“Religious Liberty”

For some reason, I don’t know why, I am on the e-mail list for the National Organization for Marriage, the organization that opposes same-sex marriage. I know I did not sign up, and I can only assume someone else signed me up to influence my opinion?

In any case, today I decided to click through and take a look at a petition they are circulating asking their members to contact Jeff Sessions and encourage him “to protect the religious liberty rights of individuals and groups who hold traditional viewpoints on marriage, life, gender and similar issues.”

Now, the phrase “religious liberty rights” on its face would seem to mean the right of people to practice their religion without the government taking sides. So you can worship God as a literal judge who sits in the heavens, while I am free to “affirm and promote the interconnected web of life of which we are all a part.” You can practice religion by wearing a specific costume and doing a particular dance, and I can practice by reciting tales of my ancestors or praying five times a day.

But what this petition is requesting is not liberty in this sense, rather it is asking for the government to take sides and protect a specific set of religious beliefs and practices– they don’t want to protect everyone’s liberty, just the liberty “of individuals and groups who hold traditional viewpoints…” (If you would like to read my views on this notion of “tradition,” incidentally, do a search on that word, and you’ll find a number of old posts.)

This wording aside, an argument could be made that those who created the petition are not asking for their religion to be given preference over others. Fundamentalist Christians who take the Bible literally are a minority religion, after all, in spite of their loud voices. Christians in general make up almost 80% of our population, but most are not Fundamentalists. As I have mentioned here before, a poll done by a Christian organization showed that only 30% of self-identified Christians approach the Bible as the literal and inerrant word of God. So the case can be made that a religious minority is asking to be excused from certain aspects of civil society, as a pacifist Quaker might ask to be excused from participating in war. They will not impose their faith on others if we agree not to impose our values on them.

This point of view, however, is undercut by some of the comments posted on the petition’s page. The very first commenter expresses his or her concern that “My fear is that an Executive Order would also likely have to provide ‘religious protections’ to other religious groups…” This person was especially worried about the “Big Love” scenario, in which fundamentalist Mormons and Muslims would push for plural marriage.  (Plural marriage is, as it happens, quite well represented in the Bible.)

The result of the nightmare scenario of giving other religious groups the same freedom to opt out of mainstream law and practice is clear to the poster.  Plural marriage would be accepted and “the Muslims will be breeding like rats on the public dole until they gain enough numbers to subvert the US into an Islamic Republic under Shariah!” (They’re going to have to get busy, as Muslims currently make up .8 percent of the U.S. population.)

This should make it clear enough that the petition is not really about “liberty.” A second poster agreed that what we really need to do is to “start asserting our right to keep all people who do not want to assimilate to our way of life out of this country.”

Using the language of individualism and choice, these posters are asking to have their traditions, and only their traditions, enforced. They don’t want to just be left alone to practice their minority religion in peace, they want those of us who are not practitioners to assimilate or get out. They are asking for the right to define the “real America” as people like them.




Religious Freedom in the Non-Hypothetical Universe

Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act will go down as one of the worst political calculations in history. Governor Mike Pence and the party he represents have been well schooled now in just how much society has changed on the issue of LGBT rights. Trying to please the increasingly small subset of Fundamentalist Christians who feel homosexuality is a sin is no longer a winning political strategy. For those of us who are in favor of LGBT rights, this is cause for celebration.

This was an example of what author Jon Ronson (So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed) defines as good shaming. The power of the internet to amplify voices of dissent against those with power.

“When we deployed shame, we were utilizing an immensely powerful tool. It was coercive, borderless, and increasing in speed and influence. Hierarchies were being leveled out. The silenced were getting a voice. It was like the democratization of justice.”

Confronted with the fact that his “base” was a bit smaller than he had imagined (friggin’ Wal-Mart came out against this law), we watched Mike Pence scramble trying, with little success, to alienate neither gays nor the people who would discriminate against them. He fell off the tight-rope, and those in favor of gay rights enjoyed a moment of Schadenfreude. Pence’s fall-back position was that he had never intended for the law to make discrimination against gay people legal. (A claim that GLAAD has debunked rather convincingly.)

The people have spoken. We will not stand for discrimination. This is good.

That said, I don’t think we do ourselves any favors when we pretend that the question of balancing religious freedom and laws that govern all people in a pluralistic society is straight-forward or easy. We should not dismiss out of hand the arguments of those who do not want to put two brides on top of a wedding cake because we disagree with their point of view. The legal question is not whether this belief is right or wrong.

