I’m a pastor of a national church body that is both progressive and traditional. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) approved, in 2009, a resolution to ordain gay and lesbian ministry candidates. This decision led a number of folks and congregations to leave the ELCA; overall membership has plummeted now to under 4 million members. At its inception in 1988, the ELCA had a membership of more than 5 million souls. The 2009 decision is not the sole factor to explain the church’s decline, but one of many including changing cultural values and increasing number of hours worked by Americans.
On Sunday, July 5, I preached on the recent US Supreme Court decision (Obergefell v. Hodges) to legalize same-sex marriage. The congregation I serve in Austin, Texas is dual-language, English and Spanish; we gather to worship separately in both respective languages each Sunday within a “one congregation” context. We have members in each worship group who represent either side of the gay marriage issue – traditional and progressive. The text of II Corinthians 12:9 – spiritual power reaching full maturity in weakness – served to remind our traditional-leaning members (most of whom were raised in the previous century and taught that homosexuality was wrong) about the hidden strength of spiritual power: It gives us the wisdom to sort out the things we can change from the things we need to accept. Our Christian tradition beckons us to love our neighbors and interact with them compassionately, even if their life choices and/or politics don’t agree with our own.
The Supreme Court decision, coming days before the 239th anniversary of the nation’s birth, gave me an opportunity to preach also on the egalitarian foundations, still alive and well, of our society. Egalitarianism, as I proclaim it, goes beyond equality to a deeper reality than simply equal quantities, measurements, or values. Egalitarianism emerges and comes to light from a situation of specific inequality—dominance-subordination. Egalitarianism is political in nature: a group or community engaged in the struggle of self-determination within the larger community or with a competing community seeks, attains, and maintains a balance or equity with its competitor.
The word egalitarian was coined during the Gilded Age (1870 – 1900) as the maturing industrial era created economic and social inequalities previously unknown. While the word egalitarian is a very recent addition to most languages, the concept of egalitarianism is a deeply biblical and ancient one. From God telling Pharaoh through Moses “Let my people go!” to Paul proclaiming to the Galatians that “all of you are one in Christ Jesus” – egalitarianism, be it spiritual or secular, unites and liberates those who are subordinated by unjust domination.
The biblical record serves to buttress egalitarianism as a social value in secular society. As a political response to the dominance that a top-down hierarchy or majority can create, egalitarianism has played a major role in American history. Many immigrants came to America from Europe because the promised or imagined opportunity provided relief from social and economic domination. The abolition movement achieved success in the nineteenth century, as did the civil rights movement in the twentieth century, fueled by egalitarianism. Egalitarianism is one of humanity’s greatest achievements because of the opportunities it affords to those previously kept under thumb. Those seen to be individually weak join forces to stand up to or have equal footing with the strong and powerful. Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin’s use of the egalitarian line “all men are created equal [sic]” in the Declaration of Independence has served both to restrict the haughty and to liberate the downtrodden. Egalitarianism best serves to eliminate unjust and unmerited privilege that debilitates minority populations. America’s slaves, indigenous, immigrants, minorities, women, children, handicapped, gays and lesbians have all achieved civil rights—sometimes through blood, sweat, and tears—because of egalitarianism.
The 2015 Obergefell decision echoes the 1967 Supreme Court decision to legalize interracial marriage in all the land. According to Gallup.com, some 75 percent of Americans in 1967 disapproved of interracial marriage, and fourteen former slaveholding states did not permit it. The Loving v. Virginia decision helped move the nation away from some of its racist past, and toward a future of greater light.
Our Supreme Court justices and their decisions are not infallible, but oftentimes a wisdom derived from the radical phrase “all people are created equal” comes forth from their decisions. Both liberty and egalitarianism are founding and guiding principles of this society; their simultaneous cooperation and competition with one another (balancing out the other’s excesses) help this society live up to its stated convictions.
This blog and website are representative of the views expressed in my book Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good. JaLBM is available on Amazon as a paperback and an ebook. It’s also available on Nook and iBooks/iTunes, and at the website of Blue Ocotillo Publishing.
For book clubs, community of faith study groups, and individuals, the Summary Version and Study Guide of JaLBM is now available at the Blue Ocotillo website and on Amazon. It’s a “Reader’s Digest” version (fifty-two pages) of the full-length original with discussion questions at the end of each chapter. Join the conversation about social and economic inequality – without having to be hyperpartisan – and let’s figure out how capitalism can do better!