Saturday, February 07, 2009

Less Shouting, More Talking

Richard J. Mouw was my first philosophy professor. I had Philosophy 102 with him at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, in the Fall semester of 1970. That was almost 40 years ago. He was then a vibrant junior professor at the beginning of his career, and I was a young and callow fellow in my second year of college -- in the era of hippies, Mao jackets, SDS and Vietnam. Mouw was energetic, engaging and entertaining, and a very, very good teacher. I still remember vividly his discussion of Plato's Phaedo, peppered with humor and a good measure of contemporary illustrations.

So I was surprised to see that Mouw -- now President of Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California -- had an article in Newsweek's "My Turn" column. Mouw was always a judicious, if amusing, stand-up guy: fair-minded and well-spoken in all his judgments. We knew where he stood on the issues, but he would always bend over backwards to avoid alienating the opposition. Good guy. His Newsweek article is no exception. Thought you might like it too. It's entitled "Less Shouting, More Talking" (Newsweek, January 31, 2009). Summary: "Yes, I voted for Prop 8. Yes, I oppose gay marriage. But that doesn't make me a religious fundamentalist."
On the morning of Nov. 4, I saw an angry confrontation between two groups at an intersection in my California town. Both sides were carrying signs: one set supporting Proposition 8—the ban on same-sex marriage—and the other opposing it. The two groups were angrily shouting and gesturing at each other as I passed by. That's when the tears welled up.

I voted for the ban. As an evangelical, I subscribe to the "traditional" definition of a marriage, and I do not want to see the definition changed.

Does that mean I want to impose my personal convictions on the broader population? No. I celebrate the fact that we live in a pluralistic society, with many different worldviews and lifestyles. I support the democratic process and believe that civil society is at its best when people with different perspectives engage in a mutually respectful dialogue. And that's why the tears welled up on Election Day morning. The angry sign wavers on opposite corners symbolized the way this whole disagreement over same-sex marriage has gone. Angry shouts. Shaking fists. It makes me sad.

This is something that happens on occasion in an intimate relationship. People who care deeply about each other start arguing about some touchy issue. As temperatures rise, so does the rhetoric. Mean-spirited things get said. The situation seems hopeless.

That is why I want to issue this plea to my fellow citizens on both sides of this divide over sexuality: Can we talk?

I ask this as someone who has been one of the angry ones—angry about things that have been said about people like me. I've been on talk shows where people phone in to call me a fascist or equate me with those who burned accused witches at the stake. One remark that hit especially close to home was made by the editor of this magazine. He wrote that anyone—anyone!—who tries to make a scriptural case against same-sex marriage is guilty of "the worst kind of fundamentalism."

That hurt. I have spent several decades of my life trying to spell out an evangelical alternative to "the worst kind of fundamentalism." My friends and I have argued that the Bible supports racial justice, gender equality, peacemaking and care for the environment—views that often draw the ire of the worst kind of fundamentalists. But none of that seems to matter to folks who don't like our views about same-sex relations. Because we also believe that the Bible frowns on sexual intimacy outside of marriage between a man and a woman, we are being relegated to the margins of the civil dialogue.

I refuse to go to the margins. As my fellow citizens in a pluralistic society, gays and lesbians have a right to ask me what my sincerely held convictions mean for how they pursue their way of lives.

While my views about sexuality are shaped by my religious convictions, I know that I cannot simply quote the Bible in arguing for public policy. Not every sin ought to be made illegal. But in this case, the issues go deep. For many of us, "normalizing" same-sex marriage comes down to deep concerns about the raising of our children and grandchildren. What will they be taught about sexual and family values in our schools? How will they be affected by the ways the entertainment media portray people with our kinds of views? And will we even be allowed to counter these influences in our homes and churches without being accused of "hate speech"?

And, fair or unfair, "slippery slope" concerns loom large. Are there limits to what we can be asked to tolerate when it concerns matters that violate our convictions? If we were to accept mutual consent and deeply felt convictions as a sufficient basis for allowing the legalization of same-sex relationships, what would keep us from extending marriage to a three-partner arrangement?

But I also want to hear from folks who worry about my views. What is it about people like me that frightens you so much? What would you need to hear from us that would reduce your anxiety? What is your vision of a flourishing pluralistic society? Where do people like me fit into that kind of society?

Maybe I am unrealistic in thinking we can have this national conversation. But the alternatives are frightening. Posing this question has worked at other times when people seemed hopelessly at odds. So let's try asking it now as a nation, and in a gentle tone: Can we talk?

Mouw is the president of Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif.
Once, in the now defunct Reformed Journal, I remember Mouw relating how, in a Catholic Church in Europe, he witnessed a young woman and her skinhead boyfriend making rude remarks and gestures in front of a statue of the Blessed Mother. The woman then broke down and fell on her face weeping in front of the statue. Mouw, a good Calvinist, witnessing all of this, said that he couldn't help offering up a little prayer to the Blessed Mother herself. "Please pray for her." Something like that. Great guy.

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