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Sanctifying the Evangelical Vote

Pulpit Politics

The major political event of 1986 has been the emergence of the Christian right as a disciplined voting bloc within the Republican party. While television evangelist Pat Robertson may be its initial beneficiary, the ride of these white fundamentalist Christians could help push the Republicans further along the road towards majority party status. And in the process it broadens the ideological base for the right, some of whose leaders have been identified with fundamentalism and who have been the stalwarts of the Reagan Revolution.

Inspired by Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority (recently renamed the Liberty Federation), and unscathed by derisory press, the Christian right has shown itself to be a disciplined political machine this spring. Recently, Christian candidates in Michigan loyal to Pat Robertson outnumbered those pledged to George Bush and Jack Kemp in precinct caucuses. The caucuses are the first step in picking delegates to the Republican national convention in 1988. After the Michigan vote, Robertson and Bush were roughly even in delegate strength — about 35 to 40 percent, which Jack Kemp had 20-30 per cent. Robertson campaigned as if he were in the final stage of a presidential election, making half a dozen personal appearances and spending $100,000 to stage a political rally that was televised across the state. Overall, Robertson’s supporters spent far more than his rivals.

Right-wing Christian candidates also dominated last month’s Republican Party delegate and platform process in Des Moines, Iowa. In two Indiana House districts, avowedly Christian candidates recently scored upsets to gain Republican nominations, and in Oregon a fundamentalist Baptist minister drew 43 percent of the vote in the GOP primary against Senate Finance Committee Chairman Bob Packwood. Robertson has hosted fund-raisers for Christian Republican candidates in Tennessee and New Mexico. And fundamentalists in Minnesota are battling to win the Republican gubernatorial candidacy.

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The term evangelical encompasses Protestant individuals and groups with different political views who share a belief in the authority of the Scriptures. Some are Republicans, some are Democrats. There are significant groups of evangelicals in the South and Midwest. And within these communities, right-wing, white Christian fundamentalists of the Robertson stripe account for a small but active bloc.

If it could ever be organized, the so-far amorphous and conflicted evangelical vote could be an important factor in politics. Twenty years ago the Gallup poll, which probes evangelism, found that 20 percent of the public claimed to have had a born-again experience (the gauge of evangelism used by Gallup). In 1984, the figure rose to 39 percent. If accurate, this means there are more than 65 million adult evangelicals and potential voters. And while these figures often are dismissed as too high, they may actually underplay the strength of the evangelical movement. Two-thirds or more Americans side with Christian fundamentalists in favor of tougher pornography laws, against homosexuals teaching in public schools, and in the belief that prayer is important, according to Gallup. Over 50 percent were opposed to abortion. All of these have been hotly debated issues on the campaign trail this spring.

Pat Robertson’s victory in Michigan last week makes it all the more likely that he will run for president. He now is a real threat to Jack Kemp, whose natural constituency he is attracting, and a serious obstacle to George Bush. Like Jesse Jackson in the Democratic Party, Robertson could become a major, if not decisive, factor in who gets the nomination and in the setting of party priorities.

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The Christian right poses a severe problem for George Bush, who in 1980 was widely portrayed on the right as an East Coast establishment figure who was both ineffective and soft on communism. Bush has since gained grudging respect from the right. But Robertson, like Reagan, is charismatic, and his right-wing credentials are unquestionable. Whatever the result of the presidential campaign, Robertson has and will act as a corrective influence on Bush, moving debate within the party further right.

When Bush’s advisers warned him recently that Robertson was moving up fast in Michigan and could wipe him out, the vice-president brushed them aside. Since the vote, Bush agents have been attempting to put their best face forward, insisting that the vice-president and Robertson equally split the vote. Privately, one Bush operative acknowledged that Robertson “got it all.”

Robertson is all the more powerful in these early stages because Bush has no real strategy for winning the evangelical vote. Jerry Falwell’s early support of Bush, once thought to be an asset, has turned into a hindrance. “There’s not one single plus in Falwell,” says a Bush adviser, who argues the Moral Majority leader has been discredited among fundamentalists because of his inflexibility (i.e., his unyielding defense of apartheid). Bush still has supporters among fundamentalists — TV evangelist Jim Bakker, for one. And he has good friends, including TV evangelist Billy Graham and Robert Schuller. In an effort to remedy his diminished stature among evangelicals, Bush will soon distribute a videotape in which he explains his position on various matters of faith. Some advisers hope Bush will ingratiate himself with evangelicals by making the protection of their political rights a campaign issue. But after Michigan, the vice-president’s advisers are glum. They acknowledge that Bush must move fast or face a cohesive fundamentalist bloc of Roberson supporters.

