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Islam Is Not the Liberal Cause You’re Looking For

On Sunday, there was a contest held in Garland, TX featuring cartoons of the Muslim prophet Muhammad.  It was attacked by a pair of Muslim terrorists who drove there from Arizona.  Unlike previous attacks over harmless cartoons, however, only the terrorists were killed after they shot at the event’s armed guards.  And unlike previous incidents, this time the West did not unite in solidarity with the cartoonists, like the Je suis Charlie slogan.  Instead, the conversation seems to have revolved more around criticism of the event’s organizer, incendiary blogger and professional protester Pamela Geller.  Perhaps this was partly because the conservative Geller is known for being offensive and provocative, and partly because, thankfully, there were no innocent victims to mourn this time.  But another factor seems to be an inexplicable rush to defend the Muslim faith when Muslims have threatened innocent people.

Conservatives and liberals usually take divergent, knee-jerk positions in the wake of Muslim terrorism, positions which often seem more concerned with contradistinction to their political opponents than with an honest discussion about modern Islam.  Conservatives will tally another notch as proof that Islam is a violent and dangerous religion; they may genuinely believe this, but it may also be motivated by tribal one-upmanship to make their own religion or ideology appear better.  Liberals will often argue that this it is not all Muslims committing terrorism, that either all religions or all religious extremists are equally bad, or that Islam is a peaceful religion.  Unfortunately, these defenses do more to derail the discussion than resolve it.  True, the nearest terrorists had to drive across two states to reach their target, but that kind of determination renders their small numbers almost insignificant; just one terrorist willing to go through such great lengths is more dangerous than all the other religious extremists in the country.  The leftwing condemnation of all religion may equally just be one-upmanship by the nonreligious.  And the question of whether Islam is a religion of peace or not is debatable.  Like every religion, it’s really only as good as the individuals who practice it, so asserting this statement as the starting point of the conversation rather than the conclusion is being simplistically doctrinaire. 

Arguing that Islam is supposed to be peaceful is a pointless distraction to very real violence committed by devout Muslims in the name of Islam.  LIke it or not, Pamela Geller’s point has been proven true: if you mock or criticize Islam, Muslims may try to kill you.  She may be an agitator, but she is not the instigator.  This conflict started years before when some Muslims killed innocent people over cartoons that were not even intended to provoke a violent reaction.  When Muslims behave like other religions and no longer try to silence criticism and mockery, there will be less to ridicule and criticize.  Or at least it will be less appealing to provocateurs.  Until then, both sides are in a perpetual cycle of antagonism, but we should not be misled by fashionable pundits who argue both sides are equally to blame.  They are not.  One side has drawn offensive but harmless pictures, the other side has killed innocent people.  There is no moral equivalency between the two, as the point was made on the Daily Show: “It is not okay to shoot other people because you’re offended by what they draw, even if they drew it to offend you.”

I completely understand the disgust with Geller and her inflammatory methods, I am not going to argue that anybody has to like her.  But I support free speech even when I don’t like the person or the message, because that’s really the only time it matters.  What bothers me, though, is the eagerness with which some liberals are willing to abandon the principles of free expression under the guise of politeness.  You may have heard, “I support free speech, but…” then blaming the organizers for being hateful, offensive, or in some way causing the violence.  After Sunday’s attack, Salon argued that “free speech is not a license to be stupid.”  This couldn’t be more wrong or more illiberal: nobody’s right to speak is subject to anyone else’s evaluation of their intelligence.  The mere insinuation that free speech is licensed in any way is a fundamental misunderstanding of the concept.  “Hate speech” is not a crime in the United States, if it were anybody could restrict any criticism they dislike with the mere accusation that they found it hateful.  Direct incitement to violence or lawless action has been established as the only speech punishable under U.S. law, and even then it must meet rigorous criteria.  Comparisons of Geller’s provocative views to Oliver Wendell Holmes’ “falsely shouting ‘fire’ in a crowded theater” are refuted because the attack demonstrated her warning was not false.

Criticism misdirected at the target rather than the attacker is a disconcerting trend.  A few days after the Texas incident, Salon published an op-ed by Rula Jebreal calling ex-Muslim Ayaan Hirsi Ali “dangerous.”  Now the article doesn’t mention that the apostate Hirsi Ali has to travel with bodyguards because of her criticism of Islam, including a film she made with Theo van Gogh which resulted in the filmmaker’s death at the hands of an angry Muslim.  To call a peaceful author, activist, and victim of Muslim extremism “dangerous” is not only unreasonable but inexcusable.  Instead of devoting so much attention to attacking harmless critics of their religion, moderate Muslims would do far better outreach if they attacked the extremists who would try to murder them.  If you only attack the critics of your religion while ignoring the extremists of your religion, then you’re not really a moderate, you’re an enabler.  Jebreal’s irresponsible hyperbole is far more dangerous because it has more potential likelihood to incite real violence against Hirsi Ali and her loved ones than Hirsi Ali’s words do to actually harm any Muslims. 

The Left’s overreaction to defend Islam from Rightwing criticism may actually be making liberals less liberal.  There are obvious double standards when liberals freely bash other religions while withholding criticism of Islam for the same or even worse offenses.  Some liberals have retaliated for the offensive Muhammad cartoons by encouraging offensive cartoons of other religious figures.  This should not be confused as a brave stand for free speech, because it’s only attacking religions that they already know will not respond violently.  Pamela Geller may be passive aggressive, but this is just cowardly.  Similar observations on the liberal hypocrisy when it comes to Islam were summarized by Allen Clifton last year:

“It’s a point Bill Maher actually made a few weeks ago.  He said when it comes to religion, liberals often have no problems bashing Christianity.  Yet he often finds many of these same liberals defending Islam and outraged if someone might dare call out radicalism within the Muslim community.”

It’s admirable to stand up for the rights of Muslims to live and practice their faith without discrimination or oppression, as we should for people of any or no religion.  But many liberals seem to have mistaken Islam for a progressive cause, which it is not.  The main battles which have characterized liberalism for the last century–women’s rights, gay rights, and individuality–are all at odds with Islam.  It is not intolerant to acknowledge this fact.

I would be a hypocrite for writing an article critical of the Christian Right’s opposition to same-sex marriage while giving Islam a pass on gay rights.  It would actually be progressive if Muslim countries were merely resisting the right for gays to legally marry, but sadly the majority of Muslim countries still criminalize homosexuality, and in at least 10 countries it is punishable by death.  In any city in the U.S. you can find a gay-affirming mainline church, but finding a gay-affirming mosque anywhere in the world is a challenge, and virtually impossible in the Muslim world.  The gay community justifiably has a lot to criticize Islam for, and these deplorable human rights violations should not be swept away by the honor brigade.

Like anybody, Muslims individually may be more progressive than their professed creed.  Congressman Keith Ellison’s support of gay rights is acknowledged and appreciated, in the same way as the support of Republicans even though their Party’s platform still opposes same-sex marriage.  There certainly are progressive Muslim voices like Irshad Manji, but unfortunately her books are banned even in supposedly moderate Muslim countries like Malaysia.  Liberals should not lose focus in the gap between how we think the world ought to be and how it actually is; the sobering reality is that Islam is presently  far behind liberal ideals.  So much so that it is also behind modern conservatism in its progress.  It doesn’t always have to be this way, other religions have undergone dramatic reforms in their doctrines on slavery, caste, women, and sexuality.  But as outsiders (aka infidels) we don’t get to tell Muslims what their religion is supposed to be, that’s something they have to decide for themselves.  In the meantime, let’s stop pretending it is something that it isn’t.  And let’s rightly condemn violent attackers and not their intended victims.  

