What the Debate Over Gay Marriage Shows

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tags: gay history, LGBT, gay marriage

Amy Kittelstrom is an associate professor of history at Sonoma State University, specializing in nineteenth-century American thinkers and their sociopolitical context. Her latest book is “The Religion of Democracy: Seven Liberals and the American Moral Tradition” (Penguin 2015).

"RFRA Indianapolis Protests - 2015 - Justin Eagan 02" by Justin Eagan - via Wikimedia Commons.

The uproar over Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) illuminates the current popularity of the movement for full civic equality for LGBT Americans as well as the breadth and intensity of efforts to stop that movement at the state level. Not only Indiana but many states across the country have passed RFRAs, which are said to be modeled on the federal RFRA passed by Congress in 1993—but a lot has changed since then. Same-sex marriage and LGBT rights were not on the minds of legislators in the 1990s. They are now.

It appears that the nation is more polarized than ever.

But it’s not. The seeming clash between proponents of LGBT rights and those who object to such rights on religious grounds is not a clash between liberals and conservatives, the left and the right, or the secular and the religious. It is not a culture war. In fact the controversy over RFRAs shows that this way of thinking is outdated, unsuited to the twenty-first century American political landscape. As much as the RFRA controversy reveals the difference between some evangelical Christian opponents of LGBT rights and defenders of those rights, it also reveals diversity within each of those seeming factions.

The terms “left” and “right” to describe politics are artifacts of the Cold War and should be retired. Try a word like “liberal” or “progressive” to describe opponents of the RFRAs and you run into WalMart and a good number of Republicans. There are Presbyterians, Lutherans, Episcopalians, and Methodists—evangelical Protestants, all—who support same-sex rights to marry and more, believing that Christ would accept queers as brothers and sisters in full fellowship. Some Jews, Muslims, Catholics, Latinos, and Asian Americans favor LGBT rights; some do not. Nor do African Americans fit neatly into the polarity suggested by the controversy over RFRAs. Groups defined by ancestry do not fit neatly into packages, anyway, but African Americans, who tend to be Democrats and Protestants, disagree with one another over whether the fight for LGBT rights is like or unlike the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.

A more illustrative reference for today’s controversy over RFRAs may be the issue of slavery. Today there is tension not only between those who favor queer rights and those who oppose them but also among so-called liberals who are overwhelmingly committed to such rights. Some liberals insist that religious bigots should be treated with respect, too, and that RFRAs strike an important middle ground, while other liberals tolerate no excuse for discrimination. These warring liberals carry the legacy of the abolitionists, who were not a harmonious group. In the decades leading up to the Civil War, antislavery Northerners agreed that slavery was wrong, but they disagreed on exactly why it is wrong, whether abolition should be gradual or immediate, whether emancipation should be voluntary or coerced, whether slave-owners should be compensated for it, and what should happen to ex-slaves. As much as opposition to slavery united yesterday’s liberals, it also divided them into so many arguing factions.

Antislavery sentiment in New England—ultimately the most radically abolitionist corner of the country—linked closely with the principle of religious freedom, it turns out. And so does the thinking behind queer rights. The common root of today’s warring oppositions can be seen in one of the earliest American expressions against slavery, a letter written in 1798 by an eighteen-year-old Harvard graduate. William Ellery Channing, headed for ordination in the Congregationalist Church and leadership in one of the nineteenth-century’s most important Christian controversies, spent two years after college as a tutor in Virginia, where he witnessed slavery in person for the first time. “Language cannot describe my detestation of it.”

The future Reverend Channing’s argument against slavery was both political and religious. Writing to his best friend—the secretary to U.S. President John Adams—Channing fumed that whenever human beings are forced to obey a slave-owner’s will rather than exercising their own free will, they lose their natural human dignity. A slave “ceases to be a moral agent.”

A moral agent is what God fashioned his creatures to become, a freely willing individual endowed with the inborn powers of reason and conscience that constitute their likeness to God, their inherent sovereignty. Moral agency describes the human right to liberty as well as the duty to use that liberty to grow in moral virtue. Slavery degrades humanity, Channing believed, because it violates the basic human right of exercising these powers, “which nature has given us in the pursuit of any and of every good which we can obtain without doing injury to others.”

When Channing said “us,” he meant Africans as well as Anglo-Americans. Slaves must be freed so that they can exercise their private consciences, reason, and judgment, developing their moral agency.

Channing’s application of moral agency to slavery was an innovation, but his insistence on human dignity was not. It is a fundamental American ideal. The same respect for individual sovereignty lay behind the guarantee of religious freedom, which the founding fathers protected as an essential liberty so that all Americans could heed their own private consciences. Channing’s commitment to liberty of conscience and private judgment drove his zeal as a “liberal,” a label he adopted to describe his willingness to remain in active religious fellowship with Christians who adhered to different specific doctrines and to explore those differences in pursuit of greater collective growth. His belief in moral agency also led Channing to defend the rights of women and workingmen.

Neither Channing nor any other nineteenth-century liberal could have foreseen today’s movement for LGBT rights, but the liberal commitment to open-mindedness, inclusivity, and the growth of consensus through dialogue led in that direction. Today’s controversy asks what constitutes defensible religious expression and how much dignity queer people deserve, and how soon. It is a controversy that stokes the passions of righteousness and moral outrage as well as contempt, bitterness, and plain weariness, yet the controversy is not a cause for alarm. The contention itself, banners and pageantry and posturing and all, is just the sort of conversation modern Americans should be having. In a healthy democracy, perpetual disagreement may get old, but it is always in season.

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