The rise of the Christian right within the Republican Party could be the galvanizing event that organizes the evangelical vote. Or, if the Democrats have their way, it could tar the GOP as the party of Jesus freaks. “The religious right is now institutionalized in the Republican Party … they have gained more influence over hitherto moderate candidates,” says Kevin Phillips, the political analyst. Having to address the interests of a fringe within the party, he says, “is likely to cause trouble for the Republicans rather than being an almost unmitigated plus.”

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Up the hill from sterile downtown Des Moines lies the political redoubt of the new Christian right — the large complex that houses the First Federated Church, its offices, and its Christian school. A few blocks away stands the equally impressive First Assembly of God Church. Within these buildings, fundamentalist churchmen preach both the Bible and politics. First Federated, which has a Sunday television worship program and a congregation of over 2000, has contacts with Falwell’s Moral Majority and Robertson’s Freedom Council. The church is active in voter registration and issues report cards on how politicians stand on issues that matter to its members. Recently, officials of the churches and members of their congregations have begun to organize the priorities of the city’s Republican Party apparatus.

Iowa is in the news these days because of the farm crisis. But it may turn out that religious conservatism will play a stronger role in the state’s politics than the demise of the family farm. The social issues of the Christian right have had a thorough airing in Iowa. The state, for example, has been the center of a fight to win equal time for creationism in the public schools.

The center of the Christian movement is in Des Moines (Polk County) and its suburbs (Dallas County). In mid-January, some two dozen fundamentalists in Dallas County met to organize for precinct caucuses. Both Republicans and Democrats were scheduled to hold 22 caucuses where they would elect delegates for county conventions and begin work for political platforms.

“God is giving us one last chance to get our act together,” Steve Scheffler told the group of fundamentalists in Dallas County last January. Scheffler is the state coordinator for the Freedom Council, the Virginia Beach-based organization, founded by Pat Robertson and dedicated to restoring “traditional” American values in government. The Freedom Council is a tax-exempt organization and refrains from overt political endorsement. Scheffler never mentioned Robertson’s campaign; instead, he encouraged the group to form a Christian caucus to plan for the precinct meetings.

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Scheffler himself has little experience in political organizing. He previously ran unsuccessfully for state office in Iowa; then last summer he took a training course in political organizing at the Freedom Council’s headquarters. This past winter in Des Moines, Scheffler became the catalyst for fundamentalist organizing.

“So many times we holler, but we don’t take a stand,” Scheffler told the Dallas County group. “If we want those Christian values returned, we have to get out of the pew.”

Two weeks later, 50 fundamentalists caucused informally at the Dallas Country Christian School and, taking Scheffler at his word, broke into 22 groups, one for each precinct in the county, decided who to nominate at the upcoming caucuses, and discussed possible platforms. Having shown their strength at the precinct caucuses, the Christians moved on to the county conventions and, in Dallas County, easily established dominance. Marc Stiles, a reporter for the Dallas County News who covered the event, gave a description of the debate: Moderate Republican attempts to water down a plank against abortion were easily beaten; an effort to weaken a plank supporting stronger laws against pornography, on grounds that such a law would infringe on the First Amendment, was quickly silenced. “Pornography,” said one fundamentalist delegate, “is stench on the nostrils of the holy God.”

A motion to strike the word “prayer” from a plank supporting a return to prayers and the Pledge of Allegiance in the public school system drew the ire of the Christians. “Removing prayer from the public school system was the same as removing God,” said one. The motion was decisively beaten. Next was a platform supporting the rights of business people and landlords not to accommodate gays. “Everyone thinks it’s cute to see two men kiss,” said another Christian delegate. “I think it’s sick.” The plank that labeled homosexual acts as “perverted sexual deviations not socially acceptable by American society” easily passed over objections by a man who said it was against the law in the U.S. to discriminate against people on the basis of race, religion, and lifestyle.

