Thursday, September 29, 2011

Commonweal on Rose Marie Belforti: Historical Revisionism Clouding Discussion of Religious Response to Gay Rights

One of the ways in which people motivated by religion to condemn gay people and oppose granting rights to gay people console themselves is by asserting that they are standing squarely on the side of unwavering, longstanding Christian tradition.  Furthermore, many of these religiously motivated anti-gay people like to claim that they are in no shape, form, or fashion akin to those who supported slavery and racial segregation in the past, since there was not--so they argue--a similar longstanding Christian tradition in support of slavery or the supremacy of white people and their right to subordinate people of color to themselves.

To those of us who grew up in the American South as integration took place, as I did, these arguments seem more than a little odd.  More than a little specious.  We who grew up in a culture in which the bible was long used to justify slavery and then segregation, with its attendant subordination of African Americans to whites, know full well that it was taken for granted by almost everyone in our self-professed Judaeo-Christian culture that the strong weight of Judaeo-Christian tradition was on our side. 

The bible not only took the practice of slavery for granted, it also never once condemned it, we told ourselves over and over--and, in case we were in danger of forgetting the point, our ministers reminded us of it from the pulpit repeatedly.  The patriarchs held slaves.  When Onesimus escaped from his master, Paul told him to return to his master--the same apostle who, in Colossians 3:22 and Ephesians 6:5, enjoins slaves to obey their masters in all things, as if pleasing the Lord. 

In my own lifetime and with my own ears, I have heard the biblical story of Noah and his son Ham used--as it has been used within Christian tradition since the early modern period, when European interchange with people of color outside Europe began to occur in significant ways--to justify the subordination of black people to white people.  And when I heard the text, I was told that it had always been used that way, and had been preached in Christian churches to such an end over and over for centuries--and the historical research I've done as an adult re: this text's use in Christian history confirms that claim.

In making these claims, we were echoing venerable tradition handed down within almost every one of our mainstream churches without exception--from theologians and divines ranging from Richard Furman to Henry Holcombe to Gerald Capers to Richard Fuller to William Richards to E.W. Warren to T.C. Thornton, Frederick A. Ross, S.J. Cassells, George Whitefield, and Robert Lewis Dabney.  And that's to name only a tiny handful of the prominent Southern ministers from mainstream churches of all stripes in the antebellum period who defended slavery overtly and in published works, noting as they did so that they were defending what had always been Christian tradition, and that those now seeking to abolish the institution of slavery were radical, dangerous innovators breaking with tradition--overturning longstanding Christian tradition through their attempt to outlaw slavery, and therefore endangering the moral foundations of society.

Because I grew up with the weight of  this history and with this mind-set (as did almost every other white Southerner of my generation, whether the mind-set was deliberately inculcated through preaching or reading, or simply taken for granted as part of the dominant cultural heritage), I'm baffled by what Eduardo Peñalver has just published on the Commonweal blog, as he mulls over the story of Ledyard, NY, town clerk Rose Marie Belforti and her refusal to sign marriage licenses for same-sex couples, though she's a town clerk obliged by her oath of office to do so.

Peñalver writes,

Although there have always been churches and religious institutions that have espoused racial hatred or supremacy or separation of some sort or another, and although some of the arguments people raised in favor of Jim Crow were religious, they were (and even more so now, are) mostly on the fringe of both society and Christian thought.  The bulk of opposition to civil rights was rooted in uncritical tradition and custom.  In addition, there was a critical mass — perhaps the bulk of — Christian theological opinion on the side of civil rights.

And then he goes on to observe that "[w]hat we see with same sex marriage is somewhat different," and the position of Ms. Belforti and others in her camp " represents the historical mainstream of Christian thinking on homosexuality, one that has prevailed for many, many generations."

I'm not quite sure by what criteria we're to judge that the vast majority of Southerners up to the middle of the 20th century, when federal action forced us to begin modifying our racial practices (and eventually to engage the presuppositions on which these practices rested), were "on the fringe" of either society or Christian thought.  Particularly when there's substantial evidence that support for slavery was far and away the majority and not the minority position--the default position--in Christian tradition (Catholic tradition included) for centuries.

