* to encourage a reasoned awareness of how our beliefs impact the way we interact with the world around us
* to foster intelligent and open dialogue
* to inspire a sense of spirituality that has real meaning in day-to-day life

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Dismantling Fear of Same-Sex Marriage

Today and tomorrow, the Supreme Court is hearing testimony on a couple of cases which will influence the rights of homosexual couples, and thus some conservative Christian alarmists are casting aside the example set by the biblical character of Jesus to voice their profoundly irrational fears on the subject. If these individuals are to be believed, the fate of the country hangs in the balance between the issues of marriage for homosexual couples and reproductive rights for women. Among other tactics, some of these representatives of Christianity are publicly praying for God's will to be done, sowing the seeds of fear through absurd slippery slope arguments, encouraging civil disobedience, and appealing to an antiquated perspective of sinfulness as a basis for modern-day legal decisions. Since I began this writing experiment a year and a half ago after an essay on marriage rights for same-sex couples, it seems appropriate to revisit it during a significant time in the life of our country.

I must confess that I am puzzled when a person prays for God's will to be done and then asserts what God's will must be in a given situation. If God is believed to be omnipotent, or at least exerting some amount of control over reality, what does one hope to accomplish by encouraging God to do what he will presumably do anyway? If God is in control, isn't everything that happens his will? Yet, if the Supreme Court decides in favor of same-sex marriage in a few months, there will no doubt be some Christians who will claim that God's will was not done. The people I admire are those who recognize the need to occasionally reorder their impression of God's love for humanity. People who claim to have a corner on the market of understanding God's will are revealing a profound egotism and immaturity, demanding that reality should shift to fit their perspective rather than the other way around.

Hoping to gain collusion for their prejudice and spread panic and self-righteous indignation, some of these individuals have equated homosexual people with child molesters and animal abusers, claiming that it will only be a short step from legalizing marriage for homosexual couples to legalizing bestiality, child abuse, incest, and polygamy. Obviously, condoning a relationship between two consenting adults has nothing to do with putting children or animals at risk. On the one hand, the fear-mongering tactics are blatant, but on the other hand, the envisioned dangers of this slippery slope attack the very foundation of the argument. Some famous biblical heroes committed incest and polygamy, and God didn't seem to mind at all. If the Bible is to be used as a credible source for condemning homosexuality, why is it not a credible source to approve marrying one's half-sister or taking multiple wives?

The whole slippery slope concern is fallacious from the start, however. As things currently stand, relationships between homosexual couples exist. Although the GLBT community is still in the process of obtaining equal treatment in our society, they are able to openly present themselves to society as homosexuals with ever-increasing acceptance. Homosexual couples can adopt children, and potentially raise them in a more loving environment than some heterosexual couples manage to create. The propriety of homosexuality is not the issue in question. The question is whether married adult homosexual couples will be granted the same benefits as married adult heterosexual couples. Even if the Supreme Court decides in favor of restrictive and intolerant laws, there will still be people in homosexual relationships in America.

Presumably, the concern is that such "sinful" acts should be condemned by the law, even if people choose to engage in them. This, too, seems like an indefensible position. Homosexuality is not even significant enough to be addressed in the Ten Commandments, and in the United States, national laws permit the breaking of several of the Big Ten. Not only are people allowed to work on the sabbath, our culture and economy have come to expect it to a large extent. There are no national laws against idolatry. There are no longer any national laws against blasphemy. Although we expect people to give honest testimony before judges, there are entire career fields based on deception. And although adultery is illegal on the books in some states, there is no national law prohibiting it. In fact, according to a recent study, 23% of Christian pastors in America admitted to committing adultery. Apparently it is easier to condemn other people than it is to live blamelessly in one's own life. The Bible claims that Jesus even said something about this.

Even though homosexuality isn't mentioned in the Ten Commandments, it is clearly included in a larger set of "sinful" behaviors articulated in the Bible. While the laws of the United States may not outright condone many "sinful" behaviors, there doesn't seem to be a community of people who are being persecuted for wearing mixed fabrics, gossiping, or eating the wrong foods (all of which are sinful according to the Bible). This has become a legal issue specifically because an intolerant segment of the Christian subculture has claimed unjustified and imbalanced influence on the American legal system. For whatever reason, some Christians believe that they must impose their worldview on other people, and they are willing to use an array of intimidation tactics to get their way, even though this represents a very different way of treating people than what was taught by their namesake.

