I have a great deal of respect for Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California. I would even go so far as to count him as a friend, and I suspect that he might say the same about me. Warren has done a great deal to recast the social agenda of evangelicals to bring it more into line with the teachings of Jesus as well as the noble precedent of nineteenth-century evangelical activism, which invariably took the part of those on the margins of society. Warren is no fan of the Religious Right, and he recognizes that it is inappropriate for people of faith in a pluralistic society to impose their will on others simply by majoritarian fiat.
So that is why I found his announcement on October 23 that he supports California’s Proposition 8 so disturbing. Proposition 8, a ballot initiative, seeks to overturn the California supreme court’s ruling that gay marriage is constitutionally permissible.
Warren has every right to his views on the definition of marriage, which he insists (not without foundation) is mandated in the Bible. Millions of Americans – a majority, I’m sure – agree with him. “If you believe what the Bible says about marriage,” he declared on his website, “you need to support Proposition 8.”
Warren goes on to note that, by his reckoning, gays and lesbians make up only 2 percent of the population in the United States. “We should not let 2 percent of the population change the definition of marriage.”
Warren, a Baptist, knows better. The cornerstones of the Baptist tradition are adult baptism (as opposed to infant baptism) and the principle of liberty of conscience and the separation of church and state. Baptists inherited these ideas from Roger Williams, the founder of the Baptist tradition in America. And, at least until the conservative takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention in 1979, Baptists have always been watchmen on that wall of separation and fierce guardians of liberty of conscience. Thankfully, Williams’s ideas were incorporated into the United States Constitution, both in the First Amendment, which forbade a religious establishment, and in the recurring principle of respect for the rights of minorities.
These have been the guiding touchstones of American life for more than two centuries. We Americans have sought, at times better than others, to live up to the principles articulated in our charter documents, especially in safeguarding the rights and the interests of minorities – though not perfectly, by any means. The scourge of slavery and segregation and discrimination remains an indelible blot, and our treatment of women has been cavalier. But we Americans eventually rise to our better selves and come around to recognize the claims of legal equality for those who, for reasons of gender or race or religion or sexual orientation, cannot number themselves part of the majority.
And if we needed further warrant for this, the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of “equal protection under law” codified that into the Constitution itself.
Many Americans, myself included, understand the California supreme court’s decision (and similar rulings in other jurisdictions) as an expression of that principle, an expansion of civil rights to those who have been denied equality for a very long time. It’s not at all at odds with fundamental Baptist principles of liberty and protection from a majoritarian ethic that imposes its standards on the minority.
I challenge Rick Warren, my friend and fellow evangelical, to reconsider his support for Proposition 8. Warren and all people of faith have every right to hold to their religious views about homosexuality. But to insist that those standards must be observed by everyone in a pluralistic society is – well, it’s not Baptist.
Rick Warren knows better.