Posted on August 18th, 2012 | Filed under Challenges, Featured, Learning, News, Social Issues, Theology, Uncategorized
Tagged with Bible, Chic-fil-a, Christian, Conservative, Jewish, law, legal, Liberal, politics, Religion, theology
The Chic-Fil-A controversy made us painfully aware of our differences that reflect both religious and political commitments. In the following weeks, a lone gunman attempted to enter the offices of FRC and open fire on members of the group, indicating his displeasure with their “politics.” In the following reflection, I’ll try to boil down both sides of the issue to show what the two sides were and continue to squawk about.
As a side note, I’ve always been interested in watching professional debates among Christian apologists and atheists when those debates involve the question of God and are peppered with appeals to scientific data, philosophy, and arguments from ethics. I would say a good percentage of the time, one or both debaters will accuse his opponents of deflecting away from the issues being presented in favor of punctuating an agenda. In their responses, they will remind the audience how the issue they presented was largely ignored, to which the other debater will often cry “foul” but quickly note that the charge was in some way not significant to his own platform.
Like so many of these debates, even after the subject question has been decided upon months in advance, it never seems the two sides can entirely focus on what content is critical to the exploration of that question. That’s a good thing on the one hand because it creates the very excitement and charged environment we want to see in a debate. But it’s a bad thing when the path is so far divided that we longer have the ability to speak one another’s language. I introduce this preface because the debate over chicken these days finds us in about the same place. I have taken part in a few exchanges through various social media. Some end up better than others. Sometimes there is traction, but oftentimes not. So this is my impression of the debate as concerns us today.
Like most people, I don’t particularly care for labels, but nevertheless I must concede to “liberal” and “conservative” if we are going to have any chance of talking about the issues. I understand that to be liberal doesn’t always mean one is liberal in all things and the same goes for conservatives. But for sake of argument, we’ll go this route as a matter of course and for the sake of clarity.
Let’s begin with what we might call the “big picture issue.” Both sides have one. So for their part, liberals were focusing on the content of the initial salvo, primarily the words put forth by Truett Cathy of Chic-Fil-A in relation to his financial support of institutions that block the rights of homosexuals on the basis of their sexual orientation.
Liberals do not think Cathy’s remarks were simply a neutral expression in opposition to same-sex marriage. They see a more dangerous undercurrent in which he attached his opposition to “divine judgment.” Now in the history of the Judeo-Christian biblical narrative, one thing stands clear: judgment meted out by God many times comes in the form of human hands. Therefore, liberals and those in the LGBT community consider Cathy’s remarks a form of hate speech. As is true in legal cases over the past number of years, hate speech is proving not to be a guaranteed protection that is safeguarded by the “say-anything” First Amendment Rights proponents, though admittedly, it remains a difficult subject in the court of law.
Hate speech, liberals offer, has been demonstrated to stir people to action, sometimes in forms of emotional abuse and other times in violence. Stephen Sprinkle, in his book Unfinished Lives: Reviving the Memories of LGBTQ Hate Crimes Victims, takes a look at those in the LGBT community whose lives were taken in hate crimes, and one case that stands out in particular, that of Kenneth L. Cummings Jr., in which God was “invoked” in the crime. The concern remains that such speech that invokes one side of God is all that is needed to reproduce such persecution.
On the other side, conservatives were not primarily interested in the content of Cathy’s comments. They instead focused on the reaction by the liberal opposition, claiming that it is never in the interest of the government to deny the rights of any group who express their religious views and that the radical reactions following days later by public officials violated a constitutional right to free speech and created a terrible precedent that would likely open the floodgates for other legal abuses. Some conservatives I have conversed with also countered that hate speech in itself is not a crime, but they vehemently contested the charge that Cathy’s comments should be framed by hate speech. The accusation of hate speech carries with it an appeal to the legal system even as it originates in the religious sphere. Furthermore, "hate speech" suggests that what is “hateful” is something inherent to the speech itself rather than the speech’s ability to insight hatred.
Liberals once again counter that if there is no particular religious motivation involved, then it only underscores the question of how any governmental law, given the separation between church and state, should deny homosexuals the right to marriage, especially since the Declaration of Independence notes that all are created equal and all have the same rights. Interestingly, this was part of the war cry against the establishment by gay rights activist Harvey Milk.
Conservatives counter by saying this is not a religiously motivated discrimination, but a position that upholds the definition of “traditional marriage,” rather than “biblical marriage,” a carefully selected term that moves away from the awkward religious grounding that find multiple forms of marriage in the scriptures. Although some conservatives are quite clear that the laws of the country are founded in Judeo-Christian values, they point in particular to New Testament verses that show Jesus to have a particular bias to heterosexual monogamy. Even where the Biblical language should not come out in the wash of political language, it inevitably is communicated through the laws of our country.
