The Greatest

If I could ask President Obama exactly one question—and if he were forced to answer it honestly—it would be, “How did you really feel about gay marriage between 1996 and 2012?”

See, in 1996, when the future commander-in-chief was running for the Illinois State Senate, he responded to a questionnaire from a Chicago LGBT newspaper by writing, “I favor legalizing same-sex marriages, and would fight efforts to prohibit such marriages.”

Sixteen years later, sitting in the most powerful office on planet Earth, Obama said to ABC’s Robin Roberts, “It is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married.”

There you had it:  Two totally consistent positions on an explosive social issue from a brave political leader acting on principle.

There was only one problem:  For the entire 16-year period in between those two statements, Obama was staunchly and unambiguously opposed to same-sex marriage whenever he was asked about it—not least during his 2004 Senate campaign and his initial run for president—explaining that his Christian faith dictates that marriage is an institution between one man and one woman.

Indeed, for a solid eight years or so, Obama’s public stance on gay marriage was more regressive than Dick Cheney’s.

Among many LGBT folk, there was always the suspicion that, until 2012, Obama was never quite on the level about what his true feelings on this subject were.  Because he was such a proud liberal on so many other domestic matters, because he cared so deeply about civil rights for all citizens—because he was just so goddamned smart!—we assumed his public opposition to equal marriage rights (while supporting civil unions) was an act of ideological hedging by an ambitious, savvy political tactician.  If he believed in marriage equality in his heart (as his response to that questionnaire suggested), he was not prepared to gamble his political future on it until a majority of the public agreed with him—as it finally did by the end of his first term.

Here, in other words, was a classic example of President Obama “leading from behind”—an executive style that sometimes comes across as not leading at all.

Now, I realize—on this final full day of Obama’s presidency—that to dwell on the inner workings of the man’s soul rather than on the impact of his policies is to risk missing the forest for the trees.  All things considered—regardless of when he officially and wholeheartedly got on board—Obama has been the greatest thing to happen to the LGBT community in the entire history of the world.

It now seems like a lifetime ago, but don’t forget that when Obama was sworn in on January 20, 2009, same-sex marriage was legal in exactly two states, Massachusetts and Connecticut, and thanks to the Defense of Marriage Act, even those unions were not recognized on the federal level.  Meanwhile, gay citizens could not serve openly in the Armed Forces, HIV-positive foreigners could not travel to the United States at all, workplace anti-discrimination measures for LGBT people were largely a joke, and the notion of gender-neutral bathrooms was scarcely a twinkle in anybody’s eye.

Fast-forward eight years, and you realize that we now live in an entirely different country from the one George W. Bush left us with.  Complain all you want about feet-dragging and unfinished business—believe me, you’ll find plenty of material to work with—but there is no denying that President Obama’s reign has been a golden age for LGBT rights unparalleled in human history.  Indeed, it would not be much of a stretch to conclude that our 44th president has provided more hope and protection to his gay countrymen than our first 43 presidents put together.

Not that he accomplished all (or any) of this by himself.  Apart from signing an executive order every now and again (itself no small thing), all the major breakthroughs on this front—the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, passage of the Hate Crimes Protection Act, Obergefell v. Hodges, and so forth—were the culmination of years, if not decades, of grunt work by untold scores of activists, writers and other ordinary people in pursuit of an impossible dream.  Many of those folks didn’t live to enjoy the fruits of their labor, but their impact on subsequent generations is profound beyond measure.

In truth, Obama’s primary role in effecting a more gay-friendly America was his stepping back and simply allowing it to happen.  Rather than constantly getting in the middle of things—no doubt out of fear that it could backfire—he made a habit of steadily—even stealthily—setting the tone and laying the legal groundwork whereby the barriers to a more just society could be toppled without any resistance at the top.  (The Justice Department refusing to enforce DOMA in 2011 was a classic, crucial example of this.)  Notwithstanding his opposition to marriage rights until 2012, the president made clear his desire to be an LGBT ally from the very beginning.  In the long run, his actions spoke for themselves.

To be sure, there was a great deal of luck in his occupying the Oval Office at the exact moment when defending gay rights suddenly became cool, and we cannot overlook the multitude of cosmic coincidences that conspired to make Obama such a godsend for the gay movement, independent of how much (or how little) it might’ve interested him otherwise.

That said, it is very difficult to imagine the United States having progressed this far under a President John McCain or a President Mitt Romney—two men who didn’t give a damn about gay people and wouldn’t have lifted a finger to make their lives better.  To note the confluence of Obama’s rise with the wide acceptance of the dignity of LGBT people may be historically correct, but it also shortchanges the monumental import of Obama’s efforts to nudge the country, ever-so-slowly, in the right direction.

I’m sure I will never have the opportunity to ask Obama my original question face-to-face—namely, what did he really think and when did he really think it?

