Why We Care What Other People Believe: Religion, Race, and Prop 8

(Disclaimer: Yes, I know I said I wasn’t going to blog about politics for a while. Y’all should have known that wasn’t going to happen. Hell, I should have known that wasn’t going to happen. Mistakes were made. Let’s just move on, shall we? Besides, that was four days ago. Why do you keep bringing up old stuff?)


So as promised: the atheist rant about religion’s role in the passage of Proposition 8 and the banning of same-sex marriage in California.

But first — and not tangentially, in fact very much related to it — a few words about Prop 8 and race.

A lot of people are talking about the African American community supporting Prop 8. A lot of people are talking about how the black churches were overwhelmingly against marriage equality. A lot of people are really angry about it. Not so temperately, and not so nicely.

I have a few thoughts about that. Mostly, Pam Spaulding of Pam’s House Blend said what I would have said — and in fact, shaped my thinking about this — so mostly I’m going to just link to what Pam said.

10 percent

The point in Pam’s piece that jumped out at me most strongly: Yes, African Americans supported Prop 8, by a depressing margin. But African American voters made up only about 10% of the total vote in the California election. It’s disappointing, of course — it’s always disappointing when oppressed people don’t get it about other people’s oppression. But (a) the No on 8 campaign didn’t do nearly enough to reach out to the African American community, and (b) the African American community did not single- handedly lose this election for us.

After all, lots of other demographic groups voted heavily in favor of Prop 8. People over 65, for one. And I don’t see people scapegoating them, or writing vicious diatribes against them, or screaming bigoted epithets at them in the street.


If we’re not going to do that with old people — many of whom are queer, and many of whom are allies — we need to not do that with African Americans. Again, many of whom are queer, and many of whom are allies.

All of which is important. And now, I want to come to my main point.

A lot of people are talking about how the black churches were overwhelmingly against marriage equality, and what we should do about that.

My question:

Why is the focus on the “black” side of that sentence?

Why is it not on the “churches” side of that sentence?


Here are some numbers for you. CNN exit polls showed that those who attended church weekly voted against marriage equality, 84%-16%.

Those who attended church only occasionally voted for marriage equality, 54%-46%.

And those who do not attend church at all voted for marriage equality, 83%-17%.

Now. Again. A lot of demographic groups were against us. That, by itself, doesn’t automatically make religion an undeniably huge focal point of this election.

Here’s what makes religion an undeniably huge focal point of this election:


The Yes on 8 campaign was overwhelmingly designed by, organized by, and funded by, the Mormon Church, the Catholic Church, and the far-right evangelical churches.


The campaign to ban same-sex marriage — not just in California, but around the country — is not just organized and funded by religious organizations. It is inspired by it. Religion is the driving passion behind this movement. It is the engine propelling the tank; it is the fire fueling the engine.

It seems clear to me that race is really not the issue here — except very tangentially, in that the African American community tends to be a church-going community.

The issue is religion.


It was not African Americans who were against us. It was traditional religious organizations who were against us. Of all races.

There’s something Ingrid said about this, and I’m simultaneously intensely proud of her for thinking of it and kicking myself for not thinking of it myself.

The next time anyone asks, “Why do you atheists care so much about what other people believe?”

This, people, is why we care.

If all people did with their religious beliefs was sit around in the privacy of their homes believing them? I wouldn’t care what they believed. They could sit in their living rooms believing what they believe, and I could sit in my living room believing what I believe, and it would trouble me almost not at all. Certainly not enough to devote my writing career to opposing it.

Holy vote

But people act on their beliefs. And when inspired by religious fervor and a belief that a perfectly loving and good God wants them to act the way they’re acting and will reward them for it with perfect bliss forever after they die, people act with a single-minded energy and focus… and a singular lack of interest in the facts.

See, here’s the thing about religion that makes it such a frustrating player in the political arena. Religion is a belief system based entirely, and explicitly, on authority, tradition, and personal feeling and intuition. And therefore, it is a belief system that can provide an impressively- armored rationalization for just about any opinion and action you care to name. It is a belief system with little or no connection to evidence and reason, and that much of the time is singularly resistant to it.

And so, when religion pops up its head in the political arena, it makes discussion and debate on the actual issues difficult verging on impossible.

Example. When religious believers hear their priests and preachers and so on tell them — oh, say, just for instance — that legalizing same-sex marriage will mean that homosexuality will be taught in grade school, and that anti- same- sex marriage churches will lose their tax-exempt status? And then when they hear teachers’ associations and legal experts saying that that’s ridiculous and it will absolutely do no such thing? Who are they going to believe?

