Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Societies' Changing Moral Minds, Changing Societies' Moral Minds: Reflections on the Eve of a New Year

I ended yesterday’s posting with a comment about the changing moral mind of our society—about our culture’s developing moral consensus that gay human beings are fully human and deserve all rights accorded to any other human being. Today, on this eve of a new year, it strikes me as important to talk further about the idea of the moral mind of a society, and how that moral mind changes.

The concept of society’s moral mind is a key theme in social gospel theology—a theological movement linking action for progressive social change to Christian theology, which had strong influence on American religion and culture in the latter part of the 19th and the first part of the 20th century. The influence of the social gospel has continued in American Christianity up to the present, even though the movement itself fell into decline after World War I.

For instance, there are strong social gospel motifs in the thinking of Martin Luther King, Jr. King’s education in both Atlanta and Boston brought him into contact with scholars steeped in social gospel theology. His own powerful theology constantly echoes social gospel themes. King’s oft-quoted statement—highlighted in the graphic accompanying yesterday’s posting—that the moral arc of the universe is long, but bends towards justice, is a social gospel insight, one that captures the responsibility of people of faith to discern the trend of justice in their society and move their churches towards that trend.

The theology that developed around the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s incorporated key social gospel themes, including the insistence that societies can sin and that social groups can develop a new moral awareness. Social gospel theology insists that people of faith have an obligation to pay attention to the developing consensus of the social groups to which they belong, since that consensus often challenges churches and demands that they undergo conversion of taken-for-granted assumptions that have begun to appear as immoral, in light of shifts in the moral awareness of society at large.

Influential social gospel theologians, including Walter Rauschenbusch and Shailer Mathews, the subject of my doctoral dissertation and of a book based on that dissertation, note that the trend of societal moral development is ineluctably towards greater and greater recognition of the personhood of those previously depersonalized. American slavery rested on the assumption—it justified itself by assuming—that slaves are 3/5 of a person. Women were depersonalized for generations because the legal systems of many societies enshrined beliefs that women require male control and supervision, since they are less able than men to govern themselves—less fully personal than men.

As social groups become aware that these depersonalizing assumptions, applied to one group and then another, are immoral, since the humanity of all human beings is equal, movements to change the moral consensus of society around these assumptions begins. Those movements gradually shift the thinking of the culture at large, and eventually that of churches, as well—culture first and churches second in many instances, because churches all too frequently prove to be the bastion of resistance to progressive social change.

As Martin Luther King, Jr., put the point, churches too often form the taillight to progressive social movements, rather than their headlight. Here, too, King was echoing social gospel thinking, which sees the development of new moral awareness in social groups as a process that goes far beyond the boundaries of churches, and which often requires churches to address their own complicity in sinful social practices such as racism and misogyny.

It has now become commonplace to analyze what has happened in Western cultures with racial and gender prejudice as a breakthrough of moral awareness, based on a growing consensus that it is immoral to treat people as less than human because of pigmentation or gender. Once that breakthrough of awareness has happened, we cannot go back: we cannot choose again to countenance slavery or outright, legally protected misogyny without undermining our claim to be a society built on moral principles, a democracy built on the key insight that all people are created equal and should have access to the same set of human rights.

Many citizens of Western societies, however, continue to resist the breakthrough of a similar moral awareness regarding the humanity of gay persons. And much of that resistance is fueled today—as it was in the movements for rights for both people of color and women—by the churches.

Viewed from an historical perspective, many Western cultures are today where they were in the past, at that threshold moment when the social consensus re: people of color and women was just about to shift decisively: on the cusp of a new moral mind regarding the place of gay human beings in society—regarding the humanity, the full humanity and access to the full gamut of human rights—of gay human beings. We are there because we have reached a point of moral awareness from which there is no retreat.

Once increasing numbers of people in democratic societies begin to recognize that prejudice based on innate characteristics such as race, gender, or sexual orientation, cannot be justified, because there can be no justification for using innate characteristics to dehumanize and depersonalize any group of citizens in a truly democratic society, change has to happen. It has to take one of two forms: either the society has to reject the claims of the group now demanding attention as a dehumanized group, or it has to eradicate all barriers to that group’s access to human rights.

At the breakthrough moment, society has to act. It has to make choices. People have to make choices and take stands. We have to make choices and take stands.

There is no morally justifiable intermediate stage in the process of developing moral awareness after that process has reached the moment of breakthrough insight. Once that stage has been achieved, there can no longer be weighing of claims or moral calculation, with the attendant assumption of such weighing and calculation that prejudice remains legitimate, simply one acceptable opinion among others in a pluralistic society.

Once society has come to the moment of breakthrough awareness of its complicity in historic injustice towards a dehumanized group of people, the time for compromise, for bringing everyone on board before we make up our cultural mind, for permitting prejudice masked as religious belief to impede democracy, is over. Breakthrough awareness introduces a time for change: a time when decision is demanded.

I have explored these themes in published works that track my own response to racism—to my racism—in my life journey. These autobiographical theological reflections examine the moments in which I became critically aware that I had taken for granted attitudes and assumptions from my formative years which were racist.

As the reflections note, once I saw these attitudes and assumptions for what they were—social constructions of reality rather than accurate readings of social reality; prejudice imposed on me by the culture in which I grew up—there was no going back. Once my eyes were opened to the racism in the society around me and in myself, I had no choice except to make a choice: to confront my own prejudice and to deal with it, in every way I could discover it in my attitudes and decisions. That is, I had no choice if I wished to continue claiming an interest in being a moral agent, someone who took the moral claims of others seriously.

My articles reflecting on my own struggle to deal with my breakthrough awareness of the racism of my culture of origin, and my own racism, use that reflection as a prism to look at the struggle of social groups to deal with such breakthrough awareness. As I reflect on how social groups incorporate new breakthrough moral awareness and change their moral minds, it has become clear to me that the urge to shift moral thinking about human rights issues does not come from the center.

It comes, instead, from prophetic and progressive movements within faith communities and in society at large. It comes from those who explore the growing edge of moral awareness in their own social and faith groups—those who are willing to move away from the warm, safe embrace of the center to the margins, where the beliefs of the center are tested and proven true or false.

This movement from the margins to the center, this challenge of the prophetic minority to the center, has been going on for some time now in Western cultures, vis-à-vis gay human beings and gay human rights. We are now at a moment of breakthrough awareness in which what prophetic and progressive movements in our culture have seen for some time—that gay human beings are as fully human as other human beings, and deserve the same human rights as other human beings have—is beginning to impinge on the consciousness of the culture at large.

As that breakthrough awareness is communicated from the prophetic, progressive margins to the center, it becomes impossible for those who claim to lead from the center to ignore the growing moral consensus of their society. Certainly many church groups that have much invested, historically, in marginalizing and condemning gay human beings, will continue to resist the breakthrough of moral awareness and the new moral consensus that this breakthrough implies.

Leaders that concede moral ground to these resistant religious groups will fail, however, in one of their chief tasks as leaders in a democratic society, if they allow these groups the right to determine the direction of their society, vis-à-vis the question of human rights for gay persons. While religious groups have and should have, in a pluralistic democratic society, the right to hold their unique beliefs, they do not have and should not have the right to determine the moral consensus of society about the human rights of marginalized groups about whose humanity the society is slowly shifting its awareness.

There are religious groups that continue to imagine women as inferior creatures, and which build their church polity and dogmatic systems around that fantasy. There are religious groups that continue to denigrate people of color by overtly racist teachings and by church-political decisions that contribute to the marginalization of people of color.

We no longer permit these groups to determine the social consensus—the moral mind of our society—about people of color and women, however. We do not do so because, at the moment of breakthrough awareness in these areas, we decided once and for all that our future as a democratic society required us to make a choice. We chose to underscore the humanity of women and people of color—despite what many believers and many churches continued to teach.

The role of national leaders like Lincoln (or, later, Roosevelt or Lyndon B. Johnson) was crucial in the process by which the center affirmed the growing moral consensus of its day, re: issues of race or women's rights. We have successfully negotiated the difficult passage to new moral consensus regarding racial and gender issues because we have had leaders willing to stand at the center in order to redefined the center, morally speaking.

Lincoln exemplifies the process I am sketching here. Lincoln deliberately claimed his role as a moral leader at a time of shifting moral consensus. He did not flench from the moral obligation his presidential office imposed on him, at a time of shifting national moral consensus about slavery.

