Pod people: Can the MSM find centrists in gay-rights wars?

As a journalist, there are few things that I find more interesting than listening to the views of liberal thinkers who ask questions that make liberals nervous, or upset, and conservative thinkers who ask questions that make their fellow conservatives nervous, or upset.

As a rule, I am pro-sweaty palms when it comes time to cover heated debates in the public square.

Thus, I have long been fascinated with the following passage in an essay at The Advocate by the gay commentator Jonathan Rauch. This is a rather long section of the piece, in which he discusses strategies in support of gay marriage, yet taking religious liberty concerns into account:

Two important strategic changes would go a long way toward doing that. First, accept legal exceptions that let religious organizations discriminate against gays whenever their doing so imposes a cost we can live with. Second, dial back the accusations of “bigot” and “hater.”

In the gay community, taking any kind of nonabsolutist attitude toward discrimination is controversial, to say the least—largely because we carry in our heads the paradigm of racial discrimination. In today’s America, though, the racial model is overkill for gays. Injustice persists, unquestionably, but the opposition is dying on its feet and discrimination is in decline. And, unlike white supremacism, disapproval of homosexuality is still intrinsic to orthodox doctrines of all three major religions. That will change and is already changing (younger evangelicals are much more accepting of same-sex relations than are their parents), but for now it is a fact we must live with.

Before we shrug and reply, “So what if it’s religious? It’s still bigotry, it’s still intolerable,” we need to remember that religious liberty is America’s founding principle. It is embedded in the country’s DNA, not to mention in the First Amendment. If we pick a fight with it or, worse, let ourselves be maneuvered into a fight with it, our task will become vastly harder.

Rauch wrote that in 2010 and I have wanted to write a column about that essay ever since.

Here was a prominent gay voice advocating a strategy for compromise that would (a) make it more likely for the gay-rights cause to survive a U.S. Supreme Court test and (b) one that undercut some of the arguments made by the more radical voices on the cultural right, simply by conceding that religious-liberty concerns are real in these debates. He is calling for gay-marriage, or civil gay unions, with conscience clauses strong enough to protect religious organizations, very broadly defined, and the rights of individual religious believers. In effect, he is saying to the cultural left, “We are winning. We must not botch this.”

So I wrote a Scripps Howard News Service column on this topic, focusing on the potential for compromises that protect religious liberty. The column was also inspired by the recent blue-sky remarks by Catholic conservative George Weigel, in which he suggested that it might be time for the Catholic Church — yes, and by implication religious traditionalists in other flocks, be they Jewish, Muslim, Protestant or whatever — to get out of the business of signing off on civil marriages, period.

All of this ended up being the hook for this past week’s Crossroads podcast. Click here to listen to that.

Meanwhile, Rod “friend of this blog” Dreher responded with the sad, but realistic note, that recent events have made Rauch’s commentary even less mainstream, on the left, than it was when he wrote it.

Yes, there is a religion-news, mainstream journalism hook in what Dreher has to say.

Rauch is right, but he’s not as right today as he was in 2010, when he wrote that piece for The Advocate. By which I mean that I don’t think it’s nearly as much of a liability to gay rights supporters to be seen as religious liberty opponents as it once was. That’s in part because the mainstream media have not explored the inherent clash between gay rights and religious liberty, and conservatives opposed to gay marriage have for some reason chosen not to make much of an issue of it.

It is certainly true that the loudest voices on the cultural right have been just as reluctant to talk about compromise as the liberal voices involved in all of these shouting matches.

So what’s up with the rest of my Scripps Howard column? In this case, I think — to set the stage for the podcast — the best thing I can do is run the second half of my piece, which focuses on the views of a conservative who is studying the compromises and then on the views of another pro-gay marriage thinker who also sees the reality of the coming high-court showdown on religious liberty.

So here goes, opening with the viewpoint of Stanley Carlson-Thies, director of the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance, that Weigel’s strategy is powerfully symbolic, but beside the point.

Even if traditional religious leaders attempt to legally separate Holy Matrimony from secular marriage, it is still the government’s definition of marriage that will decide a variety of issues outside sanctuary doors, especially in public life.

“The other question, ” he said, “is whether those on the cultural left will be willing, at this point, to settle for civil unions. … We will need people on both sides to work together if there are going to be meaningful compromises.”

One divisive issue in these gay-marriage debates overlaps with current fights over White House mandates requiring most religious institutions to offer health-care plans covering sterilizations and all FDA-approved forms of contraception, including so-called “morning-after pills.” These Health and Human Services requirements recognize the conscience rights of employers only if they are nonprofits that have the “inculcation of religious values” as their primary purpose, primarily employ “persons who share … religious tenets” and primarily serve those “who share … religious tenets.”

Critics insist this protects mere “freedom of worship,” not the First Amendment’s wider “free exercise of religion.”

Here is the parallel: In gay-marriage debates, almost everyone concedes that clergy must not be required to perform same-sex rites that violate their consciences.

The question is whether legislatures and courts will extend protection to religious hospitals, homeless shelters, summer camps, day-care centers, counseling facilities, adoption agencies and similar public ministries. What about religious colleges that rent married-student apartments or seek accreditation for their degrees in education, counseling or social work? What about the religious-liberty rights of individuals who work as florists, wedding photographers, wedding-cake bakers, counselors who do pre- or post-marital counseling and other similar forms of business?

These are only some of the thorny issues that worry many activists on both sides of the gay-rights divide. Law professor Douglas Laycock, then of the University of Michigan, provided this summary in a letter (.pdf here) to the governor of New Hampshire.

“I support same-sex marriage,” he stressed. Nevertheless, the “net effect for human liberty will be no better than a wash if same-sex couples now oppress religious dissenters in the same way that those dissenters, when they had the power to do so, treated same-sex couples in ways that those couples found oppressive.

“Nor is it in the interest of the gay and lesbian community to create religious martyrs in the enforcement of this bill. … Every such case will be in the news repeatedly, and every such story will further inflame the opponents of same-sex marriage. Refusing exemptions to such religious dissenters will politically empower the most demagogic opponents of same-sex marriage. It will ensure that the issue remains alive, bitter, and deeply divisive.”

So what journalistic issues should we discuss here, since your GetReligionistas strive (and often fail) to prevent folks in the comments pages from yelling at each other about the political and religious issues at the heart of these issues?

In this case, I will simply ask two two-part questions: Have you seen, in mainstream news coverage, the centrist, compromise-friendly viewpoints of people like Rauch, Laycock and others (because they are out there) and, if so, where did you see them? If you have not seen their viewpoints represented in mainstream coverage, then why is that and is that void good, in the long run, for public discourse on these crucial issues?

Enjoy the podcast.


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