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Andrew Sullivan And Demonizing Dissent

I was disappointed to see such a graceless response by Andrew Sullivan to my post the other day about anti-Christian McCarthyism (though the meme is funny). A couple of responses. He writes: What I find so fascinating about Rod’s deployment of the “you’re too privileged to have a say” argument is that it’s exactly the […]

I was disappointed to see such a graceless response by Andrew Sullivan to my post the other day about anti-Christian McCarthyism (though the meme is funny). A couple of responses. He writes:

What I find so fascinating about Rod’s deployment of the “you’re too privileged to have a say” argument is that it’s exactly the same debating point once leveled at me by gay leftists.

This, of course, is not what I wrote. You can see it in the passage from me that he quotes:

It’s very, very easy for the self-employed Andrew, who is on the power-holding side of this cultural equation, to demean as “delicate and insensitive” people who face real and significant professional consequences for their religious dissent.

My point was not that he is too privileged to have an opinion. It’s the same point gays and other social minorities make all the time: that people who are in a majority can suffer from epistemic closure that blinds them to the effects the things they support have on others. And you know what? It’s often quite fair. It doesn’t at all mean that people who are “privileged” should have their opinion discounted because they happen to be in the majority. It does mean that they should consider that they may not be paying enough attention to what the weaker side is going through.

Look, I have never been part of a workplace or a group of people — even among fellow religious conservatives — who thought gays were horrible and ought to be hemmed in at every opportunity. This has something to do with my age and generation, but has mostly, I think, to do with the nature of the profession I entered, and the places (big cities) that I’ve lived all my life. Consequently, it has been hard for me to imagine the kind of stigma and punishment that many gays in this country have suffered, because I have been far more likely to encounter prejudice against political and religious conservatives. This is a statement about the limits of my understanding and experience. I wouldn’t, of course, deny that these things happened, but it is hard to have an emotional connection to it until and unless you hear from those who have had to deal with it. I think that’s why many conservative Christians react to homosexuality now like Brandon Ambrosino’s teachers at Liberty University did. Ambrosino wrote about his coming out at Liberty in the Atlantic. Excerpt:

I looked at her as my eyes welled up with tears. And when I saw that her eyes were welling up, too, I realized I was safe and that she could handle my secret.

“Homosexuality!” I blurted. “I’ve been struggling with homosex…” and I broke down. Here I was in the English chair’s office at the world’s most homophobic university, and I’d just admitted to her I was gay.

She got up from her chair, and rushed over to me. I braced myself for the lecture I was going to receive, for the insults she would hurl, for the ridicule I would endure. I knew how Christians were, and how they clung to their beliefs about homosexuals and Sodom and Gomorrah, and how disgusted they were by gay people. The tears fell more freely now because I really liked this teacher, and now I ruined our relationship.

“I love you,” she said. I stopped crying for a second and looked up at her. Here was this conservative, pro-life, pro-marriage woman who taught lectures like “The Biblical Basis for Studying Literature,” and here she was kneeling down on the floor next me, rubbing my back, and going against every stereotype I’d held about Bible-believing, right-leaning, gun-slinging Christians.

When I heard her sniffle, I looked up at her. “It’s going to be ok,” she said. “You’re ok.” She nodded her head, squeezed my shoulder, and repeated, “I love you.”

Here he is talking about the scariest meeting of all: his face-to-face with an older man who had been one of Jerry Falwell’s best friends, and who was a fundamentalist theologian:

“Well,” he said, and then he thought some more. He took one step closer to me, and cleared his throat before continuing. “I got your email, Brandon.”

He paused again, as he searched my face for who knows what.

He spoke again, this time quieter than before. “I just wanted to let you know that you’re my friend and I love you.” And with that, he nodded his head and then gave me a bear hug, before walking me to the driveway and telling me to make it home safely.

I climbed into my car almost in slow-motion. I was shocked. I was expecting Dr. Borland to act differently towards me. I was expecting him to be… well, a homophobe. But as I put on my seatbelt, I realized that all that time, I was the one who was afraid. Not him. I’d been warned my whole life about homophobia, but no one ever said anything about homophobiaphobia.

I think both that English professor and that theologian are models of Christian love here — and so is Brandon Ambrosino. Neither those teachers nor Ambrosino backed down from their beliefs, but they recognized that love and mutual respect can carry the day, if we want them to. What I saw in Ambrosino’s account was what happens when a group of Christians resolve to live out the tragic nature of our common lives without hatred.

It is undeniably true that in the past, gays have been treated cruelly by Christians and others. That ugliness is passing into history, and we live in a better world because of it. Most anti-discrimination laws that cover gays and lesbians I would support, just as I support civil unions. If there were a business in my town that did not serve gays and lesbians as a rule, I would not trade with that business. My great concern in this matter is twofold: 1) how the liberty of religious institutions and individuals will be treated under the law in the coming settlement, and 2) the cultural intolerance of pro-gay people for Christians who disagree with them.

