Do You See What I See?

A couple of days ago, an email from the Human Rights Campaign began with the following paragraph:

“Just yesterday, one of Mitt Romney’s highest profile supporters, and a member of the GOP platform committee, said same-sex marriage is something the government should condemn – along with drug use and polygamy.”

The rest of the message teemed with righteous indignation, and ended with a predictable plea for money.

Now, I fully understand how demeaning that statement feels. But I also understand where it comes from. A few years ago, during my sabbatical, I did research that later became my book God and Country. I was curious about the ways in which religious cultures and beliefs shaped people’s positions on various policies–not just hot-button social issues, but also policies we think of as wholly secular, like welfare, the environment, criminal justice.

The research was fascinating–and enlightening. It turns out that our religious socialization affects the way in which we categorize issues. So–when it comes to sexual orientation, for example–research suggests that Christians and Jews tend to classify the issue differently. Jews are more likely to classify sexual orientation as one aspect of identity, like eye color or intellectual capacity; for most Christians, on the other hand, sex is classified as a behavior–like drug use or polygamy. This initial classification doesn’t necessarily prevent Christians from drawing moral distinctions between different behaviors, and many Christians do not consider homosexuality to be immoral. But the evaluation process proceeds from different starting points.

Cultural assumptions can be changed over time, of course, and changing the way people classify sexual orientation initially is one of the great triumphs of the gay civil rights movement.

We can see it in the language: the term “sexual preference” is rarely used these days (except by the likes of a Micah Clark or Sarah Palin); it has been replaced by “sexual orientation.” The first term suggests a behavioral choice; the second, an immutable characteristic. It is an incredibly important distinction; immutable characteristics–like gender or eye color or skin color–are by definition morally neutral.

You can choose to use drugs, you can choose to be a polygamist. But science has exploded the myth that people choose to be gay, and most Americans–whatever their religious socialization–have come to understand and accept the fact that sexual orientation is not chosen.

It’s not a fluke that the people who compare homosexuality to drug use are also anti-science.

There are many ways to slice and dice the American electorate, but I am increasingly convinced that the fundamental (no pun intended) fault line is between those who accept science and modernity and can live with the resulting ambiguities, and those who don’t and can’t–those who find change threatening and ambiguity terrifying, and who cling more and more tightly to the comforting categories and certainties of the (re-imagined) past.

1 Comment

  1. Appreciated observations, Sheila. It seems we are in unexplored socio-poltical territory on some gut-wrenching issues. For some of us who persist in confidence in a biblically-based faith, living with the ambiguities resulting from good science (distinguished from scientism, which is a problem no less than religious fundamentalism is a problem) is about trusting the dynamic process, or what we sometimes call “grace.” It is living not so much in fear as in engaged hope, not so much looking wistfully backward (remember Lot’s wife), but courageously forward.

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