Monday, June 27, 2011

Witnessing the Arc of the Moral Universe Bending

Much has been said and written about the impact of New York enacting marriage equality. A chorus of commentators has described New York's move as completely changing the legal, political and social landscape regarding legal recognition of gay marriage. That may strike some as overstatement. But it isn't. It's right on the mark.

Legally, marriage equality in New York provides another model for how states can structure laws that recognize reality. The law often lags behind society in many areas. Gay marriage is no different in that respect. In our complex legal system, gay marriage is not a settled issue. But it may be settled sooner than many previously thought, though for the tens of thousands of gay couples in America, many of whom have been in committed relationships for longer than any of Newt Gingrich's three marriages, it can't be settled soon enough. However, the wonderful fact is that it will become settled eventually in victory after victory for that ultimate American legal principle: EQUAL JUSTICE UNDER LAW.

Politically, like most things in this country, gay marriage will fight its way through the legislative and judicial processes. Executive branch officials will surely weigh in as well. But with most polls showing public support for gay marriage trending quickly upward, politicians will be required to respond, and not just rest on appeals to tradition, religion or fear. Miracle of miracles, they may choose to re-frame the issue in more positive terms.

Socially, the transformation from mere tolerance to genuine recognition of gay people as legitimate, vital and happy threads of the fabric of American life is quite a site to behold. We have a long way to go. But we're seeing meaningful progress. When it comes to gay people, the arc of the moral universe is only beginning to bend toward justice. And continue to bend it will. The amazing thing about that process is that as that bending occurs, people understand both justice and morality better in both more practical and more profound ways. That ennobles individuals and society as a whole.

David Frum provided us with a reality check in a thoughtful, honest piece in Time magazine. You might remember Mr. Frum as one of George W. Bush's trusted advisers as well as a luminary among conservatives. You might also remember he has caught flack for doing something that political extremists seem to detest: being reasonable. So, there will be some who dismiss out of hand anything Frum says. That's their loss. I don't agree with many of Frum's political positions, but he's being a reasonable guy here.

As I read and hear statements by those who still oppose gay marriage, I am reminded of the Gloria Steinem quote: "The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off." With any luck, many of the people who still oppose gay marriage will get through their "pissed off" phase, which they have both a right and a need to go through, and eventually come out the other side free at last from their fear. For Mormons who fear gay people, feminists and intellectual inquiry, that process will be difficult. I'd like to believe that most Mormons don't really fear any of those things. Rather, they often just don't have much experience yet with gay people, the wide range of feminist thought or enough understanding of intellectual inquiry. I don't know where most Mormons will end up when it comes to gay marriage. But while I don't have much optimism about the institution, I have hope for the people.

One thing is for certain. The arc keeps bending.

Friday, June 24, 2011

The Traditional DEFINITION of Marriage

As the by-no-means-settled issue of gay marriage fights its way through the labyrinth of New York state politics (I'll leave it to you, dear reader, to decide who among the power players is the Minotaur of said labyrinth), I'd like to discuss the traditional definition of marriage. UPDATE: Upon Governor Andrew Cuomo's signing the bill approved by the New York Assembly and Senate, marriage equality will be the law of New York. On to a new labyrinth.

My goal here is to explore what those words mean rather than throw around the phrase "the traditional definition of marriage" which has become an almost useless term that usually kills dialogue.

Much of the gay marriage debate in the United States continues to focus on "traditional values" in American society (as if those values are monolithic and eternal) and the structure of "marriage" as a legal term and a social and/or religious institution (as though the structure of that civil and/or religious institution has never changed). Any person willing to face the realities of history must admit "marriage" has undergone various changes since the term marriage was first used, both in secular and religious contexts. Moreover, values are not static. Example: The apostle Paul may have been against it, women do indeed speak in most Christian churches. Also, while Exodus, Leviticus, Deuteronomy and Numbers seem quite clear on various capital offenses, under U.S. law (and Israeli law, I have it on good word), people are not subject to stoning for disobeying their parents, breaking the Sabbath, blaspheming or touching Mount Sinai.

Granted, having the term "marriage" include same-sex marriages in addition to opposite-sex marriages in any context is arguably the biggest change the term would undergo since early Mormonism brought to American culture the centuries-old tradition of polygamy enshrined in more places in the Bible (and in Mormon doctrine) than the allegedly blanket prohibitions against homosexuality. Now that I have that out of my system, I'd like to cast this hot-button issue in a different light and focus on what we mean by "definition."

