Good people do terrible things (further thoughts re: Fred Phelps)

As I was writing the previous post, I kept wondering if I was being overly harsh in comparing mainstream conservative Christians to Fred Phelps – who is, after all, universally disliked, unbelievably odious, and, in my opinion, downright evil.  The man is by all accounts a controlling, angry, and extremely abusive husband and father, who has brainwashed his family into thinking he is practically God, and who believes some very strange and dangerous things (the documentary Fall From Grace gives a pretty chilling picture of Phelps and the WBC – also on Netflix streaming.  If you’re beginning to think that everything I watch is on Netflix instant watch, you’re not too far off).

Obviously not all conservative Christians are like Phelps in these respects – and I’d venture to say most are not.  Most have good intentions – like most people in general.  Many conservative Christians I know are loving parents and spouses, good neighbors, great friends.  So I’ve been pondering whether the comparison was hyperbolic, or unkind, and pondering how it would come across to the people in my life – friends, family, all of whom I love, many of whom are lovely people whom I trust and respect – who are conservative Christians.

When I criticize conservative Christians and their beliefs, I’m not claiming that they are all or mostly evil people, nor do I believe that.  That goes for any major demographic, really.  But I hesitated to add a bunch of disclaimers about how Christians can be nice people to my previous post, because I didn’t want to water down the power of my point.

On further thought, I think this is actually quite an important point to address.  In way it’s the central point: good people can, despite good intentions and sincere beliefs, despite doing much good in most other aspects of their lives, believe and say things that have horrible, awful implications.  They can do terrible things that have devastating effects on others without intending to.  Hardly anyone is mostly or all bad, much less consciously or deliberately evil; most people, I believe, are just trying to do their best to live decent lives.  Most people don’t set out to do evil.  Yet hardly any of us manages to avoid doing or enabling evil in one way or another.

Fred Phelps hates gay people.  He makes no secret of that. While there are mainstream conservative Christians in this country who share his overt, conscious hatred of gay people, not all do.  Probably most don’t.  Many truly believe they are being loving by telling LGB people their orientations or lifestyles are wrong, by opposing marriage equality, etc..  But people don’t have to be conscious of hatred (or fear, contempt, self-loathing, and any number of other emotions that can fuel homophobia) for their beliefs about and actions towards LGB people to be hateful.

When I say conservative Christian beliefs on homosexuality are no different from Fred Phelps’, I’m not talking about the conscious intention behind those teachings.  I’m talking about their implications.  Their practical, real-world effects.

This is how oppression works.  Systemic oppression cannot be sustained without the complicity of otherwise good people – through beliefs, actions, and inaction.  And it cannot be sustained without the myths about human nature and behavior we buy into as a culture.  We pretend that only bad people do evil things, and that it’s really easy to spot such people – as if there were some obvious marker distinguishing evil people from good.  We desperately want to believe these things, because the reality that we’re all capable of doing and enabling evil is frightening, and requires that we scrutinize ourselves more closely than we’d like.

We all want to believe we’re good people who do good things, myself included; that’s understandable.  But the idea that “those people” over there are the real bad people, and we’re all good, is an incredibly dangerous one.  It’s what allows systemic injustice and inequity to survive and flourish.

This is what Christians who are puzzled and offended by accusations of homophobia and comparisons to people like Fred Phelps need to understand.  Sure, it’s a good thing that you don’t picket funerals or scream at people about how they’ll suffer an eternity of torment in hell.  But in the grand scheme of things, your beliefs about LGB people aren’t made any less harmful or hateful by the fact that they don’t act on them the way Westboro Baptist does.  Your beliefs still fuel homophobic speech and behavior, and enable and support wide-scale denial of rights to LGB people.  This is why claims that you “love the sinner and hate the sin” ring hollow.  The implications and effects of your beliefs are not loving.

