Friday, January 25, 2008

Dialogue Is Hard -- Let's Go Shopping!

If religion is purely a matter of faith beyond reasoned debate, then who could object if believers participate in the public sphere? But when they do, there is no reason anyone should take them seriously, whatever their position may be. “The Lord wants us to do X” or “God says we shouldn’t do Y” – let them speak by all means, but then smile indulgently, as at the prattling of a child, and then return to serious discussion. These people have declared themselves irrelevant. They haven’t been excluded by wicked, narrow-minded secularists – especially in the church-ridden United States, where most public discussion will involve believers of some stripe – they have excluded themselves, by their own refusal to engage.

The first question to put to such believers is: “How do you know what God wants? This believer over here says that God wants the opposite. How do I decide which one of you is telling the truth?” I’ve often asked exactly this of gay Christians. Why should I take their version of Christianity more seriously than I take Pat Robertson’s or Pope Rat’s? If they reply at all, it’s usually along the lines of, “Well, I never said you should!” So why did they pipe up in the first place?

Part of the problem is that the level of public discussion, especially in the US, is so dismally low. Most people seem to think that all they have to do is state their opinion, and that’s that. But stating your opinion is the beginning of discussion. Someone else will disagree with you, and where you do go from there? Most people have no idea whatsoever, except perhaps to say, “Everybody’s entitled to their opinion! It’s a free country!” Many people take any disagreement at all as an infringement of their First Amendment rights. They confuse respect for their right to hold an opinion with respect for the opinion itself.

I’m not talking only about religious fundamentalists here, but about liberal Christians. Such people often complain that Christianity in America is being equated with ignorant, bigoted bible-thumpers who read Left Behind, not nice people like them. It’s true, fundamentalists tend to regard only themselves as Christians (except when they’re trying to inflate the number of self-identified Christians in the US); but then liberals tend to do the same. I’ve mentioned before the gay minister who said he preferred the term “Religious Right,” because he didn’t like to think of the Christian right as Christians.

Or the exclusion can be a little more subtle. When Barack Obama invited a self-styled ex-gay gospel singer to participate in his election campaign, he chided his critics in an interview in The Advocate:

Part of the reason that we have had a faith outreach in our campaigns is precisely because I don't think the LGBT community or the Democratic Party is served by being hermetically sealed from the faith community and not in dialogue with a substantial portion of the electorate, even though we may disagree with them.

This is a revealing statement. Obama was saying that “the LBGT community” is “hermetically sealed from the faith community” and “not in dialogue” with it. As though “the LBGT community” contained no people of “faith”! (And with Obama and the other Democratic candidates waving their cult affiliations around, it’s equally dishonest to say that the Democratic Party is sealed off from the “faith community” as well.) That’s what antigay religious bigots would like you to believe, of course, but it’s not so. It’s primarily the antigay “faith community” that is not interested in “dialogue” with the rest of the electorate; they simply want to lay down the law – not to argue with their opponents, but to preach to them.

But I say “primarily” because in general the progay “faith community” is not much more interested in dialogue. Remember the gay minister I just mentioned. Or Joe Solmonese, the head of the Human Rights Campaign, who said that “There is no gospel in Donnie McClurkin’s message for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people and their allies.”

For all that, the Human Rights Campaign fought its battle in press releases, not in action: “A vigil that was planned to protest outside of the concert included only about 20 people, almost all white, who held signs like "We are Here, We are Queer, we are voting next year," while across the street long lines of African-Americans, who seemed still dressed for church, waited to go into the event that started at 6 p.m.” But hey: dialogue is hard work, I’ll be the first to admit that.

There’s one other line that believers will use when they claim that they’re unjustly excluded from the public sphere: What about Martin Luther King, Jr.? Well, what about him? It’s true that King was a Christian minister, but one thing that struck me when I read a collection of his speeches recently was how little he relied on god-talk when he wasn’t giving a sermon. King didn’t need to. He had a perfectly good secular argument: full equality for people of all colors is guaranteed by the Fifteenth Amendment to the American Constitution. He didn’t have to argue for the justice of the principle. What he and the movement he spoke for demanded was that the principle be put into practice, against all the lies and evasions and fierce opposition of American whites. Hence the title of his book, Why We Can’t Wait, answering the claim that “you can’t change people’s minds overnight,” a claim that’s still being made to defend racism and other forms of bigotry to this day, fifty years later. Never forget, either, how many American Christians opposed racial justice on “faith community” grounds; some of those, like Jerry Falwell, went on to establish the Christian Right as a political force. Religious belief can’t settle these matters; believers who claim that their position “is just a matter of faith” are right that far; but religious beliefs, be they conservative or liberal, are simply irrelevant to social and political conflicts.