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Phobia Meets Reality

“Our family really isn’t so different from yours,” says Zach Wahls, the son of two mothers, married under Iowa’s same-sex marriage law. When he is home from the University of Iowa, his family goes to church, eats dinner, goes on vacations.

Recorded last Friday, his testimony before the Iowa House of Representatives already has over 1.5 million views. Warning: it is moving and honest, as nineteen-year-old Zach explains how the the contentious issue of same-sex marriage comes up among students and, unaware of his parents, some wonder if gays and lesbians can even raise children. Thankfully he’s not afraid to be a living witness to his actually pretty normal upbringing. Beyond the anecdotal, study after study supports his experience of well-adjustment. Yet, why do some Seventh-day Adventists oppose the legal right for his parents to marry?

Some who work under the banner of the North American Religious Liberty Association have devoted significant time to warning Seventh-day Adventists about the threat of same-gender marriage. Adventists, particularly in the American West, have been under a three-year onslaught of fearmongering about same-gender marriage and its effect on the character of the family. More than any other single issue, our religious liberty leaders write about the gays. Yes, more than Sabbath work issues. Yes, more than non-combatancy.

I really appreciate the tradition of the Seventh-day Adventist witness for religious liberty. And I am not alone, as I recall a conversation with Andrews University students in which we all agreed that it was one of the public aspects of our faith we were most proud of. Eschewing mainstream religious liberty thought, our current religious liberty leaders have transformed the once rich legal tradition of Adventist minority rights protection into a parroting voice of the religious right. But compared to Zach Wahls’ personal testimony, and that of many gay and lesbian Adventists, the onslaught of “attack” and “threaten” rhetoric below just sounds oddly focused on fear and threats.

Is this how Adventists should be communicated to? This stream of literal homophobia rings hollow next to the brave voices of the actual people affected, like Zach. In his testimony he states that no one has ever come up to him and guessed that he was raised by parents of the same gender. One wonders if his neighbors or the parishioners at his church have seen their marriages destroyed due to such close contact with such a threathening same-sex family. Why does NARLA need to play on homophobia to make its points about religious liberty?

Increasing numbers of constituents are expressing embarrassment with NARLA’s focus on homosexuality, and even among its own ranks there are reports of NARLA’s political and legal influence waning due to its extreme stance on this issue. It has also turned off many young Adventists.

Some of the same legal and theoretical arguments that NARLA has deployed mimic those used by the segregationists during the civil rights battles of the 60s. Read the articles above and note the mocking tone used to refer to “equality” and “rights” and how they demonize gay and lesbian Americans who merely want to get married. Connected to that civil rights tradition, Zach Wahls’ final words recall that great American dream of fairness, stating that “the sexual orientation of my parents has had zero effect on the content of my character.” Unfortunately, the phobic message from some our leaders continues to have a negative effect on the character of our church and its religious liberty witness.

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