Rob Portman and the Lack of Moral Imagination

By Derek Penwell

Rob and Will Portman.jpg

Why is there never a headline that reads “Formerly Pro-LGBT Parents Reverse Position on Marriage Equality when Child Comes Out?”

I’ve been thinking about this lately since all the hubbub over Republican Senator Rob Portman’s change of heart on the issue of same gender marriage. Portman’s new position emerged after his son, Will Portman, came out as a gay man.

That it took Rob Portman as long as it did to change his mind publicly is the source of consternation among some who believe that he should have acted sooner. His son announces he’s gay, right? How can the guy not immediately come out and publicly support a member of his family?

Look, I’m willing to cut Sen. Portman a little slack for trying to wrap his mind around a reality he’d taken public stands against over the years. One’s relationship to one’s convictions, like any good relationship, require an appropriate amount of space to develop and mature. Ocean liners and turning on a dime, and all that stuff.

My problem is the lack of moral imagination.

Let me confess, I’m ambivalent about the reason for his positional flip in particular, and the prevalence of that kind of epiphany among conservative Christians in general. On the one hand, Mr. Portman discovered something that a lot of people have known for a long time: Love makes a difference. Now, by that I don’t mean that loving someone automatically prompts acceptance of everything about that person. On the other hand, it’s hard to blame Mr. Portman for seeing the light because the abstraction of “marriage equality” finally showed up with a face he recognized.

I’ve argued elsewhere that the paradigm shift taking place in our culture with respect to LGBT rights has as much to do with personal relationships as anything else. All the hermeneutical and scientific arguments laid end to end don’t pack the same persuasive force as waking up one day to find that there are LGBT people whom you already love and continue to desire to see flourish. So, I don’t fault Rob Portman for changing his position because of his son. In fact, I’d have a bigger problem if he knew about his son, and because of that knowledge tried to change his son rather than himself.

What I find troubling isn’t that people have convictions that are subject to change because of personal relationships, or even that those convictions take some time to change. My problem is the lack of creative moral imagination evinced by an inability to feel empathy for those people you don’t know personally, the inability to imagine the pain others must feel unless those “others” happen to be planetoids within the solar system of your personal relationships.

“For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?” (Matt. 5:46-47).

Here’s my problem: As I read the Gospels, Jesus seems intent on expanding his followers’ capacity to love others by strengthening their moral imaginations, not by providing them new algorithms so they can automatically know who’s not invited to the dance. Turns out, Jesus is more interested in broadening the guest list than in making sure nobody gets in wearing Chuck Taylors or a purple tuxedo (see, for instance, Matt. 22:9-10).

Jesus is keen to teach his followers to envision the world through the eyes of those most unlike us, those with whom we wouldn’t even be caught dead at the same dance. His question about loving only “those who love you” emerges in the context of his exhortation to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven” (5:44a-45b). Notice it doesn’t say to love those who are different from you so that they will be children of God, but so that you will.

So here’s the thing, as far as I can tell, Jesus places on us the responsibility of learning to love those for whom we have no personal attachment—not so that they’ll eventually become like us, but so that we’ll eventually become like God.

Having your heart changed because someone you know is LGBT is great. True moral achievement according to Jesus, however, is having your heart changed because you desire enough to be like God to try to see the world the way an LGBT person does … most especially an LGBT person you don’t even know.