“The story of Christianity in general, let alone within Ireland, is one of constant adaptation, innovation and redefinition- something sadly lost on many modern day practitioners and a hierarchy who believe, naively, in a regurgitated fairytale version of a pseudo-universal, unchanging, ‘institution’ stretching back to the figure of an illiterate Judean fisherman called Shim’on/Petrus via the figure of a Romano-British teenager stained with the stigma of homosexuality. The actual story of ‘traditional marriage(s) in Ireland, like today, is far more complex, varied, splintered and diverse.”
As we’re approaching the possibility that the U.S. Supreme Court will rule in favor of marriage equality, conservative Catholic bishops, together with fundamentalist leaders, are pushing the myth that religious freedom is under attack. When you look at the long history of our nation respecting religious groups countering, within their communities what is acceptable under civil law, the idea that marriage equality will force an imposition on the Catholic Church is absurd at best. It seems odd that Catholic bishops would embrace the idea that this approach to religious tolerance would be abandoned in the area of marriage. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg elaborated on that pointedly when she brought up the sectarian practice of rabbis not allowing marriages between a member of their own communities to a partner outside of their communities. It’s hard to imagine how our bishops could be that dumb. After all, canon 378 of the Church’s Code of Canon Law require candidacy to episcopal office requires the candidate to have a doctoral, or at least a licentiate, degree in specific theological or canonical areas; preference clearly leading to doctoral. I have personally never met, nor have ever heard of, a bishop who did not have a doctoral degree. How can someone that well educated so obviously misread the legal consequences of a civil action in the United States?
What just happened in Catholic Ireland – they just amended their constitution by popular vote to honor same-sex marriage – highlights Catholic prelates’ real fear and explains why our bishops are reacting to marriage equality so aggressively. Even in the United States, a study published a few years ago showed that Catholics in the pews support lgbt rights and same-sex marriage proportionally greater than members of any other Christian community; even more than members of Christian denominations that formally recognize same-sex marriages. That is the real fear of right-wing Catholic bishops; not that civil recognition of the right for gay and lesbian couples to marry would impose an obligation on Catholic clergy, but that the civil recognition of same-sex marriage would act as a catalyst for an internal conversation within the Church community itself. They fear that this change will not only happen in civil society, but that same move for a change within the Catholic community (e.g. https://www.dignityusa.org/) would gain a renewed and more empowered voice among Catholics who want the Church to change.
That fear is not without cause. German bishops are right now “pushing the envelope” in how to pastorally respond to the lgbt community and their relationships. Lay Catholics in the U.S. already have a majority support for lgbt rights. Many priests vocally support lgbt rights and same-sex marriage (I suspect many more secretely share that same position). Some are becoming more vocally supportive; e.g. http://www.fathergary.com/. If modern history is any indicator, some priests will risk their own vocations by pushing the question of same-sex marriage within the Church by presiding over same-sex weddings and honoring the marriages extra-juridically. All this will push the Church on the question of the validity and dignity of same-sex unions much more dramatically in the forseeable future; and that is what our bishops fear.
Don’t get me wrong. As unquestionably liberal as my approach to Catholicism appears to many, I’ve also always been very insular. Everytime I see or hear people outside of our faith commmunity trying to inform us what we’re supposed to believe and do, I respond aggressively. The status of lgbt persons and our relationships in the Catholic community is something I’ve always believed we, as Catholics, have both the right and responsibility to settle ourselves. I accept no outside interference. But I also believe it is true that what is legally happening in the the civil world will act as a strong catalyst to force these particular questions within the Catholic community. I strongly suspect our conservative bishops in the U.S. forsee that as well. Despite all their posturing response to civil law movement, this is what they really fear. That better explains how people who are so well educated can come across so dumb. Let them fear. Its going to happen.
The owners of Memories Pizza in Walkerton, Indiana said that, as a Christian-owned establishment, they would not supply pizza to a gay wedding reception. They would, however, serve a gay couple come in for a pizza. If you’re running a business, it’s usually not a good idea to publicly weigh in on hot topics; and they took heat for doing it! Personally, I think that’s a fair position for them to hold. There is, after all, a difference between discriminating against someone for who he or she is (e.g. not serving a customer because he is gay) and not supporting an event or action which you do not condone (e.g. providing pizza to a same-sex wedding reception). The owners, here, said they will do the latter; and there is a very clear argument that they hold that position due to their religious beliefs.
