Besides being a heretical hate-monger who pushed the envelope of the definition of constitutionally protected speech, Fred Phelps, the late leader of the Westboro Baptist Church, had a number of perhaps surprising facets to his life. Here are ten of them, all culled from the Wikipedia article dedicated to him.
1. In the ’60s and ’70s, Phelps was a notable civil rights lawyer in Kansas, defending African-Americans against the “Jim Crow establishment” in the police and school system, as well as in public utilities and universities. He once said of his efforts, “I systematically brought down the Jim Crow laws of this town.”
2. In the 1980s, he won awards for his civil rights defense work from the Greater Kansas City Chapter of Blacks in Government and the Bonner Springs branch of the NAACP.
3. He once sued Ronald Reagan for appointing an ambassador to the Vatican, arguing that such an appointment violated the separation of church and state.
4. He was a Democrat, running for office in four different primaries (all lost), garnering as much as 30% of the vote in the Democratic primary for senator from Kansas.
5. He strongly believed in Five Point Calvinism, calling the Arminian doctrine opposed to it within Protestantism “worse blasphemy and heresy than that heard in all filthy Saturday night f*g bars in the aggregate in the world.”
6. He worked on Billy Graham crusades, though later denounced Graham as the “greatest false prophet since Balaam.”
7. In 1993, Phelps had a big blow-up on the Ricki Lake Show.
8. In 1997, Saddam Hussein gave Phelps’ church permission to come and preach in Baghdad. After Hussein’s execution in 2006, Phelps announced that Hussein was in Hell along with Gerald Ford.
9. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has filed multiple lawsuits defending Fred Phelps and his church for their picketing activities.
10. He may have been excommunicated from his own church in August of last year. No one seems to be saying why.
Given some of his earlier and more charitable history, is it possible that the excommunication was because Fred Phelps repented before the end? We may never know. One thing I believe, though, and that is that God loves Fred Phelps. Because He loves everyone, no exceptions.
Also: People are complicated, even people who present themselves as caricatures. We all have both evil and good within us. May God forgive and heal us of the evil and magnify the good.
I was never going to be happy with the results of yesterday’s election.
The leadership of both major American political parties is deeply compromised by corporatist interests who are served by an inflationary monetary policy managed by people who largely used to work for those interests and/or will do so again. Both major candidates are representatives of this entrenched political class. So there was no way I was going to be happy with who won. There are many problems with this political class and what it pursues (many of which are enabled by the aforesaid monetary policy), no matter which party banner it happens to wave, and I have a lot of criticisms for it, so no one who is a champion of this class is likely to garner support from me.
As such, I was prepared this morning to see elation by the people whose candidate won the election and not really to feel good about it, even if one candidate was slightly closer to me in terms of his rhetoric. But I didn’t really think too much about what else I might see, which turned out to be some folks’ attempt to be gracious and conciliatory following a bitterly fought campaign. (And I do hope that at least some folks out there will note the irony of a corporatist-backed candidate fighting bitterly against a corporatist-backed candidate. Will Pepsi win? Coke? O! the excitement!)
This graciousness has essentially boiled down to one major sentiment: Let’s put all this behind us now and work together.
I’ve seen a lot of rather nicely warm posts online about America “coming together” to stand “shoulder to shoulder,” etc., to “work on our problems.” The sentiment behind such comments is of course laudable. We should indeed be united. We should indeed work together. But such sentiments imply that there are common goals.
Some goals at least seem to be common, to be sure—jobs, peace, etc., but they are so nebulous in their terms and the means to achieve them required by different political philosophies so divergent that one has to wonder whether such goals really can be worked on together. If, for instance, you believe that it is wrong to increase employment by making more people into employees of the state or your neighbor thinks it’s wrong to increase employment by giving rich employers their tax money back, neither of you are “against job-creation.” You’re both for job-creation, but your principles require different means to achieve that goal. One or both of you may of course be wrong about whether those means actually work.
