Pastors Enter Marriage Debate
- Four area evangelical leaders reluctantly step forward to oppose gay marriage, saying it runs against their core values
They were reluctant to talk to a reporter and had to be persuaded to allow a photo to be taken. They would rather stay within their church communities and out of the public eye.
But, instead, four evangelical pastors from the Portland area have gingerly stepped into the public arena to oppose gay marriage.
Among other things, they are part of an informal group considering launching a ballot measure that, if passed by Oregon voters, would bar the state from recognizing any marriage that is not between a man and a woman.
Ballot fights over gay rights are nothing new to Oregonians. But these pastors regard themselves as different from Oregon Citizens Alliance leader Lon Mabon, who has mounted one high-profile crusade after another against anything he sees as promoting the societal acceptance of homosexuality.
Instead, these pastors say they have largely stayed on the sidelines of gay-rights issues as they’ve ministered to congregations that run into the thousands of members.
Their decision to step into the political fray speaks volumes about how strongly so many evangelicals feel about preserving the traditional definition of marriage — and why this is an issue likely to become as prominent and hard-fought as abortion.
“Our primary focus is to minister to people to help them build solid, positive lives,” said Ray Cotton, senior pastor of New Hope Community Church near Clackamas Town Center. “We’re not here to be against anyone. But when you take a value of our faith that is such a core value, we feel like we have to stand up.”
Cotton and three other pastors participated in an interview Friday arranged by Tim Nashif, a veteran political consultant who helped found the Oregon Family Council, a group that publishes a Christian voting guide. Nashif is advising an informal group of pastors that recently filed four versions of a proposed ballot measure barring gay marriage.
Nashif said the pastors aren’t sure whether they’ll go ahead with an initiative. In part, that’s because it would be difficult to gather the signatures needed by July 2 to qualify it for the November ballot. He said they could also get involved in urging the Oregon Legislature to act, or support President Bush’s attempt to amend the federal Constitution to ban gay marriage.
They sharply distinguished between marriage and other issues involving how gay relationships are treated legally. None expressed great hostility toward Vermont-style civil-union laws, which provide many of the legal benefits of marriage for gays.
“I would not be a promoter of civil unions, but I would not be antagonistic either,” said James E. Martin, senior pastor of Mount Olivet Baptist Church in North Portland. “It would be like other issues: Just let it go.”
Frank Damazio, pastor of City Bible Church, which has a congregation of more than 4,000 in two locations in the Portland area, said he had never bothered to delve into the legal fine points of civil unions.
They seemed like “a very fair thing to do, personally,” Damazio said, but he objected after deciding that gay activists had the “intention all along to use this as a stepping stone to get a full definition of marriage.”
That, the pastors said, runs full force against the basic beliefs they have preached for years. While there are disputes about the meaning of the biblical injunctions against homosexuality, the pastors argue that the Bible consistently defines marriage as between a man and a woman.
And this definition has served society well for “thousands of years through every civilization and millions of marriages,” said Damazio, adding that he worries about generations of children growing up in gay households.
“Whether I was religious or not,” he said, “I would find that pretty amazing that we would take a 4,000-year-old book and civilization and say, . . . ‘We’re going to do something different.’ That’s pretty heavy.”
Although nearly all legal scholars say that no church would be forced to marry gays in any case, the pastors don’t buy that. “I don’t believe that people will stand for you saying, ‘I’m not going to marry you because you are a same-sex couple,’ ” Martin said. “I know that’s going to bring lawsuits.”
Supporters of gay marriage say it’s a simple matter of equality that also provides a host of societal benefits. They say it can offer a model for monogamy and provide more stability and acceptance for children of gay couples.
Prepared for criticism
But the pastors dispute those arguments by raising their own objections to homosexuality. They insist it is a lifestyle that anyone can leave under the right circumstances. Dick Iverson, a retired pastor who now heads Ministers Fellowship International, said he’s counseled several people who have left homosexual relations for heterosexual marriage.
Endorsing gay marriage runs “totally contrary to what we believe will bring hope and help to people,” he said.
The pastors say they know those views will bring them heavy criticism. And that’s one reason they say they are reluctant to enter this battle.
“The moment we step in and say, ‘This is what the Bible says,’ we get, ‘Oh you hateful, mean-spirited people. You hate people; you want to deny civil rights,’ ” Martin said. “I want them to know we’re not against anything. We’re for marriage.”
In the same fashion, the pastors say they’ve tried to shore up marriage by working to reduce the incidence of divorce in their congregations and by helping single parents and their children.
The pastors said they hope they won’t be seen as a divisive force, like Mabon often was with his initiatives. Cotton, for one, called Mabon’s measures “hurtful.”
But on marriage, the pastors said they are convinced that the majority of the public supports them.
“I think on the definition of marriage now, you’re not going to find people budge much,” Damazio said. “I think people are going to draw lines. They’re going to stand up and say, ‘This will not be changed.'”