Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Uncorking the Pandemic of Crazy: Predictions about the Religious Right in 2009

And on to the prognostications. Which I’m not sure many folks will want to hear—in part, because what I see down the pike is not promising for those who think we can relinquish the battle with the religious right as that movement dies and a new generation of younger evangelicals takes over.

I certainly take hope from that demographic shift, and I am convinced it is underway. But. A big but: I do not think that this shift should encourage those who see the religious right as one of the biggest threats to democracy in the world today to relax our vigilance. If anything, I believe that, after the election of Obama, we are going to see redoubled efforts on the part of the religious right to exercise control in American culture and politics—redoubled efforts to extend the influence of this political-religious movement and to secure the place of the movement in American life.

And along with those redoubled efforts will be a savage attack on gay citizens unparalleled by anything the religious right has sought to do in the past. After all, what does this movement have left, except the gay card? We are it: we are the last, best hope for the religious right to continue as a major political player in the Obama era.

I think Bob Cesca is absolutely correct when he observes in a recent Huffington Post article on the influence of the religious right, “Nevertheless, we can bet on the fact that the far-right is going to be uncorking a pandemic of crazy so unrelenting as to make the 1990s seem quaint by comparison”
(www.huffingtonpost.com/bob-cesca/fighting-back-in-the-age_b_153376.html). Get ready for it: we ain’t seen nothing yet. The pandemic of crazy headed our way now that Obama is president is going to make what the religious right has sought to do to gay citizens up to now look mickey-mouse.

As I look down the road and see this coming, I am intently concerned at the cavalier attitude of many of my fellow citizens—including many LGBT citizens—to all the ominous signs now appearing on the horizon. In some sectors of the gay community, there is the perception that older, politicized gays have done yeoman’s work fighting culture-war battles that they are now unwilling to give up, as the need for fighting those battles wanes with the passing of generations.

I think this is a naïve and dangerously apolitical approach to the continued power the religious right exerts in American culture—and in global culture, as well, since this movement has adroitly sought to replicate itself in other cultural contexts, and to fan flames of homophobia wherever it can across the globe. Those of us who have long fought these culture-war battles haven’t done so because we enjoy the fighting.

We’ve been fighting for our lives—for our humanity, for our human dignity and human rights. We’ve been fighting because we have had no choice. That’s what you do when life and dignity are at stake. That’s how you respond when others seek to diminish your humanity.

It was the religious right that declared these culture wars, after all, and which put all gay human beings in the world in its sights as it did so. When one is in the sights of an enemy, it does no good to say that one does not relish fighting. The only productive options are either to run fast, or to stand your ground and fight back.

And the fight is clearly not over. As Frederick Clarkson argues in a recent Alternet article, the religious right is not going anywhere. It will, Clarkson is convinced, continue to pose one of the central challenges to our participatory democracy:

There is a religious war going on in America in which one side seeks to thwart, and even to roll back, advances in civil rights. This poses one of the central challenges of our time for those of us who are not part of the Religious Right; those of us for whom religious pluralism and constitutional democracy matter, along with such closely related matters as reproductive freedom, marriage equality and free, quality and secular public education. The defense and advance of our most deeply held values requires our holding clear-eyed assessments of how the Religious Right adapts to the changed political environment (www.alternet.org/story/114798/merry_war_on_christmas_--_the_religious_right_isn%27t_going_anywhere).

The defense and advance of our most deeply held values requires our holding clear-eyed assessments of how the Religious Right adapts to the changed political environment: this is an extremely important point. The religious right is not merely carrying on the traditional culture wars it has inflicted on our culture—that is, carrying on those culture wars in ways we have all come to see as typical of the religious right. The religious right is now adapting to a changed political environment. It is developing new strategies and new techniques. And it behooves any of us concerned about the preservation of democracy to understand and combat those strategies.

The religious right is adapting to remain alive, to continue, and, if possible, to extend, its influence. Unless we track the adaptation process, become aware of it, predict its moves, we will not succeed in holding this powerful anti-democratic movement in check.

We have seen some indicators of where the religious right is going in recent weeks, and the response to those indicators should trouble those on the progressive end of the political and religious spectrum. This response suggests that too many of our fellow citizens are oblivious to the real threats the religious right poses to participatory democracy, and too willing to excuse this movement’s attacks on democracy, or to imagine that the religious right is obsolescent.