But there are goals that some of our politicians have that I absolutely refuse to work with anyone toward putting into effect.
I will not work with anyone to pay for, encourage, or permit abortion on demand. Likewise, I abhor faceless drone warfare and extra-judicial assassinations, undeclared wars, interventionist foreign policy, the surveillance state, the notion that all property belongs to the state and may be confiscated at any time for any reason, the increasing centralization of political and economic power, the sanctioning and subsidy of every base human impulse (and I don’t just mean sexual ones), the drive to shove religious liberty and even discussion out of every facet of public life, and several other things besides. Most of these convictions are based directly on moral principle determined by my core beliefs, while others are derived from those principles.
To “work with” anyone to accomplish these goals is a violation of my beliefs. I am also saddened by the reality that most of these things, either by explicit commitment, by omission or by the weakness of political will, are indeed the goals of both of the major American political parties.
Thus, when I read these calls for us to “set aside our differences” and “work together,” while I fully understand and appreciate the sentiment behind them, it’s hard to read them as saying anything much different than “Stop believing in your principles and work with me on mine instead.”
No, I don’t think so.
I’m not a “culture warrior,” at least not in the sense that I think that the force of law should be used to make people behave as I would prefer them to. If they become a public menace, yes, of course the law should restrain them. But I cannot make them moral by passing laws against immorality. That said, I do think that there is a war going on, and it’s a war that requires that people stick to their principles, even (and especially) in the face of calls to “work together.”
There is a very deep problem with our modern political culture, and it’s one that I think that not only Christians—who believe in the inherent and infinite worth of the human person as created according to God’s image—but also non-Christians who also believe in that same worth on other bases need to take note of. For every problem, there seems to be a system that needs to be invented, a new machine that will solve everything. Why can’t everyone just shut up and submit to the machine? Don’t they realize that this machine will finally be the machine we have all hoped for? Don’t they realize that we should all work together to make the new machine a reality?
The temptation is not only to utopianism, which is the eschatology of secularism, but it is something even more insidious—a direct attack on the integrity and sanctity of the human person. That is what stands behind the drive by our whole political class always to begin some new programme, some new initiative, some new regulation, some new standard, some new thing to which we must all submit so that we will have happiness, peace and prosperity, whether we like it or not.
This affliction, you see, is much deeper than DECISION 2012™, etc. It goes down to the root of our desire to dominate all life, all matter—whether animal, mineral, vegetable or especially human. Once we decided that all the world must finally be malleable to our will, then we decided something very dangerous.
This has become something of a rambling rant, I know, and you can probably tell that thinking overmuch about our political state is not something that brings out much hope in me. But I will try to leave you, gentle reader, with some hope, nevertheless. You have, after all, deigned to read this far.
I know a number of Orthodox Christian clergy who are quite vocal about their politics, even in terms of parties and candidates, though I don’t know any who use their position as clergy to make any official endorsements. I can’t be one of those, at least not in that way, if only because I see little that is redeemable in our current political culture.
But I am indeed interested in politics, and I have strong political opinions. I propose a politics, however, that is far more subversive than any SuperPAC ever can be, one that will not please any party and probably very few candidates. And what is that more subversive politics? It requires taking some of our central political ideas and reinterpreting them.
It is part of the American political mythos that any single person can change the world. There is a sense in which I believe that, though I don’t believe it in terms of the “any kid can grow up to be president” piece of it. (Statistically, almost no one will grow up to be president.) Rather, I believe that the infection which afflicts our political culture requires not merely some policy nor even a philosophy. Neither is what is needed merely a new marketing strategy to reach the electorate. What is needed is a new electorate. As long as the electorate continues to prefer the Machine, they will continue to get the inhuman and dehumanizing effects of the Machine.
The only way to a new electorate is the change of the human person, a genuine spiritual reorientation and movement toward a different set of goals than comfort, predictability and domination over the whole earth.
How do I intend to change the world? Primarily, I must change myself. But I also hope to influence you to change, too. What can we work together toward? We can pursue humility. That is a goal I think we all really can embrace together.
