The Raleigh Rant

Matthew Shepard

twenty years later the life and legacy of matthew wayne shepard

Considering all of the anti-LGBT rhetoric that has come out of Washington the past 18 months, it was inspiring to watch the memorial service at the National Cathedral today. Most of the music was surprisingly old-fashioned and simple until the end when the extended mournful melodies carried on too long. Bishop Gene Robinson gave a short, informal homily that was moving but not maudlin. I was surprised that he got a standing ovation in the middle of a worship service.

The service was a preamble to his internment in the Cathedral crypt. He is one of only 300 persons to be so honored. It also recognized the pain of his cruel death 20 years ago, and how with the efforts of his family he has become the symbol of the gay rights movement in the US. Whatever one might think of the political aspect of the call to get out and vote, it brought into focus the division in this country of how LGBT people are viewed. Unfortunately, that has taken on a popular view of liberal versus conservative stances. In many situations the positions of evangelical Christians have been at the forefront of resistance to LGBT people, not only in the church but in civil society. The Episcopal Church split over this issue, and the Methodist Church has been struggling with it for almost 50 years and also is facing a possible split. Denominational in-fighting over the issue is a waste of time and energy. We already have hundreds of Protestant denominations that have fractured over much more minor issues. Whatever the evils of the Roman Catholic Church over 1,500 years, it did maintain a certain unity that has dissolved in the last 500 years into endless quarrels and debates.

The rationale of this discrimination is the interpretation of a few passages of scripture in the Bible that is used to justify discrimination of the LGBT community. Haggling over interpretations of the Bible is a no-win situation that only leaves everyone frustrated. Taking Jesus’ mandate to love everyone as ourselves is the basis for a solution to the conflict.

Some politicians in the current election cycle are once again using the LGBT community as a bogeyman to imply that we are a threat to Christian moral values. In fact, Christianity was formed by challenging the traditional 613 Jewish laws of the First Century. It established that the true moral values existed in a person’s heart and mind rather than a self-righteous pursuit of strict legalism. Surely, we have come beyond that debate in the intervening centuries.

Our Dysfunctional Congress

congress capitol building darkI usually try to steer clear of politics and focus on the civil and religious rights of the LGBT community in this blog. But the cultural divide in this nation was dramatically displayed in public in the recent Senate hearings. The appointment of a controversial nominee for the Supreme Court dominated the news cycle for weeks. A proposed appointment two years ago was blocked from even having a hearing because “it was an election year.”

The partisan divide in the Senate merely demonstrated the chasm in the dysfunctional Congress that can’t agree on anything. Essential legislation on the basic functions of government is frequently delayed or weakened. Our infrastructure, economy, and social fabric have suffered. Sure, the stock market is booming, but that represents only a portion of the economy. Many other areas are suffering.

The LGBT community is concerned that this new partisanship on the Supreme Court may reverse prior decisions that struck down laws regarding sodomy and same-sex marriage. The media seems to focus on the abortion issue, but many other issues such as judicial reform and privatization of prisons and public schools also may be up for review.

The Senate hearings were dramatic and riveting to watch, but they showed the petty personalities of some of the Senators who revealed their primary concerns were seeking re-election rather than seeking justice. The result was a draw of “he said she said,” with the aborted FBI investigation revealing nothing. We can only assume that because it was never made public and many of the corroborating witnesses were not heard.

November may bring about a shift in which political party controls the Congress next year, but it will not heal the divide. The Congress may not reflect the will of the people, but it reflects the cultural chaos of our times. I cannot recall a more explosive period in our history since the 1960’s. Then we were convulsed in a debate over the Vietnam War and the civil rights of African-Americans. Unfortunately, racism is still a major issue in this nation. Even though we are a nation of immigrants, immigration has boiled over into policies and practices that have horrified the entire world.

We may not yet be in a literal shooting war, such as what occurred in the 19th Century over the issue of slavery, but we are reaching the boiling point that may yet explode. We already have huge public demonstrations across the country, and local outburst of violence. The hope for calm and cooperation seem far off. We look into the future with trepidation. Both sides claim that God is on their side, and we saw that also in the two World Wars. Let’s hope that our failing foreign policies may not again result in another war.

So get out and vote!

Hurricane Florence

Hurricane FlorenceDisasters and national tragedies create havoc, but at the same time they seem to bring out the best in Americans: our compassion, generosity, willingness to help others, and reaching out beyond absorption with self-interests that seem to plague us in normal times.

From the comfort of my apartment in Raleigh, I watched the non-stop TV coverage of the slow crawl of the hurricane across the southeastern portion of the state. It is too soon to assess the amount of the damage or to compare it with Matthew in 2016. North Carolina has great natural resources and beauty, but hurricanes are part of the cost of living here. Most people are not aware that the damage is often not limited to the coast.

The uplifting point to me is that in these times people put aside their differences and work together toward a common goal. When things are just rocking along, we tend to focus on ourselves and look at others with suspicion as though they are somehow a threat to us that we must fear. I think that one of the goals of the LGBT community has been to try to project the idea that we’re “just folks” like everybody else so why can’t we just get along?

