For Friends, When Your Children Leave for College

Off to College

Off to College

This is the year when a critical mass of our friends must face their progeny heading off for their first year of college. Talking with our friends their grief (and make no mistake, it is grief – gut-wrenching, agonizing grief), and also noting that today is the one-year anniversary of when we dropped John-Francis off for his first day at Haverford, has brought back all of those memories from this time last year.

It remains the single saddest day of my life. I sobbed for hours, and then spent months simply sad and off-kilter. I felt like a limb had been severed from my body, and everywhere I looked was a reminder of my loss.

A few thoughts for those of you going through the same thing right now:

1. There’s nothing wrong with you. You’re not crazy, or melodramatic, or over-reacting. Don’t let anyone de-legitimize just how much this hurts. Just like any other kind of grief, allow yourself to move with its rhythms, and surround yourself with people who won’t try to talk you out of your feelings. (I feel compelled to offer special thanks to those who were there for me at this time last year, especially my own parents, Ginny Little, and Kim Pike. Thank you for not judging me for how often or how much I cried.)

2. Your friends who haven’t been through this are very unlikely to get it. In case someone in that category is reading this, please try to understand. It’s not that we’re not happy for our kids, or not proud of them, or wanting to shelter them. It’s that we realize that the nature of our relationship with them has changed forever. From this point forward, looking in on their room and seeing them sleeping in their bed will be the exception, not the norm. Staying up late, sitting on the couch, watching a bad movie together will be the exception, not the rule. Walking by and seeing them sitting at the table will be the exception, not an everyday occurence. Until you feel that tectonic shift in your life, you can’t appreciate how hard it hits.

3. It does get easier, but there’s no rule for how long that takes or the degrees to which it happens. Skype and texting help…a LOT! My own experience is that this past summer has made all the difference. It helped me to see first-hand how all of his good choices and hard work have made him even more the exceptional young man he already was when he left. My brain has also processed the fact that he does, eventually, come home, and that when he does he’s still my Boy.

My Thoughts On An Award I Shall Never Win

Hugo Award


Currently my Facebook timeline is almost exclusively comprised of discussions of the controversy surrounding the 2015 Hugo awards. Many of my friends are professional writers of speculative fiction, and the criteria for Hugo nomination and balloting significantly affects various aspects of the marketability of their work. “Hugo-nominated” or “Hugo Winner” on the cover of a book does, at least according to anecdotal data, improve sales. At a minimum, it is an indicator of having earned the approval of fans and peers, and can keep future works out of the slush pile. For a number of reasons, ranging from personal pride to professional and financial success, the Hugos matter to a number of my friends.

I don’t have the same visceral connection to the Hugos. My work as a fiction editor is purely avocational. To say that I am bit player would be to vastly over-state my significance in the world of speculative fiction. My connections in that world have allowed me to make friendships that I cherish, and, simply through virtue of those friendships, I get to contribute to the genre in small ways, but I am not in danger of doing work worthy of a Hugo nomination any time in the near future, the far future, or in an alternate one.

Consequently, I have been loathe to weigh in on the debate, letting my friends who actually have Hugo nominations or awards carry their respective banners.  I’ve watched much of the debate unfold on social media, as my friends rapidly balkanized into increasingly hostile camps. Although (as anyone who has read my writings on progressive issues here would likely know) my sympathies instinctively lie with the priorities of those termed “Social Justice Warriors” by their opponents, one of the leaders of the “Sad Puppies,” is someone whom I consider both a friend and a brother-in-arms. Consequently, I have tried my best to give a fair hearing to the Puppies’ concerns.

As I understand those concerns, and stating them in the most charitable fashion I can, they are essentially threefold and interrelated:

  • The Hugos in particular, and the SF publishing industry in general (with the exception of Baen) privilege literary criteria over popularity in a way that increasingly isolates awards and publicity away from works that are widely appreciated by fans but are neither esoteric, nor sophisticated, nor avant garde.
  • The Hugos in particular, and the SF publishing industry in general, have established a litmus test of progressive ideals. Works that advocate views contrary to those ideals (or even works that are simply written by self-described social conservatives) are excluded from awards and general approbation by the elites who control the nominations and the public discourse.
  • The Hugos in particular, and the SF publishing industry in general, have become so enamored with pushing the boundaries in areas of sex, gender, sexuality, social structure, economics, and morality that works of inferior literary quality gain awards and accolades over skillfully-crafted works that maintain a more traditional or conservative worldview.

I do not want to invalidate any of these concerns. They are all questions worth asking. How should we weigh popularity versus literary merit? Should there be a litmus test regarding worldview, and if so, what should it be? Is there any value in novelty, and to what degree should it compensate for a lack of skill or craft?

Unfortunately, the conversation rapidly moved away from these specific concerns to ad hominem attacks and strawman arguments on both sides. Some folks have gone out of their way to try and be even-handed, and I think Jim C. Hines is an example. Nonetheless, the rhetoric has become extraordinarily strong. My personal bias is that the rhetoric from the Puppies (even ignoring the justifiably-ignored language from Vox Day and the Rabid Puppies) has been disproportionately vitriolic, particularly when it has mocked an overall emphasis on inclusiveness by many leading writers. On the other hand, those with whom I am genuinely sympathetic have made a number of ad hominem attacks on the Puppies, and those have included direct or indirect accusations of racism, sexism, Nazi-like or even neo-Nazi fascism, and homophobia.

