Sunday, March 2, 2014

They Don't Make Bigots Like They Used To

I tend to get Ross Douthat mixed up with Rod Dreher, but I think that's understandable because they're often grinding out the same stuff, so much alike that it seems to be written by the same person but published under different names.

So Douthat has an op-ed in the New York Times, "The Terms of Our Surrender" (via), in which he declares that before long the Supreme Court will "redefine marriage to include gay couples in all 50 states."  That "redefine" is, of course, a signal of Douthat's bad faith: partly as a dog whistle insinuating that all marriage will then have to be same-sex (a patent falsehood), and partly because as Douthat knows very well, marriage has been "redefined" many times just in Christian history.  As another conservative writer noted, for example, "While same-sex marriage may be an absolute novelty, there have been pitched battles over the definition of marriage before, as when the Catholic Church told the barbarians who had overtaken the Roman Empire that they could not continue their practices of cousin marriage—a tradition from time immemorial—if they wished to be Christians."  (Even this writer, who gets a lot of things right while still opposing same-sex marriage, talks about marriage as if it were only a Christian institution -- as though other cultures and religions, which constitute most of the world and of human history, didn't exist.)

Douthat goes on to consider two possibilities.  One, which he sees as the better one, is that
this division will recede into the cultural background, with marriage joining the long list of topics on which Americans disagree without making a political issue out of it.
In this scenario, religious conservatives would essentially be left to promote their view of wedlock within their own institutions, as a kind of dissenting subculture emphasizing gender differences and procreation, while the wider culture declares that love and commitment are enough to make a marriage. And where conflicts arise — in a case where, say, a Mormon caterer or a Catholic photographer objected to working at a same-sex wedding — gay rights supporters would heed the advice of gay marriage’s intellectual progenitor, Andrew Sullivan, and let the dissenters opt out “in the name of their freedom — and ours.”
("Gay marriage's intellectual progenitor, Andrew Sullivan"?  Erm, no.)  The other scenario Douthat envisions is one " in which the oft-invoked analogy between opposition to gay marriage and support for segregation in the 1960s South is pushed to its logical public-policy conclusion" and sincere believers are forced to take photographs at or bake cakes for gay weddings lest they "be treated like the proprietor of a segregated lunch counter, and face fines or lose his business."

This is also disingenuous, signaled by "without making a political issue out of it."  The religious opposition to same-sex marriage is already political.  But more important, this scenario is exactly what the "marriage equality" movement is aiming for, since it is about civil marriage not religious marriage. Just as they can now, "religious conservatives would essentially be left to promote their view of wedlock within their own institutions."  Churches don't have to recognize heterosexual marriages that don't conform to their norms: interfaith unions, remarriages by the divorced, interracial marriages, cousin marriages, and so on.  And what about atheists or agnostic or other people who belong to no religious sect?  We can marry, heterosexually, but our unions are no sacrament, and we don't care if they're recognized by churches; we just want recognition by the state.

Even this state of affairs presents problems for traditionalists, of course.  Should a Catholic-run school or hospital or other institution be required to recognize the heterosexual marriages of staff who aren't married in the Church for purposes of benefits?  (Pensions, health insurance, and the like.)  I presume that this isn't a problem, as it shouldn't be, but if the Church doesn't object to treating unmarried-by-Catholic-rules couples as married in these circumstances, they're already sliding down the slippery slope of complicity with Mammon.  And how many people would sympathize with them for withholding such recognition?  Not many, I speculate, even if that's partly because of the widespread popular confusion about the difference between civil and religious marriage.

One way to solve the problem would be to rename all civil marriage as "civil union," thereby leaving the word and concept of marriage to religion.  This could be done by a law which declared that every reference to "marriage" in the statutes would be replaced with "civil union."  (This is, as I understand it, normal practice in numerous European countries, even those with official state churches.)  Some opponents have said they'd be willing to extend all the benefits of marriage to same-sex couples under the rubric of civil unions, but they never seem to consider that for real equality, they would need to do the same for mixed couples.  That would at least show their good faith, but I don't think it ever occurs to them, and that's a sign of their bad faith.  I really doubt that many people would go along with this move, however, even among traditionalists.  Americans are just too used to thinking of civil unions as marriage.

It's interesting that Douthat doesn't seem to object to the demonization of Christian racial segregationists, though Christian faith was invoked as a foundation for segregation.  He doesn't give any reason why the two cases should be treated differently.  He seems to want to dissociate himself from Christian racism, as in his reference to "racist holdouts like Bob Jones University, losing access to public funds and seeing their tax-exempt status revoked."  This betrays a shocking lack of respect on Douthat's part for Christian traditionalists who objected to the redefinition of American life by atheist Communists and activist judges.  He's ready to throw such people under the bus, but not opponents of same-sex marriage.

For all that, Douthat concludes:
I am being descriptive here, rather than self-pitying. Christians had plenty of opportunities — thousands of years’ worth — to treat gay people with real charity, and far too often chose intolerance. (And still do, in many instances and places.) So being marginalized, being sued, losing tax-exempt status — this will be uncomfortable, but we should keep perspective and remember our sins, and nobody should call it persecution.
I agree with him there, but the issue goes way beyond same-sex marriage: it's a problem built in to the concept and policy of freedom of religion.  Freedom has its limits, as conservatives have always loved to point out except when it affects them, and one of the downsides of living in a pluralist society is that you have to live and interact with people very different from you, and it's not always clear in advance who will have compromise their principles, or how.  As I've pointed out before, it's a sign of how far even self-styled traditionalists have surrendered to the society they attack that none of them talk about recriminalizing sodomy; they're willing to let Sodomists and Sapphists have civil unions (which they think of as separate-but-equal, as I noted above), visit their partners in the hospital, and so on; even their defenses of heterosexual supremacy are phrased much more mildly than the bigotry of the past.  Someone like Benjamin Carson or Phil Robertson, who merely continues to use the antigay tropes of a generation ago, is an embarrassment to them.  They don't even seem to realize how much they've already surrendered -- not the larger society, but they themselves.