Then again, perhaps I will.  Not to brag, but I did briefly meet him once before.

In the fall of 2007, the then-senator and presidential candidate gave a characteristically rousing speech near the Parkman Bandstand in Boston Common at dusk.  There were hundreds of spectators, but I arrived early and found a spot right in front, leaned up against the metal fence dividing the audience from the candidate.  After he spoke, he glided along the throng of cheering admirers, shaking the hands of everyone within reach, including me.  I don’t recall if our eyes met, but I appreciated the chance to physically connect with a man who, at that time, was considered by most liberals as more-or-less the second coming of Christ.

I didn’t completely buy into the hype myself.  First of all, he was then trailing Hillary Clinton by 20 points in the polls and couldn’t possibly secure the Democratic nomination.  And second, even in the innocent days of 2007, I knew better than to expect that any president, no matter how brilliant or charismatic, could solve all the problems in the world with a mere flick of his hand.  (While Obama himself never claimed the job would be that easy, his most devoted fans certainly got that impression.)

With this in mind, it was all I could do that evening to shout the words “good luck” in his general direction as he let go of my hand and continued on.  I admired the hell out of him, but I knew he would never actually become commander-in-chief.  After eight embarrassing years of George W. Bush, what right did we Americans have to be led by someone so dazzling, so worldly, so intelligent, and so…normal?

We didn’t deserve him, yet in the end we elected him twice.  He was the president we needed, and only in retrospect will we fully understand just how lucky we’ve been since January 20, 2009.  We may never see the likes of him ever again, but then the miracle is that we got him once.  All we can do now is be grateful.

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Questions For Hillary and Donald

The first presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump is Monday, September 26, at 9pm.  Here are some questions I would like to ask both candidates:

Mrs. Clinton:  On policy, do voters have any reason to think you won’t be serving President Obama’s third term?

Mr. Trump:  Is it true—as one of your ex-wives has claimed—that you once kept a book of Hitler’s speeches as your bedside reading?  If so, what did you learn from them?

Mrs. Clinton:  You have said there is no conflict between your pledge to regulate big banks and the fact that you have received millions of dollars in speaking fees from those same banks.  Do you truly not understand why many Americans cannot take your “tough on Wall Street” posture seriously?

Mr. Trump:  You have praised President Eisenhower’s “Operation Wetback,” which resulted in hundreds of U.S. citizens being illegally detained and deported because they were of Mexican descent.  Do you also support President Roosevelt’s initiative to hold more than 100,000 U.S. citizens in internment camps because they were of Japanese descent?

Mrs. Clinton:  You consider yourself a champion of the LGBT community.  However, you publicly opposed full marriage rights for same-sex couples until March 2013—exactly one month after retiring as Secretary of State.  When did you decide that gay people are equal to straight people with regards to marriage, and did it ever cross your mind that supporting marriage equality as America’s chief diplomat might have been helpful to the LGBT community?

Mr. Trump:  Earlier this year, you suggested that any woman who has had an abortion should be punished in some way.  Do you still think that today?  If not, what made you change your mind?

Mrs. Clinton:  You have expressed regret for saying that one-half of Trump’s supporters constitute a “basket of deplorables.”  Upon reflection, what do you believe the true figure to be, and how will you win the trust of those people once in office?

Mr. Trump:  When physical violence erupted at several of your campaign rallies, you lamented how such clashes don’t happen more often, saying, “Nobody wants to hurt each other anymore.”  How do you reconcile this philosophy with your pledge to bring “law and order” to America’s most violent cities?

Mrs. Clinton:  Why do you think you lost the 2008 Democratic primaries to Barack Obama?  If you lose the 2016 election to Trump, do you think it will be for the same reasons?

Mr. Trump:  In an interview, you claimed to be a highly religious person on the grounds that many evangelical Christians support you.  Are you religious in any other respect?

Mrs. Clinton:  If it were politically feasible, would you repeal the Second Amendment?

Mr. Trump:  You have disavowed the support of former KKK grand wizard David Duke.  Is there anything you two actually disagree about?

Mrs. Clinton:  Are you ever concerned about your propensity for appearing to have violated the law, even when, in fact, you haven’t?  Whom do you most blame for this perception—the voters or yourself?

Mr. Trump:  If a poll came out tomorrow saying that a majority of your supporters now oppose building a wall along the Mexican border, would you drop the whole idea and never mention it again?

Mrs. Clinton:  You have said you regret using a private e-mail server because of all the trouble it has caused your campaign.  Is that the only reason for your regret?

Mr. Trump:  You say you have a plan to defeat ISIS, but you intend to keep it a secret until after you win the election.  If Clinton wins instead, are you going to keep it a secret from her as well?

Mrs. Clinton:  Is there any major issue about which you think the majority of the public is dead wrong?  If so, have you ever said so in public?

