Full inclusion now: a response to Robert George

Professors Cornel West and Robert George ’77 came to campus on Monday, February 10th, to discuss the meaning of the liberal arts and to model respectful dialogue across the ideological spectrum. In spite of their many moral and political differences, both men emphasized their intellectual respect for and ongoing friendship with one another. They discussed the purpose of liberal learning as an exercise in what the Greeks called paideia, the formation of learners in wisdom traditions of personal growth and social engagement. The pursuit of truth, they said, is not about mere intellectual assent to notional propositions, but about living into the great wisdom traditions of the humanities with intellectual clarity, heartfelt passion, and the abiding willingness to change one’s mind on important, even life-altering, questions. Both men cited President Rebecca Chopp’s recent work on the liberal arts as a journey toward critical thinking, cultivation of moral subjectivity, and pursuit of the common good in wider social settings. The presentations by and conversations between both academics was dialogical, convivial, and enlivened by many references to the heritage of Western philosophy along with personal anecdotes and reciprocal gestures of affection.

After both professors enlivening talks, the afternoon’s spirit of geniality was immediately challenged by student interlocutors. A number of important issues were raised in this context, but I was especially struck by Jacob Adenbaum’s ’14 query to Professor George about his many writings denouncing LGBT persons as engaging in immoral behavior, on the one hand, and his question to Professor West about whether aligning himself with Professor George in forums such as this one gave Professor George’s heterosexism the imprimatur of legitimacy, on the other.

While I appreciated the spirited defense of the liberal arts and good humor between both intellectuals, I felt Mr. Adenbaum’s points went to the heart of the matter for me, and I think others attending this forum: What is the place of deeply held moral and religious views that oppose same-sex relationships in a college environment committed to diversity, integrity, and equality? In the case of Professor George, while he did not discuss his writings about LGBT issues, Mr. Adenbaum highlighted Professor George’s opposition to queer values and underscored, in my judgment, the irony of showcasing a prominent intellectual, in an institution of open and mutually affirming inquiry, who has spent his life working hard to deny gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender persons the right to enjoy full inclusion in public life and civil society.

Today, Professor George stands shoulder-to-shoulder with other right-wing Americans opposed to same-sex relationships who claim the Bible supports the regnancy of traditional marriage and the family. Within Republican political circles, some faith-oriented conservatives think cultural warfare about social issues will doom their party to irrelevancy, but many values-based conservatives, such as Professor George, believe the soul of their party is at stake. For Professor George et al., it is crucial to battle social liberals in the public square lest the foundation of Western society, the traditional family, be undermined. And so religious conservatives’ ongoing denunciations of marriage equality continue apace. Groups such as the National Organization for Marriage, the Family Research Council, and the Faith and Freedom Coalition — inheritors of the Moral Majority mantle — soldier on to defend traditional ideals of marriage and family in a shifting cultural environment.

Professor George is one of the primary spokespeople for this position. As a member of the drafting committee of the “Manhattan Declaration: A Call of Christian Conscience,” and chairperson emeritus, and founding board member, of the National Organization for Marriage, Professor George and his colleagues cite the Bible in support of equating same-sex relationships with various forms of “sexual immorality” sweeping across the landscape of Western civilization. But unfortunately for Professor George and other conservative Christians, the Bible says little, if anything, about the politically charged issues he and his ilk champion, and what it does say runs counter to their right-wing assumptions.

Professor George writes that “the common good of civil society is damaged” whenever laws allowing same-sex marriage and LGBT adoption are put into place. “Where marriage erodes,” he says, “social pathologies arise.” Citing the Bible, he says marriage equality and family well-being are mutually exclusive. He writes, “We acknowledge that there are those who are disposed towards homosexual . . . relationships, just as there are those who are disposed towards other forms of immoral conduct. We have compassion for those so disposed . . .” For Professor George and others, the biblical ideal of marriage is exclusively monogamous and heterosexual, and any threat to this ideal destabilizes a cornerstone of civilized society.

While right-wing Christians’ one-man-one-woman paradigm is an important scriptural value — this model is upheld by some of Jesus’s teachings and the household rules for couples inspired by the Apostle Paul in the New Testament — the Bible also upholds the sanctity of polygamous relationships: the patriarchs Abraham and Jacob and the great kings David and Solomon all had more than one wife. Moreover, Jesus and Paul, while valorizing monogamy at times, are also eager to champion celibacy, with Jesus highlighting the value of voluntary celibacy in the Gospel of Matthew, and Paul saying it is better to remain single than to marry in 1 Corinthians. Just as important, their lives spoke volumes on this issue: both Jesus and Paul were unmarried, signaling, perhaps, that this is the supreme ideal of the true believer. For Jesus and Paul, healthy living consists of freeing oneself of family entanglements and living the life of God’s obedient servant. The Bible, then, endorses three views of marriage — monogamy, multiple wives, and celibacy — assigning no preference to one model over and against any other.

