Why our approaches on illegal immigration, “gay rights” differ


All people have human dignity

Recently, I was asked why I manage to muster so much compassion for illegal immigrants but not “gays.” Most people who read this blog know Sutherland Institute’s stand on a conservative approach to illegal immigration andUtah’s HB 116 – and my defense of Sutherland’s position. Likewise, most people who know us know our stance on “gay rights.”

Holding me to this comparison based solely on the idea that compassion (or the lack thereof) drives both of those policy positions is naïve. In fact, out of the 40,298 words we’ve written on illegal immigration we’ve used the word compassion two times – hardly a centerpiece of our conservative argument.

In March 2009, during a speech before the Cache County Republican Party at its Lincoln Day Dinner, I actually drew the contrast between illegal immigration and “gay rights” as conservative public policies. I said,

In comparing and contrasting these two conservative positions, some people often confuse compassion with justice. On the one hand, some people would say that this argument offers compassion to illegal immigrants and not homosexuals; on the other hand, some people could say that extending compassion to one group but not to the other is inconsistent, maybe even hypocritical. But the mistake here is in thinking that compassion is a matter of public policy. It’s not. Compassion is a personal virtue. Justice is a public virtue.

Conservatives know that justice is based on what we ought to do as human beings living together in community. It’s reasonable for a society to be humane to illegal immigrants who seek freedom and prosperity as we do. It’s unreasonable for a society to be humane toward sexual behavior that is, in itself, innately inhumane. The former is about the universal aspirations of all human beings; the latter is about the selfish desires of a few human beings.

I have an additional thought on this subject: Human dignity is not the same thing as personal dignity. I believe in universal human dignity. I do not believe the same thing about matters of personal dignity. The former is unconditional; the latter is wholly conditional.

I have a sense of human dignity for all people – from people undocumented to people involved in same-sex sexual behavior. We’re all God’s children and, as such, we must see one another as human beings, not objects.

This belief of mine is not a “get-out-of-jail-free” card or anything of the sort when it comes to laws, morals and society. That’s because human dignity and personal dignity are two distinct, even if related, aspects of the human person. We treat our prisoners humanely because we believe in human dignity, and yet we still put people in jail.

We also create laws out of our concern for human dignity. Our laws, such as those regarding civil rights based on race, ethnic origin and religious liberty, often reinforce that concern. We also create laws to protect ourselves against personal indignities such as when people defraud others or are inebriated in public or when children are abused or endangered – in other words, when people are not acting as human beings ought to act.

I think much of the confusion between compassion for some people but not others occurs because we confuse human dignity and personal dignity. In the case of homosexuality and, by extension, “gay rights,” some people view homosexual behavior as innate – that is, people are born homosexuals, hence homosexual behavior is natural, normal, healthy and, most relevant, personally dignified. In fact, they might say that to not act on their inborn humanity would be undignified.

But what if homosexuality is not an innate characteristic of the human person but simply a choice (even if complex) in human behavior? What if homosexuality is an example of people currently not acting their better selves? What if same-sex sexual behavior really is undignified behavior?

Ironically, but not surprisingly, people who see other human beings as “gay” are actually objectifying them as if “gays” live in some parallel universe – as if “gay” is not a person but a thing. I think that sort of projecting and propagandizing goes on all of the time as “gays” fight for a safe and secure social and legal environment.

Of course, I often get accused of “homophobia” and other persecutory attitudes that cause these social divisions – as if I were the one objectifying “gays.” But what if I actually do see them as human beings? What if I believe homosexuality is simply a bad behavior, not unlike other seriously bad behaviors, with which even the best humans struggle?

(In fact, Sutherland’s editorial policy is to place the word “gay,” in this sense, in quotes not out of disrespect for people in same-sex sexual relationships but precisely because we see them as people, not objects. It’s our way of saying, “You might believe that some people are forever defined by their sexual behavior, but we don’t believe that.”)

Would it then be possible for me to see the human dignity in all people and, yet, recognize personal indignities as they manifest themselves in all of us, no matter the source? What if we viewed homosexuality itself as the personal indignity rather than viewing the existence of people who disapprove of homosexuality as an indignity?

A free society allows for some erring. It permits people to work out their own salvation to a large extent. Few people I know are interested in persecuting self-discovery, even if it’s undignified. On the other hand, most people I know still do not want to condone, let alone reward, personal indignities through the law. That dividing line for many people – the line between tolerating even undignified self-discovery and condoning serial personal indignities – is public policy.

