• John G. Stackhouse, Jr.

Before You Oppose It…

Sen. Rob Portman is making news as the first Republican notable to come out for the legalization of homosexual marriage in the United States. Portman’s decision is especially remarkable as he sponsored the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act that was meant to guard against any such legislative innovation.

I’m already on the record regarding homosexuality and its implications for both church life and public policy, and I’ll be speaking soon at both North Shore Alliance Church and at Regent College on the matter, so I won’t repeat those positions here.

My point today is a methodological one, and simple: Use some sympathetic imagination before you make up your mind about an issue. Better yet, don’t just imagine what other people might think and feel about what you’re considering: Find them and ask them. Otherwise, you will look like an intellectual weathervane.

Portman says his former position reflected his faith, but now that his own son has come out as gay, he’s changed his mind. Well, yes, sometimes new experience does prompt us to revisit old interpretations. My own experience of capable Christian women prompted me to doubt the patriarchalism I was taught in church—but I was a kid becoming an adult, making up my own mind for the first time. When you’re already an adult, and especially when you feel you want to take public stands, and especially especially when you want to actually legislate about something, get to know people who will be affected by your position. And use some imagination: What would I think if my wife or daughter wanted to preach? What would I think if my son came out as gay?

Portman says nothing about a new hermeneutical stance that helps him interpret the Bible better than he did before. (That is what I do claim in Finally Feminist.) He claims no new theological insight that demands a radical change in his ethical outlook. He seems instead simply to be conforming his views now to what he thinks is best for his son

It’s great that he is remaining loyal to his child: of course he should—although, as any good parent (or child) recognizes, loyalty doesn’t entail agreement. But whether we can any longer take seriously his views on this subject, or any other, is now in question. “I believe very strongly that my opinion on X is true and right on the objective merits of the case…unless someone close to me gets involved in it somehow, and then I’ll change my mind accordingly.”

Again, I do appreciate that significant new experience can, and should, prompt reconsideration of any view. My point here is that you ought to seek out that experience first, when you’re forming your views, so that you construct the best possible opinion. Don’t leave yourself so terribly vulnerable to the charge that you haven’t bothered to consult with anyone on the other side of the argument nor anyone directly affected by the consequences of your opinion. Don’t leave yourself so terribly vulnerable to the later charge that your opinions are not, in fact, derived from your faith or philosophy but instead are derived from something else, whether one’s laudable loyalty to family or one’s less-laudable political ambition.

I have been impressed, that is, by the wisdom of feminist and liberationist thinkers that urges us to listen to those who are implicated in our views. Senator Portman would have done well to do that before he sponsored a bill he now feels he must repudiate. So would we all.