The Case Against Overtime
"It Doesn't Help to Call Them Bigots"

Extremism is What Happens When You Know You're On the Wrong Side of History

Twenty years ago this September, I officiated at a wedding for the first time.  I actually co-officiated along with a good friend who was the chaplain of Harvard Divinity School at the time and the father of the groom who was a Lutheran minister.  The fact that there were so many other ministers involved with the wedding should have been reassuring.  But I had been ordained for less than a month, and I was deeply anxious about looking like an idiot.

The ceremony went off well and afterwards we all gathered in the beautiful backyard of the bride's grandmother.  I was wiped out--and incredibly thirsty--and I tossed back two glasses of champagne before I had a thing to eat.  I started to feel a bit wobbly, so I sat down at a table next to a friendly older couple who ended up being the bride's godparents who had come over from Holland for the wedding.  We exchanged a bit of small talk and I did my best to appear sober.  But before long they brought up an issue that was clearly bothering them:  how could I possibly be interested in religion?  Isn't religion a source of bigotry and hatred and violence all over the world?  Why would I--and why would their goddaughter for that matter--want to affiliate in any way with something so detrimental to the well-being of the world community?

Maybe it was the champagne or maybe it was the good feeling of having recent accomplished a worrisome task, but I responded to the couples' concerns with a long, confident declaration.  I told them that the fundamentalist movements making the news are so strident because they know that their days are numbered.  They see the writing on the wall and they have vowed that they won't go down without a fight.  But the very forcefulness of their words, the extremity of their actions, expose them.  They know they are on the wrong side of history.  They have lost already and what we are hearing is not their victory cry but their last gasps as they admit their defeat.

Then I wobbled off to find the restroom.

I have thought back to the conversation many times over the past twenty years.  For one thing, it serves as a vivid reminder to be careful around champagne--that stuff can really sneak up on you.  But I've also wondered whether I was right.  Sometimes, I doubt it.  I think often of Yeat's lines in "The Second Coming" written right after the first World War: "The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity."  

At other times, I'm pretty sure I was on to something.

Last week, the Arizona state legislature passed a bill providing legal protections to private businesses that refuse to serve gay men or lesbians.  The bill had strong support in both houses, but as soon as it passed, people began to denounce it.  Not only gay rights and civil liberties groups condemned the bill as discriminatory, but both GOP Senators from Arizona and the leading Republican candidates for governor urged Governor Jan Brewer to veto the bill.  A number of large employers and ever the National Football League followed suit.  Soon, even some of the legislators who voted for the bill were calling for a veto.

On Wednesday, Governor Brewer did in fact veto the bill saying, "Going forward, let's turn the ugliness of the debate over Senate Bill 1062 into a renewed search for greater respect and understanding among all Arizonans and Americans."

Brewer did the right thing.  While the laws--the constitution--of our country protects religious liberty, it does not allow people to discriminate against others in the public sphere for religious reasons.  You must serve African-Americans in your restaurant even if your religious beliefs would lead you to do otherwise--as the Post reported today, there was a court case in the 1960's where a South Carolina barbeque chain made exactly that claim and lost.  Fifty years after the height of the civil rights movement, the claim that racial discrimination is an expression of religious liberty seems absurd.  In fact, it seems desperate.  It seems like the last-ditch effort of bigots.  

I have no doubt that in fifty years, laws like the one the Arizona legislature passed last week will seem equally absurd.  Actually, the commentary over this past week about this law made it clear that a great number of people think it is absurd now.  On Wednesday, the Public Religioun Research Institute released a report on how public opinion about GLBT issues has changed over the past decade.  The Executive Summary of the report begins,

Support for same-sex marriage jumped 21 percentage points from 2003, when Massachusetts became the first state to legalize same-sex marriage, to 2013. Currently, a majority (53%) of Americans favor allowing gay and lesbian couples to legally marry, compared to 41% who oppose. In 2003, less than one-third (32%) of Americans supported allowing gay and lesbian people to legally marry, compared to nearly 6-in-10 (59%) who opposed.

The report breaks down support for gay marriage within various religious groups in the country.  A majority of white mainline Protestants, white Catholics and Hispanic Catholics all favor legal marriage for gay and lesbian people.  

By contrast, nearly 7-in-10 (69%) white evangelical Protestants and nearly 6-in-10 (59%) black Protestants oppose same-sex marriage. Only 27% of white evangelical Protestants and 35% of black Protestants support same-sex marriage.

Read a bit further into the report and it becomes clear that change is coming even within the white evangelical community. 

White evangelical Protestant Millennials are more than twice as likely to favor same- sex marriage as the oldest generation of white evangelical Protestants (43% vs. 19%).

When I see statistics like these, it seems completely clear to me that measures like the one in Arizona are an expression of fear by a small group of people who understand that the world has changed.  They are no longer in the majority, they are no longer dominant.  The extremity of their position is evidence that they understand this.

But do people like me--advocates for marriage equality--understand that we are now in the majority?  I don't think we do, and I think much of the debate around this Arizona bill reveals this.  More on that in my next blog post.


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