Monday, February 23, 2009

On public discourse, gay marriage & fundamentalism

Recently (@ 3 Feb.. 2009). Newsweek published a "My Turn:" column by one Richard Mouw, head of Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, CA. You may be able to access Mouw's column at Newsweek's online site (or elsewhere), but my paraphrase is Mouw's wish, after voting for Prop 8 to dismantle gay marriage in California, to find some rhetorical safe space for discussion anyway.

Richard Mouw

Fuller Theological Seminary
135 N. Oakland Ave.
Pasadena, CA 91182

Dear Mr. Mouw,

You ask in your “My Turn” piece in Newsweek whether there is room for conversation on the topic of gay marriage. I think there may be a few openings to such talk, assuming you really want conversation. But first I have to say that I have put significant time and thought into this, out of a very daunting work life, so I would appreciate your reading it through. Thanks in advance.

1. The primary issue is the way we deal with marriage in the US. I don’t think there’s anything in civil marriage that speaks at all to emotional or spiritual matters. It is morally indifferent. Civil marriage is nothing more than civil union. The problem comes because, unlike some countries, for the sake of convenience and efficiency, the government deputizes clergy to stand in for the government by witnessing the civil union in conjunction with the religious one. Things would be put right by owning that civil “marriage” is a civil union and requiring couples to swear to that union at city hall. Those who wish could before or after or later that day be married. Those not wishing to have a wedding are as married as the law requires. This relinquishment of the efficiency of deputization makes civil unions, gay or straight, morally neutral. As long as our clergy play dual roles, fundamentalists will still make the false assumption that the presider is playing a single one.

2. My previous point is the key to both understanding gay anguish over prop 8 and resolving the issue. But while I’m using my “indoor voice,” I’d like to ponder something. Do you know that there are a good many gay people who share housing but who are just friends, ordinary roommates? I ask this to make a point, that whenever one learns that a person is gay they feel perfectly entitled to speculate about private matters that are none of their business. Fundamentalists feel justified in, say, not renting to gay couples because of what they believe gay couples do. I am a straight married woman and I can assure you that someone discovering I’m married will not begin such speculation about what my husband and I do in bed, how we like it, whether what we do is kinky, and they will even more certainly not make such intrusive thinking the basis for relating to me. The truth is none of us knows for sure each other’s private behaviors and we are not entitled to know them. It is perverse to relate to people this way. Yet fundamentalist assumptions about gay marriage seem to be stuck on such sick premises. Even though marriage is associated with a sexual relationship it doesn’t mean that a particular marriage is sexually…anything. Even consummated. It’s wrong to base public positions on intrusive private speculation. Some religious people condemn masturbation—sin of Onan, and all—but no public positions address that, so nothing is done legally to thwart such behavior. Why don’t religious folk champion such a law? Religionists’ stance against gay marriage may be more a function of sinful-mindedness than holiness.

3. Another fairly quiet musing is that taking an anti-gay marriage position on supposed religious grounds makes sense only if you were to allow that marital sex is singularly not meant to be pleasurable. This is what the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland used to market. Women were to confess as sin refusing to do their wifely duty. This duty couldn’t possibly have a connection to pleasure, much less romantic love. Male sexuality was more or less about orgasm as something like using the toilet when you’re desperate to pee, relief at last! Of course that momentary relief was a lot more than the wife could ever expect. In that religious context one needn’t feel any attraction for one’s spouse; indeed such attraction may prove ungodly. If Christian marital sex is expected to be not pleasurable, then you have a point about gay sexual expression, assuming that gay sex is pleasurable. Chances are probably pretty good when conception and/or contraception are not considerations that gay sex is less fettered.

But if marital sexuality is permitted to be fully sensual between partners deeply attracted to one another—“My love is like a gazelle” and all—then it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to demonize that pleasure for others equally committed to their partners and mutual spiritual growth. “My magnificent pleasure is good, spiritual, even, but theirs is a sin.” I don’t believe God—the power and love driving the universe-- is that mean-spirited or nigardly.

4. I teach advanced composition as a community college English instructor and this course focuses on argument and persuasion. One of the core principles of rhetoric (persuasion) is that one’s opinions have no public consequence. I say early on in my most theatrical tones, “Guess what? Your opinions don’t mean squat!!!! And neither do mine. I’m really, really fond of my opinions. I think they’re the right ones. But so-o-o wha-a-at!!!” Rhetoric is about public discourse and one must take publicly arguable positions.

Here’s an example. If someone subscribes to right-to-life beliefs (rhetorically speaking, this is an opinion no matter how deeply felt), one may not make this an argument. It’s private belief. What one may argue is the necessity of parental consent for minors. I could argue that if I had to be present to sign for my daughter’s pierced ears at Claire’s at the mall when she was underage, it makes no sense to exclude parental approval for a medical procedure that is far more medically difficult.

See the difference? This is a public argument, meaning it may be made by a right-to-lifer or by a concerned parent or by someone concerned about pediatric/adolescent medicine. One doesn’t have to subscribe to a belief system in order to see the sense in treating abortion as a process at the very least as invasive as ear-piercing. This argument also explains why parental “notification” is moot when it comes to medicine. Implicit in this is the inadequacy of the pro-choice argument, abortion as civil right. Yet someone doesn’t need to entertain a right-to-life ideology. They may see abortion as something that must to a great degree be decriminalized simply to acknowledge that women in desperate circumstances will take desperate measures.

