A state of inequality

By Emily Gill

In 2001, I thought I was a little old to be publishing my first book at age 56. Although I had written a number of journal articles and book chapters, until the mid- to late-1990s I thought that I had nothing book-length to say. My book, Becoming Free: Autonomy and Diversity in the Liberal Polity (University Press of Kansas), addressed the tensions a liberal democracy encounters in reconciling the value of personal autonomy or informed choice, on the one hand, with hospitality to a diversity of cultures and religious beliefs, on the other.

What stance should we take when this diversity comprises individuals or groups that discourage people from learning to think for themselves? I considered this tension through the lenses of national citizenship, culture, ethnicity, gender, religious belief, sexuality, and civic education, concluding that we would do well to teach people to think for themselves, even though they might choose life plans that require them to give up their autonomy. At least they will have made a knowing choice.

When I finished writing this book, I knew that in the future I wanted to address the interface between religious belief and sexuality. Although both are private matters, many people tend to allow more latitude for varying religious beliefs than they do for diverse expressions of sexuality. Civil marriage, for example, is a complex institution that encompasses a personal commitment, a civil contract, a public record and, in many instances, a religious commitment.

Dr. Emily Gill

Caterpillar Professor of Political Science

EDUCATION: B.A. (1966), Literature, Scripps College

M.A. (1968) and Ph.D. (1971), Government, Claremont Graduate University

ACADEMIC EXPERIENCE: California State University, Long Beach, 1971–72

Bradley University, 1972–present

BOOKS: Becoming Free: Autonomy and Diversity in the Liberal Polity. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2001.

Moral Argument, Religion, and Same-Sex Marriage: Advancing the Public Good. Co-edited with Gordon A. Babst, lead editor, and Jason Pierceson. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2009.

In Defense of Same-Sex Marriage: Religious Freedom, Sexual Freedom, and Public Expressions of Civic Equality. Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2012 publication scheduled.

SCHOLARSHIP: Dr. Gill’s research interests involve various aspects of liberal political theory, including democratic theory, pluralism and groups, citizenship, and feminist theory.

Although opposition both to same-sex relationships and same-sex marriage is frequently defended for religious reasons, religion and sexual orientation share an affinity that often goes unnoticed. In theory, both are regarded as private matters. In practice, however, the dominant consensus tends to enshrine majoritarian views in ways that marginalize dissenters. Despite the non-establishment of a state religion and the constitutional guarantee of the free exercise of religion, Christianity functions as the religious and moral standard in the United States. Ethical views that do not fit within — or at least overlap — this consensus often go unrecognized as moral values.

In the realm of sexual orientation, the role of Christianity is occupied by heteronormativity, which takes heterosexuality as the norm by which sexual practices are measured. The idea that alternative sexual practices could possess ethical significance is often overlooked or ignored. Finally, I came to the conclusion that both religious and sexual freedom sometimes requires not only non-interference, but also positive action through public policy, as in removing barriers to same-sex couples whose conscientious beliefs impel them to commit to civil marriage. 

After writing several convention papers, book chapters, articles, and a co-edited book on moral argument and same-sex marriage, I had enough to say about the dominance of both majoritarian religious beliefs and expressions of sexuality to write another book, In Defense of Same-Sex Marriage: Religious Freedom, Sexual Freedom, and Public Expressions of Civic Equality. It will be published by Georgetown University Press in 2012.

Although religious organizations may and should set their own standards for marriage in accordance with their religious convictions, civil marriage is a public institution. Some skeptics would withdraw the government from the marriage business, even though as a public institution marriage is currently both sanctioned and encouraged by the state. Yet some couples are excluded, although they simply wish to make the same kind of formal, long-term commitment available to heterosexual couples. Exclusion in these circumstances from a state institution is a public expression of civic inequality. It states that some couples are insiders while others are outsiders, that some couples’ relationships are morally superior to those of others.

In religious jurisprudence, former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor pioneered the use of the endorsement test in determining whether a policy violates the First Amendment prohibition of establishing religion. Various religious displays on public property, for example, have been deemed an endorsement of one religion to the exclusion of others if symbols of just one religion are present. A parallel exists between policies that endorse only one religion and policies that endorse just one kind of marriage.

