BIGOTRY BY ANY OTHER NAME

By Paul M. Lewis

Now that marriage equality is the law of the land (as much as certain states are still attempting to throw up roadblocks against its implementation), it’s curious to see how some religious people are reacting. One tack that seems particularly egregious is the claim that anyone who is adamantly pro-traditional marriage (so called) is now the supposed aggrieved party. “I have every right to believe what I believe and to say what I say about the errant and sinful nature of gay marriage,” they say.

Is that so? Of course it is, at least so far as it goes. It is difficult to imagine anyone, gay or non-gay alike, who would argue against a person’s right to believe, or to say, whatever he or she likes (given the usual exclusions, of course, such as defamation, or the iconic yelling fire in a crowded theater, when there is no fire). This is the very essence of the First Amendment, that we are free to express whatever views we care to about almost any subject. In a sense, the more controversial the topic and the views expressed, the more the right to speak or write about it ought to be defended. It is, after all, especially in its most egregious form (e.g. hate speech) that we have no choice but to protect and secure the right to express it, because one person’s extreme is another person’s truth. What often gets overlooked in declamations about the First Amendment, though, is the fact that those who oppose extreme views on controversial subjects themselves have the right to express their own opinions about the opposing point of view, and about those who hold it.

The argument being made by the ultra-orthodox is actually somewhat convoluted, but boiled down to its essence, it amounts to something like this: They, themselves, are experiencing unfair defamation of character when those whom they criticize as sinners call them bigots. “Is it really bigotry,” they say, “when what we are simply doing is pointing out what we sincerely believe to be immoral or unbiblical (or un-you-name-the-holy-book) behavior?” “No,” they reply to their own question, “it is not bigotry; it is simply our God-given right, indeed, God’s mandate, to call a sin a sin.”

But is it truly unfair to call them bigots? In attempting to untie this knot, it may be useful to clarify exactly what is meant by the word bigotry. It is a term much in use these days, one frequently tossed about and applied in many varied circumstances. As such, it deserves closer scrutiny. In delving deeply into the meaning of a word, it’s useful to begin with the etymology of the term, its provenance, if you will. In this case, the etymology remains admittedly a bit unclear. But one commonly held suggestion is that it may be a corruption of the Germanic oath “bi Gott,” a bigot being someone who swears “by God” that he/she is right and that this purported truthfulness is sanctioned by the deity. In modern usage, a bigot has come to mean a sanctimonious person, someone making a special show of holiness or religiosity, in particular vis-à-vis another person’s actions or beliefs, and who as a result takes it upon him or herself to condemn these actions or beliefs.

Those who follow the orthodox interpretation of virtually any organized religion condemn gay people based on their holy book, or at very least on their bishops, priests, rabbis, pastors, mullahs etc., defining marriage as solely between a man and a woman. Any variation therefrom is held to be against the laws of God, as He has made his dictates known. It would seem hard to deny that this fits squarely in with the accepted definition of bigotry, as the condemnation of another person’s actions or beliefs out of religious conviction. But then there is the follow-up question: Does that mean that LGBT people, and their supporters, are themselves also bigots, when they call the ultra-religiously inclined bigots? Here, the word seems not to fit, inasmuch as most LGBT people are surely not acting out of any special show of holiness or religion.

It’s clear that those who believe God made the world one way—and one way only—and that in this scheme of things two women, or two men, who love each other are not allowed to marry one another, open themselves to charges of intolerance and bias. Again, it bears repeating that such people have every right to hold to these extreme views and to express them in whatever forum or circumstance they wish, but in doing so, they do not have the right to claim exemption from charges of discriminatory behavior, or to hold that they are being treated unfairly when someone calls them a bigot. And whining about the supposed unfairness of another’s appellation doesn’t get you very far. God knows, the religious right has said some truly terrible things about LGBT people over the years, things that amount to hate speech. And while we may have called them bigots in return, at least we can say that the word, in accordance with its literal definition, actually applies.

There’s no doubt that words can be injurious. Being called fagot and queer, to name a few of the less horrible terms, does not feel good. And neither do actions—prohibitions—like not being able to marry the person you love, or the inability to visit a loved one in a hospital, or the denial of citizenship to a loved one from another country—all of which have, thankfully, now been corrected. But other bans continue to remain in place, such as the so-called right of an employer in many states to fire a person, simply because that individual is lesbian or gay.