In Christian — particularly, Catholic — moral theology, a person sins when he knowingly and with volition provides material support for a sinful act. For example, if I were the driver of a get-away car knowingly transporting someone who robbed a bank to the airport so he can get out before getting caught, I am committing a sin because I am knowingly and with volition providing material support to the act of robbing a bank. My intention, in that case, is to help the bank robber escape being caught and getting away with his ill-got money. If, on the other hand, I was a cab driver and that bank robber hops in the back of my cab, asking me to drive him to that same airport without informing me he had just robbed a bank, I will be providing him material support; but I will not be doing so knowingly and with volition. I will not be committing a sin because my intent will merely be to drive him to the airport and earn my fare.
That same reasoning, of course, is applied to a same-sex wedding. Essential to the very nature of a wedding is that a couple enter into a union among approving witnesses. Witnesses, then, provide material support to the wedding in the act of witnessing. If a witness believes a same-sex union is illicit — and knowingly and with volition provide that material support to the union — then it could be said that the witness is committing a sinful act. The owners of Memories Pizza may believe that, by providing pizza to a same-sex wedding reception, they would be taking on the role of approving witnesses; or, at least, just approving. In that case, they would be right in not supplying the pizzas.
Now it could also be argued that the owners of Memories Pizza will not be acting as witnesses at all and that their intent will simply be to supply pizzas and make money; and that the union will take place with or without the pizzas anyway. In other words, they will be lending support to a party, providing no substantial material support at all to the union itself. That is besides the point. The question, where the State is involved, is whether the owners of Memories Pizza personally believe that, by supplying pizzas to the reception involves material support to what they believe is an illicit union. I believe it is fair that the State cannot compel them to do so.
But the distinction between a person’s desire not to provide material support to what he or she believes is an illicit act (entering a same-sex union) and not approving of who someone is (being gay) is not explicit in Indiana’s new Religious Freedom Restoration Act; and therein lies the problem!
While the owners of Memories Pizza implied that distinction themselves, it is not remotely believable that everyone in Indiana will make the same distinction. There are plenty of Hoosiers who believe that living out their own Christian faith (United Pentecostal Church, anyone?) requires them to proselytize and impose their own beliefs and morality on others whose beliefs and morality differ from their own. They will welcome the license to bar lgbt people from their respective establishments, citing their heartfelt religious belief that they’re required to communicate their opprobrium of who the lgbt person is. And the way this law was written implies they can.
Neither being gay nor even engaging in same-sex sexual activity essentially require a public witness, however; so serving pizza to a gay person does not lend material support to anything. The business’ owner, in this case, may believe he or she is acting from sincere religious conviction requirement to communicate; but it’s a conviction that imposes on directly on someone else, depriving him of her of his or her rights. The lgbt person, in this case, would be the injured party. After all, as the old maxim goes: “Your right to swing your arms ends just where the other man’s nose begins” (Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.).
Either the legal minds who drafted this law were so intellectually deficient they didn’t realize that distinction does not exist in this law or Governor Mike Pence is lying when he says the law was not intended to give license to discriminate. The latter possibility has the greater weight, given that neither the Governor nor the Republican-controlled legislature will support legislation explicitly protecting lgbt Hoosiers from discrimination. In either case, discrimination is actually what this law licenses and, as such, needs to be repealed.
One of the challenges, when deciding to post a blog, is to decide on a single issue to post about. I usually have a host of issues I’m thinking about at any given time and struggle to decide which is going to rise to the top as something to blog about. This time isn’t any different. I have some issues which I put on a list to blog about at another time. Rising to the top of my list are some thoughts I had been mulling over about the popular resurgence of communism/socialism as an effective response to our economic malaise and widespread economic inequality. In the meanwhile, I found myself insulted by a video shared in a group about anarchy and wanted to respond to it. Actually, I wasn’t really insulted, given that I wasn’t part of the original audience. But what to do when you’re listening to someone who’s convinced himself that he’s smarter than he is? The better part of the video was an attempt to clarify the philosophy of anarchy through an etymology lesson; a misleading clarification, at best. So I’m still left with settling in on a subject matter. Okay. I’m settling with my original choice. I’ll address anarchy later.
