Thursday, February 20, 2014

Did Christianity give us marriage equality?

I read a piece today on TheWeek.com that suggested the answer is yes. As with so many things in politics, it’s complicated.

The author, Damon Linker, said that Christian values created the foundation for the new USA’s egalitarian streak. He cites Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America, long one of those “must read” works for students of American politics and government. Linker says that book, written some six decades after the Declaration of Independence, details how the Christian belief in equality was a driver in the early years of the republic.

I think he’s basically correct about in his interpretation of Tocqueville's words. The larger question, however, is, was Tocqueville right? Is Linker’s conclusion?

Partly. In the early republic, Christianity certainly played a role, but not all of it was on the side of equality. Christians backed slavery, after all, and some of the New England Puritans were not exactly broad-minded people.

By the late Nineteenth Century, however, Christian values were gone as America (and other Western countries) rapidly industrialised. This was the age of sweatshops, child labour, robber barons and greed and corruption on a grand scale. Not very Christian at all.

On the other hand, when avarice led to the Great Depression, the response—the New Deal—had at its core fundamental Christian values (like taking care of the old, the sick, the desperate as well as children). Those underlying ideas would remain unchallenged until relatively recently.

As the modern rightwing attempts to destroy the social contract that’s been at the heart of US social policy since the New Deal, it’s also abandoning truly Christian ideals, too, and replacing them with something more like those of the robber barons of the 19th Century.

So, those ideals have ebbed and flowed throughout US history, but there’s a more important thing here: None of those ideals are solely Christian. Indeed, most of the Founding Fathers weren’t Christian as we use the term today, and many were Deists. Their ideas were informed by Christian theology, but they were also influenced by other thinkers of The Enlightenment.

What all of this means is that Christianity can’t claim sole credit for whatever commitment to equality and social justice the new USA had, nor was it an entirely positive force for good (again, slavery, for example).

Interesting as the debate about the past may be, there’s no doubt that today’s Christianity cannot lay claim to advancing equality, right? After all, plenty of Christians opposed the Black Civil Rights Movement and now oppose marriage equality. Also, US fundamentalists have been instrumental in promoting viciously anti-gay laws throughout the world, Africa in particular.

Well, yes, but: Christians were also at the forefront of battles to win civil rights for Black people and many today are fighting for full equality for LGBT people. I’d say that the fact that we associate Christians more with opposing equality than advancing it says more about the rightwing’s vastly superior propaganda skills than it does about Christian commitment to equality.

Nevertheless, today’s Christians are generally seen as opponents of equality and social justice, rather than its champions. I’ve argued many times that progressive Christians need to “lift their game” and make clear that the rightwing doesn't speak for them.

For many reasons, marriage equality will be the law in all 50 US states sooner than any of us realise. I agree with Linker that “equality always wins.” Despite recent hysterical and desperate moves by the USA’s rightwing to enshrine anti-LGBT bigotry in law, in the end, they WILL lose.

But when Linker says, “equality became the lodestar of Western culture thanks to Christianity,” he’s only partly correct. The historical record of Christians in the new USA was not wholly positive, the Founders of the country were not all Christian, and over the past 150 years or so, much has been done to subvert whatever Christian tenets might have been at the core of US political beliefs at the beginning of the country.

Instead, I’d say that true Christians have done much to advance equality in the USA, but they’ve done so largely unseen by the public because the Christian enemies of freedom and equality get all the publicity. The devil always gets better press, they say.

So, if equality became the lodestar of Western culture thanks to Christianity, it was a subset of Christianity and Christians, and to them we are indebted. The rest, however, are best left in the past, where they are clearly more comfortable.

One last thing: Tonight I downloaded an e-book version of Democracy in America from iBooks (it’s in the public domain, so free copies are available all over the place). I think it’s about time I re-read it.


rogerogreen said...

There have always been Christians on the right side of American history, going back to the Rhode island colony, to the faithful who opposed slavery, and beyond.

coreplane said...

I think what's happened is that the branch of Christianity embraced by the political/economic right wing has been ... err ... 'infected' by a social Darwinist ideology. Those consider wealth a heavenly reward for a virtuous life, and thus that poverty indicates a lack of virtue. So if you're suffering from want, it's your own fault/weakness/lack of fitness. This is, of course, a monstrous, self-serving misinterpretation of "survival of the fittest" (a phrase which I don't think Darwin ever actually used.)

That kind of thinking has always been rather an easy sell to the very rich. The trick is to get the poor to swallow it-- that's where religion comes in handy-- so they don't rebel & demand a life of human decency & equality.

Logan said...

I would say this is untrue. So many cultures had equality until Christian missionaries came along and taught them to be ashamed.

Did you see this video about the history of marriage?

Arthur (AmeriNZ) said...

Exactly so, and there are today, too. They're the ones I was referring to as "true Christians", as opposed to the ones who claim the name but work to subvert the essential messages contained in the gospels.

Arthur (AmeriNZ) said...

I think there's an element of that, too, along with a healthy dose of Calvinist pre-destination. Selling the nonsense to the poor and working classes hasn't always been the work of preachers, though, at least, not exclusively. Sometimes it's also been done in the secular realm through what we now call spin, cleverly done to sell the idea that those on the liberal and left end of the spectrum want to take away what little the working poor have to give to those people (usually racist targets, but sometimes others). These oligarchs and plutocrats are often not religious at all, but are happy to use religious conservatives to do their bidding (like, voting for Republicans). However, the two also often don't get along. And that, I'd say, is the essential conflict in today's Republican Party.

Arthur (AmeriNZ) said...

LOL, that link goes to the web version of Animates latest mailer… maybe the critters want to have a say, too? :-)

I think that missionaries have certainly done a lot to destroy equality within cultures they came into contact with, but they, too, had help: In NZ, for example, colonial did damage, too. However, I do think that the thrust of the article was a sort of Christian apologetics that gave that religion a bit too much credit.