But this call to set things aside and work together comes with a price and therefore a warning: If we really seek humility, learn it and practice it, then we will find that our desires for comfort, predictability and domination will be stripped away. But we should also take joy in that, because in casting those things aside, we will find freedom and become people who don’t just “care about” particular classes or categories of people, but actually self-sacrificially love the person next to us. Such people need few (if any) programmes or policies.
Never give in on principle, not even to “work together.” But here is something we should all be able to agree on—humility, the most neglected virtue of the modern age. Let’s all try it and see what happens, shall we? Hardly anyone can grow up to be president. But everyone—without exception—can grow up to be a saint.
But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you. (Matthew 6:33)
…we are supposed to act with great deference to natural rhythms and patterns when it comes to nature “out there,” but extend—by government fiat, if necessary—the greatest possible technological control over human reproductive rhythms and patterns. We should learn to live with and in nature out there, but conquer nature in here. To what can one attribute this fundamental contradiction?
Peter J. Deneen, “Forward” Into a Sterile Future” (emphasis in original)
This fascinating piece from today’s First Things column by Patrick J. Deneen (whose work I’m used to seeing at Front Porch Republic) highlights something I’ve also commented on in some of my pieces on ecology, that left-environmentalism is ultimately a misanthropic philosophy. But it also points out that the true aim of the combination of the contraception/environmentalism culture is really just unbridled indulgence. Human desire is to be limited by nothing at all, not even human nature. The dark thread connecting these two philosophies together is human sterility, which will “liberate” both man and nature from our fellow man.
One of the things that I believe Orthodoxy has to offer the culture is what we might term a “consistent green ethic,” in which all of nature—including mankind—is held in reverence as having the potential to be a vessel for the divine presence. With this attitude toward man and the rest of nature, violence becomes an impossibility.
The world is trying the experiment of attempting to form a civilized but non-Christian mentality. The experiment will fail; but we must be very patient in awaiting its collapse; meanwhile redeeming the time; so that the Faith may be preserved alive through the dark ages before us; to renew and rebuild civilization, and to save the world from suicide. —T. S. Eliot, “Thoughts After Lambeth”
When my wife and I married, one of our major logistical problems was figuring out where to put our combined libraries. We still have this problem, although we have discharged a number of volumes from our total. Among the books that were not part of the original merger but are an increasing portion of our cache are tomes with titles ranging from When Technology Fails to The Square Foot Garden. We are, in short, stocking up on books (and items) toward the goal of being more self-sustaining. We have various reasons for this, but one of them is the sense that a possibility exists that we need things like a manual flour mill, because it’s possible that the industrial civilization around us may well collapse. It’s also—and this is perhaps a bit less obvious—because the spiritual civilization around us has already collapsed.
Rod Dreher has written in a couple pieces recently (here and here, both well worth reading), specifically addressing the question of same-sex marriage (SSM) but also touching on larger issues, that the culture war has essentially been lost by conservative Christians. (I use “conservative Christian” here to refer to a theological outlook, not a political one, though of course there are political implications to all theology.)
He writes that the time has come for Christians in America to use libertarian strategies to secure religious liberty for themselves before they find their churches, businesses, education and even private behavior overwhelmed and even outright persecuted, because the competing moral vision that includes same-sex marriage as only one of its many tenets will demand more and more of the moral imagination of the people. The time is coming when Christians will not be allowed merely to tolerate moral dictates that are contrary to their own doctrines but will be expected to endorse and participate in them, or else face real penalties.
As I noted a few posts back, religious liberty is already being penalized by the courts because believers have the temerity to try to live out what their faiths teach them—and I’m not talking about trying to “impose” their beliefs on anyone else, but simply trying to live them for themselves. Christian doctrine is already thoughtcrime in countries not terribly unlike ours, and I have little reason to believe that we will somehow remain exempt.
