Fundamentalists are right to label marriage the final battle. For once, I agree with the Religious Right. In a July 30 conference call to ministers, fundamentalist leader Chuck Colson called the campaign to take away from millions of Californians the right to marry “the Armageddon of the culture war.”
I couldn’t agree more, although I suspect Colson wouldn’t view the campaign to pass Proposition 8 the same way I do. To understand my embrace of an idea promoted by the far right, you have to realize that every time marriage is on a ballot—as it is in three states in November—we’re fighting two battles.
The first is a straight-up political fight where GLBT Americans and heterosexual allies struggle to identify supporters, sway the reachable middle, and get out the vote. Winning takes money, volunteers, political savvy, and organization. Victory for GLBT Americans—particularly in California, where the right to marry already exists—means security for our families. It means we can’t be barred from the hospital rooms of our loved ones, among many other benefits.
The second doesn’t confer any legal rights, but it is the most important one of all. This is the battle over definition. The Religious Right understands this well. In that conference call to rally antiequality pastors in Florida, Arizona, and California, its leaders were hard at work describing, classifying, and labeling.
Judging by that call, equality-minded Americans have enlisted in the army of Satan. The fight for marriage equality, in the words of these pastors, is an effort to censor the Bible, and force churches to do the Devil’s bidding. These leaders portray millions of Americans as demons of a sort, bent on indoctrinating children, destroying churches, and taking away the freedom of Christians to believe and live as they wish.
In the past, we’ve responded to this kind of rhetoric by laughing. I know I’ve chuckled. Other times, we’ve pointed to the millions of dollars fundamentalist leaders make from fear-mongering. We label them hypocrites, declaring that they’re only in the antigay business to make money. That may be true, but campaigning against hypocrisy is not a winning strategy.
Victory in the culture war means winning people’s hearts. That won’t happen unless we win the battle over definition.
To understand how hard this is, you might want to engage in an exercise of imagination. To do so, close your eyes. Imagine that you’re not only straight and a member of a fundamentalist church, but also never have met or had a real conversation with an out GLBT individual or even one of our heterosexual allies. Now, imagine that you believe someone really is coming to attack your children. You believe that the Bible, which gave you comfort, will be ripped out of your hands. You believe your church—an institution that has provided friends, community, and support—will be taken over by the government, and turned into something you don’t recognize. You believe your entire life will be destroyed.
When I take that trip into my imagination, I discover how much definitions matter to people’s peace of mind. They may say they hate the sin and love the sinner, but if they really believe we want to destroy them, how can they not feel like they have been thrown into a life-and-death battle?
By the way, when I take that trip into my mind, I also discover how much I have in common with the people who are fighting so hard to hurt me. We both fear losing our families. We both worry that the government will be turned into a weapon against us.
I fear the leaders of the Religious Right, but not as much as I worry about the rank-and-file members of their churches who believe what their pastors are peddling.
These everyday people are the voters who hurt our families on election days. These are the nurses, doctors, and bureaucrats who keep us from the deathbeds of our spouses, as they kept Janice Langbehn from seeing her dying partner, Lisa Pond, in a Miami hospital last year. These are the teachers who influence our children. These are the barroom brawlers who take any excuse to bash us.
All these people never will be able to see past the devil masks their leaders have placed on our faces, until they understand that we love, just like they do. We have families, just like they do. We are human beings, just like them.
Colson is right: The struggle over marriage is Armageddon—the final battle between the forces of good and evil. But this conflict doesn’t pit demons against saints, Satan against Christians, or even gays against fascist fundamentalists. It pits truth against fear. The Religious Right only wins if people stay afraid. It’s up to us to make certain it doesn’t succeed.
Diane Silver is a former newspaper reporter and magazine editor whose freelance writing has appeared in Ms. Magazine, Salon.com, and other national publications. She can be reached care of this publication, or at LesbianNotions@qsyndicate.com.