As someone who wrote a novel from the point of view of a bisexual Christian minister, I can debate scripture with the best of them to make the case that same sex love is not incompatible with Christianity, but that would be missing the larger point. (Debating scripture really does not work. Last time I got into an actual Biblical debate with a Fundamentalist on the topic of LGBT equality he called my reading “vacuous and ignorant” and went on to explain to me what Jesus meant with a level of certainty that implied he had spoken to Jesus personally. The litmus test for whether an interpretation was correct or not was whether it agreed with his own. We had such divergent frameworks for discussing theology that it was pointless to have the conversation.)

When a law designed to apply to the entire community comes into conflict with a particular minority religion’s views or practices, can the religious group opt out? (Yes, in spite of their political influence and PR success defining their type of Christianity as the main and most legitimate form, Fundamentalist Christianity is a minority religion. Most Americans describe themselves as Christian but only 30% take a Fundamentalist view of the Bible.) When is it in the public interest to allow them to do so, and when is it in the public interest to curtail their practices? These are very messy questions and the Supreme Court has not been entirely consistent in how it has ruled when the inevitable conflicts arise. There was a very good article about the difficulties of striking this balance on The Immanent Frame. The article was published in the wake of the Hobby Lobby decision.

I was reading an article today on the blog Holy Bullies and Headless Monsters. It began by saying “We all know that the anti-gay right are being highly deceptive when they whine about how marriage equality and LGBT equality in general will harm ‘religious freedom.'”

While I am in sympathy with this blog’s point of view in general, I have to take exception with this notion. Yes, there are certainly politicians on the right who are more concerned with getting the votes of Evangelicals than they are with their issues. But I do not for a moment consider all Fundamentalists to be deceptive when they talk about religious freedom. Those who believe homosexuality is sinful and morally wrong have a real conflict when they are asked to take part in a ceremony to commemorate same sex unions.

I laughed when I saw Jon Stewart’s take on Indiana’s law.

Stewart criticized comparisons that those in favor of the law have made between having to serve same-sex weddings to businesses having to serve Nazis, the KKK or the Westboro Baptist Church.

“Basically, you see people celebrating love as a hate group,” he said.

A marriage between Tom and Steve is not the equivalent of a Nazi march and it is upsetting to think that there are people who are as morally offended by the former as the latter. Yet this is losing sight of the main thrust of the Fundamentalists’ argument. The point is not that these “sins” are morally equivalent. They are asking you to empathize with the conflict they face in being asked to do something that compromises their moral convictions by framing it in terms of something more widely agreed upon.

Media Matters makes a strong case that having to print a Swastika on a cake, for example, is not equivalent to making a cake for the wedding of two women. This they describe as “a fundamental inability to understand that the RFRA debate was over discrimination against gay people, not gay ‘thoughts.'” The law allows people to refuse to serve customers based on ideology– you have every right not to print pamphlets endorsing a view you fundamentally disagree with– but does not give people the right to discriminate against a certain class of people.

But the distinction between “person” and “ideology” is not as clean cut as some would make it out to be. From the pro-LGBT rights perspective gays are a type of person and a protected class. From the Fundamentalist perspective, homosexuality is a behavior. (Hate the sin, love the sinner. Incidentally, I got into a debate recently with someone who thought “Hate the sin, love the sinner” was a saying of Jesus. It does not come from the Bible at all. When you say that you’re actually quoting Gandhi.) They believe that some people are burdened with same sex attractions but God decrees that they shalt not act on them. They do not want to deny service to gay people in general, but they want the right not to have to participate or endorse the ideology that it is not sinful for “men to lie with men as with women.”  They do not want to be involved in a practice they believe is wrong. From this point of view, refusing to sell a newspaper to a man who seems effeminate would be wrong, but having two men share a bed in their B&B would force them to be complicit in sin. Putting two brides on top of a cake would be endorsing the ideology that a wedding between two women is equivalent to a wedding between a man and a woman.

Yes, the conflict is genuine.

I would like to take a quick diversion here back to the Holy Bullies article I referenced earlier. The author asks “For all of their talk about protecting the ‘religious freedom’ of folks who believe that homosexuality is a sin, one wonders how does the anti-gay right feel about protecting the ‘religious freedom’ of those who do NOT think that homosexuality is a sin?”

Indeed, this is a good question, and an important one when it comes to things like trying to ban same sex marriage more broadly. When religious people argue that same sex marriage should not be legal because it infringes on their religious rights they have it backwards. Banning the practice by law not only keeps religious people from having to participate, it prevents those whose religious and moral frameworks are in favor of same sex marriage from practicing their religion.

Fundamentalists seem to have accepted that they have lost this fight. Where once they could control the direction of the majority of the country, they are now in the minority. They are now asking to be allowed to opt out.