Mr. Trump:  In your convention speech, you said, “Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it.”  If that’s the case, why didn’t you run in 2012?  Or 2008?  Or 2004?

Mrs. Clinton:  During the primaries, you opposed Bernie Sanders’s plan to make all public colleges tuition-free, arguing it would just be too darned expensive.  If you believed, in 2003, that it was worth funding the Iraq War with money we didn’t have, why doesn’t the same standard apply to higher education?

Mr. Trump:  You once said, “I know more about ISIS than the generals do.”  Where did you come by this information and why haven’t you shared it with the generals?

Mrs. Clinton:  In recently hacked e-mails, Colin Powell wrote of you, “Everything [she] touches she kind of screws up with hubris.”  Did it surprise you to read this?

Mr. Trump:  The screenwriter of the Back of the Future movies recently revealed that the character Biff Tannen was largely based on you.  Do you take this as a compliment?

Mrs. Clinton:  Have you ever consciously lied to the American people?  If so, why?

Mr. Trump:  Based on how casually and frequently you have completely reversed your position on one issue after another, why should anyone believe a single word you say?

Mrs. Clinton:  When you entered this race, did it ever occur to you that you might lose?

Mr. Trump:  When you entered this race, did it ever occur to you that you might win?

Profiles in Cowardice

A major reason I supported Bernie Sanders during the Democratic primaries was his uncommon political courage.  Now that his candidacy has died, I worry that political courage itself has been killed off along with it.

If courage is defined as saying or doing something at risk to one’s physical or social well-being, then political courage is saying or doing something at risk to one’s job or reputation.  John F. Kennedy wrote a book about it in 1957, and the Kennedy Library has bestowed a “Profile in Courage Award” upon worthy individuals every year since 1990.

It’s a shame that instances of public valor are so rare that they require official recognition whenever they occur.  Even worse, perhaps, is how the American people’s expectation for such high-minded virtue in their elected officials is so low that the very concept has essentially become a relic—particularly in an election year like this one.

All the same, it’s worth asking:  Has Hillary Clinton taken a single risk in her entire public career?  Has Donald Trump?  If we are to elect one of these people leader of the free world, shouldn’t we expect them to have assumed a gutsy moral stand on something—even if just by accident?

Barack Obama passed this test eight years ago by having openly opposed the Iraq War in 2002.  As for Bernie Sanders, you could say his entire tenure in Congress has been an act of professional chutzpah—specifically, his dogged insistence on calling himself a “democratic socialist” at every turn, despite the obvious hazards of identifying with a political philosophy that is still seen by millions as outright un-American.

In the case of Trump, the issue is complicated—as all such issues are—by the inherent unseriousness of Trump’s entire candidacy.  Since the Donald has shown, over and over again, to believe in nothing but himself and to change his political positions on an almost hourly basis, there’s really no standard by which we can say he has ever risked his so-called principles for any higher purpose.

Oddly enough, if he were a normal candidate with even a glimmer of intellectual consistency, we could say—with absolute truth—that he has taken brave political stances on multiple occasions throughout this campaign.  Indeed, Trump has, at certain points, unambiguously said things that, up to now, were considered ideological treason by the Republican Party and were grounds for excommunication from the party and the campaign.

For instance, there was that time he asserted—at a GOP debate, no less—that “millions of women are helped by Planned Parenthood.”  Or his repeated claims that Iraq was better off with Saddam Hussein than with George W. Bush’s war.  Or his related view that 9/11 was essentially President Bush’s fault.  Or his assurance that if Caitlyn Jenner walked into one of his buildings, she could use whichever restroom she wanted.

Ordinarily, any of the above would register as political audacity of the highest order, since no GOP candidate could reasonably expect to rise to the top with such heresies as those.

Except for two things.  First—and at the risk of repeating ourselves—there is no reason to think Trump genuinely believes anything he’s ever said (even many of his own supporters have their doubts).  And second:  By the time Trump even bothered making substantive remarks of any kind, he was already ankle-deep in sexist remarks, racist remarks, Islamophobic remarks and anti-immigrant remarks—all of which only enhanced his standing in the polls, thereby insulating him from all the usual rules of political logic thereafter.

In other words, once GOP voters bought into the bigotry, paranoia and white male victimhood that comprise the entirety of Trump’s appeal, they essentially stopped listening to anything else that came out of his mouth.  And Trump, sensing this, became liberated to break with any Republican orthodoxy that he wished, knowing it would have no adverse affect on his poll numbers—and, therefore, no longer qualify as political courage.

With Hillary Clinton, the calculus is mercifully simpler:  As a public servant, she is wholly preoccupied with the objectives of her various constituencies and the minutiae of turning those dreams into reality.  As such, she is possibly the most risk-averse person who has ever run for president and, if elected, cannot be expected to make any inspired leap of faith on any major initiatives.

