The Bully Pulpit

My dad knew Jim Jones.  Well, not really knew him; just sort of in a passing acquaintance kind of way.  After the Jonestown tragedy in Guyana 30 years ago where 900 of “Rev.” Jones followers committed mass suicide by drinking poison-laced Kool-Aid on his command, my dad told me the story.  They had both been young preachers in Indianapolis in the late 60s before Jones moved his congregation to California and then ultimately to South America.   Apparently there had been some sort of monthly interdenominational prayer breakfast thingy for ministers and it was there my dad met Jim Jones.  According to my memory of what my dad told me all those years ago, Rev. Jones was a dynamic, charismatic, revered and well-loved member of the ministerial community.

My dad was a dynamic, charismatic, revered and well-loved minister as well.  He left the ministry in 1978 under a bit of a scandal which is not the subject of today’s blog.   I once had the opportunity to talk with a woman who had been a member of my dad’s church a few years before.  She said, “When I found out about your dad, I almost left the church completely.”

Now, it makes me no nevermind whether people leave a church or stay in it.  I’m not especially fond of organized religion in general.  But, the bigger point to me was that someone’s faith, their very spiritual compass, would be so completely contained in one other person.  My dad didn’t become a paranoid, megalomaniacal, murdering lunatic like Jim Jones, but there were several people who pretty much considered him the assistant Messiah.   There is an inherent danger in living from a pulpit.  People start to believe anything you say as the direct word of God, . . . and then sometimes you start to believe it yourself.

With the recent passage of Proposition 8 in California which banned gay marriage, I’ve heard something a lot recently which I’ve heard at least a jillion times before.  “I’m against gay marriage because the bible says marriage is between a man and a woman.”  Like a hit song on the radio that you’ve hummed with a thousand times and then that thousand and first time you hear a lyric you’d never really heard before, it suddenly dawned on me just this week . . . no, it doesn’t.  The bible doesn’t say that.  The bible says a few things about marriage (including Paul’s admonition that it’s better not to marry at all and Jesus’ prophesy that one day there would be no marriage), but it never says that marriages are to be restricted to only those between a man and a woman.   It just simply doesn’t say that.

Jerry Falwell has said it.  Pat Robertson has said it.  James Dobson has said it.  Rick Warren has said it.  But I have yet to see any of their books included in the scriptural canon.   So, I’m skipping right past my old argument of “Who cares what the bible says; this is a civil issue” and pressing right on to my new one, “If you care what the bible says, then take the time to know what the bible says . . . and doesn’t say.”  And be sure to draw a clear line between what your Holy Scriptures say and what your preacher says they say.

Ministers have an immense amount of power.  The fact that 900 people would drink Kool-Aid they knew had poison in it is an extreme example.  But, people drink the Kool-Aid every day.  And they are poisoned by half-truths, misinformation, and downright lies.  Jesus didn’t have to stretch the “facts” to draw 5,000 listeners at the Sermon on the Mount.  He just spoke Truth and blessed everybody: the poor in spirit, the meek, and the merciful.

He also said these words that day: “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.”

Or because they somehow think he wants them to.

More Sweet than Bitter, but still Bittersweet

I love exit polls.  You know, those breakdowns of who votes how.  Long after Barack Obama gave the “speech heard ’round the world,” I was still up into the wee hours analyzing the exit poll data on   I was particularly interested in details of that heartbreaking California Proposition 8 result.  Since the yes/no breakdown is sometimes confusing (yes, I want gay marriage? yes, I don’t want gay marriage?), I will delineate based on a for/against basis, as in for gay marriage or against gay marriage.   Here are the bullet points:

Many breakdowns were very close to a 50/50 vote, not surprising since the result we have is about 52% against and 48% for.  Men and women both were close to 50/50, maybe 51/49 or 48/52, but still in the generally-split catagory.

Hispanics and Asians were also close to 50/50 with the Asians being slightly more for and the Hispanics being slightly against, but still about 50/50.

People with more education tended to be more for and people with less education tended to be more against.  Not surprising.  The more educated the person is, the more they recognize the wisdom in equality for all. (Generally speaking, of course.  Obviously, there are always exceptions to every rule, so don’t send me a zinger if you’re an open-minded, equality-minded high school drop-out.)

People of higher incomes tended to be more for; people with lower incomes tended to be more against.  But, people who make more money tend to be better educated, so refer to the above.

The only two demographic areas with an overwhelming majority against were evangelical Christians (not a surprise) and African-Americans, who went about 70% against.

