07/28/13

Christians Make the Best Politicians

I watched a clip from Real Time with Bill Maher last night that featured the Reverend Jim Wallis. Maher tried to get Wallis to say that the Bible was ridiculously contradictory, and Wallis ignored the questions and emphasized how Jesus was the true hermeneutic for Christianity and that there are 2000 verses about the poor in the Bible. Maher looked like his tendentious self, and Wallis made it clear without words that he ignores much of the Christian tradition in order to further his aims.Screen Shot 2013-07-28 at 2.29.37 PM

There are some similarities between this dialogue and Cornel West’s critique of Obama last week. Yes, I understand that the President is a much more powerful person and is an elected official, but the similarities are based on—to use Bill Maher’s fairly crude analogy—how many turds you’re willing to allow in the pool and still swim in it. Maher’s take is that if there are any, you don’t swim. Yet that’s not a position most people take, unless they have absolutely no vested interest in the pool. Maher obviously doesn’t have any interest in Christianity, at least none that he knows of, whereas Wallis—and if you believe the polls, most of America—clearly does. So how dirty is the pool really?

Wallis suggested toward the end of the interview that all the significant recent social justice movements have involved people of faith. Maher reluctantly agreed, and then quipped, “So why can’t we have the good stuff without the bad stuff?” While I don’t think all significant social movements have been spearheaded by people of faith, it would be ignorant to claim that people of faith haven’t been crucially involved in many of them. That is obviously the part of faith that Wallis wants to hang on to, the part that  motivates him and others to do “good” in the world.

So the question is, can we afford not to have a candid conversation about the “bad stuff” too? Wallis knows the political climate is such that he cannot be forthright about Christianity’s many failings without alienating a good portion of his constituency from the social justice work he is trying to do. I would argue that whatever good Wallis comes from Christianity is actually coming from himself, and he is finding himself, his motivation, through the foil of Christianity. Of course he would disagree. But in any other enterprise, if a product were designed to bring about the results Wallis says it is and failed per capita at such a high rate, it would be abandoned, or at least drastically modified.

In other words, if Christianity is designed to bring social justice to the world—setting aside for a moment the vast range of meaning in that phrase—and the majority of Christians who have lived have done little to nothing to advance the cause of social justice, why maintain it? Of course, it is not so easy as to simply discard one of the most historically significant ideologies of human history. My point is that although Wallis is pushing social justice Christianity, that is not the only reason he is a Christian. If it were, then maintaining his position would make no sense. We should therefore, look past his single-issue promotion of the tradition.

Wallis would point, as many do, to the great people of the tradition who have done disproportionally great things. Is it more logical, then, to suggest that these few are the only ones who really understand what’s going on with Christianity, or that their uniqueness and impact must be understood in other terms apart from their religious devotion?

Reza Aslan—a UCSB alum like myself—was part of the panel on Real TIme as well, and he attempted to mediate Maher’s critique of the Bible by suggesting that all readers interpret the Biblical text in some way, so no one is actually a literalist when it comes to the Bible. This was in response to Maher’s comment that fundamentalists aren’t fringe religious participants; they just read the Bible literally. Aslan’s comment, while very scholarly, evidences his lack of stake in the issue by missing the point. He is correct that interpretation is key, but as I have noted before, that interpretation is socially circumscribed. What this means is that it begins to strain credibility to ignore or allegorize, for example, God’s approval of mass murder on multiple occasions in the Old Testament.

However, like Obama, Wallis is too invested to commit political suicide by being completely honest about the myriad contradictions in his position. He won’t outright deny them, but he won’t admit them either. Is that the most morally pure position? No. But it is likely a more fruitful one than the one his opponents, including myself, would like him to take. I guess I’m suggesting there’s more value for the rest of us in working to change that political climate than directing attacks at important leaders for not living up to our ideals.

I would be intrigued to see someone be as committed as Wallis, who seems to know how many questionable parts of the tradition there are, absolutely denounce those portions while still committing to the “good parts,” the Jesus-y parts that motivate many people. Could such a person gain any traction? I don’t know. Anyone who tries to change the world from a religious worldview is doing so for a couple possible reasons. First and foremost, they have had personal experience with it. Second, they recognize the power of religious symbols and institutions. Thus, few of those people see the benefit of nitpicking the traditions they are relying on to spread their message. That is left to those who don’t have any significant investment.