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary's first two definitions of "definition" are: 1) an act of determining, and 2) a statement expressing the essential nature of something. It seems to me that, collectively, we have been so caught up in determining what the term marriage is, and isn't, that we've pushed aside the essential nature of marriage and its real-world, life-affirming, soul-searching, glorious impacts on the lives of the two people for whom marriage means the most---a married couple. In other words, we've been talking about the structure of marriage too much and the nature of marriage not enough. The structure of marriage is who is allowed to enter into it, along with the legal rights and responsibilities it entails. The nature of marriage is about the relationship between two people that, at its best, makes the structure of the marriage of each couple beautiful and ennobling. While the legal definition of the institution of marriage is immensely important, it is only the formal part of the more important human relationship.

The definition of the nature of marriage in modern American life is found in the visceral meaning of the words of the marriage ceremony that exists in the American public consciousness. Ultimately, that definition finds expression and meaning in the life a married couple builds together. The collective (and perhaps over-romanticized) definition comes from the wording of the vows in marriage liturgy found in the Book of Common Prayer known to most Americans regardless of their religious affiliation or non-affiliation. Let's take a look at some of those words. Keep in mind, I'm citing the most well-known parts of the liturgy, including the outdated patriarchal "obey" and "serve" language. And I'm not claiming that the Anglican rite somehow inherently allows for gay marriage. That's for Anglican theologians to determine. I'm trying to get at the heart of what the "mystical union" of marriage MEANS to the people who get married and want to get married by using one example among the many examples available from the multiplicity of traditions in cultures in American society. Feel free to share your own perspective in the comments section.

The traditional Anglican wording:
Wilt thou have this Woman to thy wedded Wife, to live together after God's ordinance in the holy estate of Matrimony? Wilt thou love her, comfort her, honour, and keep her in sickness and in health; and, forsaking all other, keep thee only unto her, so long as ye both shall live?

Wilt thou have this Man to thy wedded Husband, to live together after God's ordinance in the holy estate of Matrimony? Wilt thou obey him, and serve him, love, honour, and keep him in sickness and in health; and, forsaking all other, keep thee only unto him, so long as ye both shall live?

I M. take thee N. to my wedded Wife, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part, according to God's holy ordinance; and thereto I plight thee my troth.

I N. take thee M. to my wedded Husband, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love, cherish, and to obey, till death us do part, according to God's holy ordinance; and thereto I give thee my troth.

With this Ring I thee wed, with my Body I thee worship, and with all my worldly Goods I thee endow: In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Deep within the American psyche is the drive to expand. We Americans, for the most part, are a hopeful (and sometimes naive) bunch who like to expand rights, freedoms, territory, opportunity, economics, and all sorts of things. That expansion is never smooth, but it usually prevails over limitation, for good or ill. Gay marriage is another area of expansion. Advocates want to expand the definition and see that expansion as good. Opponents want to limit the definition to "one man one woman" and see any expansion to include same-sex couples as dangerous and corrosive. Some of those opponents frame their arguments in nearly identical ways to opponents of mixed-race marriages who defended anti-miscengenation laws into the late 1960s (it's not traditional marriage; it will harm children; it's against God's law; chaos will reign if it allowed). 

In the end most of the opposition isn't about marriage at all. It's about staying with tradition because changing it makes some people uncomfortable. Our views as human beings can be very hard to change, especially when they are based more on fear and distance than rational thought and human interaction.

Also deep within the American psyche, and related to the penchant for expansion, is the drive to pursue a life of with meaningful liberty and genuine happiness. The Framers established the Constitution and basic legal structure of our country in a unique way. That structure in large part rests on the values enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, which itself is not a law. Think about how these words of Jefferson apply to the debate about gay marriage: 

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter ... it, ... as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness." 

If a law limiting the definition of marriage merely based on cultural tradition becomes destructive of the ends of equality, liberty, happiness and life, whether it be for gay people or any other people, the People of the United States have not only the right but the moral obligation to alter it, which in this case means to expand it. Credible evidence supports expansion. Fear supports limitation.

The laws of our land are the living bones around and within which the rest of the body of human experience in America exists. The two rely on each other, and both adapt and grow. Or at least they should. Gay marriage is an opportunity for Americans to grow up.

Addendum: The patriarchal "obey" and "serve" language isn't just outdated, it has always been wrong. Just in case anyone was wondering.

Friday, June 17, 2011

I'm NOT a Mormonist

I am a Mormon by heritage, but I am not a Mormonist.

