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.