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Retreat

When I was in eighth grade, I went on my first winter retreat. I had been attending my church for less than a year, and this was only my second out-of-town trip with my church’s youth group, the first being a canoe trip the previous summer. I didn’t even know exactly what a retreat was, but it sounded like a lot of fun.

My youth group, as well as the youth groups of three or four other churches, traveled 45 minutes east to a church camp in Brown County, Indiana. The area, popularized by early-2oth-century painters who established an artists’ colony, is most famous for the “Little Smokies”, its rolling hills that turn brilliant red come autumn, attracting a million visitors a year, mostly in October. Tucked in these wooded hills was the church camp. Here, young people could get away, have fun, and learn about God.

The featured speakers of this trip were a foursome from Wichita, ranging in age from 18 to 23. They performed music (which I remember best because they insisted that we not applaud their performances, as “the praise should only go to God”), acted out goofy sketches, and most importantly, informed us of their most important mission: to assist youth in establishing Bible-study clubs in our public schools.

We learnt all the ins and outs of the Equal Access Act of 1984, under which we were permitted to start the Bible studies. There were stipulations, of course. A club had to have a faculty sponsor but could not actually participate in the meeting. We had to approach the school administration about starting the club, and the Kansans equipped us with all the documents necessary to do so. We could not publicize the Bible study with fliers, relying solely on word of mouth.

The most important matter they impressed upon us was that, if a public school allowed one club, by law, they had to allow for all clubs. If the school had a chess club, it had to allow a Bible study as well, as long as it abided by the law. Conversely, if a school allowed a Bible study, it had to allow any other club, even, as they told us, a Satanist club. (Why folks back then thought there were Satanists around every corner I have no idea, since I could see no evidence of it in my school. But t-shirts featuring heavy-metal bands like Metallica were supposedly a sign.)

My, how times have changed. The movement in recent years, in light of prominent cases of bullying and suicides, has been to start GSA’s–Gay-Straight Alliances–in public schools. These spaces are intended simply to provide moral support to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and other sexual- and gender-minority students, a respite from the taunts and violence they face. But it seems good evangelicals will not allow for this because, apparently, gays are worse than Satanists, and have been putting a stop to GSA’s at every turn.

The law looks a little different now, too. In her book The Good News Club: The Christian Right’s Stealth Assault on America’s Children, Katherine Stewart details the impact of the 2001 Supreme Court decision Good News Club v. Milford Central School, which now gives broader permissions to religious groups in public schools, including (as Stewart details in the book) faculty-sponsored evangelism and the ability for churches to meet in public schools rent-free (and thus paid for by tax dollars, as the churches will use electricity, water, etc. paid with tax dollars). As to that last point, I bear in mind to point out that this is not the same as, say, when church caught fire when I was a senior and we rented from my high school until we could build and move into a new building a couple of years later. These are churches meeting in schools with no plans to vacate or pay rent.

But back to my earlier point, about “the gays” supposedly being worse than Satanists. This whole toxic mentality is so far removed from the Jesus I was taught about from the Bible. Matthew 5:44: “But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (New International Version). I see little love from many evangelicals towards lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people. Instead, I see vitriol, bitterness, and explicit moves to undercut any attempt to be treated equally under the law. (For instance, this article describes well the state of affairs with regard to same-sex civil marriage.) And I don’t see prayers for “enemies” being the most common response to the day. The ballot box and the lobbyist have replaced prayer.

I’m not a Christian anymore, but I’d be a fool  to claim that some of the ideals I learnt as a Christian haven’t stuck with me. Unfortunately, the values I most cherish and live by–love, equality, compassion–are becoming harder and harder to find in those who bear the name of the one who taught those values. I’m fortunate to know Christians who break this mold, and to them I say, live boldly, defy your leaders when they replace the pulpit with the political party, and may you continue to live graciously and compassionately.

Advance in love. Do not retreat.

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No

Many across the United States are aware that Minnesota is in the midst of a nasty battle for a constitutional amendment (an amendment the Republican-led state legislature felt so important that they had the state government shut down entirely via lack of budget until the amendment was put to ballot) that will restrict the rights of emancipated adults to engage in civil contract (the contract of legally-recognised marriage) and restrict the religious freedoms of churches who wish to follow their beliefs by marrying same-sex couples.  This concerns me.  Not because I am gay (I don’t think I’m quite marriable).  If I were straight as an arrow, I believe this would still concern me.  See, this battle is being fought by and large by people who claim they are fighting this battle in the name of Jesus.  When I read the Gospels, I see that Jesus repeatedly lambasted those who wanted to embroil themselves in other people’s moral affairs.  He actually praised the Pharisees for their practises of personal piety, but then condemned them for legislating everyone else’s morality ad nauseum.  This Jesus has been forgotten somewhere along the way.