I am not much of a social prognosticator, but I think Dreher’s right. The culture of what a writer he quotes refers to as “atomism”—that the most basic moral commandment of society is that the individual should be allowed to do whatever he wants under nearly any circumstances, that there is no grand narrative larger than the individual—has become so pervasive that something like SSM is, in Dreher’s words, “only a skirmish in a much broader war that we’ve lost. The essence of the problem? The collapse of Christianity as the foundational bulwark of our civilization — something that happened long before anybody had the slightest interest in promoting same-sex marriage, or the Sexual Revolution.”
That is, the foundation of what was Christendom was ripped out long ago, and I would trace that to long before America’s founding. It’s taken a long time for it to come to such foundational errors regarding the nature of humanity as the Sexual Revolution makes, but those are only logical extensions of the atomistic culture of liberalism—and here, again, I am not speaking of political liberalism exactly, but of this moral idea that the individual and his desires is the only absolute on which the culture is built.
I think that conservative Christians’ problem is that we’re acting as though Christendom is under attack and that we have to defend it. But look around, folks. Christendom has already fallen. All we have left are the ruins, a handful of basic affirmations like the inherent worth of the person and the equality of all mankind—but even those things are subject to the charismatic domination of some ideology or leader, who may well turn those things on their heads, as the 20th century so amply demonstrated for us. As Dreher writes, “My sense is that we Christians and other traditionalists had better plan for resistance in the long run. My fear is that by focusing so many of our resources on fighting for ground we’ve already lost, we will have left ourselves unprepared to build the structures and strategies we are going to need to pass on what we know to be true to future generations in a culture, legal and otherwise, that is going to be ever more hostile to those beliefs.”
We cannot act any longer as though we are imperial soldiers defending the borders of the empire from the barbarians. We are resistance fighters engaged in a guerrilla battle against an occupying force that conquered us generations ago. Or, if you like, we are now in much the same situation of the Apostles, who had no particular dreams of reforming the government but were instead concerned with getting the light of Gospel into a world covered in darkness.
So what, then, do we do? I think we have to continue to speak sanity clearly even in the halls of the insane, and we have to be willing to suffer for it. Even if we could use the force of law to try to enshrine certain moral precepts into the legal code, such things will not last long, as they would be counter to the prevailing cultural logic of the age. True morality is always about more than the individual, about an appeal to a narrative grander than myself alone and certainly far grander than the state with its guns. In any event, I do not believe that making the state our primary mode of speaking truth to the culture will actually serve the truth. We should of course remain involved in the political sphere, but we have to keep in mind that the law can only restrain. It cannot make men moral.
If there is going to be any hope for Christians in a post-Christendom culture, it can only be found in that primal Apostolic fire that once, long ago, turned the world upside down. We may well have to suffer some martyrdom. But we will also have to show an increasingly inhuman society what it means to be human. That is the real purpose behind a Christian localism—to demonstrate a humanity of love to those who can receive it, who are right next to us and mostly only know the Machine. This is also the purpose of our evangelism—not only to save individual souls (though that would be enough!) but also to build a new culture, refounded on the one foundation of Christ. The Church has always been counter-cultural, but in some points in history the contrast with the surrounding culture is greater than others. This is one of those moments in history.
All this is part of the great worth of homeschooling, pilgrimage, gardening, opting out of the 24/7 entertainment/infotainment culture, knitting church communities more tightly together, and learning all the skills that many of our pioneering forebears had to know for survival. We may well need these things for basic survival, especially if the moral corrosion of post-Christendom continues to express itself in economic corrosion. But even apart from these skills’ value for survival, they also teach us to be human, to be humane, to love, to deny extraneous and unnecessary possessions. They have a spiritual value, both for our own salvation and for our evangelism.
We may well find ourselves in a situation not unlike that described in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, in which most of a galaxy is plunged into war and barbarism, but there are two libraries (“foundations”) at distant corners of the galaxy, waiting for their contents to be used to restore civilization far more quickly would have formed unaided. Christians may end up being embattled enclaves of sanity, whose very existence will stand witness to the world that it is possible to live with self-sacrificial love for one another and who will retain the knowledge of how to worship the one God and to receive the divine energies needed to be fully human.