Bosch Fawstin's award winning cartoon

Bosch Fawstin’s award winning cartoon

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How Did Christianity Become the New Relativism?

“It’s true for me”  This was said during a famous debate between conservative political commentator and Christianity-enthusiast Bill O’Reilly and atheist scientist Richard Dawkins.  In my fundamentalist upbringing, I had been conditioned to eschew this wishy-washy postmodernist thought.  “True for me but not for you” was liberal, “worldly” thinking that Christians were supposed to know how to combat, not use themselves.  Yet here it was the conservative Christian saying it and not the godless liberal.  Apparently just as shocked by this role-reversal, Dawkins responded with the absolutist logic which I had previously only associated with Christianity: “You mean true for you is different from true for anybody else?  Something’s either got to be true or not.”

Christianity and relativism have been at odds since the dawn of postmodernism.  Christianity is a religion which makes absolute claims of truth, and relativism is an ideology which rejects the very concept of absolute truth.  Yet strangely, it is increasingly Christians who have unwittingly been the proponents of relativism in recent times.  I’ve previously written about how sectarianism tends to prioritize subjective and relative morality over objective morality.  Most Christians today haven’t transcended the culture of postmodernism even if they claim to be against it; they are still very much products, if not prisoners, of that mindset.

Even Christians who believe relativism is a problem may not be able to correctly identity what relativism actually is.  For instance, some Christians erroneously oppose any religious pluralism because they have mistaken it for cultural relativism.  But while relativism is a form of pluralism, not all pluralism is relativistic.  Pluralism, in the narrow distinction between the two, is simply the tolerance of opposing beliefs; it is the pragmatic acceptance that those who hold beliefs which are untrue still have the right to equally coexist in the same society.  Relativism, on the other hand, is a doctrinaire opinion that there is no objective truth.  Relativism leads to the same tolerance as pluralism, not for the admirable reason that people who are wrong should still be treated fairly, but rather because it cannot make an evaluation of right or wrong in the first place.  Pluralists, however, can still tolerate relativists without losing objective truth.

Unfortunately, Christians have not only attacked the wrong problems but also promoted the wrong solutions. For years Christians have been incorrectly told that absolutism is the counter to relativism.  They’ve been led to believe that as long as they refuse to compromise on their beliefs then they are immune to relativistic influences.  Doubling down on the Bible or church authority as their sole argument for everything, they’ve ignored that this sort of weak reasoning can and is exercised by people of all faiths.  Christians are usually at a loss to explain why Islamic or Mormon claims to absolute truth on the basis of their sacred texts differ in any way to Christian claims to absolute truth based only on the Bible.  Obviously, anyone can be an absolutist on any position, that in itself is not a remedy for relativism.  The missing component is objective truth, truths which can be communicated and accepted without first having to believe in a religion.  Religious identity is the last resort of people who have failed to present an objective truth.  Saying “I can’t have an abortion because it’s taking an innocent life” is a more compelling argument than saying “I can’t have an abortion because I’m Catholic.”  If the only justification you have for why you do something a certain way is your religion, then you probably don’t have a sufficient reason; otherwise, you would have given that as your reason in the first place.

The same-sex marriage battle is a fascinating study of how conservatives in general have lost all sense of objectivity.  At seemingly every turn, they have contradicted their own arguments if it suited their cause.  When the Defense of Marriage Act was on the books, they argued that federal law trumped state law, but after DOMA was ruled unconstitutional (and even before) they’ve been champions of so-called “states’ rights” ever since.  Conservatives heavily criticized the Obama administration for not defending DOMA before the Supreme Court, but then remained quiet when governor Scott Walker similarly refused to defend Wisconsin’s domestic partnership registry in court.  Contrary to purported claims about executive duty and the rule of law, the rightwing will seemingly take up whichever argument they feel will support their predetermined crusade.  While there’s no denying these conservatives are absolutely against gay marriage, their duplicitous attempts to try to achieve their ends at any cost betray any claim to objective reasoning.

There are numerous things that churches have absolutely opposed in no uncertain terms, only to completely reverse their positions later: abolition, women’s suffrage, integration, interracial marriage.  The Republicans’ latest retreat into “religious freedom” measures–allowing business owners, workers, or officials to refuse business or involvement in same-sex wedding ceremonies out of personal religious beliefs–underscores the consummation of modern Christianity’s journey into fully realized postmodernism (it should be pointed out that there was never any regard for religious freedom of churches who performed same-sex marriages before it was legal).  As has already been demonstrated in case after case, conservative Christians are completely at a loss to present any objective reasoning why consenting adult same-sex couples should not be afforded the same legal protections as opposite-sex couples.  Now that this loss seems inevitable at the Supreme Court level, conservatives seem to be preparing to cease universal bans and instead allow individuals to opt out.  It’s noteworthy that conservatives didn’t really entertain this solution in their past failed culture wars.  While some Christians still tried to maintain segregation in their private schools, they don’t try to allow volunteers at polling places to refuse women, or to permit businesses or state officials to refuse interracial weddings.  These Christians are now put in the awkward position of having to justify why a nationwide ban was considered so absolutely necessary yet the same practice is now permissible on a personal level.  There just doesn’t seem to be an objective way to re-phrase “I won’t provide this service for you that I do for everybody else because you’re gay.”  Effectively, these individuals would be telling gay couples that their beliefs are “true for me but not for you.”

Conservatives would argue that this is merely a legal compromise on an issue forced upon them, but that alone doesn’t explain why this strategy is being deployed here when it wasn’t for other positions they opposed just as absolutely.  This is likely because conservatives came to the simple realization that there were no satisfactory reasons to forcibly segregate drinking fountains.  Conversely, conservatives have held their ground more capably on the abortion issue where they were able to find objective arguments based on life ethics.  If conservatives behaved the same on gay marriage as they do on abortion, then we ought to have expected a stronger reaction than it simply being a matter of personal conscience (but perhaps they’ll surprise me and start an insurrection in June).  While they may not be intentionally relativistic in their reasoning, this nevertheless has all the trademarks of it.  Little by little, conservatives are eroding a cooperative pluralistic society by not merely tolerating nonfactual beliefs, but by permitting those beliefs to have dominance over facts.  Conservatives haven’t outright rejected that an objective truth exists, yet their inability to objectively support their positions has netted the exact same results as if they had.  Or perhaps worse, it looks like they’ve achieved cultural relativism without the pluralism that usually accompanies it.

Conservatism, with Christianity at the helm, is now steering us towards a relativistic society where individuals are free to ignore anti-discrimination laws if they claim it violates their personal beliefs.  As much as they want to limit it just to homosexuality, I have yet to hear a good reason why sincerely held beliefs on sexuality should be protected more than equally sincere Bible-based beliefs on racial superiority or gender inequality.  They might argue that sexual orientation shouldn’t be a protected class, usually for disingenuous reasons such as claiming homosexuality is a choice, somehow differing from other protected categories like religion, pregnancy, or marital status which are also choices (I should also point out that, contrary to what many conservatives erroneously think, the classes in anti-discrimination laws do not single out minorities, women, or gays for heightened protection; instead they are based on universal attributes applicable to everyone: race, gender, and sexual orientation).  I would counter-argue that needing to protect classes of people should be unnecessary in the first place, and contrary to Republican assumptions, an individual doesn’t actually need to be a member of a group on an itemized list to make a valid case of discrimination.  It says more about the flawed deontological morality of these discrimination advocates that they only seem to believe it’s wrong to refuse service to a black person just because the law specifically prohibits discrimination on race.  Ultimately, their problem is the same fault underlying all relativism: they don’t really know basic right and wrong.