Ultimately, the conflict became one of personality rather than literary merit. The Puppies proposed a slate that, while not uniformly “conservative” or reactionary, represented their desire to have their voice clearly heard after years of feeling marginalized by those whom they considered to be out-of-touch elites. That slate was categorically and overwhelmingly rejected by the voters – not because of the strengths or weaknesses of the individual works – but because of the personality and politics of the people who had proposed it. The 2015 Hugos essentially became a contest to determine whose public rhetoric was more popular, at least among those who paid their $40 to Worldcon.

Frankly, the Sad Puppies should not have been surprised by the outcome. People who buy and read books, in any genre, are more educated than the general public, and – right or wrong – the progressive social values that many of the Sad Puppies publicly reject on their blogs and in their writings are in the ascendant, especially among college-educated folks in the English-speaking world. Not unreasonably, the Sad Puppies feel like a vilified and mocked minority for the same reason social conservatives in the general public feel like one – because, in many settings, they are. No matter how successful their books, a group of authors who toss around words like “sodomy” and “Marxist” as if they are testifying for the prosecution at a McCarthy hearing is unlikely to hold much sway in any broad group of educated Westerners, much less in speculative fiction fandom. In fact, to the contrary, if they aggressively push a particular agenda (or slate), it is likely to be overwhelmingly defeated – not on its merits – but because of the beliefs of the people pushing it.

That is exactly what happened. The responses from both sides were predictable. Those who opposed the Sad Puppies slate were thrilled to have an unambiguous, categorical rejection of the values and priorities the Sad Puppies are reputed to represent (or, at the very least, how they represented them). Those who had put forth the slate saw it as a clear demonstration that the tolerance and inclusiveness of the progressive intelligentsia does not encompass social conservatives, and that progressives are willing to punish women if they are in any way associated with a socially conservative agenda. The Sad Puppies think that the bias, myopia, and elitism of the speculative fiction field has been revealed, and that the fans will consequently revolt. Their opponents think that the inclusive and progressive character of twenty-first century SF has been made clear, and that the fans will be relieved.

I suspect that both camps are in parts right and wrong. Some fans, and some writers, will be aggrieved and feel marginalized. Others will feel validated. The Sad Puppies showed that, no matter what they say, their political views (and, admittedly, the vitriol with which they present them) make it unlikely that they will be treated impartially. Their opponents demonstrated incontrovertibly that, right now, the heart of fandom is progressive and inclusive.

I’m not sure how any of this helps the industry or the genre. Just because my side “won” doesn’t mean that I can’t appreciate the value of thoughtfully-articulated voices presenting a loyal dissent. If, no matter what the other side says, we cannot listen to what they have to say because of all of the ways in which they are “obviously” wrong, how will we ever hear the things that they have to say that are right? How can we move forward in a way that makes speculative fiction fandom, and SF publishing, as broadly representative of the interests of readers and the politics of writers as possible?

Step one, I think, is moving away from slates and treating the Hugos as a battleground. Perhaps this is easy for me to say, since I know I will never win one, but I think it is abundantly clear that this conflict did not change anyone’s mind, did not broaden the tent of SF at all, and did not establish a framework for dialogue. The agenda of the Sad Puppies is a minority one. The more actively and forcefully they push it, the more aggressively their peers and the genre’s fans will push back. The slate-stacking strategy failed everyone.

What might help is establishing open and honest conversations – with clear rules against strawmen and ad hominem attacks – around the three Puppy concerns I placed in bullets, above. The conversation around popular pulp versus literary art has a long history in speculative fiction, and it is no more likely to be resolved in SF than it is in cinema or television or general literature. That doesn’t mean we should stop talking about it. Should we give equal weight to David Gemmell, Jack McDevitt, Mary Robinette Kowal, and Gene Wolfe? I dearly love them all, but is the writing of one inherently superior to the others because of popularity, or accessibility, or literary sophistication?

We should also look at the books we read and tell others to read.  Are there litmus tests? I know I have several. I don’t recommend books, even by authors I love, even by ones who are friends, if they contain graphic rape. Lev Grossman is a kind man with a style that makes me weep with envy, but I won’t go near The Magician King. On the other hand, despite my socialist politics, I still recommend Modesitt’s Recluce books, even though I think he’s trying to subtly convert me to capitalism. Surely most of us have litmus tests of one kind or another. Let’s be honest about them, and let our colleagues tell us what we’re missing out on as a result.

Let’s also put some thought into the value, and peril, of novelty. Speculative fiction thrives on pushing, challenging, and redrawing boundaries. It is the genre of limitless horizons, of finding new questions, of challenging old answers. Consequently, I think we should recognize that sometimes it is worth celebrating when someone does something new, and does it well. Ann Leckie’s treatment of gender drove me nuts in Ancillary Justice, but I loved the questions it raised for me when I thought about why it drove me nuts. In addition, she told a darn fine story, and told it well. There is enormous value in introducing a new idea in a way that gets people talking and asking questions. We should not lose site of that. But writing is also a discipline that is inherently conscious of history and tradition, and doubly so in a genre that explicitly builds on ancient, mythic structures. There are people reading speculative fiction who lead deeply conventional lives, and who love how those old stories reinforce their conventionality. Do they deserve a voice as well? At what point does our love of ingenuity silence them? Is it better to innovate, or to excel in craft? Are they mutually exclusive goals?

