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Prop. 8 and the Misery of the Law
Posted on Jun 4, 2009
By Scott Tucker
In addition to being found within the larger urban lesbian and gay communities, the class divisions and political contradictions of this country have left their marks among individuals. How could this be otherwise? We are all creatures of our culture. So the first rule is to plant our feet on the ground and survey the territory. Then we may gain traction. There are no magical leaps into a better future, only the passage of real time and the friction of real events. In a previous article for Truthdig, I noted that we are not choosing our steps on a level social democratic playing field. If that were the case, all couples of any class, of any faith or none, and of any sexual persuasion would be free to choose secular civil unions under one uniform code of law. Then the choice of a specifically religious marriage or ceremony of union would be distinct, and unrelated to any social and material benefits guaranteed by law. But that is not the reality in this country. And that is why the great majority of gay people (and their friends) who took to the streets in protest of Proposition 8 have shown more common sense and clarity than a dozen intellectuals I might name.
We should distinguish decent people of faith from people who have used money, marriage and monotheism as the heavy artillery against human rights and civil equality. In this situation, any idealistic calls to transcend “wedge issues” and “culture wars” are just that—idealism, and often the most cynical manipulation of idealism as well. Because there are no wedge issues here, only real human rights and real threats to democracy. The right wing often advances over social and political territory that many “progressives” have deliberately abandoned.
People of faith deserve a fair hearing and a fair share of legal protection in pursuing any chosen way of life, but what does this mean in the public world we must share? Faith concerns ideals and ultimate truths. Ideals, and especially doctrines, do not always translate easily outside the fold of a particular faith. A relative degree of privacy is often a good condition for faith, as a similar degree of privacy is often welcome for love and erotic life. Privacy does not mean secrecy, and surely does not mean deprivation of public life. On the contrary. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness must include not only personal freedom but also a fair degree of communal autonomy. Otherwise, privacy might be construed as the deprivation of liberty. Otherwise, Christians must retreat to catacombs, and indeed gay people must retreat to closets.
Our deepest pleasures and even our highest ideals may be fully communicable only within communities of affection or communities of kindred spirits. To expect romance or religion in the public realm of politics will get us all into predictable trouble. The gospel of love, for example, may command respect when we see people of faith putting it into practice. But the realm of politics is properly secular, and deserves respect in its own right. In that realm we must find political allies, but we must also be willing to recognize political enemies.
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The bloody crusade against the Albigensians was an early model of totalitarian power, and Martin Luther’s rabid hostility to the Anabaptists proved he had his own papal pretensions. So the heretics of all times and places have learned to be subtler and more secretive when the balance of power weighed heavily against them. If they had the chance and the means, persecuted people of faith sometimes crossed oceans and mountains to find some patch of Eden where they might be free of overbearing churches and governments. This is how the Quakers, Amish, Mennonites and Brethren—indeed, all the historic denominations known as the “peace churches”—found their way to places like Ohio and Pennsylvania. The Hutterites, who practice pacifism and a kind of Christian communism, also formed small farming colonies, especially in Canada. Aided by Leo Tolstoy and the Quakers, a group of Russian Doukhobors migrated to Canada from Russia, where they had suffered great persecutions after refusing to serve in the military and after making a vast bonfire from rifles and other weapons.
There is a final historical irony to consider here, since some of the Baptist and evangelical troops who mobilized against gay marriage have traceable historical links to the left wing of the Reformation, namely, to the 16th- and 17th-century European Anabaptists and free churches. Looking back in time, we find small bands of believers resolutely refusing the creeds of the most powerful churches, and likewise refusing to become soldiers or follow any military commands. Those Christians dissented against both church and state, and to some of them we owe a share of our own tradition of civil liberties. Whereas some of their descendants have made spiritual peace with the princes of this world, and are proud to salute national flags and march in lock step to war. Those early Anabaptists and their kindred spirits of later times belong to a scattered tribe of believers who never conformed to the habits of war and big business. Such Christians have troubles of their own, but they keep their distance from the gospel of prosperity and nationalism being preached from all the bully pulpits of the megachurches.
The Latin word radix means root, and from that word we derive the English word radical. The word alone is nearly the whole radical creed: going to the root, whether planting a community garden, establishing a harm-reduction program or seeking the causes of war even as we do our best to make peace. In that sense, there are always many good reasons to keep conversations open with people who do not share our own beliefs and way of life. Even and especially during great collisions between political enemies, we might reflect upon this passage from the Gospel of John:
“Gather up all the fragments that remain so that nothing is lost.”
Scott Tucker is a writer and democratic socialist. He lives in Los Angeles with Larry Gross. They have been kindred by choice since 1975.
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