Marriage Equality, Suspicion, and Insular Thinking

A fair amount of uncivil discourse has passed through the American public sphere since the end of June when, in their decision on Obergefell vs Hodges, the Supreme Court ruled that the Fourteenth Amendment requires a State to license a marriage between two people of the same sex.

Ken Paxton, Attorney General of Texas, almost immediately released a non-binding legal opinion which, according to Robert Garrett of The Dallas Morning News, stated that clerks could refuse on First Amendment grounds to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples because, as he says, of their religious objections. Paxton added in a press release that there are numerous lawyers who stand ready to assist clerks defending their religious beliefs, in many cases on a pro-bono basis, and that his office, too, stands in defense of their rights.

And Ken Paxton is not alone. In Tennessee, the beginning of July saw the entire staff of the county clerk’s office of Decatur County resign on religious grounds. In Nebraska, Sioux County clerk Michelle Zimmerman said that she will deny marriage licenses to same-sex couples because her religious beliefs prevent her from complying with the law. And in Kentucky, county clerk Casey Davis has called on the state legislature to pass a new law allowing couples to purchase marriage licenses online, so as not to have to violate his religious beliefs by issuing the licenses himself.

These cases in themselves are not inherently uncivil. Freedom of religion is a fundamental right in the United States, and it certainly seems worth having a frank conversation about how to implement this change in the interpretation of the law while respecting, to the greatest degree possible, everybody’s interests.

But in practice, these cases and the discourse that surrounds them are a perfect example of the kind of incivility that is born of a breakdown of communication. All parties are so busy talking to their ideological in-group, and so busy indulging their ideological in-group’s preconceived notions, that nobody can hear the other side speak.

And so when social conservatives over the past several weeks have stood up for religious freedom, too often pro-gay marriage factions have jumped to the least generous possible conclusions. And conservatives have jumped to that same ungenerous place when progressives have celebrated what seems very much like an affirmation of their identity, needs and beliefs.

To see the kind of vitriol this produces, one needs only look at the blanket accusations of bigotry bandied about on Twitter by folks who support the Obergefell ruling.

"Bigot homophobe Texas Attourney General @KenPaxtonTX looks like he might have some personal problems."

"Bigot Brownback Issues Order to Protect Religious Liberty After SCOTUS Ruling"

"Religious liberty does not include being a bigot! New battle for same sex marriage erupts in Texas."

"My hatred of people using religion as their reasoning for being against same-sex marriage is at an all-time high. YOU'RE A BIGOT."

And one needs only look at the kinds of suspicious discourses bandied about by Obergefell opponents. According to The Daily Caller, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal called the Supreme Court completely out of control, and said that the Obergefell decision amounted to an affront to God, country, and political affiliation. Hillary Clinton and The Left will now mount an all-out assault on Religious Freedom guaranteed in the First Amendment, Jindal opined.

While in his dissent on the case (pdf), Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito falls into the slippery slope fallacy, writing that the ruling will be used to vilify Americans who are unwilling to assent to the new orthodoxy, and that those who cling to old beliefs will be relegated to whispering their thoughts in the recesses of their own homes for fear of public persecution.

The sad part about it is that each side seems to be proving the other right. Alito worries that opponents of gay marriage risk being labeled as bigots for their views, and that’s exactly what we’ve seen on Twitter. While progressives fear that resistance to the Supreme Court’s ruling is born of narrow-mindedness, and we’ve seen plenty of that, too. When former Arkansas governor and current presidential candidate Mike Huckabee says that legalization of same-sex marriage would lead to the “criminalization of Christianity,” and that the country “must resist and reject judicial tyranny,” what else should supporters of marriage equality think?

A solution to this – if in fact we collectively want one – exists in reconsidering the purpose of speech. Is the goal of public discourse merely political in the lowest sense of the word? Is it meant to score points, secure donors, and collect votes with the hope of getting elected the next time around? If so – if we want only to talk to the people who already agree with us – then the status quo works fine.

But if Ken Paxton and county clerks around the country are sincere in their concerns, and if a significant portion of the citizenry of the United States feels that their religious freedom is being trampled on by the Obergefell ruling, then speech might have to mean something broader: it might have to mean being quiet and listening, too.

For those of us who work on civility, the Institute’s definition of the term – that is, claiming and caring for one’s identity, needs and beliefs without degrading someone else’s in the process – is almost a mantra: words repeated by rote, filled as much with ritual meaning as with relevant content.

But the Institute’s definition is certainly relevant here.

It’s time for uncivil progressives to take a break from sneering at social conservatives who look at the Bible, or the weight of history, and decide that same sex marriage really has no precedent. And it’s time for uncivil social conservatives to stop dismissing claims from same sex couples that what they want is only what everybody else already has. If we read beyond the insularity and fear, what both sides are expressing is that they want to have their identity, needs, and beliefs respected and protected by law. And through civil discussion – the sort of discussion where every party comes to the table honest about its desires and motivations – a solution where all sides can get what they want is far from beyond the realm of what’s possible.

