People often resort to dehumanizing an opponent in an attempt to strengthen their case. Sadly, this has often been the case when discussing same-sex marriage. However, many supporters of same-sex marriage are dehumanizing the very individuals they claim to be elevating.
First, as a conservative evangelical Christian, I should acknowledge and confess the myriad of ways those who believe similarly to myself have demeaned LGBT people. Often, we spoke and behaved as if they were somehow less than.
It is to our eternal shame that Christians did not respond with grace and love to those outside of walls and many inside our congregations who said they were same-sex attracted.
Even when we disagree over the biblical commands concerning sexuality and marriage, we can and should treat everyone with dignity and recognition that they have inherent dignity because they are created in God’s image.
But it is at this point that many same-sex marriage proponents are undermining our shared humanity and unwittingly dehumanizing LGBT individuals.
Do actions equal identity?
It is important to note here some important facts about many of the lawsuits surrounding Christian cake bakers and same-sex weddings. Virtually all cases that have made national news involve an important distinction: it’s about the ceremony, not the individuals.
They never asked questions about customers sexuality or marital status. But when they were asked to create original designs specifically for same-sex weddings, they politely declined.
This is not, despite the headlines of many articles, a debate over same-sex marriage. It is not about the right to discriminate against LGBT customers. The question is at hand is whether the state can force someone to create something that violates their religious convictions.
Many, however, do not accept that distinction. To say you cannot bake for a same-sex wedding, they argue, is the same as refusing someone service because of their sexual orientation.
But if that is the case, then we must accept that our actions (in this case, having a same-sex wedding) is the same thing as our personal identity. That is a dangerous, dehumanizing precedent.
In this case, the action is one the individual wants to highlight, but what if it were a mistake. Would they want their identity tied to a past regret?
When sexual choices are involved in other instances, there has been a push to avoid shaming individuals by identifying them by their lifestyle choices. The arguments against Christian bakers and florists undermines those attempts, by inextricably linking a person’s identity to the choices they make and actions they take.
To go to a different political discussion, would everyone want to say that a child who crossed the border illegally have her identity tied to that choice. Should her very identity only be as an “illegal” because of that decision?
Should we cease to treat criminals as human beings because of their crimes? Could they be discarded and mistreated because their identity is only that of a criminal?
These are the ramifications of refusing to draw a distinction between an individual and the choices they make. But to go much further to the heart of the issue, we have to look at where we find our dignity and identity.
What gives an individual dignity?
In penning the Supreme Court decision that legalized same-sex marriage across the United States, Justice Anthony Kennedy built his case on dignity. He referenced the exact word nine times in his opinion.
The ruling was said to give dignity to LGBT Americans.
Justice Clarence Thomas objected to the reasoning, pointing to slaves and others mistreated by the government as maintaining their dignity and self-worth despite the official position of the United States of America.
“The government cannot bestow dignity, and it cannot take it away,” he wrote.
Thomas’ argument is that he, along with the founders of the country, regarded dignity and worth as something humans inherently possess. Dignity is innate. We are “endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights.”
Those do not come from the government. They can only be rightly recognized by the government.
What I wrote immediately after the same-sex marriage ruling, “Did the Supreme Court Grant Gay Americans ‘Dignity’,” applies to this discussion as well.
You can disagree with Thomas’ legal reasoning as far as how this applies to gay marriage, but it is dangerous ground to disregard his point about the origin of our dignity.
Take his most extreme example: slavery. If you argue the enslavement and mistreat of black individuals did strip them of their humanity, then, in some ways, you have found yourself agreeing with the slave owner.
The slave owner says those men and women were not fully human because of their race. Those who disagree with Thomas agree somewhat, except they would say slaves were not fully human because of how they were treated. That gives much more power to the slave owner that he deserves.
The slave owner remained wrong because he refused to recognize the inherent human dignity in those he claimed a right to own. He could force them to work. He could beat them. But nothing he did could ever remove their humanity or their dignity.
Scars and sweat can mar the body and seek to hide what is underneath, but it cannot eliminate what is rightly there and placed by a Power much stronger than any plantation owner or president.
But the rebuttal to Thomas’ arguments seeks to undermine this truth. Saying someone only has dignity and humanity when the government agrees places us in a very precarious situation.
What if the government decides, for who knows what reason, that you should no longer be considered a person worthy of protection? Would you not want someone to challenge that assertion, to contend that your dignity is not up for debate?
More than likely, you consider that a far fetched possibility and I would agree. But it’s probably not as far fetched as you think.
Go back through our shared human history and you find instance after instance of government after government refusing to acknowledge the humanity and dignity of those under its governance.
That was then, this is now. It wouldn’t happen today, you may say. Yet, according to the response to Thomas’ ruling, the U.S. government refused to recognize the humanity of gay couples up until last Friday. I disagree with that, but it should illustrate the point.
Regardless of whether you believe a baker should create a cake for a same-sex wedding or not, you should be wary of any line of reasoning that ties identity to actions or grants government power over our dignity.
None of us, gay or straight, Christian or not, want to unwittingly place ourselves in a situation where we allow the government to boil our identity down to only our actions. We all should refuse to believe they have the right to either bestow or withhold dignity from individuals or groups.