Words may have specific and precise meanings, but bigotry, by any other name, still remains bigotry. Certain orthodox religious people may not like it. They are not used to “being called names,” as we used to say when we were children. In the end, though, if the word fits, it must be applied, and there is no earthly (or heavenly) reason that I can see not to use it.

Does it hurt a sincere Christian believer when people call him or her a bigot because that person says LGBT people have no right to marry? I suppose it may well. But my advice to them is to buck up and learn to take it. Or better still, maybe they will even be inspired to think: Is it true? Am I actually a bigot!

PREJUDICE AND THE EROSION OF FREEDOM

By Paul M. Lewis

As we enter into another springtime, we are reminded of the reawakening and renewal of life. Easter is just days away, when Christians celebrate the resurrection of Christ, and all of us remember that creation regenerates itself after a period of dormancy.

At such a time and in such an atmosphere, why then write an essay entitled, “Prejudice and the Erosion of Freedom?” Because, seemingly in opposition to the promise of warmer weather to come and the blossoming of crocuses and daffodils, there has been so much in the news of late about the diminution of liberty and self-determination. Or, perhaps more to the point, about the unending tug of war between points of view related to civil—and religious—rights, and how things ought to play out when the rights of one run headlong into those of others.

It was only three or four years ago, for example, that we were euphorically talking about “The Arab Spring,” a time when people rejoiced at the resurgence of democracy in Islamic countries, from the Maghreb region of North Africa to the Middle East. Today, with Egypt in the clutches of dictatorship once again, Syria in a protracted civil war, ISIS on the rise, and the ascendance of politico-religious extremists in Algeria, Tunisia, and of course Libya, we are all very much less sanguine about those prospects.

Recently, I was also reading in the Atlantic magazine an article entitled “Is It Time For The Jews To Leave Europe?” by Jeffrey Goldberg, which outlines in depressing detail terrible acts of anti-Semitism in France, Denmark, England, and of all places, Sweden, a real surprise to me, I have to admit. People are beginning to forget the horrors of the Holocaust, resulting in acts of prejudice and hatred both small and large directed toward those who can easily be identified as Jewish. In France, crudely lettered signs of “Nique les Juifs,” Fuck the Jews,” and “Juif, la France n’est pas pour toi” – “Jew, France is not for you,” have begun appearing with alarming frequency in the gritty Parisian suburbs of Montreil and Créteil. And in the Swedish city of Malmö, Jews have been beaten for the simple act of daring to wear a Star of David, or a kippah (i.e., a yarmulke). In years past, the Jews of Algeria often spoke of having to choose between le cercueil ou la valise, the coffin or the suitcase, in other words, death or departure. Nowadays, more and more European Jews are feeling the same pressure.

Here in the United States, gay people have seesawed up and down between the elation of victory and the sting of defeat. On the plus side, same-sex marriage is now legal in thirty-six states and the District of Columbia. But on the other side, the Christian Right has fought back hard. Witness the passage last week of the so-called “Religious Freedom Restoration Act” by the Indiana legislature, signed by Governor Mike Pence. And even though there are current, frantic efforts at “damage control,” as it’s written, this new law gives carte blanche to anyone who wants to refuse services to LGBT people. Don’t care to bake a cake for a gay wedding because this flies in the face of your “sincerely held religious beliefs?” No problem! What about a dry cleaner who wonders about who might be wearing those two tuxedos somebody just brought in? It seems as though she could say, “Sorry, take these to the guy down the street. I don’t think he’s a Christian,” and the customer would have no legal recourse but to do so. And God forbid (literally,) if two women ask for a room with only one bed in an Indiana motel. If the answer is, “No, we don’t do business with people like you,” the only recourse would be for the women to hope that the next motel down the road is run by someone less prejudiced. Or, of course, one of the women could always go register, while the other hides in the car. Heading back into the closet, we might well be told, is always another option.