Even if it really is the case that religious liberty is not about to be overwhelmed by the atomist culture of materialism and desire, we still have to approach this culture as the Apostles did their own. We live in an empire that is not Christendom, but rather the domain of spiritual powers working for the Enemy. If the Gospel is going to fall on ears that are anything but deaf to it, it will have to be accompanied by a clear, authentic demonstration of the humanity of love, a sane humanity that loves people, loves the earth, and treats all persons and places as holy and bearing the sacred imprint of the Creator. We will soon be the only alternative to the madness of the Machine.
And some of us may well have to die. I hope we’ll be ready.
There have been several postings online in the past few days of various articles claiming that the Christian Church at some period in history formerly sanctioned same-sex weddings and treated them just like marriages between a single man and a single woman, based mainly on the work of the late John Boswell. Someone even posted one of those articles in the comments section of my previous post. The one making the most rounds is called When Same-Sex Marriage Was a Christian Rite. These articles are served up as “gotchas” to unsuspecting Christians who were under the impression that Christian history is pretty unanimous about what Christian marriage is about. (Spoiler: Their impression is correct.)
Mind you, someone may reject the Church’s historic teaching on marriage. But there really are no legs to stand on when it comes to the claim that the Church used to teach that marriage could also be between two men or two women (or any other combination). (And note here that I mean the historic Church, which is Orthodoxy. But this would also include almost all churches that are more than about 100 years old.)
Anyway, there are numerous articles which thoroughly debunk Boswell’s work. His fellow historians didn’t take it seriously, and neither should you. The only people who do (and I really am not making this up) are those who either don’t know better or quite desperately want him to be right. Boswell himself was gay and the founder of the Lesbian and Gay Studies Center at Yale. He died of AIDS-related complications in 1994 at the age of 47. He was also a convert to Roman Catholicism from the Episcopal Church (despite his much greater similarity with the latter on sexual morality).
Anyway, the point of this post is not to invite debate (because for me, the matter really is settled, and there are a quadra-gazillion other places to debate these questions; as such, I am not turning on comments for this post), but rather to point out some of the several places online where one can read refutations of Boswell’s work, far better than anything I could put together. The slams, as they say, are dunked.
- In the Case of John Boswell by Fr. Richard John Neuhaus (a Catholic convert from Lutheranism) examines the scholarly reception of Boswell’s work.
- Gay Marriage: Reimaging Church History by Robin Darling Young is a detailed examination especially of the numerous specious translations in Boswell’s work (upon which his conclusions very much hang). Interesting in this piece is especially the reminiscence that its author experienced a same-sex union in an ancient church and was surprised to be told later by Boswell’s book that what she had experienced was actually a marriage. This is the first piece I ever read on this subject, and it packs a powerful punch.
- Failed Attempt to Rewrite History by Fr. Patrick Viscuso is an examination specifically of the canonical and liturgical claims that Boswell makes and how they fail to square with the actual contexts of the rites being examined. Viscuso is a priest of the Greek Orthodox Church and a canonist specializing especially in marriage questions. He is also cited(!) in Boswell’s work.
- Rewriting History to Serve the Gay Agenda by Marian Therese Horvat is a general review of Boswell’s Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe, especially focusing on what the author calls Boswell’s “advocacy scholarship.”
- A Groom of One’s Own? by Brent D. Shaw shows how anachronistic and tendentious Boswell’s readings of documents are. Shaw is himself in favor of the “liberationist movements of our time,” but he concludes that “tinkering with the moral balance of the past is a disservice to the study of history and to the reform of society.”
- Procrustean Marriage Beds by Robert Louis Wilken can best be summed up by its last two sentences: “Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe creates a world that never existed, misrepresents Christian practice, and distorts the past. This is a book on a mission, scholarship at the service of social reform, historical learning yoked to a cause, a tract in the cultural wars, and it is in that spirit that it should be read.” Wilken is one of the most respected patrologists of our time.
