Sunday, October 09, 2011

Dispatches from the holy war: 10/9

Rounding the bend in a lakeside trail late yesterday, I walked into the middle of a flock of warblers so intent in their twittering way on berry-covered bushes that they were oblivious, circling and darting from branch to branch around me, sensing no threat. It was a perfect moment of an October day so beautiful it almost hurt, dissipating for a time the worries of an overcommitted weekend.

I’d been thinking about Matthew Shepard, since this is the 13th anniversary of his passion --- targeted because he was tiny (5-foot-4, 100 pounds) and gay, lured from a Laramie bar early Oct. 6, 1998, by two heterosexual men, taken to a rural area, pistol-whipped until his skull cracked, then tied to a fence like a scarecrow and left to die. He remained hanging there for 18 hours, then died officially on Oct. 12 in a Fort Collins hospital of brain injuries so severe there had never been hope for recovery.

And about the Values Voter Summit oddly convened this anniversary weekend in Washington, D.C., a toxic gathering of the cultural and Christian right, the sort of folks from whom Shepard’s killers, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, learned to hate, that has included a parade of Republican presidential hopefuls seeking what is at best their mixed blessing.

Westboro Baptist Church’s Fred Phelps and his deranged family first entered the national spotlight at Shepard’s funeral later that October at Casper’s St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, gathering outside to declare “No tears for queers,” “Fag Matt in hell.” It was not until the Phelps clan started to target the funerals of dead, presumably heterosexual, soldiers some years later that evangelical Christians moved decisively to distance themselves, declaring Phelps not a Baptist at all.

Eleven years after Shepard’s death, on Oct. 22, 2009, Congress finally overcame years of Republican and evangelical opposition and threats of veto by George W. Bush to pass The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, signed into Law by Barack Obama.

Shorthand references to this law as the Matthew Shepard Act often cause Byrd to be overlooked. He was a man whose only offense was the fact he was black, targeted by three whites on June 7, 1998, at Jasper Texas. The three wrapped a log chain around his ankles then dragged him three miles behind a pickup. Apparently conscious during much of the ordeal, Byrd’s body finally struck a culvert which severed his head and an arm. His torso was dumped in front of a black cemetery a mile farther along.


There have been a few interesting, although polite, insider skirmishes during the Values Voter Summit. The Rev. Robert Jeffress, for example, lead pastor at the 10,000-member First Baptist Church of Dallas (Southern Baptist), declared Mitt Romney, a Mormon, to be outside the Christian fold after introducing his boy, Southern Baptist Rick Perry, to the born-again.

Here’s more of Jeffress’ line of thought, taken from a Trinity Broadcasting Network interview last year: "I think part of the problem is we're in this consumer mentality as a church where we have the idea that our job is to build as big of a church as we possibly can. And if we get into that idea and fall into that trap, then we say then we can't say anything that's going to offend people, why, if we preach that homosexuality is an abomination to God we better not preach that because that's going to offend the gays or people who know gay people, if we tell people what the Bible says --- that every other religion in the world is wrong: Islam is wrong, it is a heresy from the pit of Hell; Mormonism is wrong, it is a heresy from the pit of Hell; Judaism, you can't be saved being a Jew, you know who said that by the way, the three greatest Jews in the New Testament, Peter, Paul, and Jesus Christ, they all said Judaism won't do, it's faith in Jesus Christ."

Holy shit! Who’d want to be a part of that sort of Christianity? Quite a few, apparently.


Iowa’s U.S. Rep Steve King was at the summit, too, rousing the troops to defend “traditional” marriage.

King may be dumb as a corncob just shucked by the sheller, but he actually did a damn fine job of expressing the whole fear-filled and faithless underpinning of the cultural and Christian right.

Listen to him: “They will just attack everything that we believe in. If we believe in it, they will attack it just because they know it’s precious to us.”

It’s always “them” and “they” who are to blame --- and who “they” are varies to suit the circumstance --- never “us.”

Truth is, there’s only us.

But how to make that point clear? Take a walk in the woods. You’re likelier to find the answer there than at any “summit.”

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