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Don Morris, the associate pastor of the First Federated Church in Des Moines, began to preach politics during the presidential campaign in 1984. This year he was a delegate to the Republican district convention. Morris says he was drawn to politics by other fundamentalist ministers he admires, and by the examples of Falwell and Robertson. Like many of the fundamentalists I spoke with in Des Moines in late April, Morris voted for Jimmy Carter in 1976, then, realizing the error of his ways, supported Reagan. Morris now supports Bush for president in 1988, as do, he says, many members of his church. In Morris’s view, Bush has been a loyal Reagan-supporter, and he is a more realistic candidate than Robertson.

“For the longest time we blamed the politicians for stealing our rights,” he says. “Then we finally woke up and realized that we hadn’t spoken out when we should have, and said instead of complaining, let’s do what is right as citizens and use our God to bring back to America the Judeo-Christian ethics it was founded on.” Morris is especially concerned with social values. In a pamphlet, “The Battle for Our Children,” he attacks Smurf dolls, whose magical games make them agents of Satan. “If the pulpit does a good job,” Morris says,”the Christian community will always be involved in having a voice in government and legislating morality.”

At the county convention in Des Moines in March, Christian activists distributed a set of principles that revealed how thoroughly they had thought out the political situation. “When you have control of a party,” read one, “it might not be wise to place ‘our’ people into any and every position. Get the counsel of wise Christian politicians when in doubt.”

As the Christian right’s organizing drive in Iowa picked up steam, it made allies among nonreligious conservatives. Among them is Ian Binnie, a fiscal conservative, former member of the Des Moines school board, and secretary of the Polk County Republican Party. “There is an evangelical vote in this area, and it is based on some very clear-cut issues,” Binnie says. “I am not a religious conservative by any means, but I consider them natural allies … I diverge with them on the abortion issue. I wish it would just go away. I concede them the high moral ground.” On prayer in schools: “I’m not sure it did me any good, but it didn’t do me any harm. I can’t get excited about the idea of a minute of silence.”

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“Robertson is a real force, but I don’t see him as a viable candidate,” Binnie says. “Kemp is not as strong here as theoretically he should be. These people are all for Reagan now, and Bush has a loyalty to Reagan. Bush is very powerful here.”

Having successfully gained control of precincts in both counties, then asserting themselves at the county conventions, the alliance of newly active Christian fundamentalists and fiscal conservatives went on to easily dominate the district convention. By margins of two-thirds, they adopted social policy planks attacking abortion and pornography and endorsing family values. The Des Moines Register said the coalition fielded 400 of 450 delegates and attributed the large attendance to the evangelical turnout. Operating with the precision of a political machine, the fundamentalists sought to widen their coalition, supporting moderate Republicans for the party central committee and voting down audacious amendments from their own ranks (i.e., proposals to make committing an abortion a capital crime.)

Bob Dole, the Senate majority leader from Kansas, who is unofficially campaigning for president in 1988, was in Iowa during the county conventions last month. Seeking support from where he could find it, he embraced the Christian right; “the evangelical movement in the GOP is welcome,” Dole said. “There is lots of room in the party … If we want to be the big national party, then we have to be diverse.”

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Christian fundamentalists around Des Moines believe their ideas are misrepresented by the press, which often depicts them as intolerant kooks. So it was with some uneasiness that Jim and Kathy Michael agreed to sit down with me over breakfast in their DeSoto home one recent Saturday morning. We sat in the kitchen over coffee and doughnuts and talked about politics, AIDS, communism, and Christian rock as an antidote for rock ‘n’ roll.

Kathy was brought up in the Baptist Church and, as a child, Jim attended Methodist Church. He left the church early, but became religious as an adult. Jim Michael works for the Des Moines power company. Kathy is a housewife, bringing up their five children — four boys and a girl. Both are fundamentalists and are active in Republican Party politics. Jim has served as a member of the DeSoto planning and zoning commission and most recently spent a four-year stint on the town council. Last year, he ran for mayor and came in third. Over the last four years, Kathy has been a poll-watcher at local elections. Both Michaels were active in previous precinct caucuses, but this year they ran as delegates and won. When asked who they’d support for the presidency, both said they hadn’t made up their minds. “If they were running tomorrow, I’d be in trouble.”