My admittedly biased answers to these questions are obvious throughout, but I genuinely do not want those to be the only answers out there. The 2015 Hugos are done. We have all hurled every conceivable insult at each other, and no one’s mind has been changed. If we are to reach the full potential of this wonderfully complex and thought-provoking genre, we should put mechanisms in place to have clear, thoughtful, honest dialogue about these and other related questions. Moderated panels, moderated online discussions, festschrifts, point-counterpoint editorials from those willing to eschew ad hominem rhetoric – surely these and other media can help us find ways to hear each other, understand each other, and continue the unending process of redefining the genre in ways that will keep it relevant, challenging, and just beyond the horizon for generations to come.

Why I Won’t Be Reading Go Set a Watchman

Sue Travis Villines in the 1940's.

Sue Travis Villines in the 1940’s.

No book has influenced me more, or meant more to me, than To Kill a Mockingbird. The person of Atticus Finch significantly shaped my character, my parenting, and my sense of what it means to be a progressive, Southern man. He is my favorite fictional hero, above even Moses, Noah, and Job (all of whom I like a lot, for various reasons). I don’t say that lightly. I cherish the stories of our faith, and my call to proclaim them, but To Kill a Mockingbird is also scripture for me.

The “for me” is significant. I have read more sophisticated books, more eloquent books, and even more profound books. To Kill a Mockingbird, however, is the only book I have ever encountered that completely captures the South and the Southerners I know and love. Will Campbell’s Brother to a Dragonfly, Anne Rivers Siddons’ Downtown, and anything by Lewis Grizzard or Celestine Sibley all have special places in my heart for the different ways in which they tell parts of the story of what it means to be a Southerner. To Kill A Mockingbird, though, is the ethnography of my tribe.

Aubrey T. Villines, Sr. - 1920's

Aubrey T. Villines, Sr., seated on his front porch – 1920’s

If you want to know me, you have to know my family, and if you want to know them, read To Kill a Mockingbird. My Great-Grandma Lizzie Dale Sanders Travis never left the house between Memorial and Labor Day without white gloves on. She also never had fewer than twenty people around her supper table on any given night during the Depression, because she made sure that no one she met went hungry just because times were lean. If you want to know Miss Lizzie, get to know Miss Maudie Atkinson. My Grandpa, Aubrey T. Villines, Sr. earned a law degree while fighting in three wars over 26 years, and always scored expert with his rifle qualification. Having risen from Private to Lieutenant Colonel, Grandpa Al retired from the service and then traveled both the urban and the rural South working for five different Presidents. He wanted to make sure that those without means had access to Medicaid, because he remembered what it was like to grow up dirt poor in rural Tennessee. If you want to know Colonel Villines, get to know Atticus Finch. My Grandma, Sue Travis Villines could ride a horse, milk a cow, and shoot a marble (or a basketball) as well or better than any boy on the farm. She went on to be a corporate vice president in the sixties, and she stood up for her LGBT friends when the Southern Baptist Convention turned on them like a brood of vipers. Everyone was welcome at her table, and she created a home for everyone who needed one, even those whose own people had cast them out. If you want to know Grandma Sue, then get to know Jean Louise “Scout” Finch. To Kill a Mockingbird is the story of my family.

Aubrey T. Villines, Sr. - 1940's

Aubrey T. Villines, Sr. – 1940’s

It is also the story of my greatest fictional hero – Atticus Finch. When I was a teenager, my greatest hero – my Dad – once said to me, “Son, there are very few people in this world who – no matter what they say – you know they are always speaking the truth. Try to become that kind of man.” When I opened the covers of To Kill a Mockingbird, I met a man just like that. In a scene perfectly captured in the movie, the courtroom gallery stands as Atticus passes, and Reverend Sykes solemnly intones “Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father’s passin’.” It was in that moment that I finally had an iconic image of the character and integrity that I hoped would define my life. Earlier in the book, Atticus explains to his brother Jack, “When a child asks you something, answer him, for goodness’ sake.  But don’t make a production of it.  Children are children, but they can spot an evasion quicker than adults, and evasion simply muddles ’em.” It was there that I finally found a literary model for how I had been raised, and how I planned to raise my own child. Years later, when I stood before the judgment of a rural Southern congregation and proclaimed the good news that the gospel included LGBT people, I pictured my grandfather and Atticus standing in the great cloud of witnesses whose wreath I sought to earn. When I found myself at 3 a.m. holding a sick child, answering his questions and telling him of our love, I knew that it was also my father’s arms, my grandmother’s arms, and even the arms of Atticus Finch that held him – because I had learned how to love my son from studying their love.