In a bizarre twist of the Republican party’s role reversal from formerly being the progressive party to presently being the conservative party, the GOP has also become a powerful champion of postmodernism.  Their challenges to the Affordable Care Act have been some of the most blatant postmodern arguments in recent memory.  The first case challenged the birth control provisions strictly on the personal beliefs of the employer, because they disapprove of birth control or incorrectly believe it causes an abortion.  The present case before the court amounts to trying to invalidate the law on the basis of a strict reading of a typo rather than the stated intent of the law, which commenters have compared to the “Moops” doctrine from the sitcom Sienfeld.  Of course, the irony is that the ACA originated as a conservative idea, effected in Massachusetts by Republican Governor and Obama Presidential opponent, Mitt Romney.

A side effect of the Right’s opposition politics is an inability to articulate what they actually stand for.  They seem to be willing to reverse a position to spite an opponent, or commit to one in spite of facts.  Even when I specifically ask conservatives what they’re for, I get a response that’s merely a restatement of what they’re against.  Liberal positions, on the other hand, do not depend on a pre-existing “other” to oppose.  When liberals stand for equality, we mean that everybody should be treated the same under the law; inequality does not need to be an antecedent.  Positions, not principles, seem to drive conservative strategy these days.  Principles are what guide us to conclusions, whereas positions are fixed conclusions irrespective of principles.  The use of contradictory arguments to support the same position is patently unprincipled reasoning.  While changing a position because of new information is admirable, changing principles relative to a position is not.

Maybe objectivity is something Christianity has lost, or maybe I just wasn’t paying close enough attention in my youth and conservatives never really had a grasp on objective truth.  Either way, if Christianity is going to find its foothold, it cannot be with the same logic advanced by conservatives for the past decade.  Just pointing out conservative relativism can get you accused of being a relativist yourself, but only because that identifies your opposite belief as liberal and conservatives associate liberalism with postmodernism.  Conservatives need to stop basing their beliefs on what their opponent believes and find out in objective terms what they actually believe themselves.

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The Republican Party Is a Cult

The Republican Party has changed considerably in my lifetime.  When I was a kid, my impression was that conservatives dressed conservatively, were well groomed, well behaved, spoke intelligently, and valued principles.  I never expected to see a vulgar reality TV star like the Duck Commander, Phil Robertson, delivering folksy speeches at conservative political events in a full beard and camouflage.  But they’ve had more than just a cosmetic makeover, with the infusion of the Tea party the GOP has undergone dramatic ideological and epistemological changes.  Their positions may have remained more or less the same, but what is noticeable is how much their principles have changed in order to remain static.  For instance, the party defended the federal Defense of Marriage Act while simultaneously championing “states’ rights” to regulate marriage, so long as the end result was a ban on same-sex marriage.  Republicans also criticize the Obama administration for dereliction of duty in not defending DOMA at the Supreme Court, but were then silent when Governor Scott Walker refused to defend Wisconsin’s domestic partnership registry in court.  This ends-justified mentality seems closer to what I’ve observed in cults, and in many ways I would argue that’s exactly what the Republican Party is becoming.

Cults love to catch people off guard with new information, this is the signature tactic of a successful cult.  It’s precisely why Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses still go door to door, as prepared speakers trying to catch unprepared people in their homes, or why Scientologists try to catch passersby in a public park to offer a “free stress test.”  It doesn’t even matter if the information they offer is true or not, the fact that the listener is unfamiliar with it gives the cultmember illusory superiority.  The advantage is that the cultmember doesn’t actually have to be more knowledgeable on a subject, they just have to have knowledge of something that the other person doesn’t.  It matters little how much a Christian knows about the Bible, if they don’t know anything about the Book of Mormon then that’s a weakness the Mormon missionaries will focus on.  Zealous Christians trying to convert the missionaries would have to know more about the Book of Mormon than the Mormons to have any hope of succeeding. 

It doesn’t stop with converts, either.  Secret doctrines are the stock in trade of cults, and even the initiated are incrementally bombarded with previously hidden information as a means to keep them advancing further, like when Scientologists reach level OT III and are finally shown L. Ron Hubbard’s sci-fi creation myth.  The distinction between a religion and a cult can sometimes seem arbitrary, but students of religion can easily recognize a cult when they reach the limit of information that can be acquired as an outsider.  You can learn everything about Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, etc. without having to convert to those religions, but you can’t learn everything about Mormonism or Scientology without being a member (although the internet is changing that).  Even then, the selective information that is taught on the inside differs from the total information available on the outside.  Cultmembers characteristically operate with a different set of “facts” than nonmembers.  A conflict between the cult’s “facts” and reality are dismissed as a conspiracy by their organization’s perceived enemies–which can literally include anything outside the cult.

The most frustrating part of debating with today’s Republicans is having to be on top of all the latest conservative conspiracy theories.  It can be difficult to discuss any political topic with a Republican because they frame most subjects with assumptions that aren’t based in fact.  Claiming Obama is a Kenyan, Muslim, or socialist can derail any serious talk about the President or his politics.  And just like with a cult, it doesn’t matter how knowledgable an outsider is on factual information, because the Republicans are more knowledgable on false information.  Though they might really not know anything about economics or ecology, they’ll consider an opponent ignorant if he’s unfamiliar with Cloward-Piven, Agenda 21, Saul Alinsky, or climate change denial.  The secret doctrines of conspiracy theories have become the norm for the GOP as it has become more and more cultic, to the extent that members might not even be aware of how pervasive they are.  Even conspiracies that originated on the Left, like 9/11 truthers and birthers, have found their forever home in the GOP.  As with cults, their more extreme beliefs tend to be omitted from content accessible to the general public, aside from strategically positioned dog whistles.  Nevertheless, although not all Latter-day Saints are initiated in the temple rituals, all Mormons must accept that all of Christianity is a Satanic conspiracy against the one true church and the Bible, not just a theological disagreement.  Similarly, issues that are in reality just disagreements on politics are interpreted by Republicans to be conspiracies of gays, atheists, or liberals to intentionally destroy marriage, the church, or America.  Republicans seem determined to steer the political conversation towards outlandish claims which inhibit rational political debate.  Rightwing positions on meteorology, sexual orientation, evolution, and U.S. history actually require a conspiracy of elitist academics and liberal media to explain why the overwhelming majority disagree with them.  As with religious cults, if there is a real conspiracy it is to be found inside the party. 

Cult doctrines are notoriously difficult to rebut because they tend to be circular and interdependent on each other.  The Book of Mormon being true depends entirely on Joseph Smith being a true prophet, and faith in the LDS church as the only true church rests on belief in the Book of Mormon.  It’s simple enough to logically articulate why it’s wrong, yet trying to short circuit this reasoning in the Mormon mind can be an insurmountable challenge.  Although their worldview is really a fragile house of cards that should be able to topple with the removal of one or two fundamentals, their belief systems can be so convoluted that they actually forget when information has been refuted and still rely on that false information as the basis for other beliefs.  Similarly, it can be difficult to unravel rightwing doctrines.  Even when Republicans admit that birtherism is a fraud, it doesn’t seem to shake their underlying belief that President Obama is somehow ineligible to be in office; at its worst, birtherism was never more than a pretext for a preconceived prejudice.  Trickle down economics doesn’t work yet Republicans still blindly push it because it supports their tax policy.  Failure to find WMD’s in Iraq hasn’t diminished their faith in the justification of the Iraq war.  Half of Republicans still believe they were found, and Republicans have shown to be more confident in this erroneous belief after being told correctly, like a Mormon “testifying” that the Book of Mormon is true when confronted with evidence to the contrary.  On top of that, cultmembers are trained to distrust sources critical of their religion, and the Republican Party’s distrust of the so-called “liberal media” has only worsened with the rise of blatantly biased conservative outlets and forwarded emails beneath the radar of fact checkers and peer review.  In a sea of conservative misinformation, too many Republicans are helpless to discern truth.