On abortion their views were similar to those of most Christian fundamentalists: “We recognize the amoeba as a primitive form of life,” says Jim. “If scientists can do that, then what is their problem in recognizing that two cells are tying into one and creating life.” Unlike some pro-lifers who oppose the death penalty as inconsistent with their support for sanctity of all life, Kathy Michael was adamant in her support: “An eye for an eye,” she says. “I don’t mean that if someone kills my child I should go out and take his life. I feel that we have laws and that people should abide by them.”

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AIDS has intensified the Michaels’ fear of homosexuals. Both Michaels believe the population at large should be tested for AIDS antibodies, and, “until we know” more, Kathy is for a quarantine. “It even crossed my mind when one of my children had something,” says Kathy. “He kept getting sick. I don’t know how in the world he would have gotten such a thing, but once in a while the thought will cross your mind.”

“I am against homosexuality because God says ‘no.’ But I am not against the homosexual, and there is a difference,” Kathy says. “It’s just like when I tell my children I love them very much, but I do not love everything they do.”

Should homosexuals be denied certain jobs? Should they be permitted to teach in public schools? “I have a hard time with that,” Kathy says. “How do I know if this person keeps his private life to himself. If a person chooses to be a homosexual, that is his right. Does he have the right to molest small children? Many of them do. I’m not saying all of them do.”

“It’s hard to say these people don’t have the right to teach,” says Jim. Kathy disagreed: “My instincts would tell me no because of fear for the children.”

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In the Des Moines area, fundamentalists increasingly have turned to Christian schools, and there is considerable support for teaching children at home. The Michaels support the trend. “I am 100 percent behind it,” Kathy says. “We have to be careful of the textbooks being used today … [they] have socialism in them — material on Russia versus our own country and Marx versus George Washington.”

The Michaels are opposed to communism, not only because they are fearful of aggressive war launched by the Soviet Union, but also because it runs counter to their Christian values. Jim wants to roll back communism.

“I’m not saying we should go into every place with guns,” Jim says. “I’m just saying that they [anti-Communists] may need help and we should aid them. But Communist nations mostly don’t go in and take over militarily. They go in and start educating people. They take their own agents in and begin to cause turmoil. I believe this is happening on our campuses today, that there is a certain amount of turmoil and unrest that is being bred on our campuses. They are putting a lot of questionable doubt in the minds of these future parents and leaders.”

Because they have teenage kids, rock ‘n’ roll music presents a real problem for the Michaels.

“I don’t want rock music in this house,” says Kathy. “I don’t even like this Christian rock music, but we have compromised on that. But now you’ve got backmasking. You can take records and play them backward. They’ve got hidden messages … The new thing is political rock with Bruce Springsteen. I like the music, I just don’t like the words. I think he’s teaching rebellion across the country.”

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Behind the politics of the Christian right lies the powerful engine of Armageddon theology, which lends an emotional intensity to the movement. Numerous fundamentalist leaders — Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson to name but two — preach the doctrine of “premillennialism,” which holds that the world is entering a period of indescribable devastation and suffering. Its climax will be the battle of Armageddon and the return of Christ.

Premillennialists have been wrong in prophesying Armageddon at various points in history. Under President Reagan such prophecies have gained new currency. The president himself speculated on the subject in a 1981 interview with People magazine: “Never, in the time between the ancient prophecies up until now has there been a time in which so many of the prophecies are coming together. There have been times in the past when people thought the end of the world was coming, and so forth, but never like this.”

Jerry Falwell told the Los Angeles Times in 1981, “All of history is reaching a climax, and I do not think we have 50 years left.” And when Falwell was asked whether Reagan agreed with him on such matters, he replied, “Yes he does. He told me, ‘Jerry, I sometimes believe we’re heading very fast for Armageddon right now.'”

The right often pictures the farm crisis in the Midwest as a sign of the end times. Pornography, homosexuality, and AIDS are all viewed as signs of God’s judgment on sinners. The increasing conflagration in the Middle East, Libya’s threatening acts, and Communist aggression in the third world are all seen by some fundamentalists as part of an Armageddon countdown.