There is something fetid and rotten in our culture that cannot abide virtuous icons like Atticus or my grandmother. We turn our heroes into anti-heroes. We deny their nobility and valor, claiming that we are making them more “complex” or more “real.” What we actually mean is that we have given up on the possibility of true virtue and integrity, excusing them from high standards so that we may exculpate our own lack of extraordinary moral character. Dethroning our heroes is a way to absolve ourselves of responsibility for our willingness to settle for the petty, shallow venality of choosing comfort and expedience over anachronistic concepts like idealism and honor. If heroes cannot be real, then “reality” is a place for mediocrity.

I do not want to succumb to that pessimism. Nor will I surrender my own need for real heroes because an increasingly crass and vulgar culture does not want to see their own reflection in the mirror that saints and stalwarts hold to our failed choices. To let go of those exemplars would be to tell a lie, because even if Atticus Finch never walked the Earth, I knew his touch in the hands of those who raised me. Atticus Finch is not just an archetype to me, he’s the literary incarnation of the strong, courageous, wise, honest, loving Southern men and women who have made me who I am, and who continue to challenge me to be more. I understand why amoral publishers, eager to make a quick buck off a fickle public’s need for salacious gossip, would want Atticus Finch to be less, but I want no part in it. I don’t need to know the adolescent, first-draft sketch of man who reinforces my worst fears about my own hypocrisy. I want to know the man who reminds us of what humanity can be when we are at our best. That is the “reality” whose “complexity” is worth exploring.

Sue Travis Villines and RC Burt - 1931

Sue Travis Villines and RC Burt – 1931

A Metaphor for Dialogue on Same-Sex Marriage

"Climb into his skin" - To Kill a Mockingbird Quote

Still from To Kill a Mockingbird (Universal Pictures – 1962)

Requests for Dialogue

In the days following the announcement of the Obergefell v. Hodges decision, I noticed that the initial, overwhelming jubilation among my social media friends was tempered slightly by a few folks – some of whom apparently opposed marriage equality – asking that folks be respectful in their celebration, and perhaps even seek dialogue with “the other side.” I suspect that in newsfeeds where the ratio of progressives to conservatives was reversed, there was a few soft voices asking the same of their conservative friends who were screaming about the end of civilization.

One of the more articulate requests for honest conversation came from the Rev. Tish Harrison Warren, a priest of the Anglican Church in North America (a religious body that opposes marriage equality). Although my own bias is to think that the Reverend Warren is far too generous toward the concerns of the opponents of marriage equality, I do think she makes a sound point in reminding us that, “‘Dialogue’ is not a code word for ‘convincing the person you’re talking to that they are wrong and you are right.’” If we are to understand each other, and ideally maintain or even deepen our connections to each other, we must listen for understanding rather than speak for persuasion.

This is good advice, and I’ve been trying to do just that. I’ve been tremendously grateful to some of my friends who, amidst their disappointment with the Court’s verdict, have been willing to patiently and clearly articulate their experiences and perspectives for me. Allow me to go on record now as saying that some of the people, whom I know personally, who oppose marriage equality are good, kind, thoughtful people, and they have wrestled with this issue in a number of intentional ways. Of course, as with all human experience, their perspectives are not homogenous, but there are some common threads.

A Proposal for a Metaphor, in Two Parts, with Caveats

With that in mind, I have been trying to come up with a metaphor that might help those of us who supported marriage equality to hear what those Christian conservatives who opposed it are saying, and vice versa. I have ruled out any metaphor that is internal to Christianity or American politics, because I think we are only going to hear that with our own biases. The best I can come up with is a hypothetical law in a hypothetical, predominantly Muslim country, and the experience of a hypothetical Muslim woman in that country. I am cognizant, and deeply apologetic, for committing the sin of appropriation in speaking of a tradition that is not my own, but in this case I think it’s necessary because drawing in the “other” appears to me to be the only way to distance ourselves from visceral responses to familiar scenarios. I suspect that Christian social conservatives might be more skeptical of uniquely Muslim piety than they are of its Christian forms, and I suspect that my progressive friends might be more inclined to sympathize with pietism from a non-Christian religious tradition.  I am not trying to speak as a Muslim, but instead trying to ask how we as outsiders might hear this hypothetical story of Muslim experience.

What I propose to do is to offer the metaphor in two parts. In the first part, I will attempt to clarify for opponents of marriage equality how those of us who support it hear their words. Obviously I am not speaking for all of us, but I think that, after nearly twenty years in this movement, I can speak from my own experience with some assurance that it represents how many of us think about the issue. Having addressed that, I will then continue the metaphor, and describe how it has been helpful to me in my goal of hearing and connecting with the hurt, anger, and confusion voiced by my friends who oppose marriage equality. In this second section, I do not intend to speak for the opponents of marriage equality. Instead, I hope to speak to my fellow supporters about my own approach to establishing a frame of reference for dialogue with those on the other side.

A Metaphor for How We Hear Our Opponents

With these caveats established, imagine that you open a newspaper from a hypothetical Muslim country, and it reads:

The High Court has ruled today that all women have the constitutional right to appear in public without wearing the hijab or even a headscarf.  In a narrow 5-4 vote, the majority opinion concluded that placing separate obligations on women because of their biological sex violated their constitutional right to equal treatment under the law, and that, “while individual conscience or religious faith might compel a woman to wear the veil, it is not the role of the government to impose religious obligations on its citizenry.”