This is the same pact with the devil made by the Allies in WWII. Murder is a sin, even if done to prevent misery, suffering, and slaughter, and stop a powerful, aggressive tyrant. (This is why war has to be a last resort and is the reason Winston Churchill was visited by the “black dog,” severe depression, and why my husband, a ‘Nam vet, lives with PTSD.) At any rate, fundamentalists have absented themselves from public discourse, preferring to mobilize against it.

Mr. Mouw, when you fret about marginalization, I suggest that you have made it impossible not to be marginalized if this country is ever again to be engaged in serious public discourse. You are not participating in public discourse. You do not wish to participate in public discourse. You have created your own dilemma. The only way is your way. You feel strongly against gay marriage. So what? I feel strongly against self-serving fundamentalists. So what? It is not your responsibility as a citizen to make sure sin does not happen. (It is not my responsibility to legally squelch self-serving fundamentalists.) It is not your responsibility to ponder what would happen if your children come to realize that their classmates have same sex parents, northat schoolbooks mention same sex parents. (Consider the damage done to children thriving in such families to see their parents demonized by your children, or else by the school system.) Surely your private beliefs are more compelling than that.

I must admit to difficulty in seeing fundamentalists as Christian at all. Such believers place no special importance on the words of Jesus in his three years of public ministry. Christ’s teachings if anything fade into the background in favor of Biblism, which appears to this outsider as worship of a book, which the late novelist, Paul Scott, with all due layers of meaning, called a hard rectangular object. In my tradition, the Bible is a record of salvation history and the Old Testament is mostly important in foreshadowing the New and preparing the way for Jesus. Whatever Leviticus says about ritual purity is a historical lesson. The New Testament supplants the Old, and Christ’s teachings reign. Not even Paul, as he inveighs against Roman orgies—as well as telling women to keep their mouths shut—is taken to heart the way Jesus is in his sermon on the Mount, the pronouncement that tells us what it means to be Christian. I may never understand how people consider themselves Christian when they appear indifferent to Jesus’s message.

Finally, I must register a beef. It’s about your tears. I have enormous difficulty according them any value as compared with the tears of those legally prohibited from being near their loved one as he or she is dying; the tears of children taken from loving homes because their parents are the same gender; tears of those who canot benefit from their loved one’s health insurance even though legally married couples, no matter their impurity, are able to get medical care, as well as pensions, social security, and much more; the tears of people whose loved ones are excluded from family gatherings and public celebrations. These are tears of anguish, not of mere social regret. Until you see yourself as cause for such anguish, you must bear the consequences of what you have done. The minute you voted against gay marriage, you gave up the right to feel misunderstood and forfeited the privilege of a voice in public discourse. When it came right down to it you eschewed public discourse in favor of the right to deny rights to fellow citizens. You’ve had your say. There’s no room for discussion. You saw to that. Right?




  1. Well done, Jean! Of course I have to wonder whether Mr. Mouw is capable of understanding your well-reasoned arguments, but that's his look-out.

    Suzanne G. Fox (formerly Tyler), your erstwhile grad school colleague

  2. Thanks for writing, girlfriend! Erstwhile is right. I think the last time I saw you was on my way to West Lafayette in summer of '83. Nah! Can't be 25.5 years! We was babies.

  3. Yes, it's been a long time, too long. Drop me a note sometime and we'll catch up:


  4. "The minute you voted against gay marriage, you gave up the right to feel misunderstood and forfeited the privilege of a voice in public discourse."

    I'm not sure I agree with this. I didn't vote for Prop 8, but I don't think everyone who did must be censored.

  5. I think I know what you mean but I keep wondering what the subject of public discourse would be that would give room to "yes" voters. I suppose for me it would need to be the existence of gay voters, especially gay voters in, say, the thousands, who voted for Prop 8. This would mean Prop 8 might not be the defining public event in shafting gay Californians' hopes. If there is something like a one-to-one correspondence between gay voters and the "no" vote--meaning gays w/ or w/o sig others voted almost unanimously against Prop 8, then Prop 8 becomes THE issue, which, unless the courts reopen the question, is a done deal, no further discussion warranted. You want dialogue with gays? Then don't vote against what they appear uniformly to see as essential to their full, equal participation in society. The concern I have about Mr. Mouw is that he feels left out when his vote was one of the most "insider" things he has ever done and the most powerful and far-reaching. He clearly has strength in numbers. I sensed from his column that he had no idea what the impact of his (and, of course, the millions of others) vote was and he wanted people to see him as a good, sensitive, reasonable soul nevertheless. If he is that, perhaps he would benefit from a time of listening, not being part of the discussion. Listening to the stories of gays and their families. Listening to his fellow Christians and clergy who have embraced inclusion. Being receptive. As it is, assuming (my hunch is, rightly) that gay Californians, some of whom have already legally married, have had their fate decided--end of story--what else is there to talk about?
    (Note also that I'm not talking about censorship, as it is commonly understood. Mr. Mouw sure doesn't need jkm's permission to opine anywhere he chooses and scoring a "My Turn" column is proof positive of that. :-) It's about his wishes for rhetorical participation.)

  6. Well said, Jeannie.You are a gifted thinker and writer!