To wit:  She supported the Iraq War until it started going badly.  For all her gay-friendly bona fides, she didn’t publicly endorse same-sex marriage until March 2013—10 months after President Obama did the same.  Her views on America’s various trade agreements tend to oscillate based on popular sentiment at the time, as do her positions on gun control, immigration and Wall Street.

There’s an interesting and worthwhile argument going on about whether Clinton’s identity as a cautious, finger-to-the-wind incrementalist is a virtue or a vice.  (In the interest of time, we’ll save that debate for another day.)  In either case, it means she will not—under almost any circumstances—be ahead of the proverbial curve on any controversial subject.  Indeed, it is not clear whether she believes a president should be a pioneer of that sort, or whether she should merely go wherever the public takes her.

Drawing from her research on Abraham Lincoln, historian Doris Kearns Goodwin has said that the role of a president is to be a step ahead of the people, but to allow them to take that extra step on their own terms—that is, by nudging them in a certain direction without being pushy.

Would it be too generous to call that an accurate summary of how Hillary Clinton operates?  If pressed for a one-sentence appraisal of Clinton’s character, I’d offer that she has genuine political views—often shaped by trial and error—but that her deference to public opinion precludes her from sharing them until it becomes practical to do so.  Some would call this calculation.  Others would call it democracy.

In any case, hardly anyone would call it courage.  Clinton fancies herself “a progressive who likes to get things done,” and as appealing as that may sound (to progressives), it suggests a dull, single-minded efficiency that doesn’t allow for thinking too far outside the box, lest it distract from the central task at hand.

In the long run—and considering the historically impotent Congress we now have—maybe Clinton’s limited imagination will do the trick.  Maybe big and bold are luxuries we can’t currently afford and perhaps we’re better off not deluding ourselves into thinking otherwise.

After all, it’s not as if courageous decisions are an inherently good idea.  In the end, they are only as worthwhile as the person making them and the circumstances in which they come about.  If 2016 has taught us anything, it’s to be extremely wary of candidates who aren’t concerned about the consequences of their actions.

The GOP Reaps What It Sows

Super Tuesday saw a veritable fruit salad of disingenuous comments from all parties involved—from Marco Rubio’s declaration of victory after losing 11 of 12 states to Donald Trump’s claim of being a “uniter” at the very moment when several leading members of his party announced they would rather suck on an exhaust pipe than allow Trump to become the face of the GOP.

However, if there was one assertion that rose above all the others for its sheer, jaw-dropping chutzpah, it was the following reaction to Trump’s continued success from Speaker of the House Paul Ryan:

If a person wants to be the nominee of the Republican Party, there can be no evasion and no games.  They must reject any group or cause that is built on bigotry.  This party does not prey on people’s prejudices.  We appeal to their highest ideals.  This is the party of Lincoln.  We believe all people are equal in the eyes of God and our government.  This is fundamental, and if someone wants to be our nominee, they must understand this.

Between that statement and Chris Christie’s facial expressions during Trump’s victory speech, I can’t remember the last time I laughed this hard following a presidential primary night.

Specifically, Ryan was addressing Trump’s initial reluctance to bat away the endorsement of a former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, although (let’s face it) he could’ve been referring to pretty much anything Trump has said or done over the last eight months.

While Ryan deserves heaping praise for taking such a clear, principled stand against everything Donald Trump represents, his characterization of the party he leads is so comically lacking in self-awareness that Trump himself could not have put it any better.

The Republican Party doesn’t prey on people’s prejudices?  It believes all people are created equal?  Speaker, please.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but I could’ve sworn the GOP had built its entire brand—say, over the last three or four decades—on such “high ideals” as denying marriage rights to same-sex couples because God intoned that gays are no different from murderers and child molesters.  I do believe it was Republican leaders who defended the “liberty” of business owners to deny service to gay customers for the exact same reason.

Whenever an unarmed black teenager is senselessly murdered by a white police officer, Republicans are always the first to assume the kid must’ve done something to deserve it.  When it comes to elections, Republican officials never hesitate to make it as difficult as possible for African-Americans and Hispanics to be able to cast a vote.

Quick as GOP leaders are to evoke “religious liberty” as a cornerstone of American democracy, they somehow always find a loophole for anyone wearing a turban, hijab or some other manner of foreign-looking funny hat.  (Rarely, of course, do most Republicans take the time to understand which funny hat corresponds to which foreign-looking religion.)

Perhaps you saw the exit poll showing that 60 percent of Republican voters agree with Trump’s plan to prevent Muslims from entering the United States on the basis of their religion.  Even assuming that every single Trump voter is included in that 60 percent, we are still left with 40-50 percent of non-Trump GOP voters who apparently think that all Muslims are terrorists.  Or, at minimum, that Muslims are so inherently suspect that it’s worth discriminating against all of them on a federal level.  You know, just in case.

