Religious Belief And Bigotry

Supreme Court Hears First Amendment Case On Protests At Military Funerals

One of the many great things about blogcations is they take you away for a while from the frenetic day-to-day pace of opinion. You get to see some of the debates with a little more clarity a few steps out of the fray. So here’s a small addendum to the argument about whether all those opposed to marriage equality are ipso facto bigots, which seems to be the position of various writers out there.

One obvious objection is that the word bigotry is far too crude to define the vast array of feelings, ideas, arguments or mere ignorance that can lie behind opposition to gays getting married. Using the term “bigotry” or, even worse, the hideous propaganda term “hate”, just doesn’t do justice to the range of human reaction to profound social change. To make an obvious point – around a third of Americans have changed their minds on the subject in the last decade and a half. Bigots, by definition, are not open to such shifts in opinion. You can’t reason someone out of something they didn’t use reason to get into. So a third of previous opponents were persuaded. Not harangued, persuaded. Of course, as time goes by, that makes the remaining residue of opponents more likely to be bigoted overall. So how to tell if that’s truly the case with those who are left?

There are two basic reasons behind religious objections to marriage equality. The fundamentalist Protestant one is simply Biblical. Gay sex is outlawed in Leviticus and Romans. The test for bigotry here, it seems to me, is consistency. The fundamentalist has to account for her choices about which Biblical verses she takes seriously today. Does she follow all of Leviticus? So why not the death penalty for gays? And why is she eating shrimp? Does she regard marriage as a realistic, short-term concession to human nature before the End Times, as Paul did? It’s not hard to see if consistency is at work here. If the only sins a fundamentalist wants outlawed relate to gay people, then we’re talking prejudice. If a fundamentalist has no objection to divorce, but wants gays outside of marriage, we’re talking very selective sins. True Biblical consistency – not politicized cafeteria fundamentalism – is quite hard to sustain in modernity.

Equally, the Catholic position – that all sex outside procreative marital monogamy  is immoral –  requires consistency.

If gay marriage should be illegal, so should divorce. If a Catholic is campaigning against gay equality while doing nothing and saying nothing about civil divorce, my alarm bells go off. If a Catholic insists on the immorality of gay sex and yet uses contraception, the same point applies. Or if a baker is happy to make a cake for a Satanist gathering, a re-marriage or an IVF child, but not for a gay couple, then, hell yes, they’re bigots (even though I wouldn’t sue them).

This leads to a remnant of principled, non-bigoted opposition to civil marriage equality. The first and most defensible variety, it seems to me, is a pure and minimalist conservatism that distrusts such a big change in a core social institution, and just says no. (Of course this may change as the landscape alters, and no obvious harm seems to be happening.) The second is a consistent religious position – either Biblical or in natural law. To conflate these sincere people with hateful bigots is as empirically false as it is politically counter-productive.

Twenty years ago, I was confidently told by my leftist gay friends that Americans were all anti-gay bigots and would never, ever back marriage rights so I should stop trying to reason them out of their opposition. My friends were wrong. Americans are not all bigots. Not even close. They can be persuaded rather than attacked. And if we behave magnanimously and give maximal space for those who sincerely oppose us, then eventual persuasion will be more likely. And our victory more moral and more enduring.

(Photo: Betty Phelps, daughter-in-law of pastor Fred Phelps and a member of the Westboro Baptist Church, demonstrates outside the Supreme Court while justices hear oral arguements in Snyder v. Phelps, which tests the limits of the First Amendment, October 6, 2010 in Washington, DC. By Chip Somodevilla/Getty.)