A spokeswoman for the Family Association for Women was quick to decry the ruling, stating, “This decision represents the destruction of the very fabric of our society. It bodes calamity for our nation, a terrifying future for our women, and the inevitable ruin of the families who form the bedrock of our nation. Since time immemorial, the unchanging obligation of a civilized society has been to honor and protect the modesty of our women. This is judicial activism at its worst, fundamentally reinventing the role of women in our homes, in our workplaces, and in our families. Soon we will reap the consequences, and the real victims will be our sisters, daughters, and wives whose trust we have betrayed in our rush to redefine their role.”


I suspect that, if you are a conservative, evangelical, Christian who opposed marriage equality, you are already coming up with reasons why the issue of same-sex marriage is qualitatively different. Don’t! This part of the metaphor is not about how you perceive the issue, it’s how those of us who support marriage equality see it. If you want to understand our response, both to the Supreme Court decision and to your posts, please try to understand why these issues are exactly the same in our eyes.

First, and most fundamentally, both issues are about denying civil rights. When we changed our Facebook profile pictures and shared exuberant posts of celebration, we were celebrating our neighbors’ freedom to finally live as equals, after having lived for centuries in a legal system that treated them as second-class citizens simply because of an outdated distinction of biology. To us, denying two consenting, unrelated adults the right to marry because of their sex is as absurd and untenable as denying them the right to marry because of their ethnicity, or insisting that they wear a particular article of clothing because of their sex.

There is no ambiguity or grey area here for us, because it is the logical extension of extending full status to women in our culture. Amanda Marcotte explains this extremely well. Simply put, the arguments against marriage equality were predicated on assumptions about sex and gender identity that were already archaic in the twentieth century, and which have no place in the twenty-first. Some religious groups still haven’t caught up on the issue of gender equality, thus it is hardly surprising that the two largest Christian denominations advocating against marriage equality also do not allow women to serve as pastors/priests. The conflict, therefore, is not just about marriage. At the heart of the debate is our desire to push back against certain groups’ anachronistic and irrational need to categorize and limit people based on their biological sex. For us, that debate is long-settled, and opposing it in the public square sounds to us sounds like an attempt to turn back the clock to the medieval era.

In fact, we realize that there isn’t a cogent argument for doing so, other than from religious fundamentalism. I know from past experience that opponents of marriage equality often object to the “fundamentalist” label, but those who make those objections would be well-advised to read the conclusions of the Fundamentalism Project, led by Martin Marty. Fundamentalism emerged in the early twentieth century as a reaction to modernism, when certain superstitions and prejudices could not withstand the cultural consensus created by social and scientific progress. When religious “conservatives” enter into the public sphere to deny rights to women, people of color, members of minority religions, or LGBT folks, it is fundamentalism at work.

Simply put, we do not want a theocracy, and we definitely do not want fundamentalism – Christian, Jewish, or Muslim – to dictate any aspect of our governmental policy, ever. If you self-identify as a “conservative Christian” and oppose marriage equality, please understand that we hear your rhetoric in exactly the same way that you would hear the words of an imam proclaiming that the law should require that all women – regardless of their own beliefs –  wear the hijab. This is not because all supporters of marriage equality are atheists or hostile to Christianity. Many of us are Christians ourselves, and I am a theologically conservative Christian clergyman. We are not opposed to you imposing the restrictions of fundamentalism on yourself. We may not like it, but if someone believes God does not want them to marry someone of the same sex, we respect their right to choose not to do so. However, when someone acts to prevent others who do not feel the same religious obligations to nonetheless abide by them, then we feel compelled to respond.

Our response is not in opposition to personal religious belief or practice. It grows out of our strong opposition to theocracy of any kind, and our specific desire – as people who support social and scientific progress – to prevent fundamentalism from gaining any power in our government. We see the evils of fundamentalist theocracies in places like Iran and Saudi Arabia, and we recall the horrors of Calvin’s theocracy in Geneva. We do not want an America where other people’s religious beliefs are imposed on our citizens.

So, if you want to step into our shoes and hear your arguments the way we do, try to understand that it sounds to us as if you are opposing civil rights for American citizens, perpetuating a patriarchal and sexist system that defines rights and civil/family roles according to people’s biological sex, and advocating for a fundamentalist theocracy. If you want us to take your arguments seriously, you will have to address these concerns. You will have to explain how preventing same-sex couples in loving, lifelong, committed relationships from having access to the rights and protections of marriage is not denying them civil rights. You will have to explain how you are not trying to reinstate an older worldview that defines people’s social and familial roles based on their genitalia. And you will have to demonstrate that you are not trying to use your minority theological opinion to dictate U.S. law. If you can work through those concerns, if you can demonstrate that your logic is qualitatively different from those who argue that the laws of their nation should require (or continue to require) that women wear the hijab, then you will have framed it in a way that we can hear it without immediately rejecting or mocking it.

A Metaphor to Help Us Understand the Fears of Our Opponents

Now let us return to our hypothetical country.

