Thursday, May 10, 2012

Why Conservatives Should Support Marital Equality

Social conservatives are absolutely right when they claim that marriage is a central institution in our society and deserves to be protected. Marriage is important. In fact, I argue that the decision of who to spend your life with is too important to be left to religions.

The case for marital equality is not about "legitimizing" a homosexual lifestyle, any more than accepting a Jewish marriage is about "legitimizing" a Jewish lifestyle. Even a conservative who believes that God has commanded against homosexuality should recognize that the issue isn't religious ... it's a case of individual liberty. Conservatives should embrace this draw-back of intrusive government power into one of the most personal of decisions.

My Secular Wedding

My fourth wedding anniversary is in one week. In 2008, I became a husband and father. The picture on the right is from that day, when we became a family.

That almost did not happen ... at least if certain religious people had their way.

We had two different top choices of ministers to marry us and neither of them would do it. One, a high-school friend of Amber's, refused because we were "living in sin" at the time. Our second choice was the lead pastor at the evangelical church that we attended semi-regularly. We didn't even bother to ask the minister there. Amber's first marriage, 5 years earlier, had been there and she knew the hoops that they'd had to jump through. This church only performed marriages if both people testified that they had been "baptized in the Holy Spirit" (whatever that means), and she knew that there was no way I'd say that I had been.

Based upon two separate religious definitions of marriage, our family didn't make the cut.

Imagine, for a moment, how that feels. How would it feel to have your own church decide that you were not fit to be married within it? To decide that your family cannot be formed, because you don't fit the nice formula that they have outlined for how families should come into existence?

For someone who was just at that moment beginning to have an affinity for living a religious life, who was transitioning somewhere on the spectrum from militant Agnostic to skeptical Seeker, this was enough to make me once again feel my old resentments against religious authority. For my wife, things were even worse, as she had been raised to love God and Jesus and to accept religious authority as absolute. The religious rejection turned her heart away from the church far more than mine. I expected the church to disappoint me; she expected it to save her.

Jesus was all about taking broken thing and making them whole. And, really, that's what marriage is, in a religious context ... taking two broken, imperfect individuals and making them into a whole that is greater than the sum of the individual parts (though still imperfect). Though I'm no Biblical scholar, I do have a hard time picturing a scenario where a couple come to Jesus and ask whether they should be married, whether they should bond their lives together in love, and he tells them no, because one or both of them hasn't lived up to his moral virtues.

Still, that's what happened to us.

Defending the Rejection

Now, let me be clear before I proceed: These two ministers absolutely had the right to set their own rules about who they will or will not marry. If a minister doesn't want to marry people who are living in sin, that's fine. No religious official should ever be forced or pressured into performing a marriage that they do not believe is sanctified by their religious office.

Nor, for that matter, do I believe that in either of these cases was the decision personal. From what I can tell, both of these ministers like me as a person and, whether or not they believe I'm going to Heaven or Hell, treat me with every measure of respect and dignity in every interaction with them. I consider them both to be friends.

But, the fact is that neither of their religious convictions would have allowed them to marry us.

Fortunately, that's where the government comes in ...

Government to the Rescue

It turns out that the government of the state of Indiana doesn't make religion the defining requirement for a marriage. No state does, in fact. (You might be surprised to learn that if you've been following the heated political discussions about the definition of marriage).

Rather than hunting around for a church that wasn't so picky, we decided to just go to the courthouse and get married. Amazingly, given much of the political rhetoric these days, the government actually performed a useful function.

And now we are married. In fact, I don't imagine that anyone would really argue with the definition, despite where the marriage were held. If, for example, I decided that I wanted to walk away from the marriage, I doubt that Amber's minister friend - the one who refused to sanctify our wedding - would suddenly say, "Well, you know, she doesn't deserve any portion of the house. You were living in sin at the time and got married by a judge. That doesn't count as a real marriage."

It turns out that marriage is, in fact, always a secular institution in the United States, unless the individuals involved choose to make it religious. And, in that case, the individuals involved are the ones who get to choose which religion they want to involve, along with all the rules that religion may bring along.

