HBO’s charming mid-aughts cosplay porno, Rome, habitually botched the broad canvas of history, but it did manage some excellent brush strokes, many of them dabbed around the series’ real star, Ian McNeice, who played the forum reader, a wonderfully amoral news anchor who stands in gorgeous fixity amid the whirl of war and upheaval, a pole whose flag is perfectly attuned to the breeze. McNeice gets the character precisely right: gaudy, congenial, sardonic, a little cruel. I remember one particular announcement, a throwaway, really, but an example of the show actually inhabiting its setting rather than dully commenting on it. In the second season, when Herod is scheduled to visit Rome and its squabbling rulers, McNeice casually announces to the forum: “On order of the Triumvirate, during Prince Herod’s residency here, all mockery of Jews and their one god shall be kept to an appropriate minimum.” It’s the way he says “one god,” the slight pause that precedes it, the implied chuckle in the pronunciation . . . It’s very funny, and it’s very good.
Pre-Christian Rome was religiously pluralistic, although it did have a state religion of sorts, and this was of a piece with the ancient world in general. It was accepted as a matter of course that different peoples had different gods, and over the centuries of migrations and conquests, people traded deities like we moderns trade vocabulary, with efforts to keep out popular foreign deities about as effective as the Académie française trying to keep out email. Even the Jews “and their one god” LOL had, in their past, occasionally adopted an idol, and when Adonai finally bothered to write down the bylaws, he admitted the dense population of the numinous world in his commandment: You shall have no other gods before me. The world is awash in divinities, but I am yours. The cheese stands alone.
Anyway, this all brings us by commodious vicus of recirculation back to America, our nova Roma, and the present to-do over gay rights and religious liberty. The general question is whether people of faith—another one of those hilarious taxonomic neologisms that are, I sometimes think, America’s sole remaining political export to the world—should be able, in a private capacity, to deny service to gays based on the religious and moral objections to homosexuality or gay marriage or what have you, or if this constitutes a form of discrimination as odious and intolerable to society as racial discrimination. Does refusing to bake a cake for a queer couple equal refusing to bake a cake for an interracial couple; does refusing to allow a gay parent to adopt amount to turning away black prospective parents at the agency door?
Obviously the general trend is in the direction of yes: yes, it is intolerable discrimination, and it isn’t permissible to raise the banner of free exercise in order to violate equal protection. Hmm, I suppose I find this logic a little weird. Now don’t get too worked up. I find religious objections to same-sex partnership and adoption incoherent; I find the Christian sexual ethics that supposedly stand in opposition to gay sex and gay marriage impossibly inconsistent and weird. The idea that there exists a such thing as “traditional marriage” and that some kind of post-War, pre-Beatles nuclear, two-generation family represents a sacred norm in human history is so laughably, ahistorically bogus as to represent, quite possibly, the dumbest idea in the magisterial history of dumb ideas. And like I said a few days ago, the old adage about reaping what you sow has few better examples than the specter of these people of faith, long perfectly pleased to link their religious institution to the packed list of state-sponsored and state-conferred benefits, now whining that this very same state should keep its muddy nose out of their churchy business. I hate the idea that I might be turned away at the door of a business because of my relationship with a man, but I am very suspicious of this constant appeal to the powers of the state, knowing, as I do, how the worm turns. Not very long ago, the same state that compels the baking of my wedding cake called my intimate life illegal. Or, the state that compels the lunch counter to serve black men also imprisons more than a million of them. What I am saying is, the problem of equality guaranteed by the police is the police.
The uncomfortable truth is that the idea of liberty sits uncomfortably with the free practice of religion. Another bogus idea is that liberty is some kind of natural state, a condition of freedom against which states and their governments set limits—reasonable and limited limits, if the state is properly constituted, yeah? But liberty in practical reality consists of a set of privileges and permissions; it is granted, not innate; it is a charter, not a condition of being, and as such, it is changeable, tradeable, and purchasable. It is not the same as freedom. The trouble with religious liberty as it’s come to be defined is that it asks the state to grant it the privilege to deny to others the permissions that the state has already granted. This is the strange demand: we wish to refuse what you permit.
I am a great believer in allowing many little cultures to flourish, and I think bad things happen when they start balling themselves up into the sorts of vast engines of wealth and authority that build thousands of prisons and stockpile nuclear weapons and invent aerial drones. But if we are to permit cultural peculiarity, and if we’re to permit broader exercises of moral expression, however attractive, however odious they may appear to us, then we must learn to live in a world of alien gods and weird wedding practices. A telling response to my last post was:
— Nathan Duffy (@TheIllegit) March 7, 2014
First we will deny you permission; then we won’t permit you to leave. This is why people find it so hard to believe that people of faith desire only to be left alone, to be allowed to run their adoption agencies, parochial schools, and sacramental marriage ceremonies without outside interference; live and let live; à chacun son goût; il faut cultiver notre jardin; um, etc. The plea to be allowed to be particular pairs poorly with an evangelical universalism; the desire to be granted liberty frequently shades into a wish to become its grantor; you shall have no other gods beside me, or before me, becomes rather more ominously, there shall be no other gods.