What’s in a Word
The Cheney ‘Compassion’ Trap
Mary Cheney’s straight family members keep talking about ‘compassion’—a word that sounds nice but is typically used by the right to convey pity for the morally diseased.
No wonder Mary Cheney is pissed. Over the last two days, she and her wife, Heather Poe, have been talking about gay marriage in the language of equality, discrimination, and basic rights. Everyone else in the Cheney family, by contrast, has been talking about “compassion.”
“I love my sister and her family and have always tried to be compassionate towards them,” explained Liz Cheney on Sunday. “I believe that is the Christian way to behave.” Added parents Dick and Lynne yesterday, “Compassion is called for, even when there is disagreement about such a fundamental matter.”
The Cambridge Dictionary Online defines compassion as “sympathy and sadness for other people’s suffering or bad luck.” Notice that the word implies nothing about the cause of the suffering. You can feel compassion for the victim of discrimination or the victim of Typhoon Haiyan or for a drug addict. And it’s precisely that ambiguity that the straight Cheneys are exploiting. To liberal ears, “compassion” sounds like empathy for the victims of anti-gay bigotry. But to the right-wingers Liz Cheney is courting in her Wyoming Senate race, “compassion” is the word you employ to describe your pity for the morally diseased. In 2010, for instance, Tony Perkins, president of the Christian lobbying group Family Research Council, penned a Washington Post column entitled “Christian compassion requires the truth about harms of homosexuality,” in which he urged Christians to treat gays and lesbians in the same merciful way Jesus treated adulterers. In 2012, a post on the website of the Christian action group American Family Association urged, “When we talk about the issue of homosexuality, it is important to keep two biblical principles in tension. On the one hand we must stay true to our biblical convictions, and on the other hand we should reach out with biblical compassion.”
The sanctimony is nauseating. Homosexual love is immoral, but right-wing Christians, inspired by their Savior, will summon the greatness of spirit to avoid open expressions of contempt. Instead, they will merely insist that gays and lesbians live as second-class citizens, denied the fundamental rights that Liz, Dick, and Lynne Cheney take for granted.
Once upon a time, whites used to talk this way about blacks. “It is clear that a series of court decisions will soon bring about desegregation of certain schools and colleges in Alabama,” wrote eleven white Alabama ministers and rabbis in January 1963. “Many sincere people oppose this change and are deeply troubled by it. As southerners, we understand this. We nevertheless feel that…hatred and violence have no sanction in our religious and political traditions.” In other words, opposing civil rights is fine; just don’t be hateful about it. When you champion apartheid, do so with “compassion.”
After another such missive, Martin Luther King in April responded with his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” in which he declared, “Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection…We will have to repent in this generation, not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence of the good people.”
What King was saying to those clergy, and Mary is saying to her family, is that you cannot lovingly or respectfully or compassionately tell one group of Americans that they must accept legal inferiority just because of who they are. Let’s all extend the straight Cheneys our compassion until they understand.