There has been a lot of talk lately about the evangelical movement and Christian Fundamentalism. They're generally credited with the success of George Bush's reelection campaign, and they're increasingly pushing a very conservative agenda. Everything from gay marriage bans to Attorneys General trying to open abortion records, the conservative agenda is being pushed hard by the Christian fundamentalist base. My own small hometown has somehow become a microcosm of the situation, with no less than Time magazine proclaiming it the "Homophobic Capitol of the U.S.".
At a population of 140,000, it's hard to imagine Topeka as the capitol of anything larger than the state of Kansas itself; but there it is in writing. The article does in fact center on a single family in Topeka, the Phelps family. But later in the article is a telling quote from a state representative. She says "A lot of people don't outwardly agree with what Phelps is doing, but behind the scenes they do."
This is a reference, of course, to Fred Phelps and his family who make up the core of the Westboro Baptist Church. They parade around Topeka, picketing anybody who disagrees with them on any subject with signs that proclaim the dissention as part of the gay conspiracy. A local hardware store, the local university, even the local churches are not immune to Phelp's wrath. They stand across the street with signs showing silhouetted figures engaged in anal sex, slogans like "Got Aids" and "Hate is a family value". They've achieved world renown for protesting the funerals of AIDS victims, proclaiming loudly that the funeral goer's loved ones are burning in Hell.
This is my town. This is the town I grew up in. I graduated from Washburn University with one of the Phelps grandchildren. While we sat listening to speeches inside, the rest of the Phelps family stood outside with their hateful signs. The university had refused one of the Phelps clan entrance to their highly regarded law school a few years earlier and had since been labeled by them as "Fag U". Of course, they still send their kids there; but they don't see any hypocrisy in it.
Elsewhere in the conservative landscape Attorney General Phil kline is attempting to force two abortion clinics in the state to turn over patient records so that he can determine if any statutory rape of minors or late term abortions have taken place. Opponents say that he's simply bullying abortion clinics and in a less direct way bullying anybody who might be considering getting an abortion, whether it's legal or not.
These issues have become hot topics here and elsewhere in the nation. Abortion and Gay rights are cornerstones of the liberal-conservative debate. They're the basis of the fundamentalist political agenda, and they're nowhere more in play than right here in my little hometown.
To be honest, I tend to agree with the Christian fundamentalists... to a point. But I find there a certain mean-spiritedness and arrogance that the group displays which repulses me. Also, I often find them shallow and false. They disappoint me, especially the born-agains. They often are the worst. Their self-righteousness is frequently self-indulgent.
But on the core precepts, I agree with them. I don't approve of abortion, and I'm not a supporter of the gay lifestyle. But the reality of the fundie political machinations is that they don't do anything to reduce either abortions or the social and legal acceptance of homosexuality. Instead, they're preaching, and what they're preaching is not Christian lifestyle but criticism and rejection.
Let's take a look at the abortion debate, where there is no shortage of hypocrisy and loathesome behavior on either side of the debate. Liberals want to protect the right for a woman to have an abortion, claiming it isn't killing until the baby is born. Even the abhorrent procedure of partially birthing the fetus before killing it is considered a sacred cow by them. The conservatives believe any abortion, even one to protect the mother should be illegal.
The moderates on both side see some middle grounds. Moderate liberals find the partial-birth abortions repugnant, and moderate conservatives understand that there are circumstances that don't fit so easily into black and white/good and evil descriptions.
The tragedy of it all is that the parties have squared off on the far sides of their positions. While the liberals have taken the position that no restriction on abortion of any kind is acceptable, the conservatives have adopted an all-or-nothing policy on what restrictions are acceptable.
Last year there was a measure to criminalize partial-birth abortions. The Democrats wanted some exceptions to the rule for cases of rape and/or risk of death to the mother. Republicans said no. There was much pontificating from both sides and eventually the measure failed, to the detriment of both parties.
The Democrats could have shaken off some dead weight with the passage of such a bill. They could have lost the image that their party is the abortion party. It would have presented them in a more reasonable light. They could focus on other moderate issues and would perhaps have faired better in the election. After all, for all of the talk of mandates and the rise of evangelism, Bush won the white house by 3%. If just 1.6% of the voters had voted the other way, we'd have a different president. Instead, they've surrendered to the sickness of debate and have set themselves as far left as they can, denying any middle ground. Because, after all, middle ground means cooperation and that means an admission that the opposition isn't totally wrong about everything.
