Boundless Love

Regardless of how you feel about religion, this should be an encouraging tale. For it supports the comforting idea that at the core of American religiosity, there beats a big and inclusive heart that has room for all. That’s what it means to be a tolerant culture, right?

Not necessarily, according to Janet Jakobsen and Ann Pellegrini, the authors of Love the Sin. They argue that the American tradition of tolerance was formed and continues to struggle under the weight of what is essentially a straight, white, male, reformed-Protestant theo-cracy. Jakobsen and Pellegrini claim that Americans who defy the old Puritan norms–by being gay, for example–are only “tolerated” in a condescending, “how odd” sort of way. And even then, the authors observe that tolerance doesn’t really extend to the activities, like having gay sex, which set the outsiders apart from the norm. Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick calls this tradition of loving the sinner and hating the sin “Will & Grace (gays are so cute, but don’t show me what they do in bed)” homophobia after the characters on the popular TV show. Whether it’s homophobia or some lower-order squeamishness is perhaps a judgment call, but Jakobsen and Pellegrindo do a nice job of showing how the love-the-sinner/hate-the-sin tradition falls dramatically short of the higher aspiration to tolerance.

But while the authors are generally very insightful when explaining what ails the current system, it’s in prescribing how to fix it that the book falls down. Jakobsen and Pellegrini believe that the tradition of tolerance is so broken that it must be discarded entirely. Instead of tolerance, they “dream” of a radical two-part solution that would effectively knock all of those straight WASP males off their dominant-paradigm pedestals. In the world they envision, the state would no longer have any purchase to regulate sex. The authors would abolish marriage to accomplish this. As to the second part of their solution, the nation as a whole would be taught to “love the sin”–i.e., appreciate gay sex as an affirmative good–through the allocation of more “public space” to the “cultural forms” that gay sex produces. Neither of these is an especially compelling idea. After all, marriage is an institution that has given literally hundreds of millions of Americans dignity, stability, and meaning in their lives–so why should we want to do away with it? As for the suggestion that more public space needs to be given over to promoting the value of gay sex, it’s kind of hard to see exactly how this would work. A newsletter? More and raunchier episodes of “Will & Grace”?

Nevertheless, even if their prescriptions are feeble, who can blame the authors for wanting to shake things up? Tolerance has, to a great extent, failed the gay community in the United States. Homosexuals do not receive equal treatment under the law–not even close. Federal anti-discrimination legislation applies to women and ethnic minorities but not to gays. Gays cannot serve openly in the military, cannot marry in the eyes of the law (although a handful of states now recognize same-sex civil unions) and, believe it or not, cannot legally have sex in some 13 states.

What’s truly appalling is that the constitutionality of that last item–the right of states to regulate the most intimate affairs of their gay citizens–was upheld as recently as 1986 by the Supreme Court. In its infamous Bowers v. Hardwick decision, the court breezed past two decades of its own case law that had created the expectation of sexual privacy in the home, and allowed the state of Georgia to fine Michael Hardwick for having consensual sex with another man in his own bedroom. Why was this any of the state’s business? Because, reasoned Justice Byron White for the 5-4 majority, the proscription against sodomy has “ancient roots.”

Of course, by this reasoning it might still be legal to burn witches. We got past that ugly chapter in our moral history, and we’ll get past this one, too. Changes are already afoot. This spring, the Supreme Court is considering the constitutionality of Texas’ homosexual-conduct statute in Lawrence v. Texas. This will give the court an opportunity to undo the damage it did in Bowers v. Hardwick–either by tossing out the Texas statute on a new “equal protection” theory or by simply owning up to its mistake and reversing its earlier decision. Either result would be a fine victory. By finally protecting the right of homosexuals to engage in the activities that, in a very significant way, help make them who they are, the court would reinforce the spirit of tolerance displayed on that D train into Manhattan. And it would stand up for the proposition, too readily dismissed by Jakobsen and Pellegrini, that through tolerance Americans are indeed capable of meaningfully accepting both the sinner and the sin.

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