When Lincoln took office, the nation was deeply divided over the issue of slavery. In assuming office, Lincoln stood at the center and sought to hold the nation together. At the same time, he refused to yield to arguments that holding the nation together and representing the center required him to concede anything at all to those people of faith and those churches that supported slavery and the continued dehumanization of African Americans.

As president, as the moral leader at the center of a nation that purported to value democracy while practicing slavery, Lincoln recognized the inescapable force of a new moral consensus regarding slavery, which had slowly developed on the margins, in prophetic movements of abolition with both secular and religious roots. Lincoln saw that the center had no choice except to endorse that moral consensus, if the American people wished to be faithful to the ideals with which their democratic experiment began.

Sound leadership in a democratic society has an important and inescapable moral dimension. It does so because questions of human rights are always moral questions, and democracy is centered on assumptions about human rights. At historical moments in which the moral mind of a society has begun to coalesce around growing awareness that a social group has been dehumanized and denied human rights for insupportable reasons, the only possible option for a leader who wishes to lead with moral authority is to recognize and deal with the growing new moral consensus in her or his society.

And to lead the nation towards that consensus, when it extends human rights to a group previously marginalized. Even when that leadership requires the leader to stand up to the moral authority of religious groups who wish illicitly to impose their peculiar, anti-democratic presuppositions about the marginalized group in question on society at large.

This is where we find ourselves today, as a people, I believe: this is where we are on the eve of 2009. This place in which we find ourselves calls for exceptionally strong leadership that does not eschew moral responsibility. I pray that the new president will be capable of providing that leadership. And I promise continued discussions of these important issues (important to me, if to no one else) in the new year.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Uncorking the Pandemic of Crazy: Predictions about the Religious Right in 2009

And on to the prognostications. Which I’m not sure many folks will want to hear—in part, because what I see down the pike is not promising for those who think we can relinquish the battle with the religious right as that movement dies and a new generation of younger evangelicals takes over.

I certainly take hope from that demographic shift, and I am convinced it is underway. But. A big but: I do not think that this shift should encourage those who see the religious right as one of the biggest threats to democracy in the world today to relax our vigilance. If anything, I believe that, after the election of Obama, we are going to see redoubled efforts on the part of the religious right to exercise control in American culture and politics—redoubled efforts to extend the influence of this political-religious movement and to secure the place of the movement in American life.

And along with those redoubled efforts will be a savage attack on gay citizens unparalleled by anything the religious right has sought to do in the past. After all, what does this movement have left, except the gay card? We are it: we are the last, best hope for the religious right to continue as a major political player in the Obama era.

I think Bob Cesca is absolutely correct when he observes in a recent Huffington Post article on the influence of the religious right, “Nevertheless, we can bet on the fact that the far-right is going to be uncorking a pandemic of crazy so unrelenting as to make the 1990s seem quaint by comparison”
( Get ready for it: we ain’t seen nothing yet. The pandemic of crazy headed our way now that Obama is president is going to make what the religious right has sought to do to gay citizens up to now look mickey-mouse.

As I look down the road and see this coming, I am intently concerned at the cavalier attitude of many of my fellow citizens—including many LGBT citizens—to all the ominous signs now appearing on the horizon. In some sectors of the gay community, there is the perception that older, politicized gays have done yeoman’s work fighting culture-war battles that they are now unwilling to give up, as the need for fighting those battles wanes with the passing of generations.

I think this is a naïve and dangerously apolitical approach to the continued power the religious right exerts in American culture—and in global culture, as well, since this movement has adroitly sought to replicate itself in other cultural contexts, and to fan flames of homophobia wherever it can across the globe. Those of us who have long fought these culture-war battles haven’t done so because we enjoy the fighting.

We’ve been fighting for our lives—for our humanity, for our human dignity and human rights. We’ve been fighting because we have had no choice. That’s what you do when life and dignity are at stake. That’s how you respond when others seek to diminish your humanity.

It was the religious right that declared these culture wars, after all, and which put all gay human beings in the world in its sights as it did so. When one is in the sights of an enemy, it does no good to say that one does not relish fighting. The only productive options are either to run fast, or to stand your ground and fight back.

And the fight is clearly not over. As Frederick Clarkson argues in a recent Alternet article, the religious right is not going anywhere. It will, Clarkson is convinced, continue to pose one of the central challenges to our participatory democracy:

There is a religious war going on in America in which one side seeks to thwart, and even to roll back, advances in civil rights. This poses one of the central challenges of our time for those of us who are not part of the Religious Right; those of us for whom religious pluralism and constitutional democracy matter, along with such closely related matters as reproductive freedom, marriage equality and free, quality and secular public education. The defense and advance of our most deeply held values requires our holding clear-eyed assessments of how the Religious Right adapts to the changed political environment (

The defense and advance of our most deeply held values requires our holding clear-eyed assessments of how the Religious Right adapts to the changed political environment: this is an extremely important point. The religious right is not merely carrying on the traditional culture wars it has inflicted on our culture—that is, carrying on those culture wars in ways we have all come to see as typical of the religious right. The religious right is now adapting to a changed political environment. It is developing new strategies and new techniques. And it behooves any of us concerned about the preservation of democracy to understand and combat those strategies.

The religious right is adapting to remain alive, to continue, and, if possible, to extend, its influence. Unless we track the adaptation process, become aware of it, predict its moves, we will not succeed in holding this powerful anti-democratic movement in check.

We have seen some indicators of where the religious right is going in recent weeks, and the response to those indicators should trouble those on the progressive end of the political and religious spectrum. This response suggests that too many of our fellow citizens are oblivious to the real threats the religious right poses to participatory democracy, and too willing to excuse this movement’s attacks on democracy, or to imagine that the religious right is obsolescent.

Look closely at what happened with both the Rick Warren selection and the Christmas message of Benedict XVI to the Curia, for instance, and you will see a clear pattern—one predictive of the strategy the religious right intends to employ now. Those who reacted against the inaugural selection and the papal statement immediately found themselves on the defensive.

And they were placed on the defensive not merely by the right, but by influential forces in the center that clearly do not want the religious right marginalized, for a variety of reasons. Those raising legitimate and important questions in both cases were immediately accused of being divisive and even dishonest. Rick Warren and Benedict, who both have strong, easily tracked records of hostility to the gay community and to gay human beings, were depicted by their centrist defenders as inoffensive and morally upstanding, while their critics were slammed as offensive and anti-religious.

Most worrisome of all, in both cases lies have been permitted to pass as acceptable public discourse in a democratic society, even as we have allowed those in the center to paint those challenging the lies as the real malefactors. When asked to own his rhetoric linking gay people to pedophilia, Rick Warren simply lied: he denied having said what he had said, even when clips of his homosexuality-pedophilia remarks are widely available. Just as he denied having allowed McCain to monitor the responses of Obama at the Saddleback Church debate, even after it became apparent that Warren’s claim that McCain had been in a sealed, soundproof room was false.

Re: Benedict’s Christmas statement, there have been repeated attempts in the mainstream media to claim that Benedict did not say what he did, in fact, say, or to minimize what he said by calling for contextual understanding of his statement about gay people as threats to the human ecology. There have been suggestions that the little pill of poison was, after all, tiny, and only a tiny portion of the overall argument—as if a tiny pill of poison hidden in a large concoction is somehow less dangerous simply because it is discrete.

What we are seeing here—and should prepare for throughout the Obama administration—is a bold mainstreaming of plainspoken homophobia. Read the blogs of liberal Catholic publications, as I do daily, and you’ll see a worrisome development in recent weeks: the homophobic rhetoric—the overt homophobic rhetoric—is no longer coming only from those on the far right. It is now pouring out from those at the center, who have been afraid until recently to express openly their reservations about gay rights and gay persons.

The closer our society comes to a moral turning point, to a line of no return at which people have to declare their solidarity with or opposition to gay persons, the more we can expect this open expression of homophobia to proliferate. And buried at the center of it all will be the religious right, working (as it did in California with proposition 8) to disseminate disinformation and to elicit fear and hostility among centrist citizens who have not previously been opposed to gay persons and gay rights.

Expect more—much more—“journalism” of the ilk of Jeffrey T. Kuhner’s defense of Benedict in this past Sunday’s Washington Times ( What is remarkable in this shoddy mess of homophobic disinformation about Ratzinger/Benedict’s track record re: the gay community is not just the defense of Benedict. Kuhner has written in that vein before.