This is the party Paul Ryan would have as a paragon of liberty, equality and justice:  A party distrustful of Muslims, contemptuous of gays and utterly oblivious to the plight of Hispanics and blacks.  If Ryan is serious that any prospective nominee “must reject any group or cause that is built on bigotry,” they would need to begin with the Republican Party itself.

Ryan calls it “the party of Lincoln.”  If I may rework a line from a classic Woody Allen movie:  If Lincoln came back and saw what was going on in his name, he’d never stop throwing up.

Bigotry By Any Other Name

Is homophobia a choice, or are people just born that way?

Amongst all the silliness and bombast at the most recent Republican primary debate, there was the following statement from Ben Carson, who was asked to clarify his position on same-sex marriage:

“I believe that the Constitution protects everybody, regardless of their sexual orientation or any other aspect.  I also believe that marriage is between one man and one woman.  There is no reason that you can’t be perfectly fair to the gay community.  They shouldn’t automatically assume that because you believe that marriage is between one man and one woman that you are a homophobe.”

In a strong field, that might rank as the most incoherent thing that any candidate has said about any issue.  It would be easy enough to ignore or dismiss it—most media outlets have done just that—except that a) it came from the highest-polling candidate in the race (more or less), and b) it forces us to confront the issues of marriage and homophobia in a manner that is just too interesting to pass up.

Getting right to the point, then:  Is it possible to oppose same-sex marriage without being homophobic?  Can you believe that gay people are morally and legally equal to straight people while also believing that only the latter are entitled to marriage?

I’ll be honest:  I do not find these to be difficult questions.

No, you cannot oppose gay marriage—or any other gay right—without the disease of homophobia coursing through your veins.  Thinking that gays are beneath the institution of marriage is precisely to think that heterosexuals are a superior human species—a view otherwise known as homophobia.

“Defending” traditional marriage is homophobic by definition.  You can’t have one without the other.  To say that these two people can receive a marriage license but those two people cannot is axiomatically to think that the former are more deserving of the American dream than the latter.

Hence the absurdity of Carson’s statement.  He wants to have it both ways, but how could this be?  If you believe—as Carson apparently does—that gay people are entitled to equal protection under the law, how could that protection not include the right to get married?

Officially, marriage is nothing more than a legal contract between two consenting adults.  It’s a secular institution whose broader meaning is determined by those who enter into it.  Conservatives can bang on and on about what marriage is “for”—commitment, sacrifice, procreation, serving God—but the truth is that marriage is whatever each individual couple makes of it.  It is neither possible nor desirable for the government to make those decisions for them.

If you truly thought that all men and women are created equal, then the notion of withholding marriage from gay people wouldn’t even occur to you—just as prohibiting marriage between interracial couples wouldn’t make sense to anyone who believes in equality of black and white.

The reality is that most Americans are adept at holding utterly contradictory views in their heads, and most of the time they don’t even realize they’re doing it.  This has been true since the founding of the republic (see:  Jefferson and slavery) and we can expect it to continue until long after we’re all dead.

The far more interesting trend—and a welcome one at that—is the degree to which homophobia itself has fallen out of fashion.

Even as the country remains fairly divided on same-sex marriage—the current split is 60 percent in favor, 37 percent opposed—very few people today are comfortable with being viewed as anti-gay.  Even as they espouse policies that are obviously and deliberately discriminatory toward gay folks, they are very careful to launch into a “some of my best friends are gay” routine, insisting that their opposition to gay rights should not be construed as opposition to gay people.

It’s a ridiculous and hypocritical stance—an insult to the intelligence of anyone who made it through kindergarten—but it’s also indicative of how thoroughly gay people have been integrated into polite society.

Remember:  It was as recently as the 1980s that gay people were so marginalized by their leaders that, when Ronald Reagan’s press secretary was asked if the administration was aware of a “gay plague” known as AIDS, the entire press room erupted in laughter.

In the 1990s, anti-gay animus was so strong that Bill Clinton—a Democrat!—was able to sign the Defense of Marriage Act and institute “Don’t ask, don’t tell” without experiencing any real pushback from the gay community because, hey, what other option did they have?

The difference between then and now in enough to give you whiplash.  Not only is same-sex marriage legal from coast to coast, but gay people are so visible in every walk of life—including positions of power—that the straight community has no choice but to treat them like human beings.

Or at least to give lip service to that effect.  A chunk of Americans remains opposed to affording gays equal protection under the law, but—as if taking a cue from Pope Francis—they are far less cavalier than they’ve ever been before, concealing their true feelings behind inclusive and compassionate rhetoric.

Today, you can’t even be a Democrat unless you offer full-throated support for every plank of the dreaded “gay agenda,” and you can’t run for president as a Republican without at least pretending to have a few gay acquaintances and acknowledging that homosexuality is, in fact, a real thing.  (I wish we could say the same for climate change.)

But let’s not be cute about it by letting opponents of gay equality off the hook.

