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Same sex marriage, anti-gay theologies, and the demands of a politics of equal respect


In response to this week’s related discussion, Damon Linker investigates an important question: “Who are the real gay marriage bigots?” The answer, it turns out, appears to be “everyone but Damon Linker.” Rather than a point by point response, I’m going to try to think a bit more generally about the question “How should we respond to deep differences about the right and the good in society?” Apologies for the excessive length.

First, some common ground. Linker is surely correct that there is absolutely no guarantee that illiberal interventions into the free exercise of religion aren’t a possible future outcome. Furthermore, he’s actually correct in noting a ‘troubling trans-Atlantic trend’ to restrict religious freedom, since Quebec and France do indeed span the Atlantic Ocean. What’s notably missing from Linker’s posts on the subject is an actual example from United States, a country with a much stronger tradition of legal protection for free religious expression. That said, there is nothing magical about supporters of full rights and equal citizenship for GLBT people that renders them incapable of illiberal overreach, supporting illegitimate use of the coercive power of the state against those who disagree. Because it’s not happening now, and Linker is wrong to insinuate it’s some sort of ‘trend’, doesn’t mean it is not possible it could occur. I do think, for the likes of Douthat and Dreher in particular, the exaggerated worries about this nonexistent trend stems from a fair amount of projection: the political movement of which they are a part has long been perfectly happy to abuse their majority to inflict illiberal limits on the rights of GLBTs, and they have a difficult time imagining others exercising the restraint they and their political allies did not exercise(Douthat more or less admits this in his post yesterday).

Taking a step further back: We share a plural, liberal democracy (or something I wish were that) where we disagree fundamentally about both the right and the good. Like Linker, I assume this is an inevitable and permanent feature of our polity: will continue to live in a society where disagreements serious and deep differences about foundational moral, ethical, and political issues are a permanent feature. To be a good citizen of such a world requires accepting this fact, and recognizing that political goals should often be constructed around the terms of coexistence rather than winning. Part of being a good citizen in a society marked by deep disagreement is described by Jacob Levy as “Multicultural manners,” which can be read as a kind of virtue theory for a multicultural society. Without endorsing all arguments made in the paper, this seems important and correct: part of being a good citizen in a multicultural society is  “to behave with manners is to give way, to some degree. It is to relax some claim to which one would be entitled.” Generosity; knowing when to hold one’s tongue, suspending public acknowledgement of judgment of others—these are all features of interpersonal manners, and something equivalent to them should probably be part of intergroup manners as well.

All that said, anyone in such a society will ultimately have to choose how to respond to all manner of cultures and practices that stem from a moral code with which you have deep moral disagreement. In such cases, we can respond in one of three ways broadly speaking:

First, some moral and cultural difference we should be indifferent to, or possibly even celebrate. Different options, ways of living, and communities oriented around different conceptions of the good enhance freedom, after all, as they give those who find one way stifling more places to go. (The difference between difference as neutral and difference as a positive good is relevant for some policy questions, but not this one, so I’m grouping them together here). A good pluralist will want to put as many groups as possible here, and subject their own temptation to move groups into another category to serious scrutiny. Call this response A (celebrate /ignore).

Second, other differences are simply intolerable in a liberal society. For such groups, the use of the coercive power of the state to either radically transform or eradicate the practice or norm is not merely justifiable but perhaps necessary for the preservation of liberal pluralism. Groups here engage in practices central to their identity that are directly utterly toxic to basic human rights or democratic citizenship. Obvious examples here include criminal organizations and abusive, brainwashing cults like Heaven’s Gate, although this can also include practices and social forms that are deeply embedded in mainstream society (Nehru and many of his allies attempted to put untouchability in this category at India’s founding, for instance). Call this response B (prohibit/eradicate).

So far, much of the debate has taken place as if these are the only two options. But there’s a third way of responding to difference that’s been generally ignored. In the third response, best reserved for people are practicing their freedom in ways that are, clearly, harmful to others, both within their group and in the general society, and have the effect of conditioning their exercise of freedom, but in ways that don’t reach the (very high) bar for response B. How should we, as citizens, respond to such groups? Fortunately, there are ways to influence and attempt to bring about change in such groups that do not require the coercive power of the state. Such non-state methods include attempting to diminish the broader cultural acceptance of the practice or belief in question; to point out directly and pointedly the error of the particular practice with respect to larger, more important values they hold. Part of living together in a liberal democracy is tolerance and respect of difference, giving way and holding one’s tongue (that’s the liberal side). But another part, more directly associated with the democratic side, is critically engaging our shared moral and ethical principles in the hopes of better shaping them to enhance freedom and serve other goals we hold as part of the common good. Call this response C (influence).