Cultmembers generally resent the allegation that their organization is a cult.  Republicans reading this are probably thinking the same thing right now.  While it’s understandable that nobody likes the stigma associated with the term “cult”, cultmembers are often more concerned with perception than with actually being less cultic.  Cults tend to have several predictable responses to this accusation, none of which involve being less controlling or open to facts.  The first strategy is to argue that if their group is a cult, then every other religion must be a cult too.  This false equivalency projects the cult’s own secretive, conspiracist, and controlling qualities onto religions that are demonstrably dissimilar.  And while theology, like politics, can be unproven hypotheticals, factual disagreements, such as the origin of your sacred text, are verifiable.  Likewise, politicians on both sides will have differing opinions on the possible outcome of a policy, but currently only the Republicans want to have their own facts.  In the end, “both sides do it” is a weak defense for a religion or party that considers itself exceptional compared to its competitors. 

The second strategy to deflect the cult label is to argue against a stereotype of a cult, a uniformed commune of groupthinkers.  But the truth is, most cults aren’t isolated communities of identical people who all dress alike and think exactly the same, yet they’re nevertheless cultic.  Their membership may be from all walks of life and diverse on a spectrum of ideology and loyalty to the organization: some beginners, some moderates, some extremists.  Structurally, however, the organization is still a cult, and they just exploit the demographics of their membership to make people think otherwise.  The Mormon church goes to great lengths to station minorities in visible missions, both as an attempt to dispel the effects of generations of racial segregation, but also to make themselves appear less homogenous.  Their “I’m a Mormon” advertising campaign was trying too hard to fight the stereotypical image Mormons themselves had created.  The GOP has been just as obvious lately in trying to push minorities, women, and young people in front of the cameras, despite its older, whiter, and manlier base pushing them out of the party.  But it’s one thing to make a woman the face of your organization when she’s just volunteering at the front desk of the temple visitor center, it’s another to make an unqualified person your vice presidential candidate because she’s a woman.  Both are undeniably deliberate and shamefully desperate, but at least they’re only superficial. 

The way cults exploit individualism and ideological variances is far more troubling.  No matter how brainwashed people are, they still can’t be programmed to think and act exactly the same all of the time.  Unlike normal religions, members of cults pass through different phases, a fake diversity that the organization will often use to give the illusion of personal variety even if the end goal is to eliminate those differences.  The Church of Scientology perfected the technique of separating novices from the advanced, which helps put a more friendly, relatable face to the general public while isolating the brainwashed zombies.  Full disclosure can be a catch-22, somebody unprepared to receive a ridiculous doctrine could easily be turned off to the organization with that information.  From my own personal experience, the GOP’s fringe tends to be more guarded about its conspiracy theories when interacting with moderate Republicans than with me.  They don’t expose sympathizers to questionable information that could potentially alienate them, but they don’t mind wasting their enemy’s time with those arguments.  Those at the lower level can also serve as a distraction from the more extreme initiates, providing a moderate voice to attack their critics while never criticizing the organization itself.  Although cults strive for complete assimilation, they can also use a member’s individuality for self-serving marketing.  Scientology wrote the book on this strategy by intentionally seeking out charismatic and eccentric celebrities as brand ambassadors.  The Republican Party has taken this to the next level, recruiting the Duck Dynasty cast in full costume, turning politicians into cable news pundits and infomercial hosts, and making candidates and reality TV stars interchangeable.  It’s not just the striking absence of this hucksterism in the Democratic Party, it’s that the Republican Party seems to have no problem being the agency for stardom in the same way that the Church of Scientology has been for aspiring actors.

It’s no secret that the Republican Party has become more conservative in the last 15 years.  Ideological purity has pressured members to take gradually more extreme positions, to the extent that even revered Republicans like Ronald Reagan probably wouldn’t be conservative enough to survive in today’s party.  Every four years the GOP goes through a succession crisis comparable to the Mormons after the death of Joseph Smith, and it will only keep getting worse as they keep losing. In Republican campaigns, every election seems to be the end of the world.  That’s not really hyperbole, they literally believe that.  Democratic candidates may also believe it would be disastrous if they lost (they’re usually right), but they’re not literally apocalyptic about it.  The Republican Party actually mobilizes their base to vote by speculating that their opponents may literally be the eschatological Antichrist.  But this isn’t just exploiting evangelical’s beliefs, because this eschatology has been hijacked to become something that’s no longer distinctly Christian but rather distinctly Republican.  For example, it didn’t matter that Mitt Romney was a Mormon of polygamous descent, who created the precursor to the Affordable Care Act in a state with legal same-sex marriage.  Billy Graham considered him the only candidate standing up for Biblical values, even though it’s only due to political expedience that Mormons today no longer practice polygamy, and only coincidence that Mormons oppose homosexuality (Mormons only believe this because it’s what their current prophet says, not because of anything in the Bible; their prophet could change this at any time).  Somehow a Mormon candidate couldn’t be the Antichrist just because he’s a Republican.  Every election cycle, the alarmist GOP positions themselves as the only hope between mankind and doomsday.  Their repeated failed predictions don’t seem to have eroded faith in the party any more than the Watchtower’s multiple failed Second Comings.  Cults often fatalistically condition their followers to self-destruct if they lose faith, making them think that if the cult’s teachings are untrue, then no religion can be true either.  Similarly, Republicans seem to be conditioned to abandon hope in politics or the country if their party can’t get their way.

There is no easy solution, without a fundamental demographic upset I think we may be past the tipping point.  For the Mormon church to stop being cultic would mean to stop being Mormon, and I think this may be true of what the Republican Party has become.  Too many definitive Republican positions are based on arguments which are verifiably false, to abandon those arguments would be to entertain the possibility of different conclusions.  The Republican Party has shown their willingness to change their principles to continue holding to a pre-determined conclusion, not the other way around as they need to do. 

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The Price of Progress

Charlie Chaplin’s last silent film, Modern Times (1936), included a scene that would be unintentionally prophetic. A red safety flag falls off of a passing truck and Charlie picks it up. Trying to get their attention, he follows after them waving the flag, not realizing that a labor protest has formed in the street behind him. The police attack the crowd and Charlie is arrested as a communist agitator. After he gets out of jail, he tries to get work again in several occupations, but at the end of the movie he still remains a poor tramp.

Charlie Chaplin in the Great Dictator (1940)

Charlie Chaplin in The Great Dictator

Several years later, he made his first sound film, The Great Dictator (1940).  Chaplin plays a Jewish barber who is mistaken for an anti-Jewish dictator who looks and sounds a lot like Adolph Hitler.   A decade later, however, he would find himself caught in the House Un-American Activities witchhunt.  Chaplin was, despite never having been associated with the party, suspected of being a communist for having endorsed progressive candidates, refusing to cross picket lines during a strike, and publicly praising then-ally the Soviet Union during World War II (as the government had encouraged producers and studio executives to do).  However, Chaplin had also publicly criticized Hitler before the United States was involved in the war, and in the twisted minds of the McCarthy overlords one would have only done that if they were a pro-Communist sympathizer.  Chaplin defied the HUAC by refusing to name names and he suggested he was being bullied because they also erroneously thought that he was Jewish.  As payback, the little Tramp was banished to England and could not return again until the 1970’s to receive an honorary Academy Award.

