Emails from Esther

Josh Fischel finds an unlikely pen pal — a conservative blogger who loves God and is less enthusiastic about gay marriage.

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I don’t know if you will find this fact about me particularly obnoxious: I like to listen to right-wing podcasts and then call up the organizations that produce them to tell them about everything they got wrong. Their characterizations of their opponents are often sweeping and ungenerous — and, of course, I choose the most extreme ones to contact.

When I call to point out factual errors — the claim that there is a link between abortion and breast cancer is a personal favorite — the conversation is usually unsatisfying. I’ve reached call centers, people with anodyne scripts prepared for unsavory heathens like myself, people who have little to no idea of the content I’m hoping to question; essentially, people who did nothing to deserve my wrath. They often say things like, “Well, I’ll pass that along” or “May I suggest you check our website for more information?”

I do this because I’ve lived entirely in the warm and safe cocoon of more-or-less blue states. I don’t really know anyone who actually holds the views I hear espoused on these podcasts. So I’m interested in who they are, but I also imagine that they might learn from me just as much as I might learn from them. I do it because I believe I can change their minds.

My luck changed last spring when I called the political arm of a prominent Christian conservative non-profit. I was put through to the author of a blog post I had targeted — a pretty innocuous one by my standards, something about whether poll questions were worded misleadingly to induce gains in popularity for marriage equality — a woman we’ll call Esther. She and I spoke for maybe 15 minutes about same-sex marriage, and because she sounded like a reasonable and competent person — even if I believed her position on this issue to be insane and prejudiced — I asked if she wouldn’t mind continuing our conversation over email. She asked if I wouldn’t mind if she prayed for me. I told her I was an atheist, and she said something like, “Well, then, it’ll just bounce off you and on into the heavens!”

We have since traded close to 50 emails. When I first wrote to her, she responded by saying, “You have been on my heart recently,” an email she signed, “Blessings!” To her credit, she stopped doing that.

Marriage equality is the one issue where I can’t even understand the opposing view. I hoped over the course of our discussion to at least learn from where Esther — and, thus, the majority of voters in 32 states where marital status has rather horrifyingly been subjected to a vote — was coming. I don’t know if I have a better answer now than I did when our email chain began in May, nor do I know if I can appreciate any more that there are even two valid sides to this topic.

In her first substantive reply, Esther addressed my initial question, the usual opening salvo from my side: how does anyone’s same-sex marriage possibly affect anyone else’s heterosexual marriage? She said, “It actually does not affect you, as an individual, at all,” she wrote. “But if you’re looking at it from a macro level — the big picture — you’ll find the answer is dramatically different. And that’s where we’re coming from on this issue.” Forget the definition of marriage; Esther argued that accepting same-sex marriage meant changing the definition of family, male, and female. “If we do away with that fundamental understanding of what marriage is — uniting two distinctly different parts of humanity — we do a disservice to future generations,” she said.

I replied that no same-sex marriage advocate is “asking anyone to redefine what a family is, any more than a divorcée or a widowed parent or the parents of adopted children are asking us to do that. The ‘institution’ of marriage is something different for each of us. My definition allows for other people to have their own definitions of it; there are people who get married for looks or for money or all sorts of lousy reasons, and I think that’s too bad, but I wouldn’t criminalize it.”

I also pointed out that you could fairly divide a heterosexual couple up in many ways other than gender; I asked Esther to “unpack some of the things that fathers or mothers can provide to a child that someone of the other gender could not.”

She allowed that people of the same gender can have “complementary differences” — quiet men have outgoing male friends; handy women can be friends with daintier women. “That is also true of people in same-sex unions,” Esther said, “to an extent. But this is where the philosophy and theology converge: God designed two different but complementary beings to be joined in the first marriage. The fact that God has allowed deviations from the design does not mean He condones them.”

Friends with a better grasp on theology pointed me towards several major players in the Bible who were polygamists: Abraham, David, Moses, Saul, and Solomon. Esther responded, “They were not perfect men. Sometimes, our sin stands in the way of blessing, and sometimes, it does not.”

