Posted by: dacalu | 21 December 2013


There seems to be a great deal of discussion lately about what is and is not homophobic.  I’ve read interesting posts (here and here) about Phil Robertson, the Duck Dynasty star who made some unfortunate remarks, (here) about gay marriage, and (here) about the Roman Catholic Church.  I’m not too attached to the word homophobic, but I do think the controversy gives us a good opportunity to look at attitudes that may be harmful, hurtful, or just plain hypocritical.

Part of the problem stems from our unwillingness, perhaps inability, as a country to disentangle legal weddings (a civil rights issue) from Holy Matrimony (a church rites issue).  I have some extended thoughts on that issue for Episcopalians, but for now, I think it’s important to note that there is a very large difference between being married in the eyes of God and the Church on the one hand and being married in the eyes of the law.  As I never want the state to dictate to my church who it can and cannot recognize, so I refuse to use the pulpit as a bully pulpit for who the state can and cannot recognize.  I want them separate – primarily for the sake of the church.

When it comes to civil weddings, I think being against same-sex unions is harmful and hurtful.  The federal and state governments have decided to endorse the contract of marriage as being in the interests of the state.  It simplifies property and tax law immensely and provides for a level of social stability.  I agree with recent federal court cases that the government has no interest in distinguishing between same-sex and opposite-sex couples in terms of who may or may not enter into a given contract.  Since there is no “state interest” we default to treating everyone the same.  Religious interests are simply not allowed to enter the court decisions.  Thomas Jefferson put it succinctly: “But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” Gay (civil) weddings do no harm to society.  Thus to allow opposite-sex (civil) marriage, but not same-sex civil marriage is to grant one group rights, but deny them to another group.  We don’t do that in the US.  Whether one wishes to discriminate out of personal animus (homophobia) or a desire for religious control of the government or simply for a (misguided) sense that this will have negative economic consequences doesn’t matter.  What matters is that it requires the government to like some people better than others.  It flies in the face of our national principles, both legal and moral.

When it comes to religious decisions, the ground is, unfortunately murkier.  There are simple issues of course.  I feel adamantly that no church or minister should be forced to marry a couple against their will, but this applies equally regardless of the couple.  Nor has anyone proposed this.  (The situation is slightly more complex in the Church of England, where ministers are state employees – but there is a very simple solution to that problem…)  That said, within the context of any particular religion, there are discussions to be had and those will rest upon a number of distinctions.

1) Does your faith dictate that all people are equal to start with?  Mine does.  Any religious claim that some people are inherently disordered, essentially evil, or naturally bad sends a chill down my spine.  The words inherent, essential, and natural suggest that this is a flaw that predates any choice they might have made.  I think that is a harmful doctrine that encourages the “good” people to hurt the “bad” people.  I cannot reconcile that with Christianity.  It may be said that gay and lesbian people are intrinsically broken (homophobic) or just that some people are predestined to sin, but in either case, it’s a seriously dangerous doctrine ethically.

2) Does your faith dictate that some people can lose their natural rights because of their actions?  Here we are in deeper water.  We can definitely lose our social rights (such as freedom), but maybe not our inherent dignity.  Generally we ask people to give up social rights because some harm may be done if they do not.  I believe strongly that people guilty of abuse (child, sexual, elder) need to be kept out of positions where they have access to and control over the people they are likely to abuse.  I don’t see any reason why this should apply to gays and lesbians, however.  There is nothing wrong with the principle of limiting social rights.  It does, however, require a legitimate fear of “offense.”  Limiting the social rights of gays and lesbians means you believe they will harm people.  That belief is homophobic in the strictest possible sense.  It means you are afraid that their words or actions are more dangerous than those of other people.

I think this is the area in which the Catholic Church does itself – and the world – the greatest harm.  Their general policy has been to accept gays and lesbians as long as they keep their affections private.  This is certainly the case with recent cases in the US where Catholic schools fire gay teachers who get married to their partner.  Apparently it is not affection or even sex that gets them in trouble with the hierarchy; it is allowing other people to know about it.  Historically, this comes from a belief that personal sin is not as bad as leading others to sin AND the idea that speaking openly about being gay or lesbian leads others to sin.  It is the latter that causes a problem.  In brief, it encourages people to think that honesty is immoral.  Any time they share of themselves, they are doing something evil.  Not only does this harm gays and lesbians, it hurts everyone who is tempted to share of themselves, but worried they will lose the love of their neighbors – or at least their freedom.  Again, it’s not a question of appropriate consequences, it is one of asking “what deserves those consequences?”

3) Does your faith suggest that some behaviors are inappropriate?  I hope so.  Here I have great respect for Pope Francis – even though we disagree.  His position favors inherent dignity and honesty – the virtues that lead to real communication – while also saying that same-sex sexual activity is wrong.  From the Catholic perspective, matrimony is all about sex, so same-sex matrimony is also wrong.  I disagree, but respect that people of good will can hold it.  I lose respect, though, once the opinion goes from a moral teaching to a political movement.  The US council of Bishops (and perhaps Francis, I do not know) want the US government to deny its principles of equality for the sake of a Catholic moral rule.  I don’t think that would be good for the US or for the Catholic Church.  Separation of church and state exists for the benefit of both.

In particular, I think it is hypocritical to ask that the church be free from state interference in rites (e.g., who the church can and cannot ordain) but want influence over how the state manages contracts (e.g., marriage).  Civil legal contracts need to be separated from church rites.  This has the added benefit of not sending the message that going to a justice of the peace (or getting married in Vegas) constitutes a holy rite.

So, where does that leave us on current issues?

Duck Dynasty.  I think Phil Robertson has harmful and hurtful views about any number of people.  I thought that was part of the appeal of the show.  He’s a real person with real biases and prejudices.  I’m not sure why this was a surprise.  I fight on a daily basis to limit those biases within myself and within others.  Above all, I fight the temptation to see some people as less human, less dignified, less deserving.  That starts with people I disagree with.  So he has the right to say what he wants and A&E has the right to fire him for saying something they disagree with.  I disagree with them both, but I can’t really defend one and not the other.

US Council of Bishops and School Firings.  I support their religious liberty, as long as they don’t try to undermine the civil liberties of others.  As a Christian, I think they are doing more harm than good (even by their own lights) by fighting openness rather than the behavior they claim is bad.  I am deeply saddened that we never seem to get around to honest discussion of good and bad behavior because we always have to talk about good and bad people or simply fight to have a public discussion.

Pope Francis still gets an A+ from me.  He seems far more intent on spreading the good news of building the community and helping the poor.  If he believes that gay marriage will not help those ends, I’m willing to listen, but he and I both think there are for more important things to talk about, things like wealth and health, things that Jesus bothers to talk about in the Gospels.

So, if you want my opinion, I would say we need to talk to each other.  Liberals like myself and conservatives like Pope Francis need to have discussions.  As the Apostle Peter says “Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an account of the hope that is in you;” (I Peter 3:15).  That kind of evangelism requires honesty above all else.  It requires valuing one another enough to listen, and to speak.  The homophobia that really worries me is the kind that insists it is evil even to talk about these issues.  Whether it be sexuality or anything else, we need to learn to really talk to one another.


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