Yes, I am aware of many good people who support “traditional” marriage and, by all outward appearances, harbor no prejudice toward their gay colleagues and treat everyone with respect.  They regard their views on marriage as an honest disagreement—invariably informed by their religious faith—and not, in any case, as an expression of bigotry, intolerance or blind hatred.

Well, of course that’s how they feel.  In any great debate about civil rights, everyone wants to view themselves as the hero—the person on the “right side of history.”  Being several generations removed from when, say, George Wallace could proudly stand at a podium and bellow, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever,” we no longer allow ourselves to hold prejudicial views without performing an elaborate sleight of hand to convince ourselves and others that we are not the villain in this story.

Sorry, but it won’t wash.

In this era of equality, you can no longer get away with threading this particular needle without looking like a disingenuous nincompoop.

If you’re going to support anti-gay legislation, then you have to own the fact that—whether you realize it or not—you, yourself, are anti-gay.

If you don’t want to be tarred and feathered as an intolerant prude, then quit advocating for a society that withholds basic rights from an entire group of citizens on the basis of their emotional attractions.  That, after all, is exactly what an intolerant prude would do.

If you truly believe, à la Ben Carson, that “the Constitution protects everybody” and “there is no reason that you can’t be perfectly fair to the gay community,” then join the rest of us in effecting a system of laws that actually are perfectly fair to the gay community—namely, laws that don’t care whether your significant other is a man or a woman, because why on Earth should that make a difference?

Show, don’t tell.  Either you believe that we’re all equal before the law, or you don’t.  Sooner or later, you have to pick a side.

Republican Holy War

The problem isn’t that Ben Carson wouldn’t vote for a Muslim president.

The problem is that few other Republicans would, either.

The problem isn’t that Donald Trump dignified the insane anti-Islam rants of some random crank.

The problem is that a massive chunk of all GOP voters share those same toxic views.

It would be bad enough if the men representing one of America’s two major political parties happened to be a bunch of xenophobic cretins.  But it’s worse than that because, as it turns out, a plurality of their fans are, too.

In other words, the GOP primary’s rank bigotry isn’t a bug.  It’s a feature.

Nor is the party’s contempt for certain Americans limited to Muslims.  At various junctures, Republican candidates have demonstrated robust, unchained hostility toward immigrants, women, homosexuals and unbelievers, among others.  And their supporters have followed them every step of the way.

Not all of them, of course.  Perhaps not even a majority.

But if there is any measurable difference between Democrats and Republicans, it is that the latter are significantly more likely to harbor open suspicion and disapproval of minorities—individually and collectively—on the basis of their minority status.

In a recent Gallop poll, we find that while 73 percent of Democratic respondents would vote for a qualified presidential candidate who happened to be Muslim, only 45 percent of Republican respondents would do the same.  Similarly, although 85 percent of Democrats would vote for a gay candidate, only 61 percent of Republicans would as well.  For an atheist candidate, the party split was 64 percent versus 45 percent, respectively.

While those numbers are nothing for either faction to brag about, the gulf between the two is unmistakable, and it leads us to a fairly obvious conclusion:  As it currently stands, the Republican Party is a one-stop shop for paranoia, hatred and prejudice toward anyone who seems even slightly foreign to some preconceived, mythical idea of what makes someone a “real American.”

Yes, many self-identified Republicans are sane, decent folks.  Yes, there are many components of GOP dogma that have nothing to do with shunning minorities and other undesirables.  Yes, conservatism itself is still a perfectly legitimate means of thinking about the world.

And yet I wonder:  Why are there any “moderate Republicans” left?  At this point, isn’t that phrase a contradiction in terms?

Case in point:  If you happen to think that all Muslims are terrorists and all gays are perverts, then it makes perfect sense that you would align with today’s GOP.  Their values are your values.

But if you don’t think those things—if you find the denigration of entire classes of people to be juvenile, unattractive and dangerous—then why would you throw in with a political party that loudly and proudly does?

Notwithstanding whatever else you might believe—say, about taxes or foreign policy—why would you join arms with an organization that—at least in its presidential candidates—has adopted enmity and ignorance as its defining characteristics?  What’s the appeal in belonging to a gang so fundamentally unappealing?  After all, you can always vote for Republicans without being one yourself.

The explanation, I suppose, is roughly the same as why so many Catholics remain committed to their church, in spite of its history of raping innocent children and using every means necessary to cover it up.

That is:  Many people are quite skilled at keeping utterly contradictory ideas in their heads and somehow still getting through the day.  They compartmentalize, embracing virtue while ignoring or overlooking vice.

And in the end, it is religion where the Republican Party exerts its most breathtaking feats of hypocrisy and self-deception.

In fact, Ben Carson’s infamous rumination on Meet on the Press about the dangers in electing a Muslim president contained the most telling statement any candidate has yet made on the subject of mixing religion and politics.