Why do religions have to condemn anyone who doesn’t espouse their beliefs? The question is not an easy one to answer. And the First Amendment to the Constitution doesn’t always clear things up all that well. Let me remind you of its exact wording:“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

Where exactly is that sweet spot, endlessly and precariously balanced between the rights of people to exercise their sincerely held religious beliefs, and that of all of us to speak and assemble as we wish, or not to ‘deny any person within its (i.e. the States) jurisdiction the equal protection of the law,” to quote another of the Amendments, the fourteenth? Most of us can, and do, agree that beating a person up, to say nothing of killing them, because of their religion, or their sexual orientation, is beyond any such legal protection. But what of the deranged point of view that feels free to write “Fuck the Jews,” or to say people are not obliged to serve gays, because they are an abomination in the sight of God, and serving them would somehow taint those who do so?

This may merely be the price we pay for living in democratic and pluralistic societies. How often do we hear of such problems in countries such as Saudi Arabia, where only the Wahhabi form of Sunni Islam can be practiced, one of the religion’s most conservative and puritanical branches, and where religious police actually patrol the streets to enforce the strictness of its code? Indeed, one of the problems in Europe these days, and which no one can deny contributes to the increase in anti-Semitism, is the mounting influence of Islam, specifically radical Islam. France alone, a country of 66 million people, has almost 5 million Muslims, many of whom are themselves poor, dispossessed, marginalized, and openly discriminated against by the likes of Marie Le Pen’s National Front Party, which polls say may well win in the elections coming up in 2017. Mme Le Pen says she and her followers believe passionately in laïcisme, the time-honored French doctrine that religion should not impose itself in public affairs and government institutions. And yet, the National Front is known to be virulently anti-Muslim, possibly anti-Semitic (although more recently they deny this), and they were at the forefront of the massive demonstrations against gay marriage seen in France in 2014.

Yes, spring comes round each year, with its promises of renewal, resurgence, and regeneration. And that is a good thing. In my mind, in fact, this is the real message of Easter, the promise of resurrecting new life from tattered and desiccated forms, or even of the lifting of one’s awareness from old, worn out ways of understanding our being, to a higher level of consciousness. But ramshackle and decaying ways of seeing the world are hard to rid ourselves of. Just ask the Jews of Monteuil, or the Muslims of Créteil (yes, not coincidentally, that’s where many of them live), or the gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender people of Indiana.

Can we learn to live together in peace and harmony, tolerating—if not honoring—each other’s differences, or are we doomed to fight it out to the bitter end? Is it possible to strike the right balance between not establishing a religion, and permitting the free exercise thereof? And what of equal protection for all under the law? Personally, I like the image of new life emerging from the mud and the muck. So, let’s hope that this spring, this Easter, this Passover will be a new day for all discriminated-against people, and will bring with it a renewed resolution to allow everyone to live as they see fit, as long as there’s no harm to anyone else in so doing. If not, I’m sorry to say, I fear we’re facing yet another long, hot summer, burning with prejudice, and with the slow, but steady, erosion of our cherished personal freedoms.

PREJUDICE: WHERE IT COMES FROM AND WHAT TO DO WITH IT

By Paul M. Lewis

Prejudice, according to professor Jennifer Eberhardt, a researcher on race and equality at Stanford University, “…is not just about police. It’s not something that is just about white people. It’s a function of how we are socialized.”

There’s no doubt a lot of truth in this statement, and we all have to somehow come to terms with how we are socialized in our society. Even so, the effects of prejudice are felt disproportionately by some, much more than by others. I am, for example, not a black man. I don’t know how it feels to wake up in the morning, wondering if I might be stopped, or arrested, or worse, just because I’m driving to work, or walking in an unfamiliar neighborhood. I don’t know what it feels like to have a frightened older white guy shy away from me, just because I happen to be standing behind him in line to get money out of the ATM, or to see a white woman stare at me, pretending not to, hoping that I don’t see the fear in her eyes, simply because I happened to glance up at her in the grocery store while looking for a ripe avocado. I’m not black. I have never experienced these things.

But this clearly is a commonplace experience of black men – particularly young black men – in this country. Many white people consciously suspect black men of the potential of violent crime, not because of anything a specific man does or says or threatens, but simply because of who he is. In other words, young black men are condemned for no other reason than because of how they look. Neither are the police exempt from these sorts of preconceived ideas, as the country knows only too well and has seen countless times. And we don’t have to go back to the Jim Crow South and de jure segregation for examples, even though countless such instances could be cited. We have seesawed of late from Trayvon Martin in Florida, to Michael Brown in Missouri, to Eric Garner in New York. And that is merely to name those who have come to nationwide attention. Other deaths, less famous but equally as tragic, and equally as devastating to the families of those who loved these men, have taken place during that same time period.

