Archive for June 2011

The best argument against the existence of God that I have ever heard makes a mistake you see more often in "young earth" creationism.  It's the belief that time has a permanence, an importance, even a "reality" that we frankly should not trust.  Ironically, tracing the philosophy of religion through an argument that has led me to question this faith in time ... well, it requires a greater number of minutes than usual.

Different Drummer: Norman Kretzmann

An online friend asked a provocative question last week: Without using religion (there is separation of church and state still, right?), justify the ban on gay marriage. With New York recently approving gay marriage on a 33-29 vote, the timing of the question couldn’t be better.

I do not support gay marriage, and my reasons are political rather than “biblical.” It seems like the wrong answer to a very good set of questions:

  1. Shouldn’t someone facing life-and-death health circumstances have the person they love most at their side?
  2. Along the same lines, is it acceptable that a committed couple should be denied the right to answer crucial hospitalization and medical questions without carrying a briefcase full of legal documents?
  3. And many more, related to insurance, inheritance, etc.

I believe in the concept of civil union or civil partnership, and I’m very suspicious of all the emphasis being placed on the word “marriage.” I oppose gay marriage because government is a very ineffective tool for changing the definition of words. For the entire history of this country – and longer – “marriage” has been understood as a specific type of relationship between a man and a woman. This doesn’t mean that the language should not grow and evolve. It will and it must. I simply reject the emphasis being placed on labels (even where the labels may represent a legal shortcut) when crucial questions of human rights are at stake.

For the record: I do not support so-called “defense of marriage” legislation. Instead, I’m a proponent of a system that looks much more like the United Kingdom’s answer to this question. At the same time, though, I think both polar groups on this issue are intentionally fanning rhetorical flames. Why frame the debate around marriage when the critical issues are in the details? One answer is the shortcut, and another is confrontation.

The shortcut suggests that we don’t have to deal with all of the inequities in our system between marrieds and unmarrieds individually. If you expand the concept of marriage, then it works like a magic wand and all of the specific issues just disappear. Really?

Take another look at the vote that just passed in a state that, rightly or not, considers itself one of America’s most progressive. That’s a 4-vote difference. Maybe this sets the stage for hundreds of gay marriages in New York. It also sets the stage for a sickening display of American politics at its worst. Millions of dollars from all over the country are going to pour into legislative elections in upcoming months to change the 3 or 4 seats necessary to overturn the vote. If it doesn’t work, it represents a tremendous waste of money and human capital. If it does work, the maneuvering will put devastating uncertainty into the lives of people who already wrestle with disenfranchisement on a daily basis.

The liberal perspective is that gay marriage is the right answer. Ironically, liberals also have the perspective that “you cannot legislate morality.” Nevermind the assumptions behind words like “morality”; after all, we are leaving Christianity out of this discussion today. I’m more interested in the correct notion that the state legislature has no real power to change the hearts and minds of people. It has even less power when the debate itself is filled with angry words like bigot, hypocrite, and homophobe.

So much for the shortcut approach to using marriage as a wedge. Yes, it avoids the issue-by-issue grind of dealing individually with questions about adoption, insurance, inheritance, etc. On the other hand, if you really want to change the hearts and minds of citizens, you cannot sidestep those debates. It ultimately takes even more time to remove questions around key issues from the government and drop them into the laps of (potentially confused) citizens.

I fear that a large factor in the emphasis on marriage is confrontation. Forget the shortcut component, if only because it won’t make the ultimate changes in society any faster. Insisting that the balancing of rights hinge on the word “marriage” seems instead to be a technique to draw the religious right into battle. Perhaps I’m being cynical … not nearly as cynical as this approach to the issue, if I am correct.

Look at the rhetoric. I’m not referring to the shameful things the religious right has said and done. If you need another finger to point accusingly at them, I’ll raise mine now. There.

No, look at the rhetoric from the other side. If you are an ardent supporter of gay rights, be honest with yourself. At some point in this article, you carefully considered whether I should be described as homophobic or bigoted. I’m not making an accusation; no, I’m merely pointing out that we’ve been handed an issue where every answer is either 1 or 10 on a scale of 10. We should be dubious when a debate like this doesn’t have any scores in the 2-4 or 7-9 ranges.

