After a hotly contested election year with—once again—a particular focus on the “religious right,” many Americans are left with a generalized view of organized spirituality as being dogmatic and intolerant of differences. Though such generalities might be based on some specifics, they exclude an entire movement of clergy and religiously-affiliated laypeople who actively campaign for progressive issues such as marriage equality, gender equality and racial tolerance.
In fact, this “religious left” is effectively changing the way the public views some of the most significant social justice issues facing America today.
Self-identifying Christian and Jewish activists played a large role in legalizing same-sex marriage in four states this year. Jay Michaelson is an openly gay religious scholar, longtime LGBT activist, and author of God vs. Gay? The Religious Case for Equality. Michaelson was part of that movement for marriage equality, working at a grass-roots level to help faith-based communities reconcile their spiritual beliefs with the rights of the LGBT community. As a result, states like Maryland made history by voting to legalize same-sex marriage.
Michaelson tells TakePart that those wins came from faith-based principles that allowed activists to meet people with compassion and understanding. “We won because we were able to have conversations one on one with people of faith who are not bigoted or close-minded, but are sincerely struggling with these issues. Really, it’s a statistical fact that most people are somewhere in the middle. A lot of people of faith were supportive in general, but had deep reservations. We were able to engage with millions of people across the country during this election season, and that’s the role we [religiously affiliated groups] should be playing.”
Though LGBT rights and deep religious belief might superficially appear to be in conflict, it’s precisely because of their faith that the so-called religious left can embrace and champion the rights of people who are often maligned or looked upon as being “on the fringe.”
Pastor Joseph W. Tolton, the leader of Harlem’s groundbreaking Temple Christ Conscious Church, sees his faith as an instrument of inclusion. The pastor credits President Obama with introducing that concept to the country as a whole.
“Whatever spirituality means, it has something to do with being honest and truthful to yourself and others and being available to love− and you can’t do all those things if you’re lying about who you are to yourself and everybody else.”
Tolton tells TakePart, “When President Obama made his declaration to support marriage equality, for me the most important thing that he said was that his faith informed his decision. The cultural market is presenting a wonderful opportunity for faith to take a new role in driving the principles and the values of inclusion and driving a social justice agenda at the intersection of women’s rights, racial justice and LGBT inclusion, which actually play off of each other and work in support of each other. These issues are no longer siloed. I think that’s something the left brings to faith-based organizing.”
Michaelson says that his earliest beliefs about his Jewish faith made him feel a sense of shame and fear about identifying as gay. Later, he came to understand that his beliefs and his sexuality were actually perfectly aligned. “Whatever spirituality means, it has something to do with being honest and truthful to yourself and others and being available to love—and you can’t do all those things if you’re lying about who you are to yourself and everybody else.”
But make no mistake: Championing the rights of the LGBT community extends activism beyond that community. Faith-based organizers at the forefront of the faith-based progressive movement know that tackling marriage equality will have far-reaching economic and racial implications.
According to Pastor Tolton: “Reimagining the value of marriage means linking it to economic equality and linking it to the connection to people’s ability to save and therefore invest and create a more viable economic future for themselves and their children. That conversations about marriage equality in the black context forces us to have conversations about how marriage has broken down from a heterosexual perspective in the African-American community, particularly in the black church and people of lower income levels, which can only be of benefit to the community at large.”
The pastor believes that addressing the idea of marriage as a whole in the black community will spill over to addressing its lack of available marriage-ready black men, which will in turn raise much-needed conversations about related issues like the war on drugs, black men’s “ridiculous rates of incarceration,” economic inequalities and the need for job training in the African-American community.
In other words, all issues of inequality are connected. When one group benefits, that win can have a ripple effect on other groups still battling for equal rights.
Most importantly, says Tolton, the stance on equality is supported by religious principles: “Being radically inclusive is the heartbeat of the Christ because it’s elevating the dignity of every human creature that God has created. And if we as progressive Christians can really sing that song and preach that and live that, I think we can really reframe what it means to be a follower of Jesus.”
Whatever one’s relgious leanings, Michaelson says these issues exist outside the scope of our differences; more than the labels of LGBT or black or female, when it comes down to it, equality is a human right. He says, “When I crack open the Bible, and I read about Isaiah telling me to feed the hungry and help the poor and clothe the naked, that has obvious resonance today. There’s no question to me but that religious faith represents a value that we reinforce one another.”
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