Last week I stood with Episcopal priests; Lutheran, United Church of Christ, and Unitarian ministers; and Reform rabbis in Albany. Because Monday is the traditional clergy day off, we flooded the Capitol. We held signs. We chanted. We sang. We witnessed to the fact that we as people of faith felt we could stand nowhere but on the side of equality.
Despite perceptions otherwise, there are a lot of us. There are plenty of religious leaders who believe in full equality. And we want to help. We want to be used by the movement. But sometimes our organizers don't really know what to do with us.
On Monday, when the religious fervor against equal marriage was high, I kept hearing that organizers wanted all of the clergy there in Albany to stand together for a press conference. It never materialized, and I'm not sure why. But it could have been powerful, and it could have sent a strong message to New York senators.
Now, I'll be the first to admit that religion should have had nothing to do with this vote on civil rights. Civil marriage is not religious marriage. But the sad fact is, religion was what ended up being debated. The red herring of "religious freedom" was the greatest threat to marriage equality in New York. And yet the loudest religious voices, by far, were all from the anti-equality folks.
The same is true for almost every struggle for equality going on across the country. You can yell until you are blue in the face that religion shouldn't matter, and it won't change the anti-equality folks' strategy one bit. We are being opposed on religious grounds, and anti-equality clergy voices are speaking loudly.
I know a lot of LGBT people, and our allies, are uncomfortable with religion. And for good reason. But if we want to win, we have to be able to refute religious arguments effectively. And clergy are some of the best people to do that because we speak the languages of faith. We have studied the issues. We know what our traditions say. We know religious scriptures, erroneously used to bully us, inside and out. We are prepared for this struggle. And we are a force often untapped.
Last Monday I stood in the Capitol at Albany, looked across the hallway, and realized that the anti-equality camp had managed to accomplish something incredible: They had organized conservative Roman Catholics, fundamentalist Protestants, and Chasidic Jewish communities and gotten them to all work together to oppose equal marriage. That may not sound like a huge accomplishment, but it was. On any other day the ideological disagreements of these groups would have kept them from one another. But when allied behind a common goal, they were able (at least for a few days) to overcome differences.
As much as I hate to say it, we could learn something from them.
In order to mobilize pro-equality clergy, we in the greater LGBT community have to do what the anti-equality folks did with people who generally would want nothing to do with one another: we have to work together. It doesn't matter if you believe all religious people are deluded or if you are the most devout Christian to ever exist. You have to work together on these issues of civil rights and use one another's strengths.
There have been some real attempts to use the voices of progressive clergy by LGBT organizations. These are all good starts. But we the clergy need to do more. We have so far sat back in the struggle for civil rights, content to be used when called. But the reality is that we need to be more proactive. We need to be using our voices in a more public way.
To be fair, those of us who are clergy have been distracted in part because we have been spending a lot of time in the past decade fighting for equality within our own religious organizations. We've gained greater inclusion for LGBT people in the UCC, Presbyterian, Episcopal, Lutheran, and Disciples denominations of Christianity, in Unitarian Universalism, and in several Jewish movements. It's been well worth it. But we have sometimes looked inward to the neglect of the greater struggle outside of our church and temple walls.
And so the question I ask is this: How do we do it? Do we form a clergy equality organization that can respond in its own voice? Do we continue to work with already existing LGBT organizations? Do we stay local? Do we go national? Do we do something else entirely? I ask because I don't know, and I want to hear ideas.
Friday night, after the final vote, I went to the victory celebration being held at an Albany gay bar. There, after standing for a week in the Capitol with my clergy collar on, I heard the DJ talk about how he wanted to "piss off Christians" that night. At first I was frustrated. I and other clergy had fought for equality all week and now our faith was being attacked. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that he was just responding based on what he saw. We deserved it.
The voices of progressive clergy, while present, have simply never been as loud as the voices of anti-gay clergy. That DJ probably had no idea that there were clergy at the Capitol all week. When we get to the next vote, I'd like to change that. I'd like for clergy to stand up against religious bigotry with a voice that is heard loud and clear. The question is: How do we do it?