In the 1930’s, it was estimated there were over 800 fascist organizations operating in the United States.  While the movements and activities of the official Nazi party were monitored and restricted during the war, others like the Ku Klux Klan were never investigated by the HUAC because they believed the Klan’s activities were part of American heritage.  There was never a similar witchhunt of Klan members, even when the group’s terrorist activities were undeniable.  After the national KKK dissolved, its former members carried on with their jobs and their lives with impunity; the culprits behind the 1963 16th Street Baptist Church bombing weren’t brought to justice until almost 40 years later.  Pro-segregation politicians like Strom Thurmond and George Wallace still won elections after desegregation.  A new American Nazi party formed in 1960 and its members could still be acquitted by all-white juries as late as the Greensboro Massacre in 1979.

In the same period, civil rights leaders faced very real lynchings and assassinations, while being slandered by their opponents as “socialists.”  Rightwing propaganda to this day still refers to the Southern Poverty Law Center as “a communist front.”  Conservative supporters of apartheid in South Africa, like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, justified this brutal white supremacy as a lesser evil to an imagined communist threat.  This has been a successful strategy, a false accusation of being a communist can potentially ruin somebody’s life, whereas members of actual un-American groups on the right are seldom held accountable.  Going back to the Civil War, the insurrectionists of the Confederacy were pardoned during Reconstruction.  Former slaveowners were not punished for their numerous crimes against humanity, but instead were permitted to continue abusing their former slaves and their descendants for generations as second-class citizens in the Jim Crow South.  Whereas the freedmen received no restitution for their lost wages, they were expected to move on as if the labor camps, the beatings and the rapes had never happened.  With the lone exception of South Carolina, Southern blacks never came close to electing a majority of black representatives in their state legislatures like D. W. Griffith’s 1915 racist epic The Birth of a Nation depicted, but that gave a paranoid white South an imaginary justification to restrict black voting rights.  Even when black communities overcame the odds and achieved respectable success, they were viciously burned down like the 1921 Tulsa race riot; true to form, Oklahoma acquitted the guilty parties and denied the victims any compensation for their miscarriage of justice.

The toll of being a progressive has always been a high cost, some escaped with only the loss of their careers, others lost everything including their lives.  It has always been comparatively safer and easier to be a conservative, yet ironically it is conservatives who more frequently exhibit a persecution complex.  They still toss around baseless accusations of communism to try to preemptively shut down any discussion of reform, and if they don’t get their way they manufacture cases of hardship and oppression.  The Confederate-invented narrative of the Civil War focuses solely on the so-called “tyranny” of the federal government and the loss of so-called “states’ rights”, while ignoring or mitigating the extent and brutality of slavery.  Their distress at the loss of privilege outweighs an opponents’ actual loss of individual rights.  For instance, they irrationally act as if monogamous gays getting legally married is somehow an inexplicable threat to their freedom, while ignoring the very real harm caused to gay families by being denied recognition before the law.  Suddenly, baking a cake or arranging flowers for a gay couple has become a violation of conservatives’ “religious freedom.”  Of course, these same bakers and florists never made an issue of gay anniversaries, gay birthdays, gay Valentine’s Day, gay Easter, gay Christmas, or gay Hanukkah, etc.; gay couples had been having commitment ceremonies for decades, but that never became an issue either, not until after conservatives lost their marriage battle.  This is obviously nothing but the same political payback and hissy fitting that followed after the Civil War, and they should have already learned from losing the Civil Rights war that a business owner doesn’t get to decide who can buy a product or what they can use it for.  If they can’t understand this, then they shouldn’t be in business.  It’s time for conservatives to give up their delusions of being persecuted, they have been the oppressors far more often than they have been the oppressed, if ever.

Disgracefully, conservative bigotry persists because every generation weighs themselves against their forebears and seems relatively better by comparison: the segregationists were not as bad as the klansmen, and the klansmen were not as bad as the slaveowners.  Like liquid following the path of least resistance, bigotry lazily finds refuge wherever it can still be seen as acceptable.  On the positive side, however, today’s liberals become tomorrow’s conservatives.  They never had to fight for progress themselves, but they can comfortably adopt positions that the previous generation would have condemned as too liberal.  Because of that, most people are not truly liberal simply because they were born into a world where slavery and segregation were illegal.  To truly consider ourselves liberal, we have to identify the safe zones where bigotry has presently slithered and stamp it out into a new corner.

This appears to be on the verge of happening in the latest gay rights battle.  A decade ago, a Christian could come into serious conflict with many churches just for saying that the government had no authority to ban gays from marriage, even if they didn’t personally approve of same-sex marriage themselves.  If the Supreme Court rules against the bans this summer, as they have indicated they will, that same position will then naturally become the prevalent view among anti-gay churches.  Liberals will welcome this forward progress even though those conservatives may have literally demonized them like the segregations formerly did to their liberal opponents.  To the conservatives who continue to resist and resent any comparison between the civil rights movement and gay rights, I beg you: now that Alabama justice Roy Moore has invited the comparisons to George Wallace standing in the schoolhouse door, please do not consummate the likeness to those racists by resorting to violence.   You can either actively support progress, or passively become tomorrow’s conservative, but if you try to remain a conservative of the moment, then you will inevitably be compared to the ones before you.  And really, you have nothing to lose, the progressives have already paid the price for progress.

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Undoctrination

 “God said it, I believe it, that settles it.”
  This bumper sticker slogan popularized by some conservative Christians  encapsulates a fundamental flaw in the way many Christians see their faith.  Aside from the fact that this statement does not include any distinctly Christian descriptor and could just as easily be said by any theist–Jewish, Muslim, Mormon, Baha’i, etc.–this mindset is a nonstarter in any religious conversation with a non-Christian even if it were referring specifically to the Bible.  If these Christians were really honest with themselves, then the Bible ought to say something to the effect of this statement, but it doesn’t.  It becomes apparent that the intent of this motto is not the advancement of Christianity, but instead the promulgation of a philosophy to make the religion doctrinaire:
doc·tri·naire /däktrəˈner/ adjective:  seeking to impose a doctrine in all circumstances without regard to practical considerations.
  Now in the broadest sense, any belief system can be said to be doctrinaire compared to a belief system without any distinctive doctrines (such as New Thought or Unitarian Universalism), but for the sake of clarity I will focus the meaning here to a specific methodology of doctrine formation.  Doctrines themselves are not necessarily problematic, the problem is when the doctrine itself is the starting point for a belief, rather than basing belief on reason, fact, or evidence.  A real doctrine should be the conclusion of an argument, not the origin.  The logic in the above example works just the same with the more straightforward re-phrasing: “I believe it, that settles it.”

  Doctrinaire thinking is not unique to Christianity.  Communism is an obvious example of a doctrine system that’s tried often despite all evidence demonstrating it simply doesn’t work (as is trickle-down economics).  Other religions, like Islam and Mormonism, are even more doctrinaire, demanding belief in their sacred texts first for their books’ claims to be believable.  Even the total rejection of doctrine can ironically become a doctrinaire position.  The difference with Christianity, however, is that doctrinaire thought is not essential to believing Christianity, and I would argue the religion is better without it.

  Doctrinaire faith leads people to seek support for pre-determined beliefs, as opposed to the proper method of arriving at conclusions based on supporting facts.  A doctrinaire believer is characterized by having their own set of “facts” in harmony with their faith but in conflict with reality.  These doctrinaire assumptions can eventually distract from their original intent altogether and take on a life of their own.  For example, racist doctrines devised to discourage race mixing, such as black skin being the mark of Cain or rock music coming from darkest Africa were still perpetuated by people removed from segregation who no longer saw themselves as racists.  The insistence of a literal reading of Genesis started as an attempt to defend the Bible against equally-literalist critics in light of scientific discovery, but has now become an association of so-called “ministries” that focus entirely on their interpretation of Genesis as if that were the essence of Christianity.  Ken Ham’s Ark Encounter comes to mind as a literal embodiment of doctrinaire ideology, going so far as to try to make it a physical reality in theme park form.  In this way, doctrinaire doctrines tend towards redundancy, because the end goal is just to support the original premise.

