Since the election, I have repeatedly heard sophisticated liberals make extraordinary statements about conservative America, statements that verge on hatred and panic. One senior colleague, for instance, thinks that the election was basically about race; according to him, a hard-core 30% of Americans are fundamentalist Christians who regularly hear KKK-like speeches in their churches. I’m sure that there are equally extreme stereotypes on the other side of the Red State/Blue State divide. That doesn’t make it OK for liberals to lash out; nor are massive misinterpretations a good basis for rebuilding the Democratic Party. Even when stung by a bitter defeat, liberals, of all people, need to keep their minds and ears open. Anne Hull’s Washington Post article, “Gay in a Red State,” is a good place to go for some nuance.
Several weeks ago, I argued that the New York Review of Books should not have illustrated an article about American conservatism with a photo of Fred Phelps, an elderly reverand holding a “God Hates Fags” sign. I wrote that Phelps was essentially a cult-leader whose doctrines contradicted the mainstream teachings of evangelical Christianity. I said that using his face to illustrate an article about conservatism was like putting Castro’s picture next to a critical piece about liberalism.
Today, Anne Hull tells what happened when Phelps arrived in Sand Springs, OK, home of the 17-year old Michael Shackleford. Shackelford was previously the subject of Hull’s article about being gay in small-town Middle America. After reading this earlier story, Fred Phelps and his coterie came to Sand Springs to demonstrate, armed with signs saying, “Fags are Worthy of Death,” “Fags Doom Nation,” and other charming slogans.
Shackleford’s mother and pastor, convinced that homosexuality is a sin, were intent on “saving” him. His church’s sign said, “I hate the sin but love the sinner–God.” If this message was directed at Michael Shackleford, it suggested a lack of tolerance. Michael Shackelford’s community fundamentally disagrees with me and my community about the young man’s nature and its moral significance. They think his soul needs “saving”; I think he’s fine just as he is. There is a cultural divide in America.
However, Phelps was enraged by the church’s sign and told the Post, “It’s a play on words, the sin and the sinner. You can’t separate the two. There are some people in this world who are made to be destroyed.” Michael Shackleford’s neighbors knew that this was wrong. They knew it instinctively and passionately–not because they are liberal (although they are actually very liberal, by global and historical standards), but because they are Christian.
A truck driver shouted at Phelps, “Let he who cast the first stone …” A “burly man with a crew-cut” approached Shackleford in church and gave him a thumbs-up. Another congregant (holding his Bible) told Shackleford, “Man, you be who you are. We got your back.” His mother let him go to Washington for a Human Rights Campaign dinner. There, he visited a gay bookstore to buy a book for her, a book “on being a Christian parent of a gay child.”
There is deep moral disagreement in America. I passionately believe that the other side is wrong and doing harm, maybe even contributing to the suicide and murder of gay kids. However, there is also a great deal of commonality–and flexibility. Michael Shackelford’s mom, for instance, hopes that her son will be “saved” from homosexuality, but supports his educational journey to the alien big city. She is a better citizen than a liberal who forms hostile opinions of American fundamentalist Protestantism without actually listening to any fundamentalists.