The Reverend Delman Coates heads a black church in Prince George County, and in stark opposition to many other African-American clergy, he supports marriage equality. In an eloquent and thoughtful interview with NPR’s The Takeaway, he points out that theology should not determine public policy in this country. He has testified before Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley in support of marriage equality, and he has taken fire from fellow preachers for his position.
The opening moments of the interview feature a short excerpt from one of Reverend Coates’ sermons; it’s delivered in that intense rhetorical style traditionally favored by fire-and-brimstone preachers, except that he’s using this voice to scold his flock for religion-based bigotry. It makes for remarkable listening, and the interview that follows will put heart into LGBT activists who have despaired of other Christian leaders’ position on civil rights. If he’s a political conservative (and he declines to discuss his personal views on homosexuality), then he’s a rational, intellectually honest one of a type we seldom hear from these days.
“My support for the Civil Marriage Protection Act,” says Reverend Coates, “is rooted in my heartfelt sense that in America, we have to protect public policy from personal and private theology and personal belief.
“I think the principles of our country are founded upon the ideals of our Constitution which protect religious freedom and institutional autonomy, yet at the same time preserve individual liberty as well. I’m really concerned about the way in which in many of our public-policy conversations…people are using theology as a basis for public policy. I think that’s a dangerous precedent.
“Governments fund things that are against people’s religious beliefs, personal theology and doctrine, all the time. Right now, local governments and municipalities allow for alcohol establishments, liquor stores in communities, gambling, and yet at the same time religious institutions teach their parishioners not to engage in these activities.
“There’s a difference between our public policy imperatives and our theological imperatives. Our challenge is to live in our faith…not to legislate it.
“We want foreign policy decisions as Americans to be based on sound intelligence. We want it to be based on credible threats. We don’t want foreign policy decisions for example, to be based on the theology of a particular religious tradition….
“We know that there could come a point in the future when the majority now is no longer the majority…I want to make sure that, 200 years from now, if my local church and those who worship in the local church, are no longer the majority in the local and national community, that our rights are preserved from the theological musings and understandings of whomever might be in the majority at that time. So I think it’s critically important for us to figure out a way to segregate and to separate public policy from theology.”