  But does Christianity actually need to be so doctrinaire?  Its basic assumptions about life are well grounded in observable reality:  men are imperfect, prone to do wrong, and die once.  In contrast, the doctrines of reincarnation or inherent divinity found in eastern religions, or pre-existence in Mormonism, require unprovable doctrinal assumptions.  The cardinal belief of Christianity in life after death is demonstrated by a man rising from the dead and supported by witnesses.  One does not have to believe in a book first to believe this is true.

  Not only does it unnecessarily affect theology, but doctrinaire beliefs can pollute the overall practice of Christianity in the most basic ways Christians treat other people.  Much of the criticism the church has earned in the last centuries have been due to indefensible policies that people would only accept if they already believed a certain version of Christianity.  Church leaders jump to the conclusion that every natural disaster, every epidemic, or every act of terror is God punishing innocent people for some unrelated sin because faith.  At a loss to explain why things are right and wrong outside of a deontological “because we say so”, they try to control people with empty threats of hell and damnation which they never have to prove.  Christians perpetuated the inequality of women, blacks, and gays based on nothing more than a prejudiced scripture reading.  I expect some of my readers might cringe at my inclusion of gays in the list of the oppressed, but when institutions like the Southern Baptist Convention have cried wolf about slavery, lynching, segregation, women’s suffrage, abortion (whichever side you’re on, they’ve been on the other side at some point) and interracial marriage, it’s hard to convince me that banning same-sex marriage is the one thing they’ve been right about.  Strangely, when I grew up in a fundamental baptist church, I was taught that Southern Baptist churches were wrong, but never for the obvious reason that they only exist because of a split over slavery.  Looking back at historical sermons from the South, it’s a marvel that the church today has so easily forgiven its past racists when those same preachers effectively condemned virtually every Christian living today as Satanic heretics.

  Some might argue that churches arrived at those horrible conclusions because of a misreading of Scripture.  That may be true, but that certainly hasn’t stopped the same churches from being repeat offenders.  The convenience of doctrinaire thinking is that you always find what you were looking for in the Biblical text, therefore the solution should not just be a commitment to better Bible reading, but a complete overhaul in how we formulate doctrines.  I don’t demand or expect that every Christian on earth could instantly convert to my way of thinking, but I will attempt to lay out some guidelines that I think everyone could consider whether they come from a literary or literalist approach to the Bible.  First, Christians should take inventory of their essential beliefs and determine, like the ones I listed above, those that are grounded in reality.  These principles, rooted in love, life, and liberty, should be the driving force of the faith that we communicate to the world.  Next, we should calculate the risk of positions that have the potential to cause more harm than good; a position that can’t stand up to objective scrutiny probably isn’t suitable for public policy, and we should avoid looking like we just want to control the behavior of unbelievers. Christians should be especially cautious when judging others, focusing less on subjective sins and more on universal, objective morality.  Note that as critical as I am of certain churches for documented moral lapses, I have still never judged them as strongly as they have judged me for imaginary reasons.  Some have accused me of trying to create a “Christianity for atheists”, but that’s not really my intent.  I’m not trying to strip Christianity of doctrines or the supernatural, I just want to promote and strengthen its best doctrines which all too often take a back seat to shameful ideologies.  Perhaps in that way it is a Christianity for atheists, I always want to present a Christianity that’s for everybody.

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The Politics of Punishment

This holiday season, I watched an unusual Christmas movie called Blossoms in the Dust (1941).  While considered a holiday movie (at least according to the Warner Brothers Classic Holiday Collection Vol. 2) because it spans several Christmases and has carols in its soundtrack, I say it’s unusual because it’s actually the true story of adoption advocate Edna Gladney’s crusade to have the word “illegitimate” stricken from Texas birth certificates.  People today will probably wonder why such a seemingly simple thing could provide compelling material for a feature-length movie and earn its star Green Garson an Academy Award nomination, but in 1936 it was a monumental undertaking.

blossomsinthedust

At the time, illegitimate children were frequently abandoned, but even if they could be adopted by an upstanding, morally upright family they could still never escape the circumstances of their birth.  It made no difference if they never knew their biological mother or even knew that they were adopted; if a legitimate foundling’s parentage could not be determined the state would err on the assumption of illegitimacy, and the public record would become known as adults when they tried to marry or register for selective service.  Society was clearly divided into two separate classes, punishing the children for the sins of their parents.  Edna’s conservative critics accused her of trying to destroy the family and encourage promiscuity.  To them, it was more important to inflict a lifelong stigma on innocent children (who had no choice in their birth) as a deterrent to keep the rest of society in line.

Edna Gladney’s battle was as controversial as any of the social issues being fought today, but while conservatives have thankfully abandoned the fight over illegitimacy, the conservative politics of punishment have changed little.  Whether the issue is welfare, healthcare, gays, crime, poverty, drugs, wages, immigration, etc. the Republican position always seems to be a pathological obsession with trying to unnecessarily punish people, even if just for circumstances beyond their control.  Shifting focus from the illegitimate child, most of the conservative assault against welfare has been an attack on an imagined, stereotypical single mother, Ronald Reagan’s “welfare queen.”  Psychologist Jonathan Haidt compares this conservative morality to karma, “where basically, you’re supposed to get what you deserve. And what really bothers them is somebody not getting what they deserve. So the government getting involved and interfering with people getting what they deserve is really bad.”  Even though the majority of America’s poor are under the age of 12, who can’t get jobs or move to a better neighborhood, the Republican party has demonstrated through repeated cuts that they’re willing to punish the children for the perceived sins of the mother (Clinton’s “deadbeat dad” seems to have dropped out of the equation completely).

I’ve previously made the case that conservative bans on same-sex marriage are little more than an attempt to use legislation punitively against behavior that’s not actually illegal.  Justice Elena Kagan  pointed out as much at the Supreme Court hearings when reading the 1996 House Report that unashamedly exposed the animus behind DOMA.  But even when these bans are struck down, read the comments on any news article and you’ll find conservatives joyfully consoling themselves (while giving a Christian “fu@k you” to anyone who supports marriage equality) with the reassurance that their political enemies will burn in hell forever.  These conservatives give the impression that they believe in hell simply for personal revenge, not out of any sense of divine justice.   It doesn’t come across like they want gays to go to hell because they think gay sex is wrong or icky, but rather for the most petty of reasons: because they couldn’t punish the gays themselves.

A current hot topic disputed by conservatives is raising the minimum wage.  While conservativism in general is notorious for its hostility to the poor, some of the conservative objections to this especially reveal a desire to punish the poor for their poverty.  Exceeding beyond the myth that increasing wages would kill jobs, conservatives were gleefully hoping that low-wage workers would lose their jobs.  Growing up, I can remember Ann Landers telling me flipping burgers wasn’t beneath my dignity.  Yet today’s conservatives disparage fast food workers for not having accomplished more, even in a depressed economy in which wages haven’t kept up with inflation, all the high-paying unskilled jobs went overseas, and upward mobility disappeared as unemployed white collar workers compete for the management positions.  While fast food jobs may have traditionally been intended for teenagers and students, the majority of them are now taken by adults just trying to survive in today’s economic climate.  As more and more people go to college, there are fewer unskilled laborers today than there were just a few decades ago; even the definition of “unskilled” has changed dramatically, as they now often possess more skills than their predecessors (in fact, many people settling for fast food jobs have degrees), so not everybody’s circumstances can be blamed on poor life choices.  The truth is we used to have an economy in which unskilled laborers could earn a living wage, but we don’t anymore and punishing the poor for the state of the economy isn’t going to fix it.  If conservatives don’t believe that increasing the minimum wage is the right way to do it, then they need to present an actual solution.

