A Defining Moment


At some point this summer, hopefully sooner than later, the Supreme Court will announce its decision on the question of same-sex marriage. This fight has been far more than a courtroom drama. It has been about what kind of democracy we really are. An essential component of that question is what role should religion (particularly religious values) play in democratic society? We sometimes throw the word “historic”
around with scarcely more scrutiny than we employ when using the word “the.” But not this time.

Not only is the decision huge but so too are its implications and ramifications. The ruling and the dissent will become historic documents from the moment they are released. 

I am hoping for an opinion that upholds marriage as a right for any two adults who wish to enter into a loving union.

But it is more than marriage that is ultimately being decided here, but our nation’s definition of “family” that is at stake.

Though we enter into marriage of our “own free will and accord”, the same is not necessarily the case with “family.” We do not choose the family or parents who determine so much of our lives. We don’t select the race, religion, or sexual preference of our parents. So too, there is a limit (for better or for worse) to parental choice and power over children. Our choices will naturally prove to be formative, but our children will naturally rebel, reject, and even reinterpret that which we attempt to teach them. Being part of a family comes with all kinds of rewards. So, too, it carries considerable costs. A painful price of being part of a family is living with decisions you don’t like. This reality holds true not only for our personal family but our national family. This is why I’m more eager to read the opinion that I hope will be the court’s dissenting one. 

A weighty moral question awaits those who must write it.

How does our dissent model what it means to protest the decision while accepting the result? How do we move from arguing against something to acknowledging that it is now the law of the land?

Democracy goes deeper than having free and fair elections, or “having our day in court.” Democracy is about how we live with both the responsibility of winning and the disappointment of losing in a manner that promotes progress and peace.

The character of Rabbi Saunders in Chaim Potok’s The Chosen provides us with an exemplar of what it means to accept an outcome that we deeply dislike. Having passionately argued against the foundation of a Jewish state through any means other than Messianic intervention, the rabbi is confronted with the duel realty of the U.N. vote and the ensuing war. During the intense post-Holocaust debate over statehood, he forbids his son from being friends with the child of a champion of Zionism. Once this particular question has been resolved, however, he moves from anger to acceptance. The ban is lifted, and he once again welcomes his son’s friend into the Saunders family home. 

Losing is no fun—not in sports, not in politics, not in any part of life. But how we respond to defeat is an essential part of what defines us as dignified people and a decent nation. As for us winners, we must be mindful of the need for humility on the heels of victory. Wins don’t come often enough, so let’s not spoil it by vindictiveness, taunting, or rubbing it in. With homophobic laws defeated, we will have to start taking some painful steps toward forgiving our fellow citizens who supported homophobia.

For a model of how to be gracious winners we Americans look to Lincoln: “With Malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds.”

The slavery dispute could have been resolved other ways. The war could have ended earlier. The human cost could have been lower. Lincoln and the North could have been far more punitive, even vindictive. If slavery and the South were wrong, it follows that, in addition to losing, a heavy price should be paid for defending what was wasn’t right. Yet, Lincoln and his advisors determined that victory was a sufficient prize for the union and defeat an ample consequence for the Confederacy. 

I’ll never embrace homophobia, and I’ll never ask anyone else to do so either. But the time is coming when I will have to challenge myself, and all of you, to embrace those who have defended it. May all of us, the elated and dejected alike, find a way to live with the outcome that is in keeping with our religious and civic imperative to “love your neighbor as yourself.”

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