Peter Kocot “respectfully differs with his church on gay marriage,” announced the headline of a story by Laurie Loisel in the Daily Hampshire Gazette in Northampton, Mass. on February 5. Karen Testa of the Associated Press queried Rep. Mark A. Howland, a Catholic legislator who replied on February 11 that he “has tried to separate his Catholicism from his role as a lawmaker, even when his own pastor tries to weigh in.” “I tell him,” Howland told her, “you can tell me perhaps what to do on Sunday, if I happen to attend Mass. But Monday through Saturday I’m at the will of the voters.”

Rep. Brian P. Knuuttila was one of the few legislators to say that he identifies explicitly with the Catholic church’s agenda. “I’m a Catholic legislator,” he told the Fitchburg, Mass. Sentinel and Enterprise on February 5. “I happen to agree with a lot of the positions that the Church has on this issue, and I’d like to let it stand at that.”

A Boston Herald poll, published on November 23, found that “48 percent of [Catholics] side with the Vatican and oppose legalization while 41 percent support it.” With Catholics so closely divided on the issue, how successful would the church be in mobilizing opposition to the decision?

In December, the church spent a million dollars on informational flyers urging Catholics to tell their legislators to vote for an amendment banning same-sex marriage.  The campaign did appear to have an effect. By late February, polling by the Boston Globe, found an increase in Catholic opposition to same-sex marriage from 47 percent immediately after the SJC’s ruling to 66 percent.

Most of the coverage used less scientific measures to gauge the degree to which Massachusetts Catholics agreed or disagreed with the Church on this issue. When Monsignor Francis V. Strahan at St. Bridget’s Parish in Framingham chastised Catholics for sitting on their hands and not taking action, Phillip Giffee, an “occasional attendee” interviewed by Robin Washington of the Boston Herald on December 1, said, “I think he’s wrong to assume that Catholics just sit down and wait for issues to come at them. There’s a lot more openness that we should have toward people who are gay and lesbian and committed, and we need to listen to those people.”

Matthew Rodriguez reported in the Boston Globe on February 6 that “O’Malley’s increasingly aggressive stance is drawing criticism” from some Catholics. “A statewide Catholic group asked the archbishop yesterday to cancel a scheduled appearance with the presidents of two groups, Concerned Women for America and the Family Research Council,” characterizing the groups as “extremist” and the event as a “hate rally.” “By aligning yourself with these extremist organizations,” the group’s letter to the bishop read, “the hierarchy of the Catholic Church is betraying the Christian values of charity and social justice with which we were raised and encouraged to embrace as Catholics.”

Indeed, the press found and reported dissent among Catholic clergy. Margery Eagan of the Boston Herald on February 5 quoted “nervous” priests who objected to what they perceived as hypocrisy by the bishops. “They didn’t send out a letter like this on sex abuse,” said one. According to Eagan, a second priest “noted other ironies.” To wit: “Archbishop O’Malley…urged Catholics into church halls last week to strategize against gay couples. Yet O’Malley still bans Catholics from those same church halls—at least 20 of them—if the subject is fixing the church after the sex abuse scandal. The parishes most likely to close? Ones, this priest guessed, where priests in December dutifully read the bishops’ charge to rally against gay marriage. These are old, all but empty parishes. The parishes most likely to thrive? Those where priests ignored the bishops’ directive, where gays are active in parish positions, where babies of gay couples are routinely baptized.”

“Political observers question…how effective the Roman Catholic Church will be in lobbying the issue after the clergy sex abuse scandal,” wrote Jennifer Peter of the AP on December 13. Lobbyists and political scientists she interviewed summed up what the media coverage of the Church’s role in anti-gay marriage campaign suggests. “They’ve lost some of their moral footing,” said one lobbyist quoted in the story. “They have limited credibility with people,” said another.

For many, the church’s hard line on sexuality and reproductive rights in the midst of an on-going sexual abuse scandal crossed the line from incredibility to naked hypocrisy. “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone,” Martin Luttrell of the Worcester Telegram & Gazette quoted one Bay State resident on November 24. “Buoyed by a centuries-long track record of discrimination and anti-achievement stands, the church managed to jump-start its gay-demonization campaign,” opined Dianne Williamson in the Telegram & Gazette, November 30.