So who is going to move? Will those who see no value in religion acknowledge the good that has been done from religiously motivated people and work to maximize the effect of those? Will religious folk openly denounce the many dirty and embarrassing parts of the Christian tradition and reject those in the hope of getting buy-in from nonreligious folks? Or is the best approach the status quo, an all-or-nothing where things are emphasized or deemphasized, hidden or exposed, but the structure remains the same?

From experience, I know that the most deeply held convictions can change, but what is beyond is unknown until experienced. Our identities are fragile, and our self-understanding about what parts are important is fairly inaccurate, I suspect. Nobody likes a politician, but we’re all politicians.

07/24/13

Me on Dr. Cornel West on President Obama on Trayvon Martin

Screen Shot 2013-07-24 at 12.16.50 PMI used to enjoy listening to Cornel West. Now he just frustrates me, and I’m trying to figure out exactly why. I watched Obama’s comments on the Zimmerman case and was fairly moved by them. Come to find out, I was just taken in. I watched West’s interview with Amy Goodman on Democracy Now where she asked him to reflect on the President’s comments a few days prior. West’s response, in sum, was that Obama was a hypocrite. Though his comments sounded good, according to West, they were invalid for a few reasons. First, Obama is the drone president, and he does not seem overwhelmingly concerned with children who are indirect targets of foreign strikes. Second, he supports both the mayor and police chief of New York City, who have both been proponents of “Stop and Frisk” laws that have disproportionally targeted young black males. There were other reasons as well, but the gist is expressed at the beginning, where West says “Obama has very little moral authority.” (There’s the other side as well, that criticizes Obama for pandering to black folks when the white poor just make better choices, but that’s not worth further comment.)

While the interview served primarily for West to discredit each point of Obama’s speech that was praised by other segments of the media, he never clearly stated the method by which he discounted Obama’s words. But it follows a familiar logic, one that we have likely all used at one time or another in judging others. In this case, it goes something like this:

  • Obama says he cares about the fate of children such as Trayvon Martin.
  • Obama approves drone strikes in foreign countries, some of which kill children.

Therefore,

  • Obama doesn’t really care about children.

Or this one:

  • Obama says he cares about black people.
  • Obama has given vocal praise to people who support practices that unfairly target black people.

Therefore,

  • Obama doesn’t really care about black people.

Of course, our own logical processes don’t live up to this method. Take the following, for example:

  • I am an animal-lover.
  • Love means not wanting the object of love to suffer.
  • I eat animals.

Therefore,

  • I don’t really love animals.

Or this one:

  • I don’t want people around me to die from guns.
  • I own a gun.
  • I support the right to own guns.

Therefore,

  • I don’t really care if people around me die from guns.

Note that these follow a similar logic. The first statement is a sort of identity claim. They all say, in some form or another, “I am a person who is this,” or “If I had my way, the world would operate like this.” These are not factual statements that can be proven or disproven, although it is true that in many contexts they purport to reflect the way things are or the way the speaker wants them to be. Because they are not fact-based, they are open to the broadest interpretation. In this case, West extended Obama’s comments to encompass the broadest categories, found points that seem to contradict his statements, and implied his insincerity because of it.

The problem with this type of critique is not that the points West makes are invalid. Drone strikes are a huge problem. Even the larger lesson that rhetoric can often mask practices directly contradictory to stated aims is well taken. The problem is that no living person, including West, submits all areas of their life to the categorical logic he is using. Right or not, animal lovers might not agree that they don’t love animals because they also eat them. Others might not agree that gun ownership negates a desire to see less gun violence. Yet if one was playing to best possible scenarios, animal lovers would enact a world where no animals died, and people lovers would enact a world that eliminated guns.

So how helpful is this critique? Not very. People that hold unflinchingly to these high and inviolable standards die, because they are incompatible with the world. Anything less is a form of compromise, and we all compromise to stay alive and comfortable. This is not a negative value judgement but a statement. West is a Christian, as he pointed out at least twice in the course of the interview, and thus his model for the world is Jesus Christ, and more recently, leaders such as Martin Luther King. Both were killed. So is West doing everything that he can to enact the world that he claims he wants? Could we look at the scope of his life and find inconsistencies that would seem to invalidate his rhetoric? I’m certain.

Of course, it’s not West that has changed. It’s me. For many years, I lived in a world where I found little logical tension in holding the world and others within it to a high standard, indeed a standard it could not meet. Enter Jesus, who bridges the gap and reconciles the world with God because it cannot live up to the impossible standards. From the inside, that looks like a good place to be. From the outside, it is simply a different form of hypocrisy.

