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On Homos and Sapiens


Tuesday, October 16, 2007.


By Larry Smith


This past summer thousands of people fled their homes amid severe flooding across England and Wales. The British prime minister said it was an "extraordinary and very serious event".


So extraordinary, in fact, that soon afterward one Anglican prelate was very seriously calling the floods "God's judgment on the immorality and greed of modern society." The Bishop of Carlisle claimed that laws that have undermined marriage, including the introduction of pro-gay legislation, provoked God to act by sending the unprecedented storms.


This drew laughter even from fellow clergymen. As one reverend wrote tongue-in-cheek to the Anglican Church Times: "Is there no end to the talents of Church of England bishops (who) have suddenly acquired expertise in meteorology (and) declared that the rains are a punishment from God?"


According to Christopher Hitchens, an ex-communist British expat who is now a columnist for Vanity Fair and has been described as "the quasi-omniscient Johnny Rotten of political journo-intellectualism" (my idol), this leaves open the question of why heaven should have decided to punish the County of Yorkshire (where much of the flooding occurred) rather than the fleshpots of London.


"It seems utterly fantastic," he said, "that an ordained bishop of a state-financed church, a man who has the right to sit and vote in the British House of Lords, should entertain the speculation that meteorology and morality are in the slightest way connected. But he not only thinks they are connected; he claims to discern the connection between particular policies and individual storms."


In the Bahamas, we have a similar (though different) situation here, where Anglican Archbishop Drexel Gomez vehemently opposes homosexuality in the church as being against biblical teachings. Some conservative congregations in Virginia and a few African bishops have already seceded from the worldwide Anglican Communion over the ordination of a gay bishop in New England four years ago.


To their credit - although in the interest of compromise they have agreed not to consecrate more gays or to sanction same-sex unions - the American Episcopalians say they retain a "commitment to establish and protect the civil rights of gay and lesbian persons, and to name and oppose at every turn any action or policy that does violence to them, or encourages violence toward them."


And when Christopher Hitchens accidentally met Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, at a restaurant in Washington DC recently, he asked him about the simmering homosexual controversy. Lowering his voice carefully, the Primate of all England replied: "Well, I'm rather trying to keep my head down."


In stark contrast, some church leaders in Nassau have been seeking to up the ante on this issue. At a meeting earlier this year, Pastor Lyall Bethel said the approval of a gay bishop "behooves Christian leaders to give some straight answers on this matter." We don't know if any punitive pun was intended, but we do know that Pastor Bethel is desperate to start an anti-gay crusade.


And as we have noted before, Bethel’s remarks on politics and religion are not as silly as they seem. They are drawn from the views of powerful religious and social groups in the United States, led by conservative preachers like the late Jerry Falwell (of Moral Majority fame) and Pat Robertson (of the Christian Broadcasting Network).


A supporter of racial segregation in the 1960s, Falwell had an obsession with homosexuality that was on a par with his "lip-smacking evocations of hellfire", according to Chris Hitchens. "The evil that he did will live after him...not just because of the wickedness that he actually preached, but because of the hole that he made in the wall of separation that ought to divide religion from politics."


The Reverend Mel White, a Falwell colleague before coming out of the closet, had some equally strong views to share on the death of his former mentor in May:


"I have buried so many young gay people who have killed themselves from Christian families who have been influenced directly and indirectly by this rhetoric. And I have buried a lot of young gays who have been bashed to death by anti-gay people who quote these guys, who quote the scriptures, to give them a reason, an excuse for killing us. So, I think their rhetoric condemns, it caricatures, it kills us. And I think we have got to deal with that rhetoric."


According to White, Falwell raised more money off the gay threat than any other single cause: "He used these incredible pictures of gays as promiscuous, as child abusers, as a threat to the nation, to the family. He went on and on. He created us as a scapegoat. And then he said, now send me money."


Falwell led the reactionary religious-political movement called Moral Majority, which was opposed to abortion, homosexuality, equal rights for women and strategic arms control. It also wanted to censor the media, and Falwell repeatedly denounced secular education while leading a virulent campaign against gays and lesbians.


One of his most famous declarations was that AIDS was God's punishment for a country that tolerates homosexuals.


He also blamed gays, feminists and others for the 9/11 terror attacks on New York and Washington: "I really believe that the pagans and the abortionists and the feminists and the gays and the lesbians who are actually trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way, all of them who have tried to secularize America, I point the finger in their face and say, you helped this happen."


Hitchens had this to say on a CNN documentary following Falwell's death:


"How dare they talk to children like this...how dare they raise money from credulous people on their huckster-like Elmer Gantry radio stations and fly around in private jets as he did giggling and sniggering all the time at what he was getting away with. The empty life of this ugly little charlatan proves only one thing, that you can get away with the most extraordinary offenses to morality and to truth if you will just get yourself called reverend."


Meanwhile, back in the Bahamas, the Christian Council - that famously mute group of self-appointed prelates - has joined with the Brethren pastors who are trying to stir up a storm against the so-called "gay agenda". As Bishop John Humes recently said: "we will not sit down idly and let them promote their agenda...which is not in accordance with God's law."


In what amounts to an attempt to create a Bahamian religious-political movement in Moral Majority's image, local fundamentalists have protested against cruise ships bringing gays to the Bahamas, instigated the banning of movies and programmes that don't fit with their beliefs, and tried to set litmus tests for politicians and civic leaders on issues like same-sex marriage, capital punishment, abortion and religious education.


The words "Christian values" appear in the preamble to the Bahamian constitution. But apart from that initial statement, our constitution supposedly guarantees freedom of thought and religion, including the right to refuse religious instruction or to take part in religious ceremonies.


However, as with other basic rights, it is subject to qualifications in the interest of defense, public safety, public order, public morality and public health. And who knows what nonsense those qualifications could lead to?


The United States constitution, however, does not contain any religious references at all. In fact, it is the only constitution in the history of the world that affirms the separation of church and state. This achievement was described by Thomas Jefferson in 1802 in his reply to the Baptists of Connecticut - who were quite rightly worried about persecution by their neighbours, the Congregationalists of Connecticut:


"Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God," Jefferson wrote, "that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should 'make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,' thus building a wall of separation between church and state."


The sad truth is that religious leaders of all kinds throughout history and around the world have made the claim of divine appointment and guidance which has, in the words of Sir Arthur Foulkes, "more often than not brought injustice, persecution and misery to countless millions. The most important point to be made is that it is utterly wrong for any one group – majority or minority - to use the state to force its views or beliefs on others or in any way to penalize or discriminate against dissenters."


Such religious bullying has led to the spread of Muslim fanaticism to the West, attempts to replace science in our schools with the teaching of religious nonsense, bans on condoms to fight AIDS, and on stem cell research to fight other diseases - not to mention the meteorological pontifications of the Bishop of Carlisle.


It also leads inexorably to the villification and persecution of people with differing views - including unpopular minorities like gays and lesbians. We need to build up - not tear down - that "wall of separation".


Larry Smith writes a column called "Tough Call" every Wednesday for the Bahamas Nassau Tribune. A former reporter and editor, he now operates a communications agency in Nassau (www.bahamasmedia.com). He also blogs at Bahamapundit.


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