The vocal opponents of family equality are fond of making sweeping statements (in flagrant disregard of the evidence) about how marriage has "always" been between one man and on woman, how the proponents of equality are "redefining" evidence, quite ignoring the ways in marriage has been constantly redefined in the past - not least by the Christian churches. A variation on the theme has been that homosexuality has destroyed great civilizations, such as that of Rome. Illinois state Rep. Ronald Stephens has repeated this claim, blaming "open homosexuality" for the fall of Rome.
In a fun, sane response in the Chicago Sun-Times, Neill Steinberg dismisses the claim, basing his response on, well, historical fact, not what he calls Stephens' talking points. His most important observation is that the best known extensive study of the fall of Rome, Edward Gibbons "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire", concluded that Roman civilization collapsed not because of homosexuality, but because of - guess what? Christianity.
Would that be a argument to ban Christianity today, for fear that it could cause the collapse of modern Western civilization?
The point I want to make is not that Gibbons was either right or wrong, but to heartily endorse Steinberg's larger point, that grand claims about the lessons of history really ought to be checked against the facts. This is certainly true in the secular sphere, but also in religious discourse. The often -repeated Vatican claims of Catholic "constant and unchanging tradition" are a smokescreen, often used to used to hide the importance of recently introduced changes, as Martin Pendergast noted recently, writing about gradualism in Benedict's theology.
But today, I do not want to explore this theme of the Church's constantly changing tradition. Let's just enjoy, instead, Steinberg's thoroughly delightful response to rep Stephens' ignorance. Here are some extracts:
Ignorance is the great engine of human misery, the fertile field where its fruit, hatred, grows in all its awful forms, from the first human, crouching on a dark savannah, screeching terrified defiance at a shape silhouetted on the horizon, to Rep. Ronald Stephens, rising to his feet in the Illinois House, blaming "open homosexuality" for the fall of Rome.
....the Roman Empire -- even lopping off the first 700 years, from Rome's founding to Julius Caesar -- lasted 500 years.
We should only fall so quickly.
Let us consult Edward Gibbon, whose classic The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire isn't read in high schools, at least not Downstate, apparently, the way it once was.Gibbon puts the blame -- and this really is too delicious -- not on homosexuality, but on Christianity, which he says made the Roman population more worried about their place in heaven than about barbarians at the gate."I have described the triumph of barbarism and religion," Gibbon concludes, famously, in his epigram.
What were they like- The barbarians who sacked Rome were not only a bunch of lazy Teutonic drunks, according to Gibbon, who only cared to conquer Italy because beer, while "sufficient for the gross purposes of German debauchery," wasn't good enough for "those who had tasted the rich wines of Italy and . . . sighed for that more delicious species of intoxication.''
To top it off, the Huns, unlike Rome's Christian emperors, were not on the anti-gay bandwagon, but practiced a warrior homosexuality, according to some scholars.
That's right - a "warrior homosexuality", just like so many other militaristic societies, where male love in the ranks was par for the course, if not obligatory. So much for the DADT argument that accepting gay soldiers would weaken military effectiveness.
All this is fun stuff - but he is softening us up for a really important point - that attacks on the queer community are frequently made by accusing us of the crimes and failings of our opponents. This is most clearly illustrated in the case of adoption. Whereas the opponents are loud in their insistence that all children need both a mother and a father, and that only a mother and a father can offer the required degree of love and care - the overwhelming majority of children needing adoptive parents do so precisely because they have been let down by their own biological mom and pop.
Look at gay adoption, long opposed by the faithful on the premise that gays shouldn't be allowed around children, even their own.But just in case any reader mistakes his argument for a reason to abandon the Christian faith, he closes with a final reminder:
Where did all these kids in need of adoption come from- Oh right, that would be from heterosexual couples who so completely failed their children that they were seized by the state. And what about the gays who want to adopt them- Any equal fault, any evidence that they provide less of a home than any other adoptive family- Here's a hint: No.
The truth is that societies are complex; all have good and bad qualities. I can savor the wit and intelligence of Roman times while recognizing that they were slave-owners capable of the most staggering cruelties. To fault Ancient Rome for coddling gays is like blaming the Nazis for bad civic art.
That Christianity has been a scourge to gays is without doubt. The question now: Is that intrinsic to the faith- Given the many -- gay and straight alike -- who say it is not, who focus on the love, tolerance, grace, and human dignity that Christianity offers, those who insist it must be and flail against gay citizens are reading from an uncorrected text.
- Complexity and the fall of Rome (Kottke )
- Downstate Civil Unions Foe Predicts America's Doom: 'Open Homosexuality' (Huffington Post)
- Westward the Course of Empire Makes Us Gay (Chicago Reader)
- Gay Soldiers at the Foundation of Democracy (Queers in History)
- Gays in the Military: Japan (Queers in History)