I'm tempted to imagine that, from the perspective of some Americans living in cultural centers far removed from (and superior to?) those of the American South, all Southern ideas (and even all Southern folks) represent a "fringe" who are easy to dismiss and ridicule.  Because we did, after all, lose that war.  And losers, by definition, represent the fringe.  They don't stand for the mainstream.  They've lost their right to do that by taking the wrong side in a war.

I'm also tempted to suspect that this is a predominant suspicion of many American Catholics--this suspicion about Southerners as non-normative, as fringe folks, as slightly sinister and somewhat stupid individuals--primarily because the Catholic church in the U.S. is predominantly Northern and not Southern.  And the knowledge of Southern history and culture held by many American Catholics is abysmally limited.

As is the knowledge of many American Catholics of their own history--of, for instance, the longstanding support for slavery within the Catholic tradition.*  Or the fact that American Catholic bishops and religious communities once owned slaves.  Or, for that matter, that for a long period of American history, most Americans--most American Catholics included--throughout the nation and not merely in the South took for granted that slavery is morally justifiable and that the weight of Christian tradition stands in support of its moral justifiability.  For long decades, the abolitionist cause was a minority, fringe cause, considered beyond the pale and definitely not rooted in Christian tradition by a majority of Americans everywhere in the nation

As I suggest in my opening paragraph, I can understand the psychological springs from which the temptation of people of faith opposed to gay people rise, as those people of faith tell themselves that they stand squarely with Christian tradition and aren't bigots like the fringe people of faith who used to imagine that slavery or segregation was justifiable.  No one likes to be thought a bigot, after all.

And we do so very much like to imagine that our moral certainty du jour has a divine sanction and divine clarity that transcend that found in other crusades of the past which history has proven suspect.  Causes that once thought of themselves as every bit as much divinely sanctioned and divinely clear and firmly rooted in religious tradition--causes from witch-burning to holy wars waged against infidels . . .  .

To arrive at that position of smugness about the purity of our cause, though, and about its self-evident clarity and certainty, we unfortunately not uncommonly have to forget or revise the past.  We have to ignore the historical record demonstrating just how muddy the waters of moral thinking and discourse have been throughout the history of religious communities, as notions long taken for granted and long sanctioned by divine authority (e.g., slavery, or the subordination of women to men) had to be sorted out in painful debate, critiqued, and eventually discarded as wrong turns in the history of faith communities, when it finally became apparent that no matter how long these positions were held or how firm the religious sanction for them was, they were simply morally wrong.

And that's what's happening with the question of how gay human beings should be treated today.  I have no doubt in the world that Ms. Belforti (and, I'm sure, some of the leading lights of Commonweal, though I exempt Mr. Peñalver from this critique of those luminaries) imagine themselves to be every bit as noble and as steadfast in their Christian faith as they oppose gay rights, as Richard Furman, George Whitefield, et al., did when they argued for the continuation of slavery.

But, unfortunately, when positions once regarded as noble and as religiously sound are shown by historical development to be something less than noble and less than religiously sound, the noble defender of the faith often ends up looking like a bigot, instead.  Because, as it turns out, it actually was raw bigotry and not authentic religiosity that the noble defender was defending all along . . . . And we see this in the retrospective light of history, as we work through the painful dialogues that help us realize that positions long held by our faith community need to be discarded as ignoble and as not adequate to our foundational documents, for very sound reasons . . . .

And I'll say this, too: it's hard to avoid using that title--ignoble bigot--to describe the Rose Marie Belfortis of the world (and some of Commonweal's leading luminaries who call for magisterial acceptance of the right of heterosexual married couples to use birth control while condemning same-sex couples), when these folks engaged in noble religious crusades to deny and remove rights from their gay brothers and sisters enjoy so much unexamined heterosexual power and privilege.  When so much unexamined heterosexual power and privilege lie just under the surface of their smug, glib, "religious" condemnation of brothers and sisters from whom they would gladly withhold equal rights, in the name of God . . . .

*For one among many texts that can be cited to show the longstanding support of the Catholic magisterium for slavery, see my comment in the preceding Commonweal thread last evening.

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