Beyond Convicted Civility

John Backman is a regular contributor to Huffington Post Religion and an associate of an Episcopal monastery, who has written extensively on topics in Christian spirituality, including contemplative practice and its ability to help us dialogue across divides. He authored Why Can’t We Talk? Christian Wisdom on Dialogue as a Habit of the Heart (SkyLight Paths Publishing, 2012), and his articles have appeared in numerous faith-based publications, progressive and conservative. John currently serves on the board of directors for the National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation.

Is convicted civility the best we can do?

Even asking the question seems petulant — like scolding a friend who traded in her gas guzzler for a Prius. After all, she could have bought an electric car, right? Many of us have no patience for such quibbling over degrees of self-improvement, and with good reason.

Convicted civility is our Prius. Its champions include two celebrated intellects in U.S. seminaries: Lutheran scholar Martin Marty and evangelical thinker Richard Mouw. Indeed, Marty’s quote in the 1990s both described the landscape for convicted civility and hinted at its definition: “People who have strong convictions these days aren’t very civil, and people who are civil often don’t have very strong convictions. What we need is ‘convicted civility.'”

On one side, convicted civility asks those of us with strong convictions to honor all others, seek their well-being, and hear their deepest convictions, particularly when we disagree. On the other side, convicted civility calls on “nice people,” those who “go along to get along,” to give voice to what they hold dear. In this way, any dialogue reaps the benefit of their voices when their voices have not been heard before.

Clearly, convicted civility addresses a crying need in our public square. Just as important, it answers the criticism of civility as too polite to correct injustice, or not adversarial enough to contribute the conflicting ideas that lead to better decisions. That’s where the convictions come in: they are not silenced or glossed over, but rather injected — sometimes boldly — into the general conversation, allowing them to make their full impact without excessive rancor or rudeness.

So convicted civility is the answer then, right? Not entirely. Even while touting it, we can make a case for moving beyond it — for jumping from the Prius to the electric car, if you will. The reason is simple: The limitation of convicted civility is that it leaves us in our convictions.

Yes, convictions can be good in themselves. They come to us from a lifetime’s worth of difficult lessons, intellectual challenge, and painstaking observation. In many cases, those hard-won convictions are precisely the most valuable thing we have to contribute to the betterment of the world. By ignoring them entirely, we hold back something essential to civil dialogue. In the process, we limit the power of dialogue to do what it does so well: bridge divides, build relationships, help us grow in wisdom, forge solutions to difficult issues.

We also limit the power of dialogue when we hold our convictions with unshakable certainty.

Here’s why. Each of us, in the grand scheme of things, can know next to nothing with any certainty whatever. What we “knew” about, for instance, the nutritional value of eggs is not what we know today. Two centuries ago, many religionists “knew” all about the blessings of slavery; no conscientious believer ascribes to that “knowledge” today.

Herein lies the supreme value of civil dialogue. When I realize how much I don’t know, it shows me that I need what you know. That drives me into dialogue with you to get closer to understanding the reality behind the issue at hand — and to understanding one another.

But when part of me is certain about my convictions, unwilling to relax my grip, I am detracting from my ability to listen openheartedly. Just as important, I am denying myself access to the deeper understanding of my convictions that may come in light of what you are saying. I even limit where the conversation might go, because my convictions may require me to silence you with “I can’t go there.”

A better solution, I think, is to hold our convictions, but hold them lightly — even suspending them for the brief time we’re listening to the other. This enables two things. First, with our convictions temporarily not in the picture, we can devote our whole hearts and our full attention to our dialogue partner. Second, it allows our partner’s convictions to interact with our own. Adding this openhearted exposure to convictions outside ourselves can add depth and nuance to our own convictions.

Many years ago, when I ascribed to a fundamentalist version of Christianity, I happened to drive two hours to a business appointment with a certified astrologer. My faith was clear on the evils of astrology. So when she started talking about her practice, I had a choice: I could leave the filter of my convictions in place, searching for holes in her argument, or I could lay the filter aside.

By choosing the second course, I learned so much more than I would have otherwise. She told me about the vast gulf between serious astrology and the tabloid version, the practical aims and goals of the profession, and other things that, together, painted a portrait of an alternative worldview that reasonable people could hold.

Did I throw my convictions to the four winds? No. Did laying them aside temporarily add nuance to my beliefs? Oh yes: as a result, the conversation not only dispelled my fear of astrology, but more broadly prepared me to approach other belief systems — and embrace their practitioners — with curiosity and welcome. For the development of my faith at that time, this was a watershed.

Convicted civility holds so much potential for improving the plight of our public square. It does not have to be the last word, however. Holding our convictions lightly, recognizing how much we don’t know, can open our hearts to a deeper practice of civility: the kind that welcomes all with open arms.