- Do you take this man… by David Wright shows how Boswell’s Same Sex Unions is essentially a rehashing of his earlier work that fails to take into accounts the criticisms the earlier one drew.
- Remarks to the Catholic Press by Fr. Robert Taft is not really a review but just some blunt offhand remarks by one of the most respected Jesuit liturgiologists of all time. (Warning: Do not read this out loud to children!)
- Archimandrite Ephrem Lash, the famed liturgical translator from the UK also did a review of Boswell’s work for the journal Sourozh for its February 1995 issue, but it doesn’t appear to be online. There are bits of it quoted in the Wikipedia article on Adelphopoiesis (“brother-making”), the rite Boswell claims was a same-sex marriage.
If readers find other pieces offering up similar debunkings, feel free to send me the links, and I’ll add them here.
Again, just to be clear: I don’t hate homosexuals or people whose politics would have homosexual marriage enshrined and enforced as a civil right by the state. I also don’t hate people who reject Orthodox Christian teaching. The point of this post is to point you to some information debunking the claim that the Church has not always taught that same-sex attraction is a temptation like any other temptation (note I didn’t say “worse than all other temptations”) that has to be struggled against and repented of when indulged. I also do not believe that acting on that temptation is a worse sin than any of my own sins.
Oh, and this bit is pretty good when it comes to laying out a clear sense of what it means to be a Christian who believes in traditional Christian morality and isn’t going around hating people who don’t or who fail to live up to what they do believe in.
Update: This post is now available as an audio recording at Ancient Faith Radio.
Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either, but right through every human heart, and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. Even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained; and even in the best of all hearts, there remains a small corner of evil. —Alexander Solzhenitsyn, “The Gulag Archipelago”
“Aren’t you supposed to hate me?”
That was the question once asked me by a homosexual friend and co-worker, back during my stagehand days (1994-2004), when she learned that I was an Orthodox Christian.
I thought about that moment again today while I watched my North Carolina friends posting online about North Carolina’s Constitutional Amendment One, which in a vote yesterday enshrined into the state’s constitution a legal definition for marriage as between one man and one woman. I lived in the Raleigh, North Carolina, area for eleven years, and from what I could tell, most of my friends there who are active online were very much against the amendment. In fact, I don’t think any of them were in favor of it. Nevertheless, it passed a popular vote with 61% approval.
What really struck me today was that several posters (who normally are not very interested in religious things) declared that anyone who voted in favor of the amendment was not a real Christian. It was kind of surreal to see some of these people making such religious statements when they never seemed to pay any particular attention to Christian doctrine before. Their statements seemed to be based on this syllogism: Voting for the amendment means you hate gay people. Jesus is loving. Therefore, if you voted for the amendment you are no real Christian. (Update: Did you catch that? These are pro-same-sex marriage folks who wanted others to oppose a piece of legislation for religious reasons.)
There were other variations on this claim, though usually without bringing Christ into it. The consensus seems to be that voting for this amendment means that the voter hates gay people (or others who may be affected). It does not seem in any way admissible that a loving person could ever vote for such a thing. One poster even said he simply could not fathom the logic that supporters were using when they voted.
In the course of related discussions, I was actually told by an old friend who (being convinced I would have voted for this particular amendment) essentially said that I believe what I do because my religion tells me I have to and that logic is always opposed to faith. There is of course a long and complex history of the interaction of faith and reason; some communions even go so far as to enshrine reason as a doctrinal pillar, but hardly any religions have ever actually rejected reason as being contradictory to faith.
Likewise, there is another problem with this assumption, namely, that I am actually someone who has chosen his faith and was by no means forced into it. Even had I been raised Orthodox, however, I would have to make a conscious choice to remain in the Church and faithful to its teachings. Come to think of it, I still have to do that. Even aside from simply the basic dynamics of trying to be a faithful Christian, it’s not like the world around me is exactly hip to Orthodoxy. The Church has always been counter-cultural.
