Friday, September 5, 2014

Seeing What the Church Will Do Unbullied, There's No Occasion To

I'm not sure what to make of Conor Friedersdorf's latest venture into the turmoil over same-sex marriage.  The title and opening are especially problematic: "Will Christians Ever Bless Gay Marriage?", with the subhead "Some writers think that even as society changes, orthodox believers will stick to traditional beliefs."

Insofar as the title and subhead seem to equate "Christians" and "orthodox believers," they depend on a faulty assumption, albeit one often used by reactionary believers when convenient: "Christianity" means only those who fit a narrow and unrepresentative range of what I'll call the spectrum of Christianities, except when it doesn't.  (So, for example, fundamentalists will point to the fact that the vast majority of Americans identify themselves as Christians in order to advance their theocratic agenda, even though they don't consider the vast majority of Americans to be real Christians and will denounce them as apostates, etc.  Reactionary writers like Rod Dreher have drifted toward the label "traditional" Christians instead, but as Dreher himself admitted in one of his better pieces, it's surprisingly difficult to define what a "traditional" Christian believes.  In practice, at least for people like Dreher, it mainly seems to boil down to opposition to same-sex marriage.  But Dreher also is willing to recognize that "traditional" Christians as he imagines them are a dwindling minority among American Christians, though he exaggerates slightly so as to indulge the traditional paranoid delight in persecution -- or rather, the fantasy of persecution -- that so many Christians cherish.

Friedersdorf himself, to judge from this article, doesn't subscribe to this confusion.  He recognizes the range of beliefs and values held by Christians, and does a good job answering a writer, Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry, who argues against the "false premise" that Christianity does change its values and will abandon its opposition to same-sex marriage.  I will concede that some Christians never will accept it, just as some Christians cling to theologically based anti-Semitism, sexism, and other forms of bigotry.  Hell, there are some Christians who still want the Catholic Mass to be celebrated in Latin only.  There's no reason why all believers, or all churches, should agree on any issue.  And it might bear reiterating that the legal recognition of civil marriage between same-sex couples in no way obliges a denomination to recognize them, any more than it must sanctify heterosexual civil marriages involving spouses of different denominations, or a divorced spouse in denominations that don't recognize divorce, or any number of other pairings.  Catholic churches are not, as far as I know, being burned down or priests lynched or jailed for refusing to marry such couples in church.

I'll add something to Friedersdorf's discussion, though.  He quotes the writer he's rebutting, who's much given to straw men and false antitheses:
"Christianity's view of sexuality isn't some encrusted holdover from a socially conditioned patriarchal era on its way out, but is instead deeply connected to its understanding of who God is and what human beings exist for."
It's interesting to me that Gobry qualifies his claim somewhat by referring to Christianity's "understanding of who God is and what human beings exist for."   That concedes the debate right off the bat.  I'd expect a traditionalist Christian to insist that he is enumerating God's understanding.  From there I need only point out that "some encrusted holdover from a socially conditioned patriarchal era" and "its understanding of what who God is and what human beings are exist for" are not mutually exclusive -- indeed, that it's quite thinkable that a traditional Christian understanding could also be an encrusted holdover from a patriarchal era, etc.  I think the burden of argument lies on Gobry to show why it isn't, and he doesn't do so.

Gobry also whines that the proponents of same-sex marriage believe that "if you just bully Christianity enough, it will find a way to change its view of homosexuality ..."  Like many traditionalists, he assumes that advocates of same-sex marriage are not Christians (see the confusion I addressed above), though as Friedersdorf points out, the pressure to change Christian understandings of homosexuality (and of sex generally) has mostly come from within the churches, from Christians rather than unbelievers.  If it were up to me as an atheist, I would resist putting any external pressure on religious believers in this regard at all, if only because external pressure only gets believers' backs up.  But again, I think it will be mostly Christian or other religious GLBs who'll be having tantrums when their churches refuse to bless their marriages, and will want to throw out the First Amendment in the interests of their God-given right to have a church wedding.

I have my disagreements with Friedersdorf on many aspects of this controversy, but he did a good job this time in answering Gobry, and he quotes some useful arguments from comments under a Rod Dreher post that cited Gobry.  Even so, I object to his conclusion: "It's hard to imagine that Jesus wouldn't prefer that to the previous arrangement."  I think that anyone who reads Jesus' many antisexual teachings in the gospels should find it easy to imagine that Jesus would not accept same-sex marriage or openly gay followers.  Friedersdorf talks a lot in this piece about "love" as a reason for accepting same-sex marriage, but any conception of Christian love that appeals to Jesus as a model must account for such dominical teachings as "Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire."  As an atheist I don't have to reconcile Love and Hellfire, but Christians do.