Wise as serpents and innocent as doves

Wise as serpents and innocent as doves October 12, 2015

NYU professor David Elcott offers an interesting discussion of “Why some religious Americans see same-sex marriage as a threat.” This is a helpful discussion, I think, provided we keep in mind the heavy lifting being done in that headline by the modest little word “some.” Elcott seems most interested in religious folk who are opposed to same-sex marriage — and, more generally, to the visible presence of LGBT people in society — while not “exhibit[ing] severe homophobia and hatred against those whose sexual practices and beliefs diverged from their own.”

Folks like that do, in fact, exist — although I suspect Elcott overestimates the size of this cohort and underestimates the relentless and pervasive role of such animus because his approach is susceptible to a kind of Bradley effect distortion. “In my conversations with congregants of every denomination,” he writes, “homophobia wasn’t much in evidence.”

That’s nice. By which I mean the phenomenon he encounters there is niceness. Elcott seems like a nice guy and he politely engaged in conversation with all sorts of people who were capable of responding to him with a corresponding niceness and politeness. This kind of research strikes me as more useful for measuring people’s capacity for putting on their best behavior than for gauging what they actually believe or how they talk and act amongst themselves when they don’t have such polite company.

The survey question that features most prominently in Elcott’s discussion is, I think, revealing:

Digging deeper into the mindsets of the religious Americans we surveyed, I found a clear distinction in the ways conservative and liberal Christians see the world. This distinction was highlighted by a specific question we asked churchgoers and clergy:

Though you may believe in both, which better reflects your views:

1. The world is primarily a dangerous place filled with the potential for sinful and evil forces.
2. The world is primarily filled with the potential for goodness, care, and cooperation.

Those who chose the first response, that the world is dangerous with sin and evil, held consistently negative views on everything from same-sex marriage to premarital sex, abortion and condoms for minors.

Those who believed the world is filled with goodness, care and cooperation chose the opposite responses on each of the issues.

This is, again, an interesting question that produced some interesting results. And there is some value in that for those of us trying to negotiate with others or to negotiate our way through this terrain.

But it also seems like the most obvious thing about this question is how Elcott, himself, would answer it. He’s in the second camp — choosing to emphasize our human capacity for “goodness, care and cooperation.” That’s also nice.

This question reminds me of Jesus’ commission to his disciples in Matthew 10. “I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves,” Jesus told them. “So be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”

"He broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the people of Israel had made offerings to it; it was called Nehushtan."
“He broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the people of Israel had made offerings to it; it was called Nehushtan.”

The wisdom of serpents there is, among other things, an allusion to the story of Eden with its “crafty” and “subtle” serpent. Jesus, surprisingly, told his followers they would need to emulate that serpent — while at the same time remaining as guileless and innocent as doves.

That’s practical advice which doesn’t fit neatly into the abstract debate we love to have over whether people are essentially good or essentially wicked. Both of those generalities can lead to a distorted view of reality. Too much of the wisdom of serpents can mean a presumption of bad faith and the mistaken perception that anyone who disagrees with you is a Bad Person with bad motives. Too much of the innocence of doves can mean a presumption of good faith that prevents you from recognizing the existence of Bad People acting on bad motives.

There are wolves out there, Jesus warned his followers. Extend others the benefit of the doubt and appeal to their goodness, care and cooperation. But don’t allow that benefit of the doubt to be inexhaustible, because there will be times when you need to “shake off the dust from your feet as you leave.”

And this isn’t as simple as distinguishing between Good People and Bad People. It means, rather, recognizing that everyone is capable of being both a wolf and a sheep, a serpent and a dove.

With that in mind, I would offer two reasons for “Why some religious Americans see same-sex marriage as a threat” that don’t seem to be specifically addressed in Elcott’s study or discussion.

1. Same-sex marriage is, for them, a proxy for the authority and simple clarity of the Bible.

These folks are convinced that everything depends on their simple, straightforward access to an authoritative holy text that can answer every question and arbitrate all disputes. If the authority and certainty provided by that text are not absolute, then they believe they will lose all hope and meaning, identity and purpose — and their eternal soul will be in peril. Whether or not they like what they believe this authoritative text commands, the stakes are, for them, too high to risk ever questioning it.

This category includes a broad spectrum of serpents and doves. It includes those who have never been taught anything else and who have never dared to imagine anything else and whose fearful submission to the authority of the clobber-texts they have been long-taught to obey is a kind of sheepish innocence. And it includes those who have wolfishly sought to wield for themselves the power and authority they ascribe to the text — those who wield those clobber texts as weapons and who have constructed careers, identities and fiefdoms based on this vicarious authority. For them, serpentine self-interest may have long ago replaced any dovish innocence in their “defense of the authority of scripture.”

But for everyone in this category, opposition to same-sex marriage, etc., remains a proxy for the meaning of the Bible. As long as they believe it is necessary — or personally beneficial for less worthy reasons — to regard the Bible the way they do, they will continue to oppose same-sex marriage. That opposition will only stop after they stop believing it is necessary to treat the Bible as a paper pope — after they stop seeing the Bible as a textual Nehushtan that demands human sacrifice.

2. Same-sex marriage is, for them, a lucrative fund-raising tool.

These folks solicit money from direct mail fundraising letters, radio broadcasting, and cable television. Their fundraising appeals are based on fear. They tell people there is a reason to be very afraid (a threat to morality, decency, faith, religious liberty, America, prosperity, children, etc.) and that their worst fears will be realized unless they send money.

Opposition to same-sex marriage is, for them, one of many useful tools for drumming up the fear that causes their revenue-providing followers to write checks. Personal animus is almost irrelevant for these amoral fundraisers. On the one hand, it can help to spice up their appeals, and it can inform the content of those appeals, which rely on the fostering and nurturing of such animus amongst their followers. But on the other hand, such personal animus can also be a distraction that may prevent them from following the market in fear, causing them to rely too heavily on anti-gay fundraising appeals at a time when they might reap a more profitable response from, say, anti-Muslim, anti-feminist, anti-Communist or anti-immigrant fundraising appeals.

In any case, these folks — your Franklin Grahams and Tony Perkinses — don’t give a withered fig about the role or the meaning of the Bible. Engaging them on that point is utterly beside the point. These are dishonest people spreading lies in bad faith because that has been, for them, a successful way of making money. They will continue to oppose same-sex marriage until such time as it ceases to be a profitable scary story for their direct mail and radio fundraising appeals. Or until they repent and are born again.

Truly I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for those guys. Shake the dust off your feet as you leave them behind.


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