While it seems logical to suggest that no one is going to be forced into a homosexual relationship, some people insist that their religious rights are being trampled if anyone is allowed to engage in a homosexual relationship with the blessing of the national government. This reflects a grievous misunderstanding of how religious freedom works. Religious freedom means that I have the right to believe what I want to believe and engage in whatever religious activities seem appropriate to me, provided I do not bring harm to any person or animal or break any other laws. Religious freedom does not mean that I can dictate what other people do. If someone decides to be Christian, and I am offended by that, I cannot call foul and demand that the government do something about it. Likewise, if my religious beliefs do not allow for the use of an automobile, I cannot demand that everyone else stop driving around. If a person's religion prohibits consuming alcohol, that person should refrain from consuming alcohol; if a person's religion prohibits homosexual behavior, then that person should refrain from homosexual behavior. That is the extent of religious freedom. Somehow, when money is perceived as being in the mix, however, people start getting twisted.

Since the whole reproductive rights issue has been in the public eye because of its inclusion in the national health care plan, some Christian organizations have been threatening civil disobedience. The rhetoric goes something like, "We will not be forced to pay for abortions," followed by whatever absurd and idle threats seem to pack the most punch at the time. As they see the issue, if any money a Christian organization pays into a health care system is used to pay for abortion, then the organization is essentially supporting abortion, even if no one in the actual organization ever has an abortion. It makes sense on the surface. Now, the battle cry is easily converted to, "We will not be forced to support marriage rights for homosexuals." While I'm not sure what that means, exactly, since I cannot imagine that any members of the clergy will suddenly be forced to perform marriages, the assumption seems to be that an organization should be able to decide to be a conscientious objector to a national policy. This reflects either a stunning naïveté or a very ballsy bluff.

Here's a secret that these folks may actually not realize: We are already paying for things we don't want to pay for. Imagine that I disagree with cigarette smoking and I decide that I don't want to pay for a smoker's cancer treatment. If their behavior brought about the disease, then they should bear the brunt of paying for treatment. Harsh perhaps, but reasonable. If I have health insurance, however, the cost of my insurance is not just based on my personal medical expenses. An insurance company spreads its expenditures out across all its policy holders. So, if I look at things the right way, I am paying for a small piece of a lot of other people's medical procedures, whether I want to or not. I appreciate the benefits of having health insurance, though, so I have to come to terms with the fact that some little portion of my premiums payments will pay some miniscule portion of many smokers' cancer treatments.

Similarly, let us consider taxes for a moment. As American citizens, we have a great amount of freedom, but as individuals we do not get to determine how our country spends the taxes we pay. Some of us may disagree with wars because of the innocent lives that are inevitably lost. We do not get to allocate our tax dollars toward education instead. I can issue statements of protest and disapproval. I can contribute personal money toward organizations that seek to broker peace. I can volunteer my time and energy toward anti-war efforts. But my tax dollars will, in some small way, support the decisions of elected officials, whether I agree with them or not. That is how our democracy works.

As for how Christianity works, there are now many differing views. Some would say that Jesus proclaimed a new way of living in harmony with one another, through a profound love that surpassed our tendency to compete and condemn. Some would say that there is no fear in such a love as Jesus taught, that such a love dismantles fear. Others apparently believe that they must fight with every breath to force others to behave a certain way. This winds up looking a lot more like fear than it does love. I would suggest that Christians are capable of reading their scriptures with more open eyes and hearts. Even as Paul condemns sexual immorality in the letter to the Galatians, for instance, he reminds Christians that they are not slaves to a set of behavioral rules. He asserts that the Christian community is free from such concerns, so that it might love more fully.

I am grateful to be in a country where there can be a national debate about loving, honoring, and respecting all people equally. I envision a time when there might be no reason to debate policies of equity and justice. For now, I stand on the side of love. And if an atheist humanist can do that, surely believers in a God of love can find a way to put aside fear and see people more fully, if they choose.


  1. Wow! Talk about going on the offensive... Problem with that is that the people who would gain the most from reading this will stop after two sentences.

  2. You're probably right, but I also hope that by adding my voice to others in favor of human worth and dignity, in some small way I might inspire someone else to speak up. Sitting on the sidelines and watching doesn't work for me at this time.

  3. From a practical standpoint (vs. fear-based), do you have any concerns about the welfare of the children in same-sex marriage households? I can't point to any studies, but I know they've been done. Just curious about your position -- it will certainly come up in the SCOTUS proceedings.