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In the story of Armageddon, the Middle East becomes the world’s last battleground, with God saving Israel from destruction by invading armies. In The 1980s: Countdown to Armageddon, Hal Lindsey, by far the most popular writer on the meaning of the end times, unaccountably concludes that, although he believes the U.S. will decline in power, it can still survive. “If some critical and difficult choices are made by the American people right now,” he writes, “it will be possible to see the U.S. remain a world power.” The choices Lindsey has in mind amount to embracing a right-wing political program.

Tim LaHaye, self-proclaimed “Christian ambassador to Washington, D.C.,” is president of the American Coalition for Traditional Values, which supports fundamentalist politics. He says he represents 45 million “born-again, Bible-believing Christians.” LaHaye argues that God will rout the Communists: “Some Bible teachers say when God rains fire and brimstone on the armies around Israel, gathered to destroy this nation, he is also going to send a similar fire on the coastlands. Now these coastlands could be the nations of the Western Empire, so that wherever the Marxist spies are entrenched they will suddenly drop dead … That would mean in a practical sense that the Marxist spies in America, on the university campus, in the State Department, wherever they are moled out, and in Great Britain, Canada, and Australia, where they are doing their devious work—suddenly they will be eliminated by fire.”

Other fundamentalist writers counsel that survivalist techniques can help true believers make it through Armageddon until God rescues them in the Rapture. “We are considering the time when Christians will not be able to buy and sell, and will want to be independent of the utility system,” writes Jim McKeever, who says he is a computer expert, consulting economist, and Bible teacher. “You must do whatever God tells you to do at the moment.” McKeever’s brand of survivalism is popular in Christian circles. Pat Robertson wrote the forward to one of his books, and the 700 Club, Robertson’s television show, has promoted the stockpiling of food and other survivalist preparations.

Survivalism is also the connecting link between Christian fundamentalism and far-right anarchism. Some fundamentalists fear that the Antichrist will take over the world economy. National identification cards will be a warning of such an eventuality. Mary Stewart Relfe in When Your Money Fails proposes that Christians should avoid as many financial transactions as possible. They should work hard, remain free of debt, buy land in the country, and learn to live independent of city conveniences. Liquid assets should be turned into gold and silver. All this, according to Relfe, should help Christians fend off Armageddon until God can save them.

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It’s too soon to tell whether the Christian right can organize the evangelical vote and help assure the GOP majority party status. In all likelihood, the Christians will be most successful in exerting their influence within the narrow boundaries of precinct caucuses and party primaries, where small numbers of activists can have a substantial impact. On a larger scale, their influence may be more circumscribed. Though they have pushed debate over party priorities further right, forcing the presidential candidates to heed their interests, they, in turn, will be pulled by the political process toward the middle. If what happened in Iowa is any gauge of the future, the Christians themselves will moderate their program to gain power and eventually form coalitions with fiscal conservatives and even moderates. The ultimate question for Robertson and the Christian politicians is whether they can maintain their ideological program while playing electoral politics. ❖

Research: Marcia Ogrodnik; Andrew Lang at the Christic Institute. See Timothy Weber’s Living in the Shadow of the Second Coming for more on the politics of Armageddon.

1986 Village Voice article by James Ridgeway on evangelical Christians and the Republican party

1986 Village Voice article by James Ridgeway on evangelical Christians and the Republican party

1986 Village Voice article by James Ridgeway on evangelical Christians and the Republican party

1986 Village Voice article by James Ridgeway on evangelical Christians and the Republican party

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Showtime! The Theater of Politics

SAN FRANCISCO — Thursday, July 12, 7 a.m. Arrived from Newark three hours ago. I should be thinking about politics as theater. Again? Is it three hours earlier or 15 years ago? Did I ever believe the medium was the message? Consider spectacle (authoritarian, hierar­chical, scripted) versus spontaneous show (free spirited, multifocus, improvisatory). Consider Nuremburg rallies and fascist total theater. May Day rallies and Stalin­ist total theater? Jet lag is turning me into a Sontagite: aesthetically correct but no good. Yippies casting dollar bills into the Stock Exchange? Still no good, that was for the media. Everything is for the media? Back to sleep and troubled dreams of Wagner and Abbie Hoffman, Reagan and Jane Fonda.

My press credentials neatly clarified matters: for the “perimeter” only. The fringe, the outside, the spectator’s seat. The front-of-the-book men ferret out and analyze issues; Munk watches demos and parades. Base and superstructure, slight­ly muddled by the fact that the serious stuff is a performance, and the sideshows are serious.

