The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Weddings and a Death

Conservatives Are Wrong that Gay Marriage Is Killing Religion and Religious Values.

Last week, the Iowa State Supreme Court struck down a state law banning gay marriage. This week, Vermont’s legislature voted to legalize gay marriage, moving beyond the state’s previous “separate but equal” civil unions and overriding its Republican governor’s promised veto.

Each state witnessed moving testimony from gay advocates.

Democratic State Representative Jason Lorber began crying during debate in the Vermont statehouse when he recounted his feeling of estrangement and degradation upon seeing the newspaper announcement of his and his partner’s civil union carried in a separate category from marriage announcements. “Why do we have to say, You Are Different?” he asked his fellow lawmakers. “Why can't we just say, Congratulations!”

Michael Judge, a writer and editor from Iowa, received an excited phone call from his gay older brother, David, who had suffered a severe illness during which time hospital rules excluded his partner from the ICU as a non-spouse. “You know what this means, don't you?” David asked. “It means [gays] can visit those we love when they're dying in the hospital; it means we're finally treated like family.”

It seems hard understand how such basic affirmation of our common humanity could be anything other than a positive. Yet a spokesperson for the conservative Iowa Family Policy Center, when asked how that group was responding to the court ruling, replied, “I would say the mood is one of mourning right now in a lot of ways.”

Frustration or disappointment is understandable in any political defeat but “mourning” takes things to a whole other level. Apparently, this camp feels it is the one suffering a death in the family. The victim is their traditional values. For some, our nation’s very Way of Life is under attack and in threat of vanishing altogether.

Those who feel this way may well closely identify with the cover story in the current issue of Newsweek, which proclaims, “The End of Christian America.”

The article draws on statistics from the recently published American Religious Identification Survey, which shows the percentage of self-identified Christians in the U.S. has fallen ten points in the past two decades. Meanwhile, the number of self-identified atheists and agnostics has grown fourfold. Non-believers are now bigger than some individual Christian sects but still only a relatively small fraction of the total population.

More troubling for religious conservatives is a separate Pew Forum poll, which found people who say they are unaffiliated with any particular faith doubling in recent years. Unlike atheists, this group believes in God and some of its members consider themselves extremely spiritual. Despite this, they are rejecting contemporary religion in ever-increasing numbers.

Some religious conservatives seem to believe legalizing gay marriage and mainstreaming the homosexual lifestyle are exactly what is responsible for the death of Christianity and traditional morals. “It's a perversion and it opens the door to more perversions. What's next?” asked the Reverend Keith Ratliff Sr. of the Maple Street Baptist Church in Des Moines Iowa.

R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, is absolutely correct when he echoes countless great thinkers throughout history in maintaining, “The moral teachings of Christianity have exerted an incalculable [positive] influence on Western civilization.”

As if on cue, along comes David Brooks in Tuesday’s New York Times to announce the death of philosophy or, at least, ethics. Brooks assures that “many psychologists, cognitive scientists and even philosophers” are eschewing morality as a set of abstract absolutes arrived upon through deliberate reasoning in favor of a more aesthetic or emotionally based model. In such a model, our brains constantly sift through the bombardment of everyday reality “to find what is of value in our environment” and we make value judgments quickly and intuitively.

This view is probably more accurate than many of us would care to admit but arguably less than ideal. Morality may be relative, as individuals apply their separate, unique sets of experiences to new situations. However, morality is not subjective. We may come to divergent but sincere conclusions over supporting, tolerating, or banning gay marriage. In spite of this, gay marriage is not actually moral for some and immoral for others, any more than murder for profit is moral for some and immoral for others.

Morality by gut feel may be what we often practice but we avoid chaos but using generally agreed-upon principles, backed up by careful thought and years of scrutiny and peer review, to help guide us. Jonathan Haidt of the University of Virginia supports this approach to moral choice. He argues that although moral standards have primacy in our day-to-day assessments, they are not dictators.

For most of history, the compilation of moral codes has been the province of religion, among other institutions. While the degree to which we hold moral standards as suggested guidelines versus immutable laws varies by individual, there are critical times in everyone’s lives when we face compelling reasons to override them – most often due to our experiences with other people.

As more homosexuals declare themselves and live openly as gay couples, it becomes more difficult for the rest of us to apply old prejudices and condemnations that seek to demonize them. People often turn to religion to guide them through challenging times but religion has not been particularly responsive on this issue or many other contemporary quandaries. In fact, many view them as the source of the confusion.

