Blurring lines of moral equivalency
A glittering constellation of populist inquiries into what defines 'moral values' illuminates the black velvet canvas of ideological debate like never before. A starry alignment, of sorts, occurred recently when Alan Simpson, the folksy former senator from Wyoming, paid a visit to Bill Maher's HBO program Real Time with Bill Maher. Simpson suffered an onslaught of heretical insults that managed to unapologetically and simultaneously vilify Christians and venerate homosexuals. That such attacks occur on Maher's program is, of course, not surprising. Maher's unabashed animus toward religion is a staple of his comedy act (I reject seriously denominating him or any other Frankenian jester a pundit). His denunciations of Christianity draw wild applause. So too his reverent encomiums to men who love men and women who love women.
But it was not Maher's predictable pelting of Christians on this broadcast that was sig—nificant. Simpson showed appropriate levels of righteous anger, taking Maher to task for stereotyping the 'Christian right.' 'Who are they?' he demanded to know. Matching this decibel of outrage, he scolded Maher for 'making fun' of gays and lesbians. Keep making fun of religious Americans and gays and lesbians, he admonished, and the left will never win a national election.
For Simpson, it was a classic performance. This prairie dog has an intuitive understand—ing of the normative values Americans cherish while maintaining an honest sensitivity to the rights of Wyoming's gay subculture. 'I don't have to come on this program when Matthew Shepard was killed in this state and the people of this state were offended. So put that one in your pipe!'
None of this was at odds with what we have come to expect from Simpson or other conservative patriarchs who minister from a traditionalist pulpit. But his suggestion of a moral equivalency between Christianity and homosexuality begs a question that everyone is thinking but no one is asking: Why is it so challenging to proudly defend Christianity yet expected of us to defend homosexuality?
Perhaps I read too much into his remarks, but it seemed as though Simpson's defense of homosexuality resonated stronger than did his defense of Christianity. (Even Maher expressed confusion. After asking Simpson if he was gay, Maher was quick to add the laugh line, 'I have not heard anybody be this sensitive about a gay joke since Harvey Fierstein.')
Arguably, Simpson was defending people—Christians and gays—not ideas—Christianity and homosexuality. But if the sanctity of Christianity imposes limitations on the scope of permissible ridicule, how is it that homosexuality is equally sanctified? Simpson has shared the stage with Maher before. He is familiar with Maher's format and can expect Maher to chase rabidly after sacred cows. Was Simpson's condemnation really intended to discourage a wise—ass like Maher? Did Simpson really mean to suggest that poking fun at Christianity and homosexuality are equally beyond the pale? If so, then, intentionally or not, he was fueling the equivalency argument leftist organizations are making in courtrooms the world over. As has unnecessarily become a frequent occurrence, the blurring line that divides Christian morality from homosexual immorality was smudged just a bit more.
Not too long ago, before the televangelist scandals, Christians were your neighbors and friends. No one gave any thought to how they might subject anyone to their toe—curling BELIEFS. Today, Christians are seen as public menaces, grist for jokes and endless media—based or Hollywood—produced opprobrium. From growling broad epithets ('the religious right') to barking pious indignation, an erstwhile taciturn class of secularists routinely, and, yes, liberally, purges its occluded venom against Christians. Anti—Christianity, it may seem, is the new anti—Semitism. As Gerald S. Rellick, surely expressing the views and sadistic flippancy of many, summed up in a Los Angeles Times letter to the Editor (11/10/04), 'So many Christians, so few lions.' No offense, of course.
There was a time, not too long ago, when an individual's unconventional sexuality went largely unchallenged. Homosexuals, transvestites and hermaphrodites, as well as bigamists, prostitutes, pedophiles, polygamists and pornographers, accepted their narrowly fixed place in the pantheon of moral relativists.
What homosexuals did in the privacy of their bedroom was nobody's business. Now, it's everyone's business. Increasingly and unceasingly. One can't turn the corner without some reminder of how homosexuals, like illegal alien domestic laborers, contribute toward our great society. Could we get decent theatre without them?
The intersection of public attitudes toward Christianity and homosexuality informed the recent general election. It calls to mind ethical formulae for transection of these hot—button morality issues. Ethicists speak of three categories of normative ethical systems. One category of what are called action—based theories of morality focuses entirely upon the actions a person performs (deontic). One who fails in performing a duty owed to oth—ers acts immorally (the ethical equivalent of the legal tort of negligence). Religion guides this ethical system. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
Another action—based category (teleology) focuses on the consequences of one's behavior and the choices one makes. Under this system, one who chooses to do something, regardless of intent, that results in injury to another has acted immorally. Think of HIV—infected AIDs carriers or unwed teenagers having unprotected sex. These systems examine the question, 'What should I do?'