To live and breathe in 21st century America is to live with both conscious and unconscious thoughts and feelings, no only about black people, but about others as well. Whoever may not be a member of our particular “tribe,” however that group is defined, is fair game. Anyone who lives near a reservation is well aware of the negative stereotypes they have had drilled into them about Indians. They are lazy, shiftless, alcoholic, and drug-addled. They’re just different from you and me (meaning us whites). We were, for example, visiting a private ranch in northern Arizona not long ago, whose owner conducted tours for the public designed to visit a vast number of ancient petroglyphs on the property. The old cowboy who conducted the tour was a sweet guy, someone you’d be happy to have as your granddad and who, according to his own statement, had made many friendships with local Indians. Yet, at one point in the tour, stopping along the way to show us a half-abandoned traditional Navajo dwelling called a hogan, he said, “These people just think different from us. I’m not saying that’s bad, just different.” Such a statement, while no doubt consciously well meant, demonstrates an underlying prejudice. “These people,” first of all, sets Indians up as distinct, different, foreign, “the other,” and asserting that they think differently (really, how so?) only enhances and aggrandizes this kind of separation. It’s the modern, more polite version of the older, less polite “them injins.”

As a gay man, I am not unfamiliar with prejudice myself, of course. Although in the case of gay people, except for those who are “flamboyantly gay” (is there such a thing as a flamboyantly straight person?), many of us can go undetected. In some instances, for all of our lives, unless we choose to make a statement. Such statements can be made overtly, or more subtly. My partner and I, for example, show up at more or less the same time at the grocery store every Sunday morning to do our shopping (we are remarkably regular about such things), month after month, year after year, and the cashiers at the supermarket eventually begin to understand that we are a couple. But even in modern America, where gay marriage has come to be accepted by a majority of the population, I am still hyper-conscious of what is going on while standing next to my partner at the front desk of a hotel when we travel together. “Yes, one room, with one king bed, please,” we say. What does the clerk behind the counter think? Do I detect a raised eyebrow? Is there a widening of the eyes? And don’t even think of holding hands most places in this country, even today, as any “normal” couple, might do. Nor do I forget that there are people out there, some in this country, but many more in places like Africa, or Russia, or parts of the Middle East, whose intolerance and religious zealotry not only sanctions, but demands, that we be put to death, not for what we look like, but for who we love.

The word prejudice comes from two Latin words that separately mean “pre” and “judgment.” What we do, all of us to one extent or another, is to judge people and situations in advance. This means that, before we ever meet “those people,” that is, those we think of as “other,” we project a set of thoughts, ideas, and feelings about them. Some of these notions are conscious, and some may be held unconsciously. But one way or another, such projection frequently results in a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy, so that what we think actually becomes what we see, or hear, or how we interpret people’s behavior. “Indians just think different from us.” “Those young black guys standing in front of that house talking loud, what’ll they do if I walk by them?” “And those gay folks, you know, they’re all pretty much pansies, who at best know all of the show tunes that ever existed, and at worse are leering at your young son, lying in wait to convert him to their deviant lifestyle.” This is the nature of prejudice. It doesn’t give anybody a chance to be a separate, idiosyncratic human being – good or bad – but lumps people into categories we think we know something about already.

A friend of mine once told me that the great Yogi, Paramahansa Yogananda, founder of Self-Realization Fellowship, and someone whom I consider to be a fully realized avatar, was once traveling on a train in the American South. This was back in the 1920’s, but probably could happen today, as well. A white man seated nearby began to say unkind things to him, wondering how and why he, a brown man, would think it all right to ride in a car along with white folks. Yogananda said one thing only to the man in return: “The Divine Spirit is not pleased when you disparage his brown children.”

The Divine Spirit is not pleased when any of us denigrate and belittle any of his children, be they brown, or black, or red (so-called anyway, although no Indian I ever met actually looked red to me), or gay, or any other category you might care to create. And not just disparage, but pre-judge. Even if being born in America to an extent does predestine us to a degree of racial prejudice, it never means that anyone has to act on it. No one responds in action to every impulse she or he feels. If that were true, there would undoubtedly be a lot more violence in the world than there currently is. And God knows there’s enough already!