At noon the National March for Lesbi­an and Gay Rights held a press confer­ence in City Hall directed at Jerry Fal­well’s descent on the city with his two-day training conference for the Moral Majority leadership. It was pious, proper, and moving. Harry Britt, the gay socialist member of the Board of Super­visors, denounced Falwell as a man whose words are spiritual but whose content is hate and divisiveness; the other speak­ers — Catholic, Episcopal, and Presbyteri­an religious, city officials, a gay father, the president of Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays — talk about hospital­ity, tolerance, St. Francis, God’s family, the Family, and the-values-that-made-­this-country-great. The scripts were tac­tically sound, maybe a bit obvious, yet right and true. One speaker, Miriam Ben-­Shalom, hit another note, demanding to talk to Falwell, outraged, using impolite words.

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I wondered what tone the Sunday pa­rade would stress, made an appointment to talk with Britt, walked back down Market Street past a raucous picket line in front of Macy’s, another in front of the Emporium. Union Square was filled with gaggles of people yelling at each other, sectarians selling newspapers, a couple of punk types telling the sectarians that Hitler was your typical socialist, delegates and tourists walking purposefully looking, so to speak, neither left nor right.

A Falwell man said, “We will lose cer­tain freedoms by allowing homosexuality. If I have total freedom I can do anything to anybody. Roman society fell apart …” That’s their public style. A gay man proclaimed to the air, “Why, he’s Jerry Falwell’s husband!” An amoe­ba-faced suited man shouted, “Make it a felony,” but the Falwell fellow came back right away with “I don’t believe in that.” No one believed him.

I got press credentials at the Falwell conference and moseyed around the “New Traditional Woman” panel. Chil­dren sleeping on laps, on the floor. Speaker believes men should be true heads of household, women should have jobs if they must, but not careers they love. Everything was low-key, slow, bor­ing. Down in the lobby everyone peered out at a little demo and debated whether to go watch it. “I was on the other side in the ’60s, man, I don’t have to go see them.” “I hate confrontation, I’m a paci­fist at heart.” “I know a fellow who makes little bumper stickers saying ‘kill the gays’ and sells them. I mean, if you start talking like that …”

When I got back to Union Square, it was filled. No arguing. The crowd looked orderly, but then I could hardly see it through the masses of cops lined up like Rockettes, gripping their nightsticks, maneuvering skittishly on horseback.

The slogans moved from “women unite to fight the right” to “the only good pig is a dead pig.” Time warp. The cops moved from their rigid, fixed-face lineups, push­ing the horses right into the crowd on the sidewalk. Piles of garbage covered an in­tersection: looked like debris from a car­rot-juice maker, squeezed-out half or­anges, vegetable matter from a health food store. “It’s Chicago!” “It’s Buffalo, ’63, stupid.” I wanted to know what on earth happened in Buffalo, ’63, but some­one started setting off earsplitting fire­crackers. “What’s happening?” said a lady tourist to a lady cop. “It’s the moral majority versus the unmoral majority.” Of the latter, seven were arrested, at least one beaten, and the nurse who tried to help her was clubbed.

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I walked through Chinatown to North Beach, where I lived more than 20 years ago, and stood for a while in front of the old house on Powell. It looked the same. The rest of the neighborhood has gone neon tacky or genteel. Back near Union Square a circle of candles had been set up on a sidewalk by religious gays, men and women, singing Christian and Jewish hymns. One woman quarreled politely with me because my colleague Nat Hen­toff was going to address the Falwell con­vention tomorrow. When I walked back to my hotel, the cops were quietly trot­ting their horses toward their stables.

Friday, July 13. Called Britt’s office at nine to confirm interview. When I told him I wanted to discuss the class, gender, and race issues that are left in the gay community after gross discrimination had been eliminated by power in local politics, he said he’d give me half an hour. Ten minutes later, just as I was leaving, the phone rang. “I’m not willing to be part of a story on the splits and divisions in the gay community when you guys aren’t doing the job about us. Sorry about that.” Slam.