Imagine that you are a woman named Amina who grew up in a medium-sized town in a country where the law required that women wear the hijab. You are a devout Muslim, and to you your wearing of the veil has always been a daily reminder of the comfort of your faith, as well as a public statement of your belief in the dignity and special calling of women as set apart from the coarseness of male roles and behavior.

You are well-educated, with a Master’s degree in Chemistry from a university in a nearby country. While at university, you tended to only socialize with other women who wore the hijab. In fact, you thought that, because so many women went uncovered, Muslims were a minority at your school. It never occurred to you that the women there might be equally pious Muslims, and that the hijab might not be a part of their religious practice, since going unveiled was unheard of (and in fact illegal) in your homeland. Although you encountered things in your studies that might have challenged your faith, you always resolved any contradictions you encountered by assuming that human knowledge was limited, and that God’s eternal teachings took precedence.

Now imagine that you work in a research lab at a hospital in your town. You show up for work the day of the high court’s decision, wearing your hijab as usual. You know that a couple of the staff members of the hospital are not Muslims, and you are not surprised to see that those women show up with their heads uncovered. What does surprise you is to see a significant number of your Muslim friends with their heads uncovered as well. Even more surprising is the significant number of patients who arrive throughout the day, all unveiled.

Nonetheless, the majority of the women you know well, and generally the majority of the women in your town, are still wearing the hijab. When you return home that evening to watch the news, however, you realize that the same is not true in any of the cities throughout the country. In fact, according to the television footage, the streets of the cities are packed with women laughingly marching in solidarity, their heads bare of scarf or hijab. Even more surprisingly, the reporters are only giving token attention to those who opposed allowing women to go in public unveiled, and those opponents are universally being portrayed as rural, ignorant, and superstitious. You view yourself as none of these things.


It is important for those of us who support marriage equality to realize that the shock and hurt felt by our fellow citizens in opposition is not unlike that of Amina in the metaphor above. Again, I am not trying to speak for them. Instead, I simply hope to describe how this illustration has helped me find some sympathy for their responses.

Just as our hypothetical chemist thinks that the hijab actually protects and helps women, so too do the opponents of marriage equality genuinely believe that preventing same-sex couples from getting married helps them, helps children, and helps society as a whole. Yes, I think this is nonsense, and surveys consistently indicate that the majority of Americans agree, but this is not about the logic of the argument, this is about how it feels. Opponents of marriage equality feel that they are losing a stable, healthy society in which gender roles are clearly defined, an orderly world in which people know to behave the “right” way. No matter how we may feel about that worldview, it is important that we recognize the grief and sense of loss they feel at seeing it disappear.

We must also recognize that this isn’t just about their views regarding a stable society. For them, the debate about marriage equality is also about their religious beliefs. Many, if not most, of the opponents of marriage equality view their stance as essential to their faith. This seems self-evident considering the language of the debate, but the obviousness of the fact may keep us from recognizing how deeply personal and foundational the issue has become to some people. Even though it is clear from the number of Christian denominations who support marriage equality that Christianity is not inextricably linked to opposition of same-sex marriage, some Christian leaders continue to speak as if it were. As a result, this means that some Christians hear the overwhelming support for marriage equality as an attack on their faith, as a critique of their deeply-held, lifelong convictions about God and human nature. From my perspective, this means that more work needs to be done to extricate Christianity from fundamentalism, but that work will never even begin if we cannot find honest sympathy for those who feel as if the very basis of faith is being threatened.

For many “social conservatives,” the Supreme Court’s decision not only seems like a challenge to their religious beliefs, it’s also a stunning blow to their long-held assumptions about their political power. Russell Moore, president of the fundamentalist Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, states that marriage equality opponents, “assumed that we would always represent a majority in American opinion.” Many of us are surprised to learn that they thought this way, but only because it is easy to stand in our own echo chamber and forget that our opponents live in one as well. Like our hypothetical friend Amina, many opponents of marriage equality genuinely thought that they were in the majority in their home country. The harsh realization that they are not carries with it the double blow of finding themselves in the minority, and of learning that their organizations do not carry the political power they thought they had.

Consequently, opponents of marriage equality have abruptly learned that they are members of a minority group, one with limited political clout, one with minimal and biased representation in the media. As a result they now fear the possibility of social stigma, ostracism, and even persecution over something that they view as fundamental to their identity. The irony of this circumstance is not lost on me, but as someone who has spent his professional ministerial career advocating for those who found themselves on the margins, I can also sympathize with their feelings of marginalization and powerlessness. Fundamentalists have always used a disingenuous persecution complex to further their agenda, and years of that rhetoric have now collided with the realization that their views are clearly in the minority, leading to tremendous anxiety about the possible loss of their freedom as a result of their marginal political and social status.

In light of the protections of the First Amendment, those fears are absurd, but I can understand how the tone of public opinion might engender that anxiety. Speaking for myself along, I have to confess that I want opponents of marriage equality on the margins, and I do not want them to have political power. Nonetheless, they do have a right to be heard, and if I want to hear their voices, the voices of humans speaking from their flawed experiences just as I speak from mine, it is essential that I recognize the fear and loss associated with their new-found minority status. Even if I find many of their hyperbolic claims ridiculous, I will never be able to have honest dialogue with them if I cannot find a way to empathize with the source of their fear.

