Thursday, April 9, 2015

An uncomfortable intersection

Are there many people out there in the U.S. who now who think the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was a bad idea? That's the legislation, by the way, that outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, gender or national origin. I have no doubt that there are still some in this nation who are miffed that discrimination in these categories is now barred by law. But not many, right? Don't the overwhelming majority of people in this land now agree that this landmark legislation was a good idea?

Actually we have long albeit uneven history of defending certain rights in the U.S. After all, this country pioneered the enshrinement of basic rights with the passage of the Bill of Rights in 1791. Certainly this is not the only nation to advocate equality for its citizens and our record on civil rights has not always been glowing by any stretch. But when we decide to grant a certain right to the people then we tend to get pretty worked up about any violation of that right.

This nation was the first in history to set forth religious liberty as a basic human right in its founding documents. It goes without saying that adherents to a particular religion tend to be zealous for the beliefs of their faith. Any infringement of religious freedom is typically met with passionate opposition.   

Now we have a controversy over Religious Freedom Restoration Acts (RFRA) recently passed in Indiana and Arkansas (and there is a similar bill proposed here in North Carolina). Critics say these measures allow businesses to discriminate against gays and lesbians. Supporters say these laws protect religious liberty.

This is exactly why the remaining debate concerning homosexuality and particularly same-sex marriage has the potential to be especially intense and difficult in this culture.

Many of those who support same-sex marriage see it as a civil rights issue. Many of those who oppose same-sex marriage see it as a religious issue. Emotions run high among those who believe their civil rights or the civil rights of those they love have been violated. Emotions run high among those who believe they are being forced to abandon their religious beliefs. 

I'm concerned that this debate and the actions surrounding it could get really ugly. What am I talking about? It has already gotten pretty ugly. 

Do you remember or do you know the history surrounding the debate over the Civil Rights Act of 1964? It got seriously ugly at times. Deadly ugly. In that case the intersection was between equality and a long tradition of bigotry. Sure, some tried to defend ongoing racial discrimination on religious grounds, but those arguments were always faulty and shrill. 

The debate over same-sex marriage involves an intersection between supporters who see their position as an matter of equality and detractors who see their position as a matter of religion. Actually, there are many defenders of same-sex marriage who build their arguments on religious grounds. In that case the intersection is between opposing religious views and I'm guessing that we all know how messy religious wars can be.

My concern here is not to take a side. I'm just wondering about the answer to this question: Can we navigate such a highly charged debate without doing serious damage to one one another? Can we talk about it without using words that wound and create perhaps irreconcilable differences between family members, friends, church members, co-workers, etc.? Can we keep our actions in support of our respective positions peaceful? Can we strive to understand one another before jumping immediately to attempts to marginalize one another?

Maybe my concern is overblown. After all, the governors of Indiana and Arkansas sought changes in the laws in question in order to address the concerns that have been raised. Governor McCrory has expressed his displeasure with the RFRA proposed here in North Carolina and some legislators whose support was assumed have distanced themselves from it. Interestingly this political back peddling happened not when the LGBT community complained but when big business interests got their backs. 

Be that as it may, the apparently quick rise and fall of these laws, proposed or enacted, may be a signal that opinions on same-sex marriage have shifted to the degree that opponents can expect much less hope of success than in the recent past. Yet I remain concerned that there are still large numbers of people in this country gathered at an uncomfortable and possibly dangerous intersection.

I pray that we find ways to love our neighbors as we navigate this intersection.