No, what is remarkable is that Kuhner now feels free, after Obama’s election, to pen the following poison, knowing it will be printed in a mainstream publication:

Homosexual behavior (along with abortion, contraception, euthanasia, and pornography) represents a key facet of the modern West's “culture of death.” The homosexual lifestyle is inherently dangerous and destructive. It is not just that most gays and lesbians are casually promiscuous, and that ritualized sodomy is profoundly unhealthy. But homosexuality is incapable of natural reproduction; its lifestyle is one that is barren and childless - and without children, there can be no future and ultimately, no hope.

What is remarkable is that a mainstream newspaper, a “centrist” media outlet, feels perfectly free to print lies that, before the election of Obama, would have been confined to hate sites on the internet.

It’s now out in the open, after the election of Obama. And it will continue to come out into the open now, with the religious right egging the rhetoric on: gays as “inherently dangerous and destructive,” as barren purveyors of a culture of death. Rhetoric very much like the antisemitic rhetoric that poured forth in Germany before the rise of the Nazis to power. Rhetoric that respectable mainstream media outlets and respectable religious journals would not have printed before. Rhetoric passed on as legitimate opinion by centrist religious and political thinkers who would never utter such statements about someone who is Jewish. Or about someone who is African American.

After the election of Obama. Something about this event, the election of a new president who has expressed mild support for gay rights and gay persons, is eliciting this rhetoric. It is doing so because the election of Obama is eliciting fear—fear of gay persons and gay rights—among many citizens, including (and increasingly) among citizens at the center. There is fear of a new moral turn in our society, which many of those at the center resist, and about which they have previously been unwilling to admit their ambivalence.

This is, in my view, ultimately why Mr. Obama chose Rick Warren to give the invocation at his inauguration, and why that choice should deeply trouble those of us who are either gay or in solidarity with gay persons and who support Obama. As numerous observers have noted and as Obama himself has stated, in making this choice, Obama is playing to the center. He is assuring his support at the center of our culture.

Obama is a skilled politician. One of the strengths of his campaign was its ability to crunch numbers more effectively than the campaigns of his competitors—the ability to get its fingers on the pulse of the voting populace and to anticipate what voters would do.

Obama knows what he is doing in selecting Rick Warren for the inauguration, and in playing to the center. He is consolidating his power. He is making a political calculation that will not harm him, and will, in fact, aid him.

There is a price to be paid in making this calculation, and that price is the disenchantment of many gay voters and many voters in solidarity with gay persons. But that price is not a high price to pay—not high in political terms, that is. Gay voters simply do not have the political clout to cause concern to anyone who runs roughshod over gay rights and gay lives. And Americans of the center have still not moved decisively in the direction of gay rights—and, in fact, may move in the opposite direction as the religious right massages anti-gay sentiment to extend its power in the Obama era.

Obama is aware of this. His strength—and, in my view, his most significant shortcoming—as a leader is his political canniness. Obama is a liberal politician, par excellence. The strength of liberal politics is its ability to calculate, to predict on the basis of numbers and trends—and to play one competing interest group against another without ever standing with one of the competing groups until it becomes clear who will be the winner.

Liberalism is long on calculation. It is short on solidarity. Its strong suit is its ability to predict what will happen on the basis of hard data carefully gathered. Its weak suit is its inability to take moral stands—its unwillingness to take moral stands.

Calculation can only go so far, after all. The decision of a culture to shift its moral consensus on issues like slavery or women’s rights—that decision depends not entirely on calculation (and thus it cannot be entirely predicted by calculation): that decision depends on the formation of a new moral consensus that occurs in ways outside the purview of polls and number crunching.

And this is where things may get interesting for the new president, if he continues to rule by liberal calculation. It is possible, after all, to miscalculate. I have seen the effects of such miscalculation in educational leaders time and again. I have seen leaders topple, after they were unwilling to support what is clearly the moral thing to do in a situation, because they calculated that the decision to do what is moral would cost too much and would weaken their support.

In calculating the expedient thing to do and in overlooking the moral thing to do, leaders can succeed in undermining the strongest arguments for supporting them and their platform, in a democratic society: the argument that one should do right and not what is popular. Democracy rests, after all, on foundations that are in the final analysis moral. It rests on the belief that God has created all of us equal and endowed us with inalienable human rights.

Leaders who remove the moral calculus from their political calculations in democratic institutions may make temporary political gains, while undermining their effectiveness as leaders in the long run. I have seen it happen before; I have learned to recognize the pattern. I have watched a university president who likes to speak glibly of human rights miscalculate and violate the rights of some of her gay employees in an egregious and public way. As she did so, she miscalculated from the outset. She willingly listened to poisonous misinformation poured into her ears by those who sought to convince her that she would be shielded from charges of homophobia because those she targeted had no support, precisely because they were gay.

She was wrong. More eyes saw the disconnect between her rhetoric about human rights and her real actions than she predicted. Because her advisors are not morally admirable human beings, but motivated primarily by petty jealousy, they did not bring accurate information to her. She is now beginning to pay a high price for her miscalculation. She has dramatically undermined her effectiveness as a leader in a values-based democratic institution that proclaims the equality of all human beings under God.

I do not want to see this happen to the new president. I think it may well happen, however, if the Rick Warren selection is any indicator of how Obama intends to approach his responsibilities as a moral leader. It is possible that Obama is calculating well, as he courts the center in the election of Obama. It is possible that his calculation that gay human beings do not have sufficient support at the center is a good calculation.

But it is also possible that he is simply wrong. It is possible that we have moved, as a society, further down the road to a new moral consensus that gay human beings are fully human than Mr. Obama's advisors recognize. If so, and if he is miscalculating where the moral mind of the nation is heading regarding this decisive civil rights issue of our time, the religious right leaders to whom the new president is now seeking to cozy up—including the "kinder" and "gentler" types like Rev. Warren—will not be there to support him if he enters into difficult days. They will be exulting in the back room with all the others who hope to undermine his effectiveness as a moral leader, from the inception of his administration.

Monday, December 29, 2008

We Interrupt This Program for a Special Announcement

Dear Readers,

As my previous posting suggests, when I posted it, it was fully my intent to add a second half today.

As the day goes on, however, I find myself feeling under the weather. I have a posting sketched. Read it (and writing it) is like looking at something obscured by dense layers of damp gauze. I seem to have caught the bug that some of my Christmas guests had, and it's making it difficult to write and think.

When I am bug-free, and won't be inflicting fevered babblings on you, I will return. Meanwhile, I hope the 12 days of Christmas and/or the Chanukah season and/or Kwaanza and/or the winter solstice celebrations are going well for all reading this blog.

As 2009 Approaches: Predictors of Continued Assault from the Religious Right

Okay. I’ve struggled enough with this posting (and with myself). There will never be a perfect time to write it, when I am safely beyond the Christmas doldrums, beyond that let-down feeling that comes after you have worked for days to prepare a large meal for a large group. Who do what guests naturally do: eat, make merry (or not), go home, and leave you to manage the leftovers.

At Christmas, that let-down feeling is sometimes compounded, in my family, at least, by the sense that I am not much needed or respected. And when the Christmas blues join with the larger blues—from similar experiences in one’s church community and in the workplace, which also communicate one’s worthlessness—one begins to doubt the wisdom of writing. Of addressing current issues. Of sharing thoughts about the future. Of keeping a blog.

One does not want one’s thoughts about such matters to be colored by personal dolefulness—particularly when others may read those thoughts and be swayed by them. The ethic of doing no harm—which is central to the Jewish spirituality of tikkun olam, to Wesleyan piety, to the Thomistic tradition with its summary of the moral imperative as doing good and avoiding harm—forbids us to offer advice to others than may cause their hurt.

I certainly don’t mean to suggest that I think this blog reaches or sways many readers, or that it’s some kind of advice column on which anyone hangs. What I am crucially aware of, though, as I blog, is that there are real human beings reading, who have real human minds and hearts, and who may be affected for weal or woe by what I say.

I know a few regular readers, and I occasionally receive a “snapshot” of this or that reader who contacts me to share some detail that allows me to see into that person’s human situation—a tiny bit. Those snapshots help keep me honest. They serve to remind me that I am keeping this blog not only for myself, but for others—others who care to join Steve’s and my pilgrimage now and again.

I’m perhaps more aware of those readers and their human faces right now, because of a Christmas card I got this year. It came from someone with whom I worked in a previous workplace. Sad to say, that workplace is now so fraught with tension—some of it centered on continued hostility towards anyone thought to be associated with me, ludicrous hostility, in that I am no longer there and maintain ties with no one there—that it takes an act of courage for anyone on that campus to write and tell me that they value me.