Perhaps the most ominous finding by Newsweek polling may be that only forty-eight percent of Americans now think religion “can answer all or most of today's problems.” As little as five years ago, this figure never dipped below sixty percent.

Religion may seek to uncover unchanging Truth but the sheer number of different ones that have popped up over time testifies to the difficulty of this endeavor. Currently, there are more than two hundred religious traditions in the United States.

New religions are constantly being established even as old ones pass away. Some gain popularity for a time only to see it slowly wane. Adherents leave religions while non-believers convert to them. The same person may follow multiple faiths during their lifetime. Whether religion drives society or society drives religion would be a very long and complicated discussion. However, it is clear any religion that ceases to be relevant within the society it operates will eventually wither and die.

Consider Democratic State Representative Albert "Sonny" Audette, who expressed personal sadness during debates in the Vermont legislature at voting against gay marriage. “I am a devout Catholic,” Audette said. “My religion at this point would not want me to vote for this. I wish that I could and I hope for the best and I congratulate the people who are trying to get this through.”

The current disconnect between religion and gay marriage need not be fatal. Religion has repeatedly confronted crisis points in our nation’s relatively short history. As recently as the 1880s, the 1920s, and the 1960s there was talk of the death of God, Christianity, and/or religion. Instead of fading out, religion often emerged all the stronger from these critical junctures, usually as the result of reformation.

Tom Altizer, a liberal Professor of Religion at Emory University, argues such crises are crucial to religious survival because they represent opportunities in which “religions are unshackled from their previous historical grounds.” Consistency is important but doctrine must also retain malleability, lest it no longer seem alive and meaningful.

Unfortunately, too many of the religious of this country have used the challenges of the past twenty years not for reconciliation with a more diverse society but resistance against it. This has included retraction into reactionary fundamentalism as well as plans to join with the Republican Party to bring about more social conservatism and increased religiosity in public life, usually under the soubriquet of a return to America’s greatness.

Rather then ennobling politics, the latter has only pulled down religion toward politics’ tendency to corrupt with power. Even Mohler, the Baptist leader, admits the religious right “invested far too much hope in a political solution to what are transpolitical issues and problems.”

By holding up religion as a shield to apologize for their own prejudices and fears or using outmoded doctrines as a weapon to oppose basic fairness, conservatives have generally failed in their objectives and tarnished religion far more than the targets of their attacks.

Republican State Representative Duncan Kilmartin explained people who oppose same-sex marriage fear they will have their beliefs impinged upon by the law. “You do not have the right to demand that we approve same-sex marriage, even if you pass a law saying it's the law of Vermont,” he declared.

However, gay marriage laws do not mandate universal approval, only acceptance or toleration. Courts ruling in favor of gay marriage have not sought to advance a minority agenda so much as protect a minority from the agendas, intentional and otherwise, of the majority.

In its historic decision, the Iowa State Supreme Court wrote, “We are firmly convinced the exclusion of gay and lesbian people from the institution of civil marriage does not substantially further any important governmental objective. The Legislature has excluded a historically disfavored class of persons from a supremely important civil institution without a constitutionally sufficient justification.”

Furthermore, the court noted the things denied to gays are more basic and go deeper than certain legal rights, insurance benefits, or tax advantages. “Perhaps the ultimate disadvantage expressed in the testimony of the plaintiffs is the inability to obtain for themselves and for their children the personal and public affirmation that accompanies marriage.”

In Vermont, Republican State Representative Rick Hube explained that he was voting for gay marriage precisely due to his conservative, libertarian values. “This to me is not about religion, civil rights or the institution of marriage. This to me is about being true to a set of principles. People should have the opportunity to make choices and have control over their own lives.”

David Brooks notes, “[Americans] don’t just care about our individual rights or even the rights of other individuals. We also care about loyalty, respect, traditions, religions. We are all the descendents of successful cooperators.”

This sense of cooperation and community is the heritage of religion every bit as much as secular democracy. How have the two become so discordant? The religious fundamentalists are wrong to place the blame on democracy.

Gay marriage does not signal the decline of Christianity, traditional values, the American Way of Life, or anything else. Instead, the intolerance shown by its opponents is slowly poisoning the very things they most wish to save. More and more Americans find such fear and hate inconsistent with their own experiences and relationships with homosexual family members, friends, and acquaintances.

If religious conservatives do not want to attend a death and funeral for their own values, they need to steel themselves to begin attending gay weddings.