Saturday, December 13, 2008

The Human Rights Shell Game and the Churches: Gay Is the New Black

The Catholic world is abuzz today with interest in human rights.

Selective interest in selective human rights.

As John Allen points out in his latest column at National Catholic Reporter, “senior church officials” are now intent on using language about racism and slavery as they combat abortion ( That is, they’re spinning the churches' resistance to abortion (and gay rights) as a new abolitionist movement akin to the 19th-century movement of a minority of prophetic Christians to overcome slavery.

This rhetoric comes on the heels of the Obama election, in which 1) the “official” political tactic of the U.S. Catholic bishops was resoundingly rejected by a majority of Catholics who refused to vote Republican, and 2) the role of African-American voters who supported Obama but voted against gay rights in California and Florida is eliciting international attention.

Having lost the election, so to speak—having failed to get Catholics to vote Republican—the bishops intend now to capitalize on what seems to be a neuralgic divide among progressives, the black-gay divide. The fundamental, recurring political tactic of the big men on top, their reflex action when they feel their power threatened or waning, is always to exploit division. It’s always to find and probe and widen any division they can successfully utilize in the ranks of those they need to conquer and control.

Case in point: on 11 December, Catholic bishop of Orlando, Florida, Thomas Wenski published a statement in the Lakeland, Florida, Ledger in which he argues that people of faith must change the mind of Americans about the human status of the unborn in the same way that a prophetic minority of believers did re: people of color in the slave period ( The Supreme Court upheld slavery in its Dred Scott decision by defining slaves as “less than persons.” Changing the nation’s mind about slavery required fashioning a national consensus that slaves are every bit as human as are all other human beings.

Bishop Wenski does not leave it at that. In his eagerness to compare himself to a contemporary abolitionist, he is intent on getting in a little dig—a malicious little divide-and-conquer dig—against those who deplore many believers’ resistance to gay rights. He notes that the same folks who elected Mr. Obama voted, in Florida and California, to “preserve in law the traditional understanding of marriage . . . .”

This dig is significant. It is part of a wider strategy of the big men on top to deepen the division between people of color, whose rights are justified, these churchmen want to argue, and gay people, whose claim to human rights is illegitimate. As I’ve noted here in previous postings, for key religious leaders of central Florida—including Episcopal bishop John W. Howe, United Methodist bishop Timothy Whittaker, and Bishop Wenski himself—this is a clearly discernible divide-and-conquer strategy, one increasingly evident in national strategies of believers on the right: endorse the aspirations of people of color, elevate select and useful members of “good” minority groups such as African Americans and women to positions of power, while stepping hard on gay and lesbian persons (

As I’ve previously noted, during the recent election, Bishop Wenski went so far as to state that he wants to keep the divisive culture wars of previous decades alive, as he appeals to people of faith to continue opposing the aspirations of gay persons to human rights, to full personhood (

The divide-and-conquer strategy of Bishop Wenski and his cronies is a dangerous one, when one looks carefully at the historical analogy they want to push. First, there’s the inescapable fact that official Catholic teaching did not condemn, but supported, slavery. As John Allen notes, as late as 1866, the Vatican’s doctrinal office stated, “Slavery itself, considered as such in its essential nature, is not at all contrary to the natural and divine law.”

Second, there’s the eerie parallel between the Vatican’s behavior towards slaves then and its treatment of gays now. Note the basis of the Vatican’s argument on behalf of slavery: slavery is upheld by natural law, which divine law stamps with its seal of approval. In opposing slavery, one is setting oneself against the laws of nature, which are the laws of the Creator.

This is precisely the argument being used against gay persons and our appeal for rights today: nature condemns gay sex and gay marriage, and demonstrates that marriage is made for one man and one woman whose biological complementarity allows them to procreate. Divine law echoes nature in forbidding homosexuality and gay marriage.

The church sometimes appears to learn little over the centuries—little except to resist wherever the appeal for full human rights is most urgent in any given period of history. People of faith resisting gay rights today are not behaving in any shape, form, or fashion like new abolitionists. They are behaving precisely as the majority of believers, who resisted the human rights of people of color then as strongly as they resist the human rights of gay people today, behaved when confronted with arguments that slaves were fully human.

The abolitionists sought to claim rights for others, not deny them, as churchmen today are doing with gay persons. The abolitionists were a prophetic minority of believers opposing not only slavery but the consensus of the moral majority of their time.

Now, over a century and a half after the issue of slavery was resolved—in favor of the human rights resisted by the majority of believers—the big men on top in the churches that resisted abolition and then resisted integration want to tell us they have always been on the side of human rights? Human rights for everyone?

Now, when there is no price to pay, when fighting for the rights of a persecuted minority as the majority of our fellow believers condemn us no longer requires costly grace, we want to convince people that we stand for human rights? And have always done so?

Even as we do to gay people today what our forebears did to people of color—in the name of God—in the past? That argument of the Dred Scott decision—slavery is licit because slaves are less than persons: how is it any different from what the churches say to gay human beings today? How can the church claim that it stands for human rights everywhere while denying human rights to gay persons, without insinuating that gay human beings are an exception to the rule, as people of color were in the past?

Ultimately, the churches today believe that their animus against gay human beings is justified because leading churchmen and a large number of believers simply do not regard gay people as fully human. It’s that simple and that stark. The Vatican can claim to be a stalwart champion of human rights while opposing a U.N. declaration condemning homophobia only because the Vatican counts on people to understand that gay persons are not human in the same way everyone else is human (

Just as the Vatican and most other churches in the past counted on people to uphold slavery because people of color are less than human . . . . The battle lines may shift as history moves on, but the fundamental principle remains the same: the churches’ commitment to human rights is selective, non-universal, contingent on calculation at any given moment of history. And at the center of that calculation is the question of how high the price will be for supporting the human rights of a given group at a given time: at the center of the calculation is whether the church will choose costly grace when cheap grace is so much easier to attain.

And so it goes today: people who once stoutly resisted the claim to full humanity and full personhood of people of color now claim to be the sudden BFFs of people of color—many of whom, to their shame, are willingly letting themselves be used in this contemporary game of divide-and-conquer. A game in which their gay brothers and sisters are being subjected to precisely the same treatment people of color received in the past, for precisely the same reasons . . . . Because it is costly today for people of conscience to affirm the humanity of a group whose humanity is being demeaned—while it is not costly at all to pretend that we have always upheld the humanity of those now moving onto the stage of human history as subjects rather than objects.

One expects better of people of faith. And of those who know full well what it is to be treated as sub-human. And who should know that they are being used in a disreputable political battle by people who have, in their heart of hearts, as little respect for the humanity of people of color as they do for gay human beings.