Shortly after the collapse of the economy and the start of the Great Recession, both socialists and communists were out in force on the streets in certain neighborhoods hawking their ideas. They hadn’t been that aggressive in marketing in the U.S. since the 1930s/1940s? Marxism (Communism and socialism are related, but not interchangeable, terms. For the purposes of this blog post, however, I’m just going to say Marxism. What I’m discussing is present in both, so there is no need to use both or bounce between each.) has never died out in academic circles in the U.S., even if it did loose popular force as a popular idea. But economic desperation lent new hope for some to propose it as a solution again. I know some old-guard socialists from the mid-twentieth century who are still alive. But what stood out for me among those socialists newly hawking their ideas on the streets is how young the adherents are. Every single one of them was, without doubt, born after the collapse of the Iron Curtain. I sometimes wonder whether they even know what the Iron Curtain was. I find a lot of folks on both the left and the right of the political/economic spectrum more ignorant of history than they will admit.
I know one elderly gentleman who earlier in the twentieth century identified as a communist, but who now professes socialism (yeah, I guess, for this point, I have to allow the distinction). He was a proponent of the rise of the communist revolution in Russia. But then, in time, he saw the brutality and repression of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. That marked his self-professed conversion from communism to socialism. He strongly insists Marxism (the philosophical root of communism and socialism) has never really been tried; that what Russia did was something other than Marxism. Um, yes Marxism was, even if it did unfold differently from Karl Marx’s vision.
The first problem with how we approach Marxism as an economic model is that it isn’t just an economic model. It’s also a theoretical model of history with roots in the dialectic theory of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. While economists in the West ridiculed Marxist economic theory, it’s Marx’s theory of history they scared the common population with. It would be a bit much to try to lay out both the economics and the historical model of Marxism here. But I’ll suffice to say that Marxism envisioned both to be more than they are: forces independent from and superior to human agency that determine how humans interrelate with each other. And, as a dialectical theory of history, it assumes inevitable and innate conflict in human interrelations.
Karl Marx also turned Hegel’s theory on its head and assumed that he could know in advance, through “critical analysis,” the final outcome of an epochal conflict. Hegel’s dialectical theory of history involves three steps: a thesis (historical state as status quo), an antithesis (people feel burned out or oppressed by the status quo, so act to change the state of things), and a synthesis (the resulting state of things after the ‘thesis’ and the “antithesis” clash. Marx, through the arrogance of his “analysis” assumed that his “antithesis” was the “synthesis”; i.e. communism was the perfected state of a human economy. Maybe it is or maybe it isn’t. Or just maybe history is more fluid and less dialectical than Marx (or Hegel) thought it is. For the record, those who assume that capitalism is a perfected economic model are just as arrogant, historically speaking.
I say all this because the renewed ideological conflict unfolding between Marxism and capitalism detracts from the real moral problem we’re experiencing in our society. The editors of “First Things,” though shills to capitalist elites, hit the nail on the head when they assert that economics – whichever model you esp0use – is amoral. Their reasoning is that in order to be moral or immoral, you have to be an agent capable of acting morally or immorally. On that point (and that point alone), I agree with them. However, economics is a framework through which agents (human and corporate persons) act. We’re seeing that now as those empowered to do so use the tools of the capitalist economic model to effectively steal national and global wealth. We saw it in communism when, under the Soviet Union, people were oppressed and made to be mere instruments of the State, empowering elites in a unitary, all-powerful political Party. Either way, human beings are deprived of their own agency – and moral accountability – in servitude to overriding systems.