The Boston Globe’s Derrick Z. Jackson and Brian McGrory weighed in on the issue in columns that ran November 19 and February 13. “If the Catholic Church is serious about families,” Jackson wrote, “it should make sure its new procedures against child abuse are working. Railing about gay marriage in a society where half of straight marriages end in divorce is gutter politics that exploits one of our deepest remaining strains of bigotry.” McGrory asked readers to “imagine if the Boston hierarchy of the Catholic Church had addressed its own pedophile scandal with the same urgency and vehemence that they are showing over the personal lives of gays?”

The Boston Herald joined the chorus when Bishop Thomas Dupre, one of the four Massachusetts bishops who had been inveighing against same-sex marriage, resigned February 11 after being confronted with accusations of molesting boys as far back as the 1970s. “After years of trumpeting family values, leading the charge against gay marriage, and coddling abusers,” wrote Warren E. Mason on February 21, “Dupre finds himself on the hot seat….It appears he has lived a lie—a 40-year lie.”

“Dupre and the other bishops said that they, and other Catholic leaders, have been unfairly portrayed in the media as being bigots for opposing gay marriage,” AP writer Denise Lavoie reported January 16. A bishops’ statement issued that day complained of “a full-scale campaign through the media to shame concerned citizens into silence.” To the bishops and other Catholic leaders in Massachusetts, media coverage of the church’s opposition to same-sex marriage looked like overt anti-Catholicism.

Writing in the January 30 issue of the Pilot, the archdiocesan newspaper, Denis Tracy quoted Harvard Law School professor Mary Ann Glendon, a prominent Catholic conservative, as claiming that many liberal activists wanted “to undermine the unity, credibility and financial stability of the Catholic Church.”

The bishops’ official line—the church is not homophobic; the media is anti-Catholic—did not fare well with journalists. “If this is the way the Catholic Church in Massachusetts hopes to reassert its moral authority after the sex abuse scandal, it has picked the wrong fight,” replied Eileen McNamara, columnist for the Boston Globe, January 18.

While the Catholic bishops took the lead in fighting the Supreme Judicial Court’s ruling that legalized same-sex marriage in Massachusetts, “religious denominations across the state divided along theological lines,” the Globe’s religion reporter Michael Paulson wrote on November 19, “with many evangelical Protestant, Orthodox Jewish, Eastern Orthodox Christian, and African American Protestant leaders lining up with Roman Catholic bishops in opposition to same-sex marriage. Many Unitarian Universalist, Episcopal, and Reform Jewish leaders support the decision.”

Within days after the SJC’s November ruling, reported Boston Herald writer Elisabeth Beardsley, November 21, the Massachusetts statehouse on Beacon Hill was “under siege” by conservative Christian groups from around the country. “It’s whoever’s voice is heard the loudest,” Roberta Combs, president of the Christian Coalition, told Raphael Lewis of the Boston Globe on November 20.

Conservative Protestants were not only loud; they were also theatrical, providing some comic relief amidst the tension. When the Massachusetts legislature convened its constitutional convention on February 11, some supporters of a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage dressed in colonial attire, reported Julie Mehegan in the Lowell Sun, hoping it “would serve as a reminder of the state’s colonial roots.

“The founders of Massachusetts were Christians, very strong Christians” one of the costumed demonstrators told Mehegan. “They would be against gay marriage because the Bible said it was wrong.”

While opponents of same-sex marriage depicted the SJC decision as an affront to religion, most supporters depicted it as a victory for civil rights. “Our congregation is incredibly happy about this historic decision,” Reverend Mykel Johnson of the Unitarian-Universalist First Parish Church in Brewster told Cape Cod Times writer Sean Gonsalves on November 19. “We see it as a victory for the basic human rights of all people and also a victory for religious freedom.”