At this point, the conversation moves seamlessly into the religious sphere because the details of those comments create further context.
Conservatives counter that invoking the name of God to call down wrath is not hate speech, and some even regard it as sound Biblical theology. The pages of the Old Testament are littered with it, and even Jesus reserves special bile for a handful of cities who do not seem to give a hoot about his message. In fact, Jesus goes further by comparing those cities to notable cities in the Tanakh, demonstrating perhaps that he is working within the methodological framework of an eschatological prophet (Note: What I think this really reveals is that despite the high priority that conservatives place on the Bible and the doctrine of inerrancy, they don’t really believe everything they are reading. If they truly believed that Cathy's words ran the risk of calling forth divine wrath, working as he thinks he is from the biblical authority of the scriptures, I think many conservative believers would pack up and consider deserting their residences for less liberal geographies.)
Liberal Christians, and, to be fair, less radical conservatives, counter by saying that everything in the Bible shouldn’t be up for grabs. Because they are more interested in the way those verses worked themselves out in the context of the world in which they were written, the question of what those verses actually point to suggests other understandings that are not so obvious on the surface, one being that the Jews were oftentimes an oppressed people. And so, being a religious people as well, their prophets interpreted these oppressions religiously, and in doing so exercised their own theological interpretations of the matters. They determined, as one read shows consistently, that the cause for the oppression was the nation’s unfaithfulness.
Other prophets determined it was solely the fault of the oppressor and therefore pronouncements were made upon those responsible. Another problem is suggesting of course that anyone can “know the mind of God” and in so doing, tragedy becomes the pawn of God’s wrath to explain every calamity and the reasons given reveal a particular interpretation of scripture. Fundamentalists of all stripes have fallen into this notorious brand of reasoning for quite some time.
On the political front, liberals are charged with ignoring First Amendment rights and supporting threats that undermine the liberties of religious groups to express their free speech. On the religious front, they are charged with cherry picking certain scriptural precedents over others. Conversely, radical conservatives are charged with protecting--in their politics--a man whose free speech promotes hatred, either directly or indirectly, while he pumps in millions of dollars from his company to organizations that oppose same-sex marriage. On the religious front, conservatives are charged with literal appropriation of God’s actions in our modern day situation and with a lack of appreciation for higher forms of textual criticism.
This is why I fear we will not gain any legitimate traction on the ideological battlefield so long as we can’t agree what’s at stake or where to start. We may see some converts shifting sides along the way, but, like many things, this will decidedly be an issue that is resolved in the courts of law rather than in the court of public opinion.
One final thought. I remember some time ago discussing a professional debate that John Dominic Crossan (a liberal Christian historian) had with William Lane Craig (a conservative Christian philosopher and theologian). When I asked Crossan what he thought about the results of that debate during a book signing in my hometown, he smiled and very calmly provided me with the following observation that has been wisdom to me: “It’s very difficult for a theologian and historian to see eye to eye. At times the debate felt like we were throwing rubber against concrete and hoping it would stick.”
There seem to be a lot of ideological walls being erected in the current debate and our ability to provide the sticking points necessary is a battle that reveals no easy end.
Photo by Marc Falardeau, via Flickr Creative Commons.
Trey Palmisano was a 2012 participant in the State of Formation National Seminar on Narrative & Interreligious Cooperation. He holds a B.S. in English with a concentration in Writing from Towson University and an M.A. in Theology with a concentration in Systematic Theology from the Ecumenical Institute of Theology at St. Mary’s Seminary & University in Baltimore, MD. He received the Dean’s Award for Outstanding Achievement in Theological Studies in 2012. His M.A. thesis work defended a methodological approach in the ethics of Dietrich Bonhoeffer with particular attention to the concepts of peace and violence. He is a member of the International Dietrich Bonhoeffer Society, the Society for Buddhist-Christian Studies, and the Evangelical Theological Society. A writer by trade, his work has appeared in such diverse publications as the Anglican Theological Review, Sojourners, The Baltimore Sun, and he served for a period of time as a faith columnist for the Baltimore Examiner. His past experience as an educator includes Carver Center for the Arts & Technology, a secondary education magnet school in Towson, MD, where he taught poetics and world literature, and Towson University, where he worked as an adjunct professor of English. He has worked as a curriculum developer creating original lessons and testing material for major educational publishers. He currently works as a process and procedures analyst in the Baltimore-Washington area. Trey is currently pursuing a second M.A. in Jewish Studies at Towson University, and his forthcoming book based on his thesis work is scheduled to be published through Wipf & Stock in 2013.