Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Turnabout Is Fair Play

I was pretty entertained by Jonah Goldberg's column attacking a No on 8 attack ad:
... surely you saw the TV ad in which two smarmy Mormon missionaries knock on the door of an attractive lesbian couple. "Hi, we're from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints!" says the blond one with a toothy smile. "We're here to take away your rights." The Mormon zealots yank the couple's wedding rings from their fingers and then tear up their marriage license. As the thugs leave, one says to the other, "That was too easy." His smirking comrade replies, "Yeah, what should we ban next?" The voice-over implores viewers: "Say no to a church taking over your government."
Actually, no, I didn't see the ad, since I don't live in California. And thanks to Jonah's summary, I don't need to look for it on Youtube. But Jonah's upset: the scurrilous ad didn't get the condemnation he thought it deserved.
This newspaper [the Los Angeles Times], a principled opponent of Proposition 8, ran an editorial saying that the "hard-hitting ad" was too little, too late. The upshot seemed to be that if the pro-gay-marriage forces had just flooded the airwaves with more religious slander, things would have turned out better.

At a pro-gay-marriage rally in Los Angeles after the vote, chants of "Mormon scum!" were reported. Envelopes containing white powder have been sent to Mormon temples in California and Utah; vandals hit other temples. Lists of businesses to boycott -- essentially Mormon blacklists -- have sprung up on the Internet. The artistic director of the California Musical Theatre resigned because of pressure after it was revealed he gave $1,000 to a pro-Proposition 8 group.

It's amazing. Hollywood liberals, who shout "McCarthyism!" as a first resort, see nothing wrong with this. ...
Well, I certainly do not approve of vandalism or sending "envelopes containing white powder" to anyone. (I'm serious about that, though readers sensitive to nuance will probably detect just a wee smidgin of sarcasm, since it's common for public bigots to express their dismay and disapproval of any violence directed at minority groups, while allowing their inner satisfaction to leak out around the edges. But you can be sure that I'm serious about opposing violence or the threat of violence, even against the most degraded bigots, because I'm about to avow my support for harsh verbal criticism and economic pressure against religious and political groups that foster bigotry.) I wonder how accurate Jonah's list of offenses really is, though, because he also says that "bans on gay marriage have now passed in 30 states." The true number is over forty -- forty-five, according to Nancy Polikoff's Beyond (Straight and Gay) Marriage (Beacon Press, 2008), and most of them ban civil unions as well.

McCarthyism is a funny bogeyman for Jonah to invoke. No doubt Hollywood liberals do shout "McCarthyism!" all the time, but so do conservatives. One of the major themes of the culture wars of the past couple of decades has been the claim of the Right that Political Correctness and runaway liberalism constitute a New McCarthyism. Whenever I hear this claim, I want to say, "But I thought you guys like McCarthyism!" When did the Right suddenly decide that it's wrong to harass and persecute people for their political views? Why, when it affected them, of course! (To digress for a moment, I had the same reaction when right-wingers would accuse Bill Clinton or Al Gore of lying. The accusations were often true, but when did those who adulated Ronald Reagan decide that lying was a bad thing?)

Why not boycott Mormon businesses? There may be good reasons not to do so, but the boycott has often been used by what Jonah calls "traditional" religionists to try to get their way: for example, the Southern Baptists' attempted boycott of Disney for being too gay-friendly just a few years ago. It didn't have any detectable effect, of course, but is it only okay to field a boycott if it's going to be hopelessly ineffectual?

I agree with Jonah that it was perhaps unfair to pick on Mormons with that ad, considering that the Roman Catholic Church and other reactionary religious groups also supported Proposition 8. No doubt No on 8 targeted the Mormons, as Jonah says, because they "are the most vulnerable of the culturally conservative religious denominations and therefore the easiest targets for an organized campaign against religious freedom of conscience." Ahem ... why not attack a vulnerable target? But if No on 8 had also done ads showing a couple of nuns, or a couple of Orthodox rabbis, or a Southern Baptist, tearing up a gay couple's marriage license, that would be fine with me.

