Monday, June 20, 2005

Reclaiming Faith

We should all be very grateful to the New York Times Magazine, and specifically Russell Shorto, for this article. In following a group of Maryland conservative activists in their fight against "the homosexual lifestyle," he gives us an excellent blueprint of exactly how those on the far, far right come to their conclusions about others. Put it this way... George W. Bush is by far the most moderate-sounding individual in the article.

The article draws a critical distinction that the media and liberal activists simply cannot get through their heads. Just as Dennis Kucinich is not the same kind of Democrat as Wes Clark, there is a spectrum of conservative philosophy. There is an enormous difference between the mother in Ohio who doesn't know any gay people (or get Showtime) and is vaguely queasy about the idea of two men having sex, and the activist in Maryland who uses Bible-thumping to conceal good ol'fashioned hatred. However, both of these people would likely say that they are against gay marriage, and that is all we see-- not the ability of the former to be educated, to be made more open-minded, nor the absolute rightness of calling the latter out for the prejudiced bigot that he is.

This brand of conservativism is especially frustrating to me because it ultimately leads back to Christianity. Those who espouse it absolutely will not argue or budge on any shred of their philosophy, because they believe that they hold the ultimate endorsement of Jesus. It's like talking with the proverbial brick wall, only a brick wall that shouts back at you while standing firm.

This brand of hatred was exactly why I became an ex-Methodist at the age of fourteen. My church brought up the idea of becoming a "welcoming congregation"-- Protestant-speak for "accepting openly gay members"-- yet ultimately rejected it in a contentious vote. It was my first lesson in how otherwise good people could be capable of spewing hate and vitrol. In our townhall meetings I watched seemingly tender, lovely churchgoers stand up and proudly proclaim their hatred of "those people" and "what they do."

I remember speaking up in tears, crying out "I know gay people! How could I tell them that they wouldn't be welcome in this place I love so much?" I only managed to choke out "God's love," before I couldn't continue, and I sat back down in my chair, my mother's arm over my shoulder as some members of the congregation applauded in a combination of solidarity and pity.

After that, one elderly widow with whom I sang in the choir came up to me and said "Oh, honey, I wasn't talking about your friends. I wouldn't want you to think that! It's just..." Her leathery, paper-skinned hands grabbed mine and she implored me with her eyes: Don't think I'm a bad person. I know this is what's right. I had to look away.

After the "no" vote came in, I stopped going to church, instead embracing the apathy and indignation of an agnostic teenager in a hippie town. At that age, only a dramatic gesture would have the impact I wanted to make. Staying in the church to discuss my beliefs, to learn how they worked and could be reconciled with Biblical text was out of the question. Even if I had cared enough to continue that education, I refused to spend time in the company of those whom I considered bigots.

Looking back, I wish I had stayed longer. I only remember the bad of that time now, but I know that some of that applause for a self-righteous, emotional child was in agreement with what she had to say. There will always be people who hate without reason. Far more common, though are those who fear what they do not know, and are fundamentally decent individuals. Jesus and God really have very little to do with it. If I had truly wanted to change people's minds, I could have toughed it out, showed the same strength of will that those who hate show every day when they insist that gay people spread diseases, that two women in love have the power to damage a marriage between a man and a woman, that a gay Cub Scout leader will molest their sons.

I wish I had not let hate get the better of me then. I hope that we can show the same certainty of our moral rightness that those who hate seem to have. I hope that we can debate and grow and educate without ever stopping to spread a message of decency and kindness to all people.

Maybe one day I can change a mind, after all.

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