In both circumstances, when the government allows, favors, prefers, or endorses the practice of some nonharmful conscientious beliefs in the public sphere to the exclusion of others, it is creating a distinction between insiders and outsiders. This public expression of inequality by the government, which ought not discriminate against any citizens, compromises this relationship by suggesting that some citizens are more worthy than others because of their religious beliefs or personal relationships.

I believe that both one’s religious allegiance and one’s approach to sexuality are core features of personal identity. Living out these features propels one to engage in particular practices. Denial of the ability to do so amounts to a denial of values that are central to ethical identity. Rights of conscience may, of course, be curtailed if they harm others or infringe on civil rights. The desire to marry, however, can be an expression of conscientious belief for couples who wish to participate in the civil institution of marriage, whether they are traditional or same-sex couples.

In this context, several Supreme Court cases have upheld individuals’ right to the free exercise of unconventional religious beliefs, including but not limited to conscientious objection to military service. Although allowing same-sex couples to marry civilly requires positive action by governments, this action is necessary if same-sex couples are to attain full civil legitimacy. Whether through punitive action or a failure to act by the government, the free exercise of conscientious belief may be thwarted as effectively by one as by the other.

I am primarily a political theorist. In many people’s minds, theorists in particular are often relegated to the ivory tower, regarded as fixing their minds on philosophical questions that have little to do with “real life.” During the course of my academic career, I have attempted to show that theory can and does apply to contemporary issues. In class I often apply theories that we are studying to these issues. My students develop critical thinking skills when we discuss what a particular theorist might have said about a current issue and why. In addition, I have included students in my research on several occasions. In the past five years, students contributed to papers I have delivered at the annual meeting of the Midwest Political Science Association and have co-presented these papers with me.

Understanding political theories is intrinsically valuable. It may also function as a tool or lens, however, through which to look at the world. It is a privilege to spend my professional life helping students learn to uncover that lens.  

Professorships highlight scholarship, creativity

Bradley University’s Caterpillar Professorships were established to encourage and recognize exceptional scholarly and creative achievement. The unique professorships honor senior faculty members whose academic accomplishments have been recognized as significant nationally or internationally.

Eight professors currently hold Caterpillar Professorships with Dr. Laurence Weinzimmer, of the Department of Business Management and Administration, being named the most recent recipient in 2011. Other current Caterpillar Professors include Dr. Kyle Dzapo, music; Dr. Robert Fuller, religious studies; Dr. Emily Gill, political science; Dr. Allen Huffcutt, psychology; Dr. Susan Brill de Ramirez, English; Dr. David Schmitt, psychology; and Dr. Kevin Stein, English. Six other professors who either retired from or left Bradley received Caterpillar Professorships since they were established in 2000.

“Bradley has long been known for excellence in teaching,” says Dr. Fuller, one of the inaugural Caterpillar Professors. “Yet the best universities also have faculty whose research and publications are regarded as among the very best both nationally and internationally. It is important to me that the public understands that Bradley has faculty members whose work is at a level of excellence that meets or even exceeds the kind of scholarship found at the likes of Harvard, Yale, Princeton, or the University of Chicago. I take pride in those colleagues whose works merit inclusion in that select group of accomplished scholars.”

Another of the first recipients is Dr. Stein, Illinois’ poet laureate: “Through the Caterpillar Professorship, Bradley University signals its firm commitment to scholarly and creative achievement as well as to classroom teaching excellence. Doing so, the University ensures a dynamic professorate whose skills as artists and scholars enrich students’ educational experiences. These awards illustrate in full measure that at Bradley, a largely undergraduate teaching institution, it is possible for faculty to achieve national and international renown as artists and scholars. This is part of what makes Bradley unique.”

In addition to the prestigious title, Caterpillar Professors receive a stipend. They are appointed to a five-year term that can be renewed. Caterpillar Inc., based in Peoria, is a Fortune 50 company, the world’s leading manufacturer of heavy machinery, and a close collaborator and strong financial supporter of Bradley.