Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Conservatives and Gays: Hypocrisy or Bigotry?

Andrew Sullivan has a fine article up on the New Republic site explaning how Mary Cheney's pregnancy is exposing the basic choice conservatives have to face on gay and lesbian relationships. Here's how he frames the choice:

What are Republicans going to do about homosexuals? The fact that this question has been asked repeatedly does not mean that anyone has yet given it a serious answer. There are, broadly speaking, two rival conservative factions on the subject: religious fundamentalists, who want to outlaw or deter homosexual love and sex on biblical or natural law grounds; and old-school conservatives, who want to treat the entire issue as a private matter--supporting public policy hostile to gay people and gay relationships while privately treating gay individuals with tact and respect.

Conservative reaction to the Cheney news has, Sullivan explains, fallen into exactly these two categories. And of particular interest is the tendency of non-fundamentalist conservatives to deal with the whole issue by lapsing into embarassed silence. Andrew's recitation of the discussion of the Cheney pregnancy over at The Corner is very enlightening.

While Sullivan mentions the contrived nature of the conservative case for denying gays and lesbians their rights, I do think he understates the psychological importance of a delusional treatment of the "gay threat" to conservatives who would allegedly prefer not to deal with the topic. Fatally tempted by the political power of gay-bashing, these supposedly enlightened conservatives have to convince themselves and others that it's gays and lesbians themselves, with their allies in the judiciary, the clergy, and the Democratic Party, who are violating a don't-ask-don't-tell consensus. Thus you get all the talk about "activist judges" and gay rights advocates and so forth, with the underlying suggestion that conservatives and Republicans would be happy to leave gays and lesbians in peace if they'd just be quiet about it.

It's becoming increasingly impossible to distinguish such "arguments" from those made by many "enlightened" conservatives during the civil rights era. Jim Crow, they often said, would eventually die a natural death, but African-Americans needed to be patient and eschew "outside agitators" who prematurely forced the issue and unleashed race as a political issue.
Then as now, those who acknowledge fundamental injustice while supporting its continuation are hard to respect; at least racist and homophobic bigots are acting out of some sort of conviction.

But even in the fundamentalist camp that Sullivan identifies as the source of honest conservative homophobia, there's a whole lot of delusional thinking about the "gay threat." It's one thing to quietly say that in obedience to the innerrant Word of God (or, for Catholics, Church Tradition), you are opposed to legitimizing gay and lesbian relationships, as one of a thousand viewpoints that separate you from the fashions of secular society. It's another thing altogether to place this at the center of public discourse, as a litmus test of religious fidelity. But that's what so many fundamentalists have done, subordinating every other political, moral, and theological concern to the "threat," and tearing centuries-old denominations apart.

It's not as though heterosexuality is falling out of style. And while the institution of marriage has had better days, you'd have to be smoking a lot of crack to believe gay relationships have much to do with that. Some fundamentalist Protestants argue that accepting gay and lesbian relationships will destroy the authority of Holy Scripture. It's interesting that they believe scriptural authority depends on deifying a handful of random negative references to homosexual behavior, mostly in Pauline epistles whose authorship is unclear. Yet most Protestants seem to find it easy to rationalize a variety of exceptions to the direct and unambiguous statement of Jesus Christ about the indissolubility of marriage. So why the hysteria about gays?

Again, the analogy of racial equality may be instructive here. In my native South, completely sincere white folks devoted an enormous amount of attention for many generations to the religious sanctification of racial inequality, from slavery to segregation, splitting previously national denominations and essentially making injustice a sort of pious obligation. Confusing the past with the Divine Order (like my distant rural relatives who refused to accept Daylight Savings Time because Standard Time was "God's Time"), and confusing obedience to secular norms with obedience to God, they became the ultimate secularists even as they claimed they were fighting secularism. That may what's going on with some fundamentalist Christians and the issue of gay rights (and arguably, what's going on with Salafists who act as though subordination of women is the essence of Islam).

Eventually, we will see the time when all varieties of conservatives look back on their homophobic period with embarassment. Until then, it remains useful to expose their delusions for exactly what they are.
-- Posted at 12:02 PM | Link to this post | Email this post

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