Monday, April 1, 2013

On Equal Rights: Making Room for Conversation on Gay Marriage

It's hard to have a conversation about homosexuality and gay marriage. Well, it's hard to have a conversation between two people with differing opinions on the issue. It's a hot topic, one that has the ability to push buttons that run deep to the core values of one's belief. When conversations with conflicting values get started, they often end with loud voices, unhelpful superlatives, and hurt feelings (and very rarely with changed opinions). So, it seems now that most of these "conversations" happen online - Facebook posts, blogs, instagram photos, news headlines, and tweets.

While this is probably not universally true (there are likely folks with opposing viewpoints who are able to engage in intelligent conversations in helpful ways), it seems to be the trend. With this trend, the social media messages with the widest audience are the ones with the most polemic and polarizing views. Very rarely to I read something with a middle-of-the-road opinion on the topic.

Well, this blog is not really my apologetic for one position or another on the topic of homosexuality or gay marriage. Likely most have an idea on what I believe. Those who think that my view is similar to theirs are probably sad to know that I'm not arguing in favor of it here. Those who assume that my opinion is different than theirs are probably relieved that I'm not posting my opinion for fear that they would have to "unfriend" me as a result.

What I want to do here is point out some of my own observations of the conversation itself. The purpose of this post is to reveal elements of the rhetoric that add to the controversy. Likely, some of my own views will come out in the midst, but I hope this is helpful to both sides (as if there were only two).

Here is my question: Do we want to engage in conversations about homosexuality and gay marriage, or do we want to establish our opinion as truth and declare all other opinions incorrect?

My assumption: Engaging in conversations about homosexuality and gay marriage across opinion-lines will help create mutual understanding and appreciation. While eventually individuals will have to agree to disagree, this can be done cordially through respectful conversations. Conversations are more effective and appreciative of the humanity of others than the ideological and over-generalized campaigns that are commonplace in the homosexuality debate.

Equal Rights vs. Equal Rights

The most recent social media trend for gay marriage supporters has included facebook account holders changing their profile picture to a red equal sign, with a caption or comment explaining their support for equal rights. The message is that those who support gay marriage support equal rights. This argument intrinsically implies then that those who do not support gay marriage support "unequal rights" or "inequality." To be sure, this is a powerful and effective way to state your opinion on your issue without allowing for any response. But, it's also an unfair way to engage in the conversation, automatically putting those with a different opinion on the defensive.

Those who oppose gay marriage would be offended by the accusation that they support inequality. Instead, they might suggest that they support equal rights, but define "equal rights" in another way. While the red-profiled would say that equal rights means that each person has the equal right to choose who they want to marry or the equal right to marry who they love, those who oppose gay marriage suggest that everyone already has equal rights to marry a person of the opposite sex.

Does "equal rights" mean that each person should have the right to marry who they choose, even to choose differently than someone else? Or does "equal rights" mean that everyone has the same right to choose a member of the opposite sex to marry or not to marry at all. Obviously, one could take the words "equal" and "rights" and make a logical argument for each case. Really "equal rights" is an undefined phrase that does not have universal meaning.

To use this phrase effectively, one must work hard to define both "equality" and "rights." Does "equality" refer to the application of the law, that it's applied to each individual in the same way? Or does "equality" relate to each person's choice and creating laws which allow each person to make life choices based on their own worldview?

What about "rights?" This word, in my opinion, is even more difficult to define than "equality." What determines if a value is a right of humankind? Is something a right of all humanity or just citizens of a particular country? Are rights defined by a government or law, or are they defined by universal morals or beliefs? Are there rights on layered planes that can compete with one another? Are there rights that intrinsically implied by the fact of one being a human that compete with rights afford by a church or a government? Are all rights good? Is it better to have a right to choose good or evil, or to have rights to the good and have laws that force a person one way or another concerning the practice of this right?

So, are you for "equal rights?" I am!

Comparing to Civil Rights Movements of the Past

One interesting element of the conversation as of late has included the comment that "one day, we will look back at this movement for same-sex marriage in the same way we look back at the women's suffrage movement and the civil rights movement." This is a very interesting perspective to me.

The civil rights movements in the past were movements seeking equal treatment for people who were being denied particular opportunities or rights (there's that word again) based on their gender or ethnicity. Women were denied the right to vote, which men had. African Americans were denied access to places of business, areas of residence, education, safety, and other components of common life based on their race.

On the one hand, this is not an entirely accurate parallel. Under one understanding of equality, everyone has equal rights when it comes to marriage. Both homosexuals and heterosexuals can marry a member of the opposite sex.

On the other hand, this is a meaningful parallel. There is a group of people in the US - the LGBTQ community - that is disenfranchised and alienated in our midst. The legalization of same-sex marriage would be received as a major victory in the liberation of this community. This is reminiscent of another understanding of equality, more connected to equal freedom to choose based on personal feelings and attraction.

Defining Marriage

The value and meaning of marriage is up in the air in these days, even outside of the same-sex marriage debate. Most religious traditions understand marriage in some spiritual or theological way. For Christianity, for example, marriage is a sacred institution that has being ordained by God since the beginning of creation. It holds metaphorical implications for the relationships between God and humanity. For Roman Catholics, marriage is a sacrament (that's very important). For Protestants, Catholics, and Jews there is an entire book of the Bible dedicated to the sexual relations between a husband and wife. Sexual, marital relationships have spiritual implications in addition to their social ones.

