Where are they anyway?

With the Supreme Court decision, same-sex marriage is rapidly institutionalizing, at least in Blue America. The shift has not only dismayed traditional and religious conservatives, but challenged them as to how they should response, and particularly, how exemptions might be carved out.  Rachel Zoll at AP captures the current state of affairs well.

While commending her report, Terry Mattingly at Get Religion asks an interesting question,

Where are the views of religious liberals in this story? Where are the leaders of the denominations that actively favor same-sex marriage and what they view as the modernization of both ancient religious doctrines and the nation’s approach to the First Amendment? This is not, trust me, just a debate between religious people and secular people.

So the camp of the “orthodox” made it into this story. Where are the believers in the camp of the “progressives”? What are they saying about these religious-liberty cases?

Perhaps the simplest answer is that while religious liberals may have an opinion they are not speaking out. There’s little to report because there’s little actually being said. This is in contrast to the last moment in the culture war turning on the same theme of religious liberty, that of contraception. Then, leaders in the mainline did speak out.

By contrast, in the campaign for same sex marriage in New York, the religious left was not part of the reported lobbying. Where the religious community has come together to lobby for same sex marriage in Massachusetts or Illinois it has been through the Religious Coalition for the Freedom to Marry, a largely Unitarian-Universalist led group.

The silence is notable: where are they? After all from internal battles in denominations, there are certainly any number of articulate voices on the pro- side. Shouldn’t we hear their view? This would be Mattingly’s view:

Some on the religious left SUPPORT the changes and have political and doctrinal reasons for doing so. The moral left is NOT all secular.

The silence however, probably lies elsewhere, away from an uncurious reporter. Two reasons suggest themselves.

First, there is the nature of the actual political battles. Much of the recent political heat has been around the question of exemptions. As Marc Stern, general counsel of the American Jewish Committee, expressed it

same-sex couples should not, without very good reason, be allowed to force dissenting religious organizations to recognize or facilitate their marriages.

In terms of the conflict, “facilitation” is seen as encompassing a variety of services (photography, bakery, even a bed and breakfast). Behind the conflicts is the insistence on an individual’s personal conviction.  Theologically, it is grounded in a mild Calvinist understanding of the whole of life being religious — thus, even the civic arena, especially the civic arena can become a center for conflict. This viewpoint has also led to the extension of potential religious exemptions into previously neutral settings, e.g. the notion that a for-profit corporation may have a legitimate religious viewpoint. Given the religious liberals’ more communitarian focus and their role (still) as custodians of the establishment, these themes make the religious conservatives concerns less palatable.

Of course, the frank trafficking in fear by some on the Right also serves to delegitimize  conservative concerns. But there’s more than the usual politics at work here. The conservative push bumps into a second, far more significant issue: civil rights.

Within the religious left, gay rights are generally seen as an extension of civil rights, a natural outworking flowing from the same biblical injunctions as to the treatment of the neighbor. As a moral principle, it is an application, derivative of a broader issue. That derivative nature as much as anything reduces the moral valence of the objections. The issues are not central to the identity of the religious left.

The history with the civil rights movement adds another layer of reluctance. The exemptions that are sought in the name of “religious liberty” are  the very sort of practices with accommodations that the church had fought to overturn during the civil rights era.

Finally, it would be a mistake on the Right to think that the religious left is necessarily indifferent to religious liberty. If anything, it is this centrist tendency in the mainline that offers the real hope for pragmatic accommodation, or support should the worst fears begin to be realized.


Gosnell and Abortion

Slowly, like a prodded beast, the media has begun to turn its attention to the Gosnell case, the infamous abortion mill that was little more than a late term abbatoir. Rather than review the entire, sorry mess of evil, let’s give this to Conor Friedersdorf. Of more interest has been the hesitancy of the media to cover this case, here the work  of Mollie Hemingway at Get Religion has played a major role (this is her latest).

Yet, prodding the media seems futile. Why do they turn down such a seemingly juicy story? Friedersdorf, again has some ideas. The best idea been that of “mushiness” — the uncertainty of the general public (and so the reader) on the question of abortion itself. No matter how the conservative would trumpet Gosnell as an exemplar of what abortion “means” the reality may be something different.

The problem with that framing is simply that most abortions take place far earlier (90 percent in the first trimester), and were one to grant the framing of Plan B as an abortifacent, then far more than 90 percent. This shift of weight to the early stages of a pregnancy certainly undergirds public experience and understanding of the issue. Ironically, then the use  of the term “abortion” to cover everything from infanticide in the Gosnell case, to birth control in Plan B undercuts potential outrage and framing of Gosnell as about “abortion.”

The missing decoder ring

George Conger at Get Religion is in something of a snit. As he explains

The New York Times story is a European-style advocacy piece. Though it appears on page A12 in the news section, it rightly belongs on the opinion pages as it is more of a lecture than reporting. I know what the Times‘ thinks about adultery after reading this article, but I did not learn much about adultery.

