By Rev. James Moos
“Tradition! Tradition!” sang Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof. He struggled to maintain family and religious traditions while outside influences encroached. In many ways, the current debate over marriage equality is a struggle over the meaning of tradition.
Recently President Obama publically stated his support for marriage equality. In an interview he said: “At a certain point I’ve just concluded that for me, personally, it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married.”
The President’s personal support came on the heels of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals overturning of California’s Proposition 8, thus preparing the way for the return of same sex marriage in that state. The court declared: “Proposition 8 served no purpose, and had no effect, other than to lessen the status and human dignity of gays and lesbians in California.”
Polls now show that a majority of Americans are in favor of same sex marriage. While justice advocates give thanks that the tide is turning in favor of marriage equality, opponents redouble their efforts. Most often, they seek to uphold what they term “traditional family values.” Which tradition are they speaking of? Certainly not the Biblical tradition which contains multiple patterns of marriage and family life, none of which bear close resemblance to June and Ward Cleaver of Leave it to Beaver fame. Polygamy, for example, was practiced by many of the “giants” of the Biblical narrative.
Neither can it be said that the nuclear family is the “traditional” family. Throughout most of history and in many cultures today, the extended family is primary. Moreover, arranged marriages are more deeply rooted in “tradition” than unions based on romance—consider the “matchmaker” in Fiddler.
While traditions cannot be lightly dismissed, we must recognize that many traditions are oppressive and unjust. Slavery, male-only clergy and the exclusion of persons with different abilities were once “traditional” values and practices. It took long, hard efforts to overcome these barriers to equality and, in each case, there is still much work to do.
To label something as “traditional” has no reference to it being just. So too with what opponents of marriage equality refer to as “traditional family values.”
The core values of our faith include love, justice and an affirmation of the dignity of all persons. The Still Speaking God calls us to judge even our most cherished social norms in their light. That is what Jesus did when he critiqued and overturned rituals and practices that had been passed down from the time of Moses. Much to the dismay of the Scribes and Pharisees, Jesus called into question the most sacred of traditions when they violated human dignity. Such is still our calling.
Marriage equality is not a denial, but an affirmation of family life. Does it challenge commonly held understandings of what constitutes a family? Yes. As Tevye discovered, however, sometimes we must let go of even our most entrenched traditions if we are to remain faithful to God and to one another.
Rev. James Moos is the executive minister of Wider Church Ministries for the United Church of Christ.