I’m also concerned because I live in the Twin Cities, what I sometimes call a “gay bubble,” and so many I converse with are utterly convinced that the anti-marriage amendment will be defeated, no problem, and they’ll point to some random poll to prove it.  Yet every single poll I’ve encountered has said that, though a tight race, the amendment looks like it will pass.  Moreover, I know a number of people who are working at various levels of Minnesotans United for All Families who all confirm my assertion and refute that of my acquaintances.  I think living in this gay bubble inures people to attitudes outside the bubble

But as concerned as I am about this amendment, I am even more concerned about a second ballot issue which has garnered less national attention.  The proposed amendment would require a “photo I.D.” in order to vote.  Can’t afford the fee for a photo I.D.?  Well, just head down to your DMV and they’ll make you a special, free voter ID.  It sounds innocuous enough, doesn’t it?    But then the truth rears its ugly head….

The hue and cry that got this proposed amendment put on next week’s ballot was claims of rampant voter fraud.  Extensive studies have demonstrated that this rampant voter fraud simply doesn’t exist.  The claim that it’s easy-peasy to just go down to the DMV?  Never mind the many mitigating factors that can keep someone from the DMV.  Just ask the good folks in Wisconsin.  They were told that they could do just as Minnesotans are being told, to go down and get your free ID at the DMV.  But then the DMV employees were instructed specifically by the state government to do everything possible to *discourage* applicants from obtaining these voter IDs. (Watch this video to see these tactics in action.)  Or voters of a certain political persuasion (read: Democrat) had their closest DMVs taken away from them outright.  Never mind that the implementation of this special voter ID will cost in the neighbourhood of $50 million with no clue as to how to fund it.

If this sounds like a diatribe against the Republicans, it is somewhat, but only because they are the ones who have seized upon this issue.  (I have diatribes I can write against the Democrats, but that will have to wait for other writings.)  Look at the stats across the country.  There is a clear correlation between the ease with which one can vote in a particular state and the likelihood that that state will favour one party or the other in elections.  (I say this having come from Indiana, one of the more dependably Republican states, which is also one of the hardest states in the country in which to vote.  For example, you have to be registered at least thirty days before election time, and the polls close at 6 p.m.—the earliest in the entire country.)  The Republican leadership are well aware of this correlation, and have admitted as much.  So, on the surface, this is appears to be a matter of one political party subverting the political process to gain control, which is in itself repugnant.  (For the record, I agree with George Washington in thinking that political parties are an inherently bad idea.)

But the heart of the issue is much more insidious than a simple power play.  It is nothing less than the assertion that some human beings are inherently inferior to other human beings.  A couple of months ago, I haphazardly ended up in a debate (I hate debate, or rather what is mislabelled as debate these days) on Facebook with a friend of a friend (there is no enemy like a friend’s friend).  I gave him my personal account of how, two years ago, I was nearly turned away at the polls under the existing laws for reasons related entirely to poverty.  And this friend of a friend asserted that he didn’t care.  He didn’t care about whether circumstances beyond my control kept me from the polls.  Furthermore, he stated that he could hear a million stories that were the same, and they still wouldn’t change his mind about ensuring that this repugnant amendment becomes enshrined in the Minnesota state constitution.

He stated it right there: he believes his Story is more important than mine, or those of the hypothetical million others, and by extension, *he* is more important than I or the million others are.  And I maintain that the belief that some human beings are inherently better or worse than others lies at the core of most of our social ills.

And that is what this fight—what many fights—are about.  It would take unmitigated gall to walk up to someone and say, “Yeah, you know?  You could vote just fine last year, but I’m taking away your ability to vote next year.”  Of course, most backers of this amendment would dare not express such unmitigated gall to someone’s face, instead hiding behind the anonymity of the ballot box and the socioeconomic, racial, and cultural cloisters that keep nearly all of us from ever truly learning the experience of anyone whose Story isn’t like our own.

Last night I went to a Halloween party.  As I rode the bus through increasingly conservative neighbourhoods out to the inner-ring Saint Paul suburb of my hosts, I saw on a number of lawns a maddening sight that was the impetus for writing this article: signs, side-by-side, one saying to “Vote No” on the anti-marriage amendment, but to “Vote Yes” on the voter suppression amendment.  This repeated sight angered me because the posters of the signs could not see that both of these amendments are cut from the same cloth of inequality: that homosexually-coupled individuals are inherently inferior and don’t deserve to live lives of the same quality as their heterosexually-coupled counterparts, and that the poor, the disabled, the elderly, college students and anyone else who doesn’t “fit” that look to be marginalised by this amendment are inherently inferior and don’t deserve to participate in one of the foundations of a functional democracy.  Both of these amendments maintain that some people are fundamentally inferior to others, an assertion that undermines the very notion of democracy.

