Originally Published in HWFmag
The thought of me writing a column on religion is rather comical really. It is sort of akin to a teetotaller writing a guide to single-malt whiskey distilleries in the Scottish Highlands for the British Tourist Authority. I grew up in a family where the practice of religion (or religious preference as I prefer to call it, as, unlike sexual orientation, religion truly is a choice) didn’t play much of a role in our lives. My parents were Jewish so I went through the absolute minimum of religious school and Hebrew lessons needed to get my Bar Mitzvah at the time of my thirteenth birthday. My parents and my grandparents rarely if ever attended synagogue. However, my father thought that it was important for me to at least have some understanding of my heritage, to understand the background of Judaism to better ground me when I faced the prejudice that Jews have faced for thousands of years.
Although my family didn’t actively practice its religion, they suffered hate on a personal level. My father and his parents fled to New York from Hamburg, Germany in 1935 when my dad was ten years of age. My grandfather worked as a newspaper sports reporter and his friends warned him that the Nazis were serious, that things were going to get much worse and that he should get his family out of Germany. Some of my dad’s relatives ended up in Switzerland, Argentina, Brazil and the United States. Others in his family weren’t so lucky as they died in the Nazis’ gas chambers that were fuelled by hate. In fact, one family member on my dad’s side was able to leave Germany but was homesick and returned never to be heard from again.
My grandfather died on December 7, 1941 and on their way home from the hospital, my dad and grandmother heard on the radio that Japanese airplanes had bombed the American Naval Base in Pearl Harbour, Hawaii and that the U.S. was entering World War II. My grandmother married Oscar Falk a family friend, also a German Jew who had moved to New York and lived with my grandparents. Papa Oscar joined the army and was a translator on General Eisenhower’s staff and was one of the first Americans to enter Berlin with Eisenhower.
When my dad turned eighteen he volunteered to become a member of the United States Army Air Corps. My dad went through extensive training and became a tail gunner on a B-17. He would joke that he was a fighter pilot who flew backwards. Dad and the rest of his crew were based in England. My love for Great Britain began, long before I became a student in London, from hearing so many loving stories from my dad about the British and the time he spent in England. It intensified during my four months studying British Broadcasting in London during the Autumn of 1973 and has continued to do so over the years as I have come back to visit friends.
During my dad’s first bombing mission his B-17 sustained damage causing it to crash somewhere in the east of France. Dad became a prisoner of war and lived in German POW camps for eleven months. As the Allies invaded Germany, the Germans moved my father from one German POW camp to another forcing him and other POWs to walk across most of Germany. My dad was plagued by poor circulation in one of his feet for the rest of his life caused by frostbite from that long trek across Germany. The dog tags that my father wore around his neck indicated that he was a Jew. The fact that my dad survived and that I was eventually born seven years after he was freed is nothing short of a miracle.
Dad died in 1983, seven years before I came out of the closet. I believe that one of the reasons that he so quickly enlisted on his eighteenth birthday was so that his future son wouldn’t have to face the discrimination and hatred that he did.
When I grew up religion was something that people practiced within their own families and amongst others of the same faith. It wasn’t considered polite to discuss sex, politics or religion in public. In fact one discussed religion about as frequently as one discussed one’s bowel habits, salary or favourite sexual positions! Americans of all faiths strongly believed in the separation of church and state, which had been written into our Bill of Rights (the first ten amendments to the US Constitution) in December of 1791. Boy, have times changed! For over thirty years fundamentalist Christians have been methodically organizing to grab control of American government from local school boards right on up to the presidency of the United States and the US Supreme Court. George W. Bush is their man. In fact, Bush claims that God talks to him regularly (hopefully in words of two syllables or less so as not to confuse him). The fundamentalists have four of the nine judges on the Supreme Court in their pockets (just one more and they will control the Supreme Court too).