That is actually not what the Holy Bullies article is talking about here though. Both examples of “right wing hypocrisy” that they cite involve Christian religious leaders chastising other Christian groups for not holding what they believe to be the orthodox reading of scripture. (One who calls LGBT affirmative Christianity a “heresy” and a pair calling for the president of a Baptist university to be fired for allowing a lesbian pastor to speak on campus.) Christians are certainly free to argue amongst themselves as to how to properly practice their shared religion, and it is no business of the government or law to wade in on those disputes. The good news for those who are in favor of gay rights is that, as Bondings 2.0 reports, “faith communities are increasingly resisting such discrimination being perpetuated in their names.”

So what do you do when the law of the land is at odds with a minority group’s religious belief or practice? It’s messy and complicated. If you’re a Mormon and you want to practice polygamy, the Supreme Court says the state has a compelling interest in forbidding you from doing that. If you’re Amish and you want to opt out of the draft, the Supreme Court says you can. If you’re a Native American and you want to smoke peyote the Supreme Court says no. If you run a craft store and you want to opt out of Obamacare because you’re against birth control you can do that.

I’m not generally a fan of Russell Brand when he goes into his new age preacher mode. But there was one element of this clip that I thought was worth re-iterating.

Brand comments on the latest human morality play the news has created, Memories Pizza in Indiana, which gained our attention when its owner said she would not cater gay weddings because it was against her belief. The comical image of pizza delivery to a gay wedding in itself probably helped propel the story to national attention. The part of Brand’s speech that caught my attention is toward the end when he points out that in the case of Memories Pizza, the entire argument is hypothetical. It is a symbolic act by the pizza shop and a symbolic act by those who picketed the shop and a symbolic act by the supporters who donated money to the shop.

But same sex couples who want to have a wedding without being shunned and shamed are not hypothetical or symbolic. Anti-discrimination laws simply don’t work if people can opt out of them. “It is illegal to discriminate against this group of people… unless you feel really strongly about it.” In a non-hypothetical universe this will not work.

Family Structure is an Economic Challenge, But Not So Fast…

The Bride Ben Hoffman Abramowitz (American, born Brooklyn, New York 1917)

The Bride
Ben Hoffman Abramowitz
(American, born Brooklyn, New York 1917)

Back in the Victorian era, households did not resemble our own. The wealthy aristocrats presided over households which were like small villages, full of live-in servants and workers. The poor, of course, could not afford valets and ladies maids, but farm households, too, were multi-generational communities engaged in a mutual endeavor.

Charles Wheelan, a senior lecturer and policy fellow at the Rockefeller Center at Dartmouth College is the author of “The Centrist Manifesto,” which calls for a new political party “of the middle.”  I appreciate his attempt to take a  non-partisan approach to the question of the impact of family structure on the economy in his recent article on U.S. News and World Report.  But I find it has a problem endemic to most articles on the topic– a narrow focus on marriage as the only family structure that could support children’s well-being.

Wheelan’s article references the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study. The study shows that “the gap in economic outcomes between single-parent households and those headed by married couples is large and growing.”  Although Wheelan admits “causality is tricky here” ultimately he puts the blame on “the breakdown of the traditional family.” (To make this point, he rather unfortunately relies on Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s 1965 report titled, “The Negro Family: The Case for Action.”)

In doing so, he fails to recognize the role a culture and policies that consider “traditional marriage” the only legitimate support structure for children might play in creating economic gaps between married and unmarried mothers.

As I have pointed out here before, a new study by Robert Moffit on government spending on social programs show that there has been a marked tendency over the past decades for voters to demand programs that separate the “undeserving” from the “deserving.”   And politicians use language that makes it clear that our social programs will give preference to the “Middle Class” deserving. American voters consider married people to be more deserving of assistance than unmarried people.

The idea here seems to be that women have made an informed choice, in a vaccuum, that they prefer welfare to marriage, as if those were the only two options. If those are seen as the only two choices for women, then it follows you would do all you could to encourage women to get married and stay married rather than to feed at the public trough.

According to the Moffit study I referenced above, aid to the poorest single-parent families in this country dropped 35 percent between 1983 and 2004. During that period, reforms substantially cut assistance to those with incomes below 50 percent of the poverty line, while expanding it to those between 50 percent and 100 percent of the poverty line and to those between 100 percent and 200 percent of the poverty line. As a result, these days “a family of four earning $11,925 a year likely [gets] less aid than a same-sized family earning $47,700.”

So what happens when you increasingly give priority to the married over the unmarried and shift economic aid from the second group to the first?

To quote Wheelan “the gap in economic outcomes between single-parent households and those headed by married couples is large and growing.”