In short, as Atticus Finch said, if we are going to understand the opponents of marriage equality, we have to “climb into [their] skin and walk around in it.” We have to consider what it feels like to genuinely believe that society is in decline, and to grieve that the beliefs we hold most dear are under attack. Even as our political power as progressives seems to be on the ascent, we must remember the disquiet and frustration of feeling politically powerless. In the end, we must, without a trace of irony or sarcasm, recognize that – regardless of how ignoble and intolerant the reason – our opponents are now entering into the experiences of marginalization and stigmatization long felt by members of the LGBT community. If the late Reverend Will Campbell, a passionate advocate for racial inclusiveness, was able to hear the pain and longing in the stories of klansmen, then we can do the same for those who oppose civil rights for LGBT persons.

Concluding Thoughts

Opponents of marriage equality will no doubt object to being compared to the racists of yore. Although I am aware of those objections, I also note their historic myopia. In previous generations, well-meaning people of faith used religious rhetoric to oppose the abolition of slavery, oppose women’s suffrage (even in the modern day), and to oppose integration and multi-ethnic marriages. The rhetoric is the same, and the outcome is the same. Society moves forward, and eventually the “conservative” religious rhetoric catches up. My point here has not been to defend opponents of marriage equality, or even to assert that their arguments deserve equal weight. I think the pattern of history is clear, and I think that future generations will simply group all of these issues together as representing our gradual rejection of the tyranny of medieval superstition and ancient prejudices.

In the here-and-now, however, we are faced with the reality of neighbors, colleagues, social media friends, and family members who sincerely and passionately disagree on this issue. Neither side is likely to persuade the other, but somehow we have to find a way to see ourselves the way our opponents see us, and to try and step into their world so that we might find common ground in empathy, if not in understanding.

When Jesus was asked whom we should consider our neighbor (after commanding that we should love our neighbors as ourselves) he responded with a parable that, were he to seek to offend us as much as he did his original audience, he would likely have titled “The Good Nazi” or “The Good Klansman” of instead of “The Good Samaritan.” The call of the gospel is to love even those who hate what we represent, and whose views we despise, as if they were our brother or sister. We cannot do that unless we recognize each other’s wounds, and actively work to heal them.

The Sky Is Not Falling

Icon of the Council of Nicaea

Symbolum Nicaeno-Constantinopolitanum (Wikipedia)

The astonishing rhetoric from the far right has reached such a level of absurdity, that is easy to confuse it with parody. Presidential candidate Ted Cruz called this “some of the darkest 24 hours in our nation’s history.” An American Family Association editorial by Bryan Fischer compared Obergefell v. Hodges to the September 11 terrorist attacks on New York and D.C., and then made the even more astonishing claim that American citizens are now “serfs on a plantation run by cultural elites wearing black robes.””Crunchy Con” pundit Rod Dreher used an opinion piece in Time to continue to push for his “Benedict Option,” making the melodramatic claim that orthodox Christians “are going to have to learn how to live as exiles in our own country…with at least a mild form of persecution.

Common to these and other impassioned screeds from the far right, is the claim that full inclusion of LGBT persons is an attack on Christianity. In making their case, far-right Christians have even partnered with non-Christian groups to fight in every sphere against that inclusion. This means that socially conservative voices have elevated the issue of LGBT rights to the level that it trumps issues of actual theology, e.g. the nature of God, the Church, and humanity. The irony is that they make these partnerships, including with groups who actively work to undermine Christian orthodoxy, because of their desperate claims that it is Christianity itself that is under attack. This is patently absurd for several reasons, in particular: the nature of Christian orthodoxy, the diversity of Christian views on LGBT rights, and the actual impact of full LGBT inclusion on American life.

The Nature of Christian Orthodoxy

The history of Christian orthodoxy offers little support for the far-right’s claims that Christianity itself is under attack.  Literally meaning, “straight belief,” the concept of “orthodoxy” in Christianity grew out of the need for increasingly geographically separated Christian communities to establish a framework for what defined “Christian” belief.  Over the course of hundreds of years, through a process of ecumenical councils, Christian leaders worked to find consensus about what common, core beliefs defined our shared identity as “Christians,” despite our many differences in practice.  The foundational statements of those beliefs are found in the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed.

Elsewhere I have written about how these beliefs break down, how fundamentalism damages the strength and meaning of traditional orthodoxy, and how orthodox Christian beliefs are not an impediment to social progressivism. I will not restate those essays here. The short version is this:  throughout history, Christians have disagreed about what it means to act as a Christian. The members of the early Church had no personal possessions and were pacifists. For over fifteen hundred years, most Christians were comfortable with the institution of slavery. Festal and feasting obligations, baptismal practices, and a wide range of other issues have been sources of disagreement and debate for Christians since the Apostles first argued about whether or not uncircumcised Gentiles could be Christians, twenty years after the crucifixion. And yet, despite our many differences, we have all remained Christians because what defines Christianity is not our diversity of beliefs about specific behaviors, but rather our common beliefs about the nature of God, the person of Jesus, the character of humanity, and the good news of the gospel. This is the totality of Christian orthodoxy. Consequently, unless there is a sudden and overwhelming cultural push to deny the Trinity, or the unique divinity of Jesus, or that humanity is restored to God through Jesus’ sacrifice, then there is no “attack on Christian orthodoxy” in mainstream culture. In fact,  the most prominent group in the US to attack the Christian understanding of the nature of God and humanity is the Latter Day Saints, but the opponents of marriage equality consider the issue of same-sex marriage so much more important than actual Christian orthodoxy that they are willing to overlook real doctrinal issues for the sake of their pet casus belli.