And really, this is what anyone called out for enabling oppression of any kind needs to understand.  Being called out is not a comment on who you are.  It’s not a comment on your intentions.  It’s a comment on what you said, and what you did.  We’re all capable of doing and saying things that support and even promote oppression without intending to do so, and without being evil.  It’s unjust and enabling of oppression to demand that people evaluate us based on what we intend and not on the actual, tangible effects of what we do.

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Strange priorities

Newsweek recently profiled Brian Brown, the president of the anti-gay National Organization for Marriage.  The article presents a very sanitized picture of Brown and his work; it gives the impression that he’s some sort of moderate homophobe, not as hateful or prejudiced as the other guys.  As Jeremy Hooper of Prop 8 Trial Tracker points out, this is a rather strange way to depict a straight man with a “near-daily, decade-long obsession with same-sex marriage.”  Further, the article misrepresents NOM’s record, overstating its influence and success, and casts marriage equality supporters in a negative light.

Still, the article offers some insights on how Brown spins his image and his message to make it appear less homophobic than it is, and raises some interesting questions as to why Christians like Brown, a convert to Catholicism, invest so much effort and resources into opposing marriage equality.  NOM has been able to raise, and spend, huge amounts of money in support of anti-gay measures:

Although NOM operates with a skeleton staff, its budget has ballooned from $500,000 in 2007, when Brown cofounded the group, to more than $13 million today. With that war chest, it was able to pour some $5 million into 100 races in the recent elections.

That’s quite a lot of money, money that could make a huge, positive difference in many lives if spent thoughtfully.   NOM doesn’t disclose its donors, but it’s safe to say that most of it is coming from traditionalist Christians and churches.  This is just one organization, of course, and doesn’t include the millions of dollars groups like the LDS and Roman Catholic churches have invested in anti-gay campaigns – so it only represents a fraction of the expenditure on such campaigns in the US.  As always, I can’t but wonder why so many Christians think this issue is so important that it’s worth pouring so much individual and collective money into.  Honestly, this is something I found disturbing even when I still accepted the fundamentalist and homophobic version of Christianity I was raised to believe.  It’s one thing to believe same sex marriage is wrong, but what makes it SO wrong, so threatening, that millions of dollars are needed to deny it legal recognition?  What makes it so much more urgent or important that it deserves more attention and funding than any number of causes focused on actually helping people?  And if it’s really so awful, where are the millions of dollars being spent to ban divorce for straight couples?

Even if you read the Bible the way fundamentalists and evangelicals as literally as they claim it should be read, there’s no rationale for making fighting gay marriage and other LGB legal rights such a huge priority.  Again, if you look at what Jesus actually said about righteous conduct, and what will get you into heaven, there’s absolutely nothing in there about fighting for the government to enforce (one version of) Christian beliefs as law, and quite a lot about Christians’ obligations to respect the government (“render unto Caesar what it Caesar’s”), and about how the kingdom of heaven has completely different values, goals, and priorities than earthly kingdoms and governments.  Jesus rejected conventional measures of worth and status:

And Jesus called them to him and said to them, “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. 43 But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. 45 For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10, ESV)

Jesus was expected to overthrow the Roman government, and instead taught that his kingdom was of another world.  He taught that people who ignored the plight of the poor, hungry, sick, or downtrodden on earth would not be allowed into the kingdom of heaven, that the rich should give their money and possessions away to follow him, and that it’s easier for a rich person to enter heaven than for a camel to pass through a needle’s eye (read: pretty damn impossible).  He taught that people should be more concerned with their own failings than with other people’s shortcomings.  And then there’s that pesky business about loving your neighbor as yourself and treating others the way you’d want to be treated by them.

Christian anti-gay campaigns are fundamentally an attempt to use power and privilege against people with less power, and less privilege.  Their tools are wealth and political influence.  Their goals are to ensure that gay couples and families are treated with less dignity and respect than straight couples and families.  As such they are inherently opposed to everything Jesus stood for, and are run completely counter to how Jesus would have operated.  And they’re on no firmer ground if you look at the rest of the New Testament – not unless you decide to ignore Paul and Peter they say Christians should respect ruling authorities, or decide that James is being metaphorical when he says true religion is caring for orphans and widows.