To the question, “Should a president’s faith matter?” Carson responded, “I guess it depends on what that faith is.”  As far as most Republican candidates are concerned, that’s exactly right.

The GOP fashions itself as the champion of religious freedom—defender of the clause in the First Amendment that says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

Don’t believe it for a minute.  The GOP would love Congress to make a law respecting the establishment of religion, and the only religion its leaders are interested in exercising freely is their own.

When that ridiculous Kentucky clerk refused to issue marriage licenses to gay couples because she is personally opposed to same-sex marriage, she informed the media that “God’s law” takes precedence over man’s law, and when certain Republicans defended her willful disregard of the latter, they defined her “struggle” precisely in terms of a religious war.

How often we have heard—from nearly every major and minor candidate—that Christianity is “under attack” and being “criminalized” because those who don’t believe in gay marriage—ostensibly for Biblical reasons—now have to grin and bear the fact that the Supreme Court has ruled against those beliefs.  Mike Huckabee, the self-appointed leader of the cause, said, “No man […] has the right to redefine the laws of nature or of nature’s God.”

I wonder:  What exactly is the difference between that statement and Sharia law?  The latter, of course, is the idea—popular in the Middle East—of running a legal system based on teachings in the Quran and other Islamic holy works, rather than on any precepts devised by man.

In principle, there is no difference at all.  Huckabee and the king of Saudi Arabia apparently agree that the word of God is more important than the rule of law, and that an individual’s own religious convictions can and should overrule any rule that comes into conflict with them.

And yet—amazingly—it is these same cultural conservatives who attack and condemn Sharia law at every opportunity, insisting that some nefarious Islamic cabal is secretly plotting to bring Sharia to the United States and is this close to succeeding and—my God!—what a horrible world it would be if America became an oppressive, Bronze Age theocracy.

Read those last few paragraphs again and tell me this isn’t the most spectacular double standard in recent American politics.  Taking them at their word, GOP leaders evidently think that religion in the public square is both good and bad, that holy books are simultaneously more and less authoritative than the Constitution, and that Christians—who represent 70 percent of the U.S. population—are under threat, while Muslims—who are less than 1 percent—are on the verge of taking over the whole damn country.

The logistical cartwheels in this reasoning are enough to give you whiplash.  The term “Schrödinger’s cat” springs curiously to mind.

In reality, though, the thinking is straightforward and simple, and it’s exactly like Ben Carson said:  Christianity good, Islam bad.  God is great, except when his name is Allah.

Once you convince yourself—as Carson and company have—that Islam is fundamentally incompatible with living in a free society like ours and that no individual Muslim could possibly adopt America’s values as his or her own—a self-evidently absurd idea—then it becomes quite easy to make comically hypocritical statements like the above and somehow think you’re being principled and consistent.

But these guys aren’t.  They believe in religious freedom when the religion is Christianity and when the “freedom” involves preventing gay people from leading fulfilling lives.  I’m sure the irony of the latter will sink in sooner or later, although we probably shouldn’t hold our breaths.

In the meantime, we would all do well to remind ourselves that freedom means nothing if it only applies to certain people and that the United States, for all its religious citizens, does not have an official state religion and does not take sides in religious fights.

This did not happen by accident.  In the fall of 1801, a group of Connecticut Baptists sent an urgent letter to the new president, Thomas Jefferson, pleading for protection against religious tyranny by a rival sect.  Jefferson’s famous response, which guaranteed such protection, intoned that “religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God” and that the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment amounted to “a wall of separation between Church and State.”

As Christopher Hitchens used to say:  Mr. Jefferson, build up that wall.

Best of Enemies

It’s almost too obvious to mention, but when it comes to religious liberty in America, we are in the midst of a veritable golden age.

The First Amendment to our Constitution begins, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” and damned if we haven’t nailed it in the last many years.  The right to live according to the dictates of one’s faith has never been stronger, and there is little indication that this will change in our lifetimes.  As ever, we don’t realize how lucky we are.

Whether you are a Christian, a Sikh or a Seventh Day Adventist, you can travel to your place of worship on Sunday (or whenever) totally unmolested by your government or, with rare exceptions, your fellow citizens.  Observant Jews can wear kipot and refrain from eating pork, while Muslims can pray five times a day and…refrain from eating pork.

While being a member of the “wrong” religion can get you shunned, maimed or murdered in many other countries of the world, America is truly a land of pluralism—a nation that, at least on paper, protects its most vulnerable citizens just as robustly as its most populous.

Indeed, the inclination toward granting each other religious freedom is so forceful—such a prevailing view—that we are now having a semi-serious debate about whether the right to one’s faith-based opinions actually entitles an individual to break the law and deny the civil rights of other individuals.  Yes, even if that particular individual happens to work for the government.

