R.W. Miller, the author of this Reflection, is a transactional lawyer from New York. He is a conservative/libertarian leaning Mets and Jets fan. In other words, he likes to suffer. His Reflection eloquently exemplifies one of my strongest informing beliefs. In the political realm, Radical Decency is not the special preserve of progressives. Creating mechanisms that allow the many decent people, from across the political spectrum, to find one another and work together is vitally important aspect of our work.
Picture this: a baseball diamond in Anywhere, USA. The grass is green, the base paths are dirty brown and the kids are a mix of smiles and frowns. A little league baseball game has just ended. What comes next? Any former little leaguer can tell you: a handshake line. The winners and losers shake hands and congratulate each other on a good game.
Change the scene: we’re at a different sort of baseball diamond now. We’re at a big league park. It’s night time after a hard day of work for the adults and school for the kids. The home team has lost and it’s time for the handshake line. The victorious visitors line up…and shake each others’ hands.
What on earth was THAT about?
It’s easy to blame the decline in our nation’s value system on competitiveness. After all, the big leaguers are in the competition business. Nearly every day from the beginning of February until (the fans hope) the beginning of November, those guys go out to try to win a ballgame. They are playing for their livelihoods, their families, their teammates. Some even play for the fans who cheer their names and buy their jerseys. But by that theory, the local kids shouldn’t be too worried about their game. They’ll have food on the table, win or lose. Funny thing is, though, those kids are playing as hard as any big leaguer, if not harder. But we, as a society, have decided that kids should be taught to demonstrate good sportsmanship: to congratulate winners and losers alike for their efforts and to put competition aside at the end of the game.
Yet somehow we let those values slip away as those kids become adults. We allow ourselves to forget that our opponents are also human beings, deserving of respect, even if their values conflict with our own. Values are a lot more complex than a box score. The number of runs scored in a ballgame is objective; the proper balance between, for example, the rights of the religious and LGBT communities is not. Not long ago, some conservatives termed themselves “values voters” because they were casting votes in accordance with the teachings of their religions, which were not friendly to what they would refer to as the lifestyles of the LGBT community. Liberals, more supportive of groups like the LGBT community, were often hostile towards the expressions of “values.”
Looking at politics today, the tables have turned. Liberals aggressively assert their values while conservatives demand liberties and freedoms. The liberals and their values seem to be winning the culture wars while conservatives try to preserve their rights to be themselves. On the defensive, they have turned to leaders who offer the protections they seek, however personally offensive such officials may be.
In March of 2015, the New York Mets decided to invite Billy Bean, a former major league baseball player who “came out’ as gay after ending his career, to meet with the team to discuss his experiences and a future in which a player like Bean would not have to hide his sexual orientation. The Mets being a New York team, media attention followed. One player was particularly willing to discuss the event, a (then) little known second baseman named Daniel Murphy.
Murphy was a religious man with strong values. The previous year, he angered some fans by missing opening day for the birth of his first child. In spite of his defensive shortcomings (we Mets fans will never recover), he was viewed as a guy who “played the game right,” which generally means he played hard every day and acted like a professional and a good sport. Murphy informed a reporter that while he disagreed with Bean’s “lifestyle,” he would be amenable to having an openly gay teammate, that he could foresee accepting and learning to love such a teammate, just as he loved his wife despite disagreements with her, and that he was glad the Mets had invited Bean. The New York newspapers spoke the next day: Daniel Murphy was a homophobe.
To many conservatives, Murphy’s views were reasonable. Some viewed homosexuality as a sin, but sin is commonplace. To those with the most committed religious opposition and those who simply felt uncomfortable sharing a locker room with someone attracted to men (modesty being another value), Murphy seemed quite progressive. Those with “live and let live” attitudes (like myself) saw Murphy as accepting reality and working to reconcile his values with the recently updated ones of society at large. Seeing Murphy denounced as a homophobe because his statements of acceptance were not phrased according to the dictates of “political correctness” was jarring. It suggested that in the new liberal order, tolerance was intolerable and acceptance was unacceptable. Nothing less than positive affirmation would suffice, even at the cost of deeply and sincerely held values.
A few months later, confirmation of that fear arrived in the form of a federal appellate court decision. Jack Philips, a Christian baker, had broken the law when he refused to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple, in a state that, at the time, did not recognize gay marriage. Philips, proprietor of the now-notorious Masterpiece Cakeshop, was no common bigot. He was a deeply religious man who refused to make a variety of cakes on the basis of his values: he did not bake cakes he thought promoted alcohol consumption (such as for a bachelor party), turned away valuable business for Halloween each year and refused to produce messages of racism. He did not turn away gay customers, agreeing to sell them anything that did not require him to violate his defined principles. When the state ordered him to produce cakes for gay weddings or get out of the business entirely, he opted for the latter, costing himself 40% of his profits.
To a conservative seeking to live a radically decent life, whether under that term or simply in accordance with his own values, the Murphy and Philips cases are deeply troubling. Both men did their best to reconcile their beliefs with the new world and both were punished when their efforts were deemed insufficient according to standards that felt about five minutes old. They did not close themselves off from others, nor did they push their views on those with whom they disagreed. Their attempts at compromise yielded only censure.
As a more libertarian conservative in the liberal “bubble” of New York, I am familiar with the constant threat of social ostracism or outright legal sanction felt by those whose values are not currently favored. While personally supportive of gay rights, I have no passion for the cause. I do not keep up with the latest PC terminology. I might, like Murphy, refer to the “gay lifestyle,” meaning no offense. I am, however, extremely protective of the freedoms protected by the First Amendment. Our rights to express ourselves and follow our religions are uniquely strong in the US. But they must be carefully guarded, lest those who do not fully appreciate their value undermine them in favor of the latest cause. That must include, however, those whose speech offends us and those whose religions conflict with our own beliefs.
To his credit, Billy Bean understood that Murphy’s openness was an encouraging sign for future gay athletes. Bean further reminded those who read his commentary that inclusion means everyone, including Murphy, who had been nothing but respectful to him (and with whom he would maintain an ongoing dialogue). To me, Bean and Murphy were both examples of men living radically decent lives, along with Jack Philips. Though their views may have been different, they did not shrink from those with whom they differed. Nor did they back down from their sincerely held beliefs, attempting, however imperfectly, to balance respect for themselves with acceptance of others.
As for the men who sued Philips, I find their actions fundamentally indecent. They chose to seek punishment for their disagreement, rather than respecting Philips’s commitment to his values and stated openness to doing business with them on non-conflicting terms.
If we want to have the kind of society envisioned by those who teach little leaguers to shake their opponents’ hands, we must commit ourselves to treating each other decently, especially in moments of conflict. As the proverb, both biblical and, partially, the title for a famous play about conflicts of religious and secular values, tells us “He that troubleth his own house shall inherit the wind.” Our national house is troubled. It is up to every one of us to ensure we inherit a thriving, united nation, instead of the proverbial wind.