You can perform a test as to whether it is marriage itself or economic policies that create the wealth gap by looking to other countries. It turns out that family composition in the US is not that much different from family compositions in Northern Europe, but they don’t have anywhere near the rates of child poverty we have. In case you were wondering, More than one in five American children fall below a relative poverty line, which UNICEF defines as living in a household that earns less than half of the national median. The United States ranks 34th of the 35 countries surveyed, above only Romania and below virtually all of Europe plus Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Japan.

Our attempts up to this point to encourage “traditional marriage,” therefore, do not seem to be solving the problem.

“Having a child out of wedlock is like dropping out of high school,” Wheelan wrote. This is true for women, but not for men. Men’s standard of living is actually improved by remaining unmarried. After a divorce, a man’s standard of living generally rises while the woman’s falls. So therefore these policies do not encourage marriage in general, they penalize and stigmatize female non-marriage while failing to address male non-marriage.

The question of the pay gap between men and women is a more urgent one for single women, and helps to explain differences in voting patterns between single and married women. If a man and a woman are married, and their money is pooled, it is not as important which one is making more. When a woman is reliant on her income alone she is already at an economic disadvantage as compared to an unmarried man even before you take into account the fact that she is most likely going to be the primary care giver of her children. (For more on the pay gap see my post Is Masculinity Unnatural.) So addressing the pay gap could be one technique for keeping children out of poverty.

The only real reference to fathers in the Wheelan article is a line that suggests African-American men are present but their relationships are “not durable.” “Family structure,” Wheelan says, “exacerbates racial gaps.” There are a lot of inferences here about cause and effect.

First off, notice that the U.S. News and World Report story is illustrated with a picture of a Hispanic mother and her child, not a white woman and her child. This re-enforces the idea that poverty is primarily a minority problem. In fact, the majority of the poor are white. Studies have shown that the more poverty is equated with minorities the more the problem is assumed to belong to “others” and the less inclined people feel to support “them.”  In fact, 40 percent of Americans will fall beneath the poverty line at some point in their lives, but most do not stay there long. Although the number of people beneath the poverty line and on public assistance remains fairly stable, the individuals who make up those groups are not. One person falls into poverty and another rises out of it.  Contrary to the popular image, the average poor single mother is white and suburban and she remains in poverty for a few years at the most.

When speaking about the durability of African-American families, it seems like a monumental oversight not to mention the structure of the criminal justice system and how disproportionately it impacts the lives of Black families. From 1980 to 2008, the number of people incarcerated in America quadrupled-from roughly 500,000 to 2.3 million people. Today, the US is 5% of the World population and has 25% of world prisoners. African Americans now constitute nearly 1 million of the total 2.3 million incarcerated population. African Americans are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of whites. Together, African American and Hispanics comprised 58% of all prisoners in 2008, even though African Americans and Hispanics make up approximately one quarter of the US population.  If current trends continue, one in three black males born today can expect to spend time in prison during his lifetime.

The causes for this are surely many, and it is an entire discussion itself. But without this information, there is the impression that Black men are mysteriously uninterested in being part of a family. Being married to a prisoner is probably not a huge improvement over being single when it comes to economic well-being and so encouraging marriage, in itself, is not likely to solve the problem of child poverty in this population.

When we talk about single mothers, we tend to use the language of personal choice responsibility. A single mother is assumed to have made a personal choice to be promiscuous, irresponsible or lazy as opposed to being unmarried because, say, her spouse died, (the military, incidentally, is disproportionately minority and working class),  she is gay and excluded from marriage in her state, her spouse was abusive, or her spouse went to prison, or she wanted to marry but was jilted or otherwise romantically unlucky.

Salon, today, ran an article arguing for a change in our tax and welfare priorities. That may be part of the solution, and is worth discussing, but it is not the point I am making here. Nor am I arguing against “traditional marriage.”  It is a great system that has worked well for many people, but it should not be the only tool in our belt.

In other cultures you might see great involvement of members of the extended family or the larger community in the care and well-being of children. We actively discourage this. We talk about adult children living in the same household as the older generation as if one of the parties was selfishly dependent on the other. (Rather than mutually supporting, as we talk about marriage.) We would consider platonic friends with children who lived together and shared household duties to be a bit strange, perhaps immature, and a bit suspect.

We can’t help children by stigmatizing the mothers they depend on. It exacerbates the very problems we are trying to solve. Focusing solely on marriage reduces the sphere of responsibility for children to two individuals. We limit discussion of how different support systems could operate and how our social institutions could be re-designed to better accommodate diverse types of families. Expanding the sphere of responsibility for families could create a firmer social foundation.

Why Do Some Defenders of Tradition Find Family Life so Unappealing?

A couple of stories have crossed my radar lately that have led me to ask this question.

