When Personal Beliefs Are Anything But Personal

So far as I’m concerned, there’s no reason that a general lack of experience or glaring absence of competence ought to keep me from taking on a new responsibility. At least, that seems to be the approach that I’ve taken so far w/r/t my budding career as a clergyperson. And maybe unabashed amateurism isn’t the best approach considering I’m dealing with souls and all, but so far it’s worked out fairly well. Most of the time.

Like in the fall how I volunteered myself to preach a sermon without any formal (or even informal) instruction in sermonizing. I’d been reading a few sermons lately and I figured, “how hard could it be?” Really hard, actually. But I labored over that inaugural sermon for a few weeks and it ended up being pretty solid. So I’m no Billy Graham, but I can at least get through a sermon without anyone nodding off or looking at me like I’m crazy. (Note: that’s no small feat, seeing as how I am actually at least a little bit crazy.)

Hospital rooms aren’t nearly as comfortable a space for me as a pulpit, though. It’s been my plan to put off my hospital chaplaincy internship as long as possible, because I know it’s going to be incredibly difficult for me emotionally. So I’m coasting through summer just fine doing stuff I enjoy like going to class and reading books no one cares about and preaching. Then I get a call from a minister I sometimes work with at a church about an hour and a half east of Nashville. He asks can I go see one of our congregants who’s laid up in Vanderbilt Medical Center. I say yeah I’d love to. (This was, strictly speaking, a lie.)

And so I’m visiting with my congregant Justin* and suddenly I’m feeling like the worst clergyperson ever.

Justin has been dealing with some truly rotten shit for a very long time. His life story for the past few years makes A Series of Unfortunate Events look like a cake-walk.

Here’s a faithful person saying sometimes he gets so frustrated with God that he wants to throw his Bible against the wall. I don’t know what to say. The Vanderbilt Divinity School student in me wants to say something like, “That wouldn’t be so bad, depending on the translation.” I refrain.

Then another time I’m listening to a walking, talking case study in theodicy. “Why is God letting me suffer so much?” he says. I don’t know what to say. Suddenly all of the answers I might give in a research paper seem so shockingly out of touch and hollow that I feel like an awful person for even thinking them. Suddenly the beef stroganoff and carrots that Justin bought me from the hospital cafeteria are very, very interesting. I stir my noodles and decide it’s crucial for me to devote my full attention towards the task of picking the perfect carrot.

I’m not much help at all.

Mostly I feel like Justin is feeling. Why did his house burn down? Why the genetic disorder? Why can’t his highly-educated spouse find a job so Justin can have enough insurance to cover the procedures he needs? And why all of this garbage all at once? I feel mostly powerless at what seems like a cosmic conspiracy to make one person suffer.

And I’m angry.

Angry because so much of the severity of what Justin’s been suffering could’ve been avoided. Easily.

He could’ve been covered under his husbands health insurance plan like all of those spouses in America who happen to be straight. But then again that’s sort of a moot point in this case because his husband was fired when his employer found out he was gay. (It’s perfectly legal to fire someone for being gay in Tennessee.) And maybe the firing wouldn’t have been so bad if the entire town hadn’t ostracized them and all but forcibly driven them out.

And I’m supposed to see all of that as some sort of unfortunate collateral damage, as a price to be paid for the continued religious freedom of those whose personal belief is that marriage is between a man and a woman.

Well, that’s bullshit.

Because some so-called personal beliefs are anything but personal. When your personal beliefs are the justification for a system of laws that has direct bearing on the day to day lives of people completely removed from your personal sphere of influence, that’s no longer a matter of personal belief. That’s a public policy position. So you’ll have to excuse those of us who don’t buy it even a little bit when people who bring their views into the public sphere cry personal religious persecution at the first sign of significant pushback. Religious freedom doesn’t mean you have the right to dictate public policy according to your own personal religious convictions.

Your personal religious conviction is that gay marriage is wrong? Fine, then don’t marry someone who’s of the same sex as you.

You think the ideal family is a father, mother, and children? Wonderful. Work on the health of that ideal marriage of yours. Maybe you could also contribute your time and money to marriage counseling services or organizations that oppose domestic violence.

Here’s the thing that should be painstakingly obvious: whether or not gay couples have the same legal rights as their straight counterparts has absolutely no bearing on the status or health of “traditional families.” To claim otherwise is honestly sort of ridiculous. It’s not as if gay couples find out that they can’t have marriage rights and then go, “Woops, better call this whole 15 year relationship thing off; better go find a straight couple to raise these kids we’ve been bringing up.” No, the only result of a system of laws that exclusively recognizes “traditional families” is that the lives of “non-traditional families” are made more difficult for no justifiable reason.

Louis C.K. makes it especially obvious how ridiculous this conflation of personal and public values is when it comes to gay marriage: (language alert)

It doesn’t have any effect on your life. What do you care? People try to talk about it like it’s a social issue. Like when you see someone stand up on a talk show and say “How am I supposed to explain to my child that two men are getting married?”….I dunno, it’s your shitty kid, you fuckin’ tell em. Why is that someone else’s problem? Two guys are in love but they can’t get married because you don’t want to talk to your ugly child for five fuckin’ minutes?

Harsh, but true.

Here’s the point, though. Not that your kid is necessarily ugly if you’re opposed to gay marriage. It’s that some professed personal beliefs have a lot more to do with other people’s lives than your own.

You’ve every right to think gay relationships are wrong, but it’s time to stop acting like personal beliefs are a valid way of backing an argument about public issues.

It’s also a good idea to think from time to time about whether your personal views are contributing to ruin and suffering in other people’s lives.

Call me a heretic, but I don’t have any interest in religious views that spread and intensify suffering.
*(name has been changed)



  1. Rachel

    Thanks for this. We have no idea what we are doing but maybe we can help people stop being such jerks to one another – or at least blog about it.

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