March 25, 2013 – Neal Sumerlin
First, thank you for your willingness to engage in civil discourse about an issue on which we have profound disagreements. The easiest (and frankly, the laziest) thing to do in this situation would be to hurl insults at each other that imply the other party is irredeemably stupid or evil or both. I think it’s much more productive for us to listen to each other, to understand as best we can, even if we remain in disagreement after dialogue. Indeed, I don’t expect anyone’s position to change, yours or mine. But I do hope for a greater understanding for both of us.
Second, since I am going first and have promised you the last word, I will not only address the arguments you used in your March 17th letter to the News & Advance (and in the more complete version posted on your blog), but will anticipate the arguments you might use. I realize I will be “responding” to things you have not said, but I hope you will forgive that and understand the reasons.
We have mostly disposed of the issue of the headline over my News & Advance letter of March 7th (Homophobia Rules Supreme) by realizing that I did not write it. I do not and would not use that as a blanket term for all who oppose marriage equality or gay rights, and I would not use it to describe someone with whom I am no better acquainted than I am with you. There are people, however, whose opposition is rooted in fear, and for them the term is accurate. I know that because I used to be one of them. So it’s not a term to be tossed out lightly, but it is a term with real meaning and accuracy in some cases. Thinking from my own past attitudes, in a milder form this is often just the “ick factor”. Imagining the sexual practices of others that we might find distasteful is not a good guide to public policy; to each his or her own.
Your letter uses the rather shopworn rhetorical device of the slippery slope, imagining all sorts of dire consequences should we allow same-sex couples to marry. There are so many things wrong with this argument. It’s frankly akin to a magician’s sleight of hand, designed to distract you from the real action. “If you allow A, then B, C and D will logically follow. Surely you don’t support B, C and D?” Sounds like the domino theory of geopolitics in the 1960s. Let’s confine our discussion to A, shall we?
You state, and I take you at your word, that your objections to marriage equality are based not in science, but in “a system of morals informed by a long and consistent Christian tradition”. This is where we sharply diverge, for several reasons. I take this to mean that even if science were to show that sexual orientation is innate and not a choice, that you would still object, and I find that troubling. What I know of my own sexual orientation and what I observe in others leads me to believe that it is in fact innate. But since we both agree that there is no conclusive evidence on this question, we’ll set that aside.
More troubling to me is the idea that this objection is consistent with the teachings of Jesus. I want to make a clear distinction between those teachings as revealed in the Gospels, and the historical traditions of institutional Christianity. I regard many of the latter as barnacles on an otherwise beautiful vessel. What I believe you are appealing to is more a tradition than a moral stance. The moral stance of the Jesus of the Gospels is far less concerned with adherence to tradition than it is to an expansive and inclusive sense of justice and mercy. I believe he probably liked my favorite verse in all the Bible as much as I do: “…what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” Justice is (among many other things) the righting of ancient wrongs, kindness is (among many other things) wanting for others what you have for yourself, humility is (among many other things) great reluctance to claim God-like power to judge and to condemn.
We’re all familiar with Bible verses that are said to condemn homosexual behavior, and I imagine equally familiar with interpreters who see these passages as more ambiguous. Again, let’s put that aside. The Bible can and has been used to justify everything from infanticide to slavery, and claiming Biblical authority as your sole support is pretty dangerous. It’s a library, not a book; which Biblical attitude are you citing? Claiming that the Bible is free of contradiction or error flies in the face of obvious evidence to the contrary. So at this point you and I are left with different views of what an ancient text is telling us about how we ought to live our lives, and how we ought to treat others.
Although one’s religious views surely influence the positions taken on public issues, we live in a democratic republic, not a theocracy. We decide these issues through courts and legislatures and referenda, not by religious decrees from priests, preachers, or mullahs. For a very long time, opponents of marriage equality could rightly claim that the only victories for its supporters were in courts, and that voters roundly rejected the principle at every opportunity. But courts are how our system protects us from a tyranny of the majority. Gays and lesbians will always be a minority of American citizens, and until such time as the straight majority sees them as equals, courts will be the means by which their rights are guarded. I am amazed at how quickly public attitudes have shifted. Marriage equality has been approved by voters in Maine, Maryland and Washington. You are already in a national minority that will only shrink as a new generation matures. History is moving in the direction of marriage equality, and probably faster than either of us believed possible. I imagine you find this distressing. I find it heart-warming.
Not all historical trends are good ones, of course. American majorities have supported all sorts of heinous ideas. So why am I supportive of this principle? I have to think about my own marriage and why I might wish for the joy I have found there to be available to others.
Sex is a wonderful and joyful aspect of my marriage, but it certainly doesn’t constitute the whole of it. My wife and I chose to (and thankfully were able to) have and raise children, a gift not only to us but more profoundly to the society in which we and they live. But if we had chosen otherwise, or if nature had chosen for us, that would not have made our marriage invalid. I think what is at the heart of this relationship is commitment (we will celebrate our 39th anniversary this summer), companionship (she truly is my best friend), and intimacy (which includes but is not defined by sexual intimacy). Stable and committed partnerships are good things, good for the couples involved, good for children who are raised by them (yes, I believe gay and lesbian couples should be able to adopt), and good for the larger society. Why would we not want to support such partnerships? I’m far more concerned with “redefining marriage” as a maybe-sorta-let’s-see-if-this-works-out arrangement than with extending the concept to same-sex couples. Heterosexual couples are far more of a threat to traditional marriage than homosexual couples ever will be.
I wish I had come to this attitude earlier in my life. My children were able to do so because of changing societal attitudes, where it was a little easier (though still not at all easy) for their friends to come out to each other. Their impatience with anti-gay attitudes is fueled by a genuine failure to comprehend why this should be a big deal to anyone. Good for them. I had to learn the way most people learn to overcome prejudice—by actually getting to know the objects of my prejudice. Senator Rob Portman learned the same way when his son came out to him. Good for him. Most of us are not saintly enough to inhabit the minds of people we do not know, to practice true agape love to strangers.
Finally, I want to say that we are talking about marriage as though it were a single entity, when in fact there are both legal and religious aspects that have been interwoven for a long time. Although I might wish that all religious institutions would support marriage equality, I realize that they certainly will not. No one can force a church or any other religious institution to recognize the religious validity of any marriage it chooses not to recognize. No one can force a pastor or priest to perform a marriage that he or she chooses not to perform. This is as it should be.
Marriage IS a civil right, despite protestations to the contrary. Telling a committed couple that they may not do so IS a violation of their privacy. “Traditional” marriage is just that, a tradition, not a moral dictum, and a tradition that has assumed its present form historically recently. And the arc of the moral universe DOES bend toward justice.
Fr. John’s next response here: https://allsaintschurchlynchburg.org/fr-john-responds-neal-sumerlin-post-4-2/