Nearly two weeks ago, the nation listened to President Barack Obama deliver his inaugural address. I wasn't sure whether the speech was a sermon cloaked in political language or a political speech veiled in religious clothing.
Think about the themes he raised that resonated as religious ideas more than political ones.
First, there was his discussion of climate change, invoking the biblical injunction that God charged humankind to be responsible for the environment. He moved on to discuss the concept that humans are, in the eyes of God, created equal. After that, he affirmed for the first time in a presidential inauguration speech that America should respect the love that binds human beings of the same gender as equal to the love that heterosexual Americans share. And I haven't even gotten to the belief in divine providence that surrounds American exceptionalism or the role of women in our world.
We can imagine the reactions from political junkies and pundits, who have used the speech to advance their political causes. We expect this from the partisan world of gladiator politics, which continues to divide Americans. Yet, when it comes to clergy perspectives about homosexuality, in particular, can we imagine the wide variety of responses?
My sense is that clergy will nod in approval to the ideas that we all are equal and even to our responsibility to be good stewards of the earth. But how about a presidential inaugural speech that says homosexuality and heterosexuality are of equal standing in America?
Of course, there were clergy who applauded the president, as well as those who were angry at his pronouncement. While we all have different positions on this sensitive subject, I think it is fair to say that when the president of the United States makes a values statement like this, it resonates throughout the land. His pronouncement highlighted the legitimacy for the issue in a way that had never happened before in American history.
The result is that clergy have choices, too, in their reactions to the speech. Surely their parishioners were curious to hear them respond to the president's beliefs. Yes, for liberal clergy of Judaism and Christianity it is easy to support the president. For conservative clergy it is a struggle because there is a challenge between adhering to a conservative mindset and interpretation of Scriptures, which traditionally either ignores or opposes homosexuality. At the same time, these same clergy see how the times have changed and how their parishioners have homosexual relatives whom they love.
Some clergy have expressed to me the theology that while their faith traditions do not reject gays or lesbians as congregants, they will not, based on their understanding of religious doctrine, let them serve as clergy or in other roles of leadership inside their congregations. We are seeing this issue play itself out in the recent schism inside the South Carolina Episcopal Church, in which more than 40 churches have left the American Episcopal movement over several issues, including ordination of gay and lesbian clergy as well as heterosexual women into the priesthood. For them, it is not about standing on the right side of American history, but rather standing loyal to the inerrancy of Scriptural history as they interpret it according to their faith traditions.
From a Jewish perspective, Orthodox rabbinical seminaries would not ordain a gay rabbi. But the Reform and Conservative seminaries do. Over the years, many rabbis, such as myself, have pondered the issue of officiating at commitment ceremonies of same-sex relationships before they became legal in certain states. For most veteran clergy the decision-making process requires a balancing act to be responsive to the dictates of thousands of years of teachings, versus facing up to the changing times we live in.
Obama has challenged America to rethink longtime fears toward gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered citizens. His call might not have any religious standing, and his moral authority does not require us to change our opinions and practices. Yet he raised the issue and has given it center stage in the nation's conscience. The question for clergy and laity alike is whether the time has come for Americans to overcome prejudice and fulfill the Scriptural mandate in the Book of Leviticus: "Love your neighbor as yourself." The answer will determine whether we will be on the right side of history. If not now, then when?