But there is a third category of ethical systems that approaches questions of moral behavior by focusing on objective character traits that are to be encouraged. This approach leaves others to ask whether one's conduct is morally correct. Rather than asking 'What should I do?' this approach asks 'What sort of person should I be?' Generosity and kindness are among the character traits that define morality under virtue—based ethical logic.
The ethical dimension stands front and center within the same—sex marriage debate. In Citizens for Equal Protection v. Attorney General Jon Bruning, the American Civil Lib—erties Union challenged the State of Nebraska's law barring same—sex marriage. The law, passed by Nebraska voters in the 2000 general election and codified as Article I, section 29 of the Nebraska Constitution, provides that only marriage between a man and a woman is valid and recognized in Nebraska. It further invalidates same—sex civil unions and domestic partnerships.
In their brief to the U.S. District Court, ACLU Nebraska (joined by the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund and the ACLU Foundation) denied that the plaintiffs were asking the Court 'to provide them with marriage, civil unions, domestic partnerships, or any particular benefits or protections.' What then?
'Instead plaintiffs seek only their constitutionally protected right to an equal opportunity to convince elected representatives and government employers of the merits of extending a range of legal protections to people in committed same—sex relationships, free from the disability that Section 29 imposes on gay couples alone.'
The subtext of this request should be obvious to anyone keeping a watchful eye on the buildup to debate over President Bush's proposed Constitutional Amendment recognizing marriage only between a man and a woman. It holds that courts should invalidate the will of the people. In the Nebraska case, the 'constitutionally protected right to an equal opportunity' to be persuasive to legislators and employers does not exist for Huskers or anyone else.
But it is the virtue appeal that informs their argument. The plaintiffs' member couples 'wish to protect lifetime relationships because of the significance in their lives of those relationships' which turn on 'shared values' such as 'commitment and responsibility.' The plaintiffs believe in 'honesty and monogamy, building a certain future together, and the importance of providing daily support and strength to each other.' This rhetorical appeal crystallizes the central theme of same—sex marriage proponents: We want to be good people; thus we are moral.
This appeal rejects action—based ethical principles. It circumnavigates the question of what duties may be owed to others in society or the consequences of same—sex relationships. Is there any regard at all to how same—sex relationships may affect children? Or the family structure? Is the policy of encouraging procreation and child—rearing within the marital relationship, and thus limiting marriage to opposite—sex couples, not an inter—est states are free to protect?
What of the imposition on business or labor? In New York City, Mayor Bloomberg fought to preserve his right to negotiate low bid contracts only to have courts tie his hands by requiring him to discriminate against businesses that do not provide equal benefits to same—sex partners as are provided to married couples. The complexity of redesigning society to accommodate the agenda of contemporary homosexuals is not just con—founding the City of New York. In the aftermath of the Bush reelection, civil liberties activists are reconstituting and remobilizing.
By claiming moral parity, the gay brigade, while battle victorious, must ultimately concede defeat. What Christianity has built in more than two millennia cannot be destroyed on the basis of misplaced ethical concerns. That many gays are virtuous is beside the point. That they dream of committed relationships recognized by law is also beside the point. What the individual wants for himself has never been a compelling rationale for attainment. Deontic and teleological ethical constructs shift the focus from self—centeredness to self—sacrifice. Selflessness, as exemplified by Christ's sacrifice, is the Christian's focus. There simply is no equivalency between a doctrine that fundamentally advocates selfless behavior and one that is intrinsically self—indulgent.
It is easy to feel sympathy for gays who sincerely want to participate meaningfully in a relationship and feel left out. Our identities sometimes derive not from who we think we are but from what others think of us. The Queen in Alice in Wonderland advised:
'Be what you would seem to be——or if you'd like it put more simply——Never imagine your—self not to be otherwise than what it might appear to others that what you were or might have been was not otherwise than what you had been would have appeared to them to be otherwise.'
Better advice might be to accept who you are and let others be defined by their judgment of you.
Life's promises are not always within reach. Not everyone has an opportunity to be married, heterosexuals included. Married couples may not have the ability to conceive children. Nature can spoil our fondest yearnings. But at the intersection of Christianity and homosexuality, the debate over moral equivalency is best to be avoided. Each one of us possesses the power to define ourselves through our convictions and actions. We have a chance to seize possession of our life's goals and purposes not through our sexual identi—ties but through the quality of life we cede to those among us. In this, Christians need not apologize. Indeed, they should remain strong against the tidal forces arrayed against them. The line can be sharpened.