Change of Heart: If you’re a senator, you must have compassion for the world

I’m late to the punch on this one, but I was intrigued by the news last month about Republican senator Rob Portman supporting marriage equality and claiming his gay son as the significant reason for his change of heart. He has subsequently been criticized by some saying that the only reason he changed his mind was because he was able to put a face to the issue. And no doubt they are right. An article in Slate commented that since the senator doesn’t have relatives with no health insurance or exposed to the consequences of environmental destruction, he doesn’t care about those things. He argues, “But if Portman can turn around on one issue once he realizes how it touches his family personally, shouldn’t he take some time to think about how he might feel about other issues that don’t happen to touch him personally?”

Caryn Riswold at feminismxianity acknowledges the influence of what psychologists call the contact hypothesis, in which people are more likely to be influenced to change their views on a particular issue when face-to-face with another who embodies the other side. Yet she also laments that people can’t show that compassion as part of the human family, rather than just their own family.

There is a problem with this line of analysis that has caused a misreading of the senator’s actions. The problem is that by making clear his change of heart was motivated by personal influence, he pierced the liberal and religious facade that says we should have compassion for everyone and showed his compassion was much more narrow-minded. Note how quickly the Slate article characterized Portman’s move as one from not caring to caring, which is not warranted by his actions, and allows the article to claim he doesn’t “care” about other issues. But the compassion involved in relationships with family and friends is not the same as that with one’s constituents, or others one doesn’t know. To say that I care about, love, or have compassion for the millions of people I will never meet is a largely meaningless statement. The fact is that most of us care more about our families and friends as well. Yet because Portman admitted the personal factor in his shift, his opponents want to exploit it.

Thus, to construe the senator’s positions on a spectrum of caring and not caring is irrelevant and hypocritical. There is a political facade here as well, one more closely tied with a religious one than we would like to admit, that suggests that politicians are motivated by their constituents and make policy based on what is “right” rather than what gets lobbied for the hardest. Although the corrupt politician is the trope of more movies and television shows than I can count, we yet hold to an ideal of governance in the interest of all—that “all” dependent on ones perspective—and are thus consistently confused by the actions of our government.

Riswold pinpoints the religious character of this wishful thinking, in which we envision people in power caring about all the things that we care about. For her it is no doubt based upon a Christian model of all-encompassing love. That model is impossible to achieve, but stands in the way of moderate and incremental change. This model of compassion, if expanded to its logical conclusion by wider and wider concentric circles, will reach a point where it will make nearly every liberal and Christian heart flinch. When expanded to the poor, when expanded to those of other religious traditions, when expanded to opposing nations, when expanded to “terrorists,” the feelings of compassion begin to shrivel and dry up, or become mere rhetoric. This compassion is based on a religious model that is designed to be impossible and require the intervention of a divinity to complete its action. There are of course some who have served as examples to us all and have cited this sort of love as a motivator. But if I was a betting man, I would not continue to play those odds. Why continue to hold to this model?

The point is that none of us act as compassionate as we think we are. But we can much more easily see that in others than ourselves. This absolutely is not a suggestion that we should all be more like Jesus. Rather, it is a suggestion to put more realistic boundaries around our means of motivation to action. I agree with those commentators who regret that we still live in a world where it is the responsibility of minorities to assert their equality. But it has historically always been that world, and it will always be a tiring fight for minorities. But there are also victories. It is an encouragement to me that personal exposure can break through the dogma of politics, as it can for that of religion. I have not felt the identity crisis that is involved in hiding your sexual orientation, or having the courage to share it and experiencing the fallout from it. But if it is anything like the existential crisis of leaving faith, perhaps I can relate. Dogma is impersonal and universal; it cares little for the individual. Individuals, however, personal relationships, can break through and override dogma, and the way to change beliefs is to show people the possibility of another way.

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