Thursday, April 2, 2015

As Culture-War Battle Against Gay Rights Is Being Lost, American Catholic Leaders Now Want "Respectful Dialogue": Religious Leaders on Wrong Side of History

Here's how it seems to me: in the past several weeks, American culture has just begun to turn a very important corner. An important national conversation is now underway about whether LGBT human beings deserve to be despised, excluded, and discriminated against in the name of religious conviction. We're far from there yet. For the first time ever, many Americans are becoming aware that a large percentage of states have no protections against discrimination in place for LGBT citizens. But for the first time in my memory (and I'm now 65 years old, or did you know that?), there's a national-level conversation about this issue, with strong, visible, national buy-in for the conviction that religion used to attack and discriminate against people on grounds of sexual orientation is religion spectacularly abused.

This is what the situation in Indiana and Arkansas has provoked. And as this corner is just beginning to be turned, as this national conversation with its sharp picture of where the culture is moving is taking place, the leaders of American Catholicism are behaving in the most disreputable way possible. They're bringing their church into complete disrepute in the public square as they drag up the rear, kicking and screaming.

They are, quite precisely, doing everything possible to keep the national culture from turning this corrner. They're being decisively exposed for the bigots they choose to be, people who continue, even in the middle of a national conversation in which religiously based anti-gay discrimination is being widely decried, to resist the notion that LGBT human beings deserve the same human rights every other human being has.

Note that I say "the leaders of American Catholicism." I'm speaking here quite specifically not only about the pastoral leaders of the U.S. Catholic church, its bishops, but also about their powerful enablers in the Catholic media and academy, who continue, many of them, God help them, to find every reason in the world to support the bishops as they resist the human rights of LGBT persons. I'm speaking of the powerful enablers of prejudice in the Catholic media and academy who continue to try to keep the rest of the Catholic community, insofar as it calls for the bishops to ditch their anti-gay bigotry, out of the "official" conversation that defines Catholic identity in the U.S.

For your consideration, I submit the following pieces of evidence:

1. In February, the Indiana Catholic Conference — that is, the Catholic bishops of Indiana — published a statement urging Catholics in their state to support the anti-gay "religious freedom" legislation that has now elicited a national outcry after people became aware of what this legislation is all about: namely, that it gives private businesses the status of persons, and permits private businesses to claim that their religious convictions do not allow them to provide goods and services to targeted minority communities.

Yesterday, in light of the nationwide protests that have now taken place against Indiana's discriminatory legislation, the Indiana Catholic bishops suddenly began calling for "mutual respect" and "necessary dialogue" about Indiana's anti-gay "religious freedom" legislation. If anyone is aware of a similar call that the Indiana Catholic bishops issued for "mutual respect" and "necessary dialogue" before the anti-gay "religious freedom" legislation was enacted, could she or he please inform me about where I can find that statement?

It would appear that the time for "necessary dialogue" is now past. The dialogue clock ticked down the moment the legislature of Indiana passed, and the state's governor signed, a bill permitting private businesses to claim that they should be allowed to target minority groups and practice discrimination in the name of religious conviction. This is a claim that the Catholic bishops of the United States have actively promoted under the aegis of "religious freedom." It was central to the bishops' amicus brief in the Hobby Lobby case, which opened the door at a federal level to claims that corporations are persons exercising religious belief and must be permitted to discriminate when their religious convictions dictate discrimination.

Now, when the position they took in February has been decisively exposed for what it is — a defense of ugly discrimination targeting a minority group in the name of "religious freedom" — the bishops want "necessary dialogue." Now they want to invoke "respect," a respect they have conspicuously not shown towards LGBT citizens of their state, in supporting the anti-gay "religious freedom" law.

2. On Tuesday, I wrote that, at its best, in its "liberal" incarnation, the Catholic media in the U.S. are calling for "balanced" discussion (another centrist shibboleth word that goes hand in hand with "respectful" when centrists discover that they have picked the wrong side of an historic cultural battle) of Indiana's anti-gay "religious freedom" law. As I pointed out, at its best, the Catholic media in the U.S. do not approach anti-gay "religious freedom" legislation by asserting the unvarying principle that, when the human rights of a minority community are being attacked, the Catholic position is always to stand unambiguously in opposition to such discrimination.

End of story. Discussion over. Discrimination against targeted minority communities is not permissible, no matter what warrants, including religious ones, anyone wants to snatch at in order to justify it.

As my posting noted, at its best, in its liberal incarnations, the U.S. Catholic media have approached the Indiana story by maintaining that we need to find "balance" in an historic national discussion in which opposition to discrimination is pitted against the will to discriminate on the basis of religion. Instead of discussing the absolute impermissibility of religiously based discrimination against a targeted minority community, the "liberal" Catholic media, the best of the Catholic media, keep calling for continued respectful dialogue about whether gay human beings should have rights and whether businesses should be allowed to represent themselves as persons with religious convictions.

