Why Do They Care?

In the summer of 2006, Republican Senator David Vitter (about whom you might have heard some news lately) said the following about a proposed constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage:

“I don’t believe there’s any issue that’s more important than this one,” said Sen. David Vitter, a Louisiana Republican. “I think this debate is very healthy, and it’s winning a lot of hearts and minds. I think we’re going to show real progress.”

No issue is more important than the drive to ban gay marriage. This, while the U.S. is bogged down in a bloody and deeply unpopular foreign war; while one of our major cities still struggles to rebuild in the aftermath of a devastating hurricane; while terrorist groups abroad seek to impose their will by random violence; while we still confront crime, poverty and racism. All these issues pale before the urgent need to prevent same-sex couples from filing joint tax returns. (I noted Vitter’s remark at the time, as well as some even more unhinged rhetoric, in last June’s post Groundhog Day).

What is it about gay marriage that gets religious conservatives so worked up? Their speeches on the subject are one long stream of apocalyptic rhetoric and obsessive, unrelenting hate, bearing no relation to the actual severity of the issue. Meanwhile, they seem perfectly content to ignore issues that continue to cause suffering for untold thousands of real people. Something similar seems to be true of abortion, where they focus tremendous amounts of energy on making that option unavailable, but comparatively little on helping women avoid unwanted pregnancy or escape poverty so that they would not desire to have an abortion in the first place. What can explain their obsessive, tireless zeal?

Most people, but especially fundamentalists, assume that God is just like them; he cheers on all their opinions and shares all their prejudices. (What they imagine to be a window through which they can see God is in truth a mirror held up to their own faces.) Thus, when they see gay couples together and feel disgusted, or when they see atheists standing up for reason and feel angry, or when they see other people practicing their religion and are appalled, they automatically assume that God feels the same way. Naturally, they assume that God will use his supernatural power to hurt these groups in revenge.

But the problem, according to the Bible, is that when God gets angry, he rarely stops at hurting just the person responsible. Innocent bystanders tend to suffer as well. The Egyptian first-born suffered for Pharaoh’s keeping the Israelites hostage; all the world’s children and other innocents drowned in the great flood; Achan’s family was stoned and burned for Achan’s sin; the nation of Amalek was massacred for the deeds of their ancestors; Job and his family were tormented as a result of God’s bet with Satan; fifty thousand Israelites died because a handful looked into the Ark of the Covenant; the wives and children of Daniel’s false accusers were thrown to the lions, and so on.

Viewed in this light, I think the fundamentalists’ behavior is more explicable. Their Ahabian obsession with culture-war issues is not because they prefer to concentrate on ginned-up, phony controversies rather than issues of true importance. It’s because they believe these issues actually are the most important ones. Their behavior is, to them, a matter of self-defense. These theists believe themselves to be hostages of their psychotic god, whom they fear will hurt them badly if they cannot force everyone to conform to his wishes. (Consider this horrifying cartoon from an extreme Christian site.)

As long as religious conservatives continue to hold these views, compromise will likely be impossible. After all, they do not believe that God will change his standards. The only feasible long-term solution is to show that their views are unsupported by evidence and unfounded. There may always be holdouts, but by forceful, effective advocacy of reason-based views, we can deconvert as many of them as possible and win society over to our side.

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