Homosexuality: The civic issue emerges Social Prejudices: Serious studies answer hate from the right and the left.

Americans are living through a period of economic instability and distressingly widespread incivility. It's no wonder that the call for "values" should have become a kind of battle cry. But it's strange, to say the least, to observe how so much of the talk about values zeroes in on issues related to sex - like promiscuity, condoms, unwed mothers and homosexuality - while so little is said about larger moral and civic issues.

Efforts to secure the basic rights of America's gay citizens have, in particular, unleashed clamorous responses, tending to reveal more about the underlying fabric of society than about homosexuality itself.


But it's time, I think, to stop mistaking personal prejudices for basic moral principles.

Homosexuals have been the last group whom, until quite recently, even some liberals felt comfortable in stigmatizing. Forty years ago, the main objections were based on the then-current conceptions of American Freudian psychologists who maintained - contra Freud's actual teachings - that homosexuality was a mental illness. In a culture obsessed with exaggerated images of masculinity and femininity, homosexuals were perceived as defective.


Some elements of the Marxist left denounced homosexuality as a "decadent" feature of capitalism - in contrast to the "manly vigor" of the sexually and industrially productive proletariat. Randall Halle's interesting essay in the anthology "Gay Men and the Sexual History of the Political Left," edited by Gert Hekma, Harry Oosterhuis and James Steakley (Harrington Park Press. 408 pages. $24.95), points out that even highly sophisticated critical thinkers like Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno couldn't resist attributing the mindset of "the authoritarian personality" to latent homosexuality. Or, in other words, they claimed that the right-wing militaristic types whom they considered the backbone of fascism were - worse yet! - sexually dysfunctional.

Nowadays the most strident objections seem to come from people fond of quoting highly selective portions of the Bible. Although the Scriptures contain countless injunctions against avarice, injustice, dishonesty and lack of charity, and only a handful of references to homosexuality, these latter-day prophets seem peculiarly obsessed with a "crime" that is only specifically forbidden alongside such other taboos as usury, eating pork and shaving one's beard.

Indeed, despite all the evidence that only a minority of people have strongly homosexual inclinations, the leaders of the gay-bashing brigade seem to consider it a temptation few red-blooded Americans could resist: a viewpoint that lends some credence to Mr. Horkheimer and Mr. Adorno's theories about authoritarian personalities.

The so-called "religious right" is anxious to frame the argument as a battle between God-fearing folks who have values and immoral infidels who have none. They talk about a "Christian" country as though Christianity were a monolith. But America is not and never has been a "Christian country": it has been a haven to Christians of all sects, as well as to Jews, Muslims, Buddhists and other believers, and nonbelievers also, whether they are militant atheists or persons who have reluctantly lost their faith.

To worship - or not

What is being drowned out in the clamor is the fact that America's long history of religious vitality is the direct outgrowth of its religious freedom. The separation of Church and State, one of the most fundamental principles enumerated in the U.S. Constitution, has ensured the freedom of each individual to worship - or not - in the faith of his choice. By keeping the government out of religion and religious beliefs out of the government, America has provided an environment in which many faiths have flourished.

This tradition of tolerance is directly at odds with the theocratic aims of many on the "religious" right, as Michael Nava and Robert Dawidoff discuss in their lucid and cogently argued book, "Created Equal: Why Gay Rights Matter to America" (newly available in paperback from St. Martin's. 176 pages. $8.95). Gay men and women, they contend, are merely the first and most vulnerable targets of a movement determined to impose its particular religious beliefs on the rest of society.

But hyperactive televangelists and their like do not, as yet, hold a monopoly on religion itself. As Keith Hartman's new book, "Congregations in Conflict: The Battle over Homosexuality" (Rutgers University Press. 225 pages. $24.95), makes clear, there are sincere believers of many faiths who have been pondering the issues, consulting their consciences and taking a stand against the present danger of hate.


Mr. Hartman tells the stories of nine religious institutions dealing with the question of homosexuality. These congregations - Baptist, Methodist, Roman Catholic, Episcopal and Quaker, most of them in the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area of North Carolina - were not conducting abstract speculations about the meaning of homosexuality in the universal scheme of things.

In each case, they were confronting specific issues that arose in attempting to respond to spiritual needs of gay persons in their communities: a gay divinity student seeking ordination, a gay couple seeking to be married, a civil rights group asking for moral support or a place to hold their meetings. Mr. Hartman's detailed accounts of how these different denominations handled such questions illustrate the rich diversity of faiths in this country and may also challenge the assumptions of those who suspect "true believer" is always a code-word for "fanatic."

These congregations went through thoughtful processes of evaluating the issues. Often, after much soul searching, they came to compassionate decisions. Among the surprises: the two Baptist churches were quicker in their favorable responses than a Quaker congregation.

Baptists operate on a majority rule principle, while Quakers require something closer to complete consensus - which can be stymied by a single recalcitrant congregant. In this case, it was a most untypical Quaker, who, in addition to opposing same-sex marriage, also insisted the Bible considered slavery a good thing!

What Mr. Hartman concludes from his case studies is that perhaps the most persuasive argument to be made on behalf of gay rights is not an argument at all, but the simple, one-on-one experience of learning that a valued member of the community is homosexual.

Intelligent human beings


The gay divinity student seeking ordination was a young man known and respected by his fellow church members. In the case involving same-sex marriages, a Baptist who voted in the minority against the ceremony was still enlightened by the discussion: "It wasn't the scriptural arguments, or the arguments from medicine, or biology" that changed his attitude: "It was seeing people that I really cared about ... people who were intelligent human beings who obviously would not have chosen this way of life if they'd had any say so in the choice."

Incidentally, the two Baptist churches who voted, in one case, to ordain the gay minister, in the other, to marry the gay couple, were expelled from the Southern and Northern Baptist conventions. But because these expulsions violated the Baptist principle of individual church autonomy, even congregants who had voted against the pro-gay measures were shocked.

One comes away from Mr. Hartman's book with a renewed appreciation of the diversity and vigor of religious life in this country. At a time when fanatics of various stripes use faith as a smokescreen for intolerance and hate, it is valuable to be reminded that religious belief can foster a spirit of compasson and understanding.

Merle Rubin writes for the Christian Science Monitor, the Wall Street Journal and the L.A. Times, among others. She has a doctorate in English from the University of Virginia.

Pub Date: 3/17/96