Liar liar

The Yes on 8 campaign lied like dogs in this election. And their lies were extremely difficult to combat. Partly that was because we didn’t have the funding to get our “They’re lying like dogs” message out into the world as much as we needed to. But it was also because the fervent religious believers behind the Yes on 8 campaign trusted their religious leaders — the leaders they trust, the leaders they see as the voice of God, the leaders who provide a cover of divine virtue and authority for the discomfort and bigotry they already feel — before they trusted those dumb old teachers’ associations and legal experts and people with actual evidence supporting their side.

How do you combat that? How do you make arguments to people who think tradition and authority and personal feeling are more valid than reason or critical thinking? How do you provide counter- evidence to people who aren’t all that interested in evidence?

Quakers support gay marriage

Now. You can argue that this isn’t true for all religious believers. You can argue that not all religious believers supported Prop 8, and that in fact many religious organizations opposed it. And you’d be right.

But if you’re arguing that, then I have a question for you. It’s an actual, “I don’t know the answer” question, btw, not a ranty rhetorical question, and if someone knows the answer, I’d like to hear it.

Where were the progressive, pro-gay religious organizations in this fight?

I don’t mean the MCC and other religious groups specifically organized by and for the LGBT community. I’m sure they were out in full force. I mean non- specifically- gay- focused religious organizations that are still progressive and gay-friendly. The United Church of Christ. The Episcopalians. The Quakers. Reform synagogues. Etc. I know there was some support… but were they out for us in anything like the numbers, and with anything like the fervor and passion, and with anything like the devotion of time and resources, that the Mormon and Catholic and Evangelical churches had in opposing us?

I sure as hell didn’t see it.

Way too much of the time, when it comes to religion, it seems that T.S. Eliot William Butler Yeats hit the nail on the head: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity.” Sure, the progressive churches are more or less on our side. But they don’t seem to have anywhere near the energy and focus; the passionate intensity that raises money and mobilizes volunteers and gets the vote out.

I know, I know. There were a lot of issues in this election, and a lot of things were against us, and our organization almost certainly made some serious mistakes. But religion clearly played a massive role in the Yes on 8 campaign, and I think we’re burying our heads in the sand if we act as if that isn’t true.

So what do we do about it?

(To be continued tomorrow.)

Why We Care What Other People Believe: Religion, Race, and Prop 8

17 thoughts on “Why We Care What Other People Believe: Religion, Race, and Prop 8

  1. 1

    I do think that this is where ‘interfaith/interbelief’ work can play a part. In a case like this, atheist and humanist organisations could ask the progressive faith groups to stand with them and combine forces. Sadly, it seems that people still don’t connect lgbt rights with human rights and we need the big mainstream groups like the big atheist and humanist organisations to motivate people to notice the issues, think about them and take action. Maybe with the shock of prop 8 passing, people will realise what is happening and start taking action. Considering the religious motivations and organisations behind this legislation it’s time for atheist and humanist organisations to get behind this issue and start campaigning loudly as we should have been from the start.

  2. 3

    Great post. Some of this backlash has made me question my support of “No on 8”, I feel ashamed to be associated. But I remind myself that there are bigots and idiots in every community, and I can’t let them represent the whole. The point isn’t that gays and lesbians are better than anyone else, that the community is without flaw and they’ll always take the high road, the point is that they are people, equal people, which also means equally flawed.

  3. 4

    I do believe that some who opposed Prop 8 didn’t realize that those who have been the victims of discrimination are often fine with discrimination against others.
    They act in a self-interested manner, not looking for equality for everyone (especially when they have a “trusted” leader telling them that god opposes this type of equality).

  4. 5

    My church is Neighborhood UU of Pasadena. Our minister asked everybody in the congregation to do Five Things against Prop. 8, like talk to neighbors, put up a sign, do phonebanking, etc. Five Things.
    Some of the queers in our church—let’s face it, all lesbians plus me—got together in early Sept. to see about organizing phonebanking, under the umbrella of the LA No On 8 organization. We had a table up every Sunday getting people to sign up for phonebanking. And lots did: the database of phone-bankables got to 180 people, in a congregation of about 700. Not even a fourth of these were queer. At the height of the action, we had 40 people every Monday night, calling up to drum up support against Prop. 8.
    At both services yesterday, the minister asked those same-sex couples who had gotten married at our church to stand up. There were about five to eight couples at each service. As we stood there with tears rolling down our faces, the congregation burst into applause, and then rose to their feet.
    It’s not just us, there’s a huge Anglican church a mile away, All Saints, that is even more activist than we are. We phone-banked one day a week, they did it three days a week.
    That’s where the friendly churches were in this fight.

