Yes, I rise to defend bigotry -- but not to defend acts of bigotry that get in the way of our being that nation "with liberty and justice for all" to which we teach our kids to pledge allegiance. Rather, I rise to defend the naming of those acts as bigotry -- which is critical if we're going to fully become that nation "with liberty and justice for all" to which we teach our kids to pledge allegiance. Because here's the deal.
A nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all people are created equal can only live up to the high calling of that dedicated proposition by recognizing that all Americans suffer collateral damage when the fundamental rights of any Americans are subject to bigotry-based discrimination.
A case in point is the blog I wrote the week before last calling out Governor Chris Christie for vetoing marriage equality in New Jersey. In it I said that Christie "chose bigotry over equality" and "was standing on 'the Lester Maddox side of history.'" I said it, and I meant it -- and I still do.
And one reader took offense, writing, "I have read your latest post at The Huffington Post and I could not separate your slur on Governor Christie from me. Why must you use Lester Mattox and refer to Governor Christie as a 'bigot?' From my reply:
I did not call Governor Christie "a bigot" ... I said he chose bigotry over equality. It may seem a fine linguistic point but there is an important distinction between critiquing one's behavior and attacking one's personhood. I do not believe that people are ontologically bigots or racists or homophobes or sexists, or ... (the list goes on.)
However, I know that bigotry and racism and homophobia and sexism exist -- and I believe they are on the list of things that keep us from living up to our high calling to love our neighbors as ourselves. And so I believe it is our responsibility to challenge the behavior when we encounter it in order to overcome it.
And when that behavior is bigotry -- which Merriam Webster defines as "obstinately devoted to one's own opinions and prejudices, especially exhibiting intolerance toward those of differing beliefs" -- if we're going to overcome it, we have to name it.
Yes, name it. Even when it hurts. Even when it's hard. Even when it would be easier not to. And even when naming it precipitates questions like this: "Aren't you being just as intolerant by calling people who disagree with you about marriage equality intolerant?" And here's my answer: no. No, we are not. And here's why.
There is a critical difference between feeling discriminated against because you're disagreed with and being discriminated against because of who you are.
And there is a critical difference between people who feel that their marriage is being threatened if the lesbian couple next door can get married and the lesbian couple next door whose marriage is being threatened by ballot initiatives taking away their fundamental right to marriage, by a governor vetoing marriage equality passed by their elected representatives, and by a "Defense of Marriage Act" (DOMA) that denies them 1,138 federally protected rights that their next door neighbors claimed the moment they said "I do."
To be clear: regular or decaf is a choice. Chocolate or vanilla is a choice. Paper or plastic is a choice. Equally protecting all Americans or legislating intolerance against some Americans is not a choice.
In its decision striking down Prop 8 as unconstitutional, the Ninth Circuit Court wrote, "Prop 8 serves no purpose, and has no effect, other than to lessen the status and human dignity of gays and lesbians in California, and to officially reclassify their relationships and families as inferior to those of opposite-sex couples." The Ninth Circuit Court also said, "The people may not employ the initiative power to single out a disfavored group for unequal treatment and strip them, without a legitimate justification, of a right as important as the right to marry." In other words, Prop 8 was ballot-box bigotry -- and ballot-box bigotry is unconstitutional.
As a priest and pastor I am very clear that the First Amendment protects my right to decide for myself whom God blesses or doesn't bless. I am equally clear that it does not protect my right to decide for myself whom the Constitution protects or doesn't protect. And so if we're going to be that nation "with liberty and justice for all" to which we teach our kids to pledge allegiance, we need to get religion-based bias out of the civil marriage debate once and for all. And then we need to work together to become the nation we were conceived in liberty to be -- by overcoming bigotry and by choosing equality.
And to overcome it, we have to name it. The defense rests.