Tuesday, March 18, 2014

As Promised: My Perspective on the "Religious Freedom" Argument That Christian Florists and Bakers Should Enjoy a "Right" to Discriminate

Okay, I’m going to bite the bullet and write (again) about the “religious freedom” argument that Christian florists and Christian bakers who object to selling their wares to gays should be accommodated. Because scruples. Because conscience. Because God and because religious freedom.

I’ve promised Greg and Conrad in comments here to post something that tries to sum up my own position about these matters. I’ve dragged my feet about fulfilling that promise for all kinds of reasons. 

Perhaps foremost among them is that my feelings are very much implicated in this “debate,” and they’re tender. I find that when my feelings are tender and implicated in a public debate, I don’t handle discussion well. 

And so I’ll confess from the outset, I find it dismaying—and anger-making and pain-provoking—that we’re even having this “debate” about the “rights” of Christian florists and bakers to discriminate. Since this is where I find myself at a feeling level and a thinking level, I lack much patience for said “debate.” 

I think, quite frankly, that it’s a manufactured debate (hence the quotation marks when I’ve been using the word). I find it as unconvincing as I find any “debate” about the right of people to refuse services or goods to fellow citizens on racial grounds.

I’m not inclined to debate the latter “right,” and because I gave up entertaining that debate sometime around, oh, 1960, I’m peeved and amazed that people who consider themselves reasonable and important members of my culture’s commentariat now want to pretend that the same debate refashioned around the claim that there’s a “right” to discriminate in the area of sexual orientation (because conscience) is worth having.

And that those pushing for this debate today are not a 21st-century version of the very same people who pushed for the very same kind of debate in the 20th century, when the issue was the “right” to racial discrimination due to sincerely held religious convictions. I fully understand why the rational and important people defending the “right” of Christian florists and bakers to discriminate don’t want to be compared to the bigots who defended race-based discrimination on religious grounds.

But I don’t honor that invidious distinction and the people making it, who for some time now have done everything in their power to pretend that 1) the racism defended by white Southerners did not cite the bible and religious warrants to prop itself up, 2) that insofar as that racism of those ignorant Southerners was religiously propped up, it has nothing to do with us reasonable and important people today, and 3) that we reasonable and important people today are q.e.d. a people apart from those ignorant bible-believing Southerners, as we defend the religious “right” of people to engage in anti-gay discrimination. 

As you can see, I have feelings. I have feelings about having been forced to struggle through this debate early in my life, when the issue was the “right” to racial discrimination (because God), and then being told—by people who claim the former debate was illicit and a glorious waste of our culture’s time—that this new debate is worth having.

Because they just can’t be bigots. Since they’re not ignorant bible-believing Southerners. My God, many of them are Catholics, for Pete's sake! And so their bigotry is something other than the bigotry of those people. It’s honorable. It’s rational. 

I have feelings about the fact that the testimony of people like me (and I’m far from alone in offering such testimony), who lived through the first debate and whose lives are intimately implicated in the second one, counts for nothing. Since what those people in the South say or think or what they’ve lived through just never did have much bearing on what we reasonable and important people who fashion opinion for all the rest of you think.

It’s rather difficult to engage a public debate, even one keenly important to one’s own life, when one knows from the outset that nothing one says will be taken very seriously. That one’s voice won’t be heard. 

That it counts for nothing in the eyes of the reasonable and important people staging the debate. Because of where one was born, where one lives, what kind of history one drags around on one's back.

The feelings that flow from this recognition of one’s marginality don’t conduce to any great eagerness to talk, to share, to respond seriously to people who have made the fateful assumption, from the outset of a debate, that the testimony of some groups of people is to be declared off-limits. Even when that testimony has clear bearing on the debate. But because of who those marginalized people happen to be, where they were born, the particular weight of history they happen to bear on their shoulders.

Since only what reasonable and important people think or say counts in the end, as "we" debate weighty matters like the question of whether Christian florists and bakers ought to be afforded rights to discriminate against gay citizens on grounds of religious belief and conscience. Since, you understand, we’re now having a reasonable and important debate about these matters.

Whereas the one we had just over fifty years ago regarding the “right” to discriminate on religiously propped up racial grounds was neither reasonable nor important. Because it featured a group of people who are not reasonable and important.

Unlike us.

If anyone wants to know, here’s what one of the unreasonable and unimportant people who has lived through both of these spurious “debates” about spurious issues of “religious freedom” thinks: I think that the history of American democracy is a history of the painful, tortuous attempt of some groups within our democracy to claim that the rights and privileges that white, property-owning males have  taken for granted from the inception of the American experiment should be extended to others.

Our American democratic experiment first fought through the question of whether non-property-owning white males should enjoy rights and privileges equal to those of white property-owning men. When that question had been resolved (in a way: men who own things still matter far, far more in our society than men who don’t), we moved on to questions about slavery, about its abolition, then about the enfranchisement of people of color. We spent a century “debating” these issues. 

Truth be told, many of us still regard them as open for debate. Many of us—and they are to be found everywhere in the U.S.—still do not think that people with darker pigmentation should be regarded as equal to those with lighter complexions, and whether through withholding economic and educational advantages or through attempting outright disfranchisement, many of us want to continue to block the attempt of people of color to claim the same rights and privileges that white male property owners have always taken for granted.

After we chose to enfranchise women—again, at the cost of great struggle, especially to those women courageous enough to agitate for their rights—we have continued to “debate” questions of women’s full equality right to the very present, as many of us bitterly resist the right of women to enjoy contraceptive coverage in healthcare plans, while there is no question at all about the right of men to have erectile-dysfunction drugs and penis pumps covered in the very same plans—at great expense to all of us participating in insurance exchanges.

The history of American democracy is the history of tortuous, never-ending battles to try to provide to groups other than white male property owners the same rights and privileges taken for granted from the outset by white men who own things. These battles have always been bitter, painful, twisted, full of reversals.

They have always been bitter, painful, twisted, and full of reversals, because white men who own things seem, historically, curiously inclined to resent the intrusion of anyone into their club of power and privilege. As a result, at each juncture of American history as new questions arise about the extension of power and privilege to a newly clamorous outsider group, white men who own things invent problems.

They spur “debates.” They kick. They scream. They hold the door fast shut.

While characterizing everyone else as irrational and unimportant.

And you know what? I don’t see what’s happening today with gay rights as different in the least from any of the previous instances in American history when white (heterosexual) men who own things discovered new “debates” about the rights and privileges of others as a new outsider group demanded its rights, and white property-owning males reacted as if the extension of rights and privileges to others curtailed their own rights and privileges. And invented new "debates" to try to hold the extension of rights to the new group at bay. 

And, yes, it’s true that I’m a white man who owns a few things. And so, throughout my life, I have enjoyed all the power and privilege afforded to white men who own things.

But I also happen to be a gay white man who owns a few things. And that makes my perspective on these issues a world away from the perspective of many other white men who own things. It makes my perspective on the behavior of white heterosexual men who own things strongly critical, since I'm close enough to the club to glimpse what goes on behind its closed doors, and yet different enough--different in an all-important way that has definitively shut the doors of the club to me throughout my entire life--to be inclined to see things in an entirely different way.

And it leads me to wonder why, whether the question is rights for women or rights for people of color or rights for gay and lesbian human beings, one can predictably count on one single group to stand in the door and invent “debates” about those rights—just as one can count on people who benefit from the power and privilege of white heterosexual males (including some women and some gay men) to cheer them on as they invent those “debates.”

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