    Also, a more apt example in your smoking analogy would be if you were forced to participate in a program that provided cigarettes to people at reduced or no cost (vs. treatment for the cancer that may have resulted).

  4. A recent article by the American Academy of Pediatrics sums up the research very well: http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/early/2013/03/18/peds.2013-0377.full.pdf+html?sid=eb06cba0-176e-4d21-9728-cd0e2af8bd78

    And I don't mean to suggest that pregnancy and cancer are analogous by my smoking analogy, so it's obviously got a couple of flaws. (I'm wresting with the question of whether nicotine patches are possibly the condoms of the smoking world, and that's not leading anywhere productive in my mind.) My point is simply that in the economic system of the United States, we inevitably wind up paying for things with which we disagree. This is nothing new. It's part of being in community with one another.

  5. Thanks for the link -- I'll check that out.

    Regarding the analogy, those that oppose contraception and abortion oppose having to pay in to a system that provides the very thing they oppose -- contraception and abortion. In your hypothetical example, opponents of smoking are opposed to paying for treatment for a life-threatening condition that was caused by (or at least worsened by) smoking. The real analogy in that case would be if the plan they paid into directly provided the very thing that violates their conscience -- cigarettes or other forms of tobacco.

  6. Yes, I understand the concern about reproduction rights, which is why I augmented the less-than-perfect smoking analogy with the commentary about war. I cannot decide how my tax dollars will be spent just because the use of violence violates my conscience.

    Now that you mention it, though, it surprises me that those who are opposed to funding what they consider to be the loss of innocent lives have stood quietly by without raising a public fuss as innocent lives were jeopardized by warfare over the last -- how long have we been around? It seems odd to compartmentalize which "murders" it is alright to fund and which are objectionable.

    And what about people who would find it objectionable to pay into a system that fails to provide contraception and abortion? There are many reasons of conscience to approve of reproductive rights, especially given that over half of the women in the United States who receive abortions are considered low-income. While there are those who claim that we would have no problem with social security if abortion had never been legal, I look at the current unemployment rate and wonder how millions more out-of-work Americans could possibly be a benefit to our economy. So, in my mind, it is socially responsible to make abortion available to those that would choose it.

    The point is that among the totality of Americans, there are many diverse, well-thought-out viewpoints, and a national decision that respects the conscience of one individual or group most likely violates the conscience of another. That comes with democracy. Rather than restrictive legislation to represent the conscience of one group, I am in favor of more permissive legislation that allows responsible adults to act according to their conscience, where there is a discrepancy of conscience between groups.

    Incidentally, as of 2011, in the United States, 22 out of every 1000 Catholic women chose abortion, amounting to 28% of the total abortions performed in this country. For decades, over 90% of sexually active Catholic women in the U.S. have used contraceptives officially banned by the church. So, asking Catholics in general to contribute to a national health care system that provides services Catholics are currently accessing does not seem at all unfair, nor does it seem like an issue of religious persecution in the least.

  7. Now, Randy. Of all people, I did not expect to see a majority-rules argument from you about what's right and wrong. Since when did the fact that "everybody does it" have any bearing whatsoever on the morality of a particular issue?

    I also didn't foresee you assessing the value of human life based on economic benefit to society. Really?! Let us not contemplate the implications of such a line of reasoning.

    p.s. There are plenty of "real" pro-lifer's around, if you look. Anti-abortion, anti-war, anti-death penalty. The Vatican was very clear about the unjustifable nature of the war in Iraq, for example.

    You do make a valid point, though -- too many of the people that are jumping up and down about abortion are NOT jumping up and down about unjustifiable war. That isn't my standpoint, so I cannot speak to it...

  8. I should also point out that refusing to buy a product that violates one's conscience is different than outlawing the product. There's an "I'll respect your conscience, and I ask that you also respect mine" school of thought here.

    It would seem that not having "the system" pay for such a product is the most liberal path of all: I'm free from paying for something that is morally reprehensible, and you're still free to purchase/use said product.

    National defense is not similarly divisible. Either the nation is at war, or it isn't -- we cannot individually choose. Either we manufacture and use nuclear warheads, or we don't. The same isn't true in the case of individual acts such as abortion or contraception.

  9. I didn't invent the "majority rule" concept. That's actually the political foundation of our system. The majority isn't always morally astute, which is why I believe that there is still work to be done. But my definition of morally astute is different from yours, so I cannot expect every policy and law to please us both equally.