University of Maryland sociologist Philip N. Cohen dissected the argument of the amicus brief filed by Hawkins and Carroll in Utah’s attempt to ban same sex marriage in that state. The brief makes the following assertion:

Traditional, gendered marriage is the most important way heterosexual men create their masculine identities. Marriage forms and channels that masculinity into the service of their children and society. Redefining marriage to include same-sex couples would eliminate gender as a crucial element of marriage and thus undermine marriage’s power to shape and guide masculinity for those beneficial ends….

Many of the historical supports that have traditionally preserved men’s involvement in their children’s lives have been eroding for contemporary families. Historically high rates of non-marital cohabitation, out-of-wedlock childbirth, and marital divorce have dramatically altered the landscape of fathering, leaving unprecedented numbers of children growing up with uncertain or nonexistent relationships with their fathers. …any signal that men’s contributions are not central to children’s well-being threatens to further decrease the likelihood that they will channel their masculine identities into responsible fathering. We believe the official de-gendering of marriage sends just such a signal.

Cohen sums this up this way: “Yes, the very existence of gay marriage will encourage the evolutionary tendency of (straight) men to neglect their children.”  (The full article is called “Does Gay Marriage Make Straight Men Hate Children?“)

The underlying assumption in this convoluted argument seems to be that left to their own devices, men would naturally not want to be fathers. As women are not brought up in this quote, a parallel assumption seems to be that women need no external coaching in femininity in order to assume full responsibility for their offspring. Women relish parenting, and would never have an impulse to escape the pressures of parenthood.  Right, ladies?

But wait, not so fast. Here comes conservative activist Phyllis Schalafly. Writing in the Christian Post, Schalafly makes the case that eliminating the income gap between men and women would lead to a breakdown of society:

Another fact is the influence of hypergamy, which means that women typically choose a mate (husband or boyfriend) who earns more than she does. Men don’t have the same preference for a higher-earning mate.

While women prefer to HAVE a higher-earning partner, men generally prefer to BE the higher-earning partner in a relationship. This simple but profound difference between the sexes has powerful consequences for the so-called pay gap.

Suppose the pay gap between men and women were magically eliminated. If that happened, simple arithmetic suggests that half of women would be unable to find what they regard as a suitable mate.

In other words, in Schlafly’s worldview women would have no inclination to marry if they were not financially dependent upon men.

Why do traditionalists like these think that family life is so naturally unappealing that people need to be coerced into it?

New Zealand MP’s Gay Marriage Speech Goes Viral

“I’ve had a reverend in my local electorate say, ‘The gay onslaught will start the day this law is passed,'” Mr Williamson said.

“Well, we are struggling to know what the gay onslaught will look like. We don’t know whether it will come down the Pakuranga Highway as a series of troops or whether it will be a gas that flows in over the electorate that blocks us all in.”

Government and the Blessing Business

This evening I decided to watch Meet the Press on my DVR.  It turns out the episode on my list was not from this past Sunday but from Easter.  One of the issues discussed on the program was same sex marriage and one of the guests was Brian Brown of the National Organization for Marriage.

He had a lot to say about “tradition” of course.  His main argument, as I understand it, is that “marriage” is a fundamental term that (ignoring plural marriage as practiced in Biblical times and in many parts of the world today) means a union of a man and a woman.  This is the most essential aspect of what a marriage is.

Just before he was cut off as the program ran out of time he said, “Gays and lesbians are free to live as they choose, but marriage comes before the state.  The state does not create it.”

He would have said more, but I think the essence of his point was made. If I understand it correctly it is that no matter what else you think a marriage constitutes, no matter what kind of property arrangements, whether it is a love match or a way for aristocratic families to insure their regal status, whether it produces children or not, at its most fundamental level it is a male and a female who enter the contract.

“The state does not create it…”

What confuses me about the argument is this– if the government aspects of marriage are not, at its core, what marriage is– then why oppose government recognition of the unions of same sex couples? What the state says is marriage shouldn’t have any bearing on what marriage really is.  Just as gays and lesbians are free to live as they please without a law to support them, those who disapprove are equally free to believe they do not have a “real” marriage if they law supports them.

If it is not the state that creates the marriage, then  is a committed, cohabitating straight couple who do not sign a legal marriage contract married?  If signing the legal contract with the state is the difference between being married and not married then how does the state not create it?  If, in some fundamental way, the couple is married by saying they are a committed couple even if they do not get the state involved then aren’t same sex couples already also married in the only way that matters?  Isn’t that idea of marriage, and not the joint filing of taxes, what actually bothers you? What am I missing?

What is a “real” marriage?  Is it the contract with the state or something else? These days, I think we might be inclined to say that people who did not love each other but married for money and status were not in a “real” marriage. Up to a century ago such a marriage, especially among the upper classes, would be typical and it would be absurd to suggest it was not a “real marriage.”  Property and title transfers were exactly what marriages were about.

