Best of Enemies

It’s almost too obvious to mention, but when it comes to religious liberty in America, we are in the midst of a veritable golden age.

The First Amendment to our Constitution begins, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” and damned if we haven’t nailed it in the last many years.  The right to live according to the dictates of one’s faith has never been stronger, and there is little indication that this will change in our lifetimes.  As ever, we don’t realize how lucky we are.

Whether you are a Christian, a Sikh or a Seventh Day Adventist, you can travel to your place of worship on Sunday (or whenever) totally unmolested by your government or, with rare exceptions, your fellow citizens.  Observant Jews can wear kipot and refrain from eating pork, while Muslims can pray five times a day and…refrain from eating pork.

While being a member of the “wrong” religion can get you shunned, maimed or murdered in many other countries of the world, America is truly a land of pluralism—a nation that, at least on paper, protects its most vulnerable citizens just as robustly as its most populous.

Indeed, the inclination toward granting each other religious freedom is so forceful—such a prevailing view—that we are now having a semi-serious debate about whether the right to one’s faith-based opinions actually entitles an individual to break the law and deny the civil rights of other individuals.  Yes, even if that particular individual happens to work for the government.

Of course, I am referring to the one-woman crusade currently being waged by a Kentucky county clerk named Kim Davis.  As an observant Christian, Davis has refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, because doing so would violate her religious beliefs.  This in spite of the fact that, since June 26, gay marriage is the law of the land in all 50 states.

In effect, the issue is whether the First Amendment’s “free exercise” clause can ever supersede the rule of law.  In other words, can the word of God take legal precedence over the word of Congress or the Supreme Court?

As we have seen, this question has precisely one correct answer.  By refusing to issue marriage licenses to couples who have every right to obtain one—even after the nation’s highest court explicitly ordered her otherwise—Davis has been held in contempt and carted off to jail.  While, as an elected official, she cannot technically be “fired,” it doesn’t look terribly likely that she will remain in this job much longer.  And rightly so:  Why should Kentucky taxpayers be compelled to pay a clerk for not doing her job?

Much has been made of the disclosure that Davis herself has been married four times and divorced thrice.  Personally, I’m still reeling from the fact that, five months after divorcing Husband No. 1, she give birth to twins who were adopted by Husband No. 2 but were, in fact, fathered by Husband No. 3.  (Feel free to read that sentence again.)

Of course, all of that is perfectly legal and we should never judge or make assumptions about anyone’s marital history.  Relationships are complicated, and marriage is messy even under the most ideal circumstances.

On the other hand, marital infidelity is clearly and definitively condemned in the Bible and, in Deuteronomy, is punishable by death.

Kim Davis has said she performs her official duties in accordance with the Biblical definition of marriage.  It begs the question:  If she really means that, then why hasn’t she hired someone to kill her?

Happily for everyone, she plainly doesn’t mean it.  She is against homosexuality for reasons all her own and, like every Christian, she handpicks the Biblical passages that align with her views and ignores the ones that don’t.

This is not to suggest that her beliefs are not sincerely held.  It just means they are not held for the reasons she claims and that she is a massive glittering hypocrite when it comes to enforcing holy writ.

Of course, as an American, she is fully entitled to be the horrible person that she is and to believe whatever the hell she wants.  That’s the very definition of religious liberty and no one would dare force her to think differently.  If we all agreed about everything, we wouldn’t need a First Amendment in the first place.

However, we are nonetheless a society in which laws reign supreme over religion, and it’s precisely because we have so many different religions that can each be interpreted in a billion different ways.  While it might be amusing to imagine a culture in which everyone can ignore any rule they disagree with, the idea of actually doing it doesn’t even pass the laugh test.

Put simply:  To say the First Amendment includes the right to deny someone else a marriage license makes no more sense than saying the Second Amendment includes the right to commit murder.

Certainly, there are countries in which “the authority of God” (as Davis called it) has final say over who gets to live or die, let alone who can get married or not.  Of course, these countries tend to be predominantly Muslim and their system, known as “sharia,” is universally condemned—particularly by American conservatives—as medieval and antithetical to everything that Americans hold sacred.

How curious, then, that many of these same conservatives (read: half the GOP presidential candidates) are now defending this very same principle when the God in question is a Christian one.  How peculiar that defying settled law through Islam is repulsive, but doing the same through Christianity is just fine.  I’m sure there’s a non-racist, non-homophobic explanation for this somewhere.  As an atheist, I regret I’m not the best person to find it.