    That being said, from the research and soul searching I have done, I must stand for reproductive rights and equal marriage rights for homosexual couples, understanding that as an American ccitizen I will inevitably pay for things I don't agree with. I work toward the greater good within that context.

    As to drawing lines of distinction between healthcare and warfare, I believe that all things are connected. Injustice does not leave anyone untouched.

  10. That's actually not entirely true. California put the same-sex issue up for a vote, and the majority spoke. The fact that the case is going before the Supreme Court shows that we do not operate in a purely "majority rules" system.

    My point is this: even if 100% of Catholic women used contraception, it would have no bearing on the morality of that conduct.

    Similarly, the morality of commiting murder does not change with the murder rate.

  11. Well, as I have said before, I hate responding with over-lengthy comments, but unfortunately that is what is required in order to fully debate the issues you bring up.

    California is not a democracy unto itself. Since discrepancies in marriage rights have had an impact on people who were legally married in one place and were denied acknowledgment of that marriage in another place, the issue cannot ultimately be relegated to states. The majority of the country is, in fact, favorably disposed toward granting the same marriage rights to homosexual couples as those granted to heterosexual couples. So, in this instance, I am with the majority of Americans in my support. As it happens, the majority of Americans also agree that abortion should be legal to some extent, and they agree with the legality of Roe v Wade.

    This is not to say that the majority is always morally astute, however. It took a long time for a majority of Americans to recognize the equality of men and women, and it took a long time for a majority of Americans to acknowledge (at least in theory) the equality of all races. Some would say that we have not come as far as we need to in these areas, and I would agree with that sentiment. The creation of policies that acknowledge human equality helps, however. For a long time, the majority of Americans agreed with the concept of slavery. Slavery did not suddenly shift from being morally appropriate to being morally inappropriate. A shift in attitude occurred, based on a moral principle with which slavery is dissonant, and it was not an easy shift. In the end, a certain number of people had to take a stand on the moral issue to catalyze change, and it took a war to come to any sort of agreement. There may still be people who think slavery is an appropriate practice, but at this point in history, I do not think they can legitimize their stance on any universal declaration of morality.

    Your comment on murder is interesting. The morality of committing murder changes not with the murder rate, but on who is being murdered. If we are alright with bombing foreign countries and allowing that innocent lives will be lost as collateral damage, then we are alright with murder to a certain extent. We claim that murder is moral in that circumstance because it serves a greater good -- although sometimes that greater good seems to be more economic than moral. We also generally think as a people that there are other justified killings, usually when someone's life is in danger -- maybe our own or maybe a loved one. Is it morally permissible to kill someone in self defense? Is it morally permissible to kill someone who is threatening the life of your spouse or child? Then one person's life is more valuable than another person's life. Is it morally permissible to kill someone who has broken into your home to rob you? If so, then personal property is more valuable than human life.

    I'm not suggesting that you personally agree with any of these statements, but there are people in this country who do. Thus, there are people who are not very precise about the morality of murder. I would submit that if it is alright to end one human life in order to save another -- or really to serve any claim to the "greater good" -- then one must concede that one human life is more valuable than another. If one human life is more valuable than another, then abortion is not in any way an absolute moral issue.

  12. So, with regard to legality, even if only 51% of Americans believe that it is morally justifiable to kill someone who has broken into your home, the policies of the country will reflect that in one way or another. If I disagree with that policy, I can choose not to shoot someone who enters my home without my permission, but I must recognize for my own well being that if I try to rob someone, I could be shot. I must also recognize that a certain portion of my tax dollars will be spent upholding people's right to kill someone who has committed a home invasion, even if I am a complete and utter pacifist. In that instance, because of my moral convictions, I would be placing more restrictions on my behavior than would the law, because the law reflects a majority opinion of citizens and my moral convictions are personal.

    However, if I believe that I should have the right to shoot someone who has broken into my house, and the law dictates that the taking of human life is wrong regardless of the circumstances, my actions based on my personal sense of morality would be out of alignment with the majority opinion (in a democracy). Should I choose to shoot anyway, I should expect to suffer the appropriate penalties under the law. When enough people shoot home invaders that it becomes an obvious issue in the country, the law will be reexamined to consider its moral rectitude. That reexamination may yield the result of keeping things as they have always been, or it may potentially allow for the taking of human life in a specific set of circumstances. In either case, restrictions on the taking of human life will be governed by a sense of morality, but the actual moral convictions of people will be reflected in the decision.

