WASHINGTON (UPI) — The Episcopal Church, one of America’s leading mainline Protestant denominations, sparked a national debate when it confirmed the Rev. Gene Robinson as bishop of the Diocese of New Hampshire. Robinson is the first openly gay man named a bishop in the 2.3 million-member U.S. branch of the 77-million-member worldwide Anglican Communion.

Robinson’s selection is highly controversial. The American Anglican Council, which represents conservatives within the fellowship, may seek authorization to form a new church in North America. Others have praised the development, saying it would strengthen the church by making it more diverse.

*Question: What does Robinson’s elevation say about contemporary morals and religion in the United States? UPI National Political Analyst Peter Roff and Jillian Jonas, a free-lance journalist working in New York, face off from opposite sides of this developing issue.

”Roff: The Episcopal Church, while in the public eye, is a private group and, as such, is entitled to set its own rules.”

Such questions are a matter of faith and of conscience. The notion of religious independence from the state is central to the American ethos, the First Amendment having been added to the U.S. Constitution to protect it.

Religious institutions are also supposed to set moral standards according to the dictates of “a higher power.” Robinson’s elevation flies in the face of that.

At the same time he was confirmed the Episcopal leadership affirmed same-sex blessing ceremonies. The church has taken a stand against the traditional notions of morality, throwing in with those whose agenda includes forcing all Americans to accept homosexual relationships as the equal of traditional marriage.

While many Americans are no longer willing to openly condemn homosexuality per se, they remain unwilling to see homosexual relationships accorded the same status as marriage. The American people, a habitually tolerant group, find themselves increasingly in conflict with cultural developments like the Robinson’s elevation and church-endorsed gay marriage. It is not a conflict easily settled.

The traditional — or to use a word from an earlier time, “normal” — organization of society is under assault from all sides. Under the umbrella of diversity, people are being coerced into accepting homosexual relationships as part of a new normality in the military, the church, public schools and the workplace. In the name of “inclusiveness,” Americans are being manipulated into thinking their long-held beliefs about what constitutes right behaviors are themselves wrong, all in the name of preventing hurt feelings.

Robinson’s elevation, according to some scholars, also compromises the church’s moral standing. Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, said Robinson’s selection was “not a question of civil rights” nor was it “a popularity contest.”

Rather, it imperils the ability of the groups that most people look to for moral leadership to set a standard for acceptable behavior. “In its decision,” Land said, “the Episcopal Church, like many other mainline denominations, has fatally compromised with liberal theology and an behavior that is the antithesis of Scripture.”

As a matter of public policy, the elevation of Robinson to a position of leadership within the Episcopal Church adds considerable weight to the case made by those seeking the endorsement of a particular lifestyle many Americans still find objectionable. The persecution of homosexuals and efforts to deprive them of the basic rights open to all Americans should be condemned. But, at the same time, those who reject homosexuality as a legitimate choice should not be coerced into believing otherwise.

The fact of a Bishop Robinson means one more place that Americans should have been able to turn for moral support for their beliefs has been compromised.

”Jonas: Much ado about nothing.”

My response to the Episcopal Church’s ordination of a gay man as bishop is one of vague theoretical support.

Perhaps my lukewarm response is because we’ve seen similar public struggles within assorted religious denominations over the past decades, and they always sound the same. Conservatives evoke images of fire and brimstone and threaten to leave their church. And, every time, despite their dire predictions, the world never stops spinning.

It certainly happened in 1976, when the traditionalists — the conservatives — threatened to leave the Episcopal Church over the ordination of women as priests.

Perhaps it’s the fact that as a layperson, I’m getting pretty darned tired of hearing fundamentalists and conservatives preaching about morality. The obvious ensuing question always becomes, “Who defines what is moral, and can that be imposed on someone else who doesn’t share those views?”

The fight over a gay bishop — and the larger battle over gay rights — is a straw man. It is not about morality; it is about the fear of losing control.

Fundamentalism, whether Christian, Jewish or Muslim, is about establishing strict control and guidelines over its worshippers, allowing little room for critical thinking. That’s part of its appeal — it’s easier to cloak oneself within that rigid structure, cowering in fear of the unknown, the different.

Perhaps — given the recent ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court overturning sodomy laws — such an internal struggle seems, well, a step behind the times, even though the progressive wing of the Episcopal Church in America has often been at the forefront fighting for social change in this country.

Some estimates say that approximately 7 percent to 12 percent of the U.S. population is gay. If one believes that God created humanity and that we are all children of God, then it stands to reason this also includes the creation of homosexuals, that it was “God’s will.” Therefore it makes sense there should also be the inclusion of gays and lesbians in God’s house, just as has been provided for previously regarding women and minorities.

Furthermore, if gays and lesbians are permitted to worship at a particular church, it seems only fair and most appropriate they should also be allowed to serve in its decision-making functions.

Regardless of one’s view on homosexuality, being gay is immaterial to whether or not a person is qualified, in this case, to be bishop. Sexual orientation has no ultimate bearing on an ability to perform clerical duties.

The United States is an inherently ethical country, founded on the pluralistic principles of religious tolerance and the freedoms of expression and choice. Bishop Robinson’s ordination is simply a re-enforcement of those most basic beliefs and tenets.

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