For those who missed it, Lott was asked on a radio talk show
whether he thought homosexuality was a sin. Instead of passing the question
on to theologians, whose opinion would be more appropriate, Lott answered
that he did. His answer was gobbled up by the carnivorous media and spat in
the direction of House Majority Leader Dick Armey. Instead of recusing
himself for a similar lack of professional competence, Armey pulled out a
Bible to "prove" that it was, adding that as a Christian he was
instructed to love the sinner and hate the sin.
Eager to exploit an opportunity for political advantage, the White House
joined the fray. Lumping all traditional religious believers with
Republican legislators, Press Secretary Mike McCurry said: "The president
thinks the American people understand how difficult it is to get business
done in Washington sometimes when you're dealing with people who are so
backward in their thinking."
In fact, in almost the same breath with which he had invoked the
lightning, Lott also made an attempt to show that he was really progressive
in his thinking. Genuflecting to the therapeutic standard that
liberals and progressives have created, and under whose rubric everything
from alcoholism and cigarette addiction to gang activity and gun violence
is officially construed as a public health problem, Lott backed away from
the stern authority of the biblical text to explain that homosexuality was
a kind of disease and its victims should be helped "just like alcohol ... or
sex addiction ... or kleptomaniacs."
But his bowing to the left proved even more damaging than his
original sin. "It's an indication of how the extreme right wing has a
stranglehold on the leadership" of Congress, cried Winnie Stachelberg,
political director of the Human Rights Campaign, the 250,000-member gay and
lesbian political organization. Her comment was echoed by other gay
leaders, giving it the clear outlines of a party line. Lost in the outcry
was the fact that Trent Lott had gone as far as he had to show tolerance
for homosexuality, while establishing that it was a "lifestyle" he does
not approve of.
The things that are wrong with this picture are the result of formulations
that have been introduced into our public discourse by both left and right
in recent decades.
The idea that homosexuality is a "lifestyle," of course, originated with
the left and is still maintained by many academics -- specifically "queer theorists." If "homosexuality" is a lifestyle -- that is, a political
and moral choice -- then it is perfectly appropriate for some to regard it
as an immoral "choice" and to reject it on those grounds. Furthermore, if
homosexuality is a lifestyle (and therefore a choice), it is perfectly
appropriate for politicians like Armey and Lott to make such comments when
they are responsible for billion-dollar AIDS programs made necessary by the
sexual practices of gay males.
But what if this is not the case? If homosexuality -- as most centrist gays
now maintain (and as I personally believe) -- is biologically innate, if it is a genetic given that cannot normally be altered by the assertion of individual will, then the moral and therapeutic posturing of politicians is completely
inappropriate and offensive. Gay activists like Congressman Barney Frank
must accept much of the responsibility for the misperception of
homosexuality in our political culture, and thus for the verbal
perplexities of conservatives like Armey and Lott.
The biblical injunction against homosexuality is real and cannot be argued
away (though not a few have tried). What, then, is the appropriate way for
a democracy like ours to deal with this problem? We are a pluralistic
society. We do not have an established state religion. We are in fact
composed of ethnic and religious communities so diverse that in other parts
of the world, war is the normal condition of their relations. Serbs and
Croats, Arabs and Jews, Christians and Muslims co-exist in America, but
elsewhere are at each other's throats.
How did we achieve this? By requiring our official community to treat
everyone as an individual, equally, and by a single standard. It is perfectly
appropriate for Dick Armey, as a religious believer, to regard
homosexuality as a sin, just as it would be appropriate for any Christian
to believe that Jews are damned as unbelievers, or for Muslims to regard both
Christians and Jews as infidels, and therefore damned. Provided Jews,
Christians and Muslims respect America's constitutional framework, which
regards each of us as a child of a single God who must therefore be treated
equally by secular authority, there is no problem. One nation under one
God. (Atheists are given the option of observing the form of this
miraculous arrangement without acknowledging the substance. It works just
But as soon as people forget the limits of the political sphere and confuse
it with the realm of the religious, they are asking for trouble.
Lott and Armey should not have blurred this distinction. What
their private conscience tells them is one thing; what they pronounce on as
legislators is quite another. As it is written, "That which is Caesar's must be rendered unto
Caesar, and that which is God's unto God."
From the context, it seems clear that neither Lott nor Armey actually
intended his religious comments to be political statements or policy
agendas. For that reason, it did no good for the presidential press
secretary or gay leaders to escalate the confusion that had already been
sown. There is no resolving of religious differences except by religious
warfare. That is why the conflict in the Middle East is so intractable, and
why our constitutional framework allows the same groups to co-exist here in
peace. Therefore, it is advisable for all parties in our political debate
to back off from such fundamental confrontations and seek out a common
The problem reflected in the flap over Lott's comments is a mutual
problem of our political discourse, created by actors on both sides of the
political divide. It is time for those same actors to work together to draw
back from the language of religious warfare and attempt mutual solutions,
based on compromise, to the problems that affect us all.