An Easter gift: The perfect, easy solution to America’s gay marriage conflict

While TV offered reverential bathrobe-and-sandals programs on Easter Sunday, the principalities and powers at The New York Times were helpfully offering America the perfect solution to its troublesome gay marriage conflict. Since religious conservatism underlies much of the resistance, the conservatives should simply become religious liberals. It's that easy.

That proposal from columnist Frank Bruni was reminiscent of the infamous 2009 Newsweek magazine cover article on “The Religious Case for Gay Marriage,” which never explained whether there were any reasons why some believers might dissent. With only one side to the question taking part in the debate, however, the problem magically vanishes.

In the Religion Guy’s dim past at Northwestern University, legendary journalism Prof. Curtis MacDougall  taught us that editorial,  op-ed and column writing is like formal debate. You need to study and acknowledge the strengths of the opposite side in order to effectively answer them and offer your competing viewpoint. That strategy is in decline in venues like cable news and the Times editorial pages. The business of journalism becomes not information and persuasion but group reinforcement of prior opinions.

Bruni’s reaction to religious freedom claims is important to consider because he was the newspaper’s first openly partnered gay columnist. Moreover, he’s a figure with some Godbeat credentials as the former Times Rome bureau chief and author of a 1993 book on the Catholic molestation scandals.

He tried to be sensitive toward those who believe in man-woman marriage only, saying that’s “understandable, an example not so much of hatred’s pull as of tradition’s sway. Beliefs ossified over centuries aren’t easily shaken” so you act “as if time had stood still.” But he also wrote of “prejudices,” “homophobia,” “biases” and “discrimination,” and quoted a gay-rights group that sees “religion-based bigotry" as the key issue.

We’re told the conservatives aren’t exactly stupid but elevate “unthinking obeisance above intelligent observance.” They can cite only “sparse” and “scattered passages of ancient texts” and New Testament moral teachings “that almost everyone deems archaic and irrelevant today.”

Since there’s little basis for their belief it becomes obvious “how easily” these souls can now embrace the “impressive” writings on the other side by e.g. David Gushee, Jeff Chu, James Brownson and Matthew Vines. No mention whether there’s any opposite literature with which Bruni may have grappled, especially “The Bible and Homosexual Practice” by Robert A.J. Gagnon, part of the losing side in the Presbyterian Church (USA) debate.

Now, readers may have noted that just such orthodox obstinacy was expressed in the same Easter edition of the Times by fellow columnist Ross Douthat. He observed that the traditional view was held for 20 centuries “in every branch of Christianity” till very recently. “Jettisoning it requires repudiating scripture, history and tradition.”  Hmm. Maybe not quite so easy after all.

As Bruni noted, the United Church of Christ, Episcopal Church and Gagnon’s Presbyterian Church (USA) are jettisoning ancient doctrines.  Some others may follow. But that leaves the bulk of U.S churches who will support the age-old  belief for the foreseeable future. Thus realism tells us there’s an unavoidable conflict just beginning on how to properly balance new gay rights with older religious claims under the U.S. Constitution, which Bruni did not address.

On that, the Times’ well-regarded former religion writer and columnist Peter Steinfels wonders, “Are there still liberals willing to speak up for religious freedom?” He answers his own question: “All my life liberals took the lead in defending and enlarging freedom of religion. Now they seem to have shrunk into silence, indifference, or, worse, disparagement.”  

The aforementioned Prof. MacDougall was so radical a political leftist that he ran against Democratic Sen. Paul Douglas on the Henry Wallace ticket. He was also an outspoken atheist, yet loved to be challenged in class by religiously minded students. Such was the old American liberalism.

Stay tuned. Obviously, this debate will continue.

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