Just because something exists doesn’t mean it deserves its own law. I think it’s unfortunate that Americans have become so legal-centric and law-driven that we feel that our laws must touch upon every facet of the human experience. Regarding homosexuality it has looked something like this: In the past, homosexuality was seen as a sin and an unspeakable human behavior and therefore prohibited under law; today, homosexuality is seen as just another human behavior and its participants are delightfully “gay,” hence, it should be legal and even celebrated.

How ironic that an invented “right to privacy” has created a political movement that is anything but private. How ironic that this political movement whose members claim they simply want to be left alone fight tooth and nail to be the center of national attention. Of course, supporters claim they must fight for the right to be left alone when, in reality, most of us would happily leave them alone if they just went about their lives – certainly we would see them as people, not objects, and as such treat them under the law as the human beings they are and not as the “gays” they want to be.

I certainly realize that prevailing morality can change and our laws and political culture with it. I accept that social equation as well as the fact that people disagree. Even so, I retain the firm belief that an effective moral order for a lasting free society requires that we elevate our better selves through our laws, prohibit human behavior that lasting freedom cannot long bear, and leave most of the personal nuances in life to private matters where they can be worked on and ultimately decided, individually and within communities.

A free society can tolerate many things thrown at it. It can tolerate people who practice, justify or condone homosexual behavior. What it can’t afford to do is to institutionalize such behavior under the law because a free society cannot long afford to institutionalize personal indignities. I can tolerate – even reach out to – people struggling with or accepting of homosexuality as a matter of human dignity. What I cannot do is support personal indignities under force of law.

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  • Guest

    The same “religious” arguments were used to defend laws against blacks marrying whites.  Bigotry, prejudice, and intolerance toward American citizens who have a different sexual orientation no matter how it is rationalized using one’s own views of religion and morality, is still BIGOTRY, PREJUDICE, AND INTOLERANCE.   

    Perhaps one day if one or more of your own children turned out to be gay Mr. Mero, you would finally get it and find the love and tolerance in your heart that is missing for other people’s children along with the decency to grant them the same rights and privileges as other human beings.

    • Anonymous

      See http://www.sutherlandinstitute.org/news/2011/07/05/is-it-bigotry-to-support-traditional-marriage/

  • Anonymous

    We agree with so much of what you write, but we hope you can see the contradictions in this post.

    We support Marriage Equality, along with a majority of Americans (this is a new development:  according to recent polls conducted by Gallup, The Public Religion Institute, CNN/ORC, and ABC/Washington Post, a majority of Americans now support Marriage Equality.)

    Because Marriage is a matter of public policy, with legal consequences, you are correct that this is a question of justice, not compassion.  People deserve equal justice under our state and federal Marriage laws.
    We agree with you that “…justice is based on what we ought to do as human beings living together in community.”   
    We support the human beings in our community who wish to accept the responsibilities of marriage, regardless of their gender or procreational viability.  We think a world where you and your fiance would have to be tested for fertility prior to getting married would be unthinkable.  We hope you agree.

    When you compare your organization’s stand on illegal immigration to your stand on Marriage Equality, you say,
    “The former is about the universal aspirations of all human beings; the latter is about the selfish desires of a few human beings.”
    Selfish desires?  We disagree, and we see no factual basis for this statement.  The desire to marry, to accept the legal responsibilities that come with marriage, is anything but selfish.  For one woman to accept full responsibility for another woman, and even for her wife’s children — to pick them up from school, to check them into the hospital when they’re sick, to care for them should anything happen to their biological mother — who would consider these to be “selfish desires?”  These are, to use your words, the universal aspirations of human beings in love with one another to care for each other, and to go so far as to accept a legal responsibility to provide that care.

    You close with,
    “What I cannot do is support personal indignities under force of law.”
    We agree.  A woman’s chosen partner in life should be able to visit her in the hospital.  A man who fought and died for our country, if he loved a man in life, should have the right to have that man be his next of kin.  Right now, the opposite is true, and these personal indignities carry the full force of law.

    We hope, more than anything, that you will truly consider the position you hold, the influence you have, and the weight of your words.  Please remember that justice and public policy cannot be decided solely on a minority’s beliefs, (even if members of that minority, such as yourself, carry a position of such prominence.)  We must do “what we ought to do as human beings living together in community.”  Allowing couples to marry, to accept responsibility for one another, and to have families equally recognized under the law, is what we ought to do.

