July 30, 1998
Surge of Gay Bashing Worries Jews
By James D. Besser, Washington Correspondent
Religious right leaders have been increasingly irked about their poor showing during the 105th Congress, but they think they've found a tactic that will work better than fighting for school prayer amendments and tough limits on abortion: high-profile gay bashing.
Major Christian groups have come out of the closet, so to speak, with an advertising blitz intended to show their "love" for gays and lesbians by defining homosexuality as an immoral choice, not a biological inclination -- the ultimate argument, in their view, against homosexual civil rights.
The intensifying attack poses a problem for a Jewish community that brings to the table a variety of views on homosexuality.
Liberal Jewish organizations regard gay rights as a matter of basic justice and the fight against violent hate crimes directed at gays as well as others a matter of urgent necessity.
On the Orthodox end of the spectrum, many worry the gay rights effort is too often exploited by groups that want to use public policy to legitimize a lifestyle they consider immoral. But even many observant activists have been disturbed by the eagerness of the Christian right to dangle the bait of bigotry in front of voters.
The connection between the renewed attack on gay rights and politics is self-evident.
For months, leaders of groups like the Christian Coalition have fumed about the performance of the Republican Congress they helped elect.
Some leading Evangelical figures have threatened to bolt the GOP entirely, or hinted that they'll focus their efforts on winning the 2000 Republican presidential nomination for one of their own, like Family Research Council Director Gary Bauer.
At the same time, the Christian Coalition and others have an internal problem: with their poor batting average during the 105th Congress, they need to show contributors they're still on the job, safeguarding the nation's morality.
Several weeks ago, 13 groups, led by the Christian Coalition and the Family Research Council, bought full-page ads in leading newspapers calling homosexuality a sin and offering testimonies of former homosexuals who have been "cured" through their born-again faith.
The underlying religious message was that homosexuals -- and apparently anybody else who doesn't meet the standards set by Pat Robertson and his colleagues -- are cut off from God. But the political message may be more worrisome to Jews: civil rights, it appears, are a matter of political whim, not something guaranteed to all perspectives, the popular and the unpopular.
The expensive public campaign generated a flurry of activity among congressional Republicans who want to shore up their sagging support from Christian right forces before the November elections.
Several measures, including one that would reverse a May 28 executive order banning discrimination in the federal work force based on sexual orientation, have been squeezed into the overloaded congressional schedule in recent weeks.
The religious conservatives are backing Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.), who is using his position to single-handedly block the nomination of a gay activist as ambassador to Luxumbourg, even though a majority of senators say they'd vote for the nomination, if given the chance.
A number of Jewish groups, including the American Jewish Congress, the Anti-Defamation League and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, have protested the intensified anti-gay assault. The advertising blitz and the new legislative campaign, they say, represents a dangerous legitimization of blatant bigotry as a political instrument.
"It's very troubling to us that the religious right has taken their campaign against gays and lesbians to the next step, and are clearly using a religious veneer for political purposes," said Sammie Moshenberg, Washington director for the National Council of Jewish Women, a group that has responded aggressively to the anti-gay campaign. "It's very cynical."
The unspoken message from the liberal groups is this: if mainstream politicians can be goaded into opposing fundamental liberties for gays and lesbians as a matter of political expedience, no minority is safe.
Orthodox groups have stayed quiet, but that doesn't mean they're supportive of the new religious right offensive.
In fact, Orthodox groups tend to distrust both extremes in a debate that is loaded with layers of unspoken meaning.
"There are gay issues that we might, on their own terms, be sympathetic with," said one Orthodox activist, "including the fights against hate crimes and AIDS. But these issues have been projected in ways that relate to something bigger -- that is, to an acceptance and endorsement of the gay lifestyle."
Orthodox groups tend to agree with the Christians' assessment that homosexuality is a sin, but they seem unmoved by the religious right's intensifying attacks on the sinners. The organizations that are orchestrating the current assault, some feel, clearly want to go further than simply avoiding a tacit endorsement of homosexual activity.
"It's not the purpose of Orthodox groups to make American law coincide with Jewish law," this activist said. "The Christians who are placing these ads do want more of a mingling between their religious beliefs and the law."
Many are saying in private what the more liberal Jewish groups are saying publicly -- that this new anti-gay rights push has more to do with cynical politics than with any serious effort to right the nation's moral compass.