We're so used to thinking of marriage as a religious institution that this realization may take a while to sink in, but I can actually prove that marriage isn't about religion. Consider the following two examples:
A Hindu couple is married in a Buddhist ceremony and obtain a valid marriage certificate, raise a family together for thirty years until the wife dies of cancer with the husband at her side through the entire course of failed treatment.
A Christian couple is married by a minister, but no marriage license is filed, and they break up a week later.
From a legal standpoint, which of these couples is really married? Which one qualifies for spousal benefits? Which one honors the values that social conservatives claim to hold so dear?

We all know the answer: In the United States, a legal marriage does not have to follow a religious definition.

Equal Protection

Now comes the unfortunate part, at least for social conservatives. Since marriage is not inherently a religious institution, religious arguments about how to define it cannot be the entire parameters of the debate.We have to look at the secular document at the heart of our democracy: the Constitution of the United States.

The Constitution makes no explicit mention of marriage, though there is the Full Faith and Credit Clause in Article IV, Section 1:
Full Faith and Credit shall be given in each State to the public Acts, Records, and judicial Proceedings of every other State. And the Congress may by general Laws prescribe the Manner in which such Acts, Records and Proceedings shall be proved, and the Effect thereof. 
When interracial marriage was forbidden by state law, this clause was never invoked to force a state to recognize a marriage that was forbidden by their laws, but some people believe that it could be interpreted that way. Lawyers defending the constitutionality of gay marriage would use this argument. If supported, it would mean that a state which doesn't allow gay marriage would have to recognize a gay marriage from another state. Thus far, this hasn't been fully decided at the Supreme Court level yet. Still, this concern was the basic reason that the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) was enacted ... to define marriage as between a man and a woman for the purposes of federal law.

The reason for this is that, despite being completely absent from the Constitution, the federal government gives a lot of rights to married couples. The instant that you get married, you gain 1,138 rights, privileges, and benefits that are dependent upon that marital status.

However, DOMA and gay marriage bans in general potentially run afoul of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which stipulates that:
No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.
This "Equal Protection Clause" is significant, for two main reasons:
  1. Individual rights are also protected from the State, not just the Federal government. In the words of Judge Andrew Napolitano, if the federal government can't do it, the state government can't either (from an interview on The Daily Show).
  2. All persons within a jurisdiction are to be given the "equal protection of the laws," which has been the basis for much anti-discrimination legislation
And this comes back to my situation.

A gay couple would be told that churches won't marry them. They could eventually find a church that would marry them, but it wouldn't be a legal marriage. They would never have the legal recourse of going to the courthouse to get married. The secular law that protects the consensual marriage between me and my wife does not extend equally to a consenting adult gay couple.

Religion and Heterosexism

This is a clear inequality in how the law is implemented, based solely on who an individual falls in love with and wishes to marry. The question of whether or not homosexuality is a choice is, in my opinion, completely irrelevant to this discussion.

However, the basis of religious liberty is that individuals do choose what religious faith they wish to embrace and in what way. Christians cannot choose what the Bible says about homosexuality, but they do choose how they deal with the reality of a homosexual in front of them, based on their reading of the Bible. Is the choice about how to act based in the love that Jesus preached for all mankind or the condemnation that Paul seemed to reserve specifically for homosexuals?

The clear bias among vocal Christians is to choose the path of condemnation. Even many people who don't have any problem with homosexuality itself - such as people who have close gay friends - still believe that marriage itself is a religious institution that shouldn't allow homosexuals. They casually adopt a heterosexist viewpoint (as opposed to a homophobic one) because they believe that's their only option as Christians.

But it's not, no more than the only option for Christians is to tell women to remain silent within Church. Each Christian has the ability to choose their interpretations for themselves, without giving up their right to be called a Christian.

