Friday, October 27, 2006

Keeping Religion Out of Politics

HBO ran a documentary on Barry Goldwater the other night and the heroic sense of seeing and hearing once again a great man articulate so many of the things I believe felt like drinking cool water at an oasis after having spent so many days in the desert.

The big thing about Barry, apart from his independent spirit and his obvious love for Arizona and this country, was his principled stand against the amassing of greater power by the federal government, and, by extension, his brief against government intervention into the economy and into people's lives.

He was a consistent conservative.

During the later years of his senatorial service, Barry was accused of becoming senile, of becoming liberal. He was neither. He simply applied the same conservative principles (what I would call libertarian principles) to the context and issues of the time.

He favored gays in the military, to take one example. He thought women should have their rights over their own bodies protected by government, to take another.

Barry supported the choice of his granddaughter to have an abortion and did not presume to lecture her or make her feel bad or guilty. He respected her and he, therefore, respected her decision.

One of his grandchildren, one of his favorites, announced to the family that he was gay. There was no recrimination, no disrespect--in fact, there was nothing but the sort of moral support a family member has a right to expect from a family that professes its love of him.

These acts of Barry's, acts of which I had been unaware until this movie, raises my respect, admiration, and affection for this great man.

How far the Republican Party has fallen! These days the folks who run the Republican Party appear to advocate the theory that government should be intimately involved in people's lives: government's purpose, according to these Republicans, is to punish gay people for no better reason than that they are gay, and to force women needing abortions to the proverbial "back-alley" solution, placing their health and even their lives in danger.

Don Wildmon of the American Family Association accused gays of being "subversives" and that Congress "ought to fire every one of them," referring to gay Republican staffers. The Traditional Values Coalition issued an ultimatum to their party: "Republicans need to make a simple choice between the innocent children and radical homosexuals who prey on them."

Barry, to his great and everlasting credit, opposed this intrusion of religion into the politics of the country.

Where is the Goldwater voter supposed to make his political home these days? I am a Goldwater Republican. I am also gay. I favor limited government and I especially favor keeping religion out of politics.

I have argued that gays should simply hold their noses and vote Republican anyway since there are issues related to the economy and to foreign affairs that cannot be safely left in the hands of the Democrats as currently constituted.

But when I read the comments of the religious zealots who seem to have so much influence these days in the Party, how they demonize gays, in opposition to their professed Christian beliefs in Jesus Christ and all his works, it is very difficult to make the case that an ordinary American citizen, who is not a religious zealot, who favors limited government, might find a home in the Republican Party.

My principles and beliefs about the role of government have not changed essentially since I first worked on that wonderful 1964 Presidential campaign. But the Republican Party has become unrecognizable to me.

The great danger to the Republic lay in the fact the one's religious views have become the litmus test for inclusion into one of the two major parties, while the other party, intellectually and morally bankrupt, professes no unifying belief other than its undying hatred of George Bush.

When Goldwater, and even Ronald Reagan, spoke of "big government," they were speaking not so much about the size (I.e. the number of employees) but the cost and number of functions of government, specifically about government's tendency to intervene into the economic, political, social and religious affairs of the American people, either indirectly through taxes, or directly, in the form of laws and regulations. They believed, as do I, that government should be strictly limited to protecting the lives and rights of the American people, but within that limitation, it should be sufficiently powerful to do what it must to get the job done.

Because I am a Goldwater conservative, I have most reluctantly concluded that the Republican Party, now filled with religious people who have expressed a truly breathtaking hatred for gays, or with operatives such as Karl Rove, who welcome the opportunity to demonize gays in order to arouse the Christian Right to vote its prejudices, no longer represents my beliefs about the role of government.

I have, accordingly, changed my registration from Republican to Independent. The Republicans are simply too much of an intellectual and moral embarrassment.

President Bush is no conservative. Historically, I think he has to be compared more to LBJ, another Texan liberals couldn't tolerate very well. Bush spends without limit, regulates like the best New Dealer or New Frontiersman, and his vision of a Great Society looks uncomfortably close to LBJ's, except we, the American people, are supposed to worship the same God and have our behavior and thoughts coerced upon us by phony Christians who presume to speak for God, if their biblical quotations against homosexuality are any measure of the intensity of their devotion.

A true conservative, no matter what his religious views, recognizes that there is great value in keeping religion out of politics. Why do you suppose that Baptists, of all sectarian groups, during the Colonial Period, favored separation of church and state? They had bitter experience of what happens when another sectarian group, the Anglicans, had the power to extract taxes from them to support what the Anglicans considered to be the religious interests of the colony.

Wars have been fought over such issues.

It is true, there is a "cultural war" going on. But a cultural and intellectual conflict should be fought on the basis of reason and discourse, not force and fraud, the province (unfortunately) of our politics.

Let Christians be Christians, and let the rest of us be what we have a right to be: ourselves. It is not good for the country and it is not good for Republicans to have one party whose unseemly enthusiasm for doing personal, economic and political damage to gay people masks its real agenda of expanding government until no private sphere remains, and the other party whose disparate pressure groups are united only in reaction to what the government is doing to them, or what they perceive the government is doing to them.

This is what happens when one party becomes the theocratic party and assumes political power. Liberals actually do believe, for example, that the US government tortured detainees at the naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. It is easy to believe this, since Bush Administration is on record for opposing gay rights and women's rights. Even if Bush does not favor gay marriage, why hasn't he criticized those Christians in his own party who have not made a distinction between their opposition to gay marriage and their support of gays in the military, or the right to seek employment and housing without discrimination?

Gays make up only a tiny proportion of the American electorate; yet they are the proverbial canaries in the cave, testing whether there exists enough oxygen for human life. In this case, is there enough oxygen for a healthy political life?

I suggest to you that when Christians get what they seem to want, the extermination of all gay people, who will be left to tell the rest of the straight world that their liberties are not only at risk, but have already been abolished?

Strange as it may seem, Goldwater himself had to be talked into running for President in 1964. He would have relished a contest with Kennedy, since both of those politicians had some real class and understood that politicians could also be statesmen. Goldwater simply wasn't prepared for and had no desire to enter a hard-ball political contest with LBJ, a low-brow politician whose lies about the Viet Nam War contrasted so sharply with Barry's honesty, intelligence and respect for the American people.

We shall never see his like again, I suspect, but it would be nice, for a change, to have as President a man or woman who did not go out of his way to show his disrespect and hatred for gays, and thence by extrapolation, his disrespect and hatred for the liberty of the American people in its full measure.

I'd love to hear the likes of Rush Limbaugh explain to his radio audience that while some Christians may favor the stoning of gay people, gays also have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness in the United States, and that one of the best ways to protect the victims and potential victims of religiously inspired violence against gays is to explain why religion should not assume political power, as it apparently has in the current Bush Administration.

Tom Anderson
October 2006

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