So, the question I have is this: Shouldn’t a group which understands oppression as well as any in our society stand on the side of expanding rights for others rather than denying them?  I’m not asking anyone to forego their personal beliefs or their particular version of morality.  I’m not even asking anyone to understand.  Whether you “get” homosexuality or not, wouldn’t a person who has felt the pain of second-class citizen status take the position of “erring” on the side of giving rights rather than “erring” on the side of withholding them?

Anyone who knows me knows how passionate I have been for years about eradicating racism.  And that certainly won’t ever change.  My strong desire for equality is not a tit-for-tat proposition.  But, I can’t help but ponder the fact that if the African-American population of California had stood up for the right of gays and lesbians to marry to the same degree that gays and lesbians voted for Barack Obama, . . . equality would have won.

Proposition Hate

As important as the presidential election is this year, that’s not the only race that will have my attention on Tuesday.  California’s Proposition 8 is perhaps as pivotal a civil rights decision as we have seen in many years.

This past May, the California Supreme Court ruled that denying gays and lesbians the right to marry violated the state constitution.  Almost immediately, the very people whom this would least effect jumped into high gear to introduce a ballot initiative to overturn that decision.   The religious right and, most specifically, the Mormon Church has devoted millions of dollars and enlisted thousands of people to this cause.

With the Supreme Court’s decision this past May, California became the second state in the country to legalize marriage for gays and lesbians (Massachusetts having been the first).  Since then, Connecticutt has made a similar decision.  This early and intense challenge to California’s law is seen by many legal analysts as a canary in the mine for the way this issue may play out in other states over the coming years.

The arguments for gay marriage are legion and are supported by law and history.  The arguments against gay marriage essentially boil down to one thing – religious belief.  But, religion has nothing to do with it.

Since about the time that Henry VIII got irked at the Pope for denying him a divorce and started his own church, marriage has been a civil issue in most of the western world.  In this country, the government has always been in charge of marriage, which is in truth a legal contract.  This is why every church wedding I’ve ever attended included the words, “by the power vested in me by the state of (fill in the blank).”   The first marriage of two European settlers on the North American continent was performed by William Bradford acting on the authority of his position as Governor.  The early Puritans actually believed that the English custom of marriage by clergy was unscriptural.  Now, I don’t have any quarrel with big church weddings.  In fact, I believe it is only fitting that two people would include their spirituality in what will likely be one of the biggest days of their lives.  But the simple fact is, the church doesn’t own marriage.

What is immensely distubing to me is that people who are commanded to love their neighbor as themselves are so angrily determined to suppress equal rights for an estimated 10% of the population.  They have nothing to lose, and gay people have everything to gain, so the only motivation they could possibly have is religious bigotry.  When pressed into a corner, they sometimes offer the olive branch of “civil unions,” a legal contract between two people who choose to build a life together (do I need to point out that is EXACTLY what marriage is?).  Haven’t we already learned this lesson?  In 1896, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the Plessy v. Ferguson decision that segregation was okay as long as facilities were “separate but equal.”  Brown v. The Board of Education overturned that ruling in 1954 when it was determined that separate was inherently not equal.  The most interesting aspect of the civil unions debate is that it implies the opponent would concede the rights as long as they still owned the word.  I could almost say, “Fine, just give me the rights, and I’ll use the word anyway.”  Nobody owns a word, you dip-wads.  But separate is not equal.  Different is not the same.

The most difficult challenge in this issue is getting non-gay people to care.  I know that those who aren’t gay don’t feel the sting like we do, just as white people will never truly understand the African-American experience.  But, gays and lesbians across this nation, including me and my wife, are passionate about this because it is vital for us.  Only marriage can give me all the tools I need to protect my family.  This may seem like an off-the-radar social issue to many Americans, but to me it is my family’s finances, healthcare, inheritance issues, relationships, property rights, and basic definition that is at stake.  For me, it is the right to say, “This is my family.”  That, my friends, is not a small thing.   And just as white people marched with Dr. King, it will take equality-minded straight people to help win this fight.

On Tuesday, hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of Californians will walk into a voting booth and vote on something that has no effect on them, but the most essential effect on many others.  They will vote yes on Proposition 8.  They are the playground bullies who won’t share the swingset.  No, that’s too kind.  They are the segregationists of the 21st Century.  My deep hope is that hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, plus 1 vote no on this proposition of suppression and inequality.  But it will take all of those who feel the full effect of this bigotry . . . plus an army of others who simply care enough to care.