Is it about children?   Much of the compelling state interest in marriage is about providing a secure environment for children, yes. But childless couples have what we consider to be “real” marriages, don’t they?  Infertile couples can marry. If a male and a female friend marry but do not have sex, is it a “real” marriage? If not, does that mean sex is the basis of marriage?

In fact, isn’t it this very question that troubles traditionalists?  It is not about gay sex.  It is that if we start to question exactly what marriage is we might find that we can’t redefine it because we’ve never really quite defined it to begin with.  (For a similar train of thought, see my entry Identity Fluid.)

I was reminded of an article I wrote about a year ago under the heading “Traditional Marriage” which I want to quote again here:

It seems that those who hold the “tradition” view believe society bestows an honor on those to whom it grants the status of marriage.  It is a celebration, a recognition and a welcoming of the couple into the larger community.  Some feel that the marriage of same sex couples is not something that society ought to sanction or bless.

What I found most interesting about this guest (see original article for the background) was that he said that there was nothing stopping gay couples from gathering with their families and holding a ceremony to honor their commitment.  He was not opposed to that, only to the government legally recognizing the marriage.  When it comes to the legal status of marriage he said (I’m paraphrasing a bit because this was a couple of weeks ago) “We have to decide if it is a benefit to society to allow that.”

What is odd about this is that government recognition of marriage is the one part that completely ignores the spiritual, romantic and community aspects of the union.  The government doesn’t care if the couple is serious, or committed or in love, or what their parents think, or if they go to church or wear white or plan to raise a family. The government cares if you filled out the right forms and paid the correct fee.

Just as the government is not honoring the proud parents when it issues a “certificate of live birth,” the government is not bestowing a blessing with a marriage license.  Governments are not in the blessing business.

The reason the government provides a legal status of marriage is to make it easier for everyone else.  By granting couples the status of marriage, many legal processes are streamlined.  We do not have to reinvent everything for each couple or each relationship.  We have processes for co-parenting, joint property, divorce, inheritance that, as long as there are not too many complicating factors, simplify things for the rest of us.  We don’t need long explanations of what the intentions of the two parties are because they have defined it using this legal umbrella term of “marriage.”

Not including same sex couples who have similar intentions in our legal category creates a lot of extra headaches, litigation and work for our system.

What is interesting to me about the panelist’s tradition argument is that he believes gay couples should actually be entitled to the blessing, the honor and the welcoming embrace of community. He would open all of the tradition to them, as he has no problem with them having wedding ceremonies and living as committed couples with all of the community acceptance of their status.

Listing a person of the same sex as spouse on an insurance form, however, seems to be the problem.

The fact of the matter is that “marriage” is not one thing. There are legal aspects and social aspects to marriage. Marriage is a property arrangement and can also be a spiritual bond. Even though we call everyone we’ve given this legal status “married” no two marriages are alike.

Wait, Would Jesus Back Gay Marriage?

You ever have one of those moments when you’re about to retweet an article in an almost knee-jerk fashion and you stop yourself.  Wait, do I agree with this?

I did today when I spotted a post by Lee Wind who maintains the excellent blog I’m Here. I’m Queer What the Hell Should I Read.  (The site primarily focuses on lgbt YA literature)  The title of the post, from an article in Salon was Jesus Would Back Gay Marriage.

I was ready to forward this on immediately because I support marriage equality, I believe Jesus was against creating social outcasts of any kind, and I find it positive whenever religious people make the argument that Christianity and homosexuality are not polar opposites.

Yet, the more I thought about it, the less sure I was that I would state so conclusively that Jesus would support gay marriage, but not for the reasons you might think. First of all, there is the not so little matter of assuming anyone can say what Jesus would or would not say and do were he time machined to the 21st Century.

The one thing I do know about Jesus was that he challenged everyone’s view of how society should be run in his day.  When his family came to see him, he sent them away saying that those who follow him are his real brothers.  His idea of what constituted family was broader than that of the people around him.  One could argue that he would not be in favor of same sex marriage because, like opposite sex marriage, it limits the sphere of responsibility from all members of the community to one, or with children, a few.  Instead of being responsible only to our legal spouses, we should all be subject to one another.

In fact, I don’t know if this is what he would say, given a crash course in our culture.  He might think that including gays in the social institution of marriage was the most compassionate direction because it does not condemn people for their differences.  Or he might say that our entire structuring of society needs an overhaul.  It would be interesting to ask.  One thing I am quite sure of is that his answer would be witty, thought-provoking and challenging.  I would be willing to bet it would not be what anyone expected.

