In the never-ending debate between liberals and conservatives over political issues, both sides present their positions forcefully. But not always reasonably. The extreme versions of proposals get in the way of finding the middle ground which is necessary for actually creating good policy. Only compromise between reasonable positions will satisfy the majority of Americans, who find themselves in the middle of the political spectrum.
So let’s think about the Boy Scouts. After many years of insisting that boys who are gay could not be Scouts, the national organization is now reconsidering. Many troops are organized by churches who do not tolerate homosexuality among their members, so vocal opposition has arisen to any change in Scouting policy.
I personally find any discrimination against homosexuals offensive, just as if church-led organizations said that they were not open to Jews, who commit a sin against their doctrines by not believing in the divinity of Jesus.
But it is unreasonable to demand that every Scouting organization be opened now to homosexual boys and leaders. If a church wishes to exclude homosexuals from membership or leadership positions at this time, I would accept that.
I also believe it is unreasonable to demand that no Boy Scout unit can accept homosexuals, which is the position advocated by many people today. That demand reflects the religious doctrine of some, but not all Christians. Thus it insists that the Boy Scouts officially retain a particular religious ideology of exclusion.
How can I call that position “unreasonable”? Who says what’s unreasonable?
In the 1940s, when I was born, the demand that homosexuals should be able to enjoy the same marriage rights and privileges as heterosexuals was thought by most people to be unreasonable. It certainly was unusual.
Reason has changed. We have learned a great deal about homosexuality in my lifetime. We have heard the revelations about Nazi persecution and mass murder of homosexuals, and we have read about the physical abuse and sometimes murder of homosexuals in America. We know more about how socially stigmatizing a group makes it easier to believe myths about them, and we understand more about the biological causes of homosexuality and other behaviors that were traditionally thought of as sinful. We recognize how much like heterosexuals homosexuals are and how they are different. We see that our celebrities and leaders, our heroes and heroines, our friends and our relatives are gay.
It is not any more reasonable to discriminate on the basis of sexuality, than it is to discriminate on the basis of gender. Just because there is a long tradition of considering females and gays to be inferior and sinful, just because some of those traditions are religious, does not make that discrimination reasonable.
Until World War II, nearly every Christian tradition considered Jews to be inferior and sinful, preached those values unendingly, and asserted that they came from the word of God. Seeing the genocidal results of those beliefs and learning more about what Jews really are like, nearly every Christian tradition has changed its definition of reasonable. In the Catholic church, the moment when the Pope publicly said that previous popes were wrong was 50 years ago, in the encyclical “Nostra Aetate”, first written by Cardinal Augustin Bea for Pope John XXIII in 1961, considered by the Second Vatican Council in 1965, passed by the bishops of the world by a vote of 2,221 to 88, and then promulgated by Pope Paul VI.
What Catholics had considered reasonable, even mandatory to believe, had become unreasonable. There continued to be votes and voices against this change, but they were no longer persuasive.
Like the Constitution, the Bible also gets reinterpreted, as human society learns more about itself. Although Deuteronomy demands that a woman who is betrothed and then raped before marriage, and a woman who is not a virgin when she marries, both be stoned to death, now Christians criticize Islam for suggesting that women be stoned. What once was reasonable has become unacceptable.
So why don’t I demand that every barrier to homosexuals, within the Boy Scouts and everywhere else, be immediately dropped? Why is a slower path to equality reasonable?
This is not mainly about changing rules. If the goal is equality, that must be created through persuasion. Those who argue against equality of man and woman, against equality of Christian and Jew, against equality of black and white, have lost the argument and have become unreasonable. That happened by changing people’s minds. I believe this inequality of sexual identity will also succumb to reason. None of these changes have been easy or quick. Those of us who had to fight for our equality have suffered. But suffering won’t be diminished by fixing only on the goal and not on the process.
Allowing individual troops to make their own decisions about homosexual members and leaders will be a big change for the Boy Scouts. Many will leave in a huff, shouting about tradition and morality. They will become the unreasonable ones, because the best human society has not only reached reasonable moral positions, but also is reasonable in how it gets there.