And because of the very real danger to anyone who shows solidarity with me on that particular campus, I have to be careful about anything I might say here that would reveal the identity of the person who sent me this Christmas card. The head of this university decisively decreed that I be disappeared, and she expects that decree to hold for the foreseeable future. She is not above taking reprisal against anyone she thinks may question the cruel injustice she visited on Steve and me.

Given these circumstances, I value all the more a statement my former co-worker made in his/her Christmas card to me. The colleague says, “I read your blog. Keep up the good work in all your efforts. You were the most kind, caring and loving couple and you’ll never know how much that meant to me.”

It means much—well, truthfully, it means the world—to hear those words, in this post-Christmas season when days are long and the new year has not yet arrived. It means much to hear this message from a campus whose leader decreed that an opposite message be transmitted to Steve and me: one of disrespect, of enraged vilification, and of blame for struggles that arise out of her leadership style rather than from the gay couple she would prefer to scapegoat as the source of all her problems.

So, raw feelings . . . and this posting is heading somewhere, I promise, somewhere constructive and beyond the merely confessional—but to get to the constructive, I have to slog through the confessional material. I have to do so because it explains why I am reaching the conclusions I’ll discuss in the next half of this posting, about the imperative need to remain focused on the religious right, if we want democracy to be rebuilt in our nation with the new administration.

There is a very real backdrop to what I write about the religious right. The backdrop is my unavoidable involvement with the religious right and its assault on participatory democracy. I say “unavoidable,” because I am squarely in the sights of the religious right. I am there because they have placed me there, and they intend to keep me there. All LGBT Americans who do not intend to hide, pretend, or apologize for being who God has made us to be are in the sights of the religious right, and that movement intends to keep us there as long as doing so yields political benefits for the religious right.

I write with passion about the religious right and the assault on democracy precisely because I am there, right in the middle of the issue. When I talk about Rick Warren or Benedict XVI’s Christmas address to the Curia, I do not do so academically: I do so existentially, personally. It’s my life that is involved. It’s my humanity, my personhood, that I’m struggling for, against the religious and political right. I can do no other.

From proposition 8 to the Arkansas initiated act to deny adoption rights to unmarried couples to the Florida amendment outlawing gay marriage, then to Rick Warren and Benedict XVI: the months leading up to Christmas were hardly a time of unmitigated joy for those of us who are gay and lesbian in America today. We would be less than honest if we took stock of this year and looked to the next without noting the effects on us as human beings and on our community from the ongoing assault on our human worth.

No one can undergo such sustained assault and not be affected by it. And when the assault comes from those who claim the moral high road, even as they kick, gouge, and destroy, well: it strikes deep. It is intended to strike deep. It is intended to banish one from religious communion and God, as much as from human community.

Prefacing what I will say next about the religious right are some gruesome experiences I’ve had in recent days on blogs in my own religious communion, the Catholic one. I blogged about some of these recently ( Just logging in to some of the recent American Catholic blog discussions about the Rick Warren invitation or Benedict’s Christmas message to the Curia is like taking a dose of poison. The glib assumptions about gay human beings and gay human lives—from both right-wing and liberal American Catholics: they are astonishing. They are dehumanizing.

Right as Christmas approached, on Christmas eve, I visited the blog at the National Catholic Reporter website to find a message—a Christmas message, to me from a frequent blogger there. I’ve discussed my encounters with this blogger in a previous posting ( As that posting notes, he advocates reparative therapy for gay persons. He is also convinced that the only moral way to live with a gay sexual orientation is in perpetual chastity.

As the posting to which I just linked notes, I had several exchanges with this blogger in the fall, regarding the issue of violence in the rhetoric of Sarah Palin’s campaign. The blogger accused me of misrepresenting the facts—of distorting the truth—regarding the level of violence being elicited by Palin’s dangerous rhetoric.

When other posters and I advanced evidence to refute his attack on my veracity, this blogger fell silent. He refused to admit he had been wrong—that he had clearly distorted the truth to accuse me of failing to speak the truth. I have not heard from this blogger from then until now.

Now, at Christmas time, when he chose to attack again . . . . He responds to a posting of mine about Benedict’s Christmas message by asking the following:

Do you have any other concerns that weigh on you - matters of justice, of righteousness, of life in Christ other than this one issue? Or is it the homosexual issue alone that occupies you?

As this Catholic blogger accuses me of being obsessed (his word) with the gay issue, to the exclusion of all other issues, it seems not to occur to him—or not to matter—that our last exchange was on a thread I began at the NCR café to discuss violence in the rhetoric of the presidential campaigns! He seems unaware of threads I have begun at NCR to discuss the lack of effective governmental response to hurricane Katrina—to the many threads on all kinds of issues to which I have contributed.

He is unaware of the extent of my ethical and religious interests, as exhibited in my writings, I suspect, because he wants to be unaware. He needs to be unaware, because he needs to reduce me and my humanity to a single factor: to sexual orientation. He needs to do that in order to dismiss me.

His remarks to me at Christmas time end with an invitation that I have no choice except to hear as condescending, insincere—indeed, cruel: he invites me to repent of my sin and to be strengthened by God.

Why pay so much attention to this experience? I do so because, I propose, it’s an experience those of us who are unapologetically LGBT have over and over in American culture today. We are talked down to, berated, and then invited to repentance by those who employ untruths while accusing us of distorting the truth. We are lied to and lied about by those who call us liars.

And who still receive the support of large sectors of American society and of American cultures as they behave this way . . . . That is why the Rick Warren selection sticks in the craw of many Americans, and why this controversy will not go away. Our culture continues to give the benefit of the doubt, to accord the moral high road, to people who have succeeded in exposing themselves as untruthful, as morally dubious, as inimical to the fundamental values of American democracy. Even as they proclaim themselves as spokespersons for God and exemplary guardians of moral values.

And things aren’t going to get any better anytime soon—which is the gist of the posting that will build on this one.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Christmas and Family: Feast of the Holy Family and Dangerously Literalized Metaphors

There’s something about Christmas and family that I keep trying to put my mental finger on without entire success. It has to do, I think, with a phrase that kept scrolling through my dreams last night: the “invisible” family. And with the pope’s Christmas statement about the “gender” community and the rain forest . . . .

Family gatherings at Christmas time so famously disappoint that the gap between expectation and performance has become a joke, the theme of a vast para-Christmas literature mocking the absurdity that is the Christmas family gathering. The disappointment is in direct proportion to the weight of expectation that we choose to hang on this family gathering—“the” family gathering of the entire year.

The problem, it’s increasingly clear to me, is that weight—along with family itself. How we choose to view family. The weight we expect this fragile social institution to bear. A weight no social institution could ever realistically bear, without cracking. We have turned family—and a very particular cultural enshrinement of family at that: the nuclear middle-class family—into an idol, something to which we all aspire without recognizing that this superimposed symbol has nothing to do with the reality of our everyday lives, and/or our experience of family.

And that’s where that phrase “invisible family” comes into the picture for me. As I’ve noted on this blog, I cannot prepare for a family gathering on Christmas without being acutely aware of family not there, of family that has gone before me. The Christmas feast and the days of cooking, decorating, and cleaning that preface it are filled with ghosts.

It’s as if the dark weeks leading to the winter solstice begin with the feast of All Souls-All Saints, with the pre-Christian feast of Samhain: with those threshold days of remembrance as autumn gets underway, on which the Celts imagined that a veil between this world and the next is pulled aside, and the living and dead can mingle.

I see—I feel might be more accurate—a continuity between those autumnal commemorations of the dead and Christmas. The family gathered around the Christmas table is only a portion of the entire family. Those who have gone before are there, too. They have to be there, if the fragile thing called family is to work, to carry the freight of significance we heap on its shoulders.

I’m aware of the invisible family gathering at my Christmas table as I pull out recipes written in longhand by family members who prepared Christmas foods before me. I cannot look at my aunt Kat’s recipe for glazed pecans, in its swooping rounded teacher’s handwriting, with all its ticky little emendations and asides (Kat never met a recipe she couldn’t improve), without being aware of her presence in the Christmas preparation.

That presence continues through the Christmas meal itself, in which we eat foods she cooked, foods her mother and her mother’s mother cooked and served: foods without which the family Christmas would not be the family Christmas.

