The old joke says the religious right is neither, and yet the fundamentalists are correct on one essential point: we as a culture have a spiritual problem, and it requires a spiritual solution. During this holy season, rightwing religious leaders are offering their critique of our society and leading campaigns for decency. They are claiming the moral authority to enter the political arena; they want to go from preaching to ruling.
Their entry into politics gives us the right to examine their credentials. Despite a natural tendency to shy away from religious arguments, I think we on the left need to meet them on their ground, because the truth is they care no more for the Bible than George W. Bush cares for the Constitution.
For example, last week the Catholic Church made it official: men “with deep-seated homosexual tendencies” are no longer welcome in seminaries. This is a logical extension of the church’s stated response to its shameful pedophilia scandal. After decades of denying that there are any gay priests, gay priests are now responsible for nothing less than the destruction of the church. In his final book, released when he was on his deathbed, Pope John Paul II pronounced homosexuality a part of a new “culture of evil.”
If churches are experts on anything, it should be on the question of what is good and what is evil. In harmony with virtually all of the evangelical churches that are partnering with the Bush administration, the Catholic Church focuses on personal liberty, especially sexual freedom, as the root of evil in our culture. Certainly the Bible contains prescriptions for sexual morality, but that is clearly not the core teaching of the New Testament. With a vision that remains radical after two millennia, Jesus consistently locates evil elsewhere: in materialism. The love of money is the root of all evil.
The Church explained its new policy by claiming that most of the victims were boys. The implication is clear: gay equals pedophile. It is not only untrue, but irresponsible of the church to make such a connection. Homosexuality, unlike pedophilia, is not a mental disorder. Gay men are no more likely than heterosexual men to be pedophiles. Most pedophiles are heterosexual.
Naturally, this new policy does not in any way address the crimes committed by members of the church hierarchy, like Cardinal Law of Boston, who covered up abuses and knowingly reassigned sex offenders to new parishes without warning parents, sometimes more than once. This would include the new pope, Benedict XVI, formerly of the Catholic Church’s Office of the Inquisition, who is able to travel in this country without fear of being arrested only because he is head of state of the Vatican, and as such enjoys diplomatic immunity. As Cardinal Ratzinger, Benedict was deeply implicated in the Church’s policy of hiding -- and paying off -- its pedophilia scandals. The man who now wears a gold miter and claims infallibility for his pronouncements believed that children in parishes with sex-abuser priests could fend for themselves.
It’s impossible to ignore the similarity between the church’s rationale for scapegoating gay priests and the Bush administration’s “a few bad apples” dismissal of its own (often sexual) torture scandals.
Financial considerations clearly drove the Vatican policy. If word got out that priests were abusing children, contributions might dry up -- as, indeed, they have. Not to mention the settlements themselves, which have to be immense, given the dimensions of the problem. Fortunately at about the same time, the Bush administration began to funnel government social services revenue into church coffers via its faith-based initiative. In a blatant quid-pro-quo, in 2004, American bishops, under direction from Rome, took the unprecedented step of ordering priests to refuse communion to prominent Democrats, including the Democratic candidate for president.
Evangelical African-American churches in this country are pursuing the same agenda against homosexuals. During this sacred season, black ministers in Indiana got together to work towards the passage of an anti-gay marriage amendment to the state constitution. “We believe the Bible says that homosexuality is an abomination, that it is a sin,” said the Reverent Robert Gaillard, pastor at Sovereign Grace Baptist Church. “It is not a sin to be born black.”
It may not be a sin to be born black, but the Bible takes a very friendly attitude toward slavery, frequently commanding slaves to obey their masters in both the Old and New Testaments. If we followed the Bible to the letter, without picking and choosing, slavery would still be a respected institution, women would still be completely subject to the authority of their husbands, divorce would be outlawed, and adultery would be punishable by stoning—for the woman, anyway.
As for the bogus argument over whether or not gay liberation is a legitimate civil rights movement, I will simply refer the irked reverends to South Africa, whose post-apartheid regime just instituted civil partnerships for same sex couples.
Like the Catholic Church, black anti-gay evangelicals prop up their false religious claims with false data, insisting that homosexuality is a lifestyle choice, when the available evidence suggests that homosexuality is genetically determined. (And let’s not forget the traditional hostility between fundamentalist religion and science in general, and social science in particular. After all, it was Jung who understood that organized religion is the best defense against a religious experience.)
