He lives in the manicured neighborhood of Sherwood Forest, Detroit, where auto-industry execs once retreated to cocktails in their mini-mansions after laboring at halcyon day jobs. I live on the tumbleweed-riddled Colorado plains, where flatness rolls in from Kansas and meets the Rocky Mountain Front Range. My home is where the deer and the antelope play, and eat our shrubs. His is not far from where Eminem used to play.
I spend my days researching family anthropology at a large evangelical ministry. My nonworking hours are spent alongside my wife, raising our five young children and meeting the omnipresent demands of homework, music, and art lessons. He is an atheist teaching philosophy at an urban university who spends his nonworking hours working in the garden, hosting dinner gatherings with his partner, and keeping active in local GLBT politics.
He was raised on Long Island and prefers Democratic politics. I was raised in the panhandle of Florida and find more connection with Republicans. He is a fastidiously dressed man; as long as my khakis don't show any kid-delivered jam stains, I'm good.
John Corvino and I are highly unlikely though dear friends who travel long distances for one purpose: to fight passionately with each other in front of large crowds. At the invitation of law schools and student activities groups, we have met at colleges a few times each semester for the last six years to debate the issue of same-sex marriage and parenting. We are compelled by the conviction that it's a topic too important to be left to the cheap exchange of sound bites. And we want to show young people how democracy not only allows but actually demands debate that is thoughtful, passionately disagreeable, yet civil. We have no interest in maintaining a lowest-common-denominator, kumbaya civility.
John and I constantly hear disbelief at how we can be so opposed on such a life-shaping issue yet remain friends. "I drink," John jokingly replies. Myself? I try to imbibe grace. John has hosted me at his own campus and had me to his beautiful home. I have met his partner, Mark, who struck me, ironically, as the kind of man many fathers would want their daughters to meet. I have also had John visit Focus on the Family, but the sudden death of my father required that I leave him with my colleagues. They reportedly had a fabulous time discussing the politics of sexuality and how we can forgo stereotypes and understand what really divides us.
For example, I have learned that John's sexual orientation does not stem from an unhealthy relationship with his father or from an overbearing mother. We in fact agree that homosexuality cannot necessarily be attributed to nature or lack of nurture, that there's a complex dynamic at play. John discovers things about me that surprise him, such as that I can believe the world is older than 6,000 years and remain an evangelical in good standing. I have fun explaining that the God I believe in is not the one he doesn't believe in, observing he is more of a hopeful agnostic than a hard-edged atheist. John retorts that he is probably the best judge of what he is.
Both John and I have a good deal of debate experience with other opponents over the years, but with mixed results. I have debated one gentleman who runs a national organization against marriage itself, but somehow finds it worth defending when it has same-sex as a prefix. John once debated a pastor who displayed portraits of each of his many children on the auditorium stage. Our paths crossed when John had a positive experience debating a friend of mine; when he couldn't make another event at John's invitation, I stood in.
From the start, I appreciated John's honesty—as well as his not comparing me to a KKK member, which other opponents pull out of their bag of rhetorical tricks. John does not accuse me of being a bigot; I don't think he is a sex-crazed profligate. But we do get exasperated that the other fails to understand the brilliance of our own finely crafted arguments—proof that evidential apologetics has its shortcomings.
We also debate because we cannot wait to see what the next event will bring.
At a Florida university last spring, during our question-and-answer time, a young man stepped to the microphone and wondered aloud if I might be a closeted gay man and if all my excitement might be an effort to suppress reality. Later that evening, a man stood with veins bulging to denounce me as a reincarnation of Jim Crow hatred, concluding that my talk "was probably more persuasive in its original German."
For once, I was speechless. Where else could one be pegged as a closeted gay, neo-Nazi homophobe in a span of 20 minutes? At least I pigeonhole provocatively.
John, too, gets his share of cranky inquisitors, such as the woman who asked if he had ever heard of Sodom and Gomorrah—as if such recognition would clear up the matter and we could all head home early. John said he was quite familiar with the story and indicated this by asking why, if this incident were a lesson in sexual ethics, Lot settled the crisis by offering his two virgin daughters to the sex-crazed horde as a reasonable solution.