When a prejudiced thought comes unbidden into a person’s mind, what is essential is not that it has entered into our head, but what next to do with it. There’s a black man. Be careful! No one has to stop at that. The next thought can, and should be, I don’t know that man as a person; let me not judge him on how he looks, but on how he acts. Let me approach at least with an open mind and heart. Would a smile be so terrible? Or maybe, if we were so inclined, we might even want to say: “There goes my brother, or my sister. No different from me. Just like me, in fact. Of priceless value, and a child of the Divine Spirit.”

“PHILOMENA,” THE CHURCH, AND THE NATURE OF FORGIVENESS

By Paul

In case you haven’t seen the wonderful Judith Dench/Steven Coogan film entitled “Philomena,” let me start off with a brief summary (hopefully without giving too much away).  A young Irish woman conceives a child out-of-wedlock in 1960’s Ireland.  In those days, the sin and shame of such a birth were tremendous, and girls who did so (who “took their nickers down,” in the scolding and remonstrative words of one of the nuns) were outcasts of society.  The girl, Philomena, was packed off to a convent that specialized in these things, and there under the care of the nuns she had her baby.  Forced to sign an agreement to give the child up for adoption, she was not even afforded an opportunity to say goodbye to her baby, when a wealthy couple from America comes to adopt the boy.  The pain of the separation was almost unbearable for the young girl, but her troubles were not over. As were all of the girls, Philomena was forced to work afterwards for 4 more years, doing backbreaking menial labor in order to “pay the nuns back” for all they had supposedly done for her.  Fast-forward 50 years, and the now almost 70 old Philomena still longs to find her son.  The main events of the movie, in fact, revolve around that search, facilitated by a reporter, who eventually took Philomena to the United States to find him.  I hesitate to say much more, for those of you who have not seen the movie (and I hope you will), except to report that, in the end, there was skullduggery enough on the part of the “good nuns” at the abbey to make the reporter justifiably very angry.  Philomena herself, however, in this reenactment of a true story, is somehow able to reach within and find forgiveness for those who had hurt her, and her son, so profoundly.

There is no doubt that the Catholic Church – and to be fair, I suppose, most churches and much of organized religion – has a lot to answer for.  From the Church’s sometimes ambivalent historical stance on slavery (at one point, bishops preached that there were “just” and “unjust” forms of slavery), to the giving of “cover” for the conquest of the Americas by the European powers (the pagan “savage” Indians after all had to be taught the “true religion”), to the crimes supported and even committed by the Church against the Jews over the ages, to the terrible things the last pope said about gay people and the Church’s continuing disparaging of gay relationships, to its forbidding of all forms of birth control (in spite of run-away world overpopulation), to the subjugation of women and their exclusion from the priesthood, to the hiding of sexual predation by priests on the part of local bishops, and on and on.  It is not too strong a statement to say that some of these at least could be thought of as crimes against humanity.

Having spent a number of years in a Catholic monastery in my own early life (I went willingly, however), I saw some of this up close.  The scolding, reprimanding, and reproachful orientation to life we witness on the part of the nuns in “Philomena” did not come from nowhere.  With Vatican II and the papacy of the more human John XXIII, it looked at first as though the Church was finally making a shift and entering more fully into the modern era.  Much of this ascendant promise, however, was soon rescinded during the reigns of various popes that followed, from Paul VI to Benedict XVI.

But what of the Church nowadays?  Is it still mired in the rhetoric and rigidity of post-reformation thinking?  It could be argued that most members of the hierarchy are indeed bogged down in such a doctrinal quagmire.  And whether the new pope, who at least has a more tolerant affect, will in the end bring about real change is yet to be seen.  To be sure, there seems to be something of a split between Catholics who live in the United States and Europe, and those living in Africa and Asia, with the faithful in South America falling somewhere in between, depending on the question.  Here is just a sampling of a recent poll taken among Catholics in these areas.  On the question, “Do you think women should be allowed to become priests?” 64% of Europeans and 59% of Catholics in the US agreed they should be given that opportunity.  However, the split was almost even in South America, 49% for and 47% against, while 76% in the Philippines and 80% of Africans said women should not have the right.  As far as the use of contraceptives is concerned, 86% of Europeans, 79% of US Catholics, and 91% of those in South America say it should be allowed, whereas only 44% of Africans and 31% of Philippinos agree.  Finally, in regard to gay marriage, 38% of Europeans and 37% of South American Catholics favor allowing it, while 54% of the US faithful are in favor; a mere 14% of those in the Philippines say they are for allowing gays to marry, and amazingly in Africa those in favor barely register at 1% of Catholics.