Look closely at what happened with both the Rick Warren selection and the Christmas message of Benedict XVI to the Curia, for instance, and you will see a clear pattern—one predictive of the strategy the religious right intends to employ now. Those who reacted against the inaugural selection and the papal statement immediately found themselves on the defensive.

And they were placed on the defensive not merely by the right, but by influential forces in the center that clearly do not want the religious right marginalized, for a variety of reasons. Those raising legitimate and important questions in both cases were immediately accused of being divisive and even dishonest. Rick Warren and Benedict, who both have strong, easily tracked records of hostility to the gay community and to gay human beings, were depicted by their centrist defenders as inoffensive and morally upstanding, while their critics were slammed as offensive and anti-religious.

Most worrisome of all, in both cases lies have been permitted to pass as acceptable public discourse in a democratic society, even as we have allowed those in the center to paint those challenging the lies as the real malefactors. When asked to own his rhetoric linking gay people to pedophilia, Rick Warren simply lied: he denied having said what he had said, even when clips of his homosexuality-pedophilia remarks are widely available. Just as he denied having allowed McCain to monitor the responses of Obama at the Saddleback Church debate, even after it became apparent that Warren’s claim that McCain had been in a sealed, soundproof room was false.

Re: Benedict’s Christmas statement, there have been repeated attempts in the mainstream media to claim that Benedict did not say what he did, in fact, say, or to minimize what he said by calling for contextual understanding of his statement about gay people as threats to the human ecology. There have been suggestions that the little pill of poison was, after all, tiny, and only a tiny portion of the overall argument—as if a tiny pill of poison hidden in a large concoction is somehow less dangerous simply because it is discrete.

What we are seeing here—and should prepare for throughout the Obama administration—is a bold mainstreaming of plainspoken homophobia. Read the blogs of liberal Catholic publications, as I do daily, and you’ll see a worrisome development in recent weeks: the homophobic rhetoric—the overt homophobic rhetoric—is no longer coming only from those on the far right. It is now pouring out from those at the center, who have been afraid until recently to express openly their reservations about gay rights and gay persons.

The closer our society comes to a moral turning point, to a line of no return at which people have to declare their solidarity with or opposition to gay persons, the more we can expect this open expression of homophobia to proliferate. And buried at the center of it all will be the religious right, working (as it did in California with proposition 8) to disseminate disinformation and to elicit fear and hostility among centrist citizens who have not previously been opposed to gay persons and gay rights.

Expect more—much more—“journalism” of the ilk of Jeffrey T. Kuhner’s defense of Benedict in this past Sunday’s Washington Times (www.washingtontimes.com/news/2008/dec/28/papal-denunciation). What is remarkable in this shoddy mess of homophobic disinformation about Ratzinger/Benedict’s track record re: the gay community is not just the defense of Benedict. Kuhner has written in that vein before.

No, what is remarkable is that Kuhner now feels free, after Obama’s election, to pen the following poison, knowing it will be printed in a mainstream publication:

Homosexual behavior (along with abortion, contraception, euthanasia, and pornography) represents a key facet of the modern West's “culture of death.” The homosexual lifestyle is inherently dangerous and destructive. It is not just that most gays and lesbians are casually promiscuous, and that ritualized sodomy is profoundly unhealthy. But homosexuality is incapable of natural reproduction; its lifestyle is one that is barren and childless - and without children, there can be no future and ultimately, no hope.

What is remarkable is that a mainstream newspaper, a “centrist” media outlet, feels perfectly free to print lies that, before the election of Obama, would have been confined to hate sites on the internet.

It’s now out in the open, after the election of Obama. And it will continue to come out into the open now, with the religious right egging the rhetoric on: gays as “inherently dangerous and destructive,” as barren purveyors of a culture of death. Rhetoric very much like the antisemitic rhetoric that poured forth in Germany before the rise of the Nazis to power. Rhetoric that respectable mainstream media outlets and respectable religious journals would not have printed before. Rhetoric passed on as legitimate opinion by centrist religious and political thinkers who would never utter such statements about someone who is Jewish. Or about someone who is African American.

After the election of Obama. Something about this event, the election of a new president who has expressed mild support for gay rights and gay persons, is eliciting this rhetoric. It is doing so because the election of Obama is eliciting fear—fear of gay persons and gay rights—among many citizens, including (and increasingly) among citizens at the center. There is fear of a new moral turn in our society, which many of those at the center resist, and about which they have previously been unwilling to admit their ambivalence.

