Thursday, June 7, 2012

A Touch of Class, a Dollop of Religion

A reader sent me e-mail today about my post on Mark McCormack's The Declining Significance of Homophobia, speculating that the gay-friendly, un-macho environment McCormack found in three British high schools was due to class.  I suspected that myself at first, but it's incorrect.  First, he found the same conditions at all three schools, including "Fallback High," which drew its students from a lower-class demographic.  Second, even "Standard High," according to McCormack, contained a "demographic similarity to the population of the United Kingdom -- its students reflect the race and class profile of the country as a whole" (12). Third, other research in the UK indicates declining homophobia everywhere else.

For a moment I thought I'd misunderstood my reader.  He also alluded to his experience as a student in an upper middle class Midwestern high school where competitive masculinity and fag baiting were dominant, so maybe he thinks that homophobia increases with class status.  That's doubtful, since the research (cited by McCormack) points in the other direction: homophobia tends to be be associated with lower socioeconomic levels.  But it still won't work, because it doesn't fit with McCormack's findings, or the other research he cites.  My reader also forgets that McCormack didn't claim that homophobia had never been a problem in British high schools.  Quite the contrary, he was surprised by the openness he found these schools because his own high school experience had been so traumatic.  What McCormack was saying was that homophobia had declined drastically.

I wrote back, pointing all this out.  Apparently I was convincing, because my reader responded with a different tack:
My fear is the growing militancy of the religious right.  As they are potentially ”losing” the broader cultural war, they are retreating into a deeper and deeper abyss of militancy and lunacy themselves.  The stuff on Dispatches from the Cultural Wars is amazing, for example.
Fair enough, but that's why I said, and repeat now, that we don't dare be complacent.  If society is presently becoming less homophobic overall, there's no guarantee it won't become more homophobic again in the future.  A lot of people want to believe otherwise, like an old friend now on Facebook who recently posted there:
Five hundred years ago we were certain the world was flat. Less than two hundred years ago we were certain the earth was the center of the solar system. Today many are certain Gays will never have the right to marry on a national level. One can only imagine what we will be certain of in fifty years....
If you're going to mock other people's mistaken certainties, you need to have your facts right.  I pointed out that the earth was known to be round five hundred years ago, and the sun was known to be the center of the Solar System two hundred years ago.  Obviously there were dissenters on both questions, but that means you have to question who's meant by "we."  He replied that he was paraphrasing someone else's idea, but that's not an excuse.  Today, what I mainly see is triumphant certainty that Gay marriage is the wave of the future; even some of its opponents say so.  My friend is also mistaken, by the way, when he talks about "the right to marry on a national level."  Civil marriage is the business of the states, and will continue to be so even if the Supreme Court strikes down state measures against same-sex partnerships.  (Compare Loving v. Virginia.)  If the federal Defense of Marriage Act is repealed or overturned, that still won't affect state marriage law by itself.  But I digress.

Back to my correspondent.  I also worry about the religious right, which is why I warn against complacency.  (As I have done for some time, including when liberals danced prematurely on the grave of the Wicked Witch of the Right after the Vindication of November 2008.)  The opposition rarely disappears entirely; it's arguable that even support for the God-breathed institution of slavery didn't die out after Emancipation, but was resurrected as Jim Crow.  But I still think his concern is misdirected.  First, even younger fundamentalist Christians in the US are breaking with their churches over antigay doctrine.  I may disagree with some of their rationales as much as this antigay Catholic blogger does, but that is relatively unimportant, since moral judgments are rarely driven by logic.

I'm also in surprised agreement with rightblogger Rod Dreher, who points out that although younger evangelicals may point to antigay bigotry as their reason for leaving their churches, liberal denominations that have already changed their teaching are also losing younger members.  He sees this as part of a general abandonment of organized Christianity by younger people in favor of a "spiritual but not religious" identity, and I suspect he's right.  Dreher asks these younger Christians, rather snidely, "if 2,000 years of Christian tradition and the clear instruction of the Bible indicates that maybe they, and contemporary American culture, have this wrong?"  Why not, since Christian tradition and the clear instruction of the Bible have been wrong on so many other issues?  Slavery, for example, which even Dreher seems disinclined to defend despite its acceptance by two thousand years of Christian tradition and the clear instruction of the Bible.

