Archive for March, 2013

As a law student in these interesting times, it seems somehow inappropriate for me not to offer some kind of comment about the important matter currently before the Court. Yesterday, oral argument was heard as to whether California’s Proposition 8 should stand; today, we listened with somewhat greater optimism to discussion of the even more offensive DOMA. I have little to add that has not been said repeatedly, and more eloquently, by others. There is no tenable non-religious foundation upon which these laws can can be upheld. The arguments from science (‘it’s good for families,’ or ‘marriage is for children’) are laughably bad, which is why the only way the court will be able to uphold either law is to dismiss the case for lack of standing–if they engage this issue on the merits, the defense has already lost*. And although the establishment clause is subject to nuance, I think most would agree that separation of church and state is a fundamental principle of our government, and should be maintained.**

I do feel, however, that I have a certain understanding of the ‘bigots’ and ‘hypocrites’ who make up the religious right, and maybe a different and more sympathetic perspective on their community. I was raised a Southern Baptist, and if I have since abandoned that religion, I retain a great deal of respect for the sort of all-consuming faith that animates many church members. I am convinced that if you really get to know this subset of the electorate (and it is not a small contingent), you’ll see that for them the separation of church and state is considered neither desirable nor even really to be a coherent idea. There is a sort of Platonic ideal of abstraction in the concept of a government free from religion, and the religious right (like the Muslim fundamentalists in certain countries of the Middle East) has noticed, not inaccurately, that this kind of abstraction requires a neutered form of religion. This is easier to see in religions, like Islam, that have historically been religions of laws (and where there is no separation between ‘king’ and ‘pope’), but there are few religions that do not command acts from their followers, in addition to thoughts. And perhaps almost as few in which those acts do not come into conflict with the state.

For this church, then, as for others, the nation is a community defined by shared ideas and priorities, and if you believe–and many people do–that those priorities are dictated by God himself, then of course you aren’t likely to be dissuaded by any mere ‘parchment barriers’. Certain fictions, like the recurring claim that we are a “Christian nation,” are the result of this belief, but the belief itself is deeper and more fundamental. The bonds of community–especially religious community–are stronger than many in the modern world would like to believe.

Of course, plenty of liberals and even conservatives would hold (and again, other voices have said it better) that the far-right’s interpretation of scripture is untenable on its own terms. They are obviously correct. If the old testament forbids homosexuality, well, most christians have long since abandoned that testament (and a thousand undergraduate facebook profiles can show you what other absurdities the old testament God chose to abhor, and what abhorrences–including slavery–he chose to allow). The bible belt seems to forget the new covenant upon which their church is founded, and in so doing they betray their fundamental principles (or, at least, their most fundamental principle: John 13:34). But even that is beyond the scope of this blog post.

Instead, I simply want to reproach the ‘Godly’ for their lack of humility, and for failing to read their Kierkegaard. As a mental exercise, let’s go ahead and concede that homosexuality is an abomination in the sight of the Lord. Concede that He has forbidden it, and that His scriptures (passed directly from God to Man) plainly denounce it and mandate punishment for the crime (it is, I admit, a difficult exercise, but empathy is the most underrated of virtues, and in politics the most essential).

Concede all of this, and what then? You have the Lord your God, commanding us to eschew our fellow man, calling “unclean” our own sisters, brothers, neighbors (and never forget that God has commanded you to love these neighbors as yourself). Lets abandon the pseudo-science for a moment. The church has never been a scientific institution, and the Republican party abandoned science over a decade ago. Homosexuality is not a choice, and if it were a choice it would be one that affirmed life and love and did no harm to anybody. It is not malum in se.

The religious right has avoided the difficulty of this position by calling this a matter of morality. It is not. There is nothing in human morality to impeach homosexuality any more than heterosexuality. If homosexuality is wrong, it is wrong only in the sight of God. I think certain sects of Christianity have ignored the many times that God has commanded them to behave immorally, even evilly. This is disingenuous, and it cheapens their faith. Kierkegaard demonstrated in Fear and Trembling that faith is only meaningful when it requires a leap beyond the human creations of reason and morality. When God commands Abraham to murder his own son Isaac, there is no way in which this is a moral choice. It is a choice no decent person could condone, or should. I maintain: conservative Christianity will not be entitled to our respect until it acknowledges that it is sacrificing its own sons and daughters, blindly, in service of its God. Flawed interpretations of scripture are tragic, but forgivable; interpretation is difficult, and the influence of culture is strong. But intellectual dishonesty is deplorable, and when it encroaches upon our government and our civil rights, it should not be permitted. The church (or this church) is not being good, or righteous, or moral. It is attempting to obey a God that (it claims) demands evil acts. And it is using the ballots and the courts to turn our nation’s laws to the same evil ends.

If the right wing can acknowledge that, and continue to vote and pontificate as it has, then thousands of homosexual U.S. citizens will be no better off. But at least we’ll be having an honest conversation.

*Well, there is one argument under which the court might find these laws constitutional: the peculiar dogma of originalism espoused by Justices Scalia and especially Thomas has been used to protect our courts from rational decision-making in the past, and may be again. The problems with that interpretive technique, however, will merit a different blog post.

**I believe that a truly rigorous application of this principle would require the federal and state governments to forego the marriage business entirely–but if that is not to be, they should at least try to avoid willful and egregious discrimination against their citizens. Every schoolchild knows that we are all of us created equal.

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MacDougal Street

As I went walking up and down to take the evening air
(Sweet to meet upon the street, why must I be so shy?)
I saw him lay his hand upon her torn black hair;
(“Little dirty Latin child, let the lady by!”)

The women squatting on the stoops were slovenly and fat,
(Lay me out in organdie, lay me out in lawn!)
And everywhere I stepped there was a baby or a cat;
(Lord, God in Heaven, will it never be dawn?)

The fruit-carts and clam-carts were ribald as a fair,
(Pink nets and wet shells trodden under heel)
She had haggled from the fruit-man of his rotting ware;
(I shall never get to sleep, the way I feel!)

He walked like a king through the filth and the clutter,
(Sweet to meet upon the street, why did you glance me by?)
But he caught the quaint Italian quip she flung him from the gutter;
(What can there be to cry about that I should lie and cry?)

He laid his darling hand upon her little black head,
(I wish I were a ragged child with ear-rings in my ears!)
And he said she was a baggage to have said what she had said;
(Truly I shall be ill unless I stop these tears!)

Why did nobody tell me that Edna St. Vincent Millay lived just down the road from where I now live?

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