May 8, 2015

Reflection / Sean Gallagher

Nurturing a ‘sense of decency’ in marriage debate is the duty of all Christians

Sean GallagherIn 1953-54, Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy led a series of Senate committee hearings that investigated the possible infiltration of government agencies and the armed forces by communist sympathizers.

The fierceness with which McCarthy sought to reveal supposed sympathizers was so strong that the term “McCarthyism” is commonly used today to describe practices which seek to engender a blanket rejection of people simply on the basis of the political, social or religious ideas they hold. This term also implies an effort by the opponents of these people to present them as unacceptable by society as a whole.

McCarthy’s hearings largely came to a halt through the testimony of Joseph Welch, then the chief counsel of the U.S. Army. One of his staff members had been accused of having previously belonged to a legal organization with communist ties. After McCarthy doggedly pursued his questioning, Welch replied in frustration, “Let us not assassinate this lad further, Senator. You’ve done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”

That question—“Have you no sense of decency, sir?”—seemed to open the eyes of the general public to see that, in McCarthy, the emperor had no clothes. People who had earlier bought into the “red scare” now saw McCarthy’s hearings for what they really were, a demagogic attempt to ruin people’s reputations for his own political gain.

Welch’s role in McCarthy’s quick downfall came to mind recently when I read a column by Damon Linker in The Week regarding the way in which many advocates of redefining marriage to include couples of the same sex seek to demonize their opponents and shun them from society.

Linker, who supports redefining marriage, specifically commented on the reaction to a Washington Post article about Ryan Anderson, a prominent defender of marriage defined exclusively as between one man and one woman. Anderson is an alumnus of a Quaker elementary and high school in Baltimore, a fact which was highlighted in the article.

Matthew Micciche, the head of the school, posted a link to the article on the school’s Facebook page to highlight the accomplishments of one of its graduates. Within a day, however, the link was taken down after many people connected to the school had vociferously expressed the offense they had taken simply because of the posting of the link.

Micciche later acknowledged in another Facebook post—which was itself later deleted but which Anderson later posted elsewhere—that simply linking to an article about Anderson and his marriage advocacy was wholly unacceptable.

Linker argued in his column that it is one thing to reject long-held ideas regarding marriage, but that “relegating them to the category of the foulest prejudice is something else entirely. It’s reckless to break so quickly with the past and jump so easily to moral condemnation.”

Linker also asked if those who seek to have marriage redefined “really want to win by stamping out dissent and driving into the wilderness every person who holds a contrary position? Apparently many of them do.”

Now I’ll be upfront and say that I believe with the Church that marriage is a relationship exclusively between one man and one woman. I also hold that this definition can be discerned wholly from natural law, which can be grasped by people of any faith or none at all. But I’m not interested on this occasion in arguing for this position.

What I am interested in—and what I have focused on almost entirely in dialogues I’ve had with people of opposing views on marriage—is promoting civility and mutual respect between people of differing viewpoints on this controversial topic.

Linker encourages these healthy signs of a civil society in his column by showing that everyone loses when advocates of either side of the marriage debate frame their opponents in the manner of Joseph McCarthy, and see showing the slightest sense of decency toward them is somehow the same as accepting their beliefs.

Christians of various traditions in the U.S. today hold different beliefs regarding the definition of marriage. I regret that this is so. But it cannot be denied.

That certainly was on display in Indiana during the recent debate regarding the state’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and in the way the public responded to the oral arguments on marriage redefinition cases heard on April 28 by the U.S. Supreme Court.

I would hope, however, that all Christians would see that treating people who disagree with them with civility and respect is rooted in the fundamental belief that all people are created in the image and likeness of God.

If, in faith, we hold on to this belief which serves as a foundation for society itself, then hopefully we can help all people move forward as one toward the fullness of God’s kingdom.

(Sean Gallagher is a reporter for The Criterion, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis.)

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