As Pastor Benjamin Dixon writes:
"When did homosexuality become the number one enemy of the church? Sure, the Bible says it is a sin: an abomination even. But the amount of hatred and bigotry that foments to the surface of the Christian church in regards to gay rights is astonishing. I can speak to this first hand. I preached against homosexuality with the same amount of fire-and-brimstone energy as any other preachers. Then one day, I grew up." 
"No other issue brings the church together more than our opposition to homosexuality. We are divided on abortion rights. We are divided on social justice. We are divided on race issues. But homosexuality, we all agree to hate with biblical zealotry...."

It's time for Christian Americans to grow up and stand up for freedom of marital choice. Our laws should reflect the reality which is now clear to those who are willing to open their eyes and see it. Legal marriage is a secular institution that is invested with certain legal rights, and as such those rights must be extended equally to everyone. The religious element of marriage is completely outside of the government's right to legislate.

Let's consider one last couple and whether or not they qualify as married:
A gay couple is married in Unitarian-Universalist ceremony. They raise a family together for thirty years until one dies of cancer with their partner at their side through the entire course of failed treatment.
Social conservatives are right. Marriage does mean something. It is important. In fact, it's too important to let any religious person tell you that the couple described above is not married.

There are tough choices to be made in our society, to solve the very real problems facing America in the coming years ... but whether or not two loving people should have their union protected is not one of them.

Related Articles:

Mother Jones - N.C.'s Amendment 1 Doesn't Just Screw Over Gay People
Gallup Politics - Half of American's Support Legal Gay Marriage
The Coffee Party USA - Andrew Sullivan on Marriage Equality and Obama's Landmark Statement Affirming It (with a great, emotion-charged audio clip)
God Is Not a Republican - For Every Christian that Opposes Gay Marriage
Rachel Held Evans - How to win a culture war and lose a generation
LiveJournal - When Same-Sex Marriage was a Christian Rite (Disclaimer: I am not vouching for the validity of this one, just thought it was interesting. I don't have the historical background to know if any of this is true.)

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

National Day of Reason: 5 Reasonable Books to Read

With two young children, I don't get a ton of time to read. My library (both the Kindle library and the physical one) is growing much faster than I have any hope of keeping track of. Listening to the occasional TED talk or podcast helps keep me up to speed but, often as not, it just makes me ache for time to get into the meaty topics that I'm not able.

So, in honor of today, the National Day of Reason, I'd like to present the top five reason-themed books that I'd like to read next.

Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believer's Guide to the Uses of Religion 
by Alain de Botton (Amazon, B&N)

This one's been sitting around waiting for me for a few months, ever since I saw Alain de Botton give a great TED talk and then listened to him on the Philosophy Bites podcast. This book seeks to engage religious thought in a more civil discourse than the slate of "new atheist" tirades that have come out in recent years.

His central thesis seems to be that far from being useless and backward, religions have developed a refined understanding of how human beings form communities, how they learn, and how they are motivated. Atheist and other secularists, in trying to avoid the negative trappings of religion, have also abandoned all of the good stuff that religion has gotten right.

This strongly resonates with my own life. Until about age 30, I had absolutely no interest in religion, except for the consideration of its historical role. However, just a few years back, I began attending church and found that it spoke to my personal needs in a way that was very unexpected ... by me as much, if not more, than anyone else. Who knew that religion could serve a functional purpose?

I can't wait to see if any of Alain de Botton's insights on the utility of religion mesh with my own life experience.

The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion 
by Jonathan Haidt (Amazon, B&N)

Following in the footsteps of the previous book, Jonathan Haidt also tries to understand both sides of the political and religious divide and foster communication instead of squashing it. He, too, gave a great TED talk (plus another one a few year back, actually) and also a Point of Inquiry podcast interview, regarding the central themes of his book.

It's an absolute truth about the human condition that we seem hard-wired to believe certain sorts of religious ideas ... but some people embrace this tendency and others fight against it. Haidt studies the causes for these differences and has found that liberals and conservatives (loosely defined) have different types of brains and embrace different sets of values to different degrees.

In this book, he has done his best to quantify those results in a way that's accessible to the general public. For example, conservatives value loyalty far more than liberals, while liberals are far more concerned with equality. Both groups care deeply about justice, though they define the concept in somewhat different terms, leading to significant disagreement about how to implement public policy.