Now when I consider a critique, I also consider very carefully how I measure up to the same standard. Do I think that the government/institutional complex doesn’t “do enough” about race? Well, what am I doing? Is it “enough?” I have been reticent to invest emotionally in the Martin case, because I feel like the relative privilege from which I might spout platitudes invalidates my position.

I know that some speak with sincerity, including West (although he does appear pretty enamored with himself at times). My critique is that compromise should not be sufficient cause to discount one’s position. This is not the same as dismissing all critique because we all fail. I think the president should be held accountable to the extent that he is responsible for actions we deem wrong. But we should be clear about what those standards are and be willing to question our own relation to them. More specifically, I think that idealism about enacting a sort of heaven-on-earth has a place, but the Christian version of such idealism falls short because it also requires allegiance to a narrowly conceived deity that has an arbitrary relationship to the idealism expressed.

The accurate portion of the Christian message, as I mentioned, is that unwillingness to compromise will result in persecution, and if uncorrected, death. The intensity of that commitment, in and of itself, is morally neutral, but it is often valued highly by those who follow. However, we can look through history and see how few have followed that path. While these people have been visionaries, and have often inspired movements, they were also, quite literally, not easy to live with, a fact we all know as we choose not to rock the boat or do so only in safe ways. Obama have little “moral authority” from a Christian or other idealist perspective, but show me a person who does with the same amount of power and influence. It’s much easier to be uncompromising from the sidelines.

How much discrepancy, if any, is allowable between sentiment and action? What amount of action verifies rhetoric? I’m still wrestling with the question.

07/17/13

Missions and Margaritas

I went on several mission trips to Mexico in my teens and twenties. During each, I experienced something of a culture shock as I saw firsthand the comparative poverty of the areas we visited. The “mission,” of course, was to convert people to Christianity through a variety of means, ranging from building projects to children’s workshops to passion plays, which dramatized the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection.

The last trip I participated in was in 2003, and rather than drive over the border, we flew into Central Mexico. We spent most of our time in Tepic in the state of Nayarit. After we spent a week or so there, we had the opportunity to spend a night in a resort in Puerto Vallarta before returning home. A couple friends and I decided to leave the resort and go to dinner in town at a place that was recommended to us. On the way there, it began to pour. It seemed like the water was coming down in sheets and it continued to rain all night. It took some trouble to find the restaurant, and it was on a block so steep that the cab had to take multiple tries to get up the hill to it.

450px-Blended_MargaritaIt was worth it though. We entered the second-story restaurant soaked, but had an excellent meal out on a covered balcony overlooking the city with live music playing in the background and margaritas that grow in size each time I tell the story. (They are currently the size of fish bowls.) We had the restaurant call us another cab to return to the resort, and this time as the cab driver was winding through the dark, drenched streets to get us back, we somehow got around to the topic of religion.

The poor cab driver didn’t know what he was in for when he asked us what we were doing in Mexico. He was fairly open about his religious beliefs once we explained our trip, which probably involved phrases like “sharing the love of Jesus.” He told us he had a Bible on the shelf at home but never really read it. His mother was religious but it didn’t hold a lot of interest for him. He was busy trying to provide for his family. I don’t remember the whole conversation, but I know that my friends and I spent the remainder of the trip back, slightly buzzed, trying to convince him how great Jesus was. Despite our efforts, the ride was too short for us to change his mind and we arrived back at our hotel.

I was, in retrospect, disappointed by the exchange, thinking if I had only said the right things, we might have effected the man’s (re?)conversion to Christianity right then and there. I was acutely aware of how many people don’t “know God,” and how sad their day-to-day lives had to be. In part, that was just the mode that I was in, having spent a week evangelizing the “unsaved,” and it probably involved some guilt at partaking in the typical American resort vacation, tucked away from day-to-day life in Mexico. But there was always a tinge of sadness that mixed with the earnestness when we returned, because it was much harder to evangelize at home.

For church groups, particularly of teens and young adults, taking missions trips to Mexico is fairly popular for a variety of reasons. It’s close and relatively easy to get over the border. But there is also some time-tested institutional logic involved.

If the primary directive of Christianity is the Great Commission—to convert as many people as possible so as to usher in the end of time—as many evangelicals think it is, why do most spend so little time trying to complete this task? Why instead do they venture out mostly in large groups to faraway places rather than evangelize in their immediate surroundings? I think that it is in part because they base a vibrant spiritual connection on evidence in socio-economic well being. We went to Mexico because the poor are more vulnerable, and consequently more open to the Christian message. It helped also that we believed there was a connection between their state of poverty and their spiritual status.

