Losing their Religion

How the Irish Gay Marriage Debate Isn’t Like America’s

Scandals dog both European and American religious conservatives. So why are religious Europeans the only ones reacting to them?

05.22.15 9:15 AM ET

Ireland may be Catholic, but the cathedral is a glass house.

If, as expected, today’s country-wide referendum on same-sex marriage passes, one major reason will be the loss of moral authority among those who pretend to speak with moral authority. Chiefly, in Ireland, this means the Catholic Church, which for decades tyrannized Irish politics before its tyranny of Irish boys was exposed beginning in the early 2000s.

It’s hard to make a case for family values when your institution systematically raped children—up to 30,000, it is estimated, in church-run orphanages alone.

Today, only 18 percent of Irish Catholics attend Mass weekly—down from 90 percent in the 1980s. In Dublin, there are only two priests under the age of 40.

Even the Dublin Archbishop’s “Pastoral Reflection on Marriage,” meant to encourage a “No” vote on the referendum, admitted that “I know that the severity with which the Irish Church treated gay and lesbian people in the past—and in some cases still today—makes it difficult for some to understand the Church’s position.”

Well, that and the systematic shielding of pedophiles. 

The Irish Catholic Church is, in the eyes of many, the least qualified to cast stones at other people’s ways of living and loving. Nor, of course, is the scandal limited to Ireland—the Church’s closeted child molesters have ruined lives from Boston to Brazil. Pope Francis even confirmed the existence of a “gay lobby” within the Vatican itself, involving priests sexually assaulting members of the elite “Swiss Guard.” Rumors continue to circulate that the “gay mafia” was in some way responsible for Pope Benedict XVI’s unprecedented abdication in 2011—perhaps blackmailing the pontiff.

This is the same institution, that—Pope Francis’s “who am I to judge?” notwithstanding—still regards gay people as “intrinsically disordered,” a theme derived from Natural Law that echoed right in the Dublin Archbishop’s letter.  As gay theologian Marc Jordan has observed, the Catholic Church hierarchy is not a case of straight people oppressing gay people, but of closeted gays oppressing honest ones.

Hypocrisy when it comes to “family values” is not a uniquely Catholic vice, of course.  Yesterday, Josh Duggar, one of the 19 Kids and Counting of the popular reality show, confirmed that he, too, molested children—in his case, five underage girls, when Duggar himself was a teenager.

Duggar is not just a reality TV star, however. Until the facts were made public, he served as director of FRC Action, the legislative arm of the Family Research Council.

This is the same Family Research Council that has led the Right Fringe’s opposition to same-sex marriage, reproductive rights, equal rights for women, and anything else that might be banned in the movie Footloose. I was happy to ridicule its director, Tony Perkins, for recently urging Christians to fast to stop marriage equality, but the viciousness of Perkins should not be taken lightly.

He has said gay people “are hateful. They are vile.” He has said LGBT activists will soon “start rolling out the boxcars” to cart Christians away to concentration camps. He has said that LGBT activists are terrorists. He has called the It Gets Better project “disgusting.”

And that’s just a quarter of the way down one online compendium of his greatest hits.

According to Josh Duggar’s interview in People, he, his wife, his parents, and his family have known about his “wrongdoing” for 12 years. Presumably that also includes the FRC, which installed a child molester (now confessed, but not convicted, because of the statute of limitations) as its chief lobbyist for family values.

Unlike Irish Catholics, though, the FRC’s evangelical base is still full of true believers.

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Duggar, at least, confessed his sin a decade ago. That’s better than the endless cascade of anti-gay preachers who turn out to be very, very gay. The best this week, of course, was Rev. Matthew Makela. By day, he says that being gay is “a sinful temptation to be resisted.” By night, he indulges that same temptation, cruising for gay sex on Grindr, a popular gay hookup app. “I love making out naked, oral and massage. And I top,” he texted to one potential hookup.

These stories are by now so frequent, and so unsurprising, that I don’t even pitch them anymore to The Daily Beast. At this point, it would be surprising if an anti-gay pastor didn’t have a Grindr profile.

There are signs that America is becoming more like Ireland—that is, more alienated by traditional religious teachings on sexuality. Last year, a Public Religion Research Institute study showed that one-third of millennials who left their childhood religion did so because of “negative teachings” about homosexuality. That is an astonishing statistic. Of all the reasons to lose one’s religion, one-third do so because of this one particular issue.

The results are much broader than a single referendum. There’s a reason that the International LGBT Association’s “Rainbow Map” of Europe, charting the continent’s friendliness toward LGBT people, looks like an actual rainbow. There are good green countries in the West, middling yellow ones in the center, and nasty red ones in the East. Same-sex marriage is a barometer of a society’s secularism, small-l liberalism, and tolerance in general.

That’s why the prime minister of Luxembourg could marry his male partner this week without any major kerfluffle, while only 4% of Latvians support the EuroPride festival scheduled to be held in Riga next month. On social issues, the map of Europe looks like the United States turned sideways, with the progressive West and the traditional Deep East. In this regard, Ireland is falling in line with broader geopolitical trends. 

In a way, religious traditionalists are not wrong when they call gay marriage the end of civilization. It is part of the end of their civilization, a (mostly imaginary) patriarchy in which revelation-based religious institutions have dominion over all parts of everyone’s lives. 

But if this is the End Times, as 77 percent of U.S. Evangelicals believe, traditionalists have only themselves to blame: The moral bankruptcy of pedophile priests and the hypocrisy of cruising Christians undermines tradition’s claims to moral legitimacy.

One wonders what it will take for Americans to become as embittered, and liberated, as the Irish.