BY PAUL EVENSEN
The liberal in South Carolina is even after all of these years hard pressed to understand the motives of the radical right when they take such actions as orchestrating Greenville County Council's recent anti-gay resolution.
With no reference point from which to understand right-wing extremists, liberals have drawn conclusions that are too simplistic. They have labeled the right "hateful" and motivated by fear. This weak understanding has resulted in an ineffective response which allows the extreme right to monopolize politics and even to define liberals.
This domination offers profound lessons; the focus here is to understand the motives and tactics of the radical right and to suggest a thoughtful, centrist response.
The fear felt by the radical right operates on levels much deeper than just a fear of those different from themselves. It is based on the notion that since the "gay lifestyle" is a choice and gay couples cannot procreate, gay people must recruit. This is as simple as it appears: a fear based on utter ignorance of the dynamics of gay life. It is a premise so preposterous most liberals stop at this point and respond at this level. Liberals work to dispel this fear through various attempts at educating the right and the public in general. The fear they are fighting, however, runs profoundly deeper than they understand.
There is a fear venerated by the fundamentalist, worn as a badge of pride: the fear of God. Make no mistake, many people believe that fire could literally rain from heaven and destroy us for allowing gays in our midst. Even more people believe they will be held accountable when they get to heaven for not actively opposing gays. So the more deep-seated fear is of a punitive God who will bring retribution if the "gay scourge" is not removed from the land.
The radical right also fears what it perceives as the roots of gay orientation: a duplicitous trick by Satan to lead a nation of God astray. Hence, gays are agents of evil, knowingly or not. The religious right fears its children could be recruited by Satan himself. Many of those who spoke last month at the Greenville County Council meeting, for example, carried books purporting to expose the rampant witchcraft among gays and lesbians. The greatest fear of the radical right is of the unseen world of spiritual warfare behind the masks of the everyday citizens they call their neighbors. As such, educational efforts will continue to have little or no effect.
Several speakers at the council session claimed that they did not hate gays, but rather hated the sin gays commit. This rhetorical device is critical to the radical right's position. Gays and lesbians see their orientation as a part of themselves and so the "sin versus sinner" concept makes no sense. The gay community simply hears, "They hate me."
Many fundamentalists do hate gays, since gays are seen as the agent of the devil that is destroying their nation and taking their children. But the far right is able to maintain its Christian requirement for love by creating this separation between the person and that person's sexual identity. This accounts for the vehement opposition by the right to any theory which would puts gay identity into biological terms.
Activists who oppose the actions of the radical right chant "Stop the hate!" This response is profoundly ineffective. First, the sin vs. sinner caveat allows the radical right to duck the charge. Second, chanting outside of any church or church function is a guaranteed loss. Who appears more hateful, the upstanding people in church praying for the poor sinners or the screaming activists outside? Activists clearly lose the sound bite war. What's more, they become what they claim to oppose.
In addition to the deeper roots of fear and the "love thy neighbor, hate the sin" two-step lies the question of how the church relates to the state. Liberals and constitutional conservatives see the separation of church and state as an incontrovertible rule set forth in the constitution.
The radical right, while it believes the state ought not recognize a specific denominational church, thinks the "church catholic" (or universal) should control the state. The far right does not see this belief to be in conflict with constitutional principles.
In the view of the extreme right, it is the business of government to decide what makes a good citizen and to enact laws promoting that standard. The question of what characterizes a good citizen is in fundamentalists' eyes is a profoundly religious one. The real issue behind the wording of this question is, "What is the chief end of man?" This is the ultimate first question of nearly all denominational catechisms.
The result of this chain of logic is that the government should look to the church for guidance on issues of good citizenship. Read no further than the first paragraphs of the Greenville anti-gay resolution and you will see this circuitous logic in action. " there are increasing assaults on those community standards which further the protection of the public's safety, health and welfare "
The argument against homosexuality has become a matter of public safety. Surely, public safety falls into the domain of government. In the eyes of the extreme right, it is in no violation of any constitutional prohibition when it turns county council into its bully pulpit.