In reality, however, religious conservatives’ defense of marriage is a stalking horse for a wider cultural argument about why homosexuality in general and marriage equality in particular are bad ideas. The Southern Baptist Convention and the Family Research Council’s public condemnation of the Boy Scouts of America’s recent decision to admit gay members makes this corollary argument clear. As Professor George makes clear, standing strong for conventional marriage means that one is anti-gay and, by implication, opposed to same-sex marriage and civil unions.

So what does the Bible say about homosexuality? Unfortunately for right-wing Christians, even as the Bible is open-ended about what sort of marriage is desirable (or even whether marriage itself is desirable), it is even more open to the question of same-sex relationships. This is the bottom line: the Bible contains no prohibitions against mutually affirming LGBT relations as practiced today. Scattered comments against same-sex relations in the context of abusive Gentile practices are mentioned in the Bible, but these context-specific and historically bounded statements can hardly be used as justification for prohibiting all loving and committed gay and lesbian relationships today. Although Jesus is very specific about divorce (he categorically forbids it), he says nothing about homosexuality, even while the Bible itself is suffused with beautiful love stories between people of the same sex — Ruth and Naomi, for example, or David and Jonathan — that offer endearing portraits of LGBT-friendly affiliation that have endured for millennia. The Bible comes nowhere near denouncing homosocial relationships; in reality it provides the theological warrants for the very type of trust and mutuality that is at the heart of genuine LGBT relationships today. Professor George and other biblical traditionalists’ defense of marriage is a pretext for their real focus — slamming same-sex relations and gay marriage — but, paradoxically, this defense runs counter to the actual celebrations of same-sex relations within the sacred texts that they prize as the source of their moral crusades.

Professor George and other traditionalists cloak their moralistic values in the mantle of the Bible when, in fact, the Bible is consistently laudatory of homosocial relationships, and says nothing negative about same-sex marriage and partnership between loving persons. Politically, I fear, values-based Christians are using fear and anxiety about LGBT communities as a wedge issue to divide faith-oriented communities on the right from everyone else in the middle and on the left. What a sad legacy today for the Bible and Christian values: religious conservatives, while purporting to defend the Bible in politics, in reality are hijacking the Bible to defend their brand of conservative politics, a brand, paradoxically, at odds with the Bible’s central teaching that all persons are God’s children and, thereby, are to be celebrated and loved accordingly.

 

Mark I. Wallace is a professor of religion and coordinator of the interpretation theory program at Swarthmore.

8 Responses to "Full inclusion now: a response to Robert George"

  1. Ummm  February 14, 2014 at 1:55 PM

    This is a pretty misleading presentation of George's views. Read ANY of his longer works. To imply (as this article does) that his position primarily rests on Scripture is plainly inaccurate. He is generally at pains to make clear that his main philosophical arguments are independent of revelation.

    Not to mention, Robert George is Catholic, so he obviously believes that the ambivalences and cultural situation of the Bible necessitates tradition and natural philosophy as ways to interpret the Bible. You could bicker with an evangelical protestant over whether the Bible supports opposition to same-sex marriage, but I imagine George would just shrug and say, "My argument doesn't rest on the Bible anyway."

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  2. Danielle C.  February 14, 2014 at 10:33 PM

    Although George networks with evangelicals, his work is not based on Biblical literalism. In fact, he's a Catholic, so many Christians might even accuse him of not engaging the Bible enough! His arguments, though certainly inspired by Christianity, are rooted in what he calls "new natural law." Now, you may, as I do, reject new natural law, but you should at least engage its arguments, not set up a straw man. I worry that Prof. Wallace's equation of biblical fundamentalism with George's philosophical Catholicism undermines the rich diversity present in contemporary Christianity. How is George responsible for decisions made by the Southern Baptist Convention or the Moral Majority? I suppose you could say that he doesn't call them out on their stances when he conducts faith-based advocacy with them, but this looks an awful lot like guilt by association, simply because George and many Southern Baptists both call themselves "conservative."

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  3. Alum  February 15, 2014 at 3:28 AM

    UGH.

    This is an embarrassing article for Prof Wallace to write. At least read the arguments of the man you're trying to excoriate. New natural law is not biblical, so you've essentially given us an empty argument.

    An actual engagement with his views could have been so interesting... After all, natural law as a concept is critical to the international human rights regime- you know, the one that is currently (and admirably) fighting so hard for queer rights. Obviously there is interesting space to study here.