Today politicians and preachers spew comments from the campaign trail and their pulpits that the United States is a Christian nation (and by Christian they mean their personal interpretation of Christianity). Fundamentalist Christians have gained control of textbook selections throughout much of the United States and are pushing for creationism to be taught in our public schools alongside (but eventually replacing) evolution. In fact the Grand Canyon National Park has books in its gift shop stating that the Grand Canyon is no more than six thousand years old because they claim the Bible says that the world was created six thousand years ago. Religious fundamentalists ignore the history of their ancestors’ immigration to the United States because of religious persecution in the countries of their birth. The religious zealots preach that America’s founding fathers were all good Christians, when in fact many were deists, Unitarians and Freemasons.
As the 2008 presidential campaign has cranked up each of the candidates is trying to portray themselves as being more religious than their opponents and many voters choice for President and Congress will be determined by whether or not the candidate is a good Christian, rather than how competent they are, whether or not they will continue or reverse the insanity foisted upon us by Bush, what they will do to improve the environment and fight global warming or how they will provide America with a long overdue universal healthcare programme.
In fact, just this past week there was an article in the Dallas Morning News quoting a pastor claiming that Mitt Romney, who is running for President in the Republican primaries and is a Mormon, “isn’t qualified to be President because he isn’t a Christian”. I always find such comments about Mormons perplexing since the proper name for their church is The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. If Mormons aren’t Christians then I don’t know what the heck they are. They sure aren’t Jewish! Maybe Mormons aren’t the fundamentalists’ brand of Christianity so therefore they aren’t Christian. Does anybody besides me see a pattern here?
Fundamentalist Christians have used the bashing of gays as a means of gaining both power and boatloads of cash. Rev. Mel White, a gay man who came out of the closet in the early 1990s after fighting his sexual orientation for more than twenty-five years, ghost wrote autobiographies for many of the powerful Christian fundamentalist leaders including Jerry Falwell, Billy Graham, Jim and Tammy Faye Baker and Pat Robertson. After coming out, Mel went on to become the gay community’s expert at tracking the hate speech against gays from the fundamentalist Christian right and founded the organization Soulforce to peacefully protest their anti-gay teachings. Wayne Besen, founder and director of Truth Wins Out is the gay community’s leading expert at debunking the quack science and propaganda from the fundamentalists’ ex-gay movement that is used to put gay people through harmful and unsuccessful reparative therapy.
To be fair there are religions and affirming congregations that have reached out to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. These include the Reform and Reconstructionist branches of Judaism, the Unitarian Universalists, and more liberal congregations in a number of Christian denominations.
One of the biggest liberal mavericks in mainstream Christianity has been Bishop John Shelby Spong, who was bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Newark (a city just west of New York City in New Jersey) for 24 years before he retired in 2001. He has always been a strong supporter of the gay community as evidenced by his essay published in December 2004 titled, Homophobia – No Compromise Possible. Christian fundamentalists despise him and whenever Bishop Spong comes out with a new article or book many of them go outside to their backyards, dig a nice deep hole in the ground, jump in and practice turning over in their graves. This automatically makes Bishop Spong a hero in my book!
The Metropolitan Community Church or UFMCC is a Christian denomination that includes 250 congregations in twenty-three countries. It was founded as a Christian faith that welcomes gay congregants.
The Cathedral of Hope, located right here in Dallas is the world’s largest liberal Christian church with a primary outreach to lesbian, gay bisexual and transgender people. The Cathedral of Hope has over 52,000 worldwide constituents, 3,500 members and 1,500 weekly attendees.
My dear friend of over fifteen years, Wynn Wagner, became an Old Catholic (not to be confused with Roman Catholic) priest and then bishop a few years ago and started the St Mychal Judge Church here in Dallas. Wynn’s church is “open and accepting, regardless of your background. You are welcome at our altar even if you are divorced or gay. We welcome both saints and sinners, and most of us are closer to sinner than saint.” Wynn says that he never came out because he was never in the closet. Wynn preaches love and inclusiveness with his parishioners enjoying his ministry, which is enriched by his unequalled sense of humour. Wynn talks about the old saying of the sand in the oyster from which pearls are formed. He just told me, “I am not the sand in the oyster; I am the thumbtack!”