As for the Republicans, they could have accepted the limitations on the bill and passed the first meaningful anti-abortion legislation since it was legalized in 1972. The exceptions that were demanded represent a small number of cases. So what was the problem? Was it truly that every life is sacred, or would the party like to keep the status quo so that they can keep their base solidified? They too have surrendered to fighting for fighting's sake.
And the fundies have swallowed it hook, line and sinker.
If the goal is to reduce the number of abortions performed each year, and preaching by itself isn't getting the job done, what better way is there than to limit the number of abortions that are legal? They had a chance to do so and gave it up because they couldn't accept anything less than the totality of their position. It has become more about the fight than the issue. "This is my position, and if it's not yours, I don't want to talk to you."
That same sentiment is true in the gay rights debate... especially when you talk to the evangelical right.
For all the bumper stickers and t-shirts sporting the question "What would Jesus do?" the evangelicals frequently seem incapable of answering that for themselves. Indeed, I think they avoid asking themselves the question at all.
Take, for instance, the case of two children in Costa Mesa, CA. who wish to attend kindergarten at the St. John the Baptist Catholic School. The children in question have gay parents who support their children's enrollment at St. John's. The parents of other children there are protesting and demanding that the school turn the kids away.
Says John Nixon: "The teachings of the church seem to have been abandoned. We send our children to a Catholic school because we expect and demand that the teachings of our church will be adhered to."
Of course, if that sort of attitude had prevailed during Jesus' time that rowdy rabble of fishermen we know as the apostles would have been too subversive an element and would have to have been abandoned by the Lord. After all, we can't have that sort around. And what of St. Paul. No doubt he was no saint to begin with. Mary Magdalen? Are you kidding? Jesus turned sinners by treating them well and with love, not by banishing them. But, as history so often does, it repeats itself today. Even in Jesus' time the fundamentalists condemned his acceptance of sinners.
The parents at St. John's apparently believe that these 5 year olds are going to spread homosexuality to their kids. The "gay" is going to rub off of them. They claim the kids are being used by their gay parents to subvert the Church's teachings, which may be true; but don't we have some responsibility to the sinners in the world? It's as if they're saying that if you're not already pure enough to join the club, you don't deserve to become so.
If you're a true Christian, and a good Catholic (the translation of which means "universal") shouldn't you believe that a Catholic church and school is exactly where these children belong? After all, the "gay" won't rub off. And for that matter, parenting is about just this kind of thing. Anybody can make cheese sandwiches and play video games. Parents are around for just these situations, when their children need guidance.
What would Jesus do? Can you imagine Jesus banishing these two children because their parents are sinners? Would he run them out of town? Would he stone them on their way out? Would he shout their unworthiness at their backs as they fled from him? What would He do? Would he visit the sins of their adopted parents on them?
What would Jesus do?
Continuing on this subject, let's discuss the measure in my hometown that just catapulted us into the national news. Topeka has an ordinance barring discrimination in government hiring on the basis of race, creed, religion, gender, or sexual preference. There is a measure to be voted on soon that would repeal this ordinance and bar any similar ordinances from being passed for 10 years.
Now, part of me says that by default you shouldn't be able to discriminate against people and that therefore no such ordinance is necessary. But the reality is that the measure before the people is really a means of saying that it would be okay to discriminate against gays. The people putting forth the measure make it very clear. And while many of them don't outwardly support Fred Phelps, who is championing this ordinance, behind the scenes they do.
What is their end? Do they mean to fight homosexuality itself? Do they think they can make life difficult enough for gays that they will turn straight? Is conversion their goal? I would have to think not; because if it is they've chosen the least practical means for achieving it.
No, I believe their goal is isolation. And to that end they mean to run the sinners out of town.
Is that what Jesus would do?
I don't profess to be the best Catholic around. I'm not arrogant enough to judge myself above any other Catholics. But I know that there is something in me that finds the brand of Christian fundamentalism being practiced these days repugnant. And when I see them preaching and professing love while driving the sinners away, it strikes me that they are more like the fundamentalists of Jesus' time than they are like Jesus himself.