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  4. Mark Wallace  February 25, 2014 at 12:41 PM

    I am grateful for the dialogue my rebuttal to Robert George has inspired. Many good points are raised by my critics. Let me speak to what I take to be their salient issue: that I have misunderstood George as basing his anti-marriage equality arguments on the Bible. To be sure, in the overall scope of his writings, George bases his position in favor of heterosexual marriage on the current revival of natural law philosophy, namely, that reason itself can discern certain inalienable metaphysical truths about the timeless nature of the human condition. This way of thinking understands marriage, essentially, as a unitive and procreative relationship whereby a man and a woman are bonded together for life. Nevertheless, while George bases his marriage traditionalism on natural law, he often cites the Bible in support of his position. In my rebuttal, my primary concern was to show that George’s et al. biblical hermeneutic is wrong-headed, not to say that the Bible is his only reference point in his anti-LGBT crusade. In 2009, George, and two other authors, wrote the following statement as a preamble to their defense of conventional marriage. Here the biblical grounding for his argument is incontrovertible. The following is an excerpt, then, from George’s “Manhattan Declaration: A Call of Christian Conscience” in the section on marriage:

    The man said, "This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called woman, for she was taken out of man." For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh. Genesis 2:23-24

    This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband. Ephesians 5:32-33

    In Scripture, the creation of man and woman, and their one-flesh union as husband and wife, is the crowning achievement of God’s creation. In the transmission of life and the nurturing of children, men and women joined as spouses are given the great honor of being partners with God Himself. Marriage then, is the first institution of human society—indeed it is the institution on which all other human institutions have their foundation. In the Christian tradition we refer to marriage as “holy matrimony” to signal the fact that it is an institution ordained by God, and blessed by Christ in his participation at a wedding in Cana of Galilee. In the Bible, God Himself blesses and holds marriage in the highest esteem.

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  5. Sandra Christensen  February 26, 2014 at 10:07 AM

    Thank you Professor Wallace for writing this and your comment. It is interesting how a lack of ethics / rule following and convenient rule changing by the editor/staff of The Phoenix has shown me first hand the bias against some of Swarthmore's LGBT community. Lucky that Ummm, Danielle C., Alum and other anonymous commenters had support from the editor /staff so that their anonymous comments in support of George were posted before Feb 17/18 when The Phoenix then changed the rule to allow anonymous posting after being called on it more than once because they did not post an anonymous comment in support of a group of LGBT students. While The Phoenix may have had good reason to change the commenting rules mid semester, it would dispel bias toward certain commenters and opinions if The Phoenix treated all comments and commenters by the same rules at the same time.

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  6. Relax...  February 27, 2014 at 8:27 AM

    Sandra -- your comment is completely nonsensical. I'm having trouble finding evidence of this "bias toward certain commenters and opinions" that you seem to be convinced exists -- actually, the editors and staff of the Phoenix have done literally nothing to show that they are biased against the LGBT community at Swarthmore and have only exhibited support. Not only are some of them members of that community who have very visibly and publicly participated in queer-rights activism, but the editor/staff have chosen to publish multiple op-eds and letters criticizing Robert George's views. They've also consistently covered events like the Queer Trans Conference or queer life on campus. In all of these cases, members of the queer community have actively and happily engaged with members of the Phoenix -- clearly, many if not all of the queer community feels comfortable providing interviews to the Phoenix, and op-ed contributors feel good about reaching out with anti-George views.

    I'm not sure what exactly you're talking about with this commenting stuff but I think you're taking what seems to have been a normal policy change way too seriously...I don't think changing a policy about anonymous comments constitutes "a lack of ethics/rule following and convenient rule changing," as you seem to think.

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  7. Sandra Christensen  February 27, 2014 at 11:00 AM

    I have actually copied and pasted the emails that I sent to the editor of The Phoenix in order to get my comment posted to the article, "Collection hosted by Robert George and Cornel West goes smoothly". After reading these perhaps you will understand. I have deleted my email address.
    On Monday, February 17, 2014, wrote:
    Swarthmore Phoenix Editor,
    As a parent of a Swarthmore alum class of 2011, I've been following the George/West collection. After reading the article, "Collection hosted by Robert George and Cornel West goes smoothly",I had a number of questions about silencing because of the photo used at the top of the article and the caption. I asked among other things what Hill said to the group of students wearing the T-shirts? And why he didn't address his comments to the whole audience? And if that was profiling/intimidation/silencing? (Does it only appear Hill is talking directly to this group?) Why was the photo used without taking those types of questions into consideration and is this a way to silence students? My comment went on to say that while George and Roberts can go back to their "safe" lives, many queer people in parts of the USA face eviction from their apartments without notification or cause, being denied medical and other services etc. just because they are queer and straight people do not face this form of discrimination.
    Hopefully, your memory has been refreshed so I am wondering what terms of commenting my comment violated as it was not posted? I am a member of the Swarthmore community and it was not a personal attack, so are those of us off campus and not students not allowed to comment? I would appreciate feedback concerning this matter.
    Thank you for your attention to this matter,
    "James"
    "On Feb 17, 2014, at 9:29 AM, "Editor Phoenix" wrote:

    Hello,
    Our policy on website comments is available here: http://www.swarthmorephoenix.com/phoenix-policies/

    Your comment was not posted as it does not adhere to our policy, by which you must provide your full name and a valid email address when posting a comment. We do not publish anonymous comments on our website. If you would like to submit your comment again with your full name and a valid email address, we would be happy to post it to our website.