I must say, though, that Jonah's objection smacks of "But Mommmm! All the other culturally conservative religious denominations are doing it!" Just because other denominations are bigoted, that doesn't mean the Mormons are innocent. The Mormons have a long and unsavory history of racism, sexism, and homophobia. Consider writer and ex-Mormon Sheldon Rampton's memories of the not-so-distant past:
On this point, I remember my own experience as a teenager in the 1970s, a time when Mormons continued to cling to another discriminatory value -- the so-called "Negro doctrine" which excluded people of African descent from the Mormon priesthood. As justification for the priesthood ban, a number of pernicious theories were popular in Mormon culture. I own a book from that era titled Mormonism and the Negro (co-authored by a vice president at BYU), which patiently explains that Negroes are "descendants of Cain" and therefore subject to "Cain's curse" because their spirits were "less valiant" than the spirits of white people. (Although I didn't know it at the time, even these ideas were an improvement over the statements of Brigham Young in the 19th century, when he declared as a "law of God" that "If the white man who belongs to the chosen seed mixes his blood with the seed of Cain, the penalty, under the law of God, is death on the spot.")
Rampton also quotes a book (still promoted by the church, he says) by a former president of the Latter Day Saints, Spencer W. Kimball, who wrote that "[P]erhaps as an extension of homosexual practices, men and women have sunk even to seeking sexual satisfaction from animals. ..." This is a reminder of the days, which are not yet gone, when gay people were perhaps the most vulnerable of minorities, and conservative religious denominations could attack us in the most shamelessly extravagant and dishonest terms. And if we're going to talk about trying to stifle freedom of religious conscience, where would Jonah Goldberg put the bitter struggle over the consecration of a gay Episcopalian bishop? Within religious bodies, it's not at all clear who are the aggressors in the culture wars -- gay believers and clergy and their allies, or the antigay believers and clergy who are trying to subordinate and expel them. (If Jonah really thinks that conservative religious denominations should be allowed their little quirks, how does he feel about traditional Christian anti-Judaism?)

If conservative denominations are now on the defensive, it should not be forgotten that it wasn't always so, and that such denominations don't go after their targets with kid gloves on. The Religious Right in the 70s and 80s denounced not only homosexuals, but liberal denominations and "secular humanists" with abandon. Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins's Left Behind series is infamous for its hostility to non-fundamentalists, gay or straight, but it's nothing new. LaHaye wrote a series of books lambasting secular America, including The Unhappy Gays (1978), before he found his best-selling formula. Frank Peretti's million-selling novel This Present Darkness (1986) depicted liberal Protestants as conscious and willing agents of Satan. And so on; in general, religious conflict tends to be anything but civil, even when it isn't overtly violent.

A few weeks ago I criticized journalist-blogger David Ehrenstein for his gleeful endorsement of firing people who'd supported Proposition 8. What I objected to then was Ehrenstein's double standard -- I know he wouldn't like it if opponents of Proposition 8 lost their jobs. The double standard is on both sides, though, as Jonah Goldberg's lament shows. It's okay for conservative religious denominations to foster bigotry, but they are very sensitive to anyone turning their own tactics against them.

As I've said before, we must never forget that religion (including gay-friendly religion) is a lifestyle choice; by the Christian Right's standards, that makes them fair game for any tactics they use against gay people (or against other religious believers). But gay people who want to take advantage of this should ask themselves if stooping to the level of our worst opponents is something we really want to do -- if it will produce a world that celebrates human difference, as which most of us would say is our aim. I don't think so, which is one reason I'm so alienated from the mainstream gay community. And really now, that ad Jonah was decrying -- did the people who made it and aired it really think it was going to persuade supporters of Prop 8 to change their vote? If so, they're even dumber than I thought. No, they were preaching to the choir, which no doubt made them and the choir feel good, but Proposition 8 passed. Worse than a stupid campaign is a losing one.