Tuesday, November 22, 2005
by Wayne Besen
For the most part, I have little faith in the majority organized religion. It tends to have undesirable side effects such as crusades, Inquisitions, witch burnings and the election of George W. Bush. To me, the idea of blind faith is baffling. It seems like some people are compelled to create an imaginary, invisible friend to help them cope with pain and tragedy.
With such strong, secular views on religion, you might be surprised to know that I believe the gay and lesbian community desperately needs to find God. Unless we win the battle of heaven, the right wing will continue to make our lives hell. To win the hearts and minds of most Americans, powerful alliances with religious organizations must be forged and GLBT people of faith must be respected.
Fortunately, I am not alone in this assessment. In Matt Foreman's keynote address at this month's Creating Change conference in Oakland, The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force's executive director wisely underscored the need to welcome religious viewpoints.
"The secular part of the movement has distanced itself from people of faith, and that's got to end," Foreman emphatically stated. The annual conference also featured a seminar by the Empire State Pride Agenda called "Pride In The Pulpit."
The Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest GLBT organization, has also jumped on the faith bandwagon. In June, they hired respected gay advocate Harry Knox, a 1989 graduate of Lancaster Theological Seminary, to run their newly created religious and faith program.
"We must bring faith discussions back to their roots of seeking understanding," said Knox. "A vocal minority is falsely promoting the notion that religious people stand in opposition to equal rights. Our job is to promote the truth that a majority of people of faith believes strongly in fairness and justice."
Knox may be a bit optimistic, but he is correct to suggest that the religious right is not God's mouthpiece. Unfortunately, the media has all-too-often presented religion as monolithic and uniformly opposed to gay rights.
Bloated and bloviating buffoons, such as Rev. Jerry Falwell, are chosen to represent the "religious viewpoint" while mainstream religious leaders are frozen out of the debate.
This creates a huge problem because the public has been conditioned to watching cable television shouting matches dangerously billed as Gays vs. God. For even the most talented and trenchant debaters, defeating God is a tall order.
Changing this dynamic will be difficult because news directors love conflict, and who better to churn the waters - and turn up the ratings - than fire and brimstone preachers? Let's face it, people love (or love to hate) Rev. Pat Robertson's messianic meteorology routine. The more he behaves like an airhead, the more airtime the networks give him.
One of the major challenges is finding dynamic, TV-friendly religious leaders who will openly champion gay rights. One such leader is Rev. Al Sharpton, who endorsed the freedom to marry during his presidential campaign and who continues to be a strong advocate. His voice is key, especially in African American churches, where a lot of work needs to be done to break through a wall of entrenched homophobia.
Another strong voice is that of Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, representing about 900 synagogues in North America. In a memorable speech last week in Houston, the Associated Press reported that he blasted the religious right and offered his support for gay rights.
"Religious right," leaders believe "unless you attend my church, accept my God and study my sacred text you cannot be a moral person," Rabbi Yoffie thundered. "What could be more bigoted than to claim that you have a monopoly on God? We cannot forget that when Hitler came to power in 1933, one of the first things that he did was ban gay organizations. Yes, we can disagree about gay marriage. But there is no excuse for hateful rhetoric that fuels the hell fires of anti-gay bigotry."
It is imperative that spiritual leaders, such as Sharpton and Yoffie, take-on the right wing because it gives cover to people of faith who believe in gay rights, but need to be able to theologically justify their support.
Look, religion will always be with us, whether we like it or not, because it fulfills a deep need and spiritual longing in millions of people. I will personally never understand why man thinks he can truly know, explain or comprehend the enigma of what we call God.
But, maybe I don't have to, anymore than people of faith have to fathom why I feel no need to pray. What matters is that there is mutual respect and a strong desire live in a free society where the government does not mandate a particular religion or discriminate.
If a person with my secular beliefs can enthusiastically embrace our religious friends and allies, I think anybody can. Having visited dozens of churches in the past couple of years, there is a lot of good happening that must be acknowledged. If the GLBT movement has a prayer at winning full acceptance, it better find religion fast.
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