And so, I turn back to my earlier illustration of all of us hiding in our own little homogeneous cloisters.  We have the gay, the lesbian, the ally who will fight tooth and nail for their own rights and of those close to them, but are at best indifferent to the rights of those who do not run in their own circles.  And that is repugnant.

To vote no on both of these amendments is to affirm the dignity and equality of all our citizenry and to support democracy.  It is the absolute least we can do.  May we do this and far, far more to uplift our species.

A final note: this is my last word on the subject.  And I will not be lured into what-passes-for-debate-today on the subject, because there is no possible way you can convince me that some human beings are inherently better or worse than others.

Edited 28 Oct 12 to add a link regarding Indiana voting shenanigans.
Edited 5 Nov 12: I also want to add that supporters of the amendment have stood on the idea that the amendment will “reduce voter fraud.”  The evidence of voter fraud is virtually nonexistent, far smaller than the statistical margin of error.  Yet this amendment would remove from thousands the ability to vote in order to sift out one or two voting cheats.  From a mathematical standpoint, this makes no sense.

 

Edited 5 November: Fact-checked, figure “hundreds of millions” for implementation of Voter ID measures brought down to “in the neighbourhood of $50 million.”  Still way too much for an unnecessary measure

Uncensored

Last night I indulged in a carton of Ben & Jerry’s–perhaps not the smartest thing for a man trying to lose weight, but it’s not like an everyday thing.  As I decided on my flavour (“Late Night Snack”, fantastic), I noticed that one new fluffernutter-inspired concoction was rechristened, from “Cluster Fluff” to “What A Cluster”.  This did not surprise me.  The company had recently been pressured by conservative activist group One Million Moms to change the name of their latest flavour, “Schweddy Balls”, inspired by a Saturday Night Live sketch.  However, as of today on the Ben & Jerry’s website, that name remains (though, personally, I think the idea of putting chocolate and rum together sounds kind of disgusting).  Even so, though the company has used salacious flavour names in the past*, they apparently felt compelled to change the name of “Cluster Fluff”.

This censorious behaviour echoed an online conversation I’d had earlier in the day with a good friend in Canada.  He had recommended a website for me to check out, and though I was certain it would include no “graphic” imagery, I figured it would still be blocked on library computers.  I told him such, to his shock and consternation.  After all, this was a library, a purveyor of information to the masses, and a cultural institution which has a long history of standing against censorship.  If Canada doesn’t censor public internet use in this way, surely the United States wouldn’t, either.  I then explained that in the United States, the federal government can reduce a public library’s federal funding if they do not install “nannyware” filters in their computer labs.  (Some American libraries have simply chosen to forego the federal funding, on principle.)  I illustrated this attitude in American culture with the catchphrase of Helen Lovejoy, the pastor’s wife on The Simpsons: “Will somebody please think of the children?!”  My friend replied that people should focus on raising their own children, not other people’s.

I’m undecided on how I feel about his statement.  On one hand, as they say, “It takes a village to raise a child.”  Children grow up, not in the bubble of their parents’ watch, but in society at large, and we fool ourselves if we think our actions have no influence at all on the next generation.  On the other hand, how one chooses to parent, how one chooses the values to inculcate into their children–we consider these sorts of choices as a hallmark of a free society, and, so the argument goes, if someone wants to raise their child more “precociously” than another, then so be it.  And yet, this view is also used to enforce attitudes that really do harm society: “I’m raising my child to stand against homosexuality, and rules that say ‘gay’ students get ‘special protection’ from bullying is undercutting my right to raise my child as I want.”

What I am sure of is that it is absurd to believe one can raise a child in a protective bubble in perpetuity.  There is a difference between, say, giving your twelve-year-old pornography (ignoring the fact that some of the Bible is quite pornographic), and that twelve-year-old discovering it just by being a member of society.  Children are going to find out about the real world no matter how much they protect their children.  It is the job of the parents to first build up values such that their children can handle “the real world” when–not if– they encounter it, and then, to discuss issues in an age-appropriate manner when–not if–they come up.

The challenge comes when a segment of society believes it is (literally) their God-given responsibility to act as God’s mouthpiece in any and all situations, to hand out the judgements and punishments in God’s place.  To this, I can only reply that, in a great many situations–from the woman about to be stoned for adultery, to his many encounters with the Pharisees, Jesus told people to mind their own business when it came to others’ morality, and to focus on their own.

As an aside, just to make my personal statement about censorship, allow me to say that, if you were not aware of what “Cluster Fluff” refers to, it’s a play off the phrase “clusterfuck”, which generally refers to a complex and intractable situation.

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*”The company has had other controversially named flavors as well — Karmel Sutra and Hubby Hubby (in support of gay marriage) — for example. But Schweddy Balls has received much publicity-generating attention.” Read more here.