Thursday, April 24, 2014

The Argument for Tolerance for Those Opposing Marriage Equality on Grounds of Religion and Tradition: A Critical Response

Jonathan Rauch argues for tolerance for those sincerely opposing same-sex marriage on religious grounds by noting that "[v]irtually all human societies, including our own until practically the day before yesterday, took as a given that combining the two sexes was part of the essence of marriage." He also bases his appeal for tolerance in the assertion that "opposition to gay marriage has deep religious roots."

Rauch rejects the claim that opposing marriage equality is akin to opposition to racial integration and interracial marriage in the past because "[y]ou don’t expect thousands of years of unquestioned moral and social tradition to be relinquished overnight" — though that's, of course, precisely what white Southern Christians argued when we were pressed by abolitionists to give up our slaves and then later told that the adamantine color line we'd drawn with Jim Crow laws was immoral and unbiblical.

We responded by citing the thousands of years of unquestioned moral and social tradition, grounded in sincerely held religious beliefs propped up by the scriptures, which not only took slavery for granted but blessed it. We noted that the radicals calling on us to jettison our sincerely held religious beliefs that had deep roots running all through Christian history were attacking the historical basis of Western Christian civilization.

And we were wrong. Not about what Christians had believed for almost two thousand years, nor about what the bible said. We were wrong about what's central and perduring in the Christian tradition, and how that tradition ought to intersect with civil law and with cultural norms. 

I read Jonathan Rauch's argument for tolerating religiously based opposition to same-sex marriage, which rests on the three prongs of 1) respect for what appears always to have been, 2) respect for sincerely held religious beliefs, and 3) distortion or ignorance of the argument long used by white Southern Christians to defend racism, and I think of Karen Armstrong in Spiral Staircase (NY: Random House, 2004):

Since Auschwitz, the civilized West had become the culture that had massacred its Jewish inhabitants, and this act of genocide tarnished all our other achievements. If we had cultivated a vicious hatred of both Judaism and Islam for so many centuries, what other mistakes had we made and what other misapprehensions had we nurtured? (p. 257).

If we had cultivated a vicious hatred of both Judaism and Islam for so many centuries, what other mistakes had we made and what other misapprehensions had we nurtured? If we were wrong from the very beginning of Christianity about Judaism — if our foundational texts, the Christian scriptures themselves, deliberately bowdlerize Jewish beliefs and distort Jewish practices in order to justify the break of church and synagogue — about what else may we have been wrong over the long course of Christian history? (I'm not by any means discounting or intending to ignore Armstrong's observations about the relationship of Christianity to Islam, which perhaps have even sharper significance for us at this point in history than abut the historical relationship of Christianity to Judaism. I'm focusing on Judaism because anti-semitism is explicitly rooted in the scriptures in the very same way that homophobia is explicitly rooted in the scriptures.)

Our "wrongness" about Judaism has borne bitter fruit over the entire course of Christian history, none so bitter as the mass murder of millions of Jews in the last century, because, after all, "opposition to the Jews has deep religious roots" and in all Western Christian societies, "including our own until practically the day before yesterday," the charge that the Jewish people put Christ to death and deserved condemnation as a result was taken for granted as part of the very fabric of Christian belief and of Western culture. 

We were wrong. We were spectacularly wrong about Judaism and the "right" of Christians to persecute Jews.

We were spectacularly wrong about slavery and racism.

And so I wonder how and why the argument that people who oppose same-sex marriage because their opposition is rooted in sincerely held religious convictions and because the notion that marriage requires two genders is deeply rooted in the thinking of many cultures over the course of history ought to be compelling in a new and different way — when we were spectacularly wrong about anti-semitism, slavery, and racism. And about misogyny and the humanity and human rights of women, for that matter — of which the question of gay humanity and gay rights is a sub-question, since it's ultimately against the rights of women that the straight white Christian men to whom Rauch and his colleagues want to give a pass are fervently fighting as they kick gay folks in the teeth.

I wonder, too, what a close analysis of the list of signatories to the "Freedom to Marry, Freedom to Dissent" document would reveal if we looked at it through the lens of gender and race — but, above all, if we looked at the ways in which those signing the document connect to powerful cultural, political, academic, and economic elites that exercise disproportionate influence on public conversations, determining who will be inside those conversations and who declared the outsider, what kind of testimony counts and what kind is to be disallowed out of hand.

My own instinct is, I'll freely admit, to trust principled outsiders like Karen Armstrong (and other women theologians engaging the Christian tradition in a critical way today) as I look at the deplorable history of my own Christian tradition, and as I hear people who are much more committed to bolstering up insider elites tell me to respect longstanding tradition because it is, after all, longstanding tradition. Or as I hear the same sorts of people tell me that, if longstanding tradition is propped up by appeals to sincerely held religious belief, I ought to respect it all the more. Because religion, for godssake.

After Auschwitz (or Selma and Montgomery and Memphis), I wonder how anyone presses such arguments with a straight face. Or why anyone imagines such arguments and the people whose interests they serve ought to be given a special pass —because history, because religion! — when, as a culture, we've rightly decided to put behind us the very same kind of arguments after they issued in Auschwitz and Selma and Montgomery and Memphis, etc.

Because religion, because history, falls on my years after Auschwitz and Selma, Montgomery, and Memphis as an argument that is no kind of argument at all. 

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