All this amounts to a church in transition, with many push-pull factors splitting congregations in various parts of the world.  Perhaps, who knows, at some point it might even lead to a new division in the Catholic Church, just as the Anglican community risks these days?  Interestingly, too, much of this mirrors the larger political rift we see in the United States now between progressive Democrats and ultra-conservative Tea Party Republicans.  How many are there left anymore in the middle?

Toward the end of the movie, Philomena and the reporter, played by Steve Coogan, are back at the abbey in Ireland.  Some of the same sisters who were in charge when Philomena was a young, pregnant teenager there are still alive.  In a wrenching scene, the reporter reprimands and lambasts these nuns for what they had done.  But Philomena, who has remained a faithful Catholic all these years in spite of everything, stops him.  She feels as much compassion for him as she does for the nuns, it would seem, these same nuns who had traumatized her so, and says to the reporter, “it must be exhausting carrying around so much anger.”

In the end, I wondered, which one does any of us wish to be more like, Philomena or the reporter? Of course, to be sure who among us has not experienced denigration and disparagement aplenty in life?  But does it do any good to hold on to old wounds and deep grudges from the past? No doubt, it’s easy enough to say that it doesn’t, but it is a far more difficult thing to let go of pain, especially pain we feel has been unjustly inflicted.  We hold it like a wounded child, injured and trembling in our arms.  We hope that, by holding it so, we may somehow soothe its fears, its grief, its despair.  Then, feeling the injustice of the child’s undeserved pain, it is all too easy for heartbreak to turn to rage, and to lash out at a cold and unfeeling world for what it has done.

What makes Philomena able to forgive so profound an injury, but the reporter, who feels for Philomena, seemingly unable to do so?  This may be the key question the movie poses: how and whom to forgive, and under what circumstances.  The film does not answer this larger question, but it does give us examples of how two individuals react to injustice, one with justified anger, and the other with compassion and forgiveness.  That said, the film is also not suggesting that it is all right for people to inflict pain on others, or that there should be no consequences to such actions.  The one nun who had played such a pivotal and damaging role in Philomena’s early life, now 50 years later, comes across as a bitter, morose, dispirited, and deeply unhappy old woman.    In this sense, then, consequences may well have come of their own accord, without anyone else having to hasten or enhance them.

So, what lessons may we draw from all this?  Speaking for myself alone, I know I often vacillate between forbearance and wrath, between mercy and outrage, between compassion and blame.   In theoretical physics, or so I have learned from reading about the topic, mathematical calculations can sometimes be so enormously complicated and vexing that reasonable approximations may be the best we can ever expect.  As Brian Greene, author of “The Hidden Reality” puts it, “the art of physics lies in deciding what to ignore.”  Maybe the same could be said about life in general.  Sometimes we have to learn what to ignore, what not to concentrate on, and what ultimately to let go of.

As much as I may fail at it time and time again, I think my preference always would be to try to act more like Philomena than her angry companion.  To be sure, it’s nice to be right, to fell as though we are correct in our judgments, and even our condemnations, but in the end it may just be nicer to live a life of compassion and forgiveness.  After all, as Philomena says, why exhaust ourselves?  And who knows?  Maybe someday we’ll be the ones in need of reprieve, and it is we who will be glad for those who give us a pass and ignore our weaknesses, our imperfections, and what are surely our own unfortunate shortcomings.

DHARUN RAVI, THE LATEST IN HOMOPHOBIA

By Paul

Dharun Ravi, the Rutgers University student whose spying with a webcam on his gay roommate, Tyler Clementi, led to the roommate’s subsequent taking of his own life, has been sentenced to thirty days in jail.  He was also fined $10,000, given three years probation, and assigned to 300 hours of community service.  In all probability, he will not face deportation back to his native India.  The question remains: does such a punishment fit the crime? 