So I’m wondering again how Christians like Brian Brown justify spending millions trying to codify their version of Christian teaching into law, while simultaneously being opposed to the government – and sometimes even the church – spending money to assist people in need.  Jesus was pretty specific about how both of those positions are incompatible with following him.  But I suppose it shouldn’t be surprising when fundamentalists show, again, that they don’t really believe the Bible.


Sunday roundup

Some of this week’s religion and gender news:

Italy’s Waldesian and Methodist churches have voted to bless same-sex unions “under certain conditions.” (Via Gay Marriage Watch)

Four women have become the first nuns to be ordained in the Western Hemisphere in the Buddhist Theravada tradition, which until recently had excluded women from full participation in monastic orders.

Beyond Adam and Eve: Becky Garrison discusses how transgender people are so often been left out of discussions of gay and lesbian civil rights, and what some Christians are doing to address the failure of the church to take transgender issues seriously.

The Human Rights Campaign’s Summer Institute hosted graduate students working on queer studies in religion this summer.

At a recent meeting of “Bible believing Christians” against the screening of an LGBT documentary at the Coudersport public library, local Robert Wagner promoted violence against transgender people (trigger warning).  The film, Out in the Silence, documents the isolation of and discrimination against gay, lesbian, and bisexual people in small town PA.

Rev. Jane Spahr has been found guilty of misconduct by the Presbyterian Church (USA) for violating church rules that “Presbyterian ministers may bless same-sex unions as long as they do ‘not state, imply, or represent that a same-sex ceremony is a marriage.'”  So basically, she’s guilty of thinking same sex couples are equal to straight couples.  How dare she!

Allah is not He or She: Great post by Amina Wadud arguing that God transcends gender.

Since we as human beings have been affected by patriarchy, then we reflect that onto God/Allah. The divine cannot have gender . . . . Patriarchy is a kind of istikbar, with one gender, male, considered better then the other, female. Plus when one has the power to assert this sense of different values because of different genders, it turns into zulm, or oppression.

GLAAD’s weekly LGBT religion news roundup.

More suggested Sunday reading from Spare Candy. (ht TheSliverParty)


Sunday round up (late night version)

Some of this week’s religion and gender news, short and sweet this time!

Sign a petition asking CA Gov. Schwarzenegger to end the shackling of pregnant inmates. (CA residents only)

Presbyterian (PCUSA) clergy and elders can sign the Minneapolis Declaration of Conscience, a petition supporting marriage equality in the church.

Catholics for Equality, an LGBT rights Catholic group, just launched.  Some non-Catholic LGBT activists are skeptical.

An ad campaign urging the Catholic Church to ordain women will run during the Pope’s visit to London next month. (ht TheSliverParty).

A columnist at the Catholic Exchange “advises” a trans woman: “It is better to die than to offend God.” What happened to sanctity of life? (ht knitmeapony)

The National Organization for Marriage’s Rhode Island Director compares gay parents to dead parents.  Very Classy.  Also super Christ-like.

Like the debate over gender roles, the debate over gay marriage has parallels to the 19th-century debat e in the States over slavery. (ht KidCharlemgn/Outside of Eden).

Ecclesia de Lange, a South African Methodist Minister, has been suspended for performing a same sex marriage.

This series of articles by Juliet Jacques on her gender reassignment journey is very worth reading.

GLAAD has their weekly LGBT religion news roundup here.


Sunday roundup

Some of this week’s religion, gender, and sexuality news, starting with some international news:

Sakineh Mohammadi-Ashtiani, an Iranian woman sentenced to be executed for allegedly committing adultery, has “confessed” to being an accomplice in her late husband’s death.  The likely coerced confession has led Human Rights Watch to sound the alarm that Iran may be planning to execute her shortly.  An interview with Ashtiani’s former lawyer, now seeking asylum in Norway, is here.  A petition to free Ashtiani can be found here. (Via Elizabeth Esther.)

