Editor’s Note: One of the purposes of Philosophical Fragments — and indeed of the Evangelical Portal at Patheos more generally — is to model the kind of conversation we want to see in the world. It’s distressingly common to find matters of faith, culture and politics discussed in the crudest of ways, filled with ignorance and suspicion and scorn, with bad arguments and false ‘evidence’ and ad hominem attacks. It was my frustration with the nature of our public discourse on matters religious that inspired me to get involved with Patheos and to commit my time and energy to creating a better — by which I mean a better informed and more charitable and truthful — conversation.
It’s in that interest that I publish the follow letter that I received from a reader named Basil. Basil was responding to my recent post, Reversing the Great Moral Decline. I will post my response to this tomorrow, and it will be a great way of getting back into the series I began on Christianity and Homosexuality (the last post of which you can find here, along with links to the earlier posts). So, without further ado, and in unedited form, thus spake Basil. Please feel free to offer your own responses, but do be charitable:
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There seem to be 2 themes in your post – that we are in a moral decline, and that reviving our Judeo-Christian values will help to reverse that decline. I agree with the first, but want to talk a bit about my skepticism about the second.
I have a vivid memory of working the polls (on behalf of the Commonwealth Coalition) in my previous residence in Virginia on election day in November 2006, when Virginia voters ratified a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage (which was already barred by statue), civil unions, domestic partnerships, or even powers of attorney agreement or other joint contracts that same sex couples resort to in lieu of proper legal rights conferred by marriage. I was passing out flyers to voters, and I remember being confronted by an older couple who asked “Are you queer?”, and then said “get away from me” and marched off to cast their vote for the amendment. There was a second, younger couple who were similar — openly gleeful at the prospect of bashing the queers. It was the first time I had felt gay bashed since I was a teenager (when the gaybashing came in form of fists – which still happens in too many schools), but the feeling was the same. I knew that day I would sell my house and leave Virginia, and three years later (once local housing prices recovered somewhat) I moved to DC. In the interim, I met the man who would be my husband, and we were married (by my congregation). We know how Mildred and Fred Loving must have felt when they had cross the Potomac to build their lives together. There are lots of ex-Virginians in the DC gay community.
Like many gay and lesbian persons, I am skeptical of Christians, since it is primarily religious beliefs that are used to justify a denial of civil rights to the LGBT community. Given how little Biblical text actually is related to homosexuality (and that the word homosexual didn’t appear in the Bible until the 1950’s), the obsession is kind of perverse. I remember the marriage equality hearings in late 2009 in DC (which has so far survived the introduction of marriage equality) — I testified, as did other members of my congregation. The lady sitting next to me gave her testimony in opposition — as it turned out she was from Maryland, but the thought of queers getting hitched was just too much for her to stand and so she just had to come across state lines and testify before the council, with really lurid, graphic description of anal intercourse. It was embarrassing to me, as a gay man, and most of witnesses the room, but won nods of approval from the anti-gay Christian pastors sitting around the room (including the infamous Harry Jackson — again from Maryland). It was a bizarre and distasteful scene. (Because hetereosexuals never engage in….oh, never mind)
The fierce opposition to civil rights, the imperviousness to logic because “the Bible says” (knowledge of ancient Hebrew and Greek is more widespread than is otherwise apparent), the adamant refusal to acknowledge a separation between civil law and religious belief, the open condescension towards more LGBT-accepting denominations — all of those things are infuriating, but I suppose they are to be expected. What is unacceptable are the open incitements to violence by pastors like Lou Engle, or Bradlee Dean, and the frequent and explosive accusations of pedophilia (by both mainstream as well as more fringy evangelicals) which tap into a deep cultural archetype of the gay man as sexual predator. A lot of the anti-gay political advertising plays on this archetype, because it works. (this was discussed at length in the federal district court trial over Prop-8). As FBI hate crime statistics bear out, these types of political campaigns lead to increases in assaults, murders and hate crimes directed against LGBT citizens. I expect the next year will be a bloody one in Minnesota and North Carolina.What is more heartbreaking is the abuse faced by LGBT teens. They bear the brunt of backlash, even as LGBT adults make progress in achieving our civil rights. Bradlee Dean, Michelle Bachmann’s BFF – refers to gays as “child molestors”, and railed against anti-bullying efforts in the Anoka-Hennepin school district. In the last two years, 9 teens have been driven to suicide in Anoka Hennepin by a climate of entrenched bullying, homophobia and violence. Anoka-Hennepin is part of Michelle Bachmann’s district. She has never spoken out in defense of those kids, or in support of their families and friends. She’s too busy railing against the “homosexual agenda” herself. She, as a self-proclaimed committed Christian, is complicit in the needless deaths of those children. The silence of most other Christians makes all of them similarly complicit. Homophobia is Christianity’s deadly sin.
On a broader note: I have, on rare occasions, seen religion used as a positive force. There are people I have met who undertake great works of charity and service to society because of their religious convictions, but these people are rare and special. Maybe because I am of Middle Eastern background, and spent a lot of time in that part of the world, I have also seen how destructive religion can be for society. What passes for religion is often just sectarianism – where people allow their religious affiliation to be politicized and supersede their national identity. This happens even if with persons who are not particularly devout in their religious practice. In the Middle East, you can meet a George or Muhammed or Ali or Omar, and they may be Greek Orthodox, or Eastern rite Catholic, or Sunni Muslim or Shia Muslim or Alawite Muslim or …, and all it really means is that they support a particular political party, or political leader, and view their countrymen, who are otherwise similar but of a different religious sect, as being inherently suspicious. Belonging to a sect gives you a sense of group identity and a worldview, usually in opposition to that of other sects.
I see a very similar sectarianism creeping into our society. For a lot Christians, being Christian is centered on anti-gay/anti-abortion/anti-woman culture war politics, and a fealty toward Republican leaders, particularly those who loudly proclaim their affiliation with the same group. Given the dominance of Christian values voters in one of our two main parties, the idea that Christians are somehow politically marginalized or threatened, defies logic or evidence. More generally, sectarianism is usually a negative force that leads to political division and civil conflict. Perhaps the growth of sectarianism is evidence of the fracturing of our culture and the decline of broader civic values that we, as Americans, once shared. Whatever the cause, we are not immune to the dangers that sectarianism holds.
I’m now 45 (and feeling older). When my father was 45 (in 1979), the wealthiest 1% percent took in about 9% of our nation’s income. The most recent figures, from 2007, I found are that the top 1% now takes about 24% of the nation’s income. The top 0.01% (4,588 top families with annual income above $11,477,000) took 6% of the nation’s income in 2007. That inequality has been exacerbated since the financial crisis and economic downturn in 2008-09. Here is a good paper on the subject.
I think you are hitting on some broad structural themes about our decline, but I don’t think culture really goes very far to explain the decline. We are in an era of increasingly dangerous concentrations of wealth, and potentially destabilizing levels of inequality. The culture war politics, over gay rights, or abortion, or the women’s equality, or immigration, or…are a bread-and-circus sideshows to distract voters’ attention away from an ongoing massive transfer of income upwards towards a very small elite. They are symptoms of broader structural problems that are largely economic in nature.
To the degree that our culture has declined in the last 30 years, I think it is because we have been distracted by culture war issues, and allowed our morals to become inverted. Greed has become a virtue and compassion has become a vice. I’m not sure how that gets reversed.
With kind regards,