It's an interesting point that prompted me to ask our audience why many Christians, as well as Scripture-twisting revisionists, never address either the Creation narrative or Jesus' clear affirmation of that narrative in the Gospels. These pericopes show the centrality of male and female to the family anthropologically, sociologically, and theologically, teaching us that male and female bear the image of God in unique, essential ways. Humanity and the family need male and female to need each other.
But we also get thoughtful, difficult questions. One came at the University of Idaho from a confident woman sitting attentively the whole night with her partner. With no hint of malice or agenda, she asked, "Mr. Stanton, is there anything about my relationship with my partner, Susan, that you find praise-worthy?" I don't think she meant it as a gotcha question, but that is what it was, in the best sense. She was asking, "Is our relationship completely without virtue in your eyes?" My first thought: How does one answer this as both an uncompromising cultural warrior and a faithful Christian?
I clarified my opposition to all sexual relationships that are not between a husband and wife. But I also said that whenever one human denies herself for the good of another and dedicates herself to the other's value, that was a praiseworthy thing. True selflessness is an intrinsic good, whether the person is a lesbian, a gossip, or a tax-cheat. I concluded by explaining, as she might imagine, that I did not believe this substantive virtue redeemed homosexuality itself. Other factors mattered here, including the mysterious, profound otherness of male and female in the covenant of marriage and parenting. I then quietly wondered if this answer would be similar to how my colleagues would respond. I trust that it was.
John and I do have difficulties. He takes offense when I seem unmoved by the mistreatment of homosexuals in contemporary society. I am certainly not numb to this reality. But I remind him that horrific stories emerge every month of Christians around the world losing their basic freedoms, limbs, or lives. I remind John that I attend New Life Church in Colorado Springs, where last December, a man came to our Sunday service with a loaded gun and a heart full of hate, killing some of the people I worshiped with.
Who Feels Persecuted?
Understanding how we unwittingly hurt each other is instructive, but we realize that a relationship made up of "I'm okay, you're okay" mantras is no relationship at all. Conflict is a curious gift because it sharpens us, demanding grace and forgiveness. Complete harmony is the exclusive domain of the members of the Godhead or solipsists. Someone without frictional relationships is indeed a poor soul, for we are best formed in the crucible of conflict.
John is honest enough to recognize that being a Christian on a secular campus is no day at the beach. He notes that "his folks" have little reticence about standing up in large forums and asking demanding questions. "My folks," on the other hand, are typically silent or miniscule in number. He sees that after our events, students will approach me quietly, mumble something, shake my hand, and leave. He imagines this is how closeted students struggling with their sexuality would approach him. This observation has recently led John to launch into a sermonette about how we are all the poorer for only one side's involvement— including John, who is cheated out of participating in this section of the evening.
At Louisiana State University in 2007, his plea on this point was particularly impassioned. After a long, uncomfortable silence, a mother with her teenage children in tow nervously stood. "I feel very strongly about this issue, but I feel unsafe to speak up," she said. "Look at how Mr. Stanton is being treated tonight, and he hasn't said anything particularly controversial. Who would want to subject themselves to that? That is why I think the other side is not being represented." She merely voiced what John and I had seen on campus after campus.
We have wondered what it would be like to have a journalist follow us to three iconic secular and three conservative Christian campuses to note the differences. Where would we be more likely to find the most thoughtful engagement? Which events would demonstrate a healthy democracy? Would there be a difference? John and I gather we would find that "fundamentalists" don't come in one wrapper—that an event at even Bob Jones University might turn out to be more civil than, say, the tolerant University of Wisconsin, Madison.
Few of us are able to curb our dogmatism, nor should we. It sticks to any interesting person like toilet paper on the heel upon leaving the restroom; we only mock it when we see it stuck to others. It is John's and my hope that our friendship—which has become a curious, ever-giving treasure for both of us—will help audiences understand that strongly held differences can actually bring us together in meaningful ways.
Glenn T. Stanton is the director of family formation studies at Focus on the Family. He is the author of many books, including Marriage on Trial (IVP) and My Crazy Imperfect Christian Family (NavPress).
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