Nowadays, one of the most common arguments made by opponents of gay marriage is that they would be considered bigots if gay marriage is legal. The National Organization for Marriage gets a lot of mileage out of the claim that children will be taught that their parents are bigoted, and people of faith will be seen as discriminatory. Recently, former senator Rick Santorum got into an argument with a high school student, where he complained:
I had Piers Morgan call me a bigot – because I believe what the Catholic Church teaches with respect to homosexuality, I’m a bigot. So now I’m a bigot, because I believe what the Bible teaches – now, 2000 years of teaching and moral theology is now bigoted.
Well, yeah! That’s because it is. This fatuous argument reveals two important things about Mr. Santorum and other anti-gay Christians. First, they’re much more concerned about being perceived as bigots than whether they might actually be bigoted. Second, they are unable to conceive of any kind of moral progress that could be inconvenient to their positions or contrary to a particular faith. The sheer self-absorption of this mindset is breathtaking. Imagine if any other prejudice were defended with such an argument. How seriously would we take the protests of white racists that they would be seen as bigots because of integration? How much would we care about the complaints of men that they would be considered bigoted if women are allowed to vote?
It’s plain to see that the discomfort that bigoted people may have with their bigotry being recognized does nothing to change the fact that it is still bigotry. And the idea that we should accommodate their preferred self-perception by continuing to deny equal rights to the targets of their bigotry is so brazenly narcissistic it defies all comprehension. You are not that important! If you have to put up with being seen as bigoted so that people can finally receive their equality under the law, then you’ll just have to deal with it. It’s too bad you got the short end of the stick on this one, but if every hint of moral realization and social change was immediately quashed because some people want to be assured that they’ll always be in the right, there would never be any kind of progress.
And no, your religion does not have the power to legitimize bigotry. Bigoted beliefs do not become excusable just because a church or a book endorses them. You don’t get a pass on bigotry by claiming that a god agrees with you. People came up with the very same justifications for all kinds of prejudice. It changes nothing. Like it or not, your religion will evolve. It might deny this, it might lag behind, but religions are dragged along with the moral climate of society at large. The Catholic Church doesn’t hold trials of alleged witches anymore. Mormon leaders decided that God changed his mind about allowing black people to be ordained. And some day, you will have to face the reality that your 2,000 years of moral theology are helpless next to a moment of moral reflection.
By focusing only on the legal aspects as the key factor in whether or not they’re considered bigots, they’ve failed to understand that this is just a symptom of ongoing social progress. We already see them as bigots, and that’s the very reason why the legal standing of gay people is now a point of contention. The moral validity of anti-gay prejudice has been cast into doubt, and homophobia is no longer regarded as an unquestionable constant of our society. Fighting this on a legal front is just trying to close the barn door after the horse is long gone. It’s not going to stop anyone from seeing you for exactly what you are. And no law, whether earthly or divine, will change that. The only one who can keep you from being a bigot is yourself.