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Index of Topics on Site Backup of A High-Tech Lynching in Prime Time
By Frank Rich
SOURCE: New York Times
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April 24, 2005
OP-ED COLUMNIST
A High-Tech Lynching in Prime Time
By FRANK RICH

Whatever your religious denomination, or lack of same, it was hard not to be swept up in last week's televised pageantry from Rome: the grandeur of St. Peter's Square, the panoply of the cardinals, the continuity of history embodied by the joyous emergence of the 265th pope. As a show of faith, it's a tough act to follow. But that has not stopped some ingenious American hucksters from trying.

Tonight is the much-awaited "Justice Sunday," the judge-bashing rally being disseminated nationwide by cable, satellite and Internet from a megachurch in Louisville. It may not boast a plume of smoke emerging from above the Sistine Chapel, but it will feature its share of smoke and mirrors as well as traditions that, while not dating back a couple of millenniums, do at least recall the 1920's immortalized in "Elmer Gantry." These traditions have less to do with the earnest practice of religion by an actual church, as we witnessed from Rome, than with the exploitation of religion by political operatives and other cynics with worldly ends. While Sinclair Lewis wrote that Gantry, his hypocritical evangelical preacher, "was born to be a senator," we now have senators who are born to be Gantrys. One of them, the Senate majority leader, Bill Frist, hatched plans to be beamed into tonight's festivities by videotape, a stunt that in itself imbues "Justice Sunday" with a touch of all-American spectacle worthy of "The Wizard of Oz."

Like the wizard himself, "Justice Sunday" is a humbug, albeit one with real potential consequences. It brings mass-media firepower to a campaign against so-called activist judges whose virulence increasingly echoes the rhetoric of George Wallace and other segregationists in the 1960's. Back then, Wallace called for the impeachment of Frank M. Johnson Jr., the federal judge in Alabama whose activism extended to upholding the Montgomery bus boycott and voting rights march. Despite stepped-up security, a cross was burned on Johnson's lawn and his mother's house was bombed.

The fraudulence of "Justice Sunday" begins but does not end with its sham claims to solidarity with the civil rights movement of that era. "The filibuster was once abused to protect racial bias," says the flier for tonight's show, "and now it is being used against people of faith." In truth, Bush judicial nominees have been approved in exactly the same numbers as were Clinton second-term nominees. Of the 13 federal appeals courts, 10 already have a majority of Republican appointees. So does the Supreme Court. It's a lie to argue, as Tom DeLay did last week, that such a judiciary is the "left's last legislative body," and that Justice Anthony Kennedy, a Reagan appointee, is the poster child for "outrageous" judicial overreach. Our courts are as highly populated by Republicans as the other two branches of government.

The "Justice Sunday" mob is also lying when it claims to despise activist judges as a matter of principle. Only weeks ago it was desperately seeking activist judges who might intervene in the Terri Schiavo case as boldly as Scalia & Co. had in Bush v. Gore. The real "Justice Sunday" agenda lies elsewhere. As Bill Maher summed it up for Jay Leno on the "Tonight" show last week: " 'Activist judges' is a code word for gay." The judges being verbally tarred and feathered are those who have decriminalized gay sex (in a Supreme Court decision written by Justice Kennedy) as they once did abortion and who countenance marriage rights for same-sex couples. This is the animus that dares not speak its name tonight. To paraphrase the "Justice Sunday" flier, now it's the anti-filibuster campaign that is being abused to protect bias, this time against gay people.

Anyone who doesn't get with this program, starting with all Democrats, is damned as a bigoted enemy of "people of faith." But "people of faith," as used by the event's organizers, is another duplicitous locution; it's a code word for only one specific and exclusionary brand of Christianity. The trade organization representing tonight's presenters, National Religious Broadcasters, requires its members to "sign a distinctly evangelical statement of faith that would probably exclude most Catholics and certainly all Jewish, Muslim or Buddhist programmers," according to the magazine Broadcasting & Cable. The only major religious leader involved with "Justice Sunday," R. Albert Mohler Jr. of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, has not only called the papacy a "false and unbiblical office" but also told Terry Gross on NPR two years ago that "any belief system" leading "away from the cross of Christ and toward another way of ultimate meaning, is, indeed, wicked and evil."