  5. 6

    You’re absolutely correct. I don’t know if you heard about it, but there was a huge protest (thousands of people) in downtown Salt Lake City on Friday night. In response, of course, the Mormon church has the gall to spin themselves as the victims of bigotry. True to form, always the martyr!
    It pisses me off to no end that the Mormon “prophet” can speak on this issue and instantly have an army of volunteers and millions of dollars in donations to the cause. And most of them do it because they believe without question that when the prophet speaks, the thinking has been done. This is truly a dangerous phenomenon.
    The African-American question is a red herring. Religion is the real culprit here.

  6. 8

    I just don’t understand how any state is able to take away any groups basic civil rights?
    Why is equality not a binding right for the entire nation?

  7. 9

    I just don’t understand how any state is able to take away any groups basic civil rights?
    Not to mention, do so by a simple majority vote. Allowing this really opens the doors for a tyranny of the majority, where 52% of the population can take away whatever right it pleases of the remainder. There really should be some legal ground there to challenge this on.

  8. Ben

    I’m not gay. I’m not black. I don’t live in California. So I’m not exactly the most informed person in the world when it comes to this topic.
    I keep hearing people say the No on 8 campaign didn’t do enough outreach.
    The implication is that African Americans needed someone to spell out for them why Prop 8 was discriminatory and unfair and—yes—unamerican.
    Why is that?

  9. 11

    I was somewhat concerned that own rant about Prop 8 had bought into the racism aspect, but I rechecked, and I cited the generally religious influences on the African American, Hispanic, and elderly voters who turned out in historic numbers and then proceeded to get mad at the religious participation in the Yes on Prop 8 campaign, so I feel a little better. As you said, the race and age is incidental – it’s the religious side that really influenced the vote. And it’s why I’m pissed at the Religious Right and Mormon church at the moment. I’m not at the violent protest level of pissed. But at least you helped me realize that I was angry at the right people, white, black, Hispanic, old, young… religiously ignorant.

  10. 13

    Before read my comment and write it off as some theistic defense of religion, know that I am a strong agnostic and believe that the existence or nonexistence of a higher power is completely unprovable as well as irrelevant to everyday life.
    I don’t blame religion itself. Blaming religion is like blaming a gun for a crime. The gun doesn’t commit the crime. It is just the implement used.
    Religion like any man made creation has both good sides and bad sides. Yes, religion has been used repress various peoples at various times, but it has also elevated and inspired many good acts. The inquisition violently suppressed many minorities. On the flip side the civil rights movement had strong religious roots. Just as science gave us means to communicate across the global instantly and spread thoughts and ideas. It has also given us thousands of was to efficiently kill our fellow man en masse. The thing that is wrong is not the thing itself, but the people using it.
    Most of the religious voters probably have not read more than a few passages from the Bible. Instead they trust in their leaders to distill the bible in an easy to digest format. Had they actually read the book of Leviticus, the main text used to justify the discrimination of same sex couples, they would come to understand that it is in reality a book of archaic Jewish laws which hold no relevance in modern life. because they eat shell fish, women were pants and nobody keeps slaves maybe the man laying with man thing is pointless too. Or how in the book of Samuel, David, the chosen of Jehovah, loved a man, Jonathan, with a love that surpassed his love for any woman. They might think that if the chosen one can love another guy why not everyone else.

  11. Kay

    I agree with you GC (like always) but one thing that really really really pisses me off about this whole thing are the number of protesters and supporters of the No campaign… who didn’t actually vote!
    “I was too busy, but here i am with my sign…” What the f—?
    And yes, I do see this vote as being all sorts of landmark… and agree with the earlier poster who pointed out the slippery slope of allowing 52% of the vote (not even 52% of the population, but the vote) to take away rights of others. What’s next?
    Grrr, ok, deep breaths, going to get a mocha now….

  12. 15

    Yes religious freedom is all fine and good – if only religions would grant the same freedoms to others and stop poking their collective nose into other people’s lives.
    The short answer is probably not to encourage atheism (nice idea, but still a dirty word to many), but to encourage the progressive believers.

  13. 16

    Religion like any man made creation has both good sides and bad sides. Yes, religion has been used repress various peoples at various times, but it has also elevated and inspired many good acts.

    With all due respect, Trey, I think you may have missed the point. I wasn’t trying to argue that religion is always on the wrong side of politics. It clearly isn’t.
    I was trying to argue that, because religion is based on tradition and authority and personal feeling instead of evidence and reason, it makes for a frustrating force in politics that’s difficult to engage with… regardless of whether it’s on the right or wrong side.

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