If it’s true that systemic frameworks, and not personal agents, are the cause of immoral economic activity, then there’s not reason to think that individuals need to be held personally accountable. Change the systemic framework and the problem goes away. I argue it won’t. The “problem” is not, at its root, a problem of economic models, it’s a problem of personal and social integrity. I don’t care which framework – capitalism, Marxism, or any other kind of -ism – is put in place to guide economic activity. Whenever any personal agent is inclined to self-empower at the expense of others, the personal agent will, regardless of the framework. That will has to be countered and put in check. And, socially, a generation needs to be trained to act morally.
People who are “friends” or “followers” of mine on Facebook may have noticed I’d become kind of obsessed with Cliven Bundy and his standoff with the Federal government over his proclaimed right to graze cattle for free on Federally-owned land. People who know me probably think that’s gratuitous on my part and, certainly, out of the ordinary. After all, the issues I really focus on revolve around economic justice, affordable housing and civil rights. What, then, do I care about what a nutcase, millionaire cattle rancher does on Federal land in Nevada?
I’m going to first be honest and get it out there. He’s fun! He’s a looney tunes character trying to make serious arguments around civil and property rights for his defense (not to disparage real Looney Tunes characters). There are a thousand-and-one comedy sketches that could be made about him. Why he doesn’t feel the least embarrassed, I don’t know. There’s also the matter of Tea Party members coming to back him up with armaments; like they would really win an armed standoff with government agents. This matter exemplifies their warped view of the world and of how our government is supposed to relate to the citizenry in terms of enforcing laws governing government property. They’re both really out there and I’m enjoying the comedic responses!
Added to that is what we’re learning about Cliven Bundy as the story unfolds; beyond the fact that he’s an opportunistic liar who wants to maximize his profit from production without paying the required production costs. We know, for example, he’s an unapologetic racist and a libertarian of the Southern “we should have won the war” stripe. And he doesn’t believe in personal accountability. Sort of sounds like talking points of the Tea Party. It’s no wonder their more committed members came to his armed defense. How Bill O’Reilly conflated that with Occupy Wall Street is another mystery in the messaging surrounding this story. At any rate, we see here that weird intersection between racism, self-interested maneuvering and economic bullying I referenced in my last blog post.
I’m following the unfolding of this story for more personal — maybe, more meaningful — reasons, though. The story raises questions in three significant areas: whether the government can assert (or, by extension, claim) ownership over property; under what conditions can an individual or corporate person assert their own needs (or perceived rights) over the government’s claim; and what is it the government is charged with protecting or promoting when it asserts ownership? I’m sure there are more questions that derive from this matter should folks step back and reflect on it, rather than simply soaking in ad hominem sound bites. But these are valid questions, I think. It appears Bundy has staked out his own position on them. I have my own, too.
That’s why I find this an intriguing story. I’m a long-time member and current board member of an organization, Picture the Homeless, that is addressing some of those same questions this story raises. Together with the Take Back the Land movement and the New York City Community Land Trust Initiative, we are looking at ways to redirect property and residential ownership and use of property to promote a human right to housing over merely viewing housing as a commodity that economically benefits a few who, want to maximize a return on investment without benefitting the communities in which they own private property. Obviously, we’re looking at a number of ways to achieve that; but we are not closed to the idea of leveraging eminent domain. When I mentioned that, not long ago, to a journalist, he acted surprised that you could use eminent domain to achieve that. I reminded him of the 2005 U.S. Supreme Court case where the Court ruled the government can absolutely exercise eminent domain for the economic health of a community. The Court did so, in that case, for a community government that wanted to take private property from individuals and turn it over to private hotel developers. If the Court can determine the Constitution allows that for the economic benefit of the community, and the Court did, who’s to say the Court won’t affirm — or at least, should affirm — that the State can do so when the economic benefit of the community means making safe, affordable housing available to people who are otherwise priced out of the housing market?
By raising these questions from the libertarian right, albeit unknowingly and for self-interested reasons, Cliven Bundy and his Tea Party allies are actually diffusing, in advance, charges of “communism” and “socialism” when we raise the same questions from the left. That makes the case of Cliven Budy and his assertion of free access to Federal land more than just fun or intriguing. It gives us something substantive to watch.
