Christianism and the Gay Marriage Debate
Regarding Andrew’s post about the full-page anti-gay-marriage ad run in the Salt Lake Tribune, I find I am once again conflicted over the use of the term “Christianist.” While I do think it rightly applies to many in the politically active fundamentalist, evangelical movement, and certain factions within the Catholic Church, can it really be applied to Mormons? Mormons are not, by any definition of the word, Christian, so can they truly be labeled Christianists? I think this an example of labels taking precedence over substance. Do we risk muddying up our own causes when we paint with such broad strokes as to wholly mislabel a group of people that justifiably deserve our criticism?
I think it’s easy to get so caught up in our themes – and in this case, the theme is Christianism, or the politicization of religion and Christianity in general – that we lose sight of the larger issue. It doesn’t really matter if it’s Christianists or Mormons or Confucianists that oppose gay marriage. The point is that they oppose it on religious grounds, a position antithetical to our nation’s canon of laws. Certainly religion is taken into account whenever we make judgments based on tradition, and such was the case when our Constitution was founded, but that is not at the heart of this issue. This sort of reasoning may apply to cultural or personal decisions, but not to political or legal ones.
Opponents of gay marriage have adopted faux-conservative positions and adopt religious arguments in place of legal ones, and so within the American legal system any conclusions they draw are false. A better tact for conservatives to take would be to evaluate social harm on a civilizational level – not simply the institution of marriage, but the larger society – and to realize that preserving our civilization, which is by nature one of continued traditions and continuous social progress, entails embracing gays into the mainstream through the institution of marriage. Nothing “normalizes” an outcast sub-culture like the suburbs, two cars, three kids and a mortgage.
The point of conservatism is to preserve the stability of the social order, and the only way to do this is to put out the fires of the culture wars, to take the war out of it altogether, and tackle each issue on a cultural rather than political level. The problem with politicizing the culture wars is that they become self-serving and cyclical–a sort of beaurocracy of ideas. This is why the GOP is ostensibly the party of cultural conservatism and yet never achieves any of the cultural reforms it promises. This is a political tact, not a religious one, and is ironically as much an affront to religious voters as to anyone else.
The point I’m driving at is that perhaps focusing on the Christianist aspect of this is not the right approach. Islamists, Mormons, and plenty of other groups oppose gay marriage. Why meet them on their own terms? Why engage them on that level at all? Faith is too adamant an obstacle, and politicized faith is more of an unstoppable force than an inertia. If the point is simply to illustrate hypocrisy, then I think it’s important to use the term with care. Calling anyone who opposes gay marriage a Christianist waters down the word. When it’s used to describe non-Christians, it becomes almost meaningless.
I think Andrew is playing with fire on this one. Used properly, Christianism can be a valid and effective rhetorical weapon. Used improperly, or too often, it becomes shtick.
Update: The defense of my phrase “by no definition of the word, Christian” is here. And I stand by it. Self-identification is simply not enough. When Sullivan says “no Mormon would agree” I accept that, but it doesn’t change the matter.
UPDATE II: I have a few more things to say about this here.