Of course, I am referring to the one-woman crusade currently being waged by a Kentucky county clerk named Kim Davis.  As an observant Christian, Davis has refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, because doing so would violate her religious beliefs.  This in spite of the fact that, since June 26, gay marriage is the law of the land in all 50 states.

In effect, the issue is whether the First Amendment’s “free exercise” clause can ever supersede the rule of law.  In other words, can the word of God take legal precedence over the word of Congress or the Supreme Court?

As we have seen, this question has precisely one correct answer.  By refusing to issue marriage licenses to couples who have every right to obtain one—even after the nation’s highest court explicitly ordered her otherwise—Davis has been held in contempt and carted off to jail.  While, as an elected official, she cannot technically be “fired,” it doesn’t look terribly likely that she will remain in this job much longer.  And rightly so:  Why should Kentucky taxpayers be compelled to pay a clerk for not doing her job?

Much has been made of the disclosure that Davis herself has been married four times and divorced thrice.  Personally, I’m still reeling from the fact that, five months after divorcing Husband No. 1, she give birth to twins who were adopted by Husband No. 2 but were, in fact, fathered by Husband No. 3.  (Feel free to read that sentence again.)

Of course, all of that is perfectly legal and we should never judge or make assumptions about anyone’s marital history.  Relationships are complicated, and marriage is messy even under the most ideal circumstances.

On the other hand, marital infidelity is clearly and definitively condemned in the Bible and, in Deuteronomy, is punishable by death.

Kim Davis has said she performs her official duties in accordance with the Biblical definition of marriage.  It begs the question:  If she really means that, then why hasn’t she hired someone to kill her?

Happily for everyone, she plainly doesn’t mean it.  She is against homosexuality for reasons all her own and, like every Christian, she handpicks the Biblical passages that align with her views and ignores the ones that don’t.

This is not to suggest that her beliefs are not sincerely held.  It just means they are not held for the reasons she claims and that she is a massive glittering hypocrite when it comes to enforcing holy writ.

Of course, as an American, she is fully entitled to be the horrible person that she is and to believe whatever the hell she wants.  That’s the very definition of religious liberty and no one would dare force her to think differently.  If we all agreed about everything, we wouldn’t need a First Amendment in the first place.

However, we are nonetheless a society in which laws reign supreme over religion, and it’s precisely because we have so many different religions that can each be interpreted in a billion different ways.  While it might be amusing to imagine a culture in which everyone can ignore any rule they disagree with, the idea of actually doing it doesn’t even pass the laugh test.

Put simply:  To say the First Amendment includes the right to deny someone else a marriage license makes no more sense than saying the Second Amendment includes the right to commit murder.

Certainly, there are countries in which “the authority of God” (as Davis called it) has final say over who gets to live or die, let alone who can get married or not.  Of course, these countries tend to be predominantly Muslim and their system, known as “sharia,” is universally condemned—particularly by American conservatives—as medieval and antithetical to everything that Americans hold sacred.

How curious, then, that many of these same conservatives (read: half the GOP presidential candidates) are now defending this very same principle when the God in question is a Christian one.  How peculiar that defying settled law through Islam is repulsive, but doing the same through Christianity is just fine.  I’m sure there’s a non-racist, non-homophobic explanation for this somewhere.  As an atheist, I regret I’m not the best person to find it.

In any case, I didn’t come here to talk about Kim Davis, as such.  Really, I would just like to take a moment to underline how unbelievably lucky the gay community has been lately with respect to its would-be antagonists.

It would have been one thing if the self-appointed poster child for upholding “traditional marriage” were someone who actually engaged in the practice herself.  Someone who could credibly claim to be holier than thou.

That this particular mascot for following “God’s will” happens to be a raging phony is not merely hilarious; it also demonstrates just how phony her entire argument is.

To be clear:  Davis’ personal morality has absolutely no bearing on the legal arguments vis-à-vis her behavior as the Rowan County clerk.  Her actions would be contemptuous and absurd regardless of how many husbands she has had.

That, in so many words, is the point:  The law does not care about morality.  The law exists whether you agree with it or not, and applies to all citizens equally.  Further, if you happen to be a public official whose one and only job is to carry out the law, then your opinion of the law does not matter.  Either you do your job or you resign.

But of course, this doesn’t negate the role that ethics play in our day-to-day lives, and this is where Davis has become the gay rights movement’s new best friend.

Now that same-sex marriage is legal in all 50 states—and will almost certainly remain that way forever—there is nothing left to concern ourselves with except for the proverbial “changing hearts and minds.”

And where persuading people of gays’ inherent humanity is concerned, what finer image could there be than a thrice-divorced heterosexual turning her back on a homosexual couple attempting to get married just once?  In what possible universe does the person who has cheated her way through three marriages assume the moral high ground over couples who are embracing this sacred institution afresh?  What possible threat do those couples pose to society or morality, other than the possibility that, in time, they may turn into people like Kim Davis?