Christmas as a family gathering does not work, without the invisible family propping up the visible one, augmenting it, connecting it to a chain of family that stretches back to the mists at the dawn of time. Every Christmas table is surrounded by a cloud of invisible witnesses that extend the family circle far beyond anything we imagine family to be—a cloud of witnesses that open the closed circle of each family to larger circles that join family to family.

No family works apart from other families. No family functions unto itself, entire. This is what is wrong with the notion of family in our culture at present—the middle-class model of nuclear family.

That model of family simply cannot bear the weight of expectation we place on it. Our family gatherings are tense and unhappy because we expect people to play roles that vastly exceed their capacity to play.

Whereas the Holy Family we commemorate in the crèche is, properly understood, a metaphor for all family, for the human family, we have chosen to freeze the metaphor into a precise description of what family must be—and cannot ever adequately be. We have turned the metaphor into a prison of fatuous expectation: the prison of the papa, the mama, and the child. The papa who behaves unremittingly like papa; the mama who observes with every scruple her assigned role of mother and wife; the baby who completes the circle begun by the man and the woman.

The roles we assign to each member of the family circle—the roles we unthinkingly assign to Joseph, Mary, and Jesus as we set up the crèche; the roles we imagine each member of the Holy Family playing in order to keep alive our fantasy of “the” Family: those roles are impossible for any human being adequately to fulfill. We torture ourselves and our culture with bizarre, irrational, religion-rooted gender roles and family expectations that have little to do with the holy stories on which we base our fantasies.

We lack the wisdom of cultures which recognize that holy stories are metaphoric, not exact descriptions of reality, of how things must be. As Christians heap more and more weight of cultural expectation on gender roles and family—as we tell women they must be willing servants and men they must be gentle masters; as we proclaim that family is about procreation and preserving gender balance—we lose sight of the originating metaphor of Holy Family, which has nothing at all to do with gender roles carved in stone, despite the pope's Christmas message.

Think about it: think what happens if we literalize the metaphor of Holy Family and turn that metaphor into a prescription for family life. The Holy Family is a decidedly strange family, indeed—one in which the mother became pregnant without having known man, and in which she remained a virgin throughout her marriage; in which the son is the son of God and did not marry or procreate; in which the shadowy father figure who conveniently dies off early in the marriage gladly takes a vow never to have carnal knowledge of his wife. That’s the metaphor of male-female relationships and family life we want to impose on everyone, on all families? Even as we loudly proclaim that the raison d’etre of this metaphor—of a family centered on holy virginity and parthogenesis—is procreation?

Families work best when we stop expecting fathers to be lords and masters, mothers to be servants, children to be procreative fodder for a new generation that is only about biological reproduction and not about transmission of the cultural values necessary to keep humanity alive. Families work best when mothers sometimes play the father's role and fathers sometimes adopt the maternal posture; when aunts and uncles and grandparents supplement the parental role of father and mother; when the family circle is not closed but open—open to other families, to other human beings outside the tight closed circle with which Christian pro-family rhetoric is excessively (and idolatrously) concerned.

Today is the Catholic liturgical feast of the Holy Family. The Catholic Culture website informs us on this occasion, via Rev. Bernard Strasser, OSB, that "[t]he primary purpose of the Church in instituting and promoting this feast is to present the Holy Family as the model and exemplar of all Christian families" (" Today, the Clerical Whispers website announces, there will be another mass demonstration for "the" family in Spain, as there was last year—a demonstration rooted in the fascist history of the Catholic church in Spain, resistant to social developments that permit diverse models of family to flourish beside "the" model these demonstrations honoring the Holy Family hold up to us: the nuclear, middle-class one man, one woman model of family.

Sadly, such demontrations completely overlook the most fundamental message that the metaphor of Holy Family seeks to impart. This is that families function well when they open to those beyond the family circle. Not when they guard that tight little circle as if all civilization depends on keeping it closed. Families function at all only when they enlarge their boundaries to permit people outside the family circle to offer insight to those inside the circle. Families work only when family values are not about maintaining tightly closed circles organized around rigid gender expectations, but about recognizing the need for all families to connect to all other families. In the human family . . . .

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Christmas Day in the Morning: The Crèche, Biodiversity, and Human Ecology

Dear Brother Benedict,

Greetings on Christmas morning—a fine morning in Arkansas, with the sun rising over the tops of oaks bereft of leaves and the sky a soft, clear blue. It will be a nice day for family gatherings, including the one Steve and I will be hosting later today.

There’s an adorable little bird, a sparrow, perched in the trellis outside my east window. It’s now joined by a second. I can’t say for certain if they are male and female and decently coupled. What I can say is that they seem to be enjoying the light of the sunshine God has blessed us with today, after some days of bitterly cold weather.

I woke thinking of your recent statement about the rain forest and me. Perhaps that statement was in my mind because I went to bed thinking about Christmas and the message of the holy story of the birth of Jesus. Steve and I have several crèches from different nations, and they are all spread out now on the table in the dining room, with candles around them.

We carry on his grandmother’s Christmas tradition in this way. His grandmother Schindler (yes, an old Bavarian name; her husband’s roots were, as yours are, in the Oberpfalz) had an enormous crèche that she delighted in setting up each Christmas, across several tables. She loved to tell the story of each figurine and ornament, of the baby born down the hill in a stable while the “big shots” up the hill (her phrase) thought they had God in their pockets.

All through the crèche were pebbles given to her by each of her 72 grandchildren. She remembered who had given her each stone, and when. They became part of her telling of the Christmas story. It was her way of assuring that each grandchild knew he or she had a place in her heart—no matter who that grandchild was.

We carry on the tradition by gathering inexpensive crèches from around the world, when we see them at flea markets or garage sales. Each crèche in our collection seems to tell the story in a different way, as one would expect, given their cultural diversity.

It’s that theme of diversity that is in my mind today. Please forgive my presumption in thinking that I might have an idea to share with you, the chief pastor of the church. Still, it’s there in my head from the moment I woke up, and I have to share it with somebody. And, since your comments about the rain forest and me provoked the idea, I dare to share it with you—my tiny Christmas gift to the Holy Father.

Here’s my thought: if I dare say it, I think, Brother Benedict, that your biological science may be a tad off. And the mistake in your information about the natural world may well skew the very good points you want to make about ecology and respect for nature.

The obligation of believers as we deal with the intricacies of science is, after all, to respect what science demonstrates to be the case: not to impose our preconceived ideas on the natural world. And if, as we believe, the natural world is somehow a vast book full of information about the mind of God, to be read with reverence by those who believe, it is important that we hear what nature says to us, rather than place nature in a straitjacket and force it to say what we want.

Here’s where I think your science may be straying from what is into the realm of what you wish: your Christmas greetings to the LGBT community spoke of us as a threat to human ecology akin to threats to the rain forest. You spoke about the need of human beings to conform to nature and its categories—your categories. You talked about the illicit attempt of human beings to find gender roles natural for themselves when traditional gender assignments prove to be straitjackets. You suggested that the attempt to seek what is natural to oneself in a world of superimposed gender roles corrupts society.

You ecological theology implies, Brother Benedict, that diversity itself is a threat. And that is where I humbly suggest that you think further about nature and diversity.

If I understand ecological science aright, diversity is not a threat to the preservation of nature, but its mainstay. It is the reduction of biodiversity by the thoughtless intrusion of human beings into the balance of ecology that is eroding our environment.

Diversity protects. It heals. It assures balance. Biodiversity sustains a rich cycle in which one part of creation links to another in ways more complex than the human mind can fathom. Remove any tiniest strand in the rich and complex web of ecological relationships, and you may cause disastrous results. We need all—every piece—that God has created, in God’s infinite wisdom.

It is not our place to impose some rigid order on the infinite variety of God’s creation. It is, rather, our place to respect the diversity that is there, to marvel at its endless variance. And to find God there. In the diversity. Not in the rigid order we seek to impose in order to make the created world more comfortable to ourselves.

If I may say so, I think there are some interesting links between this scientific insight into God’s interest in the widest possible diversity in creation, and the Christmas story. Please think with me about this for a moment, and as chief pastor of the church, please correct my hearing of the holy story of the birth of Jesus if it is wrong.

Vis-à-vis your theme of respect for nature, it strikes me as significant that Jesus is born outside, apart from human spaces and the way in which those social spaces confine us from the moment of our birth. His parents are, as the story is told, not welcome. They are expelled. From the moment of his birth, Jesus has no lasting city here on earth.

