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Faithful seek to reclaim ‘moral values’

On Election Night 2004, the media declared President George Bush’s win a victory for “moral values.” The phrase was code — a lazy way for the press to say the election was about fear homosexuals might be allowed to marry, fear that embryos would be used to cure disease, fear that a more liberal Supreme Court would maintain American women’s right to an abortion. But Arkansans are about to hear from people who believe it is moral to feed the poor, clothe the naked, care for the sick. People who believe, to borrow a phrase, they ought to love their neighbors as themselves. Meeting recently at the Episcopal Diocesan offices in Little Rock were churchmen, civil rights activists, environmentalists and others who want to remind the public that the right wing does not hold the patent on morality. They discussed, among other things, how to enter the political fray and, once there, how to use religious language without sounding like Pat Robertson. “There’s a growing concern,” said Episcopal Bishop Larry Maze, “that we have allowed religious language to intimidate us and be taken away from us by the religious right. We are less and less confident to talk about issues of morality because we don’t want to be identified with religious conservatives.” People on the left are more likely to be private about their faith. They’ve campaigned for social justice without referring to “Christian” ideals — though they may be, in fact, driven by their faith to seek social justice. If the left is going to regain lost ground, they’re going to have to use the lingo of the right, or at least not be afraid to ask, What would Jesus think about the war in Iraq? The federal budget cuts in social programs? Don’t we face more dire threats than gay marriage presents? The “faith-based task force,” as the group that met at Trinity has come to be known, includes members of the Sierra Club, the National Conference for Community and Justice, the Interfaith Alliance of Arkansas, religious leaders and the new Arkansas chapter of a national Democratic political group that advocates for gay rights, the Stonewall Democratic Club. The Arkansas chapter of the SDC — one of 100 across the country, in nearly every state — was formed last fall. Two weeks ago, SDC president Kathy Webb and other members held a breakfast for legislators. Around 10 lawmakers came — the breakfast unfortunately coincided with a Political Animals Club breakfast with Rep. Vic Snyder — and were regaled with, not political goals, but the personal stories of the gay Democrats who seek their ear on legislation as well. The speakers pointed to their achievements and works in the community and asked, Aren’t we people of value? Shouldn’t Arkansas welcome us? SDC members campaigned for Democratic Party candidates during last fall’s elections, going door to door and raising money. “So we hope and expect to have [the party’s] support” for its causes, Webb said. The SDC will develop political skills among its membership and is setting up a speakers’ bureau, which already is engaged to go to Fayetteville, Jonesboro and Arkadelphia this spring. The SDC will work to achieve Democratic Party ideals like affordable health care, protecting Social Security, etc. —“the same things my neighbors worry about,” Webb said — filtered through the lens of people discriminated against for their sexual orientation. For example, Webb, because her partner is a woman, is not considered family by hospital personnel, and would not be allowed to be with her partner during a medical emergency. Her Social Security benefits couldn’t be passed to her partner, the way they could to a spouse. Since civil rights laws prohibit discrimination based on race, gender or religious grounds but not sexual orientation, when Webb was fired from a job for being gay she had no recourse. The daughter of a Methodist minister, Webb describes herself as a “practicing Christian.” She said her “moral values” are antithetical to those expressed by the religious right. “The values I grew up with are the teachings of Jesus. Did you feed the poor? Clothe the naked? Visit the sick? Go to the prison?” LeeLee Doyle, a longtime faculty member at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences who had the distinction of being the first straight person to join the SDC, is also worried about anti-gay feeling and the current political trend to encode Leviticus and other passages from the Bible into laws for a nation that, in theory, proscribes the entanglement of religion and government. Doyle — no longer the lone straight member of the SDC — said that if prejudice against homosexuals is to be reversed, straight folks are going to have join the fight. Doyle noted that segregationists once quoted the Bible to justify discrimination against black Americans. “The blacks needed the whites,” she said, to use their political access to argue that the moral thing to do was grant black Americans their civil rights. In so doing, they exposed the segs’ Biblical citation for what it was — an excuse born of plain old racism. But it takes more than preaching at people to get them to bring in the outcast, Doyle noted. It takes a change of heart. Doyle told the story of a friend of hers, an otherwise liberal nun, who shocked Doyle one day by telling her she could not, would not tolerate homosexuality. But her running shoes put her on the road to Damascus. She started participating in 10Ks and other races — even became known as the “flying nun” — and in so doing made a world of new friends. After she’d come to know and love them she discovered that, lo and behold, some of them were gay. Doyle said the scales fell from her friend’s eyes and she did a 180-degree turn in her thinking. “Suddenly, she saw her own narrow-mindedness.”
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