A Day of Listening: Andrew Sullivan on Marriage

Yesterday morning I had the chance to talk to a group of pastors pursuing their D.Min. degrees. Invited to share a parting comment, I encouraged them to cultivate what Krista Tippett has called a “ministry of listening.” I suggested that that was particularly true for us white, straight, middle-class men in America who are accustomed to having our voices heard. (All the more so when we build a blogging and social media platform, get books and articles published, and speak in churches and colleges.)

So last year, in the wake of the grand jury decision in Ferguson, Missouri, I set aside an entire week to devote blog space here to sharing the voices of people of color.

Andrew Sullivan
Andrew Sullivan – Creative Commons (Trey Ratcliff)

Today, in the immediate aftermath of a landmark ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court affirming the right of same-sex couples to marry, I want to create a mini-version of that space and encourage readers to listen to the voice of Andrew Sullivan, who championed this cause for many years and briefly revived his blog to share his response.

If you tend to side with the four dissenting justices in the Obergefell case, then I still hope you hear Sullivan’s joy. But even more, hear his hurt, not fully healed, since to do so is to follow Pope Francis “beyond the surface of the conflict and to see others in their deepest dignity”:

We are not disordered or sick or defective or evil – at least no more than our fellow humans in this vale of tears. We are born into family; we love; we marry; we take care of our children; we die. No civil institution is related to these deep human experiences more than civil marriage and the exclusion of gay people from this institution was a statement of our core inferiority not just as citizens but as human beings….

I think of the gay kids in the future who, when they figure out they are different, will never know the deep psychic wound my generation – and every one before mine – lived through: the pain of knowing they could never be fully part of their own family, never befully a citizen of their own country. I think, more acutely, of the decades and centuries of human shame and darkness and waste and terror that defined gay people’s lives for so long. And I think of all those who supported this movement who never lived to see this day, who died in the ashes from which this phoenix of a movement emerged.

Meanwhile, if you agree with the court’s five-justice majority — and, if my Facebook feed is at all representative, most Americans do — please heed Sullivan’s reflection on the earliest days of the movement for same-sex marriage:

…we lost and lost and lost again. Much of the gay left was deeply suspicious of this conservative-sounding reform; two thirds of the country were opposed; the religious right saw in the issue a unique opportunity for political leverage – and over time, they put state constitutional amendments against marriage equality on the ballot in countless states, and won every time. Our allies deserted us. The Clintons embraced the Defense of Marriage Act, and their Justice Department declared that DOMA was in no way unconstitutional the morning some of us were testifying against it on Capitol Hill. For his part, president George W. Bush subsequently went even further and embraced the Federal Marriage Amendment to permanently ensure second-class citizenship for gay people in America. Those were dark, dark days.

Prop 8 rally in 2008
Prop 8 rally in California, 2008 – Creative Commons (Richard Johnstone)

To be sure, Sullivan here wants to chasten many of his fellow Christians for what he sees as their demagoguery, inspired by hatred and/or cynical opportunism. Even Christianity Today‘s Mark Galli, in editorializing against the Obergefell decision, today called evangelicals to repentance: “Our homophobia has revealed our fear and prejudice. Biblical inconsistency—our passion to root out sexual sins while relatively indifferent to racism, gluttony, and other sins—opens us to the charge of hypocrisy. Before we spend too much more time trying to straighten out the American neighborhood, we might get our own house in order.”

But I suspect that many progressives who so easily celebrate marriage equality in 2015 should see themselves in that same paragraph from Sullivan, as it prompts them to recall earlier moments when they were perhaps a bit less enlightened or courageous. (Or, as Sullivan suggests, they may admit that they’ve sometimes viewed marriage as an antiquated construct, not an inalienable right to be fought for.) Perhaps they’ll then extend some patience and empathy to those who are really struggling with today’s ruling and its uncertain implications for religious belief and expression.

And we would all do well to recall Jay Case’s insight that few do anything to earn their convictions about justice, which tend to result less from our own intellectual or spiritual efforts than from the grace of a God who works through flawed individuals, institutions, and processes.

And that leads to one final insight from Sullivan, about the complexity of history:

I recall all this now simply to rebut the entire line of being “on the right side of history.” History does not have such straight lines. Movements do not move relentlessly forward; progress comes and, just as swiftly, goes. For many years, it felt like one step forward, two steps back. History is a miasma of contingency, and courage, and conviction, and chance.

U.S. Supreme Court building
U.S. Supreme Court – Creative Commons (Daderot)

But some things you know deep in your heart: that all human beings are made in the image of God; that their loves and lives are equally precious; that the pursuit of happiness promised in the Declaration of Independence has no meaning if it does not include the right to marry the person you love; and has no force if it denies that fundamental human freedom to a portion of its citizens….


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