Well, 29 legislators in New York voted against gay marriage. Are all 29 of them prejudiced and radically opposed to human rights? Isn’t it more complex than that? Don’t get me wrong. It might not be hard to find very homophobic and misinformed people on that side of the ledger. But it might be an act of discrimination to assume such discrimination.

One of the key reasons I prefer civil partnership is that it opens up the debate and forces everyone to address the issue with the details of human rights concerns exposed. I believe that many of those 29 “no” votes in New York would support hospital visitation and consent rights. We don’t know because we didn’t ask them that question, and a dozen other similar questions.

If we take that issue-by-issue approach, I believe we will separate the bigots from those who (like me) are particular about language. We’ll divide what I call the politically-active Christians from the Christ-followers as easily as separating hate from love. Why wouldn’t we relish the opportunity to have this debate? My fear is that the agenda isn’t really about the rights of oppressed people, and it is more about calling our political enemies inflammatory names.

Civil partnership would have passed in New York, and probably by a bigger margin. The legislature and perhaps the courts would have more work to do, but it would be righteous work … where the “right” in righteous would be all about civil rights. I suppose it is possible that some of the 33 yes-voters might have abstained in protest over terminology, but I also believe terminology would have brought in more yes-votes from the other side.

As a heterosexual man, I know I can’t really empathize with gay friends on this issue. I can sympathize, though. I understand the importance of being recognized, and I know the historic dangers represented by what I’d call invisibility. Will Americans decide one day that our historic definition of marriage is too narrow? Perhaps. It just won’t happen because Congress or the president or courts insisted.

As a side-issue on the notion of civil partnership: I would not limit this concept to sexual relationships. Even a committed platonic couple should be permitted to carry their partnership into legal contracts or end-of-life decisions without unnecessary or discriminatory hurdles.

Homophobia is probably a big reason why we don’t see more of these relationships today. Friends may fear the bigotry they see directed toward gays and lesbians and wouldn’t want to walk that path in a celibate partnership. I wonder if they would find support from gay rights groups or not. Perhaps they’d be seen as “something else” or even as a threat to the fight for recognition.

I am serious about this concept. If the U.S. adopts the approach of gay marriage at this time, we will still need a civil union concept in the future to cover the needs of non-sexual partnerships. The fact that this group will be even smaller makes the situation more disconcerting. I believe the religious right would be just as opposed to this non-traditional lifestyle. I have a secret suspicion that gay rights groups would stand silent, too.

So, is the question we are debating from state to state really about the rights of couples who don’t fit the historic definition of “marriage”? If so, then we should change the terminology or more honestly confront our own prejudicial assumptions.

6) America could not provide adoptive homes for more than a million children per year over limitless successive years.  7) After agreeing to pay a clinic several hundred dollars, a woman does not need an extra day of waiting to decide if she is doing the right thing.  8 ) Most Americans do not know the names and telephone numbers of more than 30,000 women, and certainly none can name that many new acquaintances for each calendar year.  9) If doctors never study or practice the abortion procedure, then an emergency abortion to save the life or health of a pregnant woman is less likely to be safe and free from complications.  10) If a person threatens the life or welfare of a man's wife, most of us would understand the man's decision to kill this assailant -- even if we wouldn't take that same action ourselves for moral reasons.

Different Drummer: Aristotle

1) Abortion is not murder.  2) Abortion is a bad thing.  3) Human beings are a species in no danger of extinction.  4) You can stop abortion only by eliminating the demand, not the supply.  5) The immorality of abortion will not be reduced by making the practice stringently illegal.

Different Drummer: Tony Kaye

Gameplan for upcoming Inappropriate Conversations

  1. 10 Areas of Agreement about Abortion ...
  2. ... requiring two parts to cover properly
  3. Time to accept our limitation: specifically, that's the belief in time

Inappropriate Conversations
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