When things get heated in today's culture war over human sexuality, one sometimes hears this quip from those in favor of marriage rights inclusive of LGBT people. "If you are against gay marriage, then don't get one!" The implication seems to be that religious conservatives are guilty of meddling in decisions that affect others, but not themselves.
But this is simply not fair to conservatives and a point made by William Connolly, in his book Why I am Not a Secularist suggests why. It is not only that marriage equality will transform the broader culture in ways troubling to conservatives. This is true, but the challenge hits closer to home. Opening up the possibility that heterosexual ('traditional') marriage is no longer universally normative puts those who have invested much in it being just that, in a new ethical and political space. It may be that they have never considered for themselves the possibility that their own sexual identities are not as stable as they had hoped/desired. And LGBT marriages push hard for such questioning. This is the truth in the fear some conservative Christians have that marriage equality will undermine their marriages. It just might, since we can all most likely recount stories of gay men and women who were once married (in heterosexual marriages) and who eventually came into contact with the live possibility for something else. At the very least, it can no longer be taken for granted that we, or our children, will find ourselves safely and happily ensconced in heterosexual marriage, and we will all have to work hard to negotiate our sexual identities in ways heretofore not possible, even if we eventually make the decision for 'traditional marriage.'
The problem, as Connolly puts it, is that our traditional language of tolerance, which is what the progressive making the above quip is pressing for, is not adequate to the deep pluralism our culture currently strains within. Connolly calls for something more, what he calls 'critical responsiveness' (p.62), recognizing that those on the left (like himself) will be just as strongly challenged by its demands as those on the right who are struggling with the no longer universally normative vision of marriage. For on the left, one will have to be more generous and understanding of how deeply, viscerally challenging marriage equality trully is for heterosexual couples who may now find their identities shifting as the culture offers other possibilities. Without backing away from full support for marriage equality, those on the religious left might seek to be more generously engaged with those who disagree with us, recognizing that the trauma, anguish, anger and fear are real, and not to be despised or rendered as evil.
Here is how Connolly puts it:
Tolerance is an admirable virtue, even though a limited one. Critical responsiveness is aimed at constituencies in the process of renegotiating the identities through which they have been culturally recognized and institutionally regulated. Critical responsiveness is bestowed as a new identity is forming through the politics of becoming. Most important, critical responsiveness often involves comparative shifts in the self-identification of the constituencies who offer it. Thus where tolerance implies benevolence toward others amid stability of ourselves, critical responsiveness involves active work on our current identities in order to modify the terms of relation between us and them.
It may be that the antagonisms between the left and right over sexual ethics will always be heated. However, in my view it seems clear that something like Connolly's critical responsiveness, which seeks an ethics of generous engagement with one's political opponents (what he elsewhere calls the 'spiritualization of enmity') would go a long way toward avoiding a demonization of those on the other side of the matters which matter so much to us. Connolly's view places strong demands on those of us on the religious left, for we, no less than our religious brothers and sisters on the right, will find our own identities shaken by our efforts at critical responsiveness. Tolerance leaves our identities a-slumber in false innocence--critical responsiveness requires agonizing practices of ethical generosity, deep listening, and self-critical engagement with our own standpoints. To my ears, that sounds like the 'religious' way to go, left, right, theist or non-theist.