The dog whistle. That term is used a lot these days in political punditry; sometimes, it’s way over-used. It usually references coded language “conservative” politicians use to denigrate minorities or the socially marginalized and rile up animosities among their typically white, conservative base. And while they’d loathe to admit it, white liberal politicians do it too. The dog whistle accusation is not always convincing, as was the case, this morning, in a Salon.com opinion piece responding to comments by Chuck Todd and David Brooks last Sunday on “Meet the Press.” They were questioning the perception of President Obama’s “manhood” in the Middle East. The columnist – Paul Rosenberg – went to great lengths to discuss how that discussion responded to a perception of “black male aggression” and Obama’s political instinct to counter that perception. But, while the “Meet the Press” conversation was over-the-top, trying to read into the discussion anything about a perception of “black male aggression” is an incredible leap of the imagination. In the end, Rosenberg was blowing the liberal version of a political dog whistle himself to rile up the liberal base, but without adding anything of substance to the conversation.
It would be absurd, of course, to deny that politicians and political pundits don’t use coded language to cover stirring up racial animosity, just like it would be absurd to think that they don’t use coded language to diminish women or demonize socially marginal sexual orientations, or blame the poor for their own poverty to assuage economic fears among the middle class. These things happen. But calling those dogs whistles out doesn’t involve trying to find them where they’re not. Rather, they need to be called out for what they are when they are being used and the their source identified. That would make for a more substantive conversation.
I say all that because I’d been thinking about the use of those dog whistles for awhile. It’s easy to point out when a politician or pundit is using one. You can even energize your base by pointing out when your opponent is dead wrong. But the unspoken truth – at least in popular discourse – is that politicians and pundits wouldn’t use dog whistles if they didn’t work. That the dog whistles do work points to a deeper discussion about what kind of society we are. I read an interesting report on a recent study awhile back about the differences in how the brains of conservatives and liberals process information. It’s an interesting read; maybe more so if you’re a neuropsychologist. The scientists who did the study readily admits the study doesn’t establish causality, only a correlations between conservative beliefs and how conservatives process things like “fear” and “disgust.” Whatever the case, conservatives are more prone to recoil at things they fear or don’t like. So much for being “manly.”
But I think that study, as interesting as it is, isn’t thinking deeply enough about the social dynamics that are impacting our politics. As I mentioned, before, conservatives aren’t the only ones who can be racist. White liberals might be less inclined to fear the “angry black man”; but can be equally apt to embrace preconceptions about why black people are marginalized, preconceptions divorced from causal experiences black people, themselves, would identify. Liberals might not recoil at having a conversation with a gay man, but are equally good at forming strange notions of how a gay man is supposed to act. Liberals usually won’t be outright cruel to a poor person, but are just as likely as their conservative counterparts to try to analyze what it is about the poor person that is causing their poverty. And former-President Bill Clinton is ample evidence that conservative men don’t have a monopoly on objectifying women.
I think Pope Francis hit the nail on the head when he said we’ve lost our ability to empathize; that ability to see another human being as a personal subject with their own needs, ideas and aspirations. To be honest, though, I’m not sure we ever really did have that as an American culture. From very early on in our history, we put great stock into the myth of the “rugged individual”; that a person makes it or fails on their own based solely on their personal strength and will to succeed. We early on elevated that myth to the point where we concealed how we succeed together by working together and contributing collectively for the common benefit. From the beginning we owned slaves and we dispossessed others from their land. Later, we allowed robber barons to take absolute control over the our economy and political machines and treat their workers like property (even arguing as much in Supreme Court cases). Even when workers began coming together and pushing back, it’s not at all clear that theirs was an authentic solidarity that recognized the subjective dignity of the human person, so much as it was a solidarity of power moved by individual self-interest actualized in a movement. Unions formed, but union members were very jealous about who could join.
All of those things and more underpinned the social consciousness of our Democratic experiment in America. There has been this constant tension between trying to stabilize our own individual places in society, while imagining progressive development. It seems some of those tensions are coming to a head, today, in a way they haven’t before. In the meanwhile, we have a minority of the population willing to leverage the chaos to steal our democracy – or, at least, our economy – out from under us. We have to respond to that minority. But we also have to confront our socio-historical demons honestly if we’re going to really resolve America’s social and economic crises today.
