Hellfire Nation, a recent book by political science professor James Morone, examines American history through the lens of moral and religious fervor, and makes a pretty good case for the proposition that America is preoccupied with sin and salvation?often to the detriment of national interest or even common sense. The hysterical backlash against recent progress on gay rights certainly supports his thesis.
Hellfire Nation, a recent book by political science professor James Morone, examines American history through the lens of moral and religious fervor, and makes a pretty good case for the proposition that America is preoccupied with sin and salvation—often to the detriment of national interest or even common sense. The hysterical backlash against recent progress on gay rights certainly supports his thesis.
One example: the January 31st issue of the Boston Globe reported on a Kansas Court of Appeals judgment affirming an earlier decision allowing harsher penalties for sex between gay teens than for sex between straight teens. As the Globe reported,
“The Kansas Court of Appeals for a second time upheld the 17-year prison sentence of a youth who, at age 18, engaged in oral sex with a 14- year-old boy. For the same crime, if it had involved an act between an 18-year-old male and a 14-year-old female, the sentence would have been 13 to 15 months.”
The Kansas court justified the disparity as a legitimate method of protecting “the traditional social mores of society”—even though the U.S. Supreme Court had sent the case back for reconsideration in light of its ruling in Lawrence v. Texas. (That decision expressly held that homosexuals have the same constitutionally protected right to engage in private sex as do their heterosexual counterparts.)
While it is true that Kansas has a history of—how shall we say it?—“leaving the reservation” (it wasn’t all that long ago that its State Board of Education banned the teaching of evolution), it would be a mistake to think that willingness to bend the law in service of fundamentalist belief is limited to the land of Dorothy and Toto. A week before the Globe article appeared, I visited the Indiana Senate, intending to testify on a bill to amend the Indiana Constitution to prohibit gay marriage. As I listened to the testimony of the bill’s proponents, it was hard to believe that we live in the same United States, governed by the same First Amendment. There was more reference to being “in the presence of the Lord,” more arguments citing Jesus, than you might hear in many churches. More chilling, everyone in favor of the amendment made clear their belief that it is government’s obligation to make their religious beliefs the law for everyone. None of them evinced any awareness whatever of the practical—let alone legal or philosophical—consequences of assigning to government the task of legislating their particular brand of “Christian” morality. My intended testimony (they didn’t get to me) focused upon those legal and practical difficulties, since it was pretty clear that theological or constitutional arguments weren’t going to cut it with members of this committee.
Logically, even people who oppose same-sex marriage should oppose playing around with the state—or federal—constitution. In the United States, Constitutions are meant to limit the power of government and protect individual rights against majority passions. Using the constitution to discriminate sets a dangerous precedent even for people intent upon disadvantaging gays. As the saying goes, poison gas is a great weapon until the wind changes. A future legislature may be controlled by people with very different values than those held by the current majority. Once we hand government the power to deny rights to those who are “different,” that power can be used to deny equal treatment to anyone.
The practical reason for opposing the amendment is that it would hinder efforts at economic development. (Kansas learned that lesson during its flirtation with “creation science.”) Indiana is trying to create jobs by recruiting new businesses and encouraging the growth of those who are already here. The last thing we need is a constitutional amendment proclaiming Indiana’s hostility to gays. It would hinder recruitment by local employers who have to compete nationally for talented workers, and by state economic development officials who are trying to attract new businesses. When you look at the specific sectors of the economy Indiana is targeting, like technology and life sciences, the problem becomes even clearer: study after study confirms that companies in those sectors are among those most dependent upon a diverse workforce. As a consequence, they are very alert to issues of tolerance and respect for difference—and those considerations factor significantly into their decisions about where to locate.
The problem with these arguments, and with reminders that we live in a religiously diverse country that separates church from state, is that religious fervor of this sort is impervious to logic or appeals to fundamental fairness or the rule of law. These folks want the government to post their religious texts on government buildings. They want the state to condemn and punish behaviors that challenge their beliefs. They want to turn America into a country ruled by their very own Christian Taliban.
And they are making progress.