Prompted by the decision, some denominations, reported Michael Paulson of the Globe on November 30, “are re-examining their views about same-sex couples.” Although the decision does not require churches to perform same-sex wedding ceremonies, “the United Church of Christ, the largest Protestant denomination in the state…is planning to hold seminars about how to perform gay marriages early next year, discussing such subjects as gender-neutral wedding liturgies and premarital counseling for same-sex couples.” Other major denominations, including the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the United Methodist Church, told the Globe that they were following the decision closely “as they try to decide how far to go in celebrating the relationships of the same-sex couples in their congregations.”

Reform rabbis similarly invoked the language of equal rights in explaining their decision to endorse same-sex marriage. “We think same-sex couples deserve equality,” Rabbi Mark Dov Shapiro of Sinai Temple in Springfield told the Springfield Republican’s Mary Ellen O’Shea on February 4. Likewise, Rabbi Barbara Penzer of Temple Hillel B’nai Torah explained to the Globe’s Michael Paulson January 16 that “the Jewish community has been in support of civil liberties because we understand that discrimination against one group leads to discrimination against all.”

Throughout, there has been a general recognition that the outcome “depends on who’s going to shape the debate,” as Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, told AP writer Nancy Benac November 24. “To the extent that the issue is framed as a civil rights issue, there is broad support,” Boston Herald pollster R. Kelly Myers told Herald writer David R. Guarino, November 30. “But to the extent that this gets framed as an issue of marriage, the issue becomes significantly more complex.”

In the struggle to define the terms of the debate over same-sex marriage, therefore, “advocates on both sides are busily seeking support from…black clergy members,” reported New York Times writer Lynette Clemetson on March 1. “Each seeks the perceived moral authority and the sheen of civil rights that black religious leaders could lend to each cause.”

When three associations of black clergy in the greater Boston area issued a statement of support for a constitutional amendment defining marriage “as a covenant between a man and a woman” on February 6, opponents of same-sex marriage welcomed it “as evidence that they are not bigots,” according to Clemetson. “African-American leaders say they are offended by the comparison” of the movement for gay marriage rights to the Civil Rights movement, reported Tom Benner in the Quincy, Mass., Patriot Ledger, February 5. 

But public opposition to same-sex marriage by black clergy has not been immune from criticism. “Those African-American ministers in Massachusetts who deny any link between the black civil rights movement and the movement toward same-sex marriage,” wrote Derrick Z. Jackson in the Boston Globe, February 13, “have forgotten how the civil rights movement forced Bayard Rustin, one of the movement’s greatest theorists, to make himself invisible because he was gay.” And Nicholas D. Kristoff reminded readers of the New York Times on March 3 that the first proposed marriage amendment to the U.S. Constitution, introduced in Congress in December 1912, read: “Intermarriage between Negroes or persons of color and Caucasians…is forever prohibited.”

“The ongoing reference in the media to leaders or congregations supporting same-sex marriage has created a myth of religious support,” complained a statement signed by a multifaith coalition of religious leaders in Massachusetts posted on the Boston Globe’s website on February 7. The statement, which affirmed the signers’ conviction that civil marriage should be an exclusively heterosexual institution, claimed to represent the opinion of “over 3000 churches, mosques, and synagogues” in Massachusetts.

But the assumption, implicit in the statement, of uniform religious opposition to same-sex marriage is equally mythological. To some religious denominations, the Rev. John H. Thomas, president of the United Church of Christ, explained to Boston Herald columnist Thomas M. Keane, Jr. on February 11, marriage “is the primary way in which human community is ordered” and churches are “called to provide pastoral support for those who want to enter into a relationship with each other.” Such logic, Keane argued, might “impel a church toward recognizing and sanctifying gay marriage.” 

From the beginning, there have been many in Massachusetts who cast the debate over same-sex marriage as a culture war between religion, on the one side, and forces hostile to religion, on the other.

Massachusetts journalists have not been among them. Media coverage of the debate over extending marriage rights to same-sex couples in Massachusetts showed stark differences of opinion between and within religious groups. What the media portrayed was, in the words of Globe columnist Derrick Z. Jackson on November 19, a “circus of cultural contortions,” and they did a good job of reporting the rhetorical gymnastics. •






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