Yesterday, NPR aired the Terry Gross interview of Bishop Gene Robinson, the first openly practicing gay bishop in the Episcopal Church. I didn't get to hear it when it was on earlier in the day, but Sam had it on as she was going to sleep and I was in the bathroom experiencing literally gut-wrenching sensations (yes, she said yesterday that I was getting better, and I very much was, but somehow what I took two days getting out of my system got right back in and left me with a more intense case of Losing My Nutrition than before).
Anyway, what Robinson said right before I turned it off partly in disgust and partly because I wouldn't be able to sleep with it on was that the religious right has taken on the gay issue because the Cold War is over, and they needed some new scapegoat without communists around. I was dumbstruck. This is wrong for so many reasons, but let me list a few.
First, the Cold War was over well over a decade ago, and the gay marriage issue didn't really appear on the horizon until a couple years ago, mostly in the aftermath of the Lawrence v. Texas (on which see what I wrote at the time, which still hasn't migrated over to my blog). Why did it take so long to find the new scapegoat if it was a result of the Cold War ending?
Second, there's a clear chronology here that seems to me to provide a much better explanation. That Supreme Court case raised the question of gay marriage because almost all of the justices wanted to be sure that declaring anti-sodomy laws unconstitutional wouldn't raise the specter of gay marriage. All three conservative justices declared that such a ruling would require states to remove laws against gay marriage. The rest of the Court insisted that it wouldn't, as far as I can remember. I'm pretty sure O'Connor's minority opinion said this with quite strenuous accentuation, and the rest of them signed off on Justice Kennedy's opinion that also made that point, which implies consent that they didn't want to see this turn into a legalization of gay marrige. Well, then states started doing things that went against the overwhelming opposition among most Americans to allowing gay marriage, except they didn't try to do it through argument and due process. They tried to do it by judicial fiat. Most Americans felt as if it didn't matter what they thought. It seemed as if the courts were co-opting what belonged in the legislative process. They revolted and intiated and voted in amendments against gay marriage, three states doing through legislative means and eleven through referenda. Is this because of trying to find a scapegoat, or is it genuine anger at having the will of the people violated by an unelected judge? I think it's quite clearly the latter, and regardless of what you think of the legitimacy of judges doing that sort of thing it's pretty clear that the perception is of some grievous wrong that needs a response. This was initiated by the gay rights movement, not by those who oppose it. Painting it as the need of a very large group of people to find a scapegoat just misses the real social dynamic of people's opposition to gay marriage.
Third, Bishop Robinson admitted that he doesn't understand those who would oppose something like his ordination. Well, what he said is that he doesn't understand the mindset of those who would send death threats to him over it. I frankly don't either. Yet I think he was talking more expansively about not understanding the mindset of those who would oppose his being in such a position at all on account of being gay (which isn't what many have said -- for many it's because he's gay and insisting on living in a gay relationship and not in celibacy, but he doesn't seem to understand that either). I think he genuinely does not understand the religious right, at least the main body of those whose votes lead them to fall under that label. If he thinks they have any need at all to find a scapegoat, I think he's missed out on what really drives them. I hesitate to include myself in that category, mostly because I don't think Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, or even James Dobson represent my political or theological views very well at all (Dobson's not so bad on the latter), though I do count them as genuine Christians with genuinely Christian values driving some of what they do, just misapplied.
Those who don't understand that, who think somehow that it's hate that drives anyone who agrees with them politically, are just ignorant. Even those who use the most extreme language the way Falwell and Robertson do are not doing so out of hate or because they need someone to blame problems on. It's because they genuinely love the word of God, and they genuinely want to see people living lives of righteousness. They somehow think that will happen with political action (not that political action can't do something). They somehow think that getting people fired up to call others to righteousness by pointing out the sins of those not in the group being fired up is going to help their cause rather than hurting it. They somehow think that showing an attitude that appears to be morally superior by pointing out sins they don't commit by ignoring their own in their rhetoric is going to win points rather than simply making them look Pharisaical and egotistical. I'm firmly convinced, though, that in their private life both Robertson and Falwell have earnest understandings of their own personal foibles, of the ways they greatly grieve God in their dealings with others, and in the things they need to repent of. If you pay attention to what they say when they're not talking about politics, you can see that. Those who think being an evangelical is primarily political (rather than those who see that it's barely political at best for most evangelicals) are well aware of that. Those who only care what's said in political speeches are ignoring the reality.
These guys are not looking for scapegoats to blame the world's problems on. They're looking to find problems to fix by calling people to righteousness. I disagree with much of how they do it and much of what say while they're doing it. Still, it just seems to me to be misreading their motives to say they're looking for a scapegoat, and these are the best candidates Robinson could have in mind, at least in the main public's eye (Fred Phelps and the "God hates fags" crowd doesn't count; even the religious right thinks those people are nuts). The average person who would be classified by many on the left as the religious right is even further from this caricature than the people I've been talking about, and it's extremely insulting and condescending for someone to pick out a group of people as scapegoats (which he did, because he was asked about the people who gave him death threats and then responded by including the whole religious right) and then saying that those people have this driving psychological need to pick out scapegoats.
I was quite open to hear what this man had to say up to that point. One of his main themes so far has been tolerance and open-mindedness, and I thought he might actually try to reach out to those who opposed his elevation to bishop in some way. I can't say I have a very high view of his tolerance and open-mindedness anymore. I understand that someone might be a little oversensitive if he has been the subject of a huge controversy, called all sorts of names, and told he shouldn't do what he most obviously sees as a good thing merely because of something that doesn't seem to him as if it's his choice. I even understand the need to give him some moral deference on the grounds that I really haven't fully understood what it's like to be in his situation and therefore can't know how much his circumstances would prevent him from seeing what's so obvious to me. Still, I don't think any of that justifies the kind of small-minded bigotry he's demonstrated against those who merely take the Bible at face value on the issue of homosexuality, as if somehow that wouldn't be enough to justify opposing putting someone in a position of shepherding God's people who is doing something the Bible would describe as actively rebelling against God unrepentantly. That's not even a political concern the way gay marriage is (though gay marriage has religious connotations if it will end up requiring churches to marry gay people, which many fear). This is a concern for how a church claiming to follow the Bible conducts itself. I just don't see how that has anything to do with finding scapegoats. I can't find any other way to describe that sort of attitude except as ignorant bigotry toward the people he's calling the religious right, which I'm sure for him includes anyone who doesn't endorse allowing people in actively gay relationships to occupy a leadership role among those who are supposed to model a biblical morality to those under their care, when that kind of relationship is treated by the Bible as active rebellion against God. That just shows that he just doesn't understand the people he's talking about.