The Diversity of Christian Views on LGBT Issues

They have no choice, because their fellow Christians are not uniformly on their side. On the individual level as well as on the denominational level, Christians have a diversity of views on same-sex relationships. Beyond that, the trend is unambiguous: Christians increasingly affirm same-sex relationships as equivalent to opposite-sex ones, and the majority of mainline Protestants in the United States no longer view homosexuality as a sin. I have written on this subject, and the relevance of biblical studies, at length. As time moves forward, more and more of us concur with Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu, that, “A parent who teaches a child that there is only one sexual orientation and that anything else is evil denies our humanity and their own too.

With these trends in mind, and recognizing the growing body of Christian scholarship in support of LGBT rights, it is virtually impossible to make the claim that “orthodox Christianity” is somehow under “attack” by the movement toward full inclusion of LGBT persons. Many of the people pushing for those rights are themselves orthodox Christians. It is not orthodox Christianity that is under attack, it is fundamentalism, a contemporary movement that emerged when the cumulative effect of hundreds of years of Enlightenment thinking eventually made a superstitious and overly-simplistic approach to Christianity and Scripture untenable. It’s hardly surprising that fundamentalism is increasingly under “attack” by social progress. The movement was created to fight against progressive issues. It is unlikely to survive their victory.

It important to note that fundamentalism is not, however, an implicitly Christian movement. If it were, it would not have so much in common with fundamentalist Judaism and fundamentalist Islam. Fundamentalism is a social movement by people who feel left behind by science, scholarly research, feminism, civil rights, and other areas of social progress. It simply dresses itself up in religious rhetoric in an attempt to deflect criticisms of its irrational claims. As an analogy, imagine if a building were on fire, and there is only one exit. Everyone inside the building is wearing a red shirt. One person, for some unknown reason, wants everyone to die in the fire, so he puts on a red shirt and blocks the only exit. His assumption is that, if he clothes himself like everyone else, his motives will seem to be beyond reproach. Now imagine that everyone in the building shoves him aside to get out of the building. Any claims the man might make that he was being mistreated because of his red shirt would sound absurd. Fundamentalist claims that their views are under attack (again, often by their fellow Christians) “because of their Christianity” are equally absurd.

The Realities of Same-Sex Marriage

Not all people opposing LGBT rights, however, are fundamentalists. There are deeply established cultural norms against homosexuality that are only slowly fading away in some places. Lacking a familiarity with the Church’s long history of diversity opinion, and even profound doctrinal shifts, regarding social issues, they assume that their beliefs regarding homosexuality are substantiated by Christianity. They are often unaware that, were they to be consistent, the same simple biblicism that allows them to casually condemn homosexuality would also require them to affirm slavery and give all their possessions to the poor. They are willing to accept complex theological arguments when it makes their lives more comfortable, and unwilling to do so when it might make them face their own prejudices.

In the coming years, that will become increasingly difficult to do. In the same way that few people feel justified in arguing against multi-racial marriages using religious rhetoric, the shifting cultural consensus will make arguments against same-sex marriage seem equally incomprehensible for future generation. So yes, opposition to same-sex marriage is under attack in the United States, but that is not the catastrophe that the right wing wishes to claim. Ultimately, only one thing has changed: people of the same sex can now get married everywhere in the United States. Some marriages will have two husbands, some two wives. Some children will grow up with two mothers, others with two fathers. Some of the couples growing old together, holding hands in their rocking chairs on their front porches, will be male-male or female-female. That’s the shocking thing about same-sex marriage – it’s just marriage. How can more people trying their best to sustain each other and their families, for better or for worse, in sickness and in health, for their entire lives, be a disaster in any way?

The Sky Is Not Falling

The unequivocal answer: it is not. The sky is not falling, civilization is not coming to an end, and Christianity is not under attack. The claims of the politicians fighting this fight simply do not  hold water. “Christian orthodoxy” is not under attack, because social issues are not fundamental to Christian orthodoxy. Christians and Christianity are not under attack, because many of the people actively working for LGBT inclusion are, themselves, Christians. Ultimately, Western civilization is not in crisis, because all we are talking about is people having the chance to spend their lives together, raise their children together, and share in the joys and challenges of marriage.

In his own discussions of the nature of orthodoxy (defending, in fact, the pietist movement that was a forerunner to modern evangelicalism), Rupertus Meldenius concluded, “in essentials: unity;  in areas of question: diversity; in all things: charity.” That is the center of the two-thousand year history of Christian orthodoxy – finding common ground in God, recognizing the limits and diversity of our flawed human logic, and – when in doubt – erring on the side of love. If, in fact, all of us who have worked so hard for LGBT inclusion have erred, it is on the side of love, and the only thing threatened by love is hatred.