These and similar findings seem like they may be crucial in really understanding the split in human thinking that causes so much conflict in the world.

The Tyranny of Cliches: How Liberals Cheat in the War of Ideas 
by Jonah Goldberg (Amazon, B&N)

I just learned about this book this morning, when I heard Goldberg interviewed on NPR. Though I didn't agree with all of his conclusions, I did enjoy reading Goldberg's previous book, Liberal Fascism (Amazon, B&N), so am very interested to read this one as well.

In this newest book, he seems to focus on how liberals use cliches to stifle debate ... and dissects what he sees as some of the more pervasive cliches. As the title suggests, he feels that this is cheating, and that the debate should take place to actually figure out which ideas win out. He lays the central idea out in the NPR interview:
"What you have often in American political discourse are appeals to cliches that steal territory, steal terrain unearned by argument. And all I want is an argument."
The book would no doubt be far better if it focused on how both sides of political discourse invoke cliches and catchphrases as a means of shutting down debate on an issue, stealing terrain that they haven't actually proven, but Goldberg is a conservative author so he seems to be focusing his arguments primarily at the left wing ... which is his prerogative, of course. As a conservative, he no doubt feels that the right wing has earned their terrain.

And, as he points out in the interview, he doesn't feel that the conservative catchphrases are taught in schools and universities with the same level of infallibility as the liberal ones. This is probably a pretty valid complaint, although ignoring the fact that they're taught at home and through repeated mantras on Fox News seems a bit disingenuous. I think there are a fair number of young conservatives who have received conservative cliches through osmosis over their lifetime.

I personally consider myself a centrist, but I do tend to agree more with the moral ideology of the left. Or, at least, I tend to disagree with it less. I consider left-wing ideology annoying and simplistic, but right-wing ideology is typically abhorrent to me, making me often stuck on the left wing by default. I'll be interested to see if I agree or disagree with Goldberg's dissection of the left's debate-killing cliches. The interview, at least, raised concerns that I agree with ... and which seem to be in line with promoting reason.

Irrelevant Note: On Barnes & Noble, the audiobook version of this is $72! What the hell is up with that? Does the audiobook involve Jonah Goldberg coming to your house to narrate the book in person?

Attack of the Theocrats: How the Religious Right Harms Us All -- and What We Can Do About It 
by Sean Faircloth (Amazon, B&N)

Sean Faircloth is a former member of the Maine Legislature who has since become the director of strategy and policy for the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science. He's also written a book about the disproportionate and unrelenting influence that religious people and movements have upon political candidates, officials, and campaigns.

Like several of the other books, I learned about this author when listening to a Point of Inquiry podcast, in which Faircloth discussed his book. The basic theme is that the role of government is to remain completely objective, staying out of religious matters entirely (or, at least, as much as it possibly can). Their role should be strictly to make sure that individuals are able to practice their religion without impediment from others, including the government itself ... not to actively facilitate any particular religion or religious approach.

Instead, religious officials have inserted themselves firmly into the political landscape to a degree that is damaging to the free exercise of political power. The population at large subsidizes religious activity on a massive scale through tax breaks that give religious work a place of priority over and above other sorts of similar charitable work, such as running a non-profit organization that serves community needs.

Doubt: A History: The Great Doubters and Their Legacy of Innovation from Socrates and Jesus to Thomas Jefferson and Emily Dickinson 
by Jennifer Michael Hecht (Amazon, B&N)

This is an older book that has come up in my recommendations and which, frankly, I just can't pass up. I did look and it turns out the author also did a Point of Inquiry podcast interview, although this was a few years back when the book came out and I haven't listened to it. Still, the very notion of a historical look at the phenomenon of doubt seems intimately appealing to me.

It seems to me that doubt is one of the most important motivators of progress in our history. You cannot move forward if you aren't willing to question authority and that is, ultimately, the central component of doubt. Doubt is the foundation of any application of reason, so understanding it is crucial.

Other books of interest: