Gay Marriage Religious Freedom, and the Public Discourse

The discussion of the “religious freedom” laws in Indiana, Arkansas, and elsewhere has been seriously skewed by a failure to look very much, if at all, beyond the specific examples offered to justify the laws. This issue is not really about Christian fundamentalist florists or restaurant owners having to provide services to gay couples who are being married; it is, instead, about using those very narrow examples to justify a much more far-reaching legalized bias against LGBT individuals. It is a way to undermine, locally, the seemingly inevitable national extension of the right to marry to LGBT couples.

The most salient example of this skewing of the discussion is the media’s focus—and the Far Right media’s obsession with–the pizza shop whose owners said that they would serve gays but not cater gay weddings. Responding to reported death threats against the owners that have forced them to close the pizza shop “indefinitely,” people on the Far Right have established a fund to aid the owners of the pizza shop, a fund which has now reportedly raised over a half-million dollars on their behalf. (Keep in mind that the owners of the shop face no legal actions, and that in a couple of weeks, at most, the media, the political talking heads, and the blogosphere and twitter-sphere will almost certainly have moved on to something else.)

I really don’t care who gives whom money out of their own pockets.

But, the ridiculousness of the focus on the owners of the pizza shop should be readily apparent to anyone who gives any thought to it at all. After all, how many couples, gay or not, contract with a pizza shop to cater their wedding receptions? And if you are going to charge me with elitism for making that observation, you are setting the bar for elitism extremely low.

Likewise, I seriously doubt that the death threats were very numerous or serious. I know that some on the Far Right will immediately cite the gay guy with a gun who, several years ago, walked into the headquarters of the Family Research Council with the intention of committing mass murder, but I think that he is the exception that proves the rule: that is, I think that it is pretty clear that far more violent acts have been perpetrated by those on the lunatic fringe of the Far Right than by LGBT extremists. So this seems to me to be an example of the strategy of casting the victimizer as the victim—or at least of attributing the extremism of some on one’s own side to those on the other side.

What Muslim extremists have been doing to Christians in Iraq and Kenya, as well as in other parts of Asia and Africa is deplorable, but the Far Right media is concentrating on those atrocities in a manner that suggests that Christians are under attack everywhere, including here. And that rhetorical strategy implicitly conflates the massacres elsewhere to the ideological and legal conflicts here. And if there is violence against LGBT individuals or groups, the Far Right media will, in effect, blame LGBT advocates and other Progressives for having raised the divisive issue to begin with.

The moral scruples that are involved in the “religious freedom” laws seem not only much less profound than what is occurring in other parts of the world but also to represent a very selective righteousness. A florist in Georgia, where similar legislation is being considered, asserted that she had to answer to a higher judge and that she could not, in good conscience, condone sinfulness by providing flowers for a gay wedding. The reporter asked her if she felt the same way about other serious sins, and she seemed taken off guard. So he asked her more specifically whether she would provide flowers to the wedding of someone who had been charged with or convicted of a violent felony, such as rape or murder. She answered with an almost remarkable glibness that since she did not routinely do background checks on her customers, she would not be able to identify those criminals as readily as she could identify a gay couple. But the atypically persistent reporter pointed out that her florist shop is in a relatively small community with a low rate of violent crime, and so she would very likely be very aware of who had been charged with or convicted of a violent felony. At that point, she gave up the pretense that this was more than a very selective matter of faith and said that she would essentially provide flowers to any heterosexual who wish to get married, regardless of what crimes they have committed. Apparently, in her eyes, the “sin” of being gay is in a singular category. One can only assume that, by extension, a person with this mindset would be able to extend Christian forgiveness to a family member or neighbor who has committed rape or murder much more easily than he or she could forgive a family member for coming out as LGBT.

I am also certain that someone on the Far Right will want to charge that I have gone too far—that I am putting words into the mouths of people with very sincere and deeply held religious beliefs in order to cast them and their beliefs in the worst possible light. But if one gets past the media and ideological focus on straw men such as the pizza-shop owners and considers this issue without those distractions, it is really about proportionality—about not recognizing the difference between an attack and a profound difference of opinion. If someone were legally requiring that a Roman Catholic priest or a Baptist minister must marry gay couples, then I could understand the religious outrage because that would clearly be an attempt to undermine the religious beliefs shared by that congregation or sect. Some on the Far Right may make the argument that gay marriage puts us on a slippery slope toward that eventuality. But, I think that, like almost all slippery-slope arguments, such a fear is more emotionally affecting than logical. Although it may be true that up to recently most Americans accepted the principle that marriage was an institution that should be limited to heterosexual couples, that is clearly no longer the case. And it is not an attack on a religion to say that the values of the broader society are no longer defined by or completely aligned with certain religious beliefs, no matter how long that has been the case. Rather, I think that it is self-servingly narrow-minded to insist that social perspectives that reinforce your own beliefs cannot change and that, by extension, not shunning someone for their very different convictions is tantamount to endorsing or even embracing those convictions.

In a pluralistic society, there has to be room for actual pluralism.

Ironically, I think that the divisiveness surrounding the issue of gay marriage is actually a straw man that is distracting the religious Right from a much more fundamental issue related to marriage as an institution: namely, that a rapidly declining percentage of heterosexual couples are choosing to get married. I doubt very much that if someone polled those heterosexual couples who are deciding not to marry about why they have made that choice, very many of them would include, among their top five reasons, the idea that marriage has become a meaningless institution now that gays are being allowed to marry. Indeed, I think that for many young people, the very heated opposition to gay marriage has made them only more skeptical about the very religious values that the defenders of “traditional” marriage claim to be trying to preserve.

In terms of its longer-term consequences, I think that this issue may be inadvertently exposing some underlying, fundamental issues on the Far Right at least as much as it is highlighting divisions between the Far Right and Progressives.


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