Mexico’s Supreme Court has upheld Mexico City laws allowing gay marriages and adoptions by gay and lesbian couples.  Gay marriages and adoptions are legal only in Mexico City, but must be recognized throughout the country.  Mexico mayor Marcelo Ebrard has filed a lawsuit claiming defamation against Guadalajara Cardinal Juan Sandoval refused to retract accusations that Mexican Supreme court took bribes to make these rulings.  Sandoval is also under fire for using the Spanish equivalent of “fa**ot” in decrying the Court’s decision to uphold the adoption law.  Meanwhile, an archdiocesan spokesman claims the mayor has caused harm to Mexico City than the drug cartels and has compared him to Francisco Franco and Augusto Pinochet in being a “fascist . . . [with] an undeniable desire to persecute the church.”  Unsurprisingly, he is also being sued for defamation by the mayor.  Good heavens.  Stay classy, Mexican Catholic officials!

Closer to home, 10 year old Will Phillips is putting marriage equality opponents on notice.  This kid must scare the pants off the NOM crowd.

Laura at The Redheaded Skeptic has a great four-post series on how Focus on the Family ruins families, starting with a post on Dobson’s book The Strong Willed Child.

Vyckie at No Longer Quivering on how women get lured into and stuck in the patriarchy trap: Husbands love your wives: the peanut butter in the patriarchy trap.

Excellent post by Rita Nakashima Brock on marriage in the Bible that carefully picks apart marriage equality opponents’ claims that the Bible unanimously supports their definition of “traditional marriage”:

The Bible presents multiple views of marriage, and most actual marriages it depicts are terrible by modern standards. “Traditional marriages” in ancient biblical times were arranged as transfers of the ownership of daughters. The tenth commandment lists wives among properties like houses and slaves: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor” (Exodus 20:17, also found in Deuteronomy 5:21). Marriages occurred via deception, kidnapping, adulterous seductions, theft, rape, and murder, and were often in multiples so that the pater familias could amass land, flocks, and progeny and cement political alliances. Abraham, David, and Solomon had marriages that would be illegal today. The book of Hosea likens the mercy of God to a husband who has the right to beat or kill his adulterous wife, but spares her — for this, she was supposed to be grateful. When women seek marriages, such as Naomi arranged for Ruth, it was to avoid an even worse fate such as destitution.

GLAAD also has a great weekly LGBT religion news roundup.


“Protecting” children from knowing gay people exist

Opponents of marriage equality are afraid, in part, that same-sex relationships and LGBT people will come to be seen and treated as normal by society.  This is something most opponents will openly admit (a small example: Al Mohler’s comment that the ruling striking down Prop 8 was “a significant step toward the full normalization of homosexuality within the culture”).

I’ve been struck by the particular horror of gay marriage opponents over the idea that children would be taught that same sex relationships are normal.  “Protecting children” comes up as a recurring argument by the Yes on 8 campaign, by the pro Prop 8 lawyers, and many others. And it appears to be a quite effective argument; a recent analysis of polls leading up to the 2008 Prop 8 vote suggests that parents of school-age children – not African Americans as previously reported – were the key demographic in passing Prop 8, probably due to the effectiveness of Yes on 8 ads like the following:

I’ve been trying to figure what’s so frightening about the idea that children might read books that discuss the existence of LGBT couples without casting them as freaks or perverts.  Ultimately I think it’s at least a fear of loss of straight privilege, i.e.:
– the unspoken and pervasive assumption that straight people and relationships are the norm and are superior to LGBT people and their relationships, and
– the institutional and societal biases in favor of straightness that are built on and perpetuate those assumptions.

More below the jump:

Read the rest of this entry »


Quick hit: Prop 8 ruled unconstitutional

Yesterday Vaughn Walker, Chief Judge of the Northern California U.S. District Court, ruled  CA Prop 8 unconstitutional on Due Process and Equal Protection grounds.  You can read the full ruling here (scribd online) or here (pdf).