The gay community has been split on the answer to that question.  Some believe that it is far too lenient, that thirty days behind bars pales to nothing in comparison to the life of a young man.  Ten, twenty, thirty years from now, it is a safe bet to assume that Ravi will be alive and building his career and family.  His ex-roommate, however, not to put too fine a point on it, will still be as dead then as he is now, a life unfulfilled and cut too tragically short, due to a stupid and uncaring so-called prank that Dharun Ravi somehow thought would be a fun thing to do.  To call such an act, with such consequences, insensitive, as the judge did, is nothing less than a colossal understatement.   It was a horrendously callous, heinous, and hateful act maliciously perpetrated on an extremely private and highly sensitive young man. 

Ravi could have been sentenced to up to ten years, but the judge maintains that he took into consideration the fact that the defendant had no prior record and that normally charges of so-called bias crimes are reserved for violent assault or murder.  If Ravi’s actions were not a violent assault, and I suppose no one could reasonably say that they were, at least it could well be argued that the effect of his actions surely did turn violent in the end. 

I am not advocating here for a harsher sentence for this young man, as unfeeling, cold-hearted, and uncompassionate as I think he clearly was.  His actions were utterly stupid and vacuous, and as much as he claimed to have had no bias toward gay people, what he did clearly contradicts and gives the lie to what he says.  Even so, I do not see the good that would come from putting him in prison for a long period of time.  We can only hope that he will live his entire life with the memory of the evil he perpetrated on an innocent man, who had never harmed him in any way.  And if it is true that karma brings to all of us the fruits of our actions, good and bad, we can only assume that Dharun Ravi will in one form or another reap what he sowed.

On the side of Tyler Clementi, it does no good to wish that he had been able to better weather the storms of hatred and bigotry.  All gay people experience this kind of thing, perhaps not so directly as Tyler did, but still no one who grows up in the United States and who is gay, whether man or woman, can escape the sting of hostility, ill will, and homophobia.  Witness, merely just as the latest example, the bigoted and hate filled Baptist preacher in North Carolina, who recently declaimed from his pulpit that all lesbians and gay people ought to be put into a pen surrounded by electrified wire and left there to die.  These are the kinds of messages that LGBT people grow up with in this culture, and given the fact that the messages are so pervasive, so invasive, and so insidious, especially for young people it is difficult in the extreme not to allow them to penetrate to some extent. 

As one grows older, for the most part, one finds ways to ward off and deflect the hostility that so often surrounds us.  Indeed, it manifests itself in so many ways, large and small, that gay people are well advised to learn ways to manage and cope.  Some do so by hiding, or at least by dissimulating, and sad to say there are times when that may be the wisest thing to do.  On the other hand, if you live in a large city, especially on either coast, perhaps for the most part you can be relatively, or entirely, open.  Even so, the act of coming out is one that keeps on presenting itself.  Every time a gay person meets someone new, or is put in a new situation, a kind of decision has to be made as to how “open” he or she will be.  Just how safe is it?  What could the consequences be?  Is it worth the effort to do or say what a straight person might not even think twice about in the same circumstances?  Should we, for example, make reference to “my partner,” or “my husband,” of “my wife,” or would it be better entirely if nothing at all were to be said?  How am I feeling, how strong, how much energy do I happen to have right now, how much gumption, how much will, how much courage?    

These are questions that LGBT people face every day, sometimes multiple times a day.  For the most part (although with some very notable exceptions), it is true at least in this country that these are not life-threatening things, nor are they any longer likely to land anyone in jail (as they can in such countries as Uganda, or Zimbabwe, or even Russia).  All the same, they can be unrelentingly exhausting.  And young people in particular, who are just coming to terms with who they are and opening up to friends and family, as I have said, are especially prone to the insidiousness of it all. I do not doubt that it was this kind of atmosphere, as well as the distorted bias and bigotry of his roommate, that contributed to that terrible and fateful decision on the part of Tyler Clementi

Unfortunately, there is no happy ending to this story.  Tyler will not go on to flourish as a musician, or anything else, and for the rest of their lives his parents are going to somehow have to come to terms with the gaping wound of the absence of their son.  Dharun Ravi will go on to put this behind him, even if – let us hope – he will never forget what he did.  Perhaps the bigotry in this case was unthinking on the part of a senseless and delusional young man; perhaps it was more malevolent.  We will probably never know which.  In the end, however, it makes very little difference.  One way or another, a unique and promising life has been snuffed out, we are all the less for it, and homophobia has triumphed once again.

