There was this piece about Barack Obama in the New Yorker a couple of weeks ago. And it had a comment in it — about both same-sex marriage and religious faith — that chilled me to the bone.
âIf thereâs a deep moral conviction that gay marriage is wrong, if a majority of Americans believe on principle that marriage is an institution for men and women, I’m not at all sure he shares that view, but he’s not an in-your-face type,â Cass Sunstein, a colleague of Obama’s at the University of Chicago, says. âTo go in the face of people with religious convictions — that’s something he’d be very reluctant to do.â This is not, Sunstein believes, due only to pragmatism; it also stems from a sense —
and here comes the kicker, people —
that there is something worthy of respect in a strong and widespread moral feeling, even if it’s wrong.”
I’m trying to think of the best way to put this:
No, no, no, no, no.
A wrong moral feeling is not — repeat, NOT — made worthy of respect by being either strong or widespread.
I don’t just think this idea is wrong. I think it’s dangerously wrong. I think this idea — that even if a belief is wrong, if a lot of people share it and hold it passionately then it has somehow earned gravitas and respect — this is among the most destructive ideas that human beings have come up with.
Why? Because it is essentially a self-perpetuation machine for bad ideas.
Do I even need to explain this? Think of all the evil, harmful things in human history that have been supported by a strong and widespread moral feeling. Slavery. Clitoridectomy. Imperialist wars. Religious wars. The disenfranchisement of women. The censoring of information, and active disinformation campaigns, about birth control and sexual health. The Salem witch trials. The Inquisition. Genocides ranging from the Trail of Tears to the Holocaust. Lynchings. Putting queers in jails and mental institutions. Do I need to go on?
And every one of these events and institutions was made stronger and more durable by this “worthy of respect” idea — everyone else thinks it’s okay, so how bad could it really be?
The idea that a strong and widespread moral feeling deserves respect, even if it’s wrong… it’s morality by mob rule, by popularity contest. It’s an idea that enables people to not think about what’s right and wrong in the world, but instead to let everyone else think for them. It’s an idea that makes it possible to not question received wisdom, even if that wisdom is blatantly contradicted by the reality around you. It’s an idea that makes people vulnerable to skillful demagogues who are experts at manipulating strong feelings and fears — especially the fear of being left out, of not being part of the group.
And it’s one of the more troubling aspects of religious faith — the idea that holding strong, passionate religious beliefs is by itself a good thing, regardless of what those beliefs are, regardless of whether they’re demonstrably untrue or demonstrably harmful. The idea that being a “person of faith” is an admirable trait, one you have to give at least grudging respect to… even if you find that person’s actual faith itself to be bigoted, evil, stupid, and/or insane. The idea that a lot of people believing the same thing together at the same time is a beautiful thing — regardless of whether the thing they believe is in any way based in reality. (BTW, before everyone writes in — yes, I understand that this isn’t the only way to be religious. But it’s a depressingly common one. And I think the “faith ultimately trumps evidence” nature of religion makes it unusually susceptible to this way of thinking.)
And I don’t want a President who thinks that. That’s what we had with Bill Clinton — a weathervane President who was unable to take an unpopular moral stand, on same-sex marriage and about a billion other issues. And as much as I would give ten years off my life to have Bill Clinton be President again right now (how depressing is that?), as much as he’s pretty much been the best President of my conscious lifetime (and how depressing is THAT?), I sure as heck wouldn’t vote for him in a primary, and I don’t want another President like him.
Because the upshot is this: Ingrid and I want to get married. Legally. But a whole lot of people have a strong feeling that it’s wrong — and that feeling is supposedly deserving of respect. Even though that feeling is based on ignorance. Even though that feeling is based on hatred and fear. Even though that feeling is being manipulated and taken advantage of by corrupt, power-hungry frauds. Even though that feeling completely disrespects us. We’re still supposed to respect it.
No, no, no, no, no.
Fuck that. We have to do nothing of the kind.
(P.S. Yes, I’m aware of the fact that these are not Obama’s own words — they’re the words of a colleague describing
her his understanding of his ideas. But it’s a colleague who seems to understand him very well. And given the positions he’s publicly taken on same-sex marriage (he supports same-sex civil unions, but opposes same-sex marriage because “marriage is a religious bond”), it seems pretty damn plausible that “worthy of respect even if it’s wrong” is an accurate representation of his position on religious homophobia.)