    Thank you.

    Feb 17, 2014, at 10:11 wrote:

    Editor,
    Actually you have posted comments from "Umm" and " Danielle C." Those are obviously not full names and I have never met anyone with the first name umm and my email address is valid so please explain further. Thank you.

    On Feb 17, 2014, at 12:26 PM, wrote:

    Editor,
    Besides publishing Ummm and Danielle C. 's comments, you have recently published a comment from "Anonymous" so I have adhered to your policy equally to others. And you chose to publish their comments which are all supportive of one stance. But I do not see any published that ask questions or support the other stance by people who are following the same methods of posting. So please explain how some can publish under these not full names and others cannot. Thank you.

    On Feb 17, 2014, at 10:34 AM, "Phoenix Editor" wrote:

    You're right about those comments. That's an error on the part of our staff. We'll be removing erroneously posted anonymous comments from the site. We're also reviewing our comment policy and may decide to allow anonymous comments in the future.

    Please understand that this has nothing to do with the content of your comment. We have published pieces expressing a number of different views on the George/West collection and will continue to do so providing they are signed.

    On Mon, Feb 17, 2014 at 2:07 PM, wrote:
    Editor,
    I appreciate you admitting that your staff made an error in posting the other comments in question. I also appreciate that you are removing them. But that does not change the fact that by choosing to post them The Phoenix has made certain stances have power and privilege over other voices and has erroneously slanted the comment section to one point of view that supports ideas that George promotes. You have silenced my comment/voice which followed the same method as others for posting and thus discriminated against me and all those who agree but are unable to speak out for fear of retaliation etc. This is a prime example of just the type of thing the George/West collection was supposed to stop. It was my understanding the collection was to have / teach civil discourse between people with different ideas, opinions, beliefs, etc. While you have posted signed articles that took a stance against George's ideas they do not ask the questions which I wanted addressed concerning forms of silencing on the Swarthmore campus. I am deeply saddened that The Phoenix posted these comments over several days, read mine and would not post it but did not examine what that meant to your fellow Swarthmore queer students very lives and others in the Swarthmore community as well as the collection. I would ask for you to consider the questions that I addressed in my comment. And why you chose not to allow others to hear my concerns and support for the Swarthmore queer students protest. Because you have given voice to the other anonymous opinions and that cannot be undone, now in order for my voice to be heard I must use my full name which may cause retaliation? I do believe my comment was not published because of its content! If that really is not the case, then post my ORIGINAL comment under my name, Sandra Christensen
    Thank you.
    My comment speaks to The Phoenix and their posting of comments and rule changing and timing. It speaks to the fact that I had to have these email conversations with the editor in order to have my comment posted, and then not anonymously as others during that time were allowed to do. It speaks to the fact that I had to use my name and then after removing ummm, Danielle C. and other comments those same comments were reposted anonymously again after the convenient timing of the rule change. Please do not deflect to articles and op-eds. I am talking about how those of us without power are being treated and all I had to go through in order to have a comment posted that followed the same format as others that were posted during the same time.

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  8. Danielle Charette  February 28, 2014 at 12:35 PM

    @Mark Wallace

    Professor, while I appreciate your response to some of the objections to your editorial, I still don't understand how your quotations of George substantiate your thesis that George's bases his opinions on Biblical literalism. Lots of people cite the Bible for various positions--and some understandings of the Bible's message and historical context are certainly more nuanced than others. But I still don't see how George's occasional quoting from the Bible--in his social advocacy, not his academic philosophy--amounts to "hijacking the Bible." Does having referenced the Bible at some point in one's career preclude someone from speaking at Swarthmore? If these are the standards we are using, a Swarthmore scholar's remarks at Quaker meeting could be used to discredit that person's serious scholarship because both are part of the "same way of thinking."

    Personally, I am a liberal Christian (I've attended Mainline Protestant or Presbyterian churches throughout my life), but I tend to be politically conservative. To be clear, that makes me a very different sort of conservative than George. However, if I ever have the privilege of speaking at Swarthmore in the future as an alum, I hope that professors do not automatically associate my positions with those of the Southern Baptist Convention or the Boy Scouts' national leadership, simply because I call myself "conservative" in certain contexts.

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