Saturday, July 25, 2015

A few good rules does not a just moral system make

To many fundamentalist Christians (and believers of other stripes), morality is not a reasoned set of rules we've established for man's well-being, but rather a set of dictates from on high, presumably for man's well-being. Thus we see that, no matter how odious the outcome (robbing women of reproductive rights; robbing gay people of civil rights; etc.) and how devastating its impact on people, if you can convince believers that God wants it done, it is assumed right and just and pursued with a vengeance. You might be destroying and in some cases ending someone's life, but as long as God dictates it, somehow, perversely, it's the best thing for that person.

Believers will sometimes try to justify these monstrous acts, often with specious or downright monstrous reasoning of their own. Often enough, the reason comes down, in part or in whole, to the authority of God's moral code (as the believer defines it, at least). A rule is just because the believer assumes God supports it. Even if we cannot understand why, even if it appears harmful and monstrous, even if it is literally ruining people's lives, we just have to trust that it's for the best. Because God wouldn't give us a rule that wasn't good for us; and if we start to question the laws God has given, well, what basis for morality is there? As Ken Ham has charmingly wondered, if you don't believe in God's rules, what's stopping you from eating babies and raping animals? Sure, you may have secular moral codes; but without an authority figure handing down unimpeachable dictates, is anything ever really wrong? You might not like persecuting gay people, but if you won't obey God on that, why should we also stop murder?

Now, this kind of morality is less morality and more rule-following. In this worldview, humans aren't actually expected to exercise moral judgment, but rather to follow the rules given them; and, like a well-trained attack dog praised for his obedience, the believer is congratulated for following the rules closely, regardless of whose life he ruins in the process. The more closely he follows, the more moral he is (good boy!).

But not only is robotic obedience not demonstrative of deep moral thought, it's duplicitous to imply that because a code demands some morally justifiable behaviors all demanded behaviors are by extension morally justifiable. Furthermore, while observing a given rule may be morally justifiable in many cases, that does not in and of itself validate the reasons that led that to implementing that rule.

Perhaps the simplest way to explain my point is by way of demonstration. Let's suppose someone – a god, if you like – appeared, and offered up a set of rules. These were the Way of Convenience, and they go something like so:

1. Wasteful noise and inconvenience are loathsome in the sight of the Lord thy God. Thus sayeth the Lord:
2. Thou shalt not kill thine brother, nor shalt thou kill thine sister, or thine friend, or thine enemy. For killing is noisesome business, and the Lord finds it tiring.
3. Thou shalt not rob thine neighbor, for this creates unnecessary paperwork.
4. Thou shalt not commit adultery, for family drama vexes the Lord.

Now, these seem like pretty good end goals – something most people (and most moral or religious teachings, for that matter) can agree upon: don't kill, don't rob, don't cheat on your spouse.

But while we can agree that those are good goals, we also recognize that the reasons why are stupid. In other words, we implicitly acknowledge that decent ends are not validation of means. So the fact that, buried with a lot of odious and downright silly commandments, there are some solid principles in the Bible (or any religious text) is not validation of the Bible's moral authority, anymore than it is validation of the Way of Convenience. You have to actually demonstrate that there is a good reason to observe your set of rules, outside of the fact that there are a few agreeable dictates among there.

Now let's take this analogy further. Let's suppose, following all the nice-rules-for-silly-reasons, we get to a passage like this in the Way of Convenience:

843 And the Lord thy God spake, saying, People who sing in the shower are an abomination in the sight of the Lord thy God.
844 Forsaking the natural uses of bath time, they pursue musical endeavors which are neither fitting nor pleasing in the sight of God.
845 Let the shower singers be forever cut off from my people, and let their blood be upon them.

Even if all 842 prior verses were rosy and wonderful, and so it hadn't occurred to us to view them with a skeptical eye, this would be a really good time to start applying some of that skepticism.

Somehow, though, in our day and age people still look to a book that justifies owning people as slaves, regulates how a rapist can get away with his crime, prescribes the death penalty for disrespectful children; and a God who floods the entire world killing children, babies and fetuses along with everyone else (but is pro-life!); a God who metes out collective punishment for the actions of individuals; a God who punishes thought crimes while forgiving actual crimes (if the sinner repents!); a God who would allow the devil to torment a loyal follower just to prove his point; somehow, people insist that we must not only look to this book and this god without the least bit of skepticism, but actually derive our moral principles from a literal reading of it.

This isn't morality. This is just following orders, and assuming that you're not actually responsible for exercising moral judgment – because your particular orders came from the top man himself, the General in the Sky. You don't have to prove it, because you feel it's true. And, what's more, the rest of us have to follow those same orders too.

Because, my God, what's to stop us from eating babies and fucking animals if we don't rely on order-taking?!

Monday, July 13, 2015

It isn't “love” when you're hurting people...

Love is kind, love is patient...
love wants to take your rights?
After the SCOTUS decided that gay Americans are protected under the constitution too – and so deserve the same marriage rights as straight Americans – there's been a noticeable shift in the winds from some corners of the anti-LGBT Christian community. Not that minds have changed, of course, but rather that the tone being promoted by many has softened: it's a lot less “Westboro Baptist” and a lot more “concerned friend.”