This is, in my view, ultimately why Mr. Obama chose Rick Warren to give the invocation at his inauguration, and why that choice should deeply trouble those of us who are either gay or in solidarity with gay persons and who support Obama. As numerous observers have noted and as Obama himself has stated, in making this choice, Obama is playing to the center. He is assuring his support at the center of our culture.

Obama is a skilled politician. One of the strengths of his campaign was its ability to crunch numbers more effectively than the campaigns of his competitors—the ability to get its fingers on the pulse of the voting populace and to anticipate what voters would do.

Obama knows what he is doing in selecting Rick Warren for the inauguration, and in playing to the center. He is consolidating his power. He is making a political calculation that will not harm him, and will, in fact, aid him.

There is a price to be paid in making this calculation, and that price is the disenchantment of many gay voters and many voters in solidarity with gay persons. But that price is not a high price to pay—not high in political terms, that is. Gay voters simply do not have the political clout to cause concern to anyone who runs roughshod over gay rights and gay lives. And Americans of the center have still not moved decisively in the direction of gay rights—and, in fact, may move in the opposite direction as the religious right massages anti-gay sentiment to extend its power in the Obama era.

Obama is aware of this. His strength—and, in my view, his most significant shortcoming—as a leader is his political canniness. Obama is a liberal politician, par excellence. The strength of liberal politics is its ability to calculate, to predict on the basis of numbers and trends—and to play one competing interest group against another without ever standing with one of the competing groups until it becomes clear who will be the winner.

Liberalism is long on calculation. It is short on solidarity. Its strong suit is its ability to predict what will happen on the basis of hard data carefully gathered. Its weak suit is its inability to take moral stands—its unwillingness to take moral stands.

Calculation can only go so far, after all. The decision of a culture to shift its moral consensus on issues like slavery or women’s rights—that decision depends not entirely on calculation (and thus it cannot be entirely predicted by calculation): that decision depends on the formation of a new moral consensus that occurs in ways outside the purview of polls and number crunching.

And this is where things may get interesting for the new president, if he continues to rule by liberal calculation. It is possible, after all, to miscalculate. I have seen the effects of such miscalculation in educational leaders time and again. I have seen leaders topple, after they were unwilling to support what is clearly the moral thing to do in a situation, because they calculated that the decision to do what is moral would cost too much and would weaken their support.

In calculating the expedient thing to do and in overlooking the moral thing to do, leaders can succeed in undermining the strongest arguments for supporting them and their platform, in a democratic society: the argument that one should do right and not what is popular. Democracy rests, after all, on foundations that are in the final analysis moral. It rests on the belief that God has created all of us equal and endowed us with inalienable human rights.

Leaders who remove the moral calculus from their political calculations in democratic institutions may make temporary political gains, while undermining their effectiveness as leaders in the long run. I have seen it happen before; I have learned to recognize the pattern. I have watched a university president who likes to speak glibly of human rights miscalculate and violate the rights of some of her gay employees in an egregious and public way. As she did so, she miscalculated from the outset. She willingly listened to poisonous misinformation poured into her ears by those who sought to convince her that she would be shielded from charges of homophobia because those she targeted had no support, precisely because they were gay.

She was wrong. More eyes saw the disconnect between her rhetoric about human rights and her real actions than she predicted. Because her advisors are not morally admirable human beings, but motivated primarily by petty jealousy, they did not bring accurate information to her. She is now beginning to pay a high price for her miscalculation. She has dramatically undermined her effectiveness as a leader in a values-based democratic institution that proclaims the equality of all human beings under God.

I do not want to see this happen to the new president. I think it may well happen, however, if the Rick Warren selection is any indicator of how Obama intends to approach his responsibilities as a moral leader. It is possible that Obama is calculating well, as he courts the center in the election of Obama. It is possible that his calculation that gay human beings do not have sufficient support at the center is a good calculation.

But it is also possible that he is simply wrong. It is possible that we have moved, as a society, further down the road to a new moral consensus that gay human beings are fully human than Mr. Obama's advisors recognize. If so, and if he is miscalculating where the moral mind of the nation is heading regarding this decisive civil rights issue of our time, the religious right leaders to whom the new president is now seeking to cozy up—including the "kinder" and "gentler" types like Rev. Warren—will not be there to support him if he enters into difficult days. They will be exulting in the back room with all the others who hope to undermine his effectiveness as a moral leader, from the inception of his administration.