When I started blogging seriously, I was still living in Denver, CO where the sun shown a little brighter and the fundamentalist devout were resigned to a happy existent in our neighbor to the south (Colorado Springs, CO). Having moved from Grand Rapids, MI (the heart of the Bible Belt), it was certainly a welcome change. I’ve since moved back to Grand Rapids for the summer and the local news and opinion columns serve as a daily reminder of why I left in the first place. All that to say, this is what takes up my time these days…
Here is Richard Devos, co-founder of Amway (a Grand Rapids-based multinational company) in a recent Q&A with the Grand Rapids Press:
Q: You gave $100,000 to the effort to defeat the recognition of gay marriage in Florida. Why did you choose to put money behind that cause?
A: Because I believe in it. That’s just a sacred issue of respecting marriage. It was not an anti-gay thing.
I have been hung in effigy by the gay community for a long time, from when I was on President Reagan’s first AIDS commission.
Q: How does that tie in with the gay marriage issue?
A: From that point on, that’s when they were hanging me in effigy because I wasn’t sympathetic to all of their requests for special treatment. Because at that time it was always somebody else’s fault. And I said, “You are responsible for your actions, too, you know. Conduct yourself properly,” which is a pretty solid Christian principle. You’ve got to take responsibility for your actions. It went from there to a series of requests for special treatment.
I would say, “I understand who you are. I accept who you are. Live your life. I will respect you. But don’t keep asking for favors.” Don’t ask for a concession on the marriage issue, which is not vital to them, in my opinion. They’ve made it a vital issue because they want to.
Q: Is there a solution? A compromise you would support?
A: Call it something else. Call it anything you want to. But marriage is a sacred document, OK? A sacred sacrament in the church and in the world. Don’t mess with it.
Go do something else. I deal with a lot of wonderful gay people. I hire a lot of them. I use a lot of them. I respect them. They’re terrific. I am good friends with them. But you live your life the way you want to live and I’ll live mine and I won’t stick my nose in yours. But don’t keep trying to change things. That’s all.
These types of statements are a dime a dozen in the midwest and I’m not exactly surprised by Devos’ opining on the issue. Grand Rapids is the beating heart of Michigan’s Westside where social and political conservatism blend into a bright red bordering crimson. So again, it doesn’t surprise me that the billionaire owner of the Orlando Magic has strong feelings about Gay Marriage (Devos is also hoping to heal a 150-year-old schism between two protestant reformed denominations — so yeah, this guy isn’t spending retirement on the golf course).
But, I would argue these types of statements do speak to just how insular an environment a city like Grand Rapids has become. The area is home to hundreds of churches and one of the largest Dutch-reformed communities in the world, so when Devos is speaking about changing a “definition” or the “terminology” of marriage, you can’t make the argument that this line of reasoning doesn’t, or shouldn’t, exist anymore. An environment like this merely perpetuates itself with every generation and willing individual who stays in the area. Do Democrats, Independents, Moderates, Liberals, and Progressives exist in Kent County? Of course. But they are very marginalized and I wouldn’t expect this to change ever.
If I may use an anecdote to illustrate a point: I went to two separate graduation ceremonies at a university I used to attend. The first, in 2006, featured a commencement address by Hollywood producer Ralph Winter (X-Men trilogy, Planet of the Apes, Inspector Gadget) who left the graduating class with thoughts about narrative and the grand story in which we find ourselves. The second, the following year, was Mr. Devos himself, dazzling us with stories of yachting with Shaq and receiving a heart transplant at 83. But where Winter’s speech touched on the lighter, more inspiring possibilities of our future, Mr. Devos’ commencement speech diverted a bit from where we all thought he was headed — maybe something about success, he is, after all, a billionaire . Instead we were treated to his own interpretation of the current state of foreign policy (at the time we were in some of the worst moments of a faltering strategy in Iraq and this wasn’t far from anyone’s mind). “I know you think we’re fighting a War on Terror,” he explained. “But I’m here to tell you this is actually a war on Islam.”
Which of the two do you think received the most applause? The Hollywood producer? Sorry. Ralph Winter’s joking about Brokeback Mountain were met with disapproving looks of judgement and the sound of crickets. Meanwhile, Richard Devos’ declaration of religious war was met with applause. Oh Grand Rapids.
It’s strange being back, but I have to hope this is type of experience is preparation for something. In the meantime: No, marriage equality is not an issue of special treatment for a minority; no, AIDS was not the fault of the homosexual community; and yes, when you fight to keep the fundamental rights of the gay community at bay, you are “sticking your nose” in their lives and it’s completely contradictory of your position.