As Conger goes on, it is clear he sees the article as a lightly veiled attempt to make adultery more acceptable — part of the sexual agenda of East coast elites like those at the New York Times.

I evidently do not have the decoder ring that he does. Whether this article is to be considered advocacy turns in part on whether one reads it as a limited exploration of the status of adultery in the criminal code, or as a broader discussion of adultery’s status in culture, a moral argument.This latter position however is not supported by the article in question.

The outrage that apparently is generated by a comment from Universit of Washington professor Peter Nicolau on adultery “adulterating” male perogatives. However such controversy gets  settled in the subsequent graf, where Ethan Bronner turns to Boston University professor Linda McClain, who provides an 1838 case using precisely the language of adulteration, and then contrasts it with a 1992 case reflecting the current relational understanding of adultery.

The difficulty for Conger lies in the practice of journalism itself. Were one interested in the status of adultery in U.S. law, wouldn’t one consult precisely the sorts of experts cited in the article (e.g. in 2010 Professor Melissa Murray was recognized as one of the top junior faculty in the country)? Even the kick at the end, that “nobody is going to say that adultery is OK,” reinforces the frame of the article, that it is about the legal status of adultery, and not its morality.

It is difficult given the nature of the quotes, to believe the piece was in fact engaged in advocacy  unless one holds that the mere consideration of a topic constitutes its advocacy. What is at stake is the cultural frame around marriage where the law both provides direct penalties but more broadly also expresses cultural values. The loss of those common values — the weakening of the older cultural and religious norms — is real, something Murray notes in the article, citing how Lawrence v. Texas weakens the status of adultery as a prosecutable crime, even as adultery on the lawbooks continues to have a continuing utility in divorce proceedings.

Obviously, I do not have the decoder ring, but from my reading the article presented a rather limited inquiry into the status of adultery in American legal code.  I can not see how this rises to the level of advocacy, let alone meriting the sort of indignant hrummphing it received.

Lost Wedge

Mollie Hemingway at Get Religion is a bit irritated by the absence of tough questions to “pro-choice” candidates. Abortion, it seems, is not playing a role in the election.

that last debate showed us that neither candidate disagrees with each other on the U.S. policy of using drones to target terrorists. Does that mean that since it’s not a campaign issue, it shouldn’t be covered? Hardly. I think the press can rightly judge certain topics of importance meriting coverage even if votes aren’t being won or lost on them. But, again, that’s not even the case with abortion coverage.

The answer may lie in cold-hearted  political reality: abortion has lost its edge as a wedge issue. That is, most of the votes that would be dislodged by it have already been dislodged. The 20 percent who absolutely opposed are not likely to vote Dem in any case. So functionally, then attention to abortion and life issues in an electoral context are more a matter of base mobilization, of getting true believers out to vote. The question of mobilization was touched on by the WSJ earlier on Oct. 22, Romney Supporters Make Push for Evangelical Voters.

Several other observations may be in order. If questions about abortion are no longer a wedge, then the Dems of course, have free reign on the issue — for them, as for evangelicals, the issue may best serve as a base mobilization tactic. Second, if the question of abortion itself becomes old hat, then the news stories naturally want to migrate to the extremes — this would explain the coverage of Akin and Mourdock. In focusing on extreme cases, the Left here is following a similar path to that laid down on late term abortions by the Right.

And last, the lack of attention on abortion generally may be governed by the dynamic of the Republican campaign itself, where Gov. Romney is at best an imperfect carrier of the pro-life cause. The framing of this election as one centered on the economy and fundamental philosophical differences degrades the role of abortion, if for not other reason than such approaches muscle out such social concerns.


Suicide can carry a dreadful impact on the surviviors, all the more when the loss is so high profile. That truth was on display, painfully on display in last week’s article  in The New York Times, about how the Clementi family has adjusted to the loss of their son Tyler.  But is that all?  Bobby Ross Jr. wonders if there is also a hidden agenda

What prompted a promising college freshman to kill himself? The story turns on that key question.
The obvious answer from the Times’ perspective: the young man’s evil, gay-bashing church:

With Ross, I also thought it curious the church wasn’t identified, and  there’s no mention of exactly where they have gone (if anywhere). Or for that matter, even the fact that the Clementis were faithful members of an evangelical church — there really is something sad to see a young man contributing to his congregation knowing how things will turn. That’s an ache.

Nonetheless, the article did not seem to be on the evangelical-bashing mode that Ross hears. Rather, it is more about  the family dynamics, the recovery, and the flavor of “where are they now?” In that light, I read the anonymity of the congregation as a sort of respect, the point wasn’t the church’s teachings per se, but a painful sad, mistaken relationship; this line in particular stood out:

” What has troubled her most is the thought that Tyler believed she had rejected him. ”

Tyler was the eldest, the “good” son, even religious, yet he thought of himself as pushed from home, and from his church home; he jumped because he was homeless.