Our crèches depict the holy child born in straw, among beasts of burden, with fields surrounding his place of birth, and shepherds watching their flocks in those fields. The crèche contains, symbolically, all the rich diversity of creation, to which God sends God’s son: donkeys, sheep, cattle, shepherds, stars, and people from various places in the world. Along with emissaries from the heavenly circles.

The crèche is a tiny story of diversity, I think: of God’s love of the entire world, of all the diversity in it. Of God’s embrace of the whole cosmos, in its wild life-giving complexity.

One of the lessons we as a human race are learning with tragic slowness is that what we consider dispensable detritus is often the key to it all—the single bit of the created world with which we absolutely cannot dispense, if we expect it all to work together. Write off any one species, and we may write off all species, all life on the planet. We need each bit.

Meditating on the holy story of Christmas makes me bold to ask you, Brother Benedict: are you so absolutely certain that you can write off gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered human beings? That we have no place in God’s world and in God’s plan? In the church? Unless we conform to your preconceived notion (and not God's) of who we should be?

Are you so convinced that we are a threat to the continuation of the human race that you can dispense with us—and continue the human race? Is it possible, perhaps, that we bear gifts that you and the church and world need?

When you look at the magnificent ceilings of the Sistine Chapel, does it really never occur to you to thank God for the gifts gay human beings have brought to the church and world? Do you really believe that those gifts threaten the ecological balance of humanity?

Remove any one of those precious figures in our crèches, and we might as well pack up the ensemble and stop telling the story—a story of God’s love for all the world. Write off any group of human beings because they do not conform to our preconceived notion of who God is and what God wants, and we might as well stop listening to all the holy stories, because we already have the insights they want to impart to us. We don't need to listen to God when we already have the answers. The holy stories only trouble our certainties, then.

That’s how I see it this fine Christmas morning, Brother Benedict. The Christmas story challenges the church to be what it is not yet, a welcoming place—as widely welcoming as the diversity of the created world is wide. This holy story urges us to seek God beyond the confines of our certainties, in the open stable, in the fields continuous with the stable—anywhere God is to be found. Even in those who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The Christmas Message: Love, Period

And even as the dignitaries and elite class of the church often don’t seem to get it—the simple message to love, period—ordinary Christians often do so. My Christmas reflections on how the church engages gay persons would be incomplete if I didn’t mention a Christmas card that brought tears to Steve’s eyes and mine.

It’s from a cousin of Steve’s father. As readers of this blog will recall, Steve’s father died this summer. As the first Christmas his family will celebrate without him nears, we are thinking of him, and of all he meant to us.

My postings at the time of Steve’s father’s death noted that he was a simple, strong, patient, and loving man—a model for his parish. He said little. What he did counted. It was noticed by his parish.

With two gay sons, he had to grapple with the question of how to fit gay human beings into the scheme of human life and into the church. He once told us that, after learning Steve was gay, he spent a day in total silence, thinking, praying, working through his response.

He decided that though he did not understand and though he still respected the teaching of the church, he nonetheless loved. And nothing could stop him from loving. Nothing could force him to pass judgment on what he did not understand—on those he loved.

That was it, and typically, he stood by that decision from the time he made it up to his death. The question of whether he would love and welcome his gay sons was non-negotiable. Even when some of his own children understood the teaching of the church to require them to reject and exclude, he refused to do so.

We will miss John this Christmas. As will his cousin, who sent Steve a beautiful Christmas message about his father. Steve’s cousin is a simple, “ordinary” Catholic, a married man with a large family, a man who works with his hands. Unlike some of Steve’s siblings, he never fails to address his cards to Steve without a greeting to me. Like Steve’s father, his cousin is a man of few words, gentle, patient, unwilling to pass judgment on others.

Here’s what his Christmas card this year says,

The last time I really visited with your Dad was on the 22nd of Dec. 2007. Our parish had a supper with our new Bishop present, we ate together, John and I, and shared many different things about farming, cattle, etc. I know Christmas will be much different for your family, with your Dad not here. Please know I will always refer to your Dad as a “Great Man.”

There’s the church as it has to be, if it wants to be believed when it speaks of God’s universal love. There’s the Christmas message Benedict and his henchmen should be proclaiming, if they want people to understand the gospel. What a church we would be if those at the top listened to those at the bottom . . . .

Reflections on the Pope's Christmas Message to LGBT Persons

So, Christmas draws nears. Every other window has a candle burning bright to invite us in from the cold and dark. Churches are spiffing themselves up, putting out crèches, decorating trees, printing bulletins and welcome messages for the Christmas services.

And for this occasion—this homecoming occasion to which many alienated Christians look as the one time in the year when they may feel truly welcome in the church—how does the head of my church, the Catholic church, choose to issue the welcome? He uses his Christmas address to his staff, “on the great Christian celebratory festival of universal love,” to remind LGBT Catholics that we are the enemy (

He speaks of us as a threat to the human ecology of the world—a threat insofar as we do not submit to his biological imperatives for us.

And, in response, the major American Catholic “intellectual” blogs, at America Magazine and Commonweal, drone on and on. When I first added both blogs to my daily online reading list, I did so with some misgiving. I had dropped in on both occasionally and found their discussion turgid and, even worse, inbred. I knew full well that, reading regularly, I'd be tempted to contribute. I also knew that these discussions weren't for the likes of me.

The discussion on these blogs is the discussion of the self-conscious intellectual elite served by these magazines (and yes, journals to which I subscribed faithfully for many years of my own life). These are the movers and shakers of the Catholic journalism world and the Catholic academy.

And they are so far from where I live and move and from my own experience of the church, that they and I might as well be talking about two different churches altogether. Too many of these members of the elite U.S. Catholic intellectual cadre just don’t get it. They still think atrocious statements such as Benedict’s Christmas address to the Curia are redeemable, discussable, capable of being wrested into some logic that disguises the mean, hard heart inside the statements.

Or worse, they think, many of these movers and shakers of the American church, that Benedict is right in what he says about and to their gay brothers and sisters. They think he is, as one blogger at Commonweal recently noted, “brilliant.”

For this blogger, who is responding to a good posting by David Gibson regarding Benedict’s Christmas welcome to gays, the African-American civil rights cause is “clearly righteous,” whereas “gay causes of all kinds” are “much morally murkier.” Where to begin in addressing such an astonishing viewpoint, with its unconsciously gleeful willingness to defend the human rights of one group as a way of bashing another group and denying rights to that group?

I wonder as I read the statement if the poster has any awareness at all of history, of the history of American Catholicism. Does she really not know that slavery was “morally murky” for Christians of all stripes prior to the middle of the 19th century—for American Catholics as well as their evangelical brothers and sisters? Is she unaware that American Catholic religious even owned slaves—that the wealth of the Jesuits who founded my alma mater, Loyola in New Orleans, for instance, rested on the ownership of sugar plantations operated by slaves?

The cause of civil rights for people of color may seem “clearly righteous” to us today. It did not seem so to Christians of previous eras. We were just as convinced in the past, a majority of us, that subjugation of people of color and their enslavement was as biblically warranted and morally acceptable as we are convinced today that the savage exclusion of gay persons from the churches and society is a righteous cause.

Knowledge of history ought to chasten us, to curb our oh-so-certain sense that we have it right now—especially when we use what we believe to wound others. And that is what is going on with these conversations. As David Gibson astutely notes towards the end of this particular thread,

These are tough topics, and I can only imagine what it must be like for GLBT folks who read this, as we put them under a microscope like a frog on a dissecting tray. I think what is lost, from Benedict’s talk to so much of this discussion, is that these are real God-created people, not concepts to fit into categories.

You think?! Why is it, I wonder, that only a smattering of LGBT Catholics ever even try to discuss these issues on forums like the Commonweal blog or the America blog? Why is it that we do not attend and participate in the forums of the Catholic Theological Society?

From my experience, the answer is clear: we have no place in such discussions. We have been told in manifold ways that we are not welcome. These are, for the most part, discussions of our heterosexual brothers and sisters about us—not discussions with us in which we define ourselves and have a voice in deciding who we will be in the church context. I have sat through countless sessions at Catholic Theological Society of America in which one speaker after another speaks about the church’s responsibility to safeguard the human rights of all oppressed minorities, in which those minorities are enumerated, but in which gays and lesbians are never mentioned.