This schema may be useful, but it doesn’t answer hard questions for us. Any scheme or heuristic used to sort groups and practices into these three categories is bound to fail from time to time: we will be tempted to respond in the third way (or perhaps even the second) to differences we should have left alone or even celebrated. We will fail to recognize the dangers of seemingly benign practices. And while the decision to engage in response C isn’t as dangerous for liberal democracy as B, it isn’t free of danger either: if done too much or too frequently, it could become an abusive tool detrimental to a culture of toleration and mutual respect. I’m not going to propose a sorting scheme here, because this post is already too long and I’m not sure could really sketch an outline of one anyway. Instead I’ll explain and defend response C for anti-gay theologies.

Another tricky issue here is the role of the state. Broadly speaking, the state is central in response B and non-state efforts comprise response C. But C might use the state in limited, non-coercive ways. For example, we might create a state run program to fund psychiatric care, shelter, suicide prevention services, and so on, for one of the most pernicious externalities of anti-gay theology: GLBT teens in crisis due to family rejection. Insofar as such services would involve doing what they’re parents wouldn’t or couldn’t for theological reasons—affirming their self-worth and identity—they would frustrate the efforts of such groups to impart their teachings to another generation; enhancing exit weakens the capacity of a group over its least powerful members. Nevertheless, despite this impact, it couldn’t be construed as ‘coercive’ in any reasonable sense of the term. But other state actions—stripping tax exempt status, for example—might reasonably be considered boundary cases between type C responses and type B.

In Damon Linker’s previous posts about this issue try to claim he’s worried about a ‘trend’ of SSM proponents trying muster up the resources to respond to anti-gay Christianity in a type B way, but he never can come up with any actual examples occurring in the United States. His latest column suggests what I’ve long suspected: he (and Dreher, Douthat, and Friedersdorf) don’t want to see anti-gay theologies responded to in the type C way. In choosing to do so, we are guilty of (at a minimum) bad multicultural manners in Levy’s sense. That’s certainly what I take him to be getting at here:

But I’m also troubled by the equally stunning lack of charity, magnanimity, and tolerance displayed by many gay-marriage advocates….They don’t just want to win the legal right to marry. They don’t just want most Americans to recognize and affirm the equal dignity of their relationships. They appear to want and expect all Americans to recognize and affirm that equal dignity, under penalty of ostracism from civilized life.

That is an unacceptable, illiberal demand.

I’m reading this as a plea that good liberal citizenship demands a type A, not a type C response to anti-gay theologies. Here are two reasons why I find this to be wrong:

First, this teaching leads directly to illiberal demands on all of society. For the entirety of the debate so far, opponents of same sex marriage have repeatedly argued that other people—people who are not members of their congregations—have basic equal freedoms is utterly incompatible with their own religious freedom with respect to their teachings. Douthat’s “terms of our surrender” talk has a problem: you don’t get to waive a white flag while your army is ignoring you and charging forward. They’ve lost some battles, but they’re winning some, too: most recently successfully killing ENDA in Congress. They show no signs or interest in surrendering, and they’ve successfully convinced themselves that illiberal demands on the rest of society are absolutely necessary to the practice of their own religious freedom. Perhaps this will change, but for now, we have some pretty good reasons to believe that as long as broad swathes of the population believe that GLBT people are less than full and equal citizens, and the families they form are flawed, the fundamental rights of GLBT citizens will remain precarious. (And while continued forward progress on GLBT rights may seem inevitable now, a look around the world will quickly show that it would be foolish to treat it as necessarily permanent). This shouldn’t be surprising: evangelical Protestantism has long sought broad political and social influence. If they were like, say, the Amish–abandoning any interest in cultural and political influence are truly asking to be left alone, this reason to move anti-gay theology from A to C wouldn’t exist (and the tactics wouldn’t work, either), but the as a group evangelicals have never been interested in merely being left alone to live as they wish. Taking what they claim about the necessary conditions for the exercise of their religious freedom in this area seriously leads to the conclusion that ant-gay theologies aren’t consistent with equal freedom for GLBT people. They’re unwilling to untangle their conception of the good from the right, and I can’t make them. Once they are motivated by anti-gay theology to deny GLBT citizens full rights. So far, at least, undermining the motivation has been much more successful than challenging the link between motivation and illiberal political demands.