This preference for “vacation evangelization” is not unconnected to our marginalization of the homeless in the United States. Most comments I have heard about the homeless reflect the belief that they are ultimately responsible, not only for getting themselves into the situation they are in, but in wanting to stay there, because surely if they wanted to get a job, they could. Similarly, middle-class Christians often tend to think that physical poverty is a reflection of spiritual poverty, and an improvement in the latter will effect an improvement in the former. In addition, the proximity of homeless in our own communities is unsettling and more important to rationalize than the existence of poverty elsewhere.

I didn’t often think about this connection as a Christian. My motivations were out of pity, although it did cross my mind that we didn’t focus as much attention on the poor in our own community. But why the poor? Why not evangelize those of our own socio-economic background? Perhaps because without a socio-economic disparity, there is no justification for convincing someone that their life would be better off with Jesus. There is no metric of measurement to justify religious belief among our peers.

The lack of urgency to evangelize one’s peers is a reflection of a level of disbelief that “they” are actually better off than “we” are. It is easy to go elsewhere and observe living conditions that would be terrible to experience. The knowledge that you have it better off in social and economic domains  transfers readily to a spiritual domain. After all, Christians understand that their good position in life should be attributed to God. And if someone nearby is experiencing a tragedy, it is easier to step in, assuming—aside from a genuine desire to help—that his/her situation would be more manageable with religious belief. But how do you convince someone for whom life is going well that they are actually not well at all? One might do as Nietzsche suggested Christians do, make others sick in order to make them well. I, like many, convinced myself that others must be more unhappy than they seem in order to justify my worldview. But few have the heart to seriously act on that conviction, to find out if that’s really the case. And if not, it might be beneficial to consider whether Christians are actually better off, and by what standard—other than a Christian one—that might be measured.

Am I suggesting that Christians be more evangelistic with all of their peers? In terms of consistency, absolutely. In my last years as a Christian, the rhetoric of evangelization seemed hollow and hypocritical. I wasn’t shooting for conversions, but I did think it the Christian’s imperative to make a positive impact in his/her communities. So part of me wishes evangelicals were more consistent in application of their beliefs. But I’d rather that Christians realize there is no necessary connection between theological belief and socio-economic position. A reliance on social or economic indicators to prove or evidence divine favor would only prove an arbitrary an cruel deity who caused many to suffer in order that a few might enjoy relative comfort.

07/8/13

Do you believe in magic?

The question of miracles has been in the news as of late because of the process of granting late Pope John Paul II sainthood.  To become a saint, the person in question has to have performed two miracles, and in the case of John Paul II, these were both posthumous. In one case, a nun praying to the late Pope was reportedly healed of Parkinson’s disease. Of course the case is not without critics, some of whom have suggested that the nun was misdiagnosed in the first place. While the particular case is interesting, I am more interested in the opportunity to reflect on miracles in general.

The term miracle is often used colloquially, but it has a specifically religious context. It denotes an event or occurrence that is not explainable by science and is consequently thought to involve divine agency. The problem with the attribution of miracles is that the first part is often hastily skipped over in favor of the second. I assume that the Vatican has a comparatively more rigorous process of verification than others when it comes to attributions of miracles, but I am doubtful that a little science will stand in the way of sainthood.

I guess I am a skeptic when it comes to science, and some of my skepticism is probably unjustified. Part of it is in reaction to what I perceive is a universalization of science over and against religion, a belief that Science has all the answers. But insofar as science represents our methods of verification for our best course of action in the world, and the methods that are grounded in what we know about the world from the world, I rely on the scientific method as much as anyone.

I heard many stories of miracles while growing up in the church, and I was told I was in the presence of miracles from time to time, but I never saw any myself. And this is not a case of deciding now that what I saw then must not have been a miracle after all. Like many Christians, I imagine, I really wanted to see a miracle for the verification of faith it would provide. I heard many stories from visiting missionaries, including one in which God told a missionary to lick the eyes of a blind woman, and it restored her sight. It was a good story, and I wanted to believe it, but I had no way to verify it.

Our church was also involved in the Toronto Vineyard “renewal” movement in the early ’90s. Several members from our church visited to see the supposed presence of God’s Spirit there, which was accompanied by many miracles, including paralytics rising from their wheelchairs and someone having their fillings turn to gold. Of course, none of those things happened at our church. The best we got were strange manifestations in which people would fall on the floor, sometimes writhe around, sometimes roar like lions, and do other strange things. I experienced being “slain in the Spirit” myself, a part of me wanting to believe, another part knowing I could easily be going with the flow.

