Thursday, February 21, 2008

We Are the Ones We've Been Waiting For

It’s impossible to understand (or confront) the silence of the leading presidential candidates about the murder of Lawrence King without looking at how progressives in the U.S. have dealt with values-laden issues for some decades now. Today’s AlterNet blog ( has an enlightening article by Trish at Pensito Review entitled "The Secret of Obama’s Success: He Listens to George Lakoff.” Lakoff (who founded the Rockridge Institute—see argues that the political discourse of American progressives avoids values-laden rhetoric in favor of reason-based analysis of policies. Lakoff notes:

Progressives regularly mistake policies with values, which are ethical ideas like empathy, responsibility, fairness, freedom, justice, and so on. Policies are not themselves values, though they are, or should be, based on values. Thus, Social Security and universal health insurance are not values; they are policies meant to reflect and codify the values of human dignity, the common good, fairness, and equality.
In Lakoff’s view, the unwillingness of progressives to engage values is a mistake. I agree wholeheartedly. As my profile for this blog notes, among my chief interests are challenging the religious right’s claim to own God, calling the churches to accountability for injustice to LGBT persons, and stopping bullying of LGBT youth in schools. These are interrelated goals, and it’s impossible to understand the silence of both the leading “progressive” candidates for president and the silence of the churches about the death of Lawrence King, without looking at what progressives have done to values issues in the recent past, as the right wing has dominated the political landscape of America.
During this period, progressives have been all too willing to relinquish values-laden discourse to the right, and especially the religious right. We who recognize that the values represented by the religions of the world and their ethical traditions are far more diverse and revolutionary than the religious right wants Americans to believe have been conspicuously silent, as people who betray the core values of the world’s religions posture as the sole owners of values discourse.
We who want to keep progressive political options alive in the U.S. have allowed the religious right to railroad values discourse into a dead-end shouting match about abortion, reproductive rights, and “family values,” while a large number of our citizens go without basic health coverage, while we let ourselves be herded like dumb sheep into a war based on lies, while the obscenely rich grab an even larger share of the world’s resources, while children born in poverty in our nation have a decreasing chance at an adequate education, while the globe spins towards irreversible climactic changes due to global warming.
These issues are all values-centered issues. Yet we on the progressive end of the political spectrum treat them as policy issues. We relinquish the language of values to the religious right, and allow our fellow citizens to assume that these issues—all deeply and inherently related to the core ethical values of our religious traditions—have no basis in values at all.
Hence the ability of the major presidential candidates—in particular, the “progressive” ones the ones who should most be expected to speak out—to remain silent about the murder of a fifteen year-old boy by a classmate who considered the boy gender-inappropriate. Such murders ought not to happen in American schools. Not ever. Not ever again. Parents everywhere should be up in arms at the thought that an American child can be shot to death in an American school for questioning gender roles.
Churches all over the land should be holding vigils, pray-ins, sit-ins, classes about school violence and homophobia. But they’re not doing so. And those who claim to represent the most progressive options for us in the current presidential campaign continue to remain silent.
How has it come to this? In addition to relinquishing discourse about (and the very definition of) values to the right, we who stand for progressive change have also tolerated for far too long faint, insulting blathering about values on the part of many of our churches—blathering that is much ado about nothing, all sound and fury signifying nothing. We allow the churches to salve their consciences (and our own) by talking rather than walking.
We allow the churches to deplore homophobia and homophobic violence while fueling homophobia and homophobic violence. Not only do many churches observe the silence of the tomb regarding a social problem that can cause a fifteen year-old boy to be murdered in cold blood. Many of the same churches discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation in hiring and firing employees in their institutions, refuse to ordain openly gay-lesbian members, and hold national meetings at which the lives and fates of LGBT church members are discussed without permitting those whose lives and fates are being determined to have a voice in the discussion!
I could point to many churches as examples of this shell game. The one that leaps to mind now, however, as I think through the damages caused to LGBT persons by church talk in the absence of church walk, is the United Methodist church. It does so for two reasons. First, one of the two “progressive” candidates for president, Hillary Clinton, is a United Methodist. I would argue that some of Ms. Clinton’s inability to engage issues like homophobia from a clear, forthright, unambiguous values standpoint has everything to do with the shell game her own church plays about this issue, over and over.
My second reason for pointing to the UMC as an exemplar of the talk-but-no-walk tendency of “progressive” and “gay-friendly” churches has to do with my own work experience. Though I am an alienated Catholic, my last two administrative positions were in UMC colleges. I have become very familiarsadly familiar, far more familiar than I would preferwith how some UMC institutions treat their LGBT employees, and with the ravages the shell game represents for the lives of some employees in UMC institutions.
The UMC Social Principles have clear statements forbidding discrimination and violence against employees on the grounds of sexual orientation. The UMC Social Principles also have very unambiguous statements about the right of all employees to demand workplaces that afford mental and physical safety.
Unfortunately, some UMC institutions do not adhere to these Social Principles even to the extent of adopting a non-discrimination policy on grounds of sexual orientation. My most recent place of employment has no such statement in its catalogue, which is the institution’s official arbiter of personnel policy. The institution is also in a right-to-work state where an employee may be fired at the mere whim of the college, with no reason provided. Needless to say, as with many right-to-work states, the state has noas in nada, zilch—laws prohibiting discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation.
In my experience, churches that talk but don’t walk will go as low as they are permitted to do, when an unjust law is on their side. This is how white Christians in the American South behaved when I was growing up, and it is how many churches now behave towards LGBT people, when the law permits. They will do whatever is permitted to them, when the law protects them, regardless of whatever high-minded statements their ethical codes or social principles declare.
In my experience, it is sadly and entirely possible to find oneself summarily booted from a UMC institution after having been reprimanded for “putting your lifestyle in the face of colleagues,” after having been given written instructions not to take your partner to the doctor (while married couples at the institution routinely take each other to doctors), or after having done outstanding work, but not ever having been given any evaluation at all, to which one might respond with information that challenges the supervisor's misrepresentation of one's work record. One can have all this happen even as one approaches the age of 60, with the full complicity of a retired dean of a UMC seminary, an ordained man, who, in addition to his retirement income, is making a plush salary at the college as a consultant. One can also have it happen while the board of the college is comprised of large numbers of UMC ministers and the UMC bishop of the state in which the institution is located—though one can also be told that the bishop has “problems” with the hiring of openly gay couples . . . .
Why are Mr. Obama and Ms. Clinton able to remain silent about the cold-blooded murder of Lawrence King? Because we allow them to do so. We who call ourselves progressive have allowed the religious right to capture God and the discourse of values. And we allow our churches to talk about their disdain for homophobic violence while practicing homophobic violence towards their own employees and LGBT members.
If we are the ones we have been waiting for, then it is time we speak out. No child should be murdered ever again in an American school for engaging in behavior the mainstream considers gender inappropriate. And the churches should be challenged—and challenged hard—to recognize that their silence in the face of this event and the social cancer it reveals is as shameful as the silence of the German churches while the Nazis came to power.

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