Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Gays, Churches, and Religious Exemptions to Practice Discrimination: Centrist Argument Revisited as Third Way Calls for Common Ground

The meme that just won't die in American political life: that there's some kind of "center" in which the conflicting (in many cases, irreconcilable) claims of this side and that side can meet in some sweet harmony that permits all of us to prescind from weighing those conflicting claims and determining if some of them are right and others wrong. This is a meme developed always to give cover to those who want to keep alive William F. Buckley's classic definition of conservatism as standing athwart history and yelling Stop.

Centrism, as it has developed in the power-brokering centers of government and culture and the beltway media that serve the interests of those centers, is about finding ways to make the yelling Stop appear respectable, even when it's clearly, eminently disreputable. Centrism, as it's currently practiced at the political center of the U.S., is a stop-gap technique of political control (and political legerdemain) which demands that the rest of us pretend that factually insupportable or ethically untenable positions of those on the hard, resistant right are respectable positions, even when they're flat wrong.

The Hobby Lobby ruling of the five Supreme Catholic men was a centrist ruling. It winks at, and calls on the rest of us to wink at, too, the absurd pretensions of the Green family as they claim, contrary to scientific consensus, that emergency contraceptives are abortifacients, and as they maintain that their sincerity is beyond reproach even when their insurance plan covered the very same "abortifacients" to which they now object, before the Obama administration offered us the Affordable Care Act with its contraceptive mandate. 

Centrism has never really left us, even in this age of purported Obamaian liberalism gone wild and pink and lavender mafias riding roughshod over the sensibilities of hard-working, virtuous middle Americans. It's back in the news today in the area of gay rights, on full, preening display in the claims of a group calling itself the Third Way, which wanted, darn it, for left and right to meet in sweet accord in the "debate" about religious exemptions for those sincerely opposed to hiring gay folks in federal programs. Which is to say, the Third Way wanted the left to yield to the claims of faith-based groups on the right that, if their clamor for religious exemptions from laws prohibiting discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation is sincere enough, these claims should be entertained and accommodated.

Because. Because they say so. 

And so, as Molly Ball reports in The Atlantic, Lanae Erickson Hatalsky of Third Way tells her, 

The religious exemption debate has now been polarized to the point where people are saying, "All or nothing."

A statement with which David Gibson ends his commentary yesterday on the executive order signed by the president forbidding discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation in federally funded programs . . . . (And see Sarah Posner's good report on the Third Way proposal today at Religion Dispatches.)

"All or nothing," as opposed to finding a "center" that allows us (or, more precisely, some of us) a bit of this or that . . . . "All or nothing," as opposed to finding a "center" that graciously delivers to people hungry for justice a taste of justice, a little slice from the loaf, while those cutting and offering the slice to groups denied justice own the entire loaf . . . . 

Though Martin Luther King famously (and rightly) observes, in his Letter from Birmingham Jail, that "justice too long delayed is justice denied" — echoing, well, the source of the statement that justice delayed is justice denied is much-debated, though the aphorism has long circulated in legal documents . . . .  

Justice is the baby that the "center" can't possibly split in half without killing it. There's no such thing as partial justice or a little bit of justice, just as there's no such thing as a smidgeon of human rights: the very diminution of both terms, the splitting of the baby in either case, kills their rhetorical force. It kills their meaning, since there's simply no such thing as justice delayed.

There's either justice or its absence, just as there's either human rights or the denial of human rights.

Everything in this discussion depends, of course, on who comprises the "center." Everything depends on who's admitted into the sacred space of the center.

If you're the person dispensing the taste of bread to the hungry — the single slice from the loaf that you own in its entirety — the proposal that "they" wait to be fed and stop clamoring for a whole loaf for themselves might sound eminently reasonable. If you're not hungry, that is . . . . 

If you haven't been hungry for a long time, waiting for that tiny slice of bread . . . . 

But if you're the person standing in line for decades with your hand stretched out, waiting to be fed, you might see this debate about who determines the definition of justice in slightly different terms from those who have long been well-fed and have controlled the sacred, bit-of-bread-dispensing space of the "center." An observation that, it strikes me, Jesus himself reinforces — just a little bit — when he proclaims that our salvation depends on seeing him in the homeless, the dispossessed, the hungry and thirsty, the prisoner, the sick and dying . . . .  

Not in those who occupy the center and own and control the whole loaf of bread, to whom he says, well, "Take a gander at Lazarus and Abraham and decide how you want to live your lives" . . . . 

As Fred Clark notes, commenting on the Third Way's centrist proposal to delay justice when people of faith have objections to according justice, isn't it interesting that the church always seems to want to find a "third way" when decisions about justice are at hand? Fred cites Alan Bean, who writes

Logically, the churches of the segregated South had to decide whether to accept or reject the civil rights movement. Instead, denominational officials crafted tepid resolutions affirming Brown v. Board of Education or the Voting Rights Act and calling for racial harmony. Contrary-minded congregations (and they were legion) were not drummed out of the denomination for refusing to open their churches to African American Christians. SBC [i.e., Southern Baptist Convention] pastors weren’t forced to sign off on racial equality to remain in good standing. 
Instead, the SBC, with other evangelical denominations in the South, adopted a Third Way approach in which the subject of race was avoided whenever possible, ostensibly in the interest of keeping the focus where it belonged – on saving souls. 
… When moral issues are hotly contested there will always be three ways (at the very least): traditional, progressive and uncomfortable.*

When moral issues are hotly contested there will always be three ways (at the very least): traditional, progressive and uncomfortable

But justice delayed is justice denied. And those who hunger for justice will be satisfied — or so says the same person who told us that Lazarus ends up in the bosom of Abraham after Dives fails repeatedly to see Lazarus lying hungry at the gate of his rich mansion. While Dives ends up in torment . . . .

And so says the same person who assures us that if we can't limn his features in Lazarus and fellow human beings like Lazarus, we're likely to end up with Dives ourselves . . . .

* Bean is actually arguing for a third way, though I think Fred Clark is absolutely right to point out that his statements here rather strongly subvert his argument.

The graphic is from David Levine at Chicago Policy Review.

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