[I]t's one thing for the churches to insist on their right to define the sacrament of marriage for their own members. But it's quite another for them to insist that they have a right to define the relationships of people outside their communities. That's really what's most troubling . . . It [is] a deliberate civic intrusion by the churches.
Following, with added links, are excerpts from Salon.com's interview with Richard Rodriguez.
While conservative churches are busy trying to whip up another round of culture wars over same-sex marriage, [author Richard] Rodriguez says the real reason for their panic lies elsewhere: the breakdown of the traditional heterosexual family and the shifting role of women in society and the church itself. As the American family fractures and the majority of women choose to live without men, churches are losing their grip on power and scapegoating gays and lesbians for their failures.
Rodriguez, who is Mexican-American, gay and a practicing Catholic, refuses to let any single part of himself define the whole. Born in San Francisco in 1944 and raised by his Spanish-speaking Mexican immigrant parents to embrace mainstream American culture and the English language, he went on to study literature and religion at Stanford and Columbia. His first book, The Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez, explores his journey from working-class immigrant to a fully assimilated intellectual – angering many Latinos with his view that English fluency is essential. Days of Obligation: An Argument With My Mexican Father, which was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 1993, continued his investigation into how family, culture, religion, race, sexuality and other strands of his life all contribute to the whole, a complex "brownness" of contradictions and ironies. Brown: The Last Discovery of America completes the trilogy -- but not his insatiable intellectual curiosity, which he is now shining on monotheism.
Rodriguez' stinging critiques of religious hypocrisy are all the richer for his passionate love of Catholicism and the Most Holy Redeemer parish in San Francisco, where he and his partner of 28 years are devoted members. Today, Rodriguez is at work on a new book about the monotheistic "desert religions" – Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Ever since Sept. 11, "when havoc descended in the name of the desert God," Rodriguez said in one of his Peabody Award-winning radio commentaries for PBS's News Hour, he has been trying to understand the strands of darkness that run through these religions.
Salon spoke to Richard Rodriguez by phone at his home in San Francisco.
Jeanne Carstensen (of Salon.com): You said recently the real issue behind the anti-gay marriage movement is the crisis in the family. What do you mean?
Richard Rodriguez: American families are under a great deal of stress. The divorce rate isn't declining, it's increasing. And the majority of American women are now living alone. We are raising children in America without fathers. I think of Michael Phelps at the Olympics with his mother in the stands. His father was completely absent. He was negligible; no one refers to him, no one noticed his absence.
The possibility that a whole new generation of American males is being raised by women without men is very challenging for the churches. I think they want to reassert some sort of male authority over the order of things. I think the pro-Proposition 8 movement was really galvanized by an insecurity that churches are feeling now with the rise of women.
Monotheistic religions feel threatened by the rise of feminism and the insistence, in many communities, that women take a bigger role in the church. At the same time that women are claiming more responsibility for their religious life, they are also moving out of traditional roles as wife and mother. This is why abortion is so threatening to many religious people – it represents some rejection of the traditional role of mother.
In such a world, we need to identify the relationship between feminism and homosexuality. These movements began, in some sense, to achieve visibility alongside one another. I know a lot of black churches take offense when gay activists say that the gay movement is somehow analogous to the black civil rights movement. And while there is some relationship between the persecution of gays and the anti-miscegenation laws in the United States, I think the true analogy is to the women's movement. What we represent as gays in America is an alternative to the traditional male-structured society. The possibility that we can form ourselves sexually – even form our sense of what a sex is – sets us apart from the traditional roles we were given by our fathers.
Jeanne Carstensen: I think Proposition 8 was also galvanized by insecurity around gay families.
Richard Rodriguez: I agree. But the real challenge to the family right now is male irresponsibility and misbehavior toward women. If the Hispanic Catholic and evangelical churches really wanted to protect the family, they should address the issue of wife beating in Hispanic families and the misbehaviors of the father against the mother. But no, they go after gay marriage. It doesn't take any brilliance to notice that this is hypocrisy of such magnitude that you blame the gay couple living next door for the fact that you've just beaten your wife.
The pro-8 campaign calls itself the Protect Family Movement, even though the issue of family was the very reason gays needed to have marriage. There are partners in gay unions now who have children, and those children need to be protected. If my partner and I had children, either through a previous marriage or because we adopted them, I would need to be able to take them to the emergency room. I would need to be able to protect them with the parental rights that marriage would give me. It was for the benefit of the family that marriage was extended to homosexuals.
Religions have the capacity for being noble and ennobling but they are also the expression of some of the darkest impulses in us – to go after the "other." For Christians, if the other isn't the Muslim, it's the homosexual. That is the most discouraging part.
Jeanne Carstensen: Speaking of hypocrisy, churches have plenty of sexual skeletons in their closet.
Richard Rodriguez: Right. The Mormon Church has this incredible notoriety in America for polygamy and has been persecuted because of it. The very church that became notorious because of polygamy is now insisting that marriage is one man and one woman. That is, at least, an irony of history. But as a number of Mormon women friends of mine say, the same church that espouses the centrality of family in their lives is also the church that urges them to reject their gay children.
Then there is the Roman Catholic Church, my own church, which has just come off this extraordinary season of sexual scandal and misbehavior in the rectory against children. The church is barely out of the court and it's trying to assume the role of governor of sexual behavior, having just proved to America its inability to govern its own sexual behavior.
Look at the evangelicals. In their insistence that people be born again, they know Americans are broken. In their circus-tent suburban churches, you find 10,000 people on a Sunday morning. You find people who have been divorced, people who have had drug experiences, people who have been in jail. These churches touch upon a dream that people can put our lives back together again.
Now these churches are going after homosexuals as a way of insisting on their own propriety. They are insisting that they have a role to play in the general society as moral guardians, when what we have seen in the recent past is just the opposite. I mean, it's one thing for the churches to insist on their right to define the sacrament of marriage for their own members. But it's quite another for them to insist that they have a right to define the relationships of people outside their communities. That's really what's most troubling about Proposition 8. It was a deliberate civic intrusion by the churches.
Jeanne Carstensen: I wonder if these churches sense they're losing some of the influence they've had for the past eight years.
Richard Rodriguez: To my knowledge, the churches have not accepted responsibility for the Bush catastrophe. Having claimed, in some cases, that Bush was divinely inspired and his election was the will of God, they have failed to explain why the last eight years have been so catastrophic for America.
Now I think evangelicals are falling back on issues that have been reliable for them in the past. Mike Huckabee, a Baptist minister, who said that children of immigrants should be educated, was essentially frightened away from that position by Mitt Romney. The tentativeness of the evangelicals on immigration only allowed them to be more vociferous on the gay issue. That's traditionally easy for them – to go after the sinner. But it doesn't convince me of their ascendancy; it merely convinces me that they are retreating. They don't know how to extend their agenda beyond gay marriage and abortion.
To read Jeanne Carstensen's interview with Richard Rodriguez in its entirety, click here.
For more of Richard Rodriguez at The Wild Reed, see:
Mary Hunt and Richard Rodriguez Headline DignityUSA's 40th Anniversary Celebration
Out and About – November 2007
See also the related Wild Reed posts:
Tips on Speaking as a Catholic in Support of Marriage Equality
A Catholic Statement of Support for Same-Sex Marriage
Catholic Attitudes on Gay and Lesbian Rights: An Overview
Marriage Equality: Simple Answers to NOM's Complicated Lies
Responding to Bishop Tobin's Remarks on Gay Marriage
A Message for NOM (and the Catholic Hierarchy)
In the Struggle for Marriage Equality, MN Catholics are Making a Difference by Changing Hearts and Minds