For the government, marriage is more of a social institution. It has implications for what services and resources are available. Taxes, income, adoption, health care, credit and inheritance are all different for married couples than for single people or non-married homosexual/heterosexual couples.

This separation between a sacred and social understanding has long caused controversy in the US. This has been especially true when it comes to divorce. While most (if not all) states in the US have provisions for no-fault divorces, many Christians believe that divorce should only occur in situations of infidelity or abuse.

The separation in understanding of marriage between religious institutions and public/political institutions is augmented in the case of same-sex marriage. Religious institutions are concerned with maintaining the sacredness of marriage based on their theological tradition as understood through the lens of their hermeneutic for theological truth. The government is concerned with having the best policy for the US based on the vote of the people and the economy and well-being of the citizens and infrastructure of the country.

Now the line between the sacred and secular understandings of marriage is a bit cloudy. Even with the separation of church and state and the understanding that the government should not make laws which establish or disestablish any specific religious tradition or practice, a person's worldview is often developed based on their religious or areligious beliefs. In other words, if a person believes that God has defined marriage in a particular way, he or she will believe that this definition is the best definition for everyone. So while these people may agree with the concept of separation of church and state, they cannot simply turn off their worldview of what is right and wrong when it comes to the political realm. For them, it is not about forcing their religious beliefs on another, but trying to establish what they believe to be the best choice and "most right" for everyone. This is true for religious people on both sides of the debate, not just those against same-sex marriage. While there are those whose religious beliefs do not "cross over" to the rest of life, this is not typically the norm those engaged in traditional models of particular traditions.

All of this being said, when a group seeks to define marriage in a particular way via the law, the religious perceive this proposal through a theological lens (either for or against). In the same way, when religious individuals seek to explain marriage from a theological perspective, parties begin perceiving these descriptions through a political or social lens. While one would like to be able to cleanly separate the sacred from the secular, this is really impossible. A worldview cannot be segregated in this way. What a person believes is what they believe until they believe something else.

Different Starting Points

Before any productive conversation can occur, we must be willing to admit that each side is starting from a different perspective. A lot of the unhelpful (and just plain malicious) statements and accusations come from a lack of understanding of the other side's view. Members and allies of the LGBTQ community experience all the realities of their situations in our culture. They really feel romantic attraction to members of the same sex, have questions about their own sexuality identities, and cannot just change their minds about who they love and not. They are well aware of how they are alienated in particular environments. They have real feelings of loneliness and isolation when their way of life is perceived in negative ways. This experience drives their desire to make changes that would affirm their feelings and accept their desired way of life.

Christians are operating under the assumption that God created and ordered the world in a specifc and ultimately good way (that was corrupted by sin). The way in which God has chosen to reveal what we need to know for salvation is included in the Bible. Within Christianity itself there are dozens, if not hundreds, of different models for theological truth.  I discuss some of these ideas here with The Davenport Hypothesis. I have written several other blogs on this topic as well, so feel free to paruse some of them here if you're interested! Some rely very heavily on Scripture while others depend less. Usually Christian models of authoirty include some variation and balance of reason, tradition, experience, the Bible, the Holy Spirit, community, and Jesus Christ. There are so many different ways for these elements to be arranged and related to one another. Some such models provide arguments for gay marriage and others against it. The diversity of starting points is increased exponentially when the conversation expands to include all religious and atheistic traditions.

So, with these in mind, there are a few adjustments we should all make in engaging in conversations about homosexuality and same-sex marriage:
1) We shouldn't begin talking until we're willing to take the time to learn where the other side is coming from.
2) Not all LGBTQ community members and allies believe the same thing.
3) Not all Christians believe the same thing.
4) Statements or rhetoric that insult the other's worldview, beliefs, or personhood should be left out of the conversation totally. While one can critique the philosophy of the other through cordial and logical arguments, doing so motivated by hate or utilizing insults and profanity is not productive (or persuasive).

In Conclusion

I started with these elements:

Here is my question: Do we want to engage in conversations about homosexuality and gay marriage, or do we want to establish our opinion as truth and declare all other opinions incorrect?

My assumption: Engaging in conversations about homosexuality and gay marriage across opinion-lines will help create mutual understanding and appreciation. While eventually individuals will have to agree to disagree, this can be done cordially through respectful conversations. Conversations are more effective and appreciative of the humanity of others than the ideologically campaigns that are commonplace in the homosexuality debate.

My stated purpose was to point out how some elements of the rhetoric actually fuel the controversy rather than seek to solve it.  I hope that this blog helps point out some aspects of the conversation that you hadn't thought of fully before.

I have to confess that I do not approach this topic as an objective, non-biased spectator. I do have a perspective on this issue that I believe it to be towards a correct perspective. So, although the point of this blog is the help the conversation move forward towards resolution with the least amount of destruction as possible, I am not trying to suggest that "all views are created equal."

I affirm marriage as a sacred covenant between a man and a woman. I also believe that I can better understand the issues by talking with those with opinions different than my own. I also know that all the details and ramifications of my perspective are still in process of being worked out. I am ready to engage in conversation, are you?

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