Of course, on the other side of these things is the “GOD HATES FAGS” crowd, who actually have fairly little influence on anyone at all, but, if their ideological opposites are to be believed, somehow are identical to everyone who doesn’t all-out support homosexual activity. Still, I’m sure that there are folks who have traditional beliefs about the moral value of homosexual activity who do indeed regard gays as being damnably subhuman.
I also saw one post from an opponent of the amendment telling supporters to “go die in a fire.” Another one claimed supporters used only “weak” arguments from politics and religion and were therefore “fanatics” and “terrorists.” The first poster didn’t surprise me much, since he is given to that kind of language, but the second really did surprise me. (He was also one who said that supporters cannot be real Christians. That surprised me, too, because he’s not ever been, to my knowledge, remotely interested in church or even Christian “spirituality.”)
There seems to be little room here for the idea that someone can disagree, that they can even support unfavored laws, and still love the other. I think there is a little bit of the childish “You hate me, Mom and Dad” attitude here, chafing against anyone who won’t sanction a given behavior, but I believe overall it’s something much deeper, something actually theological, a vision of human nature.
In this view of human nature is also a reading of human history that admits of nothing but the progressivist narrative. “Social progress” always moves in one direction, and of course people who disagree with such “progress” are “on the wrong side of history,” etc. Never mind that history shows all sorts of “progressions” that such folks would find abhorrent. History sometimes moves in some pretty awful directions. And sometimes it even appears to “reverse” course, revealing what seemed to be an inexorable march toward progressive paradise actually to be a temporary anomaly. To one a certain thing is progress, while to another it may be regress, digress or even ingress. And of course everyone but me is wrong.
What’s underneath all of this is an assumption about human nature that almost never comes to the fore. It is essentially assumed that human beings are absolute objects incapable of actual dynamism and change. Reprobates can only be eliminated through force, whether of violence or of law (which always implies a threat of violence). That is, what is assumed is a theological anthropology, and it is the anthropology of Calvinism.
We Americans are hardly ever more Calvinistic and puritanical than when we are at politics. I observe this not about any particular political ideology or party, but about them all.
It is no wonder, of course. America was founded by such people. Calvinist anthropology is deep in our cultural DNA, and it is perhaps most prevalent in those who reject Christianity entirely. Their political opponents are “unloving,” “evil,” “hateful,” etc. There is little attempt actually to convince others of the rightness of their positions, only the assertion that opposing them makes the opponent a terrible person. You must hate me if you do not agree with me.
But “You hate me” is probably the silliest argument there is. It not only presumes a knowledge of someone else’s inner psychological state that is impossible, but it also is a defeatist attitude and presumes that one’s opponents are beyond redemption—and one’s own position is naturally what constitutes redemption.
In a world where everyone knows he’s a sinner and is actively working to repent, one can never have much ground to assume that one’s fellow sinners are “hateful,” etc. But in a world where I am perfect and right, of course anyone who disagrees with me is “hateful.”
When my gay friend asked me whether I was required to hate her, I told her no. She asked me why. I told her it’s because, even though I see homosexual activity (though not identity) as sinful, I believed my own sins were far worse than hers. It’s true. I really do. And I am (by choice) bound by my faith commitments to believe that, to see myself as the “chief of sinners.” I confess that every time I am about to engage in the most central act of my faith—receiving Holy Communion.
I do not in any sense believe that I am better than someone else just because the set of temptations I have and those I succumb to are different from someone else’s. How can I hate someone else for his sins or his temptations? I have so many of my own.
To be honest, I don’t really know how I would have voted on North Carolina’s Amendment One. I haven’t lived there for eight years now, so I’m not really a part of its life any more. I do know that I think the state should get out of licensing marriages entirely, if only because it almost inevitably leads to problems like this.
