Lessons in Rhetorical Strategy from a DC Bishop

I was not surprised by recent revelations of the National Organization for Marriage’s strategy to drive a wedge between LGBTIQ people and African Americans—and to urge Latinos to avoid being assimilated to corrupt “Anglo” values that include respect for same-sex loving families. In the wake of all this, I read a recent letter from a Maryland-area bishop with new attention. Here’s a head’s up to those working on marriage equality.

First, the leaders of the opposition to same-sex marriage in Maryland are not naming their opponents, reasoning—apparently—that if they don’t mention us, we will go away. Take a letter (3/23/12) from the Most Reverend Barry C. Knestout, of the Archdiocese of Washington, DC, distributed at masses on Palm (now called Passion) Sunday. He writes,

“A petition drive and referendum campaign is being lead [sic] by the Maryland Marriage Alliance, a statewide coalition of faith-based organizations and others, including the Catholic Church in Maryland.”

Nowhere does he mention same-sex marriage, lesbian and gay people, same-sex couples, our children, or anything about us. We have been disappeared.

If you had been out of circulation recently, you might be forgiven for not knowing what exactly the gentleman is writing about. Perhaps the mere mention of our reality would make people look more kindly on us and our rights. Feminist theorist Carol Adams has named this phenomenon the “absent referent,” when something central to an argument is simply not named. It is done to obfuscate and it works.

Another rhetorical device in their strategy toolkit is to universalize that which is quite particular. From the same letter: “In standing up for marriage, we must be mindful of our love and compassion for all individuals.”

But by “marriage” the writer means only heterosexual, not same-sex marriage. In addition, what possible “love and compassion” does he imagine when the Catholic institutional church’s sworn mission is to prevent same-sex couples and their children from reaping the financial and social benefits of marriage? This is a sort of “kill them with kindness” approach that simply won’t wash.

A third sleight of hand in this letter has to do with Bishop Knestout’s plea for “respect”: “We also ask in return that our right to express our beliefs about this fundamental issue be treated with equal respect.”

I understand not wanting to be called a bigot for working to deny civil rights to people. But it strikes me as disingenuous.

Moreover, to insert a letter in the parish bulletin to encourage people to sign petitions after Mass so as to place same-sex marriage on the November ballot is not a call for dialogue. It is to claim a position as Catholic that many Catholics do not share.

I point out these three dynamics in one letter to a local church because I assume that this approach is part of a larger national strategy to defeat same-sex marriage and deny rights to couples and families. Caveat emptor.

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