Should we really believe in miracles? As early as the third century, a significant part of the growing church was already suggesting that miracles had been reserved for the Apostolic age and were no longer possible in the present. Many Christians still justify miracles in the Bible in the same way. God was doing something special back then that he is not now. This seems overall a disingenuous approach, although there is one thread of explanation that has some truth to it. Some argue that the reason we don’t see miracles in the present—or in the First World as opposed to the Third World—is that we don’t have enough faith. It is true that we have the benefit of advanced knowledge of how the world works, and past or comparatively primitive societies have had a much smaller body of knowledge against which to test to veracity of seemingly miraculous occurrences. However, it does little for religious traditions to suggest that we should be more willfully ignorant.

I suspect, then, that few Christians in the First World actually believe in the possibility of miracles, although few of those would admit to such. And it is possible to believe in the possibility of miracles. Science does not have an answer for all the questions in the universe, nor is it likely to for some time. Yet I would be hesitant, as a result, to ascribe a phenomenon to divine agency. And I don’t think it is harmless to do so either. Belief in miracles, especially when other potential means of assessment are available, can cause significant damage. If one takes, for example, any of the many cases of child neglect in the United States based on religious belief, we can see that a belief in the power of miracles corresponded to a lack of medical attention, attention which in many cases would have saved the life of the child in question.

The liberal Christian will protest, “Well that’s ridiculous! I would never refuse medical care to my children!” But if one believes in miracles, what exactly did those individuals do wrong? Are the rules for miracles that one must do everything humanly possible before praying for a miracle? Or is it perhaps that most do not really believe in miracles but continue to give them lip service? If so, why?

The role of miracles in the Bible is complicated to say the least. Miracles are considered proof of the divine at times, and at others they are considered a weak substitute for faith in spite of proof. I suspect that one of the primary reasons the language of miracles still survives is because we are indefatigably ego-centric. Miracles are used as easy explanation for coincidence. Lets say I’m having a terrible day. It’s cloudy and raining and I’m feeling down, doubting myself and my purpose. I pray and ask God for a sign that he loves me. At that moment, the rain stops and I hear a bird chirping in the distance. I conclude that God must be giving me a sign. When explaining this to someone else, I argue, “How else could it be that at the exact moment I was praying for a sign of God’s love, the rain stopped immediately and a bird chirped?”

I have experienced such conversations myself, and the institutional pressure to attribute such occurrences to miraculous intervention is strong, at least in the Christian context and combined with our egocentrism. Subject to scientific experimentation, however, such a scenario would certainly reveal that when people pray, much more often exactly nothing happens than something happens. Our explanation is the result of our limited ability to think of the world in other terms than revolving around our existence.

I am as willing as others to accept miracles if they fit the definition. A missing limb growing back, with documentation and verification, would seem to fit the requirements. But as the evidence and history of miracles is slim, we would do well to be skeptical. Those who cry “Ye of little faith” are not defending miracles against willful disbelief. Rather, they are defending the fragility of belief against the absence of evidence.

Your thoughts? Why/should we believe (or not) in miracles?

07/3/13

I Can’t Change, Can I?

This last month has been an exciting one for the LGBT community. The 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (signed into law by President Clinton) was ruled unconstitutional and the appeal to overturn the overturning of the Prop 8 ban—just as confusing now as it was when Californians voted on it—was rejected. Additionally, the long-standing Christian organization Exodus International, which sought to make gays “ex-gays” through prayer and a stronger relationship with God, has shut down, or at least decided to do a major reboot.

Screen Shot 2013-07-03 at 9.50.59 PMAs I was reading through the responses to these events, though, I was reminded of an argument that has bothered me as a defense of non-heterosexual orientation. Lately, it has been popularized in the Macklemore song, “Same Love.” As the refrain goes: “I can’t change, even if I try, even if I wanted to.” It echoes the argument that sexual orientation or gender identity are not choices  but…something else. What this something else is varies from an explicit genetic predisposition to just “who I am.”

I think that I understand the motivation behind this approach. Choice seems casual, something that can be changed on a whim, while a biological root, core identity trait, or divine origin seems to be a more substantial and immovable foundation. Surely society cannot and should not blame gays for being the way they are if they did not choose their sexual orientation? Given that the most consistent voices against non-“normative” sexuality are Christians, I’m not convinced that the “I can’t help it” strategy is the most effective response .

