Befriending those with whom we have fundamental disagreements: It can be done

July 8, 2015


Cross-published on the Huffington Post and Stackstreet. 

angry monkeyI say this from my perch on the losing side of the recent Supreme Court decision on same sex marriage: We need to chill out. All of us: gay, straight, transgender, male, female, open-minded, closed-minded, liberals, conservatives, alleged bigots, dogmatists, hypocrites and purported degenerates.


Aside from an occasional comment, I’ve been loath to join this battle for a slew of reasons. First, my many gay friends might read my traditional views on marriage as an insult. Second, few on either side are actually listening. We’re deep in the Shrill Zone. We’re talking at one another and past one other, rarely to one another. We often employ the same words to describe different concepts. The best of one side views marriage as a “sacrament” or a “covenant” — a gift from God involving certain conditions. The best of the other side begins with “marriage equality” and marital “rights” and goes from there (some would argue that all have the right to participate in this covenant and that I should stop oversimplifying).

And woe to the hapless sap who utters the forbidden words: “I disagree with you, but I see what you mean.”

Third, this clash is peculiar to our odd little era. European countries did not issue marriage licenses until the 17th century; American states required registration but granted no licenses until the mid-19th century. The unforeseen consequence: Our secular courts are rendering decisions for a practice rooted in religion.

Meanwhile, I can’t help but notice the incongruity pin-pointed by Ross Douthat:Justice Anthony Kennedy argued that “no union is more profound than marriage” even as Western culture travels on “one of the ironies in which the arc of history specializes.” Many heterosexuals conceive of the words, “I do,” as a guilty plea before the rendering of a long-term jail sentence (“I pronounce you …”). In other words, the most enthusiastic proponents of marriage are now conservative religious families and same-sex couples. Leaders of home-school associations might want to re-write their ice-breakers for those get-to-know-each-other moments. And always remember: Stifling silence and frozen smiles are pathways to in-depth relationships. Keep telling yourself that.

Which brings me to the chief reason for my lack of enthusiasm for this debate: The barn door flung open decades ago and the horses roam on a different planet. They’ve been there ever since 1967, when about a 100,000 “hippies” converged on San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood in their “Summer of Love.” The “New Left” — promulgating an experimental culture free of constraints — began supplanting the American “Old Left,” which was often tied to church-going union workers and New Deal ambitions. The Old Left is preserved in living fossils like me. We swing right on family scruples and left on economic and social policies.

The Supreme Court’s recent decision was an inexorable aftermath in a society that has already redefined marriage, an institution once seen as the sacred space for sex, the main purpose of which was the proliferation of children. We’re not there anymore — and my side’s argument is framed as the imposition of one world-view over another. Even mentioning this decision’s real hazards falls on deaf ears: As Chief Justice Roberts said, the Court overturned the precedents of millennia in a dubious reading of the Constitution so it could eliminate state laws with which five of its members disagreed. That’s not what justices are supposed to do. I now see the wisdom in the words of the late Justice Potter Stewart, who dissented when the Court ruled 8-2 to overturn a ridiculous Connecticut law banning birth control: “I think this is an uncommonly silly law. As a practical matter, the law is obviously unenforceable … As a matter of social policy, I think professional counsel about methods of birth control should be available to all … But we are not asked in this case to say whether we think this law is unwise, or even asinine. We are asked to hold that it violates the United States Constitution. And that I cannot do.”

Stewart was echoing Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., in his calls for “judicial restraint,” a doctrine easily dissed until the Court rules against our cause. Please remember that Justice Kennedy also wrote the majority opinion in Citizens United v. FEC. Both opinions reflect his libertarianism more than anything else.

But the time for legal argument is over. The decision has been decreed and same-sex marriage is with us. It’s now time to chill.

Facebook users on all sides must chill. Friends I’ve known for decades are still posting statements implying that I’m a hypocritical extremist bigot, barely distinguishable from the Taliban. I can’t help but remember the days of our youth, when I easily befriended gay people while they cracked gay-bashing locker-room jokes. I’ve also voted for at least one openly gay candidate.

I’m afraid I’m a wimpy extremist bigot, a disappointment to zealots everywhere.

Of course my side must chill. My fellow evangelicals must remember that the larger culture rejected our view of marriage long ago. Besides, our friends drive by our house and see a shabby home: Our divorce rates are barely distinguishable from our neighbors’ and worthy of a CIA cover-up operation. And then there’s our inconsistent reasoning: Many of us assert a government-keep-your-mitts-off libertarian political philosophy but a hands-on approach in “traditional family values.”

People are talking. They’re saying: “Whuh?”

Perhaps Ed Cyzewksi was right when he said, “the Supreme Court just gave American Evangelicals a gift.” We were framed as tyrannical oppressors imposing sharia-like laws. The law is now settled, so we can stop firing blanks in the Culture War and really engage society in a meaningful debate.

To the larger gay community, I say this: I understand your celebration (” … disagree … see what you mean …”) – and no one with an ounce of empathy would begrudge you that. I even appreciate Brandon Ambrosino’s challenge: People like me should view same-sex relationships like the original Christians viewed circumcision. I’m not convinced, but I’m grateful for his dialogue. I was especially warmed when he said this: “All of us – right and left, gay and straight, religious and agnostic – need to take a moment to regroup and refocus. From this day on, we need to behave differently toward one another.”


Ambrosino’s approach is far more constructive than Mark Oppenheimer’s, who says we should remove the tax exempt status of charitable and religious organizations. Count the number of hospitals named after a saint, Mark. They didn’t suddenly grow like mushrooms in the woods. And remember our most prestigious universities: Religious organizations established Notre Dame, Georgetown, Yale, Princeton, and Harvard, to name a few. Many of us have fed from religion’s hand without knowing it.

Chill out, one; chill out, all. To conservative Christians who think no Christian will differ on this issue, chill. They already differ. To advocates of same-sex marriage who say all people like me are fanatics, chill. You need to get out more. Some of us are, indeed, mean old jerks. Others are friendly jerks. Find out who is who and which is which.

And to all my Facebook pals: I yearn for that halcyon era when we posted pictures of our families and wished each other a happy birthday. Those were good days.

About Charles Redfern

Charles Redfern is a writer, activist, and clergyman living in Connecticut with his wife and family. He's currently writing two books, with more in his head.

View all posts by Charles Redfern


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