There's always been the “hate the sin, love the sinner” nonsense, of course. But that's tended to focus a lot more on the hate, with the love being the caveat that (supposedly) makes it all better: hey, don't call me a bigot, man; I hate that you're gay, because that's disgusting, evil, and totally icky...but I totally love you!

After the initial impotent, sputtering indignation following the ruling, some thunderstruck conservative Christians seem to be trying to figure out a different approach. Unfortunately, they're attempting to figure out a new way to say exactly the same thing, in support of exactly the same positions: in short, a more palatable excuse for fighting to deprive gay Americans of equal protection under the Constitution.

And while some of the results have been so absurd as to border on self-parody, the tone softening deserves a closer look. Following the ruling, Ed Stetzer at Christianity Today, for instance, offered this exhortation to Christians bemoaning this “re-definition” of marriage:
As we live in a culture that has just defined marriage in a way contrary to what evangelicals and others believe, we must understand that, as Christians, we aren't the only ones who care about marriage. As a result, we must keep in mind that discussions surrounding the definition of marriage carry a lot of emotions and must be handled with care.

As evangelicals contend for the definition of marriage in spheres outside the law (that is settled now), we must keep in mind truth is often not heard if it's not communicated in love. If we want to be heard, we should communicate in a way worth hearing.

Mark Galli (also at Christianity Today) hoped Christians would take this defeat as an opportunity to re-engage LGBT people. The National Association of Evangelicals' statement mourned that “the legal definition of marriage...is now at variance with orthodox biblical faith as it has been affirmed across the centuries and as it is embraced today by nearly two billion Christians in every nation on earth” … but they encouraged

...Evangelicals and other followers of the Bible have a heightened opportunity to demonstrate the attractiveness of loving Christian marriages and families. Evangelicals should renew their commitment to the sacrificial love and covenantal faithfulness to which Jesus calls all husbands and wives.
As witnesses to the truth, evangelicals should be gracious and compassionate to those who do not share their views on marriage.
Bob Lepine at Family Life spent a good deal of space calling out the angry, hateful approach Christians have embraced toward homosexuality, and calls instead for Christians to “reach out with compassion” following the ruling. But, again, at no point are we talking bridge building and acceptance. As Lepine writes,
I believe in the months and years to come, there will be people who have either sampled or participated actively in homosexual activities who are going to be looking for a way to deal with their shame and their guilt. They are going to be looking for a way out of the lifestyle. Would these people even think to look to the church for help? Would they think of us as "kind people who really care about me" or as angry, hate-filled men and women who will only make them feel more ashamed of where they have been? Are we preparing ourselves as the church to be ready to provide help and hope to those who will be seeking a way out?
So the tone is definitely, in some quarters, shifting -- or, at least, we're seeing the gloves-on approach promoted more often. There are still the presidential candidates who are vocally advocating means of reviving marriage inequality (including Wisconsin's own Sarah Palin Scott Walker). There is still ample rage and hateful commentary to be found. But there's also a kinder, gentler face emerging. 

But is it really? Certainly, the rhetoric is being toned down. But is rhetoric the problem?

I don't think so. Language is important, but the fight over marriage equality wasn't a fight over how we talked about it. Conservatives' vitriol might have contributed to the change in public opinion by alienating people, but the problem wasn't that gay people were denied their rights in a hostile manner; the problem was that people were denied rights based on their sexual orientation. And that's the sort of thing a smile can't fix.

This gets really interesting when it's all put forth in a “we're doing it for your own good” framework. Bolstered by witnesses like these (the market for a “gay de-conversion” story is as strong as it ever was, I guess), I've seen this line more frequently these days. Like Bob Lepine argues, the Church has to be there to “help” gay people overcome their “lifestyle”.

It would be bad enough if the “help” conservative Christians had in mind was inflicting self-hate and shame on people – all for the sake of redeeming them, naturally! But as we've already seen, and as the Republican front-runners are keen to remind us, they're not just intent on inflicting emotional anguish. The rash of “religious freedom” bills we saw when conservatives began to realize they might lose on the marriage front is a good indicator that even if they accept, of necessity, that marriage equality is here to stay (a position that even now is disputed by many GOP presidential candidates), conservatives are going to fight tooth and nail to continue discriminating as long as possible.

Which brings me to the point of my title. Conservative Christians have been, are, and will likely continue for some time, fighting to make gay Americans' lives hell. Conservatives may tell themselves that it's all for a good cause, that they're just trying to save gay people from an eternity in hell, that this is just a brand of tough love, that they have to be cruel to be kind...but at the end of the day, if you work to ostracize, isolate, shame and persecute someone; if you try to legalize discrimination against a subset of your fellow Americans, and try to deprive them of equal protection and rights under the law; if you throw a tantrum when you can no longer legally control the behavior of other people; if you think you should be able to deprive someone of a consenting relationship, of a family, of legal benefits and general dignity; if you think you should be free to imply that a person's love for another consenting adult makes him or her a monster and a threat; that's not a manifestation of love. And insisting that you're only doing it because you love the person so very much is not just duplicitous, it's creepy as hell. It's the kind of rationalization an abuser offers, and with the same justification: none.

Because you don't hurt the people you love. And if you do, it's not love. No matter how many times that you insist it is, or how wide your smile as you say it...