Sunday, November 16, 2008

Separating Politics from Religiosity - Again!

As the Obama Administration takes over we all rightly expect to see a sharp waning in the influence of dogmatic sectarians on the overriding issues that call for real national leadership today. There is obviously a grab bag of grave economic, environmental, infrastructure, energy and national security debacles that the outgoing administration is leaving its wake. Religious ideologues never belonged at the table for such discussions in the first place but they have nonetheless gotten way too comfortable in weighing in on any and all policy debates throughout the Bush years.

It would be a mistake, however, to think they will now just shut up and go away. Even after the crushing defeat of the Republican Party, we must remain on guard against the creeping bible-thumper backlash that has evidently already started. After all, there is doubtless more to the religious right than their inclination to offer themselves as hapless political tools for the GOP.

The [thankfully] lame duck Republican Party is primarily devoted to lucre - secular big money interests. They lied us into opportunistic wars, ravaged the environment and ruthlessly stifled domestic civil liberties in order to advance their unholy corporeal ambitions. They were only beholden to those backwater fundamentalists because of how responsive they found them to be on manipulative hot-button social issues which are totally inconsequential to the true GOP agenda. But such issues always put a fire under the base and never failed to get them out to vote as they were told every time.

In the end we may be relieved to know that the effusive lip service Bush and his cronies lavished on them would never be enough to achieve the religious right's major ideological goals. Ultimately, the GOP failed to come through for them. The Constitution still stands. They did not manage to supplant it with a base interpretation of the Old Testament, which is still the highest priority for the typical American religious extremist.

But even if they were only used as GOP enablers in the last seven biannual elections - radical fundamentalists were in turn brought to the table and treated to a titillating taste for the blood of our body politic. They are not about to stop sucking hard at it after one whopping setback.

The religious right is still easily fired up over their patron party's empty promises to alter the Constitution with amendments that would outlaw abortion and gay marriage forever, as could be seen in their rousing flurry of support for Sarah Palin. This came only too late after their demonstrated reluctance to rally around John McCain whose stand on their issues was seen as lukewarm at best.

Four years ago it was in their resulting "success" - which only retained Bush in office - that Democratic Party losers found the dubious inspiration to mimic tactics employed in the Republican's winning game plan. Democrats shamelessly amped up their competitive pandering for the votes of those who are more religiously motivated than political. I always deplored that desperate turn as a cowardly strategic error that could only speed the erosion of our sacred principle of separation between Church and State - which was now apparently expendable.

It was more than just a little embarrassing to hear liberal Democrats talk up their own churchgoing habits in a desperate but unconvincing grab at political gain. After they had long tended to downplay their personal beliefs and practices in the interest of a professed tolerance of religious diversity they seemed suddenly poised to sell their souls at public auction in order to save the Party.

This may be seen as something of an overinflated point of view now. But in 2004 the Democrats' newfound eagerness to flaunt their religious proclivities threatened a wholesale sellout of JFK's seminal assertion of a reasonable modern perspective that wisely sought to clear religious bias from government affairs. He laid the groundwork for it in his memorable 1960 campaign speech on religion and politics. At that time the first Catholic to head the party's national ticket famously addressed public doubts about where his loyalties would lie as President. In the speech still lauded as one of his finest, Kennedy declared his strong belief "in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute." [Imagine any candidate getting through the 2008 primaries after making such a blunt statement as that!]

As it turns out, this recent backward straining by the Democrats to re-inject religiosity into their political discourse was not what was needed to save the Party. Pandering to voters' religious sympathies simply cannot be shown to have done as much as many other factors that helped turn the tide in the Democrats' favor this year.

No, Barack Obama's winning strategy was fashioned after a different chapter ripped from of the Republican playbook. It relied on a massive effort to register new voters rather than just trying to motivate party loyalists and converting the opposition [as if!]. He re-worked this scenario to emphasize his unique advantage to disaffected voters, offering a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to participate in an emotional history-rocking event.

Obama's increasing viability as the first black candidate with any real chance of winning appealed deeply to disenfranchised black-identified voters as well as a coalition of other minorities, young and first-time voters, and progressives of all stripes. The potential effect of this election resonated at a visceral level that surpassed any traditional religious grounding without necessarily seeming to compromise it. The best evidence for this is in the California vote where it is said that some 70% of black voters who supported the strongly pro-gay candidate also supported the anti-gay Proposition 8 rescinding same-sex marriage in that state.

The twisted conflict in this support for Proposition 8 was largely promoted and fueled by the ultra-conservative, almost exclusively white Church of J.C. of Latter Day Saints. Its Utah minions funneled a boatload of money - more than $20 million - into conscious manipulation of minority voters who are the target consumers of the Mormon's message their young missionaries are sent out of state to sell. Their sales pitch, of course, includes a strong condemnation of homosexuality.

Mormons are fundamentally homophobic but they are not stupid. They likely presumed their "heathen" targets would naturally support the first black nominee for President on the basis of racial and ethnic identity alone. For the amount of money they were putting up I suspect that the business savvy elders performed an extensive cost analysis before committing to fund the project.