The second and more important reason involves a deeper consideration of what treating people with respect means. Respect and deference overlap a great deal, but they aren’t synonyms. Linker assumes that we put anti-gay theology in category C rather than A because I don’t sufficiently respect those committed to it, or think they’re bad people, deserving of the punishment of shaming and ostracization. I have no doubt such motives exist, but they’re not ubiquitous. Indeed, they should be ashamed of themselves, because they’ve succumbed to their worst impulses, while ignoring their best. One of the shared values of our society is strong, loving and supportive families. At their best and when working well, families condition and enhance freedom in an important and positive way, providing support, encouragement, and acceptance. Strong families, conservatives rightly remind us, are an essential part of how we socialize and shape the next generation of democratic citizenship. So what effect does their theology have on families?

GLBT people are distributed widely across the population. This means that as long a significant portion of the population holds anti-gay theological beliefs, a significant portion of GLBT people will be raised by those who believe they are fundamentally disordered and unworthy of full and equal citizenship. We don’t have to guess what the effects of this are:

Higher rates of family rejection were significantly associated with poorer health outcomes. On the basis of odds ratios, lesbian, gay, and bisexual young adults who reported higher levels of family rejection during adolescence were 8.4 times more likely to report having attempted suicide, 5.9 times more likely to report high levels of depression, 3.4 times more likely to use illegal drugs, and 3.4 times more likely to report having engaged in unprotected sexual intercourse compared with peers from families that reported no or low levels of family rejection.

LGBT youth continue to be disproportionately represented among homeless youth in our country, and their experiences of homelessness continue to be characterized by violence, discrimination, poor health, and unmet needs. Family rejection, harassment in schools, and the shortcomings of juvenile justice and child welfare continue to drive these elevated rates of homelessness. And all the while, federal funding for essential services to the well-being of these youth has remained stagnant.

There’s a trade-off here, when it comes to equal respect. If equal respect demands I refrain from criticizing or promoting the abandonment of anti-gay theologies, then I cannot grant equal respect for holders of such theologies and their future GLBT children at the same time. Anti-gay theology effectively turns each child into a potential time bomb, set to go off at some point during adolescence. In many cases, that bomb is defused before it goes off. Precisely because most people who hold anti-gay theological beliefs are good people who love their children, in many cases the damage is ultimately contained.  When people are forced choose between a bit of religious dogma and being a good parent to their children, they usually eventually choose the latter. But unlearning a deeply held life-long belief takes time, and that’s precisely what isn’t available—gay teens need parental acceptance at this moment in their development, not in a few years, once their parents have worked through the necessary unlearning. Paul and Linda Robertson’s story speaks movingly and tragically about the timetable issue: they were on their way to the necessary changes in their own views but, tragically, they were too slow to allow them to be the parents their child needed. That anti-gay theological and political views are frequently abandoned by those who come learn someone close to them is gay or lesbian suggests they are not as deeply held or integral to a Christian identity and worldview as is often claimed. This doesn’t show that Christians are bad people, it shows that they’re good people. Encouraging them to hasten the speed with which they abandon these beliefs, such that they’re not scrambling to do so in time to be good parents to their children, need not be characterized as an act of hostility toward these communities.

Conservative Christians who hold anti-gay theological beliefs aren’t foreign to me. I grew up with them, and have some of them in my own family. In a couple of cases, I’ve known their gay children, and seen just a hint of the gruesome psychological toll finding oneself in that position can take. Promoters of anti-gay theologies generally don’t face up to the consequences for GLBT children of the ideas they promote. They often claim proper parenting technique can prevent GLBT children from existing in the first instance, or that same sex attraction can be effectively fixed in some way. These beliefs only further the harm anti-gay theologies inflict on children, but they also serve as a way to avoid considering the real dangers to one’s own family these theologies present. This put parents in a worse position to make the necessary changes in a timely fashion; unaware of the costs and dangers of their own commitment.

Being a good fellow citizen of a liberal, plural democracy isn’t just about refraining from judgment about or promoting change in others values. It requires a good deal of that, but it also require a willingness to recognize we do have, to a real extent, a shared culture with shared values, and we’re not indifferent to each other’s well-being. Recognizing this requires exceptions to the general rules of tolerance—driven by both concern and respect. This is one of those occasions.

Update: missing link added for Paul and Linda  Robertson; their story is a powerful one, and an excellent example of how in many cases GLBT teens suffer not just from parents who are themselves cruel, but from loving parents wielding cruel doctrines.

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