Slavery, Boundaries and Marriage

I have been reading Jennifer Glancy’s book Slavery in Early Christianity.  In one passage, Glancy discusses writing by St. Augustine.  Something was happening in North Africa that concerned him. It was not that there was slavery, Augustine acknowledged the scriptural tradition that slaves should honor their masters, it was that there was a growing trend of enslavement of free persons.  Glancy wrote:

…the instability of the slave body attracted attention throughout antiquity.  How to account for the fact that under some circumstances– say, in the aftermath of war– free persons could be enslaved, or that in other circumstances a formerly enslaved body could walk free?  Particular circumstances, such as the sale of slaves, the flight of slaves and the freeing of slaves, forced attention to these borderline cases, instances where the demarcation was blurred between the well-defined bodies of free persons and the defenseless bodies of slaves.  If the boundaries of the slave body were unstable, not only could enslaved bodies metamorphose into free persons, but free persons could be thrust into a nightmare condition of servitude.  On this view– the view of Augustine and perhaps the universal view of the Roman World– the horror was not slavery.  This was not the expression of abolitionist nor antislavery sentiment.  The horror was that free persons would not be able to protect the boundaries of their own bodies and that they would be treated as surrogate bodies for others to use as they chose, with no legal or culturally sanctioned means of self-protection.

If the boundaries of slave and non-slave were unstable, what was to stop the free person from having to endure what the slave did?

This ancient question of boundaries also drives the opposition to same sex marriage.  Why do people who are against gay marriage speak with such a sense of threat and danger?

This, I believe, is the mindset: If the boundary of social respectability that separates me (as a straight person) from you (a gay person) becomes cloudy or disappears, how can I be sure that I will not fall into a disgraced state?  How can I be sure that I will continue to be in the good graces of society?  If heterosexual/homosexual is not the dividing line, what might it be, and which side will I find myself on?

The horror, in this way of thinking, is not that there are people being treated as less than full members of society– the horror is that we won’t be able to tell which people those should be.  The horror is that the people who were once deemed beyond reproach might not be.  If you are not the outcast, maybe I could be.  I don’t like to think about that.  So let’s keep things as they are.

“The Lifestyle”

I was having dinner with a friend recently and the subject of homosexuality came up.  “I don’t approve of the lifestyle,” she said.

Perhaps I should have asked what she meant, what aspect of the style of life of a gay or lesbian person was objectionable because all of the gay people I know live pretty much the same style of life as she does.  They get up, go to work, come home, check e-mail and watch TV.


I have been thinking about this word a lot.  We don’t use it that often really.  My main association, besides the expression “lifestyle choice” is “lifestyles of the rich and famous” with Robin Leach.

We talk about a rock star’s drug infused lifestyle, the lifestyles of young Hollywood starlets and the uber-rich swanning around on boats.  It is charged with the concept of things people do for fun, thrills or self-gratification. It is less common to talk about the “lifestyle” of someone who works five days a week and goes to church on Sunday.

The Oxford dictionary gives a second definition for lifestyle: “denoting advertising or products designed to appeal to a consumer by association with a desirable lifestyle.”

So the idea of marketing and consumer choice is also incorporated into the word.  Today we shop for lifestyles off the rack.

In my experience, people who speak of not liking “the gay lifestyle” are trying to suggest that they have no problem with the individual, simply how he chooses to live his life.

(In reality this is a false objection.  The speaker does not actually object to the “style of life,” which is probably quite similar to his own, but to who the gay person chooses to live his life with.  If this were not true one could not consistently object both to same sex marriage and to “the lifestyle” because allowing gays to marry makes their “style of life” more consistent with that of the heterosexual.)

Upon further research, I learned that the word “lifestyle” was coined by the psychotherapist Alfred Adler.  He used it in almost the opposite manner.  Adler’s “lifestyle” was not a choice about how to live, rather it was the individual’s personality that determined what his goals and therefore behavior would be. The life style, according to the web page A Tribute to Alfred Adler, is “one’s personality, the unity of the personality, the individual form of creative opinion about oneself, the problems of life and his whole attitude to life and others.”

Adler wrote, “If we know the goal of a person, we can undertake to explain and to understand what the psychological phenomena want to tell us why they were created, what a person had made of his innate material, why he had made it just so and not differently, how his character traits, his feelings and emotions, his logic, his morals, and his aesthetic must be constituted in order that he may arrive at his goal. If we could infer the individually comprehended goal from the ornaments and melodies of a human life and, on this basis, develop the entire style of life (and the underlying individual law of movement), we could classify a person with almost natural-science accuracy. We could predict how a person would act in a specific situation.”

But it would make no sense to approve or disapprove of a lifestyle in this sense— as the natural result of a person’s personality.  There is no point in objecting to something that is not a choice.  It would make no more sense than to object to the “lifestyle” of left-handed people.  (All that weird dragging of hands across ink.)

