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The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once famously wrote that American churches too often stood as society’s “tail light,” while other social institutions moved toward the realization of justice. Who could blame him for so thinking–as he sat in a Birmingham, Ala., jail, recipient of a letter from eight prominent white clergy advising him to leave town and take his ideas of racial equality with him?
But yesterday’s vote in the Senate–a narrow loss of a measure that would begin repeal of the “don’t-ask-don’t-tell” provision that keeps openly gay men and women from serving in the military–strongly suggests that religious institutions (some major ones, at least) have gotten ahead of the country’s political leaders.
Take a look at the religious landscape: The Episcopal Church ordains not simply gay priests, but consecrates gay bishops; the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America began ordaining gay pastors this summer; the United Church of Christ has permitted its regional jurisdictions to do so for years. There are gay rabbis among Reform and Reconstructionist Jews. The Unitarian-Universalists have been staunch supporters of gay marriage almost before anyone else dared raise the issue. Do the math and you realize these organizations account for many millions of Americans; you can find their buildings standing prominently in city, suburb and rural areas alike.
Oh, yes, I’m fully aware it’s an uneven picture: the Roman Catholic Church stands firmly against gay relationships and gay marriage, as does the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Back in the ’90s, the Southern Baptist Convention adjusted its rules to allow its regional associations to remove individual congregations seen as not sufficiently opposed to gay ordination and marriage.
But religious institutions as a rule tend to be slow-moving, given to long deliberation. And that makes it significant that in some of the most high-profile organizations in the country, a willingness to embrace gay rights (and rites) has been gradually taking place. And this only 40 years after Stonewall. (If you want a comparison, it took women more than seven decades to gain the right to vote, after the first significant movement for female sufferage got going.)
To be sure, the denominations that welcome gays as clergy have reaped some painful results, as some of their congregations have broken away. But those numbers are fewer than they are often made out to be. Besides, who ever said change doesn’t come at a cost?
Just before the Senate vote, I heard on the radio a man who has long been involved in the Log Cabin Republicans–the gay organization that works within the GOP–state that the Senate challenge to DADT was welcome in and of itself. But he cautioned his interviewer not to expect immediate change. Politicians, he said, are followers, always waiting to see what the people at large will do.
Which seems to me to raise a question: Dear Readers, are our national politicians King’s new “tail light”?