I do not believe that every sin should be illegal, and homosexual activity is one I do not think needs to be illegal. (And certainly one cannot criminalize feelings, either.) Yes, I do regard these things as symptomatic of a fallen humanity, but I don’t think that anyone’s salvation is furthered by criminalization.
I do, however, have a very serious concern about enshrining things at odds with religious communities’ doctrine as “civil rights,” because of what that does to religious liberty, a civil right long guaranteed under the U.S. Constitution. Once something is a civil right, then those who refuse to grant that right and not to hinder it in any way are subject to legal action—there have already been people successfully sued for not going along with gay weddings due to the dictates of their consciences, people who were minding their own business and just didn’t want to be a part of it.
I do hope that my friends can understand that I in no way hate them if I disagree with their politics or even with their personal moral choices. If I hated everyone who disagreed with me or who sinned, I would pretty much not have anything else to do with my time. But I’m a sinner, too, and my sins are far greater than theirs.
Over the years, I’ve had a number of friends, co-workers and parishioners who have identified as gay. To be quite honest, none of them ever seemed to be under the impression that I hated them. I don’t think it’s because I have any great virtue, but simply because I just didn’t hate them. I don’t understand why that possibility seems to elude so many.
For anyone who is not an Orthodox Christian or who does not subscribe in some way to the broad outlines of Christian moral tradition as it has generally been held without much real disagreement for centuries, I cannot of course expect that they will see themselves as sinners or that any particular action is a sin. If they don’t even believe in any transcendent divinity, then there is no reason to believe that there should be a transcendent “right” to which we are all responsible. I get that.
At the same time, however, I think it’s worth closely examining one’s presuppositions about such things as the nature of human persons, whether they can change, whether they have inherent worth, and whether it is actually possible to disagree without being consigned to the oblivion of the “hateful” category.
This kind of politics—the politics of hatefulness—comes out of a real theology. In this theology, there are only the elect and the reprobate—the damned.
Wouldn’t it be better to see others in a far more complex and (dare I ask it?) hopeful light? And let us especially remember the words quoted above from Solzhenitsyn: “Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either, but right through every human heart, and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. Even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained; and even in the best of all hearts, there remains a small corner of evil.”
Addendum: I liked this comment from Fr. Stephen so much that I’m reproducing it here in the body of the post. Some of the responses to it are quite interesting, as well.
I think the root of the issue you’re identifying goes much deeper than just Calvin’s anthropology. All of Western Christian thought since St. Augustine (obviously including Calvin) has been Platonist thought, to one degree or another. Even Thomas Aquinas (whose grand project was to try to reconcile the newly discovered Aristotelian science [with] the pre-existing Platonist Christianity he had inherited, over against the Latin Averroists like Siger de Brabant who were ready to discard the latter), as revealed in Book I of the Summa and his eschatology.
Why that’s important is this: One of the fundamental principles in Platonist thought is that distinction implies opposition. Unity, or ‘One-ness’ is a good, and therefore to be truly Good, anything must be One. So, for example, there can only be one correct interpretation of any given passage of Holy Scripture. All other interpretations are not just somehow faulty or incomplete, but are actually opposed to the correct interpretation and seek to subvert it. All of those other interpretations aren’t ‘nice tries’ or ‘alternate takes’ or ‘other applications in different contexts’, they’re sinful attempts to undermine the One Truth.
This results in this horrible confusion of epistemology and ethics, in which ignorance of certain facts, or differing beliefs, even if held with no ill will or ulterior motive, are still treated as sin, as evil acts. Therefore, if I hold that ‘x’ behavior is morally wrong, and you hold that it is morally right, our views aren’t just alternatives to each other, they actively oppose each other, and we ‘have to’ at the minimum, hate each other’s views. Neither God, nor you and I, can just [love] sinners, we have to somehow at the same time hate their sin. It can’t be overlooked, passed over in respectful silence, or ignored.
I have to say that this is one of my favorites among the things I’ve written. A number of folks have actually asked me to expand this into a book, but I don’t think I really yet have the experience or background to have enough material to warrant a book on this. Perhaps I will someday.