Wednesday, November 24, 2010

More from Peter J. Gomes on Religion-Based Homophobia: Irrational Fear of the Sexual Other

Another passage from Peter Gomes's The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus (NY: HarperOne, 2007), which I find in my journals from several years ago.  Where the two passages I posted yesterday focused on the churches' responsibility for fostering homophobia at this point in history, this one notes the way in which fear of gay and lesbian human beings operates at a political level, particularly in the U.S., a nation in which a considerable number of us over the course of our history seem to need someone to fear, hate, and target.

Gomes writes:

The contemporary fear gripping America seems to be a fear of the normalization of homosexuality.  What a strange pathology this is—fear that the sexual identity and practices of a minority will somehow taint the identity and practices of the majority.  Someone has said that the fear of homosexuals has replaced the fear of communism in American life, and as Americans always seem to need something to fear, homosexuality is an ideal candidate for that role.  Gay marriage is seen to threaten heterosexual marriage to such an extent that constitutional amendments must be designed to prevent it, although no one seems prepared to propose similar legislation to prohibit divorce, which is a far greater threat to marriage and the family, and on which Jesus himself had distinct views.  On homosexuality, he had nothing to say.  This irrational fear of the sexual other is all the more dangerous because it conceals itself within the sanctions of religion.  Homophobia is the most current example of how good people ending up doing and believing bad things (p. 106).

I'm struck by Gomes's precise naming of what many Americans including many people of faith in the U.S. fear today: the "normalization" of homosexuality.  Many citizens (including many people of faith) appear to believe that their identity as the normal depends on identifying another group of citizens as the not-normal--the abnormal, the subnormal.

And on keeping them in a position through various legal mechanisms that demonstrates their abnormality and subnormality to the rest of society--as a parable about what those who challenge the preconceptions of the normal may expect, if they continue their challenges to those preconceptions.

It is in this light that the ongoing need of many citizens, including many people of faith, to deny the right of even civil marriage to same-sex couples--even when there is abundant evidence that sexual orientation is not chosen, and people who are gay and lesbian, after all, want the same right to live in stable, productive, socially sanctioned relationships as anyone else--is best understood.  This crusade to "protect" what is called traditional marriage--to protect the normalcy of the normal--is all about finding powerful symbolic ways to relegate gay and lesbian persons to a demi monde of stigmatized second-class citizenship.  So that the normalcy of the normal can be demonstrated.

Gomes wrote these observations in 2007.  But the quest to enact constitutional amendments to "protect" marriage continues to be at the forefront of the agenda of the American Catholic bishops--as the recent lobbying of the Minnesota bishops on behalf of Republican gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer suggests.  In the DVD the bishops of Minnesota sent to every Catholic household in the state in an attempt to give the edge to Emmer in this election, Archbishop Nienstedt of St. Paul-Minneapolis overtly endorses a constitutional amendment to "protect" marriage.  As did the Catholic bishops of Iowa in the same election.

And as, presumably, the signatories of the Manhattan Declaration, whose organizational meetings were hosted by the new president-elect of the U.S. Catholic bishops' conference, Timothy Dolan, also do.  The Manhattan Declaration states,

No one has a civil right to have a non-marital relationship treated as a marriage. Marriage is an objective reality—a covenantal union of husband and wife—that it is the duty of the law to recognize and support for the sake of justice and the common good. If it fails to do so, genuine social harms follow.

And so it is highly unlikely that the U.S. Catholic bishops will be breaking anytime soon with the religious and political right's culture-war model of attacks on the human rights of their brothers and sisters who happen to be gay, or that they will turn their attention to attempts to outlaw divorce, which really does threaten the stability of the traditional model of marriage the bishops claim to be defending.

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