3. The very same day that I wrote my posting, a leading spokesperson for the classic "liberal" position in American Catholicism, Peter Steinfels, published the following statement at the Commonweal blog site:

Still, if the issue is whether rights of same-sex couples seeking to marry comes into conflict with the rights of people who claim that their religious freedom is being "substantially burdened" by personal involvement in same-sex marriage, then let the question be debated and the legislation framed with as much sensitivity to acknowledging, harmonizing, and balancing the rights on both sides rather than dismissing one set of concerns out of hand.  

"Let the question be debated and the legislation framed with as much sensitivity to acknowledging, harmonizing, and balancing the rights on both sides rather than dismissing one set of concerns out of hand." Not a single line of Mr. Steinfels's Commonweal posting acknowledges that anti-gay discrimination is widespread in the U.S., that many states afford LGBT citizens absolutely no legal protection against such discrimination, and that the purpose of the Indiana and Arkansas laws is to cover for and extend such discrimination — not to address it.

Mr. Steinfels calls for "experts" to be heard as we discuss issues of religious freedom and anti-gay discrimination. Nothing whatsoever in his posting suggests that the "experts" to whom we need to listen first and foremost as we discuss these issues — the people we have an obligation as Christians to hear first, because of the preferential option for the poor — are the LGBT people directly impacted by this discussion, directly targeted by these laws.

Those people are not in the room, and have never been invited into the room by Mr. Steinfels and other powerful Catholic academic and media leaders who exert significant influence in shaping the conversation that defines Catholic identity for the American Catholic public square. Gay people, fellow gay Catholics with testimony to share about their experiences of vile discrimination in Catholic institutions and in society at large: these are not the experts to whom Mr. Steinfels asks that we listen, as we evaluate the Indiana and Arkansas laws.

Instead, Mr. Steinfels colludes with the bishops in making those fellow human beings, those fellow Catholics, completely invisible in a conversation that defines their lives in the most radical way possible. The implication his posting about the Indiana law pushes is that gay people somehow represent the opposite of what it means to be Catholic, the problem to be solved as we define Catholic identity — the problem we must continue, at all costs, to discuss.

If you think that you hear clear echoes of the Indiana Catholic bishops in Steinfels and of Steinfels in the Indiana Catholic bishops, you're absolutely correct. The position he's advocating for in his posting — "respectful dialogue" that tries to "balance" the competing rights at stake in this discussion, and ongoing discussion of the feasibility of legislation whose sole intent is to legitimate religion-based discrimination against a targeted minority group — is precisely the position being taken by the Indiana Catholic bishops. Who endorsed and supported their state's anti-gay "religious freedom" law. And who began to call for "respectful dialogue" only when they began to recognize that there is consternation across the nation about what they and their state have devised to do to gay citizens.

This is the predictable position of people who have chosen the losing side of history, this call for continued discussion of an issue that is really no longer subject to discussion by people of sound minds, hearts, and consciences. This is the predictable ugly pretense of people who have been exposed as bigots who have chosen the wrong side of historic battles for human rights, this pretense that laws patently designed to further discrimination are not about discrimination and should continue to be "discussed." "Respectfully."

As a gay Catholic, I'm no longer interested in pretending that such a discussion is worth having. I refuse to engage in it. I refuse to pretend along with Mr. Steinfels that the Indiana and Arkansas laws are anything other than what a large number of Americans of sound mind and good conscience have recognized them to be: a pretext for continuing ugly, insupportable discrimination against people on grounds of sexual orientation in the name of religious conviction.

I refuse to pretend that people like Mr. Steinfels, who finds it possible to carry water for the U.S. bishops' shameful, indefensible "religious freedom" attacks on the rights of LGBT people, which evacuate Catholic proclamation of the good news of Christ of any real significance, are worth listening to.

This is a cultural battle that the U.S. Catholic bishops and those carrying water for them have, quite simply, lost, and have richly deserved to lose. It's certainly far from over yet. I live in one of those states in which there is no legal protection at all for me as a gay person, and in which very powerful forces, whom my own church leaders have energized and colluded with, intend to continue to make my life a living hell in the name of God. They will continue to seek to do just that until the cultural shift now underway eventually decisively isolates them and makes them as irrelevant as Lester Maddox and George Wallace and Bull Connor and Maurice Bessinger quickly became, after their religion-based claims about their right to discriminate against fellow citizens on the basis of pigmentation were ruled off-limits by law and by changing cultural convention.

The same shift is occurring now regarding religion-based homophobic discrimination, and it is just as quickly turning the U.S. Catholic bishops and their centrist defenders in the Catholic academy and media into the Lester Maddoxes, Maurice Bessingers, etc., of the first part of the 21st century. To their very great shame . . . .

The photograph: protestors in front of the Arkansas state capitol building in 1959 seeking to stop the integration of Arkansas schools and carrying signs stating that race-mixing is "the march of the anti-Christ." The photo is in the Library of Congress's U.S. News and World Report collection, and has been uploaded to Wikimedia Commons for sharing.

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