Monday, May 4, 2009

More on Mr. Obama's Record with the Gay Community: Remembering the Moral Center of Leadership

And the discussion of President Obama’s silence about gay and lesbian people and issues, and failure to deliver on his promises to the gay community, continues, with a response today by Jenna Lowenstein to the Richard Socarides article that I discussed yesterday (here and here).

Lowenstein argues that Obama’s silence and inaction undermine his moral force as a leader. She notes that silence in the face of injustice is complicity in injustice, particularly when one has in one’s hands the power to challenge injustice.

A key quote:

We need a President who understands that observing continued injustice is as hateful as participating in it, and who will stand up and be a moral leader, willing to educate his constituents, rather than fear their judgments.

And as I read Lowenstein and her forceful critique of the politics of prevaricating, “pragmatic” calculation that overlooks the moral dimensions of sound leadership, I think back to an important conversation that Steve and I had over the weekend. The conversation took place at the house of friends of ours, friends who are among the few people we’ve met in our area who seem interested in and well informed about the larger world, and able to carry on probing conversations about that world and its future.

These friends happen to be African-American, he a minister and judge, she a person who wears a number of important professional hats (and one of my favorite people in the world). We were talking about our disappointment at the number of Arkansans (including some of my own relatives) who signed the petition to place the ugly anti-gay adoption bill on our local ballot in the last election (here and here).

Our minister friend noted frankly the pronounced support for anti-gay initiatives like this that continues in both the African-American and the Latino community. In his view, during the period of neoconservative dominance in American politics with which the 20th century ended, the political and religious right worked very hard to consolidate its ties to these communities through programs such as the federal faith-based social service programs.

Our African-American minister friend thinks that, having drunk deeply of the kool aid offered by these programs, communities of color are finding it hard to break their dependence on their “friends” of the right—that is, on the dollars that have come to communities of color insofar as they have tied themselves to the political and religious right, and, more significantly, the empty promise of more dollars, since what the right has offered communities of color for its allegiance is a pittance thus far.

Our friend does see hope, but that hope lies, he suggests, not in the ministers of black churches, too many whom have become closely allied with homophobic politics. It resides in those within the African-American community who remember that the bible has been used in the past as it is being used now. Selected verses that contradict the entire thrust of the Jewish and Christian scriptures (which is oriented first and foremost to justice and mercy) have been chosen in the past to denigrate a despised group of human beings. The African-American community forgets this to its peril, our minister friend thinks.

For centuries, as slavery was practiced by Christians, the bible was quoted selectively to justify that abhorrent practice. When slavery was abolished, those same Christians who had found biblical warrant for subjugating people of color to slavery continued to cite the bible as a basis for their “right” to demean people of color and treat them as second-class citizens.

In our friend’s view, hope for the future in African-American communities and churches lies in the ability of some members of those communities and churches—and these will not likely be ministers, he believes—to retrieve the prophetic strands of African-American Christian thought which stand against the constant tendency of the wealthy and powerful to misuse the scripture to justify their oppression of others. To illustrate his point, our friend told us of a scene he witnessed during a recent lection, when some members of the local African-American community were out in force at the polling places to steer people to vote for an anti-gay amendment.

As these folks grabbed hold of an elderly woman headed to the voting booth, who needed assistance, they whispered their homophobic instructions in her ear. She replied to them loudly, so that everyone in the polling place heard her: “No, baby. I believe that it’s between two people and God if they want to marry. It is not my business to judge.”

That statement, our friend believes, points the way to hope in his community, hope that his community will stop drinking the kool aid and stop expecting those who have provided the noxious brew of prejudice to inundate African-American churches with dollars. That statement points to the strong moral center of African-American Christianity that has enabled generations of African Americans to endure and prevail over intense oppression.

Mr. Obama would, in my humble opinion, do well to remember that moral center as he leads the nation.