As Ireland votes on marriage equality, is the religious objection really as clear-cut as it seems?
Yesterday, someone very close to me said that, because of his religious beliefs he couldn’t bring himself to vote Yes. He had made his mind up to vote No because he believed it was what Jesus would do.
I left the religious issue out of yesterday’s post because this is a referendum purely on the issue of civil marriage and that is what we need to focus on. But the reality is, many people will vote based on religious beliefs. In pamphlets, statements and homilies, bishops and priests have advised mass-goers to vote No, to preserve traditional religious understandings of marriage, even though religious marriage is not at stake in this referendum. For many people who believe they have God on their side, the rest of the discussion is irrelevant.
I was a Christian myself for the first 19 years of my life, but I’ve been an atheist for the last 19 and so I don’t have anyone quite of the status of Jesus to offer as an alternative voice. But I do still wonder: Would Jesus really vote No? We can’t just look up an answer in the gospels, because Jesus had nothing whatsoever to say on homosexuality. On marriage, he spoke of men and women, conventionally as we all often do depending on the context. But there is nothing in his teachings that says or suggests that only men and women should get married, that civil marriage rights should be exclusively theirs. Moreover, what might be relevant to that context is not necessarily relevant to our present, enormously different context. Marriage in 21st century Ireland is a world removed from marriage in 1st century Palestine. Indeed, marriage in today’s Ireland is already very different from marriage in the Ireland of just 30 years ago, as Fintan O’Toole wrote yesterday.
So if Jesus had nothing to say about homosexuality or same-sex marriage, what can we infer from the rest of Christian scripture about how he might vote? In the Old Testament, God denounces homosexuality (and orders the killing of gay people) in the same book where he also condemns shaving, eating pork and being near a menstrual woman. He goes on to forbid disabled people and people with bad eyesight from taking part in religious ceremonies. This is hardly a reliable source for determining how we should behave today, and in any case, the New Testament says that those old laws are “obsolete and ageing”. In the New Testament, it is mainly Paul the Apostle who speaks of homosexuality. He only ever envisions gay people in the context of “lust” and “perversion” – never once as the loving, committed monogamous relationships that are seeking fair recognition in Irish society today. Instead, Paul denounces gay people as “vile… reprobate… and worthy of death”. It’s hard to imagine that his late master – who taught peace and love, tolerance and non-judgment – would have approved of language so vicious, violent and hate-filled.
To be honest, it’s virtually impossible to glean a consistent position on anything from the Bible. It’s a largely arbitrary compilation of more than 60 different texts written by many different people, many anonymous, over the course of a thousand years. It has been added to, subtracted from, translated, re-translated and mistranslated in countless ways over the course of another thousand and more years. Hardly surprising to find that there are around 500 internal contradictions and inconsistencies in the Bible’s teachings. So arriving at how Jesus might vote on an issue he never expressed any opinion on is not easy.
But he did say something that is directly relevant to Friday’s marriage referendum. He told his followers to “render unto Caesar the things which be Caesar’s, and unto God the things which be God’s.” In other words, he told Christians to fulfil their civic duty within the civic sphere and their religious duty within the religious sphere – and not to confuse the two. Church matters and state matters should be dealt with separately, he said. That’s a message that is consistent across three of the four gospels. Friday’s referendum deals solely with marriage in the civic sphere. It has no bearing on religious marriage, any more than the referendum on civil divorce had. Religious marriage will remain just the same. That might not tell us how he would vote, but it does indicate that were he to vote, it would not be for religious reasons.
What does indicate how Jesus might vote is this: the Jesus portrayed in the gospels frequently ignored the dogmatic teachings and exhortations of the religious establishment when those teachings stood in the way of tolerance and compassion for ordinary people. People who the chief priests and elders treated as unclean, as second-class citizens and outcasts were the very people Jesus risked his reputation and his life to include, to accept with kindness and to treat as equals. To me, it would be completely out of character for someone who never expressed any opinion on the rights or wrongs of homosexuality; who advocated for church-state separation; who put compassion for people before adherence to doctrine; and who sought to include the most excluded in society, to vote No. I might not be a Christian, but I suspect that the Jesus of the gospels would have been in favour of respecting not just some but all couples and families equally. I believe he would voted Yes.
If you know someone is wary of any of the implications of voting Yes – particularly for religious reasons – it might be worth asking them to listen to Mary McAleese’s fantastic address. Former president, lawyer, parent of a gay child and a devout Catholic – she represents just about every aspect of this debate and she covers them all beautifully here.