Some people think that we threaten the established traditions and norms of the majority, so they feel that we must be ostracized, punished, or even killed. They justify their beliefs and actions because they fear our differences even though we can do nothing about who we are. We are not a “lifestyle” nor a choice, we simply have a different sexual orientation that is ingrained in us. Of course, some of the right-wing nuts blame us for everything bad that happens and use us as a bogeyman to support their diatribes. Let’s not even consider the so-called Christians who spew hate instead of love.

In the United Methodist Church, we’ve been haggling for 46 years about church doctrine and homosexuality, and the debate isn’t over yet. We’ve got a special called General Conference scheduled for next year. The various factions already are lined up with their position statements that we call resolutions. Can you imagine what might happen if only a portion of that time and money had gone to the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR)?

We tend to lift up as heroes those people who respond in exceptional ways in times of emergencies, but we tend to ignore the many acts of kindness and self-sacrifice of ordinary people in daily life. We should be challenged by these people who lift us up emotionally by their examples of heroism. We should apply that energy in our lives to help meet the common good every day. We’re not gay or straight; we’re all God’s children. God bless America.

Religious Liberty Task Force

In many aspects the double speak of George Orwell’s 1984 book has arrived, but none is more flagrant than the actions of the U.S Department of Justice. Our founding fathers wanted to preserve our nation from the religious wars that dominated Europe for centuries and so proclaimed “freedom of religion” in the U.S. Bill of Rights. In reality, they proclaimed a “freedom from religion,” i.e. a state-imposed religion that required everyone to not only accept that religion but also to pay taxes to support it. That is still the case in some European nations.

The intent was to allow citizens to practice their individual beliefs and to organize different churches, or denominations, to express those beliefs. There was no one state religion in the United States. In fact, that is what we are reverting to with the recent actions of the Office of the President of the United States and the U.S. Department of Justice via various memoranda, legal opinions, and public statements. In a continuing effort to weaken the non-discrimination clauses of both legislation and case law, they have established a precedent of stating that any person is exempt solely on the basis of their religious beliefs. That would not stand up in court if a person refused services or public accommodations to a person because of their race or national origin, but they claim it does apply if the issue regards sexual orientation. They claim we are not a “protected class,” in legal terms. Thus, they are promoting a special exemption just for this one category solely to mollify the religious fundamentalists who form the base of the Republican Party. It is an exemption based on partisan politics rather than religious freedom.

Using an obscure 1993 Law, The Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the Administration has targeted the LGBT community and claimed that we alone can face discrimination because some people hate us because of those people’s personal religious beliefs. First, the DOJ issued a series of memoranda, and this week the U.S. Attorney General stepped up the pressure by appointing a task force (made up of himself and three others in the DOJ) to enforce these memoranda on the various departments and agencies of the DOJ. Waving the banner of “religious liberty,” they are in fact granting the privilege to discriminate by using religion as a weapon. The DOJ is establishing the religious practices of one minority group as official government policy. That is, in effect, state religion.

A lengthy op-ed in The Daily Beast, a Capitol Hill newspaper, blasts Jeff Sessions for his blatant cynicism and double speak of what constitutes religious liberty. When words are so twisted and mis-used, they lose their meaning and sometimes assume the opposite of the original meaning or intent. This is what we are dealing with regards the Trump Administration’s practice of propaganda (look it up!), lies, and misinformation.

Discrimination Knows No Boundaries

Detention Center

The recent U.S. Supreme Court decision to uphold the Trump Administration's ban on travel from certain Muslim countries on the basis of a narrow definition of national security expands the policy of discrimination against immigrants, people of color, and the LGBT community. The Dept. of Justice, which should protect our civil rights and liberties, has chosen for political reasons to establish a series of policies that discriminate against all of these categories.

Public demonstrations about police brutality against people of color and transgender folks, draconian measures against immigrants crossing the Mexican border, and reversal of a policy protecting the civil rights of the LGBT community have had limited impact in changing these policies. The clear intent is to spread fear and division in the country as a calculated appeal to the most extreme elements of the Republican Party. The blatant callousness is so appalling that most people don't know how to respond it. Public expressions of anger and frustration have limited effect on the autocratic form of government that now rules the nation.

Our Constitution established a balance of power among the three branches of government that has apparently been breached by the complete deference to the Executive Branch. Our founding fathers were particularly concerned about the potential of a dictatorial President who might assume unlimited power and rule as a King. We are facing that possibility now as our President has publicly expressed that would be his preference.

The euphoria about of ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court reversing the prior criminal laws against homosexual sex and the recognition of same-sex marriage may have lulled the LGBT community into thinking that we had won our search for civil rights. Yes, we have made significant progress in recent years through court cases, but we've had little success in passing legislation. We had a sympathetic administration for eight years, but that attitude has been completely reversed into total hostility. We're lumped into the category of "the others," i.e. the people that the WASP power structure that has dominated political and economic power for generations has chosen to attack.

And so Pride Month this year seems not so much as celebration as time to renew our vigilance to protect our civil rights. We still have a lot of economic power, and we can choose to assert it. The repressive legislation of the North Carolina General Assembly has threatened economic development as well as the civil rights of minorities, and that has had an impact. They reversed one of the most egregious sections of one law, but it only papered over its intent.

Clearly the only logical response to dealing with all of these issues is to get out and vote this fall and to change the political landscape at all levels of government.