Thursday, January 30, 2014

The Purpose of Fantasy

The Purpose of Fantasy, by Philip Martin

I just finished Philip Martin’s The Purpose of Fantasy. It's a lovely book, and a gift to any lover of fantasy fiction. Among other things, it tackles head-on the way in which fantasy is unjustly marginalized in the literary world.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Civil Marriage vs Civil Union: Why NOT Leave Marriage to Churches?

I've heard many people on both sides of the same-sex marriage debate make the following remark: "Really, the state should stay out of the marriage business altogether. They should offer civil unions to anyone who wants legal standing for their partnerships, and leave marriage to the churches."

Well, why not? There may be reasons for the state to legally recognize and regulate domestic partnerships--but "marriage" is such a heavily weighted concept, fraught with religious and social significance. Why couldn't the state avoid all the controversy by just announcing that it's limiting its role to making legal contracts between domestic partners, without intending these partnerships to be "marriages," however that contested concept is understood?

Saturday, January 25, 2014

"Hey, let's ban ALL marriage so we can keep the gays from having it!"

Faced with a federal ruling against Oklahoma's Constitutional same-sex marriage ban, some Oklahoma lawmakers have taken an attention-grabbing step: Propose eliminating legal marriage altogether in the state.

This is an interesting move, especially when one recalls that one of the key pieces of legislation blocking same-sex marriage rights for two decades was called the DEFENSE of Marriage Act.

The conservatives opposing extending legal marriage rights to same-sex couples have marshaled many arguments against it. Most of them, in my judgment, have been pretty awful. But the one that has always struck me as the most sensible, if ultimately unconvincing, is this one (reconstructed as charitably as possible):

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The Gay Agenda

Sally Kern--the Oklahoma state representative who once declared that gays are a bigger threat to America than terrorism--has been talking about the gay agenda again. This time, she's taken the public stage in response to the recent ruling by a federal judge declaring that Oklahoma's constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage violates the federal constitution

Her invocation of the legendary gay agenda sent my imagination into overdrive. Here is the result.

The nefarious Gay Agenda Team (better known as the Gay-Team) has gathered once again in their secret base of operations (better known as Joe's basement apartment) to plot their next move.

Joe, leader of the group, stands by the heavy wooden table that dominates the center of the room. He carefully smooths out his worn copy of The Gay Agenda. His fingers touch the page almost tenderly as he scans the now familiar list of numbered goals. 10 of them, in deliberate mockery of the much-despised Ten Commandments.

The other members of the team--Billy and Gary--are eating leftovers and drinking beer on the sofa and watching old recordings of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.

"Alright people, let's get going."

He's ignored.

Billy lets out a gasp. "He looks so much better with that new haircut. Doesn't he look so much better with that new haircut?"

"Definitely," answers Gary through a mouthful of reheated Chicken Tikka Masala.

"I said let's get going!"

The others grudgingly shuffle to the table.

"First off, let's have some updates on how things are going. Gay Agenda Item One: Take over the public education system so that we can use the indoctrinating power of the schools to make all children gay. How's that proceeding. Billy?"

Billy squirms a bit. "Um, well, turns out that schools hire based on teaching ability and devotion to educating children, not gayness. So our agents had to get college degrees in elementary education and compete with everyone else for teaching jobs."

"I don't want excuses. I want an update. How's it going?"

"As I was saying, schools hire based on ability and devotion to education. So our agents had to, you know, become talented and dedicated teachers. And, well, now they seem to care more about teaching the kids than indoctrinating them to be gay."

"You mean our agents have been turned?"

"Well, not exactly. I mean, they're still gay. But it turns out...well, I hate to break this to you, but it turns out schools don't have the power to make kids gay, even if they tried. It's like it's biological or something."

Joe lets out an audible sigh. "So what are you telling me?"

"Some of our agents like being teachers. Because they're good at it and they want to make a positive difference in the lives of kids. And they just want to, you know, do that. This whole indoctrination business strikes them as a pointless misdirection of their energies."

"So they have been turned!"

"Joe. They just want to be teachers. Why don't you, I don't know, cross out Gay Agenda Item One and replace it with something like, Promote a world where anyone with a talent for teaching who cares about positively impacting the next generation is free to become a school teacher without recrimination or discrimination based on nothing but sexual orientation."

Joe stares at Billy. "First of all, that's a lot of words."

"I can probably shorten it with the help of a good editor."

"Second, it doesn't sound nefarious. We're supposed to be nefarious. This just sounds like people wanting equal opportunity and freedom from discrimination."

"Yeah. The thing is, Joe, we're not so big on the whole 'nefarious' thing. We just want equal opportunity and freedom from discrimination."

