Thursday (Feb. 12) we will celebrate the 200th birthdays of both Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin. The parallels in their lives provide valuable insight for the Presbyterian Church USA, which embarks this week on a major process of inquiry into the place of gay marriage and civil unions in the church and in the country.
The parallels in Lincoln’s and Darwin’s lives are also useful for the rest of a nation, which remains as bitterly divided over issues of homosexuality as we are about creation and evolution, and as we once were over human slavery. Lincoln and Darwin were two great men whose visions and life work ultimately served humanity but polarized people enormously.
Lincoln was right, both about the need to come together as a single nation and not just a collection of states, and about the need to end slavery. But he took America, perhaps needlessly, into the bloodiest war we ever fought and only arrived at his views about the evils of slavery late in the game.
Darwin was right, too. At the very least, he developed an approach about how life grows and differentiates that inspired generations of cutting-edge scientific inquiries. But, like Lincoln, his views created a bloody cultural war in which we remain fully engaged.
Both Lincoln and Darwin were much more complex than the sides that celebrate them and their legacies often admit. The truth is Lincoln was more concerned with preserving the Union than with freeing the slaves, and Darwin was a religious man who saw his science as bringing glory to the God in whom he believed. That kind of complexity bordering on contradiction would serve us well as we continue to thrash out the place of gay marriage and civil unions in this country.
While it would be wrong to ask those with strongly held views about gay marriage and/or civil unions to simply give up on their ideas, I do wonder if they think the kind of ugliness the battles we engage when it comes to these issues will be seen as any less ugly than the battles in other wars, military or cultural, which we have fought in the past.
Of course, there is no moral equivalence between creationists and supporters of human slavery, but it is worth noting that in each case, people used/use religion and scriptural passages to justify their beliefs. I hope that both those in the PCUSA and anyone else who uses sacred teachings to justify their position, whatever it may be, remembers that having a verse to lean on never guarantees that God is leaning your way.
It would be helpful in addressing today’s culture wars if both creationists and those who oppose any recognition of the potential sacredness of a committed, monogamous, same sex relationship, without betraying their beliefs, approached these issues with greater humility. It’s worth remembering that like those who used the bible to support slavery, they might one day look back, if not with shame, at least with regret over their understanding of God’s word….and so might those who support such marriages and unions. If we treated each other with that awareness, whichever we go, will get there together and be the better for it as a nation.