At its worst, this is a just-world fallacy, assuming that the reason people must be poor is their own fault.  Similarly, conservatives mercilessly neglected the uninsurable with pre-existing conditions before healthcare reform, which the GOP still seeks to completely repeal without any consideration.  Republicans seem determined to punish the few who did make poor choices even if it means punishing those who didn’t along with them.

The politics of punishment are seemingly inescapable for conservatives.  They can’t imagine policy any other way, or if they could then those policies would probably no longer be conservative.  In his book The Republican Brain, Chris Mooney shows how “it is much easier to get a liberal to behave like a conservative” (of course, it’s harder to get a conservative to behave like a liberal) simply by distracting or impairing a liberal’s attention.    Conservative positions tend to require little thought, which is why the politics of punishment are so appealing to them.  Mooney’s book shows a study in which participants were questioned about reducing crime, and the focused conservatives and distracted liberals both agreed on harsher sentencing as a solution.  At first glance, harsher punishment does seem like the reasonable deterrent to crime, but a more nuanced (ie: liberal) approach recognizes other factors.  For example, people might instinctively call for the death penalty for rape, but that does little when already less than 10% of all rapes are ever prosecuted; even worse, the rapist would have nothing to lose by killing their victim.  Clearly changes in culture and education are overdue when schoolboys genuinely are unaware that taking sexual advantage of a passed out drunk girl is in fact rape (of course, according to the politics of punishment that’s her fault).  Ruthlessly harsh minimum sentences for drug possession haven’t ended the war on drugs.  The US has the world’s highest incarceration rate, yet our endless quest to punish hasn’t reaped the desired results.

I can imagine some conservatives are objecting to this as they read it.  Conservative and liberal minds are made up on most issues, so even if I can’t persuade them to change their stance on the issues themselves, I would at least encourage them to stop and consider the way they respond to these issues and why.  Ask yourself whether your first reaction to a problem is to try to punish somebody for it.  If so, is that even practical or effective?  Is there another way it could be solved more effectively?  When pharisees present you with an adulteress and hand you rocks, perhaps you should pause for a moment to write in the sand.  This doesn’t mean that there’s no time and place for punishment, but if somebody’s behavior is not harmful or illegal then is it worth harming other innocent people in the process of punishing them?  Christians in particular should strive to err on the side of grace and mercy rather than on the revenge politics that have characterized the GOP for so long.

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The One about Gay Marriage

imagesWhen the Supreme Court heard the cases for Prop 8 and DOMA last month, my criticism of the religious right brought me into immediate conflict with my Christian friends and family.  My not being against gay marriage came as a shock to a lot of people who don’t seem to have read my blog. For over a week I was bombarded by concerned Christians trying to either understand my dissent from the apparent mainstream or make me see the error of my ways.  Many of them were hit-and-run “just checking in” comments, while others mainly seemed to follow along a scripted dialogue.  I probably should have just blogged a general response at that time, but emotions were running high and I wanted to be sure that my statement would be thoughtful, rational, and not hurtful.  Now that I’ve collected my thoughts, here are the top things I think that conservative Christians need to know about the gay marriage debate:

1.  Legalizing same-sex marriage has absolutely nothing to do with Christianity.

Without fail, the conversation always starts uncomfortably with the other person first asking me if I’m still a Christian, or if I still believe the Bible, or think homosexuality is a sin, etc.  To me, questioning an opponent’s faith is a frustrating starting point to any debate not just because it seems like a subtle personal attack, but because it really has no bearing on the discussion itself.  It should go without saying that the Bible or any other religion are not and cannot be the basis for US law.  After all, the defense for Prop 8 and DOMA never once mentioned “God” or the “Bible” in their arguments before the Supreme Court.  That seems to be a disconnect from what the conservative protesters outside were arguing.  To me, it seemed rather two-faced to say one thing in public and then present a different case entirely to the Justices, simply because their lawyers knew their real reasons would never stand up in a court of law.  Contrast this with the opposing arguments, that were completely in line with what their supporters on the street actually believe.   I personally think that if Christians want to ban same-sex marriage because they believe it’s what the Bible commands, then they ought to go to court proudly and unashamed with that statement.  Otherwise, it sounds suspiciously like someone trying to uphold a ban on interracial marriage but not wanting to admit that their real reasons for doing so are just because they don’t like people of other races.

The claim for the Biblical basis to oppose gay marriage is not just a lack of understanding of the U.S. Constitution, but of the Bible itself.  Critics of these conservative arguments are justified in pointing out the selective nature of certain passages from the Levitical purity code while ignoring others, or even the entire New Covenant.  Modern Christians tend to view Biblical Law like Islamic Sharia Law: an immutable code that reflects God’s ideal plan for mankind that will result in blessings if followed correctly by a society.  Talmudic tradition and and also the interpretive methods of Jesus Christ, however, show that this was never historically the case.  Like the Constitution, the Mosaic Law was a conceptual foundation for jurisprudence, but it was never intended to establish the ideal society.  In fact, as Jesus himself attests to God’s grudgingly permitting divorce, it sometimes regulated rather than outright banned distasteful practices, such as slavery or conquest marriages, which were artifacts of its culture and time.  Christianity’s worldwide success can actually be attributed to its supra-cultural appeal that transcended the bronze age social mores of its Jewish predecessors.  The reality is if Christians today really had to live under Mosaic Law, most of them probably wouldn’t be Christians.

The argument that homosexuality is a sin is even more irrelevant, because U.S. law permits many acts that are sinful according to the Bible–including homosexuality!  It baffles me why libertarian-leaning conservatives have fabricated a controversy solely around the issue of marriage, as if we deny rights to other groups of sinners, or as if we couldn’t further limit people’s rights on that basis.  We take rights like voting away from convicted felons because they’ve committed a crime, we take driver’s licenses away from drunk drivers, we take child custody away from abusive parents, yet we even allow gays to pay the fee and get married in several states but don’t give them the full rights as other legally married couples in their same state.  Gay marriage opponents will, with no support, argue that gays are unfit parents solely on the basis of the sexuality, yet preventing gay couples from marrying doesn’t stop them from having children, it just makes it harder to raise them.  If conservatives really believed that (and really, there’s no reason to), they ought to be trying to take children, either biological or adopted, from their gay parents; otherwise, it’s immoral to let somebody raise children but not permit that child to enjoy the same benefits and security as any other two parent household.   Conservatives need to stop trying to use the law punitively against behavior that’s not actually a crime.

2.  The state does not bless marriages.

With all the talk about the “sanctity” of marriage from the conservative side, I often wonder how they can honestly look at legal marriage in this country and still consider it sacred.  For starters, half of all marriages in this country end in divorce.  Fidelity or procreation are completely untied from the marital contract, we let adulterers, swingers, porn stars, and serial killer death row inmates marry.  Simply put, the state does not make a moral judgment when it grants a marriage license.  On top of that, the desirable benefits legally tied to marriage–inheritance, child custody, joint tax filing, hospital visitation rights, end of life decisions, etc.–have no Biblical basis whatsoever.  If they honestly evaluated it, anybody who would argue gay marriage is an abomination would have to admit that marriage itself is an abomination if we rely on the government to bless it instead of God.  Insisting that gay marriage should be illegal because it will confuse people’s sense of morality is futile, we already have to discern that about a 5-minute Las Vegas marriage and annulment.  We are left to make our own moral judgments about the married and re-married adulterers, swingers, and porn stars, we don’t need to take away their state recognition to do that.  Not everybody will agree with our morality, of course: the Catholic Church won’t marry divorcees even though the state will; not all Christians believe homosexuality is a sin and some already perform gay unions even if the state won’t.

