The Gay Front in the War for Religious Freedom
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The Gay Front in the War for Religious Freedom

by Richard J. Rosendall
Originally published on April 1, 2004 in Liberty Education Forum

"And when you pray, do not imitate the hypocrites: they love to say their prayers standing up in the synagogues and at the street corners for people to see them. I tell you solemnly, they have had their reward. But when you pray, go to your private room...." (Matthew 6:5-6)

Anti-gay conservatives like to talk as if gay people are all atheists (a delusion that can only be maintained by overlooking their church organists). In fact, it has been more than 35 years since Rev. Troy D. Perry said, "The Lord is my Shepherd, and He knows I'm gay." The secret is long since out — groups of gay Christians, Jews, Muslims, Wiccans, and others are flourishing, and they enjoy the same First Amendment protections as other Americans.

The religious right's crusade against gay citizens is at base an assault against religious liberty, and is part of a drive for big-government conservatism at odds with American values and tradition. Using selective Bible verses, anti-gay Protestant fundamentalists talk as if passages like Leviticus 20:13 create an exception to the First Amendment for gay citizens. Indeed, one of the greatest gaps in our public discourse is the failure of mainstream voices to be more assertive in pointing out that our civil government is based on the Constitution and not Leviticus. But even Leviticus offers more suitable guidance for public policy — in fact, it was carved into the Liberty Bell: "Proclaim liberty throughout the land, unto all the inhabitants thereof...." (Leviticus 25:10)

Opponents of gay marriage claim that it will lead to the silencing of anti-gay religious views. They cite cases from other countries such as Canada in which critics of homosexuality have been punished. The difference is that those countries lack a First Amendment. But anti-gay conservatives are not really worried about a repeal of that amendment; after all, it is they and not we who are trying to amend the Constitution. What upsets them is something outside the realm of government, something already well advanced: the pro-gay shift in social mores. Without that shift, the current push for gay marriage would be impossible.

The radical right is trying to reverse this trend by scaring people with dire warnings about the impending collapse of society. The political fringe from which these voices come is clear when you consider that they are generally the same voices still decrying equality for women; see the Southern Baptist Convention and Concerned Women for America.

The warriors of the Christian right seize on anything they can as evidence that the tide is turning in their favor. The recent cry, "The elites have lost," with which they deride critics of Mel Gibson's savage medievalist portrayal of the last hours of Christ, is revealing of their mindset: they are holy warriors, not evangelists. The judgment of the box office is not a standard one would expect to be upheld by proponents of "biblical inerrancy." Can the legitimacy of what purports to be divine truth be contingent on mere popularity?

The cultural warriors like to frame the battle as being between Christian believers on one hand and secularists on the other, but in fact their chosen adversaries include Christians who do not share their obscurantist and authoritarian bent.

The theocrats do not merely envisage a Christian nation. It is their particular brand of Christianity that they wish to impose on all Americans. Instead of the loving and liberating God of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., they offer the angry and vengeful Old Testament God of Judge Roy Moore. Instead of using religion as a personal challenge, they use it as a bludgeon with which to beat others. To accept the right-wing characterization of the battle as being about "Religion vs. Secularism" is to degrade religion by ceding it to fanatics.

The whole notion of "biblical inerrancy" is founded on an anti-intellectual embrace of the Bible not as a proper subject of scholarly investigation but as an icon to be held aloft to ward off enemies. For the inerrantists, the Bible has a single, absolute point of view — the inconsistencies among the four gospels, and the numerous hands evident in the books of the Old Testament, be damned. The Bible's wealth of wordplay, from puns to folk etymologies, is blasted away by an obtuse insistence on literalism. Historical and cultural context are similarly ignored except when they are convenient for the fundamentalists. And forget about the subtleties and challenges of translation: one would think that the Bible had originally been written in King James English.

That this know-nothingism holds such sway over our public discourse should be a source of embarrassment to our nation; but of course embarrassment is an elitist reaction. Few are willing to dispute the preposterous assertions that America was founded by God and that the Constitution was modeled on the Ten Commandments. Speaking of the Decalogue, the theocrats are frequent, flagrant violators of the commandment against bearing false witness. They misrepresent history and law as readily as they do the Gospel.

As long as the Bible is to be used as a weapon, allow me to hurl a few passages back at the holy warriors: "Do not judge, and you will not be judged." (Matthew 7:1) "Why do you see the mote in your brother's eye and never notice the beam in your own?" (Matthew 7:3, Luke 6:41) This advice to mind your own business, which has been quoted by the President himself, provides a sound Biblical basis for small-government conservatism. Let the theocrats also read Jesus' answer to the question, "And who is my neighbor?" which of course is the parable of the good Samaritan. (Luke 10:29-37) "You must love your neighbor as yourself." (Leviticus 19:18) Lastly, "I give you a new Commandment, to love one another." (John 13:34) It is a sign of Christianity's flexibility that it inspires both those who judge others and do not help, and those who help others and do not judge.

The reason to defend the essentially secular nature of the public sphere is not to banish religion from it but to protect the faith of the individual from the tyranny of the group. The strategy of the radical right is to portray this very protection as itself a form of tyranny. Their logic is that of Alice Through the Looking Glass. They make a mockery of both politics and religion. Their true enemy is not godless homosexuals, but a pluralistic society in which their fellow citizens are free to think for themselves and go their own way. For the sake of our country, and not only its gay citizens, these religious bullies need to be defeated at the polls, along with those who know better but pander to them anyway. It would be better for enlightened conservatives if the defeat occurs in Republican primaries rather than the general election.

Copyright 2004 by Richard J. Rosendall. All rights reserved.