Ecclesiastical overreach & gay marriage

John Sentamu, the Archbishop of York, has been arguing against gay marriage. Which, in itself, hardly seems worth commenting about. But what gets my goat is that he supports civil partnerships but opposes gay marriage because, you know, sacred institution between a man and a woman blah blah yawn.

This actually annoys me more than if he just came out and spoke straightforwardly and unapologetically against all forms of homosexual relationship. Because after all, preaching about morality is what religions do, and the idea that homosexuality is a sin has been standard doctrine in nearly all branches of Christianity for most of history. It’s an old-fashioned, socially poisonous doctrine, admittedly; but expounding old-fashioned ideas seems to me to be firmly within the job description of an archbishop.

But when he claims that the state’s definition of marriage should be his definition… well, then he can just fuck off. Marriage is one of the central defining structures our society is built around; the Church of England cannot be allowed to claim ownership of it. Marriage predates Christianity, and is entered into by people of all religions and of no religion. The whole reason that people choose not to get married in church is that they don’t want the church in their marriage.


Gay marriage through the eye of a needle

Oh, for fuck’s sake. Someone is blaming the recent bird deaths on ‘the fact that America is violating God’s prohibition on homosexuality with support for gay marriage and the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.’

This is annoying on so many levels, but the particular one which is bothering me today is this. I’m no biblical scholar, but I do know that Jesus said absolutely nothing about homosexuality. I don’t remember him saying much about sex at all, in fact.

On the other hand he did say quite a lot about money. Most memorably, of course, he said:

And moreover I say unto you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of heaven.

But I don’t remember any of these bible-wielding nutters ever standing up after an earthquake, or a flood, or a load of dead blackbirds, and pointing the finger at Goldman Sachs, or Bank of America, or CitiGroup, or BP, or Exxon Mobil, or for that matter Apple or Google or Wal-Mart. Nope, it’s always the gays, the atheists, the liberals.

Admittedly, it would be equally nutty to blame natural disasters on Wall Street. But at least it would provide a bit of variety.


Why I tend to believe that #amazonfail was a cock-up rather than anything more sinister

Well, firstly because the explanation as laid out here and here seems fairly plausible to me.

But mainly because I just don’t think that Amazon are that stupid. They sell an enormous amount of material which is liable to offend *somebody*: they sell books about being a gay parent and books about curing homosexuality through God. They sell books by young-earth creationists and books by angry atheists. They sell box sets of hardcore porn DVDs. They sell books by holocaust deniers.

The last thing they want is to be seen as endorsing any of those things. It is completely in their interest to be perceived as a non-judgemental buyer and seller of goods; the people who will sell anything, as long as its legal. The moment they are seen as exercising some kind of editorial control on the basis of a moral or political agenda, they lay themselves open to having to defend every product they sell.

They cannot be seen to be taking sides. And I think they know that.



I always thought the US Declaration of Independence had a lovely bit of intellectual sleight of hand. It’s phrased almost as an exercise in logical deduction (various bits bolded for emphasis):

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government … [rhubarb rhubarb] … The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.

[long list of ‘facts’ snipped here]

We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these united Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States….

Quite apart from the awkwardness of reconciling this document with slavery, the phrase I’d particularly  pick out is ‘self-evident’. Jefferson, of all people, must have known perfectly well that over the course of history, it has certainly not been felt to be self-evident that all men are created equal. Or indeed that they are endowed with inalienable rights; or that governments are instituted to secure those rights; or that they derive their powers from the consent of the governed; or that when a government fails in that respect, that it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it.

From Plato to George III, there were an awful lot of people who would have disputed those ideas; it is clearly begging the question to treat them as axiomatic.

As it happens, history has been kind to Jefferson: his revolution went well, and the country he and his cronies set up has become the most powerful on earth. The victory of the democratic way of thinking has been so thorough that it is possible to read the Declaration of Independence and take it at face value, as though it actually was a statement of self-evident truth instead of a piece of political rhetoric. Perhaps that’s for the best: if you believe, as I certainly do, that the principles laid out in the preamble to the declaration are a Good Thing, then it probably helps to have people treat them as an item of faith. But my pedantic soul revolts against it. I’m with Jeremy Bentham on this one:

Natural rights is simple nonsense: natural and imprescriptible rights, rhetorical nonsense — nonsense upon stilts.

Those rights — life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, free speech, freedom of religion, fair trials, take your pick — are not given to us by the universe; they are human constructs, things people have chosen and demanded for themselves. All the more reason to defend them.