The nature/nurture dichotomy fights the battle for equality on religion’s terms. If one is in the position of being both Christian and gay, I can see some merit to this argument. After all, conservative Christians will argue against LGBT rights using a whole host of hypothetical outcomes ranging from disease to decline of values to destruction of traditional families, but the root motivation is a conviction that according to God, homosexuality or any non-traditional sexual orientation is wrong. (To be charitable, we’ll set aside for the moment instances of polygamy, rape, and incest in the Bible). The conflict between LGBT identity and the normative sexuality of the Christian tradition obviously creates existential dissonance for gay Christians, many of whom would rather conclude, considering that their sexual orientation is “who they are,” that God made them that way. Whoever gets God on their side wins the battle.

Yet the rest of us outside religious communities are caught in the same dichotomous thinking. Made that way (legitimate) or choice (illegitimate)? Many substitute science for religion and make the same argument. All sides seem to agree that if root sexual orientation is rooted in something completely or partly out of our conscious control, we should accept it. This does have the effect of neatly circumscribing the argument, but I think it unfairly denigrates the effect and importance of choice. (It also cannot account for those whose sexual identity changes in different stages of life without marginalizing one of their choices.)

It’s difficult to argue that campaigns such as that of Exodus International never work. Against the backdrop of a historically hetero-normative culture, organizations like it have obviously succeeded in “curing” many people. Proponents of the “way I am” argument must contend that these people are acting against their true selves, and were thus unhappy. This is likely often correct. But the church and culture has helped keep thousands of couples in unhappy monogamous relationships as well, and popular culture helps much of society feel unhappy with their bodies. The happiness of each individual is not the primary goal in social organization. (I’d argue that a consistent feeling of happiness as life-goal misses the mark anyway, but we operate as if that is what we want.)

Existentialism explains some of why I’d rather have the element of choice play a stronger role in the argument. We are ultimately responsible for our choices, no matter how limited they are; in fact, we cannot not be responsible for our choices. However, the “way I am” approach cedes the discourse of choice to the conservative side. For the Christian, choice is often a euphemism for sin, since it boils down to God’s way or the wrong way, particularly with sexual orientation. But for those not beholden to a religious tradition, why not embrace the element of choice? Limiting our own choices is a way to palliate our anxiety over the innumerable decisions we have about out existence. The more I can attribute or cede to someone else, the less I have to actively evaluate myself. “It’s the law” or “the Bible says so” become causes themselves, and I don’t have to evaluate their effects on others or the innumerable possibilities for change.

I’m not suggesting that we have sole control over all aspects of our lives. From the perspective of social enculturation, I am certainly born with my choices very limited. As a Christian, I grew up homophobic, not in the macho kind of way, but in the way that you fear what you don’t understand and attribute to sin what might actually be a legitimate way of living. Despite all the changes in my beliefs, I still feel “gut” hetero-normative reactions to situations and people that I’d like to think all my education has overcome. My choices are in that way limited by my past, but I don’t expect anyone to take that as an excuse for homophobic behavior.

Neither am I saying there is no biological aspect to sexual orientation; I’m certain that there is, but that doesn’t negate the element of choice either. Ignoring this element is a way to ignore the relative arbitrariness of our moral values. Yet recognizing that nearly all the elements of our society are “chosen” and not “given” would change the nature of this debate.

Two things would have to take place for this to work. First, choice would need to stop being equated with happiness. Choices are often painful, and needing to make choices in the first place is painful. But that doesn’t mean we didn’t or shouldn’t take part in them. I’m wagering that consciousness and acceptance of as many of our choices as possible is better than shifting responsibility elsewhere. The lines aren’t easy to draw, but we should continue to try. If that can happen, then choice/responsibility can be turned against other institutional norms, such as the Christian element that bears much of the burden of stigmatizing sexuality in the first place. The intolerance and violence that has often accompanied “God’s plan” throughout history must be wrestled with more seriously if it is seen as intolerance and violence based on the choices of humanity and not God. If all we have are choices, then no one has a moral high ground and we have to work together to resolve our issues.

For what it’s worth (and it’s worth very little), I voted against Prop 8 and I believe that non-traditional partners should have the same legal and civil rights as heterosexual couples. Will it open the door to other legal challenges and further dilution of traditional marriage? Maybe, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing, and it’s certainly not a reason in and of itself to hinder steps toward legal equality.

I’d love to hear other perspectives on this issue.