In any case, I didn’t come here to talk about Kim Davis, as such.  Really, I would just like to take a moment to underline how unbelievably lucky the gay community has been lately with respect to its would-be antagonists.

It would have been one thing if the self-appointed poster child for upholding “traditional marriage” were someone who actually engaged in the practice herself.  Someone who could credibly claim to be holier than thou.

That this particular mascot for following “God’s will” happens to be a raging phony is not merely hilarious; it also demonstrates just how phony her entire argument is.

To be clear:  Davis’ personal morality has absolutely no bearing on the legal arguments vis-à-vis her behavior as the Rowan County clerk.  Her actions would be contemptuous and absurd regardless of how many husbands she has had.

That, in so many words, is the point:  The law does not care about morality.  The law exists whether you agree with it or not, and applies to all citizens equally.  Further, if you happen to be a public official whose one and only job is to carry out the law, then your opinion of the law does not matter.  Either you do your job or you resign.

But of course, this doesn’t negate the role that ethics play in our day-to-day lives, and this is where Davis has become the gay rights movement’s new best friend.

Now that same-sex marriage is legal in all 50 states—and will almost certainly remain that way forever—there is nothing left to concern ourselves with except for the proverbial “changing hearts and minds.”

And where persuading people of gays’ inherent humanity is concerned, what finer image could there be than a thrice-divorced heterosexual turning her back on a homosexual couple attempting to get married just once?  In what possible universe does the person who has cheated her way through three marriages assume the moral high ground over couples who are embracing this sacred institution afresh?  What possible threat do those couples pose to society or morality, other than the possibility that, in time, they may turn into people like Kim Davis?


The Definition of Family

My mom and dad got married 28 years ago today, and in spite of all they have in common, they are still together.

On this final day of the most popular month of the year for weddings, let us reflect upon the rather momentous recent development in the history of marriage in the United States—namely, the twin Supreme Court rulings last Wednesday that struck down Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act and, in effect, rendered California’s Proposition 8 moot.

This first decision establishes the equal treatment of same-sex unions under federal law, while the second allows such unions to resume and flourish in America’s most populous state.

Asked for his reaction to these pronouncements, New Jersey’s governor, Chris Christie, reiterated his opposition to gay marriage and his view that the issue ought to be adjudicated by the public rather than the judiciary, offering the familiar trope, “You’re talking about changing an institution that’s over 2,000 years old.”

Indeed, this question about “changing the definition of marriage”—the cornerstone of the argument against gay marriage—is one that must always be addressed, and which holds particular interest for your humble servant at the present time.

In addition to my parents’ anniversary, this weekend sees a sizable family reunion on my mother’s side—an assembling, as such events are, of all sorts of couples (and non-couples) marking their places within the larger family unit, which itself serves as a microcosm of the melting pot that is America.  In discussing the meaning of the country, considering the definition of marriage is inescapable.

Per example:  While both my parents are Jewish, three of their four combined siblings married people who were not.  (One spouse later converted, but the others have retained their religion of birth.)  Under traditional Jewish law, these so-called “interfaith marriages” are invalid:  The Talmud expressly forbids them, and most rabbis refuse to officiate over interfaith wedding ceremonies in their synagogues.  Only through contemporary civil laws are they allowed to exist at all.

Another of my family’s matrimonial duos consists of my white cousin and her black husband, a union that in 1967 would have been illegal in 16 states and, in 1948, in 14 others.  What is more, American public approval of interracial marriage—Governor Christie’s standard for determining which marriages are legitimate and which are not—did not eclipse 50 percent until 1994.  In the early 1980s, when my cousin and her husband were born, only a third of their fellow citizens thought their eventual merger was a good idea.

(As a footnote:  Despite the Supreme Court ruling anti-miscegenation laws unconstitutional in Loving v. Virginia in 1967, the state of Alabama did not remove its own ban from the books until a 2000 ballot proposal to do so, which passed with 59 percent of the vote.)

This is all an illustration of a very simple point:  My family, as I know it, only exists because the definition of marriage has changed on several occasions within my parents’ own lifetimes, both in law and in the minds of the people.

