The Paradox of Liberal Magnanimity

Ross DouthatMy colleague at The Reaction, Infidel753 wrote an excellent article over on his blog, Magnanimity in Victory? It is a response to Ross Douthat’s recent column, The Terms of Our Surrender. In that article, Douthat admits that social conservatives like himself have lost the same-sex marriage battle. But he asks for the victors to “recognize its power.” His argument is that we should be nice and allow conservative Christian florists to refuse to do business with LGBT customers.

Infidel753 asks a logical question, “What the hell makes you think you deserve any magnanimity in your defeat?” When I first read that, I thought that maybe he was being a little harsh. After all, we are liberals and being kind to the powerless is our thing. But then I read Douthat’s article. He predicted Infidel763’s reaction, noting, “Christians had plenty of opportunities—thousands of years’ worth—to treat gay people with real charity, and far too often chose intolerance.” That bit of minimization really bothers me. Douthat is a Catholic, as am I by birth. Certainly he must be aware of the church’s history with homosexuals. What he calls “intolerance” I call “murder.”

But Douthat’s main argument is that we ought to let people refuse to do business with LGBT people out of a sense of religious freedom. This I don’t see at all. No one is suggesting that we outlaw florists hating gays or being against same sex marriage. We are talking about outlawing the practice of florists putting signs in their window that read, “We don’t serve fags.” We are not talking about forcing Christians to bring lesbians into their homes. We are talking about outlawing public businesses from refusing service to “those people” whoever “those people” are.

I do think there is a limit here, though. Religious liberty does, it seems to me, apply to churches. Marriages are something that they supposedly consecrate. So I think it would be wrong to force a Baptist church to perform weddings that it did not want to. I think this falls under the same rights that allow preachers to spew out their anti-gay hatred from the pulpit.

But who exactly do these Christians think they are fooling? In forty years, almost all of them will be performing same sex marriages. At one time, churches supported slavery with Genesis 9:27, “May God enlarge Japheth, And let him dwell in the tents of Shem; And let Canaan be his servant.” They don’t do that anymore. All Christians pick and choose which parts of the Bible they are going to follow. So eventually, they will get over their problems with the idea of homosexuality.

Infidel753 makes another excellent point about this. Even if we wanted to forgive all the bigotry of the past, what about that of the present? The truth is that same sex marriage is not yet legal throughout the nation. And even after it is, a large number of conservative Christians will work to turn back the law. We’ll just have to wait for them to die off. So by the time it makes sense for us to show magnanimity, there will be no one to show it to.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

6 thoughts on “The Paradox of Liberal Magnanimity

  1. Couple things going on here with the "religious freedom" angle. For one, the freedom to discriminate is not the same as the freedom to believe what one will. If it’s OK to refuse to serve GLBT customers because of religious beliefs, then why wouldn’t it be OK to refuse to serve Jews?

    It’s part of the Christian right’s attempt to paint any resistance to their Sharia laws as "persecution" of Christians — hence, Tim LaHaye’s book "Mind Siege," which prophecies a future in which children are forcibly taken from parents who dare to teach Christianity in secret. Pure nonsense. However, this is a totalitarian movement, and every totalitarian movement must (as the term "totalitarian" implies) regard disagreement as attack.

    There’s a "conscientious objector" angle they encourage as well — pharmacists refusing to give out birth-control pills, etc. Conscientious objection is all well and good, but for it to have any moral weight it has to be performed with risk. You have to risk being fired, beaten up, etc, for your beliefs. What the Christian right wants is civil/legal protection for conscientious objection, which of course removes any semblance of conscience from the action. A Christian rightist pharmacist who refuses birth control is like a Muslim rightist taxicab driver who refuses to drive drunk passengers from bars; both are engaged in doing harm to society as a whole, and as such their behavior deserves no civil/legal protection. We don’t protect a person who wants to protest nuclear power by sabotaging a nuclear electric facility. If individuals want to risk their safety by making such conscientious objections we can admire their courage, but they still should face the normal consequences.

    On gay marriage versus interracial marriage. This is thornier, because racist churches did refuse to perform interracial marriages until the IRS threatened to remove their tax-exempt status if they did so. I suppose the justification was that those churches were making an overt political stance by refusing to wed interracial couples, and therefore weren’t eligible for tax exemption. The issue of tax exemption is so muddled now. Catholic churches can send DVDs against gay marriage out to congregants, and are still tax-exempt as long as they don’t endorse specific candidates; pulpit preachers have more leeway than church funds used for direct mailings, and so on. Ideally we’d just make the rules very clear once and for all but that would stir up some major shit, so it won’t happen.

    One can make the moral case for removing tax-exempt status from churches that reject gay marriages. I think one can make the case for allowing them to stay bigoted without penalty. I think one could make that case for interracial marriage as well. Then you get into the argument of whether or not forcing those churches (they weren’t forced, technically, but no church survives without the tax-exempt status) into behaving decently improved the national culture, or created a backlash of resentment. I don’t know. I suspect forcing them did more good then harm in the long run, but one could argue the other side.

  2. @JMF – You are right about it being a totalitarian movement. But what defines such movements is not only that disagreement is taken as attack; simply not agreeing is taken as an attack. That’s what’s with the whole [i]War on Christmas[/i] business. It isn’t enough to [i]include[/i] Christmas in a holiday greeting; we much make a special mention of it, because unlike everything else, what Christians believe is [i]The Truth[/i].

    What is particularly stupid about the "Christian" pharmacist example is that the profession is licensed. If I became one, I would strongly believe that anyone should be able to come in and buy as much morphine as they want without a prescription. I believe that is a God given right. But the government would still throw me in jail after my employer fired me.

    I originally wrote about interracial marriage in this article but I removed it because I just haven’t thought about it enough. Based upon what you’ve written here, I’m inclined to think there is no difference between same sex and interracial marriage. Not that the "They don’t have to say" argument doesn’t apply here; a gay couple could lie about flowers being for a same sex wedding, but they couldn’t lie to the preacher. Churches are specialized businesses and marriage ceremonies are one of their products. But it is complicated. And of course: I think churches should be taxed hard and repeated. So that shouldn’t be an issue.

  3. Well if you taxed every sleazy TV preacher out of existence you’d get no argument from me; nor, I imagine, from the majority of Christians. But that tax break is a huge thing for the Dobsoins and LaHayes and Robertsons of our merry world and it ain’t going away anytime soon.

  4. Frank, thanks for the link and commentary. It did strike me that even while trying to sound conciliatory, Douthat was using dishonest language — calling "dissent" what is really discrimination and, as you say, "intolerance" what was really mass murder.

    I wouldn’t have much of a problem with churches refusing to perform gay marriages — some assertion of dogma is inherent in what they do, and one wouldn’t expect, say, a Protestant church to perform a Catholic mass either. What I think is noteworthy is that the "right" they’re fighting so desperately to keep is purely the right to exclude and reject people. The effect this will continue to have on the more accepting younger generation is more important than the grounds they find for doing it.

    And FWIW, I’m not backing down from what I said. Not everyone who is defeated deserves mercy. It matters what their track record is and what they were fighting for.

  5. @JMF – I agree. I think it is even worse than that. Americans think that churches do "good works." The truth is, they do damned little other than promote themselves.

  6. @Infidel753 – I agree. In fact, I’ve been seeing a number of articles that argue that being against same sex marriage doesn’t mean someone is anti-gay. Yes it does! I’m sure people used to say the same thing about interracial marriage and I really don’t see any difference. Bigotry is bigotry.

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