Wednesday, March 4, 2009

On the Moral Right to Exclude

I have been thinking about a remark Nathaniel Frank makes in a discussion of his new book about don’t ask, don’t tell—Unfriendly Fire—at HuffPo a few days ago (here).

Frank notes that a military sociologist and close friend of Sam Nunn, Charles Moskos, played a crucial role in formulating the ban against openly gay men and women in the military. Though Moskos and his cronies fabricated a spurious “unit cohesion” theory to justify the ban (that is, having openly gay folks in the military would undermine the solidarity of military units), when Frank interviewed Moskos for his book, Moskos told him that he had no interest in his own bogus sociological theory.

Instead, underlying his determination to keep openly gay folks out of the military was his belief that straight folks have a moral right to exclude gays. As Frank states, “For Moskos, the last serious defender of ‘don't ask, don't tell,’ the ban was about the ‘moral right’ of straight people not to be forced into intimate quarters with gays.”

The phrase is striking. It speaks volumes. It says more than Moskos may have wanted to reveal about the mental universe from which homophobia, with all its measures designed to exclude, diminish, and hide from sight those who are gay, proceeds: some straight people think they have a moral right to exclude gays from contact with them.

I’ve long suspected that this is the case, of course. I’ve just never heard anyone let the cat out of the bag. I’ve never heard anyone admit frankly that this belief underlies the actions of many of my fellow citizens and fellow members of the body of Christ as they create barriers to my inclusion and that of millions of other brothers and sisters . A moral right to exclude . . . .

Is there such a right, I wonder? Many private clubs long excluded people of color, Jews, and women. But legal challenges to these clubs have resulted in a prevailing opinion in most Western societies that these exclusions represent forms of discrimination that are legally and ethically insupportable in a democratic society. People may prefer to exclude. They may actually set up mechanisms to exclude from their association those they scorn.

But they cannot justify such exclusion on moral grounds. The reluctance with which people admit their real motives as they exclude others is an indicator that, in their heart of hearts, they know that their choice to exclude is not morally defensible. The tentativeness with which people speak freely of their prejudices testifies to their recognition that prejudices which demean and diminish others are shameful, penchants to savage others that are seldom brought forth into the light of day because those nursing these penchants know full well that they are ugly.

And so a moral right to exclude gay folks: what this says to me is that in one discrete area of cultural (and ecclesial life) today, people still cling to the belief that exclusion is morally justifiable—indeed, that it may be morally imperative. Gay human beings represent a special category of human beings. I belong to a category of human beings for which mechanisms of exclusion are not merely necessary, but morally warranted. Exclusion of gay human beings is ethically legitimate, noble behavior. Cultural and ecclesial crusades to effect such exclusion may take comfort in the fact that they are grounded in moral right, in sound moral imperatives.

But I don’t think so, frankly. I don’t think that the drive to identify any group of human beings, gay or otherwise, as a polluting subset of the body politic, can ever be ethically justified. I recognize that this drive is part and parcel of social existence throughout history. All cultures throughout history have needed to find some group within the culture—some group they can relegate to subcultural status—whom they can identify as a polluting presence, and can then expel to give the body politic the sense that it is clean and upright.

For those cultures that profess to be Christian, however, such denigrating and excluding impulses rest in uneasy tension with the Christian gospels. Everything we read in those gospels portrays Jesus as one intent on bringing in, on abolishing lines that make some human beings privileged insiders and others despised outsiders. All that we read about Jesus shows him particularly concerned with those excluded and denigrated by the "righteous" mainstream.

The impulse—the moral right—to exclude gay human beings cannot root itself in the gospels, or in Jesus. That impulse moves against the fundamental significance of the gospels and of the life of Jesus. It moves against Jesus’s central insights about morality, which totally ignore sexual questions and concentrate instead on right relationship, on treating others as we would see ourselves treated. On love.

In the moral universe of the gospels, my salvation depends on you so completely that by excluding you, I risk damnation. When Jesus describes the drama of final judgment, he points to you and to me. He asks how I treated you during our lifetimes. You were in prison. Did I visit you? You were hungry and without clothes. Did I bring you food and shelter? Did I welcome you when you were without a place?

No, read against the backdrop of the gospels and of Christian morality, Moskos’s “moral right” is unimaginable. Still, I’m glad he spoke about it. It’s time for those who continue waving the battle flag emblazoned with that moral right—and for those who do so in the name of Christ, in particular—to bring their “moral right” to the table, plop it down for God and all of us to see, and let us talk freely about it.

And to read the gospels together as we do so.