The pastors also claim not to hate gays and not to condone discrimination. It’s hard to believe that’s true when in every single instance these anti-gay marriage amendments have been used in an effort to overturn all rights for gay people, especially domestic partnership benefits.
Domestic partnership benefits provide, among other things, health insurance to partners and dependents of state and municipal employees. Ironically, rolling back these benefits harms black and Latino gays disproportionately, since they are far more likely than their white counterparts to be raising children.
In other words, the real victims of these amendments tend to be children. Pious-sounding religious leaders who blather on about “protecting the family” want to strip children of health insurance simply because they disapprove of the “lifestyle” -- in reality, the sex practices -- of their parents. But sheer dirty-mindedness and class resentment are not the only motives at work. A reverend title can’t keep me from noticing that cold hard cash is on the line.
Any black church that climbs on the anti-gay bandwagon is guaranteed money. The rightwing is eager to bankroll these efforts, and the reason is obvious: these amendments are politically lethal. If they don’t actually win elections for the right, they at least provide plenty of cover for election theft, as when the right falsely claimed that “moral values” delivered Bush’s win in 2004.
The connection between gay marriage issues and GOP victories is so direct that it raises the question how any black preacher who is not motivated by money or malice could possibly devote his spiritual energies to the cause of gay marriage at this point in time. However great their disgust with a sexually “perverse” lifestyle, how can it outweigh the outrages of a regime that deliberately blocked poor people (predominately African-American) into a disaster area and “cleansed” the land of them? How can they climb in bed with these monsters?
Last example: the stupid. Once again the white evangelicals and their political allies are pushing a “war against Christmas.” I actually grew up in a fundamentalist church where the pastor preached a sermon every year about putting the Christ back into Christmas. He loathed the word “Xmas.” But that’s where the similarity ends. My pastor’s sermon was always about defending the true meaning of Christmas from the encroachments of commercialism and materialism.
This particular consumer campaign is a brilliant ploy designed to suppress the anti-materialist sentiments natural to the season by putting commercial interests front and center -- and conflating them with religion. Bill O’Reilly puts it this way: “Every company in America should be on its knees thanking Jesus for being born. Without Christmas, most American businesses would be far less profitable; more than enough reason for businesses to be screaming Merry Christmas.” Yeah, we should all be screaming Merry Christmas.
It’s a small-minded, divisive, territorial war over who owns the season -- and it ain’t Jews, liberals, secularists, or folks who celebrate Kwanzaa. Unfortunately, the bigotry is all the more easily insinuated for seeming so incredibly inconsequential. Meanwhile, the low-level friction and the chafing, metaphor-war belligerence keep the bleeding hearts in check. The last thing the rightwing wants right now is a whole month of fuzzy feelings of goodwill, peace, and unity.
Nevertheless, there are those who will not be deterred from acting out of personal conscience, like the four Christian activists who are being held hostage in Iraq. They are witnesses, people who deliberately and knowingly put their own lives on the line to draw attention to the ongoing obscenities being committed in our name on real human beings. Not even the wildest oxycontin trip could numb the contempt Rush Limbaugh feels for such an intention: “Well, here’s why I like it [their captivity]. I like any time a bunch of leftist feel-good hand-wringers are shown reality.”
Limbaugh has probably never heard of Freda Berrigan, of Witness Against Torture, who, along with twenty-four other U.S. citizens, is marching 50 miles from Santiago de Cuba to Guantanamo right now. The group wants to get into the concentration camp, if possible. They are standing up against the evil of torture, which has been described as a way of killing people without them dying.
And a 23-year-old divinity student, Jonathan Meiers, is holding a hunger strike and prayer vigil at the Ohio statehouse to bring attention to a pending Republican-backed bill that would, for all practical purposes, put an end to fair, transparent, and democratic elections in that state. One-party rule is becoming self-perpetuating and permanent in Ohio and Florida, with similar efforts rolling out to other states. Meiers says he’s acting out of his Christian faith, which requires that he strive for social justice, even at his own expense.
However under-reported and disrespected, these acts of personal conscience and defiance will not be denied. They sanctify the season.
Patricia Goldsmith is a member of Long Island Media Watch, a grassroots free media and democracy watchdog group. She can be reached at: email@example.com.
Other Articles by Patricia Goldsmith