This line dance from pulpit to council is not entirely necessary, since the radical right believes the United States is founded on its concept of God. "In God we trust" is a clear mandate for extremists to involve their church in local, state and national government. Fundamentalists revise American history to exclude any deistic influences. To them, there has been a continuous and solid line of like believers since the Mayflower. Their understanding of God was the constitutional framers' understanding of God.
The bottom line for the extreme right is that the framers of the Constitution were fundamentalists. Therefore, when the Constitution was created, it was written with their definition of God and state. The 20th century fundamentalist is, therefore, called to return us to the moral days of our founding fathers, when homosexuals and witches were burned. When a fundamentalist speaks to a government body, he does so with the full authority of God and George Washington. There is no separation of church and state because our state was, in essence, created by the fundamentalist church.
If education falls flat in the face of such deep-seated fears; if exposing the hatred behind the message is ineffective because the right sees people and their sexual identity as separate; and if the need for separation of church and state is lost on the radical right; what can progressives do to interject their values and vision for South Carolina?
Paramount to effective advocacy is to understand to whom you are directing your efforts. To argue with the radical right is impossible. Progressives reason from different sources and use different methods. They do not believe they have a corner on God's truth.
The far right and the left are proverbial ships passing in the night. The arguments do not clash with each other, and the differences in concept and language insure that each side will never come close to their opponent's position.
As such, advocacy should be directed at the broad center that spans the gulf between these opposing viewpoints. This conclusion has already been reached by many who oppose the radical right.
This reality has not, however, dawned on most gays and lesbians. The gay community continues to rail against the far right as if it held their future. But it does not.
In the words of Ralph Reed, president of the Christian Coalition, fundamentalists risk imminent irrelevance similar to that of the prohibitionist movement earlier this century.
The real struggle, then, is to act in a way during this short-term swing in political power that will shift the minds of those in the center to embrace the left. The radical right can be counted on to continue its antics, which take many forms, all of which are newsworthy to the press.
Therefore, the gay and lesbian community is no longer required to fight for media attention. Progressives now may carefully orchestrate their response to the radical right and define their vision to the public. Such an opportunity has not been given to any other minority group since the beginning of the current media age.
One way to put this reality into immediate action is to support rather than oppose the Olympic run through the Upstate. Progressives should advocate vehemently for its arrival. There is no more profound an expression of the liberal belief than the Olympic movement. Unity in the face of division community woven from diversity. This is the progressive vision of South Carolina. Taking this stance positively defines the liberal cause rather than negatively framing it as the usual spoilsport simply for the sake of attention.
By exposing the radical right as being opposed to progressive values and the Olympic games, progressives make a strong statement for their beliefs while acting in the greater good of the community. It allows gays and lesbians to act as the community citizens they claim to be.
This is not to suggest that gays and lesbians not demand a place at the table. They have the unique opportunity to demand and gain this place they have long deserved. Their message has consistently been to recognize that gays are part of the community.
Now is the time for them to act on that truth and realize the rewards. Taking the high road allows the progressive movement in South Carolina to define its own values and will give those who want to support the cause a way to bring gays and lesbians into the mainstream.
The reality of the radical right guarantees an ongoing struggle. The gay and lesbian community has the unique opportunity to allow the far right to appear to be the destroyers of community. If the progressive movement is not careful with its use of protest politics, it will be given this moniker instead.
Educating those who populate the political center is a long-term process. If the progressive movement employs tactics inconsistent with the values they choose to live by, the radical right wins again. The radical right will have forced progressives to live contrary to their values.
In the words of Dr. Bob Jones, Sr., progressives must not "sacrifice the permanent on the altar of the immediate." To borrow other conservative words, "the ends do not justify the means."
Who you are during the struggle is as important as the struggle's final outcome. Liberals must live the values they offer as a vision for the New South if they ever hope to become its leaders.
Paul Evensen graduated from Bob Jones University in 1989, returned as a graduate assistant professor of speech, and left the University in 1990. He is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Kansas and will be leaving Greenville in July.