Thursday, December 4, 2008

Standing Truth on Its Head: Archbishop Niederauer's Defense of Attacks on Human Rights

The Catholic archbishop of San Francisco, George Niederauer, issued a statement yesterday defending his role in depriving gay citizens of the state of California of a human right—the right to marry ( Niederauer has drawn fire because he actively solicited the assistance of the Mormon church in his battle. The Mormon church contributed more than 50% of the funds used to pass proposition 8 in California, though Mormons make up only 2% of the state’s population.

In some ways, Archbishop Niederauer’s misleading, shoddy statement does not deserve consideration. In other ways, it must be examined, because it tries to pass off disinformation that is often circulated on the religious right under the guise of a reasoned argument for depriving a minority group of human rights.

For instance, Archbishop Niederauer seeks to convince us that proposition 8 was “not . . . an attack on any group, or . . . an attempt to deprive others of their civil rights.” That’s an astonishing counterfactual argument to make—an astonishing lie to tell. I seriously doubt that citizens and families that went to bed one day assured of their right to marry and woke up the next day without that right did not notice that they had been deprived of a civil right.

I also suspect those deprived of that right by religious fiat acting as political clout felt anything but attacked.

Niederauer also argues that “same sex couples who register as domestic partners will continue to have ‘the same rights, protections and benefits’ as married couples.” It is difficult to believe that the archbishop is unaware of studies showing that domestic partnerships rarely accord those in such partnerships all the rights accorded a legally married couple.

It is also difficult to believe that the archbishop can be unaware that the Catholic church has fought against domestic partnerships for gay couples everywhere in the world whenever this has been possible. Or that the Catholic church has repeatedly fought against recognition of any civil rights for gay persons, including the right to protection from discrimination in employment or housing. Or that the Catholic church rarely affords employees of its institutions any of those rights, if they happen to gay. Or that the majority of gay Americans lack not only the right to marry or enter civil unions, but have no legal protection at all—and this largely due to the efforts of churches including the Catholic church to prevent legislation protecting the civil rights of gay Americans.

It is hard to believe, in other words, that the archbishop does not know he is lying.

Archbishop Niederauer also speaks unconvincingly of the church’s solicitude for all human beings, and of its respect for the “spiritual and pastoral rights” of all Catholics. The archbishop must know that it is theologically inappropriate, theologically false, to divide human beings into spiritual and material parts. Where people’s human rights are trampled on, one cannot speak convincingly of a respect for people’s spiritual rights. Those trampling on the human rights of others speak of their concern for people’s spiritual lives with very ill grace. Such rhetoric is a grotesque attempt to paint cruelty and injustice as pastoral concern.

These misleading statements are bad enough. But perhaps the most audacious falsehood the archbishop seeks to pass off in his statement about proposition 8 is the following:

Indeed, to insist that citizens be silent about their religious beliefs when they are participating in the public square is to go against the constant American political tradition. Such a gag order would have silenced many abolitionists in the nineteenth century and many civil rights advocates in the twentieth.

It has become common in the circles of the religious right to depict some Christians’ opposition to gay marriage as a manifestation of a new abolitionism—that is, as an expression of churches’ concern for the moral life of culture akin to that of the abolitionist movement. This false analogy stands the truth on its head in a very ugly way. It inverts values in an attempt to depict what is morally indefensible as noble.

Since the archbishop appeals to history, he should perhaps inform himself about history—about the history of the abolitionist and civil rights movements in particular. The movement to deprive gay human beings of human rights is grounded in widespread consensus of many Christians and many churches today.

Similarly, the determination to defend slavery and to deny civil rights to African Americans up to the middle of the 20th century was grounded in widespread consensus of American Christians and their churches. Just as large numbers of Christians today are oblivious to the appeal to respect the human rights of gay citizens, the overwhelming majority of Christians and their churches were solidly opposed to the abolition of slavery up to and even following the Civil War. In like manner, the majority of Christians and their churches supported segregation and opposed efforts to change the laws mandating racial segregation.

In the abolitionist movement and in the civil rights movement, a prophetic minority of engaged believers challenged the status quo, and at the same time, challenged their fellow believers, who were comfortable maintaining the status quo and giving it divine sanction. Unlike the Mormon church and the Catholic church in the proposition 8 battle, these prophetic believers did not use financial clout and political power to deprive citizens of human rights. These prophetic minorities lacked such clout.

And they worked to claim rights for citizens, not to remove rights.

What those prophetic Christians and churches of the minority did in American culture during the periods of slavery and segregation was noble and admirable. What Archbishop Niederauer and his allies are doing is ignoble and despicable. Their attack on the human rights of a marginalized minority group undermines their claim to be concerned about the human rights of anyone anywhere.

And it will be judged that way by history—every bit as much as history has passed judgment on the immoral, corrupt, enculturated religiosity of the majority of American Christians who resisted the human rights of slaves and the civil rights of people of color in the period following the abolition of slavery.