Conservatives mistakenly sees this wedge issue as a moral battle for a holy institution, when marriages could be holy and God-honoring even if they weren’t recognized by the state.  The problem is that making heterosexual marriage the line of demarcation creates far more moral ambiguity than same-sex marriage does, because it creates the false impression that all heterosexual unions are virtuous when in fact the majority are not.  Many of the prominent leaders of the movement–Ted Haggard, Rush Limbaugh, Dinesh D’Souza, Newt Gingrich, Larry Craig, Bob Allen, and so on–fall disgracefully short of the Biblical ideal, very often in scandals that most gays wouldn’t be caught in.  I think gay marriage is such a popular fight among conservatives simply because it’s so effortless for them.  Most Americans are Biblically illiterate but they claim to be expert Christians just because they can quote a verse from Leviticus.  Nobody questions whether a protester outside the courthouse is a faithful husband or wife, it’s far easier to demonize a tiny 3% of the population than it is to address how the other 97% is actually destroying the institution of marriage.

It’s fashionable at this point for libertarians to throw up their hands and say that government should be completely removed from marriage, but that’s practically impossible.  Marriage is about more than filing taxes jointly, society really can’t function without some rules governing child custody, shared property, and other life decisions.  One country couldn’t easily convert to a system of civil unions since that would negate everyone’s marital standing once they leave that country.

3.  Same-sex marriage has nothing to do with polygamy, pedophilia, bestiality, incest, or anything else.

The next step of the conservative script always seem to jump to the conclusion that gay marriage will open the door to a slippery slope of other practices.  If two consenting adults of the same sex can marry, then what’s to stop 3 or 4, or brothers from marrying each other, or a child, a goat, a toaster, etc.  There are many problems with this illogical assumption, the first being that same-sex relationships are not illegal in this country.  It shouldn’t even need to be mentioned that minors, animals, or inanimate objects cannot give legal consent to marriage or any other contract, and while I don’t think conservatives actually believe this, they still use it as if it were a serious argument.  Honestly, I think this argument is so silly it shouldn’t even need to be addressed, yet follow any news story on gay marriage and you’ll see  one conservative after another comment about this repeatedly as if they’ve never before heard it refuted.

Bigamy, on the other hand, is universally prohibited, and while groups of three or more are free to co-habitate if they choose, the barriers to legalizing polygamy are not as simple as merely expanding it to include the same gender; it would require complex re-writes of every law governing child custody, inheritance, benefits, etc.  Furthermore, polyamorous relationships are not discriminated from marriage benefits like gays are, because two members of the party can still be married and receive the full state and federal benefits.  I will admit, though, that polygamy is the one and only item on this list that might even be a real possibility, but that would be true even if there were no gays.   Polygamy is still currently practiced by millions of people worldwide, mostly Muslims and some fundamentalist Mormons, two of the most anti-gay religions known to man.  Pretty much anything that you claim that gay marriage would lead to would not only be a possible slippery slope arising from heterosexual marriage as well, but would actually be more likely.

But even if polygamists did rally after DOMA and Prop 8 are struck down, it’s still not acceptable to try to ban one thing by banning another.  The way to block polygamy is to pass more aggressive laws addressing polygamy.  Slippery slope arguments are never an acceptable reason to ban anything, because just about anything could be prohibited on that basis.  The Constitution exists not to limit the rights of citizens, but rather to limit the powers of government.  While it’s unacceptable to use a slippery slope in favor of limiting rights (“if we allow citizens to own guns, eventually they’ll want to get nukes, ergo we must ban guns”), it is acceptable to ask that when limiting state powers (“if we ban assault rifles, what’s to stop the state from banning all guns?”).  Therefore, the only place this line of reasoning has in the discussion is questioning if the government could also limit gay people’s rights in any other way or prevent any other groups from marrying.

4.  Gay marriage isn’t about you.

While gay marriage proponents were all changing their facebook profile pictures to the red equality sign, I noticed their friends lists were almost uniformly red.  Looking at the profiles of some of the friends who were staunchly against gay marriage, however, I noticed they had almost no–if any–friends in visible support.  This is not just a reflection of the increasingly polarized political climate, it also shows that the ones most opposed to gay marriage would ironically be the least affected by it.  From my experience, many conservatives seem to erroneously think that gay marriage would be a license for a nationwide moral decline.  The reality, however, is that gay marriage won’t cause anybody to be gay who isn’t already, nor will banning it prevent same-sex couples from living together.  Basically, it will affect no more than a tiny fraction of the 3% of the population who are gay and already in a relationship.  To put this into perspective, when California judges ruled that nothing in the state’s laws prevented two people of the same sex from being married, only a little more than 150,000 couples were wed before Prop 8 was passed to change the constitution, and even this represents the accumulation of couples who were denied the ability to marry for decades.  Unless you have a large circle of gay friends, it’s unlikely that gay marriage will affect you in any way.  But even though conservatives have never been able to explain how gay marriage negatively affects their own marriage, banning it or denying legally married same-sex couples the same benefits as their heterosexual peers has very real detriment to those who are in same-sex relationships as well as their children.

5.  Laws should protect everyone equally, not just promote and benefit the ideal.

The arguments defending Prop 8 centered heavily on promoting heterosexual marriage, even those beyond child-rearing age, as the ideal relationship that government has an interest in promoting because it produces offspring.  The first problem with that reasoning is that marriage doesn’t exist just to benefit the government.  While society as a whole does benefit from stable marriages, the institution actually exists for the protection and security of those involved in the relationship.  Marriage is a contract between those two people, not a contract between them and the government.

The next problem is that government does not exist to protect the ideal, laws should protect everyone equally even if they fall outside that standard.  This principle can also be found in the Mosaic Law by permitting divorce, which not even Jesus would agree was an ideal.  Single parenthood has been shown to have detrimental effects on children (incidentally, these studies are often mis-cited by Focus on the Family and the National Organization for Marriage to support banning gay marriage), yet even though it’s not ideal we don’t attempt to limit people’s rights who remain single parents either by choice or no fault of their own.  The problem with DOMA is that gays are already legally married in 9 jurisdictions, so most of the general conservative arguments are 10 years out of date anyway.  There are 40,000 children living in gay households in California alone, there is no moral justification for withholding them necessary protections just because some squeamish politician in another state might somehow lose sleep with the knowledge that their parents are two men or two women.

Lastly, the gay community and society in general does actually benefit from gay marriage.  Any group historically barred from marriage inherits a self-perpetuating promiscuous stereotype (see the attitudes towards interracial couples before the 60’s).  Marriage in general reduces promiscuity, and gay marriage has been proven to reduce HIV infections in the states where it’s legal.  Ironically, the same people that would condemn the gay community for the stigma of AIDS would also deny them a proven and effective means to avert the epidemic.  In a similar way, conservatives opposed integrating open homosexuals into the military often because of an assumed effeminate stereotype; as long as, in their mind, no gays were in the military, then all gays could fit this self-perpetuating image.  Ultimately when Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was repealed, there were no noticeable problems in the ranks, gays didn’t start dressing in pink uniforms or hitting on their straight coworkers any more than they do in the civilian world.  Perhaps the Religious Right’s biggest fear about allowing gay marriage nationwide is that it wouldn’t usher in the Apocalypse that they claim it would.

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