The need to define yourself by pointing out what you are not -- "I'm not like them! I'm better than that -- more enlightened, more free-thinking, just ... better" -- is one of the defining traits of adolescence.
So it's disheartening when adults inject such immature attempts at self-definition into our public conversation and our politics. The ongoing Chick-fil-A kerfuffle is rife with it.
Big city mayors Tom Menino and Rahm Emanuel both decided to define themselves and their cities by repudiating Chick-fil-A CEO Dan Cathy for his comments in support of traditional marriage and his donations to organizations that oppose same-sex marriage.
Mayor Menino wrote a letter to Mr. Cathy stating there was "no place for discrimination" and "no place for your company" in Boston.
But as is well-established, Chick-fil-A does not discriminate against its employees or customers, and the money Mr. Cathy donates to causes he believes in is his own.
"What [Mr. Cathy] has said as it relates to gay marriage and gay couples is not what I believe," said Chicago's Mayor Emanuel. "But more importantly, it's not what the people of the city of Chicago believe."
It's not? Because committed Catholics and black Evangelical Christians make up sizable chunks of both Chicago and Boston's populations, and both groups tend to be staunch supporters of traditional marriage. Beyond those cities' borders, traditional marriage laws have won in every state where they've been put to popular referendum.
The manufactured and opportunistic nature of this protest is evident in the timeline. The mayors joined the fight -- thus pushing it into national headlines -- weeks after Mr. Cathy made his comments on "The Ken Coleman Show," a syndicated weekly radio broadcast that focuses on success, leadership, positive thinking and the like.
After that June 16 broadcast, Mr. Cathy briefly defended his position and involvement on the issue in a lengthy (and very interesting) July 16 interview with the Baptist Press -- which is, like Mr. Coleman's show, hardly a national media outlet.
Nevertheless, Mayor Menino jumped in, writing his inflammatory letter on July 20; Mayor Emanuel joined the Chick-fil-A food fight last week. You have to wonder who asked them to, and why.
Ironically, given the law of the land and despite the two pols' cries of discrimination, the only discriminatory action that could possibly take place in this fray would be for elected officials to deny permits or otherwise torpedo a business based on its owner's religious beliefs. After the ACLU and other legal experts weighed in on that point, both mayors tempered their juvenile posturing.
There's a line, sometimes fine, sometimes not, between stating what you stand for and condemning those who do not agree. While some citizens will come down on one polarized side or the other -- hailing either Mr. Cathy's courage or the mayors' -- many more may long for what Mr. Coleman, the radio host, calls "the messy middle."
The day after Boston's mayor launched his salvo at Chick-fil-A, Mr. Coleman hosted a show called "The Messy Middle" (available his website, www.kencolemanshow.com) in which he discusses "the intolerant voices of the tolerance choir and calls for true civility in public discourse."
But if we were able to transcend the off-putting condemnations, we would still be engaging in a debate that, as currently framed, involves inferior status for one group or the other: Either gays will continue to be denied equal status for their relationships, or religious conservatives who teach that homosexuality displeases God will be forced from the public square and persecuted as bigots (which is already happening).
So why not reframe the debate? As I know from my friendships with Christians, gays and gay Christians, many people would welcome this display of civic maturation.
It would require us to stake out a "messy middle" where people of every possible religious and political persuasion can co-exist. That space is the public square -- the one Christians complain they are being forced out of and that same-sex marriage proponents complain they don't have equal status in.
Since it's a public square, its rules should not be creed-specific. In this civil and civilized realm, we could agree to respect civil unions for all and to leave "marriage" to the church, synagogue or mosque.
Would refusing to accept this not-so-new libertarian compromise mean that we secretly enjoy our juvenile fighting?
Mr. Coleman, of "The Messy Middle," may think so. "I am highly skeptical that either side in the marriage debate, or any other social or political debate for that matter, will change the other's position," he wrote Friday at The Huffington Post. "However, I am quite certain that it is difficult to be angry with or accuse one [another] of bigotry while conversing over coffee."
Ruth Ann Dailey: firstname.lastname@example.org.