This week, the President of the United States gained the trust of a large group of people, lost the support of others, and further solidified his reputation as a values-destroyer to yet another very large contingent of Americans. And all of this because he expressed a personal opinion.
If you’ve been living under a rock this week and have not been paying attention to the news, I’m referring to this segment of an interview televised last Wednesday:
Now, I am not so dull as to assume that when President Obama expresses an opinion, it carries no greater weight than when I express my own. Certainly, the President’s position on gay marriage, whether he qualifies it as strictly “personal” or not, is of major significance. The leader of our country has now officially come out in support of a particular side of a debate that has raged for decades and has only become more of a hot button issue in the last few years. Many critics have accused the President of using the issue solely for political maneuvering; to such people, whatever the President says in an interview is all about his re-election campaign. National news pundits continue to debate the release of such statements as if they are moves on a chessboard. Will coming out in favor of gay marriage garner more support for the President, or will he lose support? How will the LGBT community respond on election day? How will the African-American community respond? What will leading ministers say? How will this issue play on the wider stage – will it overshadow other important issues?
But beneath all the talking points and the opinions of “analysts,” there are other conversations raging. In the comment section of blogs, on various Facebook walls, and even face-to-face. Whether or not the issue seems elementary to you, we can no longer deny that the issue of gay marriage, and that of homosexuality in general, has indeed become a lightning rod topic, and will certainly be one of the defining moments of this generation. The most frightening thing to me, however, is that it seems so few us are prepared to address the issue. On both sides of the fence and on the fence itself, many are nervous, others are incensed, and still others are righteously indignant.
Some Christians I’ve met are woefully unprepared for any form of civilized discourse. Not only have many of them not carefully studied the passages of Scripture they cite as authoritative proof of their position, but often they refuse to even listen to any viewpoint that doesn’t mirror their own. In the past, I’ve encountered some ministers who actually believe engaging in a discussion on issues like homosexuality can be a corrupting activity – a person runs the risk of falling away because even to have a conversation about the issue is to toy with sin! And if you try to point out that the Pharisees took a similar stance when they assumed Jesus was unclean because he had dinner with sinners, they’re already shaking their heads and claiming that is the devil’s argument. If I, a fellow minister, cannot get around these walls, how on earth will a parishioner in search of genuine discourse receive anything in return but cold, dogmatic rhetoric?
It goes both ways, too. Some people I know – self-proclaimed “progressives” – are so irritated by others’ positions that they can no longer keep their patience in check. Their attitudes have crumpled into angry, derisive stones that they hurl into the midst of the debate. They are called names by others, and they’ve come up with plenty of their own to toss, sometimes preemptively. They believe every objection is based in old-fashioned, irrelevant superstition – that the only logical position a person can have is the one they have found and subscribed to.
Very, very few of us are ready for this conversation. Forget trying to determine what side you’re on. If we are unable or unwilling to engage each other hospitably and courteously on the issue, what does it matter what any of us actually believe? Yours may be a position steeped in conviction and long-suffering scholarship. However, if you refuse to give equal time and patience to another’s ideas or arguments, what more have you done but encased yourself in a prison of your own construction?
What has happened to civilized public discourse? What have we done with it? Did we ever have it to begin with? In his Facebook status, a friend of mine recently lamented the insincerity of Christians in such forms of public debate:
We use “sanctity of life” language to oppose one killing but refuse to use it on another. We use “rights” language but become angry when it is used differently … We say humans bear the image of God and thus are worthy of dignified treatment but refuse to treat those whom we disagree with as worthy of our dignity…
And then there is our President. One side sees the words of his interview answer as a milestone announcement strategically intended to open a door to greater freedom for humanity. They celebrate that he has finally accepted the true and just view. The other side relentlessly accuses him of seizing the moment for his own political gain, and in so doing lifting up his heel against their political ideals and religious convictions. They don’t believe for one second that the President might have actually experienced a change in his personal beliefs.
Can the President of the United States not change his mind? And if indeed he can, should we not celebrate the freedom to do so? Can we not appreciate that, in describing his “evolution” on this issue, he in no way belittled the viewpoints of others, including those with whom he now finds himself disagreeing? Can those who do not hold his view accept, without restless resentment, that people can change their minds, even Presidents? Can we celebrate that we live in a country in which we have the freedom to not only change our minds, but to freely express our thoughts? After all, what possible alternative could we desire? The complete and utter silence of all who see things differently than us? What kind of society is that?
“You can safely assume that you have created God in your own image,” writes Anne Lamott, “when it turns out God hates all the same people you do.”
So, no matter what you believe, may you come to the table of discussion with an open heart and a sound mind. May you reflect upon your beliefs not as if you are sharpening arrows or loading guns, but so that you might determine how to express personal opinions with the fullness of kindness, patience, and abiding peace. May we not perpetuate a fear of what is to come by fearing one another.