Several readers have pointed to an online column from a writer who cherry-picks and badly distorts things I’ve written in past blog commentaries, in an attempt to misconstrue my views on homosexuality as something they aren’t, and me as someone I’m not. I would like to set the record straight about what I believe.
I am an Orthodox Christian, and believe my faith teaches truth, even when those truths are hard for me to accept, or run counter to what our mainstream culture believes. My first book, “Crunchy Cons,” detailed how my Christian faith and my cultural conservatism sometimes put me at odds with both the mainstream left and the mainstream right. I don’t fit easily on either side, in my economic beliefs, foreign policy beliefs, or social and moral beliefs. On the gay marriage question — the focus of the recent column — I believe in traditional marriage. But I have many friends — straight and gay — who disagree with me, and do so in good faith. These are fine people; I respect their views, and value their friendships. I particularly despise the Orwellian term “homophobe,” which is not only inaccurate but an epithet used to silence and suppress diverse and complex ways of thinking and talking about the mystery of human sexuality. I have gay friends, including one of my oldest and dearest companions, whom I love and respect. It would be wrong to look at them and judge their entire person based on their opinions on religion, politics, sexuality, or anything else, and I hope they feel the same way about me. Beware those, liberal or conservative, who reduce others to mere slogans.
My belief on sex and sexuality is ordinary, plain-vanilla Christian orthodoxy: I don’t believe in sex outside of marriage, period. I don’t think that’s what we were made for, and however old-fashioned that may be, I’m certainly not ashamed of my belief; in fact, learning to live by it changed my life very much for the better. At the same time, I don’t hold gay folks to be any better or any worse than straight people who fall short of this ideal, as most of us have done at some point in our lives (as I indicated, before my own adult conversion, I did not live up to this standard, and I regret that). I grew up in a small town, the kind of place where everybody knows everybody else’s business, and you have to learn how to be tolerant of differences, and to treat people with respect, to get along with your neighbors. My family taught me to judge people not by the color of their skin, the clothes on their back, or anything other than on the basis of their character. I try my best to live by that standard. My Orthodox Christian faith also teaches me to embrace humility, and to think of my own sins, not the sins of others. This is something I also try to do … and fail at, and try again. It is frustrating to me that my mere Christian orthodoxy is held up by some to be reason to dismiss my entire range of views about family, place, community, and loyalty. I will not apologize for my religious beliefs, nor will I apologize for the love, admiration, and affection I have for the gay people I’ve been privileged to call my friends, colleagues and neighbors. To reduce all this to the simplistic stereotype of “homophobe” is lazy.
I value the generosity of spirit and openness to civil dialogue that is the true mark of tolerance, and the only possible basis for intellectual community and understanding in a pluralistic democracy like ours. I think the reason this blog has such a diverse range of readers and commenters — liberal and conservative, gay and straight — is that people appreciate the spirit of respect and civility I work to establish in my community of readers. I hate purity tests and the vicious echo chambers they create. The only thing you learn from those kinds of places is how to hate those who are not like yourself. As one of this blog’s readers, a progressive-minded Christian who supports same-sex marriage, wrote to me in the wake of that column:
Despite my frustration/disagreement with much of your commentary on the topic over the years, I respect you as an “honest broker” who argues from a place of sincere faith rather than hate, and who is willing to make cogent arguments, rooted in tradition, in an public space where many commentators offer facile arguments or simply fear to tread (presumably to avoid these kinds of attacks). Indeed, one of the main reasons I read you, aside from the fact that you focus on the intersection of religion/politics/culture in which I am most interested, is that I want to avoid the “echo chamber” that many people seem to seek out (indeed, I fear that the Amen Chorus of comments on the article will include many individuals who are unfamiliar with your work, but are comfortable labeling and demonizing you based on a simplistic reading of the article’s out-of-context quotes). Your arguments often challenge me to better refine and understand the basis of my own beliefs.
I could not possibly ask for a better endorsement from a reader, and I thank the reader most sincerely. Indeed, this is exactly the kind of reader I hope to reach: one who may not agree with me, but who is willing to engage in civil discourse. These are the kinds of people I learn from as well, and who have changed my mind and my heart over the years. We may be opponents, but we are not enemies. On the gay marriage issue, I support civil unions, and, as I have written here recently, I think there is no point for conservatives to continue the fight for same-sex marriage. I am interested in working out a live-and-let-live compromise, insofar as that is possible. I wish I, and more people on my side of the issue, argued with as much charity and grace as, for example, the gay journalist Jonathan Rauch, who is for me a model of care and respect with regard to this difficult and often painful issue, and from whose example I’ve learned a lot about how to contend without contempt.
You who have been my longtime readers know this, I think. But because there will be lots of people who will only know my beliefs and my approach from reading that column, I feel the need to set the record straight.
The life and death of my sister, Ruthie Leming, taught me in a new and entirely unexpected way what it means to live in grace, and with love. I think she was probably a saint, but she was not perfect. None of us are. We are all broken, in our own particular ways. Yet Ruthie’s little way taught me that what heals us, what bridges these divides, is love and mercy, especially in the face of our common mortality.
Two times in my life I have felt the full power of that love. The first was immediately after the September 11 attacks, when I lived in New York, and feared, like so many others, that we all might die. There were no liberals and conservatives, no gays and straights, no white, black, or brown; we were all New Yorkers then. I knew it wasn’t really true, that the divisions between us were real, and would not be easily overcome, if ever. But in those terrible but blessed days, the love that united us seemed more real than anything.
The second time I had that feeling was sitting on my sister’s front porch, days after her terminal cancer diagnosis, in the sunlight, holding her, us crying in each other’s arms, not knowing if we would ever see each other again. Later that morning, I sat at the airport waiting for my flight back to Philadelphia, and reached out via e-mail to political opponents and others with whom I had argued (in one case, over gay marriage), asked forgiveness, and started building bridges again. I did that with long-estranged family members too. That’s what Ruthie wanted. That’s what I wanted too, given how precious life is, and how short.
This is what I believe in most of all: the call and the command to love and mercy. I don’t live up to my ideals all the time — far from it — but they are my ideals, and I didn’t come by them easily or cheaply. Love doesn’t erase our conflicts and divisions over what we believe to be true, and the right way to live, but it does put them into context. “You shall love your crooked neighbor/With your crooked heart,” said W.H. Auden, in his poetic meditation on suffering and mortality. That’s what I believe; everything else is chatter.
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