So I woke up, this morning (or, more honestly, this afternoon), to news, blog posts and commentary about word that Fred Phelps, Sr., founder and pastor of Westboro Baptist Church had been excommunicated by his own church in August 2013 and that his health is failing, that he is “on the edge of death.” Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church became infamous in the early 1990’s first for their “godhatesfags.com” website, then for their picketing funerals of gay people or those close to and supportive of gay people. Picketing funerals began with the funeral of Matthew Shepherd, who was tortured and murdered in the early 1990’s by guys who tried, at their trial, to present a “gay panic” defense. In the early 2000’s, Westboro Baptist Church transitioned to picketing funerals of soldiers who died in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, arguing that their deaths were God’s punishment to America for being supportive of the LGBT community. They even went on to attempt protesting funerals of children who were murdered in their school by a mentally ill young person.
We’ll leave aside the question of the relationship between God and the “fags.” Using people’s funerals is a horrible way to communicate your beliefs to a wider audience. I don’t personally think that’s what was meant by “freedom of speech” or “freedom of assembly” in our Constitution. But I’m neither a Constitutional lawyer nor a judge, so I’ll leave that alone. I’ll just say that the expression of their hate knew no boundaries! In the Catholic community, we would call that “pastoral insensitivity” at the least; but I think “pastoral insensitivity” is a big understatement!
Over the years, I had been incredibly incensed by Fred Phelps, Sr. and his clan, both as a queer and as a Christian. As a queer, I was incensed because I was the primary target of their vehemence; and, because in their hate, they were trying to project an ugly, evil image of me that was far removed from who I was. As a Christian, I was incensed because they made Christianity look hateful and vile. In the process, they were trying to force a wedge between who I am and what I believe.
I read a lot of celebratory commentary on the internet, today, in response to the news of Fred Phelps’ demise; and I read calls to picket Phelps’ funeral when that day comes, just so they can see what it feels like to have your funeral protested. That disheartens me, and I say, “no!” I know they were heartless when they protested people’s funerals. But are we really like them? Are we heartless too? The Phelps family will be grieving. Let them grieve privately. It’s the humane thing to do. We’ll have plenty of chances to get back at them later.
My response comes as both a Christian and as a queer. As a Christian, I had consistently made, over the years, the observation that the Phelps’ family were not correctly representing Christianity. We were called to love and to evangelize, not to hate. If I were truly called by Jesus Christ, then I was called to live and to love in the way Christ called me to. I’m still called that way now. Would Christ act in angry spite at someone’s funeral? I hardly think so. Neither should I. This is our opportunity to have the truly Christian compassion for the Phelps family that the Phelps family did not have for others.
As a queer, I have read assertions, over the years, that the hate spewed by the Phelps’ family and their Westboro Baptist Church was proof that Christians are not the loving humanitarians they try to present themselves as being; and that queers know better how to love, empathize and honor people in their vulnerability. In other words, being an honest-to-goodness humanitarian is better than being a Christian. To my fellow members of the LGBT community, I would say now is the perfect time to prove that. Do you really want to reinforce the ugly claims the Westboro Baptist Church has made about you or do you want to take this opportunity to show you’re better?
Beyond just compassion, there is a calculating point to my response. Members of the Phelps’ family and the Westboro Baptist Church are delusional narcissists. Protesting their funeral will not humanize their thinking and make them realize their hateful speech is bad. It will only magnify, in their minds, the importance of their church and its founder. It will add fuel to their vitriol. It will also add ammunition to their argument. They will never admit to unjustifiable hate; but they would be inclined to leverage a protest against their funeral as evidence of ours. We don’t want that strategically.
Besides that, Fred Phelps, Sr. and his church actually did both Christianity and the LGBT community a huge favor. There are many others out there who use their Christian faith to justify their hatred of gay people. Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church pushed that to its extreme. It gave Christians who were movable the opportunity to see what their own position looked like when pushed to an extreme. As a result, a lot of Christians were moved to look at themselves in the mirror and ask, “Am I being that ugly?” We should be thankful to Phelps and his church for that reason alone and give the Phelps family an unmolested opportunity to grieve.