- Michael Coren
- Signal/McClelland & Stewart
I feel a bit uneasy applauding Michael Coren for coming around to gay marriage.
It's a bit like having a friend who has gone their whole life without seeing The Exorcist and then finally sees The Exorcist and busts into a room excitedly blathering about how scary it is, and everyone's all, "Yeah. We know."
Prior to physically sitting down to write this piece, I'd have reflexively counted myself among those who thought Coren just another chauvinist bigot. He is, after all, perhaps best known as the spiteful, short-sighted, knowingly goading byline behind such piping-hot columns as Why is AIDS so special?
I rolled my eyes when, in 2014, Coren fessed up to being wrong about marriage equality. I rolled them even harder when The Walrus published his essay Coming Out (the title itself remains cringe-inducing), about his conversion on the subject of gay rights, and homosexuality more generally. And I rolled my eyes more than a few times in the early chapters of Epiphany, totally un-wowed by Coren's triumphant tale of transformation and enlightenment, marked by delusions of martyrdom and self-persecution. (It's consistent with one of Christendom's more grating tics: The noble value of humility tends to manifest as ostentatious spectacles of humility.)
Then two things happened. First: I finished reading Epiphany (more on that in a sec). Second: I saw Coren on the subway. At first, I just suspected it was him – reading a book called Easter, his maroon slacks folding seamlessly into the faded maroon interior of the Toronto Transit Commission car. He looked, to me, like pretty much any middle-aged Ontario man. He could have been my dad. Or just any dad. And that's kind of the point.
Growing up, Michael Coren was a part of my life. I read his biographies of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. I was later amused to learn that it was the very same Michael Coren whose clipped, very British voice came across the AM radio waves that permeated my childhood home, my childhood car rides to hockey, my childhood itself. It was a conservative household, and a Christian one: 12 years of Catholic school, church every Sunday, first communion and rosaries and confirmations and the whole deal. I could probably still recite the Nicene Creed, more or less word for word.
As an adult, I sometimes come across progressives, liberals and other people on the right side of history who can't seem to fathom conservatism. Where does it come from? How do people such as Stephen Harper or Rob Ford get elected? Nobody in my group of friends or Twitter feed thinks like this!
But get into any taxi cab, walk into any barbershop, or ride shotgun in my dad's car circa the mid-1990s and what do you hear? Conservative radio. And conservative ideas. You hear voices like Coren's. Or you did, anyway.
Coren's change of opinion on marriage equality saw him essentially excommunicated from the mainstream conservative cabal. Bigots, Catholics and defenders of "traditional values" turned on him. Because after years of justifying their opinions, Coren pulled an about-face and told these people what they didn't want to hear. Namely: That gay people deserve equal consideration both within the Christian faith, and society writ large. He received hate mail from the same people who would normally send him fan mail, and cold shoulders from former Roman Catholic allies. As he writes in Epiphany, "The whole experience boosted my empathy, deepened my faith, and gave me a vision and a perspective that I had not previously possessed."
Coren talks at length about what he dorkily calls his "conversion on the road to the rainbow," with Epiphany melding memoir, theological inquest and first-hand testimony from gay Christians who had their own faith tested – or snuffed out. He investigates fundamentalist Christianity's hypocrisy regarding matters of gay-marriage, paying particular attention to that of the Roman Catholic Church, which, Coren boldly claims, "in many ways still leads the culture war against gay rights but employs more gay men than any other institution in the world."
He questions the perceived sunny ways progressivism of Pope Francis, and rejects the way in which issues of homosexuality have been "abused as a litmus test and a means to measure one's faith and commitment to the truth and to Jesus Christ."
Perhaps the most encouraging insight is Coren's distinction between mere tolerance and full-on "Christ-like love." As he writes, "Christ-like love calls us to go beyond tolerance to want for the other the same respect, freedom and quality one wants for oneself." Acceptance of same-sex relationships can arise not in spite of one's religious beliefs, but through a deeper understanding of those beliefs.
It's easy for a self-identified godless progressive such as me to read Epiphany and nod along, half-annoyed, half-bored, all, "Yeah, I know." Yet acting as if morality and compassion are just inborn, and not acquired in the daily course of living and thinking and feeling, is one of the great shortcomings of the left.
That Coren comes by his empathy and insight honestly is to his and his book's credit. In Epiphany, Coren makes the progression from Christian, conservative hate-mongering toward acceptance (and even love), that long and winding road to the rainbow, seem fathomable. It allows the reader to find what he found: empathy, humility and a new perspective. So, however late to the party Michael Coren may be, I'm pleased he bothered to show up at all.