You may be wondering why I’ve suddenly started going on about C18th political philosophy: well, it’s because I was struck by same process going on right now with gay marriage. There is an attempt by supporters of gay marriage to frame the question as one of simple natural justice: that this is a straightforward case of equal rights* and that the answer is, in fact, self-evident.

Now I’m a supporter of gay marriage, because I think that, all else being equal, we should avoid excluding a large chunk of the population from a social institution which has a central role in the culture; because the evidence generally suggests that having people in committed, long-term relationships is a societal good, and surely having a load of people keen to marry strengthens marriage rather than weakening it; and because it just seems like a way of making people happier with no obvious downside. But any claim that it is obviously a simple question of fairness seems a bit disingenuous.

I mean: has their ever been any society anywhere which has granted full legal marriage rights to homosexual couples on exactly the same basis as heterosexual marriage? I’m no anthropologist, and there may be examples I just don’t know about, but it seems fair to say that most people through history have not thought it was obvious that homosexual relationships are the same thing as heterosexual ones. The people who argue that ‘marriage is defined as between a man and a woman’ have a point: the introduction of gay marriage does redefine marriage in a fairly major way. There’s nothing unique about that; marriage has naturally been redefined over time as society has changed. But if you’re introducing a social change which is almost unprecedented in the whole of human history, it’s hard to deny that it’s a radical agenda.

I’m not suggesting that supporters of gay marriage should present it as a radical agenda; not if they want to get it into law. On the contrary, I think they are exactly right to frame it as a question of equal rights, and tap into the American rhetorical tradition that goes back via the civil rights movement all the way to Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence. But like the Declaration of Independence, there’s a hint of a rhetorical rabbit being pulled out of a hat, as a rather controversial and radical conclusion is presented as though it was a self-evident truth.

*and indeed equal rites


California says yes to Prop 8…

I was sad to see that Prop 8 (the Californian ballot measure to rewrite the state constitution to ban gay marriage) was passed on Tuesday. I know it’s a big state and more diverse than its liberal image suggests, but you still kind of feel that if California isn’t ready to support gay marriage, it’ll be a long time coming for the rest of the US.

I used to vaguely support the idea of gay marriage as part of a generally liberal view of the world, but after a few online arguments about it I came to the conclusion that if I was suddenly appointed Lord High Dictator of the United Kingdom, it would be one of the first changes I would make on coming into office. Not because I think it’s overwhelmingly important or urgent, but just because it seems like a complete no-brainer. Most political problems are really hard: we all want to improve healthcare and education, reduce crime, help the economy, solve climate change and produce world peace, but it’s not at all obvious how to go about those things.

Allowing gay marriage on the other hand is a really easy decision. Even if you don’t believe it’s a civil rights issue, it just seems like a move with no downside. It’s simple to implement, because all the institutions and laws are already in place for straight marriage, and it makes a lot of people happier without hurting anyone.


John Amaechi, Tim Hardaway and homophobia

I only wandered onto this by accident, so a note for those like me who are outside the US and may have missed this story: John Amaechi is a former basketball player who recently came out. Tim Hardaway is another former player who had some comments about it, as you can see:

There are all sorts of interesting aspects to this story, not least the segment where the ESPN host interviews the radio host whose interview with Hardaway kicked off the incident. I kept expecting someone to unambiguously express outrage at Hardaway’s hate speech, but it just didn’t happen. See, similarly, this article, which frankly made me feel a bit queasy. Or the comments on this other YouTube video.

Every time a sportsperson in a major sport comes out, it has to be a step in the right direction, but it’s clearly not going to be easy any time soon. From a campaigning point of view, John Amaechi probably isn’t ideal as the first NBA player to come out. He wasn’t particularly successful or famous, which reduces the impact. He’s also extremely articulate, and British. Articulate would normally be a good thing in these situations but it doesn’t exactly run counter to gay stereotypes. And that articulacy delivered in an English accent makes him, I imagine, something of an outsider in basketball culture; at one remove from the emotional centre of the game.

As I’m British, I don’t actually hear basketball players talk very often. Perhaps I’m being unfair in my assumption that they aren’t generally intellectual and hyperarticulate. If anything, American athletes often seem more verbally fluent than their British counterparts, possibly because the college sport system keeps them in education longer. But they aren’t employed for their speaking skills, after all.

As I don’t follow basketball, I can’t suggest the kind of player who would make the most impact by coming out. I guess it would be the equivalent of a Roy Keane or John Terry — someone who is the very embodiment of the qualities the supporters like to think are most important in the game.