Monday, June 7, 2010

More Reflections on Parallels Between Discussion of Slavery and of Homosexuality: The Persistent Obstructionist Tendency of Churches

I’ve been involved in two blog threads this weekend, both of which had strong toxins flowing through them.  And it suddenly hits me: the toxins come from the same sources, though the threads are not similar in other respects.  Since this insight follows from what I posted earlier today about the national debate re: the morality of slavery in the 19th century, I want to develop it a bit.

One of the two discussions was at a local website where the blog proprietor posted some good comments about Charles Blow’s op-ed piece in this weekend’s New York Times.  As Blow notes, a recent Gallup poll shows that, for the first time since polling on this point has been done in the U.S., a majority of Americans approve of the morality of gay “relations.”  And the biggest jump in those shifting from disapproval to approval is among men.

The other discussion has been at a Catholic site, where the proprietor posted a link to the Glenn Greenwald article on which I commented yesterday, noting that between them, Mr. Limbaugh and Mr. Gingrich have now had 7 traditional marriages.  While they want to deny their gay brothers and the sisters the right to have even one marriage.

And here’s what now strikes me about both threads: on both, bloggers quickly jumped in to try to hedge the conversation about with a thicket of thorns, so that the subject at hand—our rapidly shifting understanding of the morality of gay lives and relationships, which is clearly moving in the direction of tolerance and inclusion—can’t really be discussed.  So that it remains hidden.

So that what’s increasingly apparent to many folks remains hidden particularly within communities of faith:  namely, that those promoting intolerance and moral disapproval of gay people have an uphill climb now, as they try to convince society at large (and even many of their co-religionists) of the need for continued intolerance and moral disapproval.

At both websites, people logged into the discussion early on to sow poisonous seeds that have sprouted into an occluding thicket of thorns designed to conceal what we can all see clearly—the rapid shift in our culture’s view of the morality of gay lives and relationships.  At both sites, people of faith logged in right away to divert the discussion into a thicket of thorns designed to foster futility and contention, and to assure that the conversation would go nowhere productive.  Futility and contention designed to keep the moral shift now taking place in our culture from going where these defenders of tradition don’t want it to go.

Something else is remarkable about the course that the conversations on both websites has taken: those planting the seeds for the hedge of thorns have been people of faith who profess tolerance, every bit as much as people of faith who proudly continue to call for discrimination against gays and lesbians.

On my local website, as the Charles Blow piece was discussed, one blogger (who routinely informs others that he’s a liberal Christian) jumped in quickly to claim his right to keep talking about sin as he talks about gay people and gay relationships.  The bible demands that he do this, he says.

He didn’t, of course, deal with the question of why his or anyone else’s reading of the bible or understanding of sin should determine civil laws.  Nor did he explain how he manages to maintain his “right” to keep decrying the sin of homosexuality and to support laws that curb that sin, while he and his fellow believers never issue similar calls for civil laws restraining the many other sins that the bible also decries.  Including, for most Christians for thousands of years, the sin of marrying, divorcing, and then remarrying.

Another liberal Christian tried a different tactic on this blog: she (or he?) used the “beam in my eye, mote in yours” tactic to argue (unconvincingly) that everyone has a right, after all, to believe what he or she wants to believe.  You’d think that insight might be moving in the direction of tolerance of those who are gay, wouldn’t you?  

To the contrary, this was a chastisement of gay folks and our supporters, who dare to call the churches to accountability for their injustice to gays and lesbians.  It was a slap-down of those not-so-nice gay folks and our supporters who insist on continued conversation about these matters, and on exposing the hidden cruelty of the “nice” and “tolerant” wings of the churches that continue to shut gays and lesbians out.

Once again: these are responses of liberal people of faith to discussions trying to open new ground, as our cultural and religious understandings of homosexuality shift.  These are liberal responses designed to close that newly opened space for moral discourse about homosexuality as quickly as it is opening up.

They’re responses of liberals who do not intend to see this new space kept open, but who want to hedge it about with so many thorns that no one can see the startling new recognitions that the space contains—e.g., that our churches will hold up even 7 marriages by two straight men as the ideal, while declaring all gay relationships, no matter how longstanding and faithful, abnormal.  These are responses by liberal people of faith who intend to close the discussion space that this recognition opens up now both for people of faith and for the culture at large. 

On the Catholic website, predictably, those logging in to undercut the conversation even before it could get onto its feet were Catholics of the right.  But equally predictably, the centrist Catholics who are also well-represented on this website have been totally silent about the shameful, immoral tactics used by their brothers and sisters of the right to undercut serious discussion of the questions raised by Rush and Newt’s 7 traditional marriages.

Totally silent as one cranky, nutty blogger kept on calling for open discussion, kept on pointing out the dishonest game that those trying to close the discussion were playing.  Totally unwilling to show any solidarity with the cranky nutcase calling for honest, open discussion, while allowing their brothers and sisters of the right free rein to do their dirty work of poisoning the conversation.

One of the insights my reading of Epstein’s book about Lincoln and Whitman confirms for me all over again is this: in battles to open new ground for controverted moral issues like slavery, the churches seldom lead the way.  And liberal-tolerant members of the churches are every bit as much of a problem here as are reactionary-intolerant believers.

When Lincoln was elected, American Christians were far and away more opposed to abolition of slavery than they were for abolition.  American Christians—not only the “traditional” and “orthodox” Christians of the South, but the more liberal and tolerant Christians of the North as well—were unwilling to come down squarely on what has turned out to be the only defensible moral response to slavery: eradication of this immoral system.

The marginal, prophetic minority of people of faith espousing abolition were regarded as an embarrassment and nuisance by Christians of the mainstream, until Lincoln had the courage to sign the Emancipation Proclamation.  Even then, Lincoln was widely despised for this action, and people of faith were in the forefront of those opposing him.  Including liberal people of faith, who claimed to be for nice sentiments of moral uplift and decency towards all.

Liberal people of faith who were much more comfortable with their reactionary brothers and sisters adamantly opposed to any reconsideration of the morality of slavery than they were with the nutty abolitionists.

The issue being discussed today is different.  But the way in which people of faith are responding to the discussion of the morality of homosexuality today is remarkably similar to how most people of faith in the U.S. responded to the discussion of slavery in the middle of the 19th century.

Not much has changed in 150 years, when it comes to how churches deal with new breakthrough insights about their traditional, taken-for-granted moral stances.