A Turning Point?

The November elections delivered a long-overdue message to Washington—Americans are coming back to their senses. And whatever your political party preference, if you are reading this column in this newspaper, that message should have sounded sweet to your ears.


The repudiation of Bush Administration policies certainly relieved people like me, who have watched with growing alarm as Incurious George insisted upon driving America off a very steep cliff. But the real sign that “the times they are achanging” came in the results of various state referenda. Yes, several same-sex marriage bans passed, but the margins were considerably smaller than in previous election cycles, and for the very first time, one such ban was actually defeated at the polls. And in a red state to boot, as Arizona voters went to the polls and voted against that state’s proposed amendment.


The return to social sanity wasn’t confined to Arizona, or to same-sex marriage. A near-total ban on abortion was overturned in North Dakota, and voters in Missouri and elsewhere across the country refused to buy a “morality” that equates a mass of cellular material with a suffering human person, and supported embryonic stem cell research. Furthermore, by handing control of both the House and Senate to Democrats, and thereby changing legislative leadership, they effectively voted to take global warming and judicial selection seriously.  


Most of all, the vote on November 7th signalled a retreat from the moral unilateralism and arrogance that have characterized this Administration, largely because those characteristics got us mired down in Iraq, but also because of a dawning recognition that moral arrogance and immature religiosity is the root cause not just of our diminished standing in the world, but also of much of our internal civic discord.


Little by little, it has dawned on Americans that genuine, authentic religion is characterized by humility and compassion and respect for the deeply held beliefs of others. Authentic religiosity is not compatible with the theocratic tendencies exhibited by many on the Religious Right that are so enthusiastically represented by the Bush Administration.  Although by lumping all believers together, he painted with an unnecessarily broad brush, Sam Harris put it well in an acerbic exchange over “intelligent design”with right-wing apologist Dennis Prager. Responding to Prager’s assertion that “believing that the world just happened” is arrogant, Harris wrote:

“No one knows why the universe came into being. Most scientists readily admit their ignorance on this point. Religious believers do not. One of the extraordinary ironies of religious discourse can be seen in the frequency with which people of faith praise themselves for their humility, while condemning scientists and other nonbelievers for their intellectual arrogance. … And yet, there is no worldview more reprehensible in its arrogance than that of a religious believer: The Creator of the Universe takes an active interest in me, approves of me, loves me, and will reward me after death; my current beliefs, drawn from scripture, will remain the best statement of the truth until the end of the world; everyone who disagrees with me will spend eternity in hell…An average believer has achieved a level of arrogance that is simply unimaginable in scientific discourse—and there have been some extraordinarily arrogant scientists.”

Of all the harm done by those who exhibit such extreme versions of religiosity, the harm suffered by gay and lesbian citizens is arguably the greatest, because the religious right is willing and eager to use the power of the state to disadvantage those who offend their particular religious convictions. Don’t fool yourself into a belief that these religious warriors will be content with simply denying same-sex couples the right to marry. In states where their bans have been passed, they have then gone to court to argue for an expansive reading of those measures in order to deprive gay citizens of employment benefits, legal protections against abuse, and a variety of other rights. Scratch off the surface of one of these self-styled “godly” folks, and you’ll find a clone of Fred Phelps.

Any gay or gay-friendly activist who has debated one of these ideologues can attest to the frustration of that exercise. It’s like arguing with a brick wall. Policy arguments are met with self-satisfied, if unresponsive, retorts all of which boil down to “because the bible says so.” When confronted with biblical interpretations other than their own, these folks simply dismiss them as false. And how do they know which interpretation is true and which false? They “just do.” It’s breathtaking—and maddening. And these last few years, it has sometimes seemed as if these zealots were multiplying.

If I am reading the electoral tea leaves correctly, however, they not only aren’t multiplying, but the tide is turning. The pendulum is swinging. The grownups are reasserting control. Pick your metaphor.

As for me, I’m wallowing in an emotion that has been all too rare since 2000—a good mood.