As if we do not even exist. As if we are the unmentionable. As if threats to human rights and human dignity do not concern us, the “murkier” contenders for human status and human rights among all oppressed minorities. As if there are no hidden gay or lesbian persons in the Catholic church, in its leadership structures—and, yes, in CTSA. We do not have a voice at Commonweal or America, any more than we do in CTSA.

Here’s what I wonder, as I scan the comments about Benedict’s Christmas message at Commonweal and America: what do my Catholic brothers and sisters who defend Benedict’s exclusionism want to do with us? What do they want us to do with ourselves? How will they themselves handle Christmas, knowing that outside the church doors which have enfolded them in a warm, welcoming, lit-up space for sacred celebration and communion there stand many LGBT brothers and sisters who are not welcome in that space? In the dark. In the cold.

I raised these questions yesterday in a response to a posting by Michael Sean Winters at America ( The comment has yet to be uploaded to the site.

Winters is impatient with gay anger at the church, and is defensive on behalf of Benedict. He notes (rightly) that we should focus on the Christmas message, rather than picking away at Benedict’s Christmas statement. He says, “This Christmas, like last Christmas and next Christmas, the grace and love of Christ move the hands of His Church to care for all God’s creation . . . .”

And as my yet-to-be-published response says, this is precisely my concern with Benedict’s message. With his unwaveringly negative—his unrelentingly nasty—message to me as a gay believer (on this, see Colleen Baker’s insightful comments at

Who in his or her right mind could hear what Benedict has just said to LGBT human beings—in his remarks commemorating the “great Christian celebratory festival of universal love”—and hear any echo of the “grace and love of Christ moving] the hands of His Church to care”? That is not what Benedict’s statements about LGBT persons are all about.

They are about putting us into our places. They are about slapping and punishing us. They are about excluding us. They are about scapegoating us and eliciting scorn of us—even violence against us.

Care is not what they are about.

I have thought long and hard about these matters, because I have had to do so, as a gay Catholic and a gay theologian. I am not coming only now to the question, What do you want to do with us, as you preach universal love? I have wrestled with that question year after year for some time now.

Christmas after Christmas, as the large family that is church invites all its smaller families to celebrate the birth of the savior. The savior sent to the world by a God who loves everyone. Unreservedly. Who welcomes everyone unreservedly.

Shortly before Christmas, on the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe eleven years ago, I wrote a bishop of one American diocese to ask some questions from the heart, as a gay Catholic who had experienced savage exclusion in his diocese. I said the following:

On this feast of our Lady of Guadalupe, I ask you as one of the wounded members of the flock to remember those of us whom the church has savaged, and who never hear any words of apology from our pastors. As Christmas comes, please remember that many of us will be outside looking in at the light and warmth of your liturgical celebrations, wishing that those celebrations had real meaning for our lives, and that our gifts and talents might be included by a church that truly cherishes the Mother of the Poor, whose face has been made so plain to us in the Guadalupe story and the Christmas narratives, and the poor Son she holds close to her heart.

May our Lady and her Son send the church in Diocese X outspoken truth-tellers and holy trouble-makers, who will continue to call the church to live the gospel it preaches, and to be more concerned with the substance of the message than with its appearance.

I never got any response to this or the several other letters I wrote that gentleman of the cloth. He seemed content with shrugging his shoulders and consigning me to the outer darkness. He has seemed content to go on donning his liturgical vestments for the Christmas feast, knowing as he does so that many of his gay brothers and sisters will not be in the church this Christmas.

Because we are clearly not welcome. And statements like Benedict’s this past week do not make things any better. In fact, they confirm for us who happen to be gay or lesbian that the church does not welcome us—not as we are, not as God has made us.

And that our brothers and sisters celebrating God’s universal love in those warm, brightly lit churches, are happier not to have us in their midst as they celebrate. Since our “murky” presence calls on them to grapple with questions they apparently do not want to entertain. Including questions of what universal love is all about, in this concrete place, in this day and time. And questions of what being a welcoming community are all about.

Questions on which the salvation of the church and its believers ultimately depend.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Words Worth Hearing:

Richard Cohen in today's Washington Post, from an op-ed piece entitled “Warren On? Party Off”:

Finally, what we do not hold in common is the categorization of a civil rights issue -- the rights of gays to be treated equally -- as some sort of cranky cultural difference. For that we need moral leadership, which, on this occasion, Obama has failed to provide. For some people, that's nothing to celebrate.

The party's off (

In speaking of what we do not hold in common, Cohen is reflecting on Obama’s defense of his selection of Rick Warren, in which Obama states, "We can disagree without being disagreeable and then focus on those things that we hold in common as Americans."

I’m grateful to John Aravosis for bringing Richard Cohen’s article to our attention today on America blog ( As John says, re: the passage I have just quoted,

That last full paragraph is, I think, the crux of the matter, and the reason the Rick Warren issue has touched off such a firestorm in the gay community. Obama is essentially asking us to acknowledge that our humanity is negotiable. That our view of ourselves as full members of American society, as equal members of the human race, is somehow "just our opinion," no more and no less valid than those who compare us to pedophiles.

Human value does not ever occupy a sliding scale in a moral universe. Humans are either human or they are not. If they are human, they are entitled to all rights accorded every other member of the human race. It is obscene to ask any group of citizens to be content to allow their very status as members of the human race to be debated, qualified, voted upon.

Those who do not see this simply miss a fundamental moral point. And they do so no matter how often or eloquently they quote scripture. Those who bought and sold slaves and held people with darker skin in bondage quoted the bible furiously. Those who consigned innocent people in New England to be hanged knew their bible well, and cited it freely.

If history teaches us anything, it is that knowing and being able to quote the holy stories of the world's faith traditions is no guarantee of moral insight.

Those who try to defend the diminution of the humanity of anyone for any reason whatsoever have not yet reached the threshold of moral thinking. When leaders appear to subject the human status of any group of human beings to political calculation, they undermine their ability to lead, since sound leadership depends on sound moral judgment.

The graphic heading this posting illustrates the 1947 statement by the United Nations about fundamental human rights. A resolution extending this statement to gay citizens of the world is now before the U.N. The United States has refused to endorse the statement.

The Lincoln Bible and Obama's Inauguration

Andrew Sullivan is reporting today that Barack Obama will use Abraham Lincoln’s 1861 inaugural bible at his 2009 inauguration ( This is the first time the bible will have been used since Lincoln’s inauguration. Sullivan links to a story about this at Politico (

If memory serves me, the bibles used in presidential inaugurations are typically closed. I’d be interested in seeing the new president set a precedent and open the Lincoln bible as he puts his hand on it.

As he does so, I’d suggest several passages to which the Lincoln bible might be opened, ones that I suspect inspired the president who first used this bible, as he fought for human rights for those unjustly deprived of rights by the majority. Two passages that come to mind immediately are Isaiah 58 and Luke 4.

In the first passage, the prophet addresses the nation—a nation concerned that its fasts and religious observances never seemed to reach the notice of God. Isaiah’s advice to the nation? Stop fasting and start loosing the bonds of those unjustly bound. Then God might hear you, since breaking yokes and loosing the chains of injustice are the fast God desires:

Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke? (Isaiah 58: 6)

The passage from Luke is Luke’s account of what happened as Jesus began his ministry following his forty-day fast in the desert. In Luke’s telling of the story, Jesus returns to his hometown of Nazareth, stands in synagogue to read from the scroll of Isaiah, and makes an astonishing announcement.

He announces that in his life and ministry, the Jubilee is at hand, permanently. The Jubilee was an ancient motif of Jewish culture and religion, a year in which debts were to be forgiven and slaves set free. Needless to say, for making such an announcement, Jesus was hounded out of town:

He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. And he stood up to read (Luke 4:16). 17The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:

18"The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to release the oppressed,
19to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."

Powerful passages that drive to the very heart of Lincoln’s presidency, and to the heart of our democratic society, in which there is a foundational commitment to break the chains of any people we see unjustly enchained. And are there such people in our society today? People whose bondage is not recognized by the majority, and is even approved by the religious worthies of the day—as slavery was at the time of Lincoln?

Christie Keith thinks so ( And she is perplexed by the apparent inability of millions of her fellow citizens to see the effects of this bondage on the lives of millions of their brothers and sisters.