The word “lifestyle” as it is used to refer to gay people, therefore, suggests that the speaker believes homosexuals are oriented essentially like straight people but choose different behavior.

This brings up an obvious question:  Why would they?

It seems to follow this stream of logic that if people are choosing something (rather than being born that way) that there must be something appealing about it.  There must be something that is, in fact, kind of hard to resist.  Otherwise it would hardly be worth the bother of disapproving of it.

It may be that a large segment of the so-called heterosexual population can indeed imagine experimenting with gay sex once or twice for kicks.  But because they, themselves, are essentially wired for intimacy and love with those of another gender, they project and imagine that what a same sex encounter would be for them— a sexual experiment— is what it would be for all people.  Ergo, all gay encounters are focused on the sex and are in their very nature a form of promiscuity.  (This is, in fact, what I believe the authors of the Old Testament had in mind with those two references in Leviticus.  But that is a history discussion for another time and for people with better scholarly credentials than I have.)

Objecting to “the lifestyle” seems to be objecting to sexual experimentation without love, intimacy and commitment.

Yet this isn’t entirely true either because the same people who object to “the lifestyle” tend to oppose same sex marriage (which is the opposite of promiscuity) and to settle down with a bowl of potato chips to watch a marathon of Sex and the City.

In short, I have to conclude that the word “lifestyle” is code for “I’m creeped out by the idea of two dudes kissing.”

Fair enough.  There are a lot of people I don’t want to imagine having sex either, but I don’t think it should be illegal for them.  I can’t say I “disapprove” of the lifestyle of ugly people who have sex.

This brings me to my final thought on disapproving of a lifestyle.  What does it mean to disapprove?  People who live bohemian, non-mainstream lifestyles may not like the way the typical people who they see as boring and conformist live, but they rarely express it in terms of disapproval.

Disapproving is more than not liking or opting out.  It assumes, in essence, that your opinion matters.  It assumes that you get a vote.  You can really only “disapprove” from a position of power and security and the assumption that society is on your side.

In general, we do not welcome the views of others when it comes to our “lifestyle choices.”  How would you feel about someone who said she disapproved of your choice of religion or how many children you had or what you did on the weekends or how many hours you worked or what kind of career you had or how you spent your money?  These are all “lifestyle choices.”

Would you thank such a person for her thoughtfulness and concern for your well-being or would you instead reply with something along the lines of “well who asked you?”

Openly expressing disapproval of another’s life choices is generally considered to be a serious social no-no, isn’t it?  Sometimes, apparently, we make exceptions.

Biblical Marriage

In the Layman, Dr. JV Foster, president of the Bethesda Christian Institute, San Antonio, Texas, is quoted (or paraphrased) in an op ed against the ordination of gay clergy in the Presbyterian church.  His opposition is on the principal that “it is clear from the Bible that God intended marriage to be a sacred institution involving one man and one woman.”

I love the confidence of people who know what God wants, but I’m trying to figure out what part of the Bible makes it clear that a loving monogamous union between a man and a woman (presumably with consent of both the man and the woman) is what is meant by the term “marriage.”

By “Biblical marriage” do people mean:

A marriage in which unmarried women were the property of their fathers to be sold either to a prospective groom or as a slave? (Exodus 20 & 21)

Maybe they mean a marriage between a man and multiple wives (but not a marriage between a woman and multiple husbands). Lamech, Esau, Jacob, Asur, Jehoram, Joash, Ahab, Jeholachin, Belshazzar, Elkanah, and Rehaboam all had multiple wives. Abijah had 14. David and Gideon had many. Herod the great had 73 and Solomon had 700, plus hundreds of concubines.

Maybe they mean that if a bride is discovered not to be a virgin on her wedding night that she should be stoned to death? (Deuteronomy 22:13-21)

Or perhaps “Biblical marriage” is a forced marriage between a woman and her rapist. (Deuteronomy 22:28-29)

Or maybe they mean that a woman who is widowed should be required to marry her former brother-in-law. (Deuteronomy 25:5-10)

Maybe a “Biblical marriage” is one that permits a man (but not a woman) to keep numerous concubines? (Genesis 21:10 )

Is “Biblical marriage” one in which the women of a town at war are forced to marry men of the army that attacked them? (Numbers 31:1-18)

Or perhaps it is a marriage of a female slave to a male slave as dictated by their owner? (Exodus 21:4)

Perhaps they are taking as a model Jacob, who fathered the 12 tribes of Israel with two wives and two female slaves.

If, by the word “marriage” they have something else in mind, haven’t they already “redefined” marriage since the word was used in Biblical times?

I am not against that.