Two Men Don’T Make A Right

America’s homosexuals earn good incomes and exercise political clout. Why do they want to be treated as an oppressed minority?

Some gay-rights activists think there is a helpful analogy between the experiences of gays and blacks as oppressed minorities. Thus they are following a “civil rights” strategy for promoting acceptance of homosexuality.

Responds Kay Coles James of the Washington D.C.—based Family Research Council: “I have known former homosexuals, but never any former African-Americans.” James, an African-American, does not see anything helpful about comparing the two “minority groups.” She cites Gen. Colin Powell who called the comparison “convenient but invalid.”

Civil-rights legislation is a way of guaranteeing certain freedoms. But those freedoms often have a cost: Campaigns designed to help people be treated like everyone else have a way of backfiring. Instead of blending in, minorities are marked as “different,” frozen in a victim mentality, and fixed in a permanent posture of supplication. Will homosexuals really want to pay that price?

Strangely, part of the answer came recently from Andrew Sullivan, the openly gay editor of the New Republic. In a special section of that magazine, Sullivan and other gay writers called for an abandonment of the civil-rights approach. Sullivan faulted the civil-rights strategy because it is based on two faulty assumptions: “that sexuality is equivalent to race in terms of discrimination, and that full equality of homosexuals can be accomplished by designating gay people as victims.”

Sullivan, the gay, white male, is as quick to point out the differences between race and sexual orientation as is James, the straight, black female. “Unlike blacks three decades ago,” writes Sullivan, “gay men and lesbians suffer no discernible communal economic deprivation and already operate at the highest levels of society.…” Jonathan Rauch argues in the same issue of the New Republic that homosexuals are not oppressed in any objective sense: they are better educated than the general population, have higher-than-average incomes, and exercise political clout. Those are hardly marks of an oppressed minority.

Sullivan notes additionally that no “cumulative effect of deprivation” takes place with homosexuals, comparable to the “gradual immiseration” of an ethnic group, because each generation of homosexuals begins its experience afresh in heterosexual families.

Liberals should not use the law to try to regulate private employment and housing practices, Sullivan argues, largely because such efforts miss the point. The point, for Sullivan, is not economic security but “emotional and interpersonal dignity.” He writes that anti-discrimination laws “cannot reach far enough to tackle this issue; it is one that can only be addressed person by person, life by life, heart by heart.”

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In a discussion of gay rights, we did not expect to agree with the New Republic; but, on this point, we could not agree more. While we believe private employers and landlords should not discriminate merely on the basis of sexual orientation alone, trying to regulate private actions by law is likely to backfire.

The civil-rights approach is bound to perpetuate a sense of homosexual identity as the Vulnerable Victim, setting up, in Sullivan’s words, “a psychological dynamic of supplication that too often only perpetuates cycles of inadequacy and self-doubt.”

After that agreement, however, we part company with Sullivan. His solution is to focus on equality only in the public, civil sphere, thus advocating “equality” of opportunity in such areas as the military and “marriage.” He believes that starting with positive experiences in these areas, the witness of individual lives will change culture as no legislation can.

At base, we must reject the civil-rights approach to gaining gay acceptance, not just because it locks homosexuals into a victim identity, but, more fundamentally, because it locks them into a homosexual identity. Most Christians now understand that same-sex attraction is seldom chosen by the 1 or 2 percent who experience it. It may be environmentally or biologically based. But the fact that the attraction is usually not volitional does not drive us to endorse it. Instead, we are compelled to support those who want to struggle against those urges, to help them find help, and eventually to move beyond their identity as homosexuals or even ex-homosexuals.

Sullivan and others write of sexuality as if it is the most fundamental thing about us as human beings. For example, Sullivan discusses gay “marriage” primarily in terms of emotional life and refers to sexual attachments as “the deepest desires of the human heart.” Surely this is part of the reductionist modern lie about life. While our hormones are often more powerful than we suspect, what is most profoundly true about us is surely not bound tightly to our sexual attractions or our romantic attachments. Life is bigger than that. Saints, official and unrecognized, have shown that by choosing the discipline of celibacy, they can achieve greater things for God and humankind.

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For any of us to claim that the meaning of life is primarily about sexuality is a cruel narrowing of vision. For those who are part of a small and stigmatized minority to be told that their lives are ultimately about their sexuality is far worse. Enshrining gay identity in civil-rights legislation does not bring freedom, but bondage. True freedom is found in growing toward what God, not biology, calls us to be.

By David Neff.

Can Media ‘Get’ Religion?

Members of the evangelical community have been among the harshest critics of the secular news media. What credibility the press had with them was further hurt this February when a Washington Post reporter blamed public opposition to the Clinton administration’s proposal to lift a ban on gays in the military on an “orchestrated” campaign by leaders of the “religious right.” In a sentence for which the Post later apologized, the reporter wrote: “Their followers are largely poor, uneducated and easy to command.”

Four years ago the Religious News Service surveyed religion reporting in the daily press and readers’ reactions to religion coverage. Those surveyed, representing a wide range of congregations, wanted their newspapers to give more attention to religion than to entertainment, sports, arts, or personal advice. But rather than just desiring more local church coverage, they said the most important aspect they would like covered is religion’s role in shaping social and ethical positions. They also thought the attention actually given to religion is dismal.

But editors apparently have not learned the importance of religion in readers’ lives or that journalists should seek to understand faith and the positions it moves people to take. Instead, even when religion gets space, it continues to be covered not as faith, or even as sincerely held values, but as conflict between competing interests. Some journalists cover religious issues in terms of a tension between church and state. Or coverage may be framed as a contest between an old-fashioned notion of absolute values and modern, open-minded civil libertarian philosophy.

Blind spots

Why is the press at such a disadvantage when reporting on faith and values? In some cases, the answer is the journalists’ own backgrounds. The profession attracts people who question what they are told; not surprisingly, they are people largely outside churches and creeds. One study in the past decade showed only 8 percent of people in the news media attend church or synagogue regularly, 86 percent seldom or never.

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Part of the answer may also be the professional codes of journalism. Trained to be “detached” and “objective,” journalists adhere to the notion that a visible philosophy (or theology) is incompatible with their profession. Thus, they may be suspicious of (and largely ignorant about) the values behind positions on social issues. In framing their stories, they commonly fall back on convenient criteria of “conflict.”

Recent social science research, reported in the 1992 book Common Knowledge: News and the Construction of Political Meaning, shows that, indeed, the news media do frame events differently than would the general public. For example, people representing a news “audience” described 15 percent of stories in terms of a “moral” frame; the news media used moral frames for only 4 percent of the same stories. By comparison, “conflict” was only 6 percent of audience frames, but 29 percent of media frames.

The failure of the secular press to deal with things moral has repercussions, severely limiting our national discourse on social issues. In 1991 David Shaw, media reporter for the Los Angeles Times, wrote a four-part series that was highly critical of coverage of abortion issues. Shaw concluded the series with a quote from Boston Globe reporter Eileen McNamara: “At base abortion isn’t about politics, and it isn’t about the law. It’s about philosophy and it’s about morality and it’s about your world view, and newspapers are ill-equipped to deal with those issues.”

Evangelicals can and should explore ways to help their friends in the secular press better understand religious issues and religious thinking. They might hope that journalists would be particularly sensitive to positions with which they have little natural affinity—and would seek to understand the moral arguments of people on each side of an issue. Then perhaps all of the parties involved could feel that they could get a fair hearing.

By Marshall N. Surratt, a former seminarian, who teaches journalism at the University of North Texas. Previously he was a newspaper reporter and editor.

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