There’s much more to be said about the detailed, thorough text of the decision, but for now it’s worth highlighting a couple points.  One, Judge Walker forcefully argued that Prop 8 was based on unproven assertions that gay and lesbian couples are inferior to straight couples:

Proposition 8 fails to advance any rational basis in singling out gay men and lesbians for denial of a marriage license. Indeed, the evidence shows Proposition 8 does nothing more than enshrine in the California Constitution the notion that opposite-sex couples are superior to same-sex couples.  Because California has no interest in discriminating against gay men and lesbians, and because Proposition 8 prevents California from fulfilling its constitutional obligation to provide marriages on an equal basis,the court concludes that Proposition 8 is unconstitutional.

Secondly, the ruling is not just an argument for the equality of heterosexuals and sexual minorities, or an argument for marriage equality, it’s an argument for gender equality as well:

The evidence shows that the movement of marriage away from a gendered institution and toward an institution free from state-mandated gender roles reflects an evolution in the understanding of gender rather than a change in marriage. The evidence did not show any historical purpose for excluding same-sex couples from marriage, as states have never required spouses to have an ability or willingness to procreate in order to marry. FF 21. Rather, the exclusion exists as an artifact of a time when the genders were seen as having distinct roles in society and in marriage. That time has passed.

The right to marry has been historically and remains the right to choose a spouse and, with mutual consent, join together and form a household. FF 19-20, 34-35. Race and gender restrictions shaped marriage during eras of race and gender inequality, but such restrictions were never part of the historical core of the institution of marriage. FF 33. Today, gender is not relevant to the state in determining spouses’ obligations to each other and to their dependents. Relative gender composition aside, same-sex couples are situated identically to opposite-sex couples in terms of their ability to perform the rights and obligations of marriage under California law. FF 48. Gender no longer forms an essential part of marriage; marriage under law is a union of equals. (Emphases mine)

It’s no exaggeration to say that this is an unprecedented declaration of gender equality from a federal court.  Amazing, and incredibly encouraging.

Lastly, it’s important to remember that in the end this isn’t about some abstracted notion of equality.  This is about how inequalities materially affect people’s lives – people who are fully human, and fully deserving of the rights, worth, and dignity that every human being merits.  This reflection by Celia Perry on what Judge Walker’s decision means to her as the daughter of a lesbian couple is a great reminder of what’s at stake here, and incredibly moving:

I was eight when Braschi’s case was decided. Like any normal eight-year-old, I certainly wasn’t up on LGBT caselaw, and I definitely didn’t know how precarious my family’s legal situation was. But although I didn’t understand it intellectually, I could feel it in my gut. I knew that my family was different, and that most Americans didn’t approve of it. No matter how loving a family is—and let me tell you, mine epitomizes the four-letter verb—that’s a whole lot of shame for a third-grader to internalize. And that shame is probably part of the reason why, in October 2008, I was a sobbing mess as I spoke at my moms’ wedding. (They’d scheduled the wedding before the November elections, knowing that Prop. 8 would likely pass, making their nuptials no longer legally viable.) As I stood before 150 of our closest friends and family with one mom on either side of me, so many things raced through my mind, like all the times I heard the word “faggot” casually thrown around at recess, and how Ellen DeGeneres stunned the nation when she came out on TV only a decade earlier. But most of all, the thing making me bawl like a baby was knowing that I hadn’t talked to my best friend about my moms being gay until after we’d graduated from high school in 1999. And that, right there, is why marriage is so important. It’s a public seal of approval. It’s our society saying that one’s sexual orientation, or the sexual orientation of one’s parents, doesn’t bestow second-class citizenship. And that it’s never something to be ashamed of.

It didn’t take Judge Walker’s ruling today for me to know that my moms deserve the rights of marriage. But after all this time, it sure is good to hear a judge say it.

“One’s sexual orientation, or the sexual orientation of one’s parents, doesn’t bestow second-class citizenship.”  Because there’s no such thing as a second-class human being.  This is a great day for the cause of equality, one more victory in the struggle to build a society where the full humanity and dignity of all people are respected.