Joe feels his blood pressure rising. He takes five deep breaths before turning to Gary. But Gary has disappeared. It takes him a moment to notice the top of his blond hair, just peaking over the edge of the table.

"Gary, what are you doing down there?"

"Petting Molly." And then, in a higher voice: "You're a good widdul girl, aren't you Molly? Yes you are! Yes you are!"

Joe can hear Molly's excited whine. He sighs. "Stop petting the dog and tell me about Agenda Item Two."

Gary rises and looks across the table at Joe. "Agenda Item Two?"

"Yeah, you know, the one about systematically destroying heterosexual marriage by changing laws so gays can marry each other?"

"Right. Well, we've actually made really good progress on the changing the laws part."

"So I've heard. And?"

" turns out it has no effect on heterosexual marriage."


"Straight couples...well, their marriages are just the same as they were before. Bad marriages fall apart at about the same rate. Good marriages are still as good as they were before. No change."

"But I was assured by Anita Bryant and James Dobson that gays getting married would destroy marriage!"

"Yeah. Turns out they didn't know what they were talking about."

"Okay, but what about the conservative Christians who argued that letting gays marry would trivialize their marriages. Surely they now find their own marriages to be trivial, right? They look at their marriage and say, 'Well, this doesn't mean anything to me anymore, since gays have it too,' right? I mean, at least their marriages must be falling apart."

"Apparently not. Just recently Rick Santorum was going on about how strong his marriage was and how meaningful and important it was to him."

"What!? Even Rick Santorum? Even he still finds his marriage valuable and meaningful even though gays can get married too? How is that possible? I would've sworn that at least he would experience his most intimate relationship as suddenly trivial and empty. You mean he still loves his wife and finds meaning in their union?"


Joe's head sags. "I guess that was a failure. I suppose we should just abandon that marriage equality strategy and--"

"Actually, we want to keep going with that one."

"But why? You just told me that it didn't work!"

"The thing is, we don't care about destroying the institution of marriage. We just want to have access to it, too. You know, equal opportunity and freedom from discrimination."

"That again? Next thing you know, you're going to tell me to crumple up this whole Gay Agenda and just replace it with Pursue equality of opportunity and freedom from discrimination, regardless of sexual orientation."

"Well," says Gary, "now that you mention it." He looks at Billy.

Billy nods. "Equality and freedom from discrimination. The new Gay Agenda. That, and getting the laundry done."

"And having a Doctor Who marathon," Gary adds. "Next Tuesday, my house."

"Doctor Who," Joe breathes. "That's the Gay Agenda? Equality, laundry, an Doctor Who?"

"About right. Yup."

For a moment Joe hesitates. After all, he's been devoted to his nefarious schemes for a long, long, time. But he does like Doctor Who. A lot. And the magical whining sound of the Tardis can fill many empty places in his heart. Even, perhaps, the hole left by a Gay Agenda that nobody ever really believed in anyway.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Satanic Monuments and Church-State Separation: The Perspective of One Oklahoma Christian

Oklahoma made news this week when the Satanic Temple unveiled the design for its proposed monument to Satan, which it has sought a permit to build on the grounds of the Oklahoma capitol building. Here's what it would look like:

Satanist Monument

Kind of like a goat-headed Santa Claus, at least going by the looks on the children's faces. I'm not sure actual children would be quite so adoring.

In a tongue-in-cheek statement, the spokesperson and leader of the Satanic Temple, Lucien Greaves (aka Doug Mesner), noted that the monument would be functional as well a symbolic, serving as a place "where people of all ages may sit on the lap of Satan for inspiration and contemplation" (although, as Robin Abcarian of the LA Times has noted, the monument might be more suitably used as a time-out chair by parents--a proposal that might cause me to rethink my view that time-out is generally preferable to corporal punishment).

The proposed monument is a response to the erection, in 2012, of a privately-commissioned Ten Commandments monument that is now on display on the Oklahoma capitol grounds. Doug Mesner has elsewhere acknowledged that the Satanic Temple was originally created to serve as "a 'poison pill' in the church/state debate. The idea was that Satanists, asserting their rights and privileges where religious agendas have been successful in imposing themselves upon public affairs, could serve as a poignant reminder that such privileges are for everybody, and can be used to serve an agenda beyond the current narrow understanding of what 'the' religious agenda is." Their current move is in the spirit of this founding mission.

The ACLU is currently suing to have the Ten Commandments monument removed--and the state of Oklahoma has put a "moratorium" on further religious monuments pending the outcome of the suit (there have, since the erection of the Ten Commandments monument, been requests from several other groups to erect monuments, including representatives of a major world religion, Hinduism). Put another way, the state has actually been able to use the ACLU lawsuit as a kind of cover--allowing them to reject other organizations' petititions for monument space.