Even though I am no longer actively participating in the LDS church, I am sad and troubled by how the faith that once held so much meaning for me has been co-opted and bastardized in the name of short-sighted political gain and used to divide the very families it purports to exalt. Maybe it's always been so and I've noticed only because the current politicization process is so focused on the role of gay people in society---an issue that deeply affects me. In any event, the institutional church has doubled down in all its code word splendor in an Ensign article, continuing the trend of polarization. (For an excellent response to that article, please read this post by MoHoHawaii.)

What it comes down to for me is an aversion for the all-or-nothing, I'm-right-therefore-you're-wrong approach to life. So, I am anti-religiosity, not anti-religion. I am anti-dogma, not anti-faith. I am anti-authoritarian, not anti-establishment.

The writer Andrew Sullivan has spoken about the trouble he has with "Christianists" as opposed to Christians. The latter find personal meaning and fulfillment in Christianity. The former want to force their world view on others. This isn't unique to Christianity, but it's the religion most familiar to most of us. I tend to agree with Sullivan's take on this. It has particular application within Mormonism.

During my many years as an active, trying-to-believe Mormon, I was never comfortable with the incessant pressure to do missionary work. Although my full-time mission as a young man was ostensibly a proselyting mission, it was very unorthodox. Thankfully. Much of my mission was more about social work and community service. We helped recent immigrants adjust to life in the U.S. We did translation and interpretation work, we helped with family issues, we helped comfort people at hospitals. I even taught piano lessons for several months at the end of my mission. Of course, none of this was in the Missionary Handbook. A lot of it was technically (or blatantly) against the mission rules. I saw it as service that met some of the needs of the people. Naively, I thought that service was what a mission was about. I learned the hard way that "service" has a much more narrow definition in the prevailing LDS conventional wisdom. After my mission, I learned the hard way that "spirituality" has a much more narrow definition in institutional Mormonism. What I discovered is that I'm a Mormon, not a Mormonist. And that discovery led me out of the church.

Rigid dogma, authoritarian leadership, vilification of groups of people, rejection of critical thinking and fear of scientific inquiry are at the top of my list of things that bother me about many religious organizations/movements and many their most strident adherents. Myths, traditions, ceremonies, and many other aspects of religion generally aren't bad in themselves. The problems arise when leaders and followers of a particular religious tradition use differences in perspective and belief to drive wedges between people and appeal to base tribalism and the dark angels of human nature. Sadly, many Mormon leaders and devout members are experts at doing this.

Lest you think me a complete pessimist, the last thing I'll share here today is a link to a hopeful, wonderful post. The author of the linked post is Krisanne. I would like to hope that she and many people like her are the Mormons of the future. Not because she is accepting of me as a gay Mormon, although I deeply appreciate that. And not because she's a smart, thoughtful, loving person, which she is. But because of the powerful openness and genuine love that shines through the tone she establishes. If that tone can find a flow within Mormon culture, that will be a wonderful thing to behold.

Friday, June 10, 2011

It's About Risks and Reasons, NOT Possibilities

The debate over whether "reparative/change therapy" is valid or harmful usually focuses on whether it's POSSIBLE to change. That's the wrong focus. For it is also possible that there is a teapot orbiting the sun somewhere between Mars and Jupiter.

Whether some aspect of "reparative therapy" effectively treats depression or other issues is a sideshow. The core part of this therapy model is about repairing an aspect of a person's psyche seen as broken and changing something about a person seen as abhorrent, not the treatment of depression or any other issue. Assurances from a therapist that change is possible leads a person engaging in such therapy to expect that change will occur with enough effort. That sets a person on a path with an endpoint that more often than not looks like the edge of a sheer cliff.

For me, the focus in this discussion should be two-fold.

First, the RISK of harm. That some people have found temporary "success" or that many have survived run-ins with agenda-laden therapists who skirt the edges of professional ethics does not negate the long-term harm large numbers of people have experienced. To the extent that legitimate therapists seek to use this model, a meaningful conversation among their peers and especially with their patients about the risks involved, is required.

Second, and just as vital to the discussion, is WHY advocates for "reparative therapy" begin with the assumption that change of one's sexual orientation is superior to acceptance of one's sexual orientation. When push comes to shove, "change" advocates point to their interpretation of the Bible (or other religious text) and historical norms that are no longer widely accepted (and some that have been discredited) to justify their position. That's not science.

Call me jaded, but I suspect that a factor in the thinking of those in the APA task force allowing for this therapy model was fear of "reparative therapists" creating their own echo chamber institution that the APA would then have to spend time and effort countering.

To paraphrase Lyndon Johnson, it's probably better to have the "reparative therapy" charlatans inside the tent pissing out, than outside the tent pissing in. Of course, I'd prefer they deposit their excrement in the toilet where it belongs.