Any assessment of their potential return on investment [ROI] would have to factor in the probable outcome of the presidential race. This was, after all, bound to be the driving motivation that would bring voters out en masse while Proposition 8 was merely placed on the same ballot. A possible Obama victory could only be calculated as an acceptable risk - a loss leader - before the Mormons put so much of their money on promoting this controversial ballot measure. I don't know how they actually accomplished it but there had to be some devious way to sell their ideological product while not alienating their targeted customers: voters who may not even show up if Obama were not on the ticket.

Though some Mormons have apologized for their Church's part in this, it is important to recognize this point about who was behind Proposition 8. Especially for us outraged supporters of same-sex marriage and those across the country who have been staging massive demonstrations to decry the California vote. The anger of activists over one state rescinding civil rights formerly recognized by the courts as due their citizens - and by popular vote no less - is understandable. I am dismayed about it myself. An enlightened society would never subject the approval of civil rights to the volatile majority opinion.

But it would be prudent, I feel, to be clear about exactly what we are protesting at this crucial time. Besides taking care about what and who are to blame for the passage of Proposition 8 (another hint: it is not a black & white issue) we must consider as well what good our demonstrations can actually accomplish in furthering the effort to overturn the referendum.

Moreover, what do we stand to lose at this time with any showy theatrics in registering our righteously angered response to this contemptible referendum?

Normally I am all for taking to the streets in protest as well as in demonstrations of visibility for the LGBT community lest we be otherwise stigmatized by the ignorant masses as a shadowy bunch of stereotyped degenerates (no offense intended to the beloved degenerates among us). We are fully deserving of full equal rights and protections under the law. At this transitional moment, however, those newly bruised and banished religious right wingnuts are just itching to seize on any signs of a national uprising by disaffected supporters of marriage rights for homosexuals who are regarded as anathema to the faithfully bigoted.

Not that we should give a damn about their insane belief that our open existence in the world is a sure sign of the coming apocalypse. We should, however, seriously consider the relevance of what happened during the last transitional period from a conservative administration to a liberal Democratic one when our concurrent acting out on a specific issue of simple justice was made to totally backfire and carried long-term consequences.

You can bet that those bitter wingnuts who are watching the news reports of this weekend's rallies are reflecting on the still unsettled contention over "gays in the military."

If we recall how hopeful we were when Bill Clinton and Al Gore defeated the elder Bush and swept into office on the promise of repealing the ban on gay people in uniform, we must also remember where that ended up. The absurd and more restrictive gag rule known as "Don't Ask Don't Tell" remains the law of the land to this day. It was never a personal issue for me but as a good soldier for the cause and a devoted team player I reluctantly took part in several demonstrations in support of the repeal that were staged between administrations. I even marched for it once in front of the White House where, ironically, I had marched any number of times in my life but before then it was always against anything involving the military.

Reactionaries in Congress, aggressively resistant to any kind of institutional tolerance, used Clinton's early attempt to fulfill a campaign promise as a means to undermine his effectiveness as a champion of liberal and progressive causes. And they branded him forever as weak and possessed of immoral sympathies. This of course won the GOP beaucoup points with the homophobic religious right which were parlayed into enough votes two short years later to win a majority of seats in the House of Representatives and immediately put out their "Contract on America."

Until then conservative Republicans spent 40 years struggling to regain a majority in the House. They had been ousted in the 1950s after conducting over-the-top red-baiting witch hunts in HUAC: their House Un-American Activities Committee.

Our ill timed 1992 high-visibility actions on a hot-button issue for the religious right helped define their role as the neo-cons' base, helped return the Republicans to power and altogether far outweighed anything positive it achieved for the cause of gay people in the military.

Admittedly, things are very different in 2008 than they were in 1992 with a major exception being that the Republicans are once again reduced to a desperate minority, this time in both houses of Congress.

As much as it may hurt to admit it, President-elect Obama's pragmatism in stopping short of endorsing same sex marriage rights during the campaign has already proven to be the politically savvy decision for us as well as for him. It not only won him the Presidency - with our support - it also makes it harder for the religious right to tie him to any public spectacle we make by loudly decrying the vote on Proposition 8 in zany California.

They will still tie him to it of course. And that will rattle their own lemming-minded flocks who are predisposed anyway to think the worst of Obama and any Democrat who doesn't support their anti-gay anti-black anti-American agenda.

But Obama is not obligated to waste time and political capital in defense of his stand on "our issue."

It would be nice to hear the President-elect make a comment on the wrongness of such measures as Proposition 8. But he should be excused if he opts to stay focused on the job of preparing for his new position. In the midst of setting his course for the next eight years, saying little or nothing about any high-profile demonstrations may help assure his longevity as a champion of future causes that will more fully impact our lives and well being.

We need to keep soon-to-be President Obama strong and on our side so he can go to bat for us throughout his tenure rather than letting him fall on our account to the point where he pulls something like our hero Bill Clinton did midway through his second term when he secretly signed the 1996 anti-gay "Defense of Marriage Act" into law.


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