Defending Our Morality

Originally appeared August 16, 2000, in the Chicago Free Press.

Two years ago Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., spoke up on behalf of those who hold "sincerely held morally based views" of an anti-gay nature, warning that it was wrong to charge them with bigotry just because of their "disdain" for homosexuality. In practice, this means that he expects us not to insist of those who publicly denounce homosexuality that they offer any rational explanation of or defense for their views. It is surprising that our gay leadership does not more vocally challenge such ground rules for debate.

THE FUNDAMENTAL CONTROVERTED ISSUE about homosexuality is not discrimination, hate crimes or domestic partnerships, but the morality of homosexuality.

Even if gays obtain non-discrimination laws, hate crimes law and domestic partnership benefits, those can do little to counter the underlying moral condemnation which will continue to fester beneath the law and generate hostility, fuel hate crimes, support conversion therapies, encourage gay youth suicide and inhibit the full social acceptance that is our goal.

On the other hand, if we convince people that homosexuality is fully moral then all their inclination to discriminate, engage in gay-bashing or oppose gay marriage disappears. Gay youths and adults could readily accept themselves.

So the gay movement, whether we acknowledge it or not, is not a civil rights movement, not even a sexual liberation movement, but a moral revolution aimed at changing people's view of homosexuality.

In this light, consider a disturbing speech by Senator Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., now the Democratic nominee for vice president, printed in the Congressional Record of July 10, 1998. Lieberman said:

"Many Americans continue to believe that homosexuality is immoral and not just because the Bible tells them so. ...

"... This is one of the few areas where Americans of all religious inclinations feel so strongly that they are willing to risk the tag of intolerance to express or hold to their points of view ...

"It is unfair, then, for anyone to automatically conclude that people who express moral reservations or even disdain about homosexuality are bigots, or to publicly attack them as hateful. These are sincerely held morally based views."

Lieberman does not quite say he himself regards homosexuality as immoral. He does say that people who think so and express disdain about homosexuality are not bigots.

The reason they are not bigots, Lieberman says, is that their views are sincerely held and morally based. We know that, he says, because they are willing to risk being accused of intolerance in order to express their opinion.

So if you are willing to risk the accusation of intolerance, then we know your view is sincerely held and morally based and you are not a bigot.

Another way we know a view is morally based, Lieberman says, is that although some people hold it because the Bible says so, others hold it because something else - "not just the Bible" - says so.

What is that something else? Lieberman shies away from telling us. It is just ... something else. As Ayn Rand used to say about similar evasions, "Blank Out!"

But making a moral claim, even on behalf of others, does not relieve anyone of the responsibility for explaining its basis. The test for morality is not consensus, or fervor or sincerity, but reason.

People disagree about whether many things are moral or immoral. The only way to decide which is right is by examining the reasons people offer.

But people who cannot or will not tell us what reasons support reservations about or disdain for homosexuality are refusing to engage in rational discussion.

And holding strong views without providing defensible reasons is what we usually mean by "bigotry."

There are four counter-arguments we can make.

First is the standard, boilerplate condemnation of so-called hate-speech: "All fair minded Americans and progressive thinking people will surely condemn such harmful and divisive speech," etc., etc.

This kind of talk no doubt makes self-avowed "fair minded and progressive thinking" people feel good about themselves, but it does nothing to convince people who are not already convinced, which you would hope is the main point of making a response at all.

Second is the familiar school yard rebuttal of "Well, that's just your opinion." The adult version is, "We live in a pluralistic society where people hold diverse moral views about these issues." Both versions amount to saying that all opinions are equal so the anti-gay view has no more validity than any other.

But this has the unfortunate corollary that then our own pro-gay opinion is no better than the anti-gay one, so there is no reasons for anyone to take our view more seriously than any other. To the contrary, we should be arguing that our view is better than the anti-gay view - more moral, more reasonable, more humane, etc.

A third response is to remind people of the familiar historical counter-examples where "sincerely held, morally based" views based not only on the Bible were clearly immoral and maybe even bigoted.

Slavery and racial segregation are two obvious examples. Another would be the lengthy resistance to legal and social equality for women. A fourth would be the long, painful history of anti-Semitism, something Senator Lieberman should be well aware of.

But these examples only prove that some sincerely held morally based views are wrong. They do not prove that all such views are wrong - clearly some are not - nor that they are wrong about homosexuality.

In any case, these are merely defensive maneuvers, meant only to neutralize anti-gay views. They do nothing to generate pro-gay views or encourage people to see homosexuality as moral.

So we need a fourth response, offering affirmative reasons for why our sexuality and our sexual behavior are moral. But that means our spokespeople would have to engage in moral reasoning and most seem surprisingly reluctant to do that.

If they cannot or will not, perhaps we need better leaders.

Comments are closed.