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Religious groups should lead the way of civil discourse and tolerance in gay rights debates.
How should religiously inclined people who are committed to justice approach this gathering storm? First, clearly religion is not the only source of anti-gay attitudes. Gay pride marches were banned in Jerusalem, but they were also banned in China, hardly a hot bed of piety.
Americans should learn from our own excesses that it is important to preserve civil discourse wherever possible. And we should be careful not to overlook the importance of genuine cultural differences. For example, we should not confuse a pressing concern for human rights with the vexed dispute over the effectiveness of condoms.
Pope Benedict was widely condemned when he suggested that abstinence — not condoms — is the answer to fighting the spread of AIDS in Africa. And yet the pope's view appears to be supported in a recent book authored by Dr. Edward Green of the Center for Population and Development Studies at the Harvard School of Public Health. The book, "Rethinking AIDS Prevention: Learning from Successes in Developing Countries," documents how approaches that promote abstinence in countries, such as Uganda, have had a more significant effect in lowering the rates of AIDS than many countries where condom use is promoted. This argument is also supported by Martin Ssempa, a prominent Ugandan AIDS activist, who has gone further to suggest that pharmaceutical giants have promoted condoms in Africa to increase their profits.
The jury is still out on this global dispute, but it suggests that religious groups approach this issue with a mixture of delicacy and firmness. They must speak out clearly against an atmosphere of hate and hostility toward gays, while at the same time avoiding taking a religiously endorsed position on which AIDS prevention programs are actually more effective. This is a matter to be settled by medical science, not by theology or ideology.
Still, Pope Benedict XVI missed his opportunity to balance these two points in a recent welcoming letter to the Ugandan ambassador to the Holy See, Francis K. Butagira. Even though the Vatican’s legal attache, Rev. Philip Bene has gone on record saying that the proposed Ugandan bill would institute “unjust discrimination,” the pope himself merely thanked the ambassador for the welcome his government has extended to the Catholic Church in matters of education and health care. He did not mention the noxious bill. He should have.
In addition to speaking out, religious groups would do well to set an example. The recent decision of Rev. M. Thomas Shaw III, the Episcopal bishop of eastern Massachusetts to authorize priests in that diocese to solemnize marriages of “all eligible couples,” regardless of gender represents an important advance. “Christian marriage,” he wrote, “is a sacramental rite that has evolved in the church." He added that marriage must be open to all as a means of grace, and that all marriages, regardless of the gender of the parties, must be characterized by fidelity, monogamy, mutual affection and respect, and the “holy love which enables spouses to see in one another the image of God.”
Bishop Shaw’s courageous action will do little to cool the simmering tensions between American and African Anglicans. Still, he did the right thing. And his decision points to what may be a distant, but not unattainable future, one in which the cultural warriors might see that encouraging gay marriages, rather than condemning them, might do more to nurture “family values,” reduce promiscuity and combat sexually transmitted diseases than anti-gay crusades.
At the moment this idea amounts mainly to a hope. I do not expect Pope Benedict or the majority of American evangelicals to embrace it tomorrow. But it is not just an idle hope. It could one day become a reality.
Harvey Cox, author of "The Future of Faith," is Hollis Research Professor of Divinity, Harvard University.