    • Paul Mero

      There are many points of disagreement between what you have
      written in response and Sutherland’s long-standing, very-public record of our
      position on this subject.  But let me
      just touch on a few.


      First, “a majority of Americans” do not believe in “gay marriage”
      if we’re to take every popular vote of the people on this subject into
      consideration.  Public opinion surveys
      are what they are and can elicit targeted responses; the ballot box is rarely
      vague, certainly unquestionable.


      Second, our marriage laws are just – any adult man and adult
      woman can marry.  Those two categories of
      human beings – male and female – comprise the universe of human beings and,
      hence, candidates for marriage.  Everyone
      fits into one or the other category. 
      There are exceptions to our marriage laws (i.e. minors, incompetent
      adults without parental or guardian permission, etc.) but adult, competent
      males and females are not precluded from the legal marriage opportunity.


      Third, fertility does not stand alone in the pantheon of
      reasons to keep marriage between a man and a woman.  Marriage laws rightfully encourage and
      reinforce child-bearing, child-rearing, the complementarity between men and
      women, and intergenerational bonds.  That
      an unfertile couple (i.e. a man and woman in the bonds of marriage) can’t have
      biological children does not denigrate the personal and societal value of their


      Fourth, same-sex sexual relations are an inherently selfish
      act in societal terms.  No one doubts
      that such sexual relationships can be quite meaningful to its
      participants.  Similarly, no one doubts
      that masturbation can have the same meaning for someone.  But we don’t allow a man to marry
      himself.  Why?  Precisely because legal marriage requires a
      societal benefit – a benefit that neither a masturbator nor a homosexual can
      demonstrate outside of selfishness.


      There’s no need to respond that same-sex relationships are
      about the people, not the sex.  Some of us believe that you cannot homo without the sexual any more than
      you can hetero without the
      sexual.  But regardless of whether or not
      you agree with that construct, it is more than clear that the law only
      recognizes human action.  (Although, in
      the crazy world of “gay rights,” I’m well aware that its laws aren’t encumbered
      with such boundaries.  Even so, those unique
      laws are the exception to historic legal experience.)


      Not to be snarky, and I’m not, you must argue something more persuasive than that any
      two people can take care of each other, or love each other, to justify that
      homosexuals should be allowed to legally marry – at least for someone like me
      who understands that marriage is more than love alone, more than the sum total
      of personal satisfaction offered to the two adults alone.


      And on that note, fifth, adults in a free society can
      contract to care for one another, put each other in their wills and all of the
      other business that human beings can conduct legally.  That a legal marriage relationship offers
      those opportunities without requiring separate agreements is hardly an “injustice”
      worthy of destroying the definition of marriage.

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  • Maggie

    I am not Gay and do not pretend to undersand rather a person is born Gay or becomes Gay or any combination of . I have known many Gay persons and find some wonderful,warm,caring and law abiding.The kind of people I love to have as friends.Some are miserable,self centered and mean.Much like the general population. For those of us who are Christians,I cannot help but wonder if Gays are not a test God sent to us to see just how we apply all that we have learned. I have not found the answer but I refuse to demean any of God’s children while I figure it out. What if God did make them different for a reason? Now would not most of our Church leaders be embarrassed if that was the case? What if they are sinners? Is that not between God and the individual? So many questions and no clear answers. Truly a headache for thinking, caring people. If they are born Gay ,should they be denied a legal marriage contract. All of us have only one life to live. If they “decide” to be gay and make a mockery of marriage ,they still have God to answer to. Did God present to us a problem for which only he has the final answer. It goes on and on and on.
    Illegal immigration,certainly less of a moral problem for me. No comparison. Simple and easy.
    We cannot afford to financially care for all of the humans in this world who are stressed and in poverty because of the leadership in their country. We can help or save none of them by example or otherwise if we let compassion, public or private be our only guide. Commons sense and self preservation for a good cause are allowed in all of the Christian faiths I am aware of. Balancing these approaches is certainly called for in this case.We need to enforce and or change our laws ,but not encourage anyone,a President ,a Church,a government agency or a responsible group of thinkers ,like the Sutherland Institute ,to ignore existing laws.
    That is why illegals are in this mess in the first place.Some of you thought your compassion was more important than God or man’s laws. Sometimes you have to stay strong yourself in order to help others. So it should be for the USA . We can continue to offer help for those in trouble in their own country,allow some to come here from ALL over the world,in an organized fashion ,not just from our southern borders ,and work to strenghten and care for our own country and peoples.If we do not, it will be a moot point for our children.