NO RELIGIOUS TEST SHALL EVER BE REQUIRED

By Paul

“No religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to an Office or public Trust under the United States.”  Article VI, The Constitution of the United States of America

 It was for good reason that the Founding Fathers of this country decided to include the above passage in the Constitution they created to govern the newly independent United States.  Specifically, it could be said that they did not want the choice of elected officials to be limited to persons of any one particular religion, and they most definitely did not want an “established religion,” such as Great Britain had, which could lord it over other religions. However, on a grander scale we can also read this section of Article VI as saying that they did not want religion of any kind to interfere with the running of the country.  Thus, by definition within the body of the Constitution itself the United States cannot be called a “Christian country.”  Yes, we may have many people of Christian beliefs living here (note the plural form, by the way, beliefs, that is, not just one form of Christianity), but this does not make the country Christian in any legal sense. 

Why am I even concerning myself at this point with something so self-evident?  First of all, there are those who disagree with the statement that the United States is not a Christian country.  Many, in fact, believe that it is.  For this reason, it is my fervent hope that everyone, conservative and liberal alike, would take the time to read the Constitution.  If anyone has not, I highly recommend it as an extremely interesting and enlightening document.  And for those who may be wondering, a law degree is not required in order to understand it.  Indeed, for the most part I should think that a decent high school education would largely suffice, as it is quite straight-forward, even if its English is now almost two hundred and twenty-five years old. 

I was reminded of all this when I read recently about the results of a poll taken just a few days ago among likely GOP voters in Alabama and Mississippi.  In Alabama, for example, only 14% said that they believed Mr. Obama to be a Christian, while 45% said they thought him to be Muslim, and 41% were not sure.  The results in Mississippi were even more stunning.  There only 12% believed him to be Christian, while 52% said they thought he was a Muslim, and 36% were not sure.  If we combine the number of people who believe him to be Muslim with those who are not certain (meaning, surely, that “maybe he is”), we get a whopping 86% and 88% respectively among likely Republican voters in those two states.     

Now, I hope it goes without saying that I am not trying to make a case here for any one religion over another.   Personally, I don’t think much of any organized religion.  In my experience, and again with perhaps a few exceptions here and there, I find most of them to be astoundingly bigoted and closed-minded.  What is perhaps even more interesting about these polls, however, is what I can only assume to be their strong subtext which, as I read it, is first of all that Christians are better than Muslims, and second that the president is not one of us; he is instead “other.” 

Let us leave aside for the moment, if that is even possible, the whole question of race, and continue concentrating instead on that of religion.  It was in fact Rick Santorum who stated not so long ago that he believed that Pres. Obama based his decisions “…on some phony theology.  Oh, on a theology not based on the Bible.”  These are his words.  What theology could he mean?  Etymologically the word theology means “the study of God,” and is associated only with religion.  And while Santorum may have been speaking about global warming, is it too much of a stretch to think that he also wished to tap into the belief, I will even say the fear, of apparently so many Americans that their president is not “one of them” in some very important way? 

And so, in spite of what the president has repeatedly stated regarding his religious affiliation, a sizeable number of people in the country continue to disbelieve him.  And what if he even were a Muslim?  So long as he, or any future president, believed firmly in what John F. Kennedy said about maintaining an absolute wall between church and state, what difference would it make?   Indeed, what difference?   Difference being the operable word here. 

Maybe I was too hasty above in skipping over the whole issue of race.  Maybe Muslim, or at least “not Christian,” is in this context code for “Black”?  And that in spite of the fact that there are so many Black Christians (note, for example, how many Black fundamentalists have crusaded, and continue to crusade, against gay rights).  Maybe in the end we can only say that none of us is free of his or her prejudices.  Surely, many would say that I am prejudiced against people of faith.  For the record here, let me add that I harbor no prejudice whatsoever against people who believe in the Divine Spirit.  I may, however, have my prejudices against organized religion, and for what I consider to be good reason.  

Indeed, I believe that it is just for these very reasons that those who founded this country were so adamant when it came to separating the state from the church.  “No religious test shall ever be required.”  The italics in this case may be mine, but the sentiments are those of the Founding Fathers, and they could not be more true, more appropriate – or more needed – today.