One of my earliest childhood memories is being chased by three kids at summer camp, circa 1972, and being locked in a gym storage room while the trio stood on the other side of a glass window, congratulating themselves on their heroic efforts against a lone sevenyear- old menace.
That’s the set up. The actual memory part of this memory is of me putting my fist through the glass window, necessitating 17 stitches and having the pleasure of seeing those clowns scatter, even if it was through the haze of a throbbing hand. (What do you want from me? I’m Irish-Italian from Queens, New York: it was embedded in my DNA.) Then as now, I’ve never much cared for bullies.
In the early 1990s, I had the dubious “pleasure” of interviewing Fred Phelps on my WFTL radio talk show. This was about five years before the tragic murder of Matthew Shepard, so Phelps hadn’t quite reached his vitriolic stride (the proto-meme “God Hates Fates,” for instance, had not yet entered the cultural lexicon). He merely came across as a vulgar and offensive (and possible inbred)—but essentially harmless—clod. How wrong I was.
When the Founders established protections for religious freedom, they did so at a time when intolerance and bigotry directed at religious minorities were rife, and in order to protect community churches from governmental interference on behalf of a religious institution (as in the case of the crown-sponsored Church of England), or religious doctrine (such as occurred during the English Civil War and in pre-Restoration England, when powerful practitioners of an intolerant brand of Calvinism essentially criminalized all outward public displays of joy).
Much as during the 1990s, when every news report began with accusations of rape against a professional athlete, the headlines today are replete with stories of collared bullies who use the Sunday pulpit to spew a particularly loathsome form of Biblical scholarship at undereducated congregations who either don’t know or don’t care to learn the scriptural bases for the raw villainy being encouraged by men— and women—of the cloth.
Take the now-viral case of Sean Harris, the North Carolina pastor who advised, “Dads, the second you see your son dropping the limp wrist, you walk over there and crack that wrist. Man up. Give him a good punch. Ok?” adding, “The next thing you know, this dude, this kid is acting out childhood fantasies that should have been squashed.” Although Harris later said that he “misspoke,” and wrote that “I do NOT believe physical force is capable of fixing effeminate behavior or homosexual behavior,” he essentially repudiated his retraction when he added, cutely, that “we must not be hateful toward those whose behavior is an abomination to God,” effectively letting the congregation know exactly where he really stands on “all sexual perversions and immorality.”
Another North Carolina pastor, Ron Baity of the Berean Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, used his Sunday sermon to refer to homosexuality as a “perverted lifestyle,” and that gays should be criminally prosecuted, as in days of yore. “For 300 years, we had laws that would prosecute that lifestyle,” quoth the minister. His and Harris’s Tar Heel State colleague, Tim Rabon of the Beacon Baptist Church in Raleigh— what’s up with these Baptists? offered aloud to his own churchgoing audience, “What is stopping them from redefining marriage for a person and a beast? We’re not far from that.” With soul-enriching sermons and religious “larnin’” such as this, is it any wonder that these bigoted yokels have pinned their political hopes on such blatantly un-American legislation as the Defense of Marriage Act, California’s Proposition 8, and Amendment 1 in North Carolina.
There’s no question in my mind that these offensive laws will one day be overturned, and that the antiquated ideology of a hate-filled and intolerant segment of our society will be entombed in the dust of its own nothingness, along with its proponents.
Until that time, we must live with the offensive ideas of small-minded men, protected by the same body of laws that they seek to use to deny civil rights to their fellow countrymen. (This is just as the Founders intended, when they established the First Amendment protections for speech and religion.)
These bullies who hide behind their pulpits may accuse progressives and LGBT rights activists of attacking religion, through efforts to legalize marriage equality, but what they portray as an attack on religion by gays is really an attack on gays from the pulpit.