We moved from the divine to statistics. Esther suggested that the latter could back up the former in terms of child outcomes. “It may not be politically correct to question it,” she wrote, “but the studies that have shown children raised by gay parents have some serious methodological flaws, which have been largely overlooked and unreported by the mainstream media. Meanwhile, scientists who have conducted methodologically sound studies that raise questions about that supposition are being pilloried.”

We dug in on a recent paper written by Mark Regnerus. You may have read about this one. It defined gay parents very broadly, to include parents who had had any homosexual contact in their lifetimes, and studied gay parents during a time in America when they were not ably open or openly accepted. Nonetheless, Esther wrote an article for her organization in which she said, “According to his findings, children raised by homosexual parents are more likely than those raised by married heterosexual parents to suffer from poor impulse control, depression and suicidal thoughts, require mental health therapy; identify themselves as homosexual; choose cohabitation; be unfaithful to partners; contract sexually transmitted diseases; be sexually molested; have lower income levels; drink to get drunk; and smoke tobacco and marijuana.”

Here was my chance, I thought, to use my black belt in public policy to deflate her summary. I pointed out to her that this is not what the study found. Regnerus is a professor at UT-Austin; the University did not substantiate that reading of the study’s findings. Colleagues in the sociology department there were distressed to be associated with that reading of the study’s findings. Regnerus himself wrote, “One of the key methodological criticisms circulating is that — basically — in a population-based sample, I haven’t really evaluated how the adult children of stably-intact couples self-identified lesbians have fared. Right? Right. And I’m telling you that it cannot be feasibly accomplished. It is a methodological (practical) impossibility at present.”

When I pressed Esther about why she concluded something about the Regnerus study other than what other interested parties said it can show, she said, “I believe his study showed exactly what he said it showed, and that there is cause for further research in this area.”

This required more pressure. If the study showed what Regnerus said it showed, and if what it showed was nothing that’s germane to the current debate on marriage equality, then why was this organization, which stands in firm opposition to same-sex marriage, even covering it as a story? Esther said it was “because of the sample size and the gold-standard methodology Regnerus used. It’s bigger than other studies done on this, and the methodology is far, far better than most.” By that logic, if I asked a thousand people a useful question, but I asked ten thousand people a misleading question, the latter would provide me the more useful data.

The question of marriage equality is simple and straightforward to me. To someone like Esther, it is extremely complicated, and that’s obvious in that she won’t divorce the notion of marriage equality from the welfare of children raised by gay parents. I gave her a scenario: would you rather have your kids raised by a straight family member who, with his spouse, had been largely unsuccessful in life — high school drop-out, an addict, abusive, unemployed, etc — or a gay family member who, with his spouse, had achieved far more? Esther replied, “I think that any time you have one type of household that remains stable, you’re going to have better outcomes than someone whose family is rocked by the trauma of breakup, regardless of whether your parents are gay or straight. But kids raised by gay parents will, by definition, lack one gender role model or the other as they mature.”

We continue to talk, Esther and me. We’re discussing gender roles again, what it means to be a man or a woman. We’re getting to know each other. In a way, I’m surprised I haven’t moved her with my questions, rooted as she is in the Christian conservative movement. Maybe it’s more surprising that Esther has asked me very few questions about my policy stance, and has done little to try and convince me that I am wrong. She would say she’s conceded nothing — she still believes same-sex marriage is wrong and detrimental to society — but I’ve been interested to see how bendable she’s been on aspects of her belief I would have assumed were intractable.

In our current, immovable political landscape, people pin themselves to the tenets of one faith or party and don’t struggle to pull free from any one tether that rubs them raw, much in the way that one might root for a team and ignore the flaws of one of its players. But it’s difficult to admit to fellow travelers that you dissent in part from them. Maybe that’s why I call — to let people know it’s okay, to give them a chance to stand by what they’ve said, but to make sure they gird their position with some evidence or thought, at least. There is a wall between the listener and the speaker, but trying to climb it can be worth it, even if the view on the other side is exactly what you might expect.


Photo courtesy of Tom Carmony

Josh Fischel lives near Boston with his wife and their dog. He teaches sixth grade humanities, and has been published in The New York Times, The Believer, and Bean Soup.