When my uncle brought a nice Christian girl home for dinner for the first time, my traditional Jewish grandparents were slightly less than welcoming toward the idea, and toward her.  With time, however, they came to accept a non-Jew into the family, growing to love their daughter-in-law as their own.

A generation later, faced with a suitor for their granddaughter who was not Jewish and (gasp!) not even white, no objection was raised because no objection was felt.  He was a great guy, they were in love, and that was that.

Neither of my grandparents lived to see their great-grandson be born and quickly become the most delightful member of every family gathering, so it is left to the rest of us to appreciate the radical changes to a 2,000-year-old institution that allowed him to come into existence.

I recount this set of personal anecdotes in light of the latest turn in America’s understanding of marriage because I suspect mine is not the only family affected by such turns in the past.  To the contrary, I cannot imagine any great number of families which are not.

Accordingly, in a culture that has come to regard the phrase “changing the definition of marriage” negatively—people such as Christie use it as a slur, while members of Team Gay tend to avoid it altogether—I offer the humble proposal that, in light of the facts, we instead treat the concept as a necessary and welcome one, and something to which every one of us, in one way or another, literally owe our lives.

That’s ‘Amour’

In this month’s 60 Minutes/Vanity Fair poll, all the questions were about love.

While most of the queries were boring and predicable—“Do you believe in love at first sight?” “How important is good sex to a successful relationship?”— there was one consideration that caught my eye, and is worth pondering at greater length:  “Which marriage vow is the hardest to keep?”

Is it “To always be faithful”?  “In sickness and in health”?  “For richer and for poorer”?  Or perhaps, simply, “For better and for worse”?

In other words, how might we truly take the measure of one’s love for someone else?  That is, of course, assuming such a thing can be measured at all.

These impossible questions are the subject of Amour, the amazing new movie by Michael Haneke, which opens in Boston this weekend.

What the film is about—indeed, all that the film is about—is that it’s easy enough for two halves of a marriage to declare their love for one another when they’re young, healthy and relatively carefree.  It is the arrival of difficulty, disease and death when the measure of one’s devotion is put to the test.

Amour is the story of Anne and Georges, a long-married couple now in their 80s.  After a lifetime of mutual self-sufficiency, Anne suffers a stroke and requires Georges’s support—moral and physical—in ways neither of them is used to or particularly adept at handling.

What makes Amour great—nay, what makes it tolerable—is its understanding that true love, in the context of a long marriage, has very little to do with sex or even romance, and everything to do with commitment, sacrifice and accepting that some things are more important than your own happiness.

In one sequence, we see Georges feeding Anne a glass of water through a straw, which she is no longer able to do herself.  Anne is deeply demoralized by having to go about such a basic task in this manner, and George’s own impatience is evident as well.

Georges’s measure of devotion here is proved not by the pleasure he might derive from assisting his wife, but by the obvious agony.  Scenes of him helping Anne off the toilet, raising her from bed and cutting up her vegetables make a similar point:  He doesn’t particularly enjoy doing any of these things, but his marriage vows demand it.

The movie contains no musical score, no moments of overt melodrama, no yelling and shouting—no “action,” at least by the standards of conventional cinema.  Amour is largely a series of long, static shots as the characters carry on their lives as best they know how.

As a movie, Amour would be unbearably tedious were it not so well-acted, well-directed and, well, true.  It is dramatic in the sense that life itself is dramatic.  It works because we understand why Anne and Georges behave as they do—even if we might have acted differently in a comparable situation.

But then we can’t know such things until they actually happen.  People express love in different ways, and there are certain forms we might not notice or appreciate until after the fact.  In his first Late Late Show monologue following the death of his father, Craig Ferguson very affectingly recounted the way his father never expressed emotion, but that through four decades of hard work as a postal worker, providing steady support for his wife and kids, “I was never in any doubt that he loved me.”

In its way, Amour is a cautionary tale against entering into a marriage lackadaisically, not taking the commitment seriously and not thinking things through.  It is an institution that is not for the fainthearted.

As America grapples with the changing meaning of marriage in today’s society, we have come to recognize that for a time marriage was largely about commitment, but that today it is largely about love.

What Amour suggests above all else is that these two enigmatic concepts are not mutually exclusive.  Those traditional marriage vows, as old as the hills, are not a hindrance to true love, but rather are the means to its fullest expression.  For better and for worse.