Thursday, April 11, 2013

Jim Wallis "Evolves" on Marriage Equality: Responses and Reflections

Now that the left-leaning evangelical leader (and a mover and shaker in the D.C. federal faith-based initiatives) Jim Wallis has come out for marriage equality--well, sort of: marriage equality, but--there's a lot of good commentary circulating about his long, long road to endorsement of gay rights. Well, sort of an endorsement. But. Here's some of it I'm finding valuable:

Wallis recently told Marc Lamont Hill that he's changed his mind on marriage equality, and that "we're" losing marriage in American society. Since marriage is on the rocks, period, it makes sense to open the grab-bag and dole out that particular goodie to the gay folks who want to marry, because, well, "we're" losing marriage and can't really afford to exclude those who might help us shore up the faltering foundations of the institution, can "we"?

As Fred Clark, who knows Wallis well and is, in fact, a friend, says in response to Wallis's sort-of, but endorsement of marriage equality, "That is what an uncertain trumpet sounds like." And I think Fred is correct.

At Religion Dispatches, Sarah Posner had already picked up on the "we're"-going-to-open-the-goodie-bag-to-the-gays theme that Wallis's remarks imply, when she wrote the following:

Wallis doesn't come right out and say he supports marriage equality, but embarks on a Heritage Foundation-inflected lecture about "recovenanting, reestablishing, renewing marriage." He then adds, "I think we should include same-sex couples in that renewal of marriage." What? I really wish Hill had asked him what that might look like in, you know, reality: would gay people have to attend the Ross Douthat School of Marriage Awesomeness before they could get a marriage license? What if they were determined to be insufficiently committed to recovenanting and reestablishing and renewing marriage? 

Fred Clark offers an illuminating explanation for why Wallis has taken so very long to "evolve" on the issue of gay rights. As he notes, Wallis is, at heart, a biblicist of the same ilk as those who brandish about biblical clobber verses to remind the gays that God is discontent with them and pleased exclusively with spectacles of penis-vagina sex. Wallis's point in promoting concern for the poor has long been, Fred notes, to remind us that the weight of biblical injunctions is so disproportionately heavy on the side of God's concern with social justice (and not with penis-vagina sex) that it's hard to justify the bizarre disproportionate emphasis that many right-wing Christians want to give today to pelvic morality.

Wallis doesn't, that is to say, reject the clobber verses. He takes them as literally as he does the verses enjoining us to care for widows and orphans and to welcome the stranger in our midst. And so he has naturally steered clear of telling his fellow evangelicals who hew to the right that they're simply wrong  in using scripture to attack their gay brothers and sisters. He wants, instead, to draw the attention of his fellow evangelicals of the right to the far more numerous and central injunctions to care for the poor.

And then there's the no small matter, as Fred points out, of the way in which the evangelical establishment and beltway power circles use money to marginalize evangelicals who open their mouths to defend gay rights. Wallis has been well aware of this when he saw what was done to The Other Side after that left-leaning evangelical publication fully endorsed human rights for gay persons: it was driven out of business as funding was snatched from the publication. 

Money, funding streams, are used in some church circles and among the "faith-based" movers and shakers of the beltway to reward those who stick to certain memes, and to punish those who dare to voice other memes. Gay anything has long been the love that dare not speak its name in these circles, even as its spokespersons remind us of our obligation to love those on the margins--and Wallis, whose power in those circles has been considerable, has been well aware of these dynamics.

As I've noted in postings here (and here) in the past, this is why I've gradually stopped listening to anything Jim Wallis says, though I once admired him and supported Sojourners. I can't take seriously appeals to my conscience to care about those on the margins and to support human rights of the oppressed, when those appeals very carefully (and, to my way of thinking, rather craftily) pretend that those on the margins and who are oppressed don't include LGBT human beings.

There's also this--something I'd add to Fred Clark's very helpful explanation of where Jim Wallis is coming from in his response to gay rights: what it seems to me that straight liberal-centrist people in many faith communities including my Catholic community still haven't engaged is their own heterosexual power and privilege, which strongly contributes to their belief that there's a "we" in the churches who dole out goodies to "them" who happen to be gay and therefore not "us."

Many liberal-centrist people of faith who happen to be heterosexual  haven't yet engaged their own heterosexism, and this is particularly true, I suspect, in the case of many men within the liberal-centrist powerbrokering circles of many churches. They haven't thought about the fact that their assumption that "we" are the center and the norm reflects unmerited power and privilege that is there precisely at the expense of some other folks who have to be relegated to the margins in order for "us" to imagine that "we" are normative, and that this is why"we" occupy the center and "they" the margins."

These are, as JoAnn Wypijewski suggests in an interesting article in The Nation this morning, damaging kinds of assumptions for people to make, these assumptions that are rooted in what Wypijewski calls "primitive heterosexuality." Perhaps it's time that faith communities stop asking how to justify or approve a homosexuality that seems to them morally dubious or challenging, and to start looking seriously at the far more morally dubious and challenging phenomenon of a primitive heterosexism rooted in primitive concepts of heterosexuality that uncritically drive way too much of the message of many faith communities these days.

No comments: