The muslimahMERICAN blog featured a guest post from Chris Stedman earlier this week that’s a great example of the principles we highlighted earlier — personal stories are one of the most effective ways to fight stereotypes.
Chris’s story highlights how he discovered that his identity as a queer atheist actually gave him some insight and opportunity to connect with and learn from the Muslim-Americans he worked with. An excerpt:
Working with the Muslim community in Chicago, I realized how problematic my “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach to working with the Muslim community in Minneapolis had been; how my refusal to engage the religious identities of those I worked with at [a local community center] closed me off from countless opportunities to build bridges of understanding and respect with a community I honestly knew very little about, aside from my academic study of Islam. And how, by refusing to open up to them about my own beliefs and experiences, I denied them the opportunity to learn about me–to really know me and understand the challenges that I faced.
Religious and LGBTQ identities are important, and when we try to tuck them away in some dark and dusty corner we lose something integral. When open discussion about essential aspects of our identity becomes taboo–when we are forced to silence the stories of who we are and what matters to us–intolerance goes unchallenged and we are its accomplices, complicit in allowing others to be cast aside. When we see the other as so different that we think we can find no common ground, we allow others to see them as not-quite-human, too.
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The National Catholic Reporter has two commentaries up online that offer thoughtful challenges to Catholic bishops engaged in high-profile fights against gay marriage. Nicholas Cafardi, a former member of the U.S. Catholic Bishops’ National Review Board for the Protection of Children and Youth and a former general counsel for the Diocese of Pittsburgh, makes a strong case for why Church leaders should cool down fevered public denunciations on this issue and acknowledge the substantial difference between civil and religious marriages.
We need to give it up. This is not defeatism. This is simply following Jesus in the Gospels, who besides telling us not to act on our fears, also told us to render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s. Civil marriage is Caesar’s. If Caesar wants to say that you can only get married on Tuesdays, wearing a blue suit and a red tie, that is Caesar’s call. The sacrament of matrimony is God’s. It is valid only when invoked between a baptized man and a baptized woman, in the presence of two witnesses and the spouses’ proper ordinary or pastor or his delegate. Caesar has no say in this.
The measured tone of Cafardi, a moderate Catholic with a distinguished record of serving his Church, contrasts with the more hyperbolic reactions from a few Catholic bishops that we’ve already noted here. A separate NCR editorial also raises some frank but important points for a hierarchy at risk of losing the ability to effectively engage the culture on key moral and political issues.
If the bishops actually want laws to reflect Catholic values, they need a new, more sophisticated and potent model of legislative engagement. Second, even if the bishops had a persuasive case to make and the legislative tools at their disposal, their public conduct in recent years — wholesale excommunications, railing at politicians, denial of honorary degrees and speaking platforms at Catholic institutions, using the Eucharist as a political bludgeon, refusing to entertain any questions or dissenting opinions, and engaging in open warfare with the community’s thinkers as well as those, especially women, who have loyally served the church — has resulted in a kind of episcopal caricature, the common scolds of the religion world, the caustic party of “no.”
There is great risk for bishops in overreaching on gay marriage and alienating even faithful Catholics who disagree with the hierarchy on this issue but are proud that the Church is a shining beacon for human dignity and peace around the world. Bishops will argue that their positions don’t shift in the wind with the latest opinion poll and view a prophetic, countercultural posture as essential in an age where a “dictatorship of relativism” (Pope Benedict XVI’s phrase) has eroded timeless truths. Countercultural values have their place to be sure, but an embattled posture can also ossify organisms (church, political or civic) that need to live, breath and exist in a world where some societal norms do and should change.
What has often separated Catholicism from more reactionary strains of Christian fundamentalism is an intuitive grasp of how to engage with the culture rather than hurl jeremiads from the bunker. A Catholic priest who holds a position of national leadership in the Church recently told me that when bishops alienate lay Catholics with a cultural warrior tone on issues like gay marriage it’s parish priests who end up working to keep people in the pews. Perhaps it’s time for the Catholic Church to find a “third way” on gay marriage as Nicholas Cafardi and others have suggested.
Photo credit Jo Christian Oterhals / Flickr
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Daniel Tutt has a useful piece in Huffington Post exploring the neuroscience behind stereotypes:
What we know about stereotyping has evolved considerably over the last 25 years in the wake of the “affective turn” and the use of noninvasive fMRI scans. The affective turn refers to the realization that human behavior is dictated by emotion over and above reason. Neuroscientists can now paint a clear picture of what happens in the brain when someone deploys a stereotype. The vast majority of the time, stereotyping occurs automatically without conscious reflection. It calms the fears and anxieties built up about an “out-group”…
Essentially, stereotypes function as something of an emotional shortcut we use to navigate a world full of anxiety and potential threats. But while making snap judgments about people may have helped avoid danger in our prehistoric past, it clearly presents real obstacles today. The good news is that the same research shows these things can change:
Importantly, neuroscientists have found that the introduction of positive images of “out-groups” does indeed lower levels of fear of the other, and it reforms the hardwired automatic processes.
Tutt uses this point to encourage the Muslim-American community in combating Islamophobia, but it’s applicable to many groups facing barriers to full acceptance. Indeed, real world examples of this tactic have been responsible for some significant political successes (and have been something of a theme on this blog).
As Alyssa Rosenberg has noted, the prevalence of gay characters on television has played an important role in humanizing LGBT Americans. And the growing number of people coming out to their friends and family over the last few decades has demonstrably swung opinions as well.
Similarly, the most inspiring political activism around immigration reform has come from the DREAMers — undocumented high-school students often facing deportation despite personal stories that stand in stark contrast to the negative stereotypes about immigrants. While a GOP filibuster stopped the DREAM Act in December, the students have continued their activism and are changing hearts and minds.
This process of expanding the definition of ‘American’ and incorporating various minority and out-groups into the fabric of our society is essentially the history of America. While it may have taken generations to make initial progress, changing population demographics and the rapid ascent of mass media and information sharing have quickly brought more groups into the mainstream.
Congressional legislation and policy changes are essential, but they must be led and strengthened by this kind of broader cultural movement. The faith community is a natural place for some of this work to happen. Located in every neighborhood, places of worship attract people every week expecting to wrestle with big ideas and tough issues. And the bonds they form with each other serve as crucial supports as they do. As trusted figureheads, faith leaders in particular can serve as highly effective persuaders. Advocating for just immigration reform is one thing, but seeing your own pastor stand publicly behind the immigrant families in your Church is a much more powerful message.
Photo: DREAM Act students stage a sit-in at John McCain’s office.
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Morning’s Minion (MM) at Vox Nova also looks at Kathryn Jean Lopez’s recent interview with Robert George in response to New York’s legalization of same-sex marriage.
Pushing back on George’s singling out of same-sex marriage, MM presents an alternative approach to public life for Catholics in America, one that recognizes the constraints of a multi-religious, pluralistic society:
Let’s get past the semantics. As Catholics, me must recognize that the culture does not see marriage as Catholics do, or are supposed to. Same-sex marriage is mere a symptom of this problem, not the problem itself. If we continue to single-out same-sex-marriage, we risk looking hypocritical. Why the years of silence about the culture of serial monogamy, followed by vehement outbursts against same-sex marriage? This is presents a unique opportunity for Catholics to be countercultural – to emphasize how our approach to marriage differs from the dominant cultural norm. Let’s stay positive and let’s stay optimistic.
Many people of faith (though not a majority) hold genuine views about gay marriage that differ from the increasingly supportive views of society at large. But as MM points out, this is far from the only issue in which that’s the case. Many religious communities have already handled changes in societal norms about divorce, sex and gender with moral disagreement but with respect for the law and democratic process. There’s no reason to believe changes in the civil institution of marriage need to be any different.
People of faith can and should speak up for their values in political life, but effective arguments extend beyond their own faith tradition and appeal to shared values and principles that cut across a broad swath of the American public.
As I highlighted before, groups like the National Organization for Marriage seem to understand this, mostly avoiding explicitly religious arguments against same-sex marriage and instead focusing on the alleged effects on children and what they refer to as “traditional marriages.” The problem, of course, is that those arguments just don’t hold up, falling short in both empirical tests and in the lived experiences of Americans who are getting to know the increasing number of gay couples and families in every community.
Despite the nostalgic protestations of some, it’s highly unlikely that our political system will return to a model where policy around sex and gender is set by exclusively promoting a specific faith tradition’s vision for society. Maybe George and other opponents of same-sex marriage ought to heed MM’s advice, focusing on ways to positively articulate their beliefs in the face of cultural changes, rather than bemoaning their loss of moral monopoly.
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In addition to the conservative Catholic outcry in response to the New York marriage decision we highlighted earlier this week, Adam Serwer had a great post examining how some conservative commentators have taken to describing the result as a failure of democracy. Serwer points to Kathryn Jean Lopez’s radical redefinition of tyranny as the passage of any “capricious laws” she doesn’t agree with.
But Lopez’s rant pales in comparison with that of the interviewee on her blog yesterday, Robert George. The Princeton politics professor is one of the leading thinkers in the conservative Catholic world, and has been involved with political activism on this issue as chairman emeritus of the National Organization for Marriage (NOM).
In a long interview with Lopez, George makes very clear that he sees the marriage issue, and the New York decision in particular, as only a symptom of a much larger cultural degradation. In his mind, the real problem is, ultimately, about sex:
The vote in New York to redefine marriage advances the cause of loosening norms of sexual ethics, and promoting as innocent — and even “liberating” — forms of sexual conduct that were traditionally regarded in the West and many other places as beneath the dignity of human beings as free and rational creatures…For people who have absorbed the central premises of sexual liberation…marriage simply cannot function as the central principle or standard of rectitude in sexual conduct, as it has in Western philosophy, theology, and law for centuries.
This view is in line with George’s opposition to Lawrence v. Texas, the Supreme Court decision striking down state sodomy laws and helping solidify the idea that there’s no compelling state interest in regulating sex between consenting adults within the privacy of one’s own home:
As a result, to the extent that one is in the grip of sexual-liberationist ideology, one will find no reason of moral principle why people oughtn’t to engage in sexual relations prior to marriage, cohabit in non-marital sexual partnerships, form same-sex sexual partnerships, or confine their sexual partnerships to two persons, rather than three or more in polyamorous sexual ensembles.
George, of course, is well within his rights to hold whatever moral beliefs he wants about these topics. But “we need to ban same-sex marriage because I’m still upset about the 1960s” isn’t a very good legal argument — nor do I imagine it’s very popular. That’s why NOM and other opponents of gay marriage have taken great care to deflect and deny any such motivation, sticking to talking points specifically focused on the definition of marriage. From NOM’s “Frequently Asked Questions” page:
Extensive and repeated polling agrees that the single most effective message is: “Gays and Lesbians have a right to live as they choose, they don’t have the right to redefine marriage for all of us.” This allows people to express support for tolerance while opposing gay marriage
To give George credit, he is fully honest about the implications of his views. For him, the marriage debate is just the latest flashpoint in a long battle to stem the tide of social change.
George doesn’t necessarily represent the views of NOM or anyone other organization, but he is widely respected as one of the intellectual drivers of the anti-same-sex marriage movement, particularly for his use of underlying moral arguments and philosophies.
Political organizations like NOM tend to employ language that sidesteps or contradicts the more extreme positions George articulates, in an attempt to rebut the belief that opponents of gay marriage operate out of an animus towards LGBT people or are trying to ‘legislate morality.’ I’d be very interested to hear whether NOM disagrees with George’s more comprehensive case, and if so, why.
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