I walked off, muttering gloomily about the end of dialogue, to the Falwell confer­ence, to see what Nat was telling them about medical ethics. He was being intro­duced: “Nat Hentoff, who fancies himself an atheist …” Nat recapitulated his ar­guments (you’ve read them in the Voice) about infanticide and euthanasia. He had some good digs at Reagan and at profes­sional omertá, some friendly self-deprecation (“I’m the handy, ubiquitous athe­ist in this matter”), and an argument, which would have been fine had the seamlessness started a few months far­ther along the way.

Midspeech, two young women, neatly dressed like Moral Majoritarians, stood up in the audience and embraced each other. First like friends meeting after a long absence, then sexily. The spectators were appalled, in a repressed kind of way, murmuring and shifting. After a minute or so, the pair was quietly escorted out, chanting, “We are everywhere. We are your daughters and your sisters. Our daughters will be here and our daughter’s daughters.” Nat waxed sarcastic, “Today?”

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Maybe the women should have been more to the point and brought a poor, single mother with a severely handicapped child. Still, Nat wooed the audi­ence back to himself at the women’s expense. I was too angry to concentrate on the rest of the talk; my mind was on the company he keeps. So I left this confer­ence on “Being My Brother’s Keeper,” and went back to Union Square.

Where the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence — six men in giddily S/M nun drag — were exorcising Jerry Falwell. Sis­ter Boom-Boom (who, as Jack Fertig, ran for supervisor in 1982 and got 23,000 votes), sang “Your son will come out tomorrow,” and made terrible jokes. “The Moral Majority is here with Hell n’ Damnation! Hi Helen!” Falwell was stripped down to a black merry widow and stockings, and got it on with Jesus, in a Counter-Reformation loin cloth. There was something odd about an anti-Fein­stein song which seemed to say that her problem was female machismo, and something odder about a purification rite for Phyllis Schlafly by holding her down and tearing a rubber snake from under her dress. But what the hell.

A couple of hours later I went to Glide Churches’ “Celebrating the Poor” festi­val. Here the only question was whether the Reverend Cecil Williams was just putting on a show or doing good works and putting on a show. The church is a short walk and a different world from Union Square. An enormous line — 3000 people in the course of the evening­ — waited for food. I talked to a young woman out of work who said the food’s not just for the convention-time cameras; there’s a special meal once a week, and all the food’s better than the other soup kitchens. Williams gave the press lots of rhetoric while people with trays of food jostled around. At one point he stopped for a minute and yelled, “I wanna ask you, everybody, is anything better than Reagan?” And everyone shouted, “Yes.”

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Upstairs in the church proper, a multi­colored disco wheel turned among the stained glass windows, while the Glide Memorial Gospel Singers sat on the altar steps. The press milled around, waiting for a senator, a supervisor, a delegate, a Lefty, Godot (sorry). Vietnam vet Ron Kovick and Assembly Speaker Willie Brown came, Harold Washington and Dianne Feinstein didn’t show. I had to go see some theater. On a stage.

Duck’s Breath Mystery Theater was doing a “convention special” — apparent­ly the only topical work among the estab­lished theater groups. They promised it would be biting satire, sharp, strong, political. Maybe a Dying Pet Sale — “the misfortunes of my pets mean a bargain for you” — or the Piece and Pizza Coali­tion, or “Shop Without Guilt, Vote Without Fear,” are funny. They are as funny as it got. I left plunged in gloom, striding again through the wreck of my old haunts.

Saturday, July 14. Every community organization, union local, sect, countersect, and groupuscle was huddled in doors planning for the big parades tomor­row, so I walked around Golden Gate Park. A sign pointed me to Peacequake ’84: a rock band was playing in a dell for a smallish, friendly, stoned crowd that seemed frozen in time. Who’s Afraid of Thomas Woolf?

The San Francisco Mime Thoupe was doing their new show, based on A Christ­mas Carole, and propagandizing for voter registration. I don’t recall the SFMT ever taking a stand for the Democratic party before. I’ve seen a lot of Revolutionary Commmunist posters around town urging the People not to vote, and perhaps they represent a chunk of the radical commu­nity, but it was hard to believe that this nice young audience, mostly white and not particularly militant looking, was dis­affected from the electoral process.

