A Clear Vision: Developing a Religious Strategy for Equality

Strategists and activists for gay rights cannot ignore conservative religious arguments. When it comes to challenging the religious right, strategizing with progressive religious leaders and theologians makes sense.
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"I'm running because I really believe in the Biblical phrase, 'without vision, the people perish.'" This was the rationale former Speaker of House Newt Gingrich gave for remaining in the political race for president, despite the shellacking he received in the Mississippi and Alabama primaries. Clearly he hopes that the majority of Americans will agree with his vision of a "true conservative" and that it will put him in the White House.

When Mr. Gingrich references this passage from the book of Proverbs, he is banking on religious communities understanding his coded language. A "vision" isn't just a hope for a specific future outcome but a God-given, prophetic picture of what will happen. But more than just a picture, "visions" are understood to be marching orders from God to the people. In that context, Newt is implying that his presidential run is ordained and championed by God. Similar strategies have been used by candidates Santorum and Romney in the ways they infuse their religion into their campaign in order to resonate with voters.

Religious talk is nothing new in presidential politics. George W. Bush perfected it during his campaigns, and our current slate of Republican candidates is taking a page from that playbook. When one uses religious talk or quotes from a sacred text to position him or herself, there is a hesitancy to give challenge because of the authority our culture associates with such words. Strategists who are not familiar with religious talk or the sacred text find it hard to fight fire with fire. In political debates and cable news shows, when a person uses religious language to position a point, it is common for his or her opponent to ignore or sidestep the tactic and respond with a secular argument. Often, the result is that the person who is using religious talk is viewed as authoritative and standing up for a "righteous" cause, while the other is seen as godless and inauthentic.

A recent example of this was during a TV interview with Bishop Harry Jackson, the Senior Pastor of Hope Christian Church in Beltsville, Md. Bishop Jackson defended his opposition to the new Maryland law allowing same-sex couples to marry by citing his "freedom to express his religious beliefs." It is this freedom, he believes, that compels him and other pastors to lead the charge to have a referendum on the November ballot that would strip Maryland's same-sex couples of the right to marry.

I agree with the bishop that he is free to express his religious beliefs, and that those beliefs can and should dictate his actions. I am not making the argument that people should not express their religious convictions, or that they should not defend those beliefs. However, there are members of the religious right who are masters of religious talk and know how to use words to create the false perception of moral superiority as a way to further their very morally inferior agenda.

When it comes to speaking about issues of spirituality and religion, the religious right has successfully taken control of the national conversation, getting the lion's share of the time on our airwaves and in our public squares. It is important for those of us who count ourselves as religious but not as members of the religious right to not allow others to force their vision for our lives and our country upon us.

Religious beliefs and practices are important. Many public opinion polls ask their subjects what religion they practice and how often they attend worship, because we know that one's religion has an impact upon the way we vote and engage on social issues. Many of us have heard often that "change from liberals will tear at the fabric of American society," but a vision of a country based upon the conservative agenda is a vision where it is better to stick to your own kind and shun anything and anyone who is different. This is a nearsighted vision that traps people in traditions that choke the life out of them.

Progressive people who do not consider themselves as religious may dismiss all religious talk as "gibberish" or not worthy of our time and attention. Strategists and activists for gay rights cannot ignore conservative religious arguments or just offer secular messages to counter opposing views when debating and defending an equality agenda. When it comes to challenging and even reasoning with the message of the religious right, strategizing with progressive religious leaders and theologians makes sense. The work of HRC's Religion and Values department, the National Black Justice Coalition, and many other religious leaders helped craft a progressive religious strategy for marriage equality in the state of Maryland. Their efforts have proven effective, but there are other battlefronts throughout our country that need progressive people to stand up and speak out on the issues being dominated by a conservative point of view.

Viewing religion as an enemy or something practiced by the "simpleminded" is not only an offensive stereotype; it is an ineffective strategy. There are many articulate progressive people of faith who know how to dismantle harmful and divisive religious strategies by sharing their vision of the equality of all citizens. If we want to win the battle in our country to make sure all citizens are safe and have equal access, we have to challenge the religious right's false and self-serving vision. We must put forward a different vision for our nation, one where all people are respected and valued for who they are and what they are able to contribute. This is a view that everyone is able to enjoy.

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