Thursday, July 02, 2015

What Other People Do

To begin, let's dispense with a canard. Nobody is going to make Christian ministers perform gay marriages. Nobody is going to make religious institutions change their doctrines about the sinfulness of homosexual unions. The First Amendment does not permit the state to interfere with the expression and practice of religion, and nothing about the Supreme Court's ruling legalizing gay marriage changes any of that. To underscore the point, the ruling specifically says unwilling ministers will not be required to perform same-sex unions. A gay couple wanting a religious wedding will need to find a church that's willing to accommodate it. (An Episcopal wedding is a possibility.) Many churches will not be willing. Churches are free to exclude on any grounds they want.

Just as the state may not intrude upon the practice of religion, religion may not intrude upon the legal recognition the state may choose to make regarding same-sex marriage. From the standpoint of the state, marriage is a legal understanding, not a religious one. The state has licensed duly authorized clergy to conduct wedding ceremonies that confer legal status ("by the power vested in me"), on behalf of the state, on the union being solemnized. But the legal status derives from state recognition and rights, not religious prerogative. The state neither knows nor cares about "what God has joined." And the state has always provided the option of unions officiated by secular officials.

A homosexual couple that would like to receive the sacrament of matrimony from a Catholic priest will be out of luck. That's Catholicism's loss, and also its right. A Baptist minister will exercise that same right. But to enter into a legally-recognized marriage, that gay couple need only satisfy the usual legal requirements and present itself to the secular authorities to complete the marriage. The Catholic Church—and any church—may find this abhorrent. But how is it any business of theirs? They are free, on First Amendment grounds, to go about their usual business of exclusion and condemnation. We are free to tell them their religious beliefs are irrelevant in the public square. And not just free: we are obliged.

It should have been long ago obvious that "social conservatism" mostly concerns itself with what other people are doing, with a view to making those others' actions conform to one's own religious understandings. But if you and I are both free, under the First Amendment, to practice any religion, or no religion, how is it that you can presume to impose your religious understanding on me? Why do believers find it constantly necessary to engage the coercive power of the state to enforce particular religious beliefs, or to arrange a privileged position for their own religion?

The Constitution prohibits the mixing of church and state because the two are not compatible in a free society. This is so logically obvious as to be axiomatic; the historical evidence, if any were needed, is overwhelming. Our founding fathers understood it even if you don't: the only way you can be assured that your own religious freedoms will be protected is to accept that everybody else's must be protected too. The only way the state can properly defend your right to believe what you want is to also defend my right to believe what I want. And guess what: my beliefs are very different from yours.

Take your Bible, if you must, and go argue about it among people who care about the Bible. Many people don't. I will defend your right to believe silly things, but I will never allow you to impose those silly beliefs on the rest of us. Why do you insist on doing so?

If you don't believe homosexual unions are allowed by God, then don't enter into one. Join a church that won't perform or recognize them. If you don't think abortion is moral, don't have one. If you think contraception violates God's law, or natural law, don't use it. But make no mistake: these are strictly religious understandings; leave the rest of us, and our government, out of it.

Whining that some law or regulation violates one's religious freedom is almost always disingenuous.  Protests that the requirement to provide contraception coverage in a company's health insurance plan is a violation of protected religious belief is absurd. Any good Catholic should know that it's a "mortal sin" to use contraception (even so, around 98% of sexually active Catholic women use artificial contraception at some point in their fertile years), and the rest of us don't much care. The sin, if there is one, is in the use of contraception, not how it's paid for. Nobody has ever been denied the right to not use contraception. Nobody thinks you're "condoning" it if it's part of health coverage you must legally provide.

The subtitle of the late Christopher Hitchens's book God Is Not Great is: How Religion Poisons Everything. Even if you think the subtitle is hyperbole, you can see why Hitchens made the claim. Try to codify—considering societal needs and norms—basic requirements for health insurance coverage, and some religion or another will surely complain. Catholics, get a clue: your "religious freedom" is not being violated. If you don't want to use contraception, don't use contraception. We don't care. Really.

Most absurd of all is the notion that same-sex unions somehow weaken the institution of marriage or the "traditional" understanding of the family. What, you think now that gays have been admitted to the club, straight people will take their ball and go home? How exactly is this "weakening" of marriage supposed to happen? The alleged weakening is asserted with vague verbal hand waving, but I have never heard the mechanism by which it will happen articulated coherently. Gay couples want the right to marry for the same reason straight couples marry: as an expression and fulfillment of love and commitment. How is that a problem? How is that not a net good for society?

In any case, the state's participation in the wedding contract does not require love and commitment by any couple, straight or gay. It is a legal recognition of certain important rights, including hospital visitation, legal guardian status, survivor benefits, and many other benefits that the state confers on formalized marital unions. What interest does religion have in denying these things to same-sex couples?

Most important, the Supreme Court's decision underscores the profound truth, voiced by Martin Luther King, that the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice. The more we learn about homosexuality, the more we come to see that it is not a "lifestyle choice" that people make. There is ever increasing evidence that one's sexual orientation is determined by one's genes, not by malleable personal preferences. And that is consistent with anecdotal observation of how sexual orientation is understood and expressed, even in young children, as self-awareness increases and flowers in the developing, maturing, human person. If homosexuality is innate, then sexual orientation is not a choice but a fundamental component of one's nature. To deny a person the right to be what and who he is is an abomination. Arguments against homosexuality from natural law collapse around the understanding that all persons have a fundamental right to be their true selves as nature has made them.

Copyright (C) 2015 James Michael Brennan, All Rights Reserved

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