By Bob Allen
A prominent progressive Baptist congregation weighed into the debate over North Carolina’s proposed constitutional ban on same-sex marriage Jan. 29.
Myers Park Baptist Church in Charlotte, N.C., sponsored an adult forum titled N.C. Amendment 1: Personal Freedom, Marriage Equality and Separation of Church and State, looking at the possible impact of a May 8 vote on whether to recognize marriage between one man and one woman as the “only domestic legal union” to be valid or recognized in the state.
“We will see religious people and institutions on both sides of this constitutional amendment,” Senior Minister Stephen Shoemaker said in his morning sermon. “Here is nothing new. Over the centuries religious people have been for and against slavery, for and against women’s rights and for and against the production, the sale and consumption of intoxicating beverages.”
Shoemaker said such debates “have helped Americans clarify which choices are the best for the nation.” Appealing to Myers Park’s tradition of a “free pulpit,” Shoemaker said he opposes the proposed amendment “because it builds discrimination into the foundational legal document of our state.”
“One can be against same-sex marriage and against this amendment on civil rights grounds,” Shoemaker said. “I am also troubled when religious people seek to turn their interpretation of sacred scriptures into civil law. The tyranny of a religious majority can turn a democracy into a theocracy, and there are those in our land who want exactly this: America as a Christian theocracy.”
Shoemaker, author of books including Being Christian In An Almost Chosen Nation: Thinking About Faith and Politics, said it is proper for a religious institution to define what holy matrimony means for its members but not to “encode one theological interpretation of Scripture into a definition of what domestic unions are authorized by the law of the land.”
“Does the state and society have an interest in the institution of marriage?” Shoemaker asked. “I would say yes, but I would also add it also has an interest in the sustainability of loving, monogamous, covenanted relationships, traditional or non-traditional.”
In thinking about the amendment, Shoemaker urged the congregation to recall “the long tortuous path by which our nation finally gave legal sanction to interracial marriage.”
Shoemaker said for 300 years interracial marriages in one form or another were prohibited by law, including not only black/white marriages but also those between whites and Asians, Filipinos, Hindus, Native Americans and Hispanics.
“The arguments were similar to the arguments today against same-sex marriage,” he said. “One, the Bible and God’s will are against it, and two it is unnatural. There was also the perennial debate about state’s rights versus federal law.”
It wasn’t until 1967, Shoemaker said, that the U.S. Supreme Court finally ruled interracial marriage “a basic civil right.”
“Most Americans’ feelings about interracial marriage have changed dramatically since then,” Shoemaker aid. “The law led the way, enabling our experience to overcome our prejudice.”
If it passes, Shoemaker said North Carolina’s gay-marriage ban “will be a step backward for human rights in our state.”
“Its wording will threaten numerous rights of domestic partnerships, and it will reinforce cruel and harmful attitudes toward gay people and their families,” he said
“Martin Luther King Jr. said the opposite of love is not hate but indifference,” Shoemaker closed his sermon. “Let us not be among the indifferent as this vote approaches.”
Myers Park Baptist Church, founded in 1943, lists affiliations on its website including American Baptist Churches in the USA, Association of Welcoming & Affirming Baptists, Alliance of Baptists and the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America.
The Baptist State Convention of North Carolina withdrew fellowship from Myers Park in 2007 because the church accepted gay members into leadership roles, including deacons. The state affiliate of the Southern Baptist Convention supports the proposed constitutional amendment that Shoemaker preached against.
“Protecting marriage as the union between one man and one woman is critically important to preserving the family, our children, the repopulation and economic viability of North Carolina, and North Carolina’s reputation as one of the best states in the nation in which to work and live,” the convention said in a resolution last fall.
The non-binding statement called on North Carolina Baptists to “commit ourselves to pray faithfully against the legalization of same-sex marriages or marriage substitutes in American law; and to preach and teach the truth concerning what the Bible says about the creation of and divine nature of the institution of marriage, and against any government action to accept, sanction, approve, protect or promote same-sex marriage or legal recognition of same-sex relationships.”