On Living in the Ghetto

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This is not the ghetto.

This is a historic home in the center of Austin, with a veranda and a leafy magnolia tree shading its eaves. It dates to the early 1900s; some of its neighbors are designated historical buildings, marked with handsome plaques. It is within walking distance of both the University of Texas and downtown; as you drive by it, you can see the dome of the state capitol peaking over the oak and elm trees that line its street.

It is not the ghetto.

The building is now home to the Austin Institute for the Family and Culture, the new venture of, among others, UT-Austin sociologist Mark Regnerus. I bring it up because, in reading Steve Friess’s live-tweets of Leslie Cooper’s cross-examination of Regnerus on Tuesday, you could sense Regnerus playing with the theme that has run through so much of the cultural right’s thinking of late: Now we’re the ones being marginalized, they insist.

On Tuesday, I pointed to Stephen Kokx’s column, which asked if a “Catholic Ghetto” is all that’s left for people who think like him (Of course! And that’s been so for years, he answered). On Sunday, Ross Douthat described himself as among the defeated, waiting to learn the will of the victors. And Rod Dreher predicted pain for those who, like him, argue against gay marriage. Thomas Peters took it further, writing that they are coming for all of us.

All of that was in my head when I read, via Friess, that Regnerus told the court, “I’m not as open about my faith as I might once have been,” and when he characterized the reaction to his study as “severe and swift.” Regnerus has been made into a martyr by some, and it’s clearly an image he cultivates, at least to a certain extent.

Regnerus’ work has been rebuked by the American Psychological Association and the American Sociological Association. Darren E. Sherkat, who reviewed his study’s publication process, called his work “bullshit.” And, this week, Christine Williams, the head of the Sociology Department at UT, released a statement reiterating the ASA’s verdict that the study is “fundamentally flawed.”

And you know what? That is a form of marginalization. Which is why Regnerus is such a useful symbol—he can help us draw an important distinction. Because there’s marginalization and then there’s marginalization. And then there’s also “marginalization.”

As I wrote in my last post, I understand that the recent attempts to pass “religious freedom” laws bring up real questions involving free association and business owners’ rights. I understand that being forced to participate in something that violates your conscience is a form of marginalization. That argument has to be balanced, I think, against themarginalization of minorities that freedom to discriminate can engender, marginalization that, in our country’s history, has been a thousand times more crushing than anything the USCCB is complaining about. [I should note here that Peters’ column suggests that opponents of gay rights in Arizona have faced physical intimidation. Obviously, I deplore that, and I deplore it if Regnerus has faced anything of that sort.]

But it seems to me that much of the angst coming from the right right now is actually about “marginalization.” I put it in quotes not because I don’t think it’s real, but because it’s different in kind than the marginalization I was talking about in that last paragraph. It’s a psychic pain, the sting of having one’s ideas rejected. No doubt that pain is real, but it’s one that has been felt by lots of people throughout history as their views have come to be seen as wrong, even repulsive.

What I’m reading in these complaints from the right is a conflation of the different types of marginalization. Sure, they seem to be saying, our views may be unpopular, but they never got a fair hearing. We were marginalized from the start.

Which is absurd, as the Austin Institute’s new home illustrates. Williams’ statement about Regnerus ended with this: “We encourage society as a whole to evaluate his claims.” Of all the things she said in her statement, that sentence must have hurt the most. Because Regnerus and the cultural right want us to believe that their voices are being stifled when really just they’re being evaluated; that they’re speaking from the periphery when really they’re right in the center of things; that they’re not getting their day in court when, really, their days in court just aren’t going very well.

Anyway, if you’re reading this from the Catholic Right and you’re still convinced that you’re in a ghetto, maybe this song will brighten your day:

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2 thoughts on “On Living in the Ghetto

  1. Thanks, Frank. There’s a better term than “marginalisation” for what Regnerius is experiencing – it’s “peer review”.

    I was intrigued by your header before reading the post, because it called to mind an idea I’ve been wanting to explore more fully, for LGBT Christians. This is a strand in the work of some gay theologians, which says its time for gay men to move beyond their ghettoes (also referred to as the “second closet”). In that context, it refers to the self-imposed ghettoes / closets of the mind, in which so many of us get become obsessed with material things and the pursuit of hedonistic pleasure. This is partly a result of historic exclusion from the mainstream and from religious community, but it also feeds into and reinforces the stereotype of gay hedonism and godlessness that contributed to that exclusion in the first place. The point of this branch of theological thinking, is simply to urge that we return to what are so obviously the prominent Gospel values of equality, justice, inclusion – and rejection of slavery to wealth and possessions.

    Reading your post, I kept feeling that somewhere, there’s a connection with Regnerius’ ghetto – but couldn’t quite work out precisely what..

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