The 2007 Pride Parade in Dallas, held in September, had approximately 100 groups marching and at least twenty percent of them were LGBT religious organizations and affirming congregations.
Still, the work of these fine individuals and organizations barely makes a dent in the harm perpetrated against gays in America by religious fundamentalists.
I am somewhat encouraged by a new book that has just been published, “unChristian: What a New Generation Thinks About Christianity”, by David Kinneman. He is the President of the Barna Group, which, among other things does religious research. The ultimate aim of the Barna Group “is to partner with Christian ministries and individuals to be a catalyst in moral and spiritual transformation in the United States”. The research upon which the book was based found that, “young people have graded Christianity, and so far, the report card doesn’t look good. Majorities of young people in America describe modern-day Christianity as judgmental, hypocritical and anti-gay. What’s more, many Christians don’t even want to call themselves ‘Christian’ because of the baggage that accompanies the label.” The Barna Group is hardly a liberal think tank. Perhaps there is a glimmer of hope after all!
Personally, I don’t care what one’s religious beliefs are as long as they aren’t forced upon me. If one believes it is sinful to dance, one shouldn’t dance. If one believes that one shouldn’t ride in horseless carriages or use electricity or wear ‘fancy’ clothes, as the Amish believe, so be it. If one believes that eating pork or shellfish is wrong then one shouldn’t include them in their diet.
However, I draw the line when others tell me that I must live my life according to the religious tenets of their faith. I see the damage done to lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender people by the fundamentalists who doggedly preach selected portions of the Bible. Conveniently they leave out passages that condemns behaviour that they find perfectly acceptable. I wonder how many of them would seek treatment from physicians who base their practice of medicine solely upon knowledge that was available two thousand years ago, thus ignoring all scientific progress that has been learned since then. I am sick of having fundamentalist religious dogma shoved down my throat and I have no desire to live in a theocracy, which the United States is all too close to becoming.
Today I identify as an atheist and relish the teachings of Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins. Both are being vilified by fundamentalist Christians in the U.S. as being nothing short of antichrists. Some complain about their shrillness and audacity at being so vocal. Finally, a few people have the balls to stand up against the ever-growing domination of the American psyche by religious zealots forcing their beliefs upon all of us. I am also a huge fan of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, which was started by a grad student in Oregon in 2005 in response to the Kansas School Board considering the addition of Intelligent Design (creationism in sheep’s clothing) to the curriculum taught in schools in the state of Kansas.
Fundamentalist Christians can believe that the earth isn’t older than six thousand years because they think their two thousand plus year-old Bible tells them so. Personally, I’ll stick with the Flying Spaghetti Monster, if for no other reason than it will make a great meal in a pinch. Would somebody please pass me the Parmesan cheese and pour me a glass of Chianti?
- Soulforce – soulforce.org
- Wayne Besen – waynebesen.com
- Truth Wins Out – truthwinsout.org
- Bishop John Shelby Spong (Be sure to click on the “Bishop Spong on Homosexuality” link on his site) – johnshelbyspong.com
- Metropolitan Community Church – mccchurch.org
- Cathedral of Hope – cathedralofhope.com
- Wynn Wagner – wynnwagner.com
- St Mychal Judge Old Catholic Church – mychaljudge.com
- The Barna Group and the book “unChristian: What a New Generation Thinks About Christianity” – barna.org
- Sam Harris (author of “The End of Faith” and “Letters to a Christian Nation”) – samharris.org
- Richard Dawkins (Fellow at Oxford University since 1970 and author of “The God Delusion” and many other books) – richarddawkins.net
- The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster – venganza.org
© 2007 John R. Selig. All rights reserved.