But, eventually, the lawsuit will run its course. If the ACLU wins, the Ten Commandments will be taken down and the Satanists won't be able to erect their goat-headed Santa. But what happens if the ACLU loses?

There is, after all, an argument that could be made that keeping the Ten Commandments monument does not violate the establishment of religion clause in the Constitution. If the monument is treated as an historically significant symbol of the rule of law, apart from its religious content, there might be an argument for saying that the state of Oklahoma is not violating church/state separation by allowing a private group to erect the monument. This, in fact, seems to be the line that supporters of the current monument are taking.

But the state could make this case for preserving the monument only if it were equally open to erecting other such law-symbolizing monuments, and only if it adopted religion-neutral procedures for deciding which such symbolic monuments to erect. That is, they'd need to make decisions about monuments with no favoritism based on the religion of the monument sponsors and no favoritism based on the sectarian religious messages symbolically endorsed by the monument itself--and with a commitment to even-handedness in the implied message that the resultant mix of symbolic monuments conveys.

If the State of Oklahoma wants to pursue that course, they might win. And they might even avoid having to put up the proposed Satanic monument, since it is not overtly a symbol of the rule of law. But the Satanic Temple folks have proven themselves clever enough that they could quite readily revise their proposed monument to reflect the Satanic Temple's attitude towards laws.

And, in fact, the Satanic Temple does seem to have a law-and-order perspective that they want to bring into public conversation. Speaking of the Satanic Temple's relationship to Anton LaVey, author of the "Satanic Bible," Mesner had this to say:

LaVey’s rhetoric tended toward Social Darwinistic Police State politics. Since 1995, violence in the United States—and, in fact, the world over—has been in decline, and we’re now in a position to evaluate what’s working for us, and where we went wrong previously. Certainly, a strong and effective police presence is a contributing factor, but we also find that autocratic governments breed social violence. We also find that Social Darwinism, interpreted in brutal, strictly self-interested terms, is counter-productive, and based on a simplistic misinterpretation of evolutionary theory. We do better when we work in groups, where altruism and compassion are rewarded. We are social animals. That said, however, I believe in a system that runs meritocratically. Also, revenge is a natural impulse, without which justice would never be served. We should do our best to mitigate the pain of those who are suffering, whoever they are—but also be diligent to punish the misdeeds of those who behave unjustly to those around them.
According to Mesner, the Satanic Temple does not embrace Satan as a literal being, but as a symbol wedded to an atheistic worldview. Satan names "a rebel angel defiant of autocratic structure and concerned with the material world," and this serves as an apt metaphor for a certain attitude towards political freedom and atheism, one that could be symbolically represented in a way that would likely meet the requirements for a monument on the Capitol grounds.

In other words, even if the particular monument proposal currently offered up by the Satanic Temple could be rejected in a manner consistent with church-state separation (while still preserving the Ten Commandments monument), it doesn't follow that the State of Oklahoma is safe from Satanic monuments.

Put more simply: If the state really wants to fight for the Ten Commandments monument in a manner consistent with church/state separation, it opens a big door. And while space limitations may give the state some leeway to choose among proposed monuments, the mechanisms whereby such choices must be made would be fraught with complications, potentially unsavory outcomes, and dangers of future lawsuits. Not to mention an aesthetic mess as rival groups clamor to install their goat-Santas and Flying Spaghetti Monsters on the Capitol grounds.

I'm a fan of the Ten Commandments. But I'm also a fan of church/state separation. The constitutional prohibition against state sponsorship of a particular religion is a promise to every religious and non-religious community in the country. It is a promise against having our religious freedom curtailed by the demands of a different religion that has come to enjoy theocratic control. It is a promise of a level playing field, in which all of us are afforded the freedom to live out our own comprehensive conception of the good life in a manner consistent with everyone have the same opportunity.

Allowing the Ten Commandments onto the grounds of the state capitol--unless it is done in a manner that would also allow the Satanic Temple to erect their own symbol of law--threatens that promise. But any threat to that promise is a threat to those of us who want to live a religious life informed by our understanding of the Ten Commandments. It threatens us because state sponsorship of religion may not always sponsor a religion supportive of the practice of our own.

Pursuing a policy that is both consistent with the promise of church/state separation and allows for the continued presence of the Ten Commandments monument is a kind of quagmire, one in which the Ten Commandments are lost, figuratively and literally, amidst the clutter on the Capitol lawn.

Far better, in the end, for those of us who care about the Ten Commandments to honor them on private ground.