Lincoln Vs. Obama re: Better Angels: Demands of the Moral Point of View

In the wake of the Rick Warren inauguration pick, there’s a lot of chatter online about the Lincoln-Obama analogy. I appreciate the discussion that has developed about my own posting on this topic (

In the discussion thread, Sandy, a blogger at the Direct Democracy site, suggests that Lincoln’s first inaugural address shows his intent to draw the country together rather than to divide it—just as Obama’s choice of Rick Warren intends to heal rather than deepen our wounds. I find that Sandy developed this argument at length yesterday in a posting at the DD site, entitled “To Understand Warren, Look to Lincoln” (

Sandy concludes that, just as Lincoln sought to preserve the Union in his “better angels” address, Obama is reaching across divisive ideological lines to hold us together as a people. In her view, “Maybe he is not so much giving Rick Warren a platform for his archaic and offensive beliefs, but rather delivering a statement that any continuation of the animosity of the culture wars is not going to emanate from this Administration.”

Mark Crispin Miller offers a contrasting analysis of the Obama-Lincoln analogy on a posting at the News from Underground site ( His piece builds on the argument of John F. Harris and Alexander Burns in a recent Politico posting entitled “Straw Man? Historians Say Obama Is No Lincoln” (

Harris and Burns note that Obama has repeatedly drawn the comparison between Lincoln and himself. They note the influence on Obama of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s study of Lincoln’s political strategy, Team of Rivals. They also conclude, along with various historians, that the analogy between Obama and Lincoln is easily overdrawn: the two lived in different eras and pursued different political goals.*

For Mark Crispin Miller, the Lincoln-Obama analogy breaks down with the selection of Rick Warren to deliver Obama’s inaugural invocation. Miller characterizes Warren as an extremist. In his view, there is an unwholesome “grandiosity” in Obama’s assumption that one can bring an extremist minority inside one’s tent, and that they won’t continue trying to burn the tent down.

In my view, the most perceptive consideration of the Lincoln-Obama analogy I’ve read to date is Geoffrey Dunn’s “Et Tu, Obama?: The Choice of Rick Warren Is Unacceptable” on Huffington Post ( Dunn notes that he was an early supporter of Obama who criticized the Clinton campaign for its willingness to employ racist tactics in the primary.

Up to the Warren selection, Dunn has been willing to give “a couple of free passes” to Obama, because of his strong support for the new president. Now things have changed. The choice of Rick Warren has changed things for Dunn. In Dunn’s view, this choice is “morally reprehensible.” Dunn zeroes in on the crucial difference between Lincoln and Obama—that is, the radically different way in which these two leaders address the burning human rights issue of their day, as they build their teams of rivals:

Lincoln may have brought together a "team of rivals" in his cabinet, but at his First Inaugural, Lincoln was absolutely steadfast and unequivocal about the about the sanctity of the Union. He made a celebrated plea for Americans to find the "better angels of our nature" on the issue. He gave no ground.

And Lincoln also had something very interesting to say at that First Inaugural that sheds light on the issue of gay marriage in America. "If by the mere force of numbers a majority should deprive a minority of any clearly written constitutional right, it might in a moral point of view, justify revolution; certainly would if such right were a vital one."

And that is, of course, precisely my point in my own posting probing the Lincoln-Obama analogy. Like Dunn, I supported Mr. Obama early on in the campaign; like him, I continually expressed consternation at the racist overtones of the Clinton camp. Like him, I have been willing to give passes to the president-elect.

Until the Warren selection. Where Lincoln “gave no ground” in defense of human rights, in my view, Obama is willing to give ample ground, when it comes to the human rights of gay persons. And since I am the ground being given, I naturally have certain concerns about this softness regarding my human rights. Obama’s selection of Warren signals his willingness to give ground—a willingness woven through the culture that dominates the American religious landscape, the culture of evangelical Christianity, as well as the culture of those allied with evangelicalism on “family” issues, including the Catholic church.

Where Lincoln was willing to challenge the dominant perception of people of faith in his time frame, Obama asks for conciliation. Where Lincoln recognized that the “moral point of view” demands that we react strongly to any attempt of the majority to deprive the minority of human rights by “the mere force of numbers,” Mr. Obama has shown himself (along with his evangelical friends of the right) to be tone-deaf to the most urgent assault on human rights in our culture at present.

When I compare the two men as leaders, I see a world of difference. And that difference lies along the simple, stark line of doing what is right. Right at the moment. Right when there is a price to pay for doing right.

Lincoln sought to preserve the Union. But he did not do so by abdicating his unwavering commitment to the human rights of enslaved people. He stood unshakeable on the side of right, and the Union did split over this issue—as anyone could see it would certainly split from the time this advocate of the human rights of slaves took office. As Lincoln himself knew would happen if he continued standing for what was right.

I am intently concerned these days with the way in which the “team of rivals” metaphor is being used by Obama and some of his supporters. I wrote yesterday about the attempt (an illicit one, in my view) to use the rubric of cooperation and conciliation as a way of silencing gay persons advocating for their rights, vis-à-vis the Rick Warren selection, and of silencing the growing number of American citizens who are willing to make common cause with gay citizens in this historic movement for rights.

Here’s how I see what is going on. Our participatory democracy is a big table at which everyone has to have a place, if we want that democracy to be authentic. Many voices are now telling gay Americans and our allies to come sit at the table. Stop being petulant. Eat and enjoy; talk and make merry with everyone else who has to be invited to the table.

And yet we look at the table settings, and we find that there is no place at all there for us. And it’s not as if Rick Warren and his cronies are suddenly being invited to a table from which they have long been excluded. God knows, they’ve been at the table lo these many years, eating and drinking and making merry. And assuring that the gays don’t get to the table.

Now all of a sudden the problem of inclusion and acceptance and reaching out is the gays’ fault? And the problem of making a place at the table is a problem of finding room for Rick Warren and the religious right?

The discourse of inclusion with which many of us are being bombarded these days, not only from the right but from the center as well, is, to say the least, false. It covers over the real problem of inclusion in our participatory democracy. It shields those who keep creating that problem and manipulating it for ugly political ends from responsibility for what they are doing. It inverts the problem of inclusion and blames the exclusionary impulse in our culture on those being excluded!

When religious language—honeyed language about love and forgiveness—is used to drive home the point of gay responsibility for exclusion of the religious right, then something is radically wrong. Religious rhetoric should never be used to justify exclusionary impulses that then target those excluded as if they are responsible for their own exclusion—and that of others who have the predominant places at the table.

How can those on the right—and, increasingly, those in the center—get away with such a bold distortion of the actual dynamics of inclusion-exclusion that govern the place of gay Americans at the table of participatory democracy? To their shame, they can do so because they are in the majority. They have the larger voice. They can shout louder.

They can more easily make it seem that God is on their side.

This is precisely the manipulation of religious consciousness Lincoln aims squarely at and disempowers in his first inaugural address, when he observes that the moral point of view does not permit the majority to trample on the rights of the minority, through sheer force of numbers. Morality is about something else entirely.

It is about taking the side of the oppressed, no matter who they are. It is about evaluating every social situation at each point in history to see whose rights are most tenuous and threatened, who is most in need of a place at the table.

It is about creating a table big enough for us all, at which no voice is allowed to shout others down simply because it represents a bigger majority. It is about setting a table at which the voices of those most marginalized receive a hearing every bit as respectful as the hearing given to those who represent the big number, the big bucks, the power and glory of the political and economic spheres.

In my view, Lincoln got it. Obama? I’ll wait and see. But as I wait, I have the Rick Warren selection to contend with. And it does not bode well for the new president’s unwavering commitment to human rights—for all.

* In her response to my Lincoln-Obama posting, Sandy points out that there was no invocation at Lincoln’s inauguration. She’s right, of course. The practice of having religious authority figures pray at presidential inaugurations is a very recent one—one that dates from 1933.

My question about whether Lincoln would have invited a religious advocate of slavery to pray at his inauguration is a fantasy question, one that retrojects a present practice back into history, to make a point about the present. The force of my argument lies not with precise descriptions of historical precedents. It lies with the juxtaposition of Lincoln as an opponent of slavery with Obama as an advocate for the human rights of threatened minorities in his day.

As the husband of a friend of mine—an African-American couple, as it happens—said to me recently, given the historical precedents available to the new president (invite pastors to pray, or dispense altogether with this very recent custom), it seems even more strange that Obama chose Rick Warren for the inaugural ceremony. As my friend’s husband noted, venerable tradition would have allowed the new president to ask, for instance, that the nation observe a moment of respectful silence at the beginning of the inauguration.

That moment might have spoken more powerfully by far than any invocation we could possibly hear. And it might have healed more and been more genuinely inclusive than any partisan prayer.