There is nothing in Andrew’s post to give anyone on the losing side of this battle hope that there will be room to tolerate those who hold unpopular religious convictions. For example:

The rest is truly spectacular whining. There are always going to be social pressures that favor or disfavor certain views. What about a gun control enthusiast in rural Texas? Or a pro-choicer in Mississippi?

Can he really believe what he’s saying here? You can be a pro-choicer in Mississippi or a gun control enthusiast in Texas, and you might get teased, but outside of a hardcore fringe, your political opinions will not affect your job status. The (illogical and false) conviction that homosexuality is the precise equivalent of racism means that anyone who does not agree with them on the moral status of homosexuality will be seen as the moral equivalent of a racist. It takes a spectacular lack of imagination on Andrew’s part to fail to grasp what this means to ordinary Christians in the workplace. It’s not a matter of holding to an unpopular opinion (e.g., supporting gun control in Texas); it’s a matter of having your religion stigmatized as not simply wrong, but evil — and to have that stigmatization affect policymaking in the workplace.

This is no small thing. There is scant appreciation for the importance of religious liberty among gay rights activists. If I were the principal of a religious high school, I would not fire gay faculty members because they were gay — but it is important to protect the right of religious institutions to act according to their religiously-dictated beliefs. If people don’t wish to send their children to a parochial school that fires gay faculty, that’s fine — that’s their right, and perhaps even their moral obligation. But the school should be protected from anti-discrimination law as a matter of religious liberty, because like it or not, homosexuality, within Christian moral teaching, has been seen for 2,000 years as morally wrong. That is fast-changing in the West, but millions of Christians still hold to the orthodox teaching. Are they all bigots who ought to be suppressed? Many gays and their supporters say yes.

Ramesh Ponnuru wrote:

The moral force of the attack on Jim Crow has instead created a strong tendency in our culture to think of anti-discrimination as something close to an absolute principle — a tendency with far-reaching implications that Thomas Powers pondered in a 2001 essay in The Public Interest.

He noted that tolerance, government neutrality, and depoliticization were once the guiding ideals of liberalism. The anti-discrimination regime, he argued, weakens these ideals or even replaces them with a moralized politics and politicized morality. It takes the reshaping of opinion, through the marginalization and stigmatization of views it considers bigoted, as one of its main goals.

Right. But unless I’m misreading him, Andrew doesn’t seem to care if this means religious institutions lose their tax-exempt status and have to close down, or if Christians (or others) who fail to salute the new orthodoxy face ruin. Hey, they’re not being burned in the public square, so what are they complaining about?:

But the hysteria and self-pity among those who, for centuries, enjoyed widespread endorsement for the horrible mistreatment of gay people really is too much. The victimology that was born on the left is now alive and whining on the right. It’s a self-defeating position and a thoroughly unattractive one. In the end, one begins to wonder about the strength of these people’s religious convictions if they are so afraid to voice them, and need the state to reinforce them.

Classic. Because members of X. group abused their privilege in the past, they are entitled to no consideration by the newly ascendant group. I notice that Andrew did not respond to the cases I brought up in the post, of the Mormon theater director hounded out of his job, and the Mormon restaurant manager whose business was nearly destroyed, simply because they gave money to the campaign for Prop 8. Is Andrew’s message to them, “Don’t complain — at least you’re not being burned at the stake”?

I can understand why a gay person today would struggle to feel compassion for a conservative Christian who cannot go along with the culture as it’s changing. As I said in my original post, the gay rights movement has done a lot to educate America about what it’s like to be gay, and what gays have suffered. I honestly do think America is a better place for what they’ve done, on the whole, because it has made us more tolerant and understanding.

What we’re seeing, though, is the beginning of a righteous hysteria on the part of gays and their straight allies, to purge public life of the kind of people Andrew contemptuously calls “Christianists” (because anybody who believes in religious liberty as conceived in 1993 by Ted Kennedy plainly is a theocrat). This line from Andrew is particularly rich:

In the end, one begins to wonder about the strength of these people’s religious convictions if they are so afraid to voice them, and need the state to reinforce them.

This is the crux of the problem. Let’s restate this: “One begins to wonder about the strength of the love of gay couples if they are so afraid to come out of the closet, and need the state to protect them.”

How does that sound? To me, it sounds smug and naive and unfeeling, even cruel, about the reality of gay people’s lives. If they aren’t willing to martyr themselves, then they must not really love each other, right? And hey, if they need the state to protect them from a wedding photographer who won’t take their photos, how much do they really love each other?

You see my point.

I am glad we don’t live in that world anymore. We don’t live in that world anymore because people like Andrew insisted that gay lives had more dignity than the majority of Americans believed. Again, they did us all a favor by awakening us morally to what it is like to live in a country where what matters the most to you is treated in custom and in law as anathema. But I do not look forward to the world Andrew and his righteous allies are building for those religious people who do not conform. They will demonize dissent, and pat themselves on the back for their moral courage the whole time.