    Where home invasion is concerned, different states can have different laws. My actual home will not likely move from one state to another, and even if it were to do so, my behavior could adjust accordingly when I crossed the state line with minimal impact on my life. So with regard to this issue, the majority of residents in a state can reasonably adjudicate what their moral position will be with regard to the taking of human life under specific circumstances. One can value human life and still land in different places once specific circumstances are clearly defined. Either way, there will be systemic consequences. If enough problems are caused in the system, the majority opinion may require a bit of reevaluation.

    To bring that back to the issue of reproductive rights first, it is apparent that restrictions on abortion are not what the majority of Americans want, and it is absolutely apparent that Americans approve of the use of contraception. The moral convictions of a minority are easily accommodated if abortion and contraception are legal. Those opposed to abortion are not required to receive one, and those who do not wish to use contraception are not forced to do so. Due to the nature of the American form of democracy, however, everyone's tax dollars support what the majority presumably chooses. When that ceases to happen, we voice our opinions and elect new people to represent our convictions.

  13. As to the morality of the issue, there are people on both sides of the argument who have justifiable moral reasons for their positions. I happen to believe that it is immoral to use restrictive policies to increase the number of children born into poverty and/or born into homes in which they are not wanted. I also question the motivations of those who would enforce such policies, since the supposed care for human life seems not to take into consideration the quality of life that people will have outside the womb, and they seem not to take into consideration the larger systemic implications of unmitigated population growth. While I can see potential for various states to allow for majority rule to decide the legality of the issue, the entire country will bear the economic and social burden of an increasing impoverished population and the generations of children reared in homes in which they are unwanted. Restricting contraception and making abortion completely illegal does not serve the greater good. It only indulges the moral convictions of a peculiar group and forces those moral convictions on others who will bear the brunt of the consequences, namely mothers who -- for whatever reason -- would choose not to bring a child into the world if given the option. Likewise, since the entire country shares in the outcomes of reproductive freedom, it is fitting for the entire country to contribute to the greater good.

    The case for leaving recognition of same-sex marriages as a state-by-state decision does not hold up as easily, just on logistical grounds. People are free to move about the country, and as such, their marital status should be free to move with them. If the benefits that one receives as a member of a married couple are not consistent throughout the country, then the Privileges and Immunities Clause of the Constitutional is breached. Constitutionally, if a couple has the right to be married in one state, the privileges and immunities that accompany that right must be transportable throughout the country.

    From a morality standpoint, I have a very difficult time understanding the problem with promoting committed, monogamous relationships between same-sex couples. Like many other issues of social justice, this has been a long time in coming, even though it seems like a bold new concept. Less than a century ago, homosexuality was considered a psychological disorder in this country. Now, as stigmas about homosexuality gradually dissolve, it has become less and less defensible to dehumanize a group of human beings on the basis of sexual orientation. In my opinion, this is a good thing. We are slowly but surely coming to see other human beings more as human beings and less as Other. As scientific studies are conducted, fears about children raised by same-sex parents are shown to be unfounded. Aside from not being able to produce offspring through traditional means, it is becoming increasingly difficult to point to any actual differences between homosexual and heterosexual couples in committed relationships. For that matter, some heterosexual couples are unable to produce offspring though traditional means, and no one is daring to claim that their marriages are any less legitimate from a moral or legal standpoint than couples who have 12 children.

  14. All of that can be "refuted" or dismissed by someone with a rigid set of rules about how people should live, of course. Morally speaking, there have always been those who wish to restrict the actions of other people, even when those judges were not living by their own standards. Since I have never met a judgmental person who was beyond reproach and free of irrational fear, I have a very hard time imagining that any person is capable of writing the rules for another person's life. We do a poor enough job of living by the rules we invent for ourselves. If there will be same-sex couples in America, some of them raising healthy happy children, I would prefer to see those relationships fully legitimized. It is better for the entire human race if we see one another as equal.

    I believe that taking a stand for the inherent worth and dignity of all people allows for a better world than trying to restrict behavior by a set of moral standards on which most people do not even agree. I realize that this sounds licentious, but I honestly believe that recognizing the commonality of human value first and foremost precludes licentiousness. In this sense, I believe that the majority of Americans are morally justified in recognizing a woman's reproductive rights and that the majority of Americans are morally justified in recognizing the equality of same-sex marriages. And I believe that it is appropriate, based on the guidelines of our democracy, for the whole of the citizenry to support policies that recognize the inherent worth and dignity of all people, even when we might disagree with their choices.