Where there is a condemnation of the Evangelical church (and thus might have benefited from another perspective) it is here: The Evangelical church (or at least the churches I am familiar with) has too often used exile as the way of dealing with its gay youth. That’s a story yet to be told, one larger than that of the Clementis, and certainly it would be more polemical in nature. For now, I’m simply glad that I got to meet the parents.

Traditional belief

Traditional belief of Native Americans can be difficult for non-Natives to follow, in part because of its holistic framework. Culture, life  — all of it is properly religious. Calvinists have a vague sense of this. So one cannot blame Bobby Ross Jr. for wondering about the the state of Native American Religion, particularly on the Blackfeet reservation. In reacting to fine article in the New York Times, he wonders

After reading the lede, I wanted to understand how and why many residents see the land as “sacred.” The story proved a disappointment in that regard.
Instead, the Times skirts at the edges of those crucial questions:
To find the opposing view, one needs only to drive five miles west from Browning, past the casino, heading straight toward the mountains, and pull off at the red gate on the right. There, on a recent summer afternoon, over mugs of horsemint tea, Pauline Matt and a handful of Blackfeet women were trying to find a way to persuade the tribal leaders to stop the drilling.
“It threatens everything we are as Blackfeet,” she said.
What exactly does that “everything” encompass? Does it relate to these tribal members’ view of their Creator and place in this world?

As I said, I don’t blame him for the confusion.

The one element left off is how native religious beliefs are intimately tied with tribal identities as well as being emblematic of sovereign tribal nations. This confluence of identity and religion means that issues regarding land resonate with particular force. In recent years the resurgence of Traditional practices (e.g. learning of language) is often linked to the recovery of Traditionalist religious beliefs — both of these pointing to the question of sovereignty as a people, and more personally as Native. I take the question of Sovereignty as being the central concept, and with it who controls the land and its resources.

Traditional practices then acquire not only a religious element but often function in what we might think of as political. These are struggle about identities. With the rise of Native sovereignty, the further question of relation to the Euro-American society becomes central, particularly with the history of missions, thus making religious practices a useful demarcation: in or out. Thus the importing of industry brings to mind the notorious record of treaty violations and even more, the failure of trust policies: Religion then becomes the tool to push back, to not sell out.

All this is to say, I was not surprised at the Traditionalists asserting a claim to the land. But as others have noted, there is something of an artifice at work here. The difficulty in speaking of native religious belief arises from how many of the distinctives of the older ways have been washed away, leaving behind a sort of soft animism. At the same time that this re-emergent faith relates to the land, many more in urban settings (the actual reality for most native people) use traditionalist beliefs in a more cultural frame. This link with culture means that behaviors may or may not be religious depending on who does it. E.g. does one smudge or not? Inhale or not? Is it one thing on the Rez but different in the City?

A culture of work?

Meanwhile at Get Religion, George Conger picks up Mitt Romney’s comments in Israel the other day.

The Romney campaign appears to have been unhelpful and their man comes off badly from their actions. Yet what is also missing is an inquiry by the Post into Prof. David Landes and his book — which would go a long way toward answering the question of “what is culture?”.
And it is here was have the ethical and religious ghosts to this story for Landes’ book places great stress on the role of religion in economic development.

To be fair, Conger is also quite explicit that he’s not trying to diminish the role of the Israeli security state with respect to the Palestinians. Still…

Certainly part of the difficulty about the culture critique would be its implicit assumption that both sides are starting at roughly the same point. The problem of Israel’s security efforts (and settlement building) basically precludes making that assumption.

As a test case, one might ask how Christian refugees from the region have fared. Apparently, in a land of freedom they do quite well, becoming political leaders, industrial leaders and the like. If they succeed here, then the assumption that the differences in outcomes between Israelis and Palestinians derives from culture would not particularly stand. (A more cynical mind might even think that the turn to culture is more a function of American political rhetoric than deriving from analysis of the actual situation on the ground).

Additional Note

Marc Tracy at The New Republic anchors Romney’s remarks in richer, ongoing political context.

This has all been beneath the surface—until now. With Israeli “culture” out in the open, Romney has laid the groundwork to use Israel as merely the beachhead for a full frontal attack on Obama’s values and even Americanness. While Israel remains relatively parochial as a political issue, this link between culture and economics is anything but. And, as James Fallows reminds us, it’s been nearly 50 years since Daniel Patrick Moynihan pointed out, “The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society.” Moynihan was a Democrat, but through the early neoconservatives this “conservative truth” became a Republican talking point, one that evolved into such a winner that the only Democratic president to win re-election since its advent first had to sign a welfare reform law that was in many ways the fullest realization of that conservative truth.