There's another side to this, however, and that's the involvement of gay Christians, often from fundamentalist or other reactionary backgrounds, in the gay movement.  This goes back even before the gay Baptist minister Troy Perry founded the Metropolitan Community Church in 1968.  When he began organizing the 2000 Millennium March on Washington, he touted it as an occasion to spread the Gospel, which didn't go over well with more inclusive GLBT organizers.  I've also encountered numerous self-identified Christians who'd carried over much of their doctrinal baggage when they came out, without having considered the possibility that if their churches were wrong about homosexuality, they might be wrong about other things -- contraception, abortion, or the ordination of women, for example.  As Nancy Polikoff says, Christian-right influence on the American view of marriage has influenced the movement for same-sex marriage.  I don't know of any numbers on this, but I speculate that gay Christianity has helped push the gay movement to the right.  In that respect, though, they would only have made the movement reflect American society as a whole.  My point is merely that fundamentalism doesn't necessarily equal homophobia -- but there are plenty of other good reasons for rejecting fundamentalism, Christianity, or religion in general.

This is one more reason why I distrusted Barack Obama early on: he talked as though gay people were absolutely separate from the churches.  For example:
If you’re segmenting your base into neat categories and constituency groups and you never try to bring them together and you just speak to them individually -- so [if] I keep the African-Americans neatly over here and the church folks neatly over there and the LGBT community neatly over there -- then these kinds of issues don’t arise. 
This is typical Obama disingenuousness, letting the Right set the terms of discussion.  In fact, he had been segmenting his base, inviting an antigay African American preacher to perform at an African American gospel concert; he probably wouldn't have brought him to a fundraiser at a predominantly white Episcopalian church.  As if there weren't any gay Christians, or gay African Americans for that matter!  And as if we needed Obama to "have a conversation" that had been going on already for decades, blocked more by the religious right's refusal to have a conversation than by the gay movement's resistance to engage with believers.  Right-wing Christians preferred Karl Barth's dictum that belief cannot argue with unbelief, it can only preach to it, and chose to see gay Christians as non-Christians rather than as dissenting brethren.  Which is fair enough, on their terms, but isn't a marker of good faith in a pluralistic society.

It's probably pertinent here that Mark McCormack's Religious High wasn't an Anglican school, which might have indicated that its openness was due to the relatively welcoming Anglican doctrine.  No, it was some other denomination, which McCormack carefully doesn't name.  To me that points to a more "conservative" sect, though I could be wrong.  But Religious High was just as inclusive as Standard High, and it was at Religious High that an openly gay boy was elected president of the Student Council.

I'd also point out that the Religious Right isn't only a threat to gay people or to non-Christians: it's hostile to other forms of Christianity, especially the liberal varieties. The danger I see is that controversy in the US (as in most places) is discussed at such a low level.  Liberals find it difficult to contend with the Right effectively, and just about everyone wants debate to be "civil", by which they mean nonexistent.  (What usually happens -- ingroup jeering at the other team, by both sides -- is mostly useless.)  Disagreement is painful; someone's feelings might be hurt.  So they drag their feet until someone really gets hurt.  Maybe we really can't do any better than that.  For right now, I'll point again to the likelihood that if homophobia is declining, it's due mainly to the the courage of (mostly) ordinary gay people who chose to come out to the straight people in their lives, insisting on and establishing our ordinariness. 

We also need to remember the ordinariness of our enemies, even someone like Pope Rat, who'd like us to think he's someone special.  We don't have the institutional power to crush them, and that wouldn't be a good outcome anyway.  Instead of hoping for apocalyptic triumph, we need to think practically about ways for people who disagree fundamentally to co-exist (not necessarily get along) in human communities.  The exciting possibility raised by McCormack's research is that we can do it, from below rather than from above.