Monday, May 14, 2012

Obama, General Conference, and the Homosexuality Debate

It has been an interesting past couple of weeks. At the United Methodist General Conference, our nation's second-largest Protestant denomination voted to retain our position against all same-sex relationships, and yet our nation's President has come out as officially supporting gay marriage. These two events have spurred lots of discussions, articles, blog posts, etc. I have noticed several key popular arguments from folks on both sides of the great divide that I think are worth examining under a critical light.

First, many of the blog posts I have read have addressed the protest from the LGBT folks at General Conference. Many of you probably know that they engaged in a large disruptive protest during the proceedings of the conference that forced an early adjournment. It seems that the response of many people has been something like this: "Whether you are for or against changing our stance on the issue, we should all agree that this kind of protest is unloving and disrespectful." I must confess that I do not share this intuition. If one is really convinced that our current stance and policies are in fact a great injustice, then why exactly would it be wrong to protest in this way? I wonder what people who make this argument would say about Jesus' protest in the temple. As far as I know, the LGBT protesters did not come in with whips and run everyone out while throwing over tables. When Jesus was faced with systemic injustice legitimated by religion, he got angry, disruptive, and threw stuff around to make a point. So, I am not so sure that forcefully disruptive symbolic actions are not sometimes called for.

Second, I am somewhat troubled by a line of argument that many on the progressive side seem to be employing these days. After Obama made his statement, many have taken this as a sure sign that our culture is headed towards full acceptance of gay marriage. Given the accelerated increase of such acceptance over the last decade, this may not be an unreasonable prediction. It is probably true. However, some seem to rely too much on a line of reasoning that goes like this: "History is moving in the direction of full acceptance and affirmation of LGBT people and gay marriage, and so you can either move forward with the rest of us or get left behind." The problem with this line of reasoning, as I see it, is that it is dangerous to determine morality based on opinion polls. Just because a society is moving towards greater acceptance of x, that doesn't mean that x is actually a good thing. I believe our society is moving towards numerous things that are not good. (For example, in numerous ways the sexualization of children and youth is becoming much more mainstream in our culture.) In short, we shouldn't just assume that a large social shift is necessarily progress just because a lot of people are getting on board with it.

It seems to me that in employing this "get on board or get left behind" argument, progressives make an unwarranted move very similar to the way traditionalists on this issue often argue. Traditionalists often try to pressure conformity to the conservative stance by arguing that it would be unwise to disagree with a virtually unanimous consensus from past Christian tradition that all same-sex relationships are wrong. Progressives, on the other hand, often make the argument- similar in form, though opposite in content- that it would be unwise to disagree with a perceived virtual consensus in the future. So, traditionalists urge conformity with the past, while progressives urge conformity with the perceived future. Neither mode of argument is particularly helpful in my opinion. Truth is what it is regardless of how many people believe it. It seems to me that the debate would be better served by focusing on exactly what the reasons are for denouncing all same-sex unions, and subjecting those reasons to careful and critical scrutiny. For example, in the paper this morning there was a letter to the editor saying that gay marriage should be illegal because marriage is for having children and gay people can't (biologically) do this. But the intent or ability to have children is not a part of our legal definition of marriage for heterosexuals, so why set up a standard for gay couples that we don't even set up for straight couples? I think matters of logical consistency are much more important than a supposed consensus either in the past or in the future.

Finally, this debate is at its worst when instead of real people talking to real people, we have people throwing rhetorical bombs at stereotypes. Both sides are doing this. Conservatives often accuse gays of being inherently promiscuous, excessively hedonistic, etc. Progressives often accuse conservatives of "hating" gay people. Neither stereotype is true. Yes, some gay people are promiscuous, just as some straight people are. Yes, tragically, some people do hate gay people just because they are gay. But many gay people want monogamous marriage, and most people who do not personally approve of same-sex relationships at the same time are glad to consider those folks family and friends. Many people who do not affirm the moral goodness of same-sex relationships harbor no loathing, fear, or hatred of gay and lesbian people. They are just convinced that to be faithful to God one must not approve of such relationships, even though one can (and should) accept and love gay people as one would love and accept any other person. The discussion is not advanced by accusing all people who hold a traditional view of being prejudiced or hateful. Some are, but most are not. As I said earlier, I think our time is much better spent evaluating reasons rather than assigning motives.

On that note, I would encourage you to read this blog post from Justin Lee (especially if you consider yourself "progressive" on this issue):

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for responding to this issue. Hope to see continued dialogue!