Tonight's megachurch setting and pseudoreligious accouterments notwithstanding, the actual organizer of "Justice Sunday" isn't a clergyman at all but a former state legislator and candidate for insurance commissioner in Louisiana, Tony Perkins. He now runs the Family Research Council, a Washington propaganda machine devoted to debunking "myths" like "People are born gay" and "Homosexuals are no more likely to molest children than heterosexuals are." It will give you an idea of the level of Mr. Perkins's hysteria that, as reported by The American Prospect, he told a gathering in Washington this month that the judiciary poses "a greater threat to representative government" than "terrorist groups." And we all know the punishment for terrorists. Accordingly, Newsweek reports that both Justices Kennedy and Clarence Thomas have "asked Congress for money to add 11 police officers" to the Supreme Court, "including one new officer just to assess threats against the justices." The Judicial Conference of the United States, the policy-making body for the federal judiciary, has requested $12 million for home-security systems for another 800 judges.

Mr. Perkins's fellow producer tonight is James Dobson, the child psychologist who created Focus on the Family, the Colorado Springs media behemoth most famous of late for condemning SpongeBob SquarePants for joining other cartoon characters in a gay-friendly public-service "We Are Family" video for children. Dr. Dobson sees same-sex marriage as the path to "marriage between a man and his donkey" and, in yet another perversion of civil rights history, has likened the robed justices of the Supreme Court to the robed thugs of the Ku Klux Klan. He has promised "a battle of enormous proportions from sea to shining sea" if he doesn't get the judges he wants.

Once upon a time you might have wondered what Senator Frist is doing lighting matches in this tinderbox. As he never ceases to remind us, he is a doctor - an M.D., not some mere Ph.D. like Dr. Dobson - with an admirable history of combating AIDS in Africa. But this guy signed his pact with the devil even before he decided to grandstand in the Schiavo case by besmirching the diagnoses of neurologists who, unlike him, had actually examined the patient.

It was three months earlier, on the Dec. 5, 2004, edition of ABC News's "This Week With George Stephanopoulos," that Dr. Frist enlisted in the Perkins-Dobson cavalry. That week Bush administration abstinence-only sex education programs had been caught spreading bogus information, including the canard that tears and sweat can transmit H.I.V. and AIDS - a fiction that does nothing to further public health but is very effective at provoking the demonization of gay men and any other high-risk group for the disease. Asked if he believed this junk science was true, the Princeton-and-Harvard-educated Dr. Frist said, "I don't know." After Mr. Stephanopoulos pressed him three more times, this fine doctor theorized that it "would be very hard" for tears and sweat to spread AIDS (still a sleazy answer, since there have been no such cases).

Senator Frist had hoped to deflect criticism of his cameo on "Justice Sunday" by confining his appearance to video. Though he belittled the disease-prevention value of condoms in that same "This Week" interview, he apparently now believes that videotape is just the prophylactic to shield him from the charge that he is breaching the wall separating church and state. His other defense: John Kerry spoke at churches during the presidential campaign. Well, every politician speaks at churches. Not every political leader speaks at nationally televised political rallies that invoke God to declare war on courts of law.

Perhaps the closest historical antecedent of tonight's crusade was that staged in the 1950's and 60's by a George Wallace ally, the televangelist Billy James Hargis. At its peak, his so-called Christian Crusade was carried by 500 radio stations and more than 200 television stations. In the "Impeach Earl Warren" era, Hargis would preach of the "collapse of moral values" engineered by a "powerfully entrenched, anti-God Liberal Establishment." He also decried any sex education that talked about homosexuality or even sexual intercourse. Or so he did until his career was ended by accusations that he had had sex with female students at the Christian college he founded as well as with boys in the school's All-American Kids choir.

Hargis died in obscurity the week before Dr. Frist's "This Week" appearance. But no less effectively than the cardinals in Rome, he has passed the torch.

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company



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