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The plot concerns Ebeneezer Jones, an extremely upwardly mobile black lawyer in his thirties who’s too cynical to vote. Nixon appears, untwining tapes from his bulging pockets and shows Ebeneezer’s past (college radicalism), the present (Marcos, Pinochet), and the future — not a nuclear one, but the Supreme Court, convicting Jessie Jackson of terrorism and proclaiming that “Freedom Is Security.”

Some of this was funny, but it seemed a little flat and heavy-handed and with­out much physical pizzazz, though the music was good. I hope the Mime Thoupe hasn’t lost it’s dramaturgical verve by adopting sensible politics.

Spent the evening at a spectacularly catered party on a spectacular hill, a fundraiser for the Lesbian and Gay Pa­rade given by Lia Belli, who’s running for state senate. It was full of rich homosex­uals, which meant, of course, that there were three times as many men as women. I ate my fresh lichees wrapped in raw snow peas, and paté and brie and nectar­ines. I talked to a black lesbian activist mother, who’s running for the board of supervisors, and was tending bar. I was bemused. I went to a lot of other parties. They were not theater.

And nobody talked about anything. The spectacle was still to come; so was the substance. ■

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Rudy Adopts New Shtick

Last week, Rudy Giuliani made a pilgrimage to Pat Robertson’s Regent University in Virginia to deliver his one-note anti-terrorism stump speech, and was welcomed by thousands of clapping Christians. Judy Woodruff said on Meet the Press that Robertson had endorsed Giuliani, but, in fact, when Robertson introduced him, the praise fell a few calculated phrases shy of a formal endorsement, apparently to protect the tax-exempt status of Robertson’s vast empire.

The “embrace,” as Tim Russert described it, was bizarre for both. Having famously disparaged Congressman Ron Paul for falsely invoking 9/11, Giuliani now appears strangely untroubled by Robertson’s prior references to the attack, which have stirred a whirlwind of condemnation elsewhere. And having built a heavenly colossus on earth around a pro-life and anti-gay theology, Robertson suddenly seems comfortable with a candidate who hosted anniversary celebrations of Roe v. Wade at City Hall and enacted the most progressive domestic-partnership legislation in the country.

It was Robertson, after all, who had Jerry Falwell on his Christian Broadcasting Network show The 700 Club two days after 9/11, where the two spent about 10 trigger-happy minutes going after the people whom they held partly responsible for the murder of 3,000 Americans that day. Feminists. Lesbians. The ACLU. Abortionists. Christ-haters. Gays.

God allowed “the enemies of America to give us what we deserve,” opined Falwell, to amens from Robertson. At the end of this litany of homegrown culprits, Falwell declared: “I point the finger in their face and say, ‘You helped this happen.'” Robertson’s immediate response—”Well, I totally concur”—was supplemented by the invocation of his own personal bugaboo, federal judges. “The problem is, we have adopted that agenda at the highest levels of our government,” he said, namely “the court system.” After nearly a week of hubbub, the duo apologized.

Then, in 2005, Robertson appeared on ABC’s
This Week
and baffled host George Stephanopoulos by saying that federal judges posed “a more serious threat” to America “than a few bearded terrorists who fly into buildings.” Robertson subsequently explained this comment in a letter to a complaining U.S. senator: “Supreme Court decisions which have led to the wanton slaughter of 40 million unborn babies,” as well as the “assault on human sexuality” and “the potential destruction of marriage,” were, among others, “graver dangers than the terrorists.” The mother of one dead firefighter accused Robertson of marginalizing “the tragedy for the purpose of shock value.”

If Giuliani is willing to overlook Robertson’s 9/11 history, Robertson is just as eager to bypass Giuliani’s social-issue record. In 2004, when Robertson was on the stump against John Kerry, he assailed Kerry’s vote against a ban on so-called “partial birth” abortion, which, Robertson explained, meant Kerry was for infanticide. “I think Jesus would be against infanticide, don’t you?” he added. Well, Rudy Giuliani didn’t just oppose the ban—he told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer in 1998 that, in New York, late-term abortion “certainly works.” While Giuliani was mayor, the city became a mecca for late terminations, with the Department of Health acknowledging that in 2000, nearly 1,700 women traveled here for one—more than six per working day. In Giuliani’s final two years as mayor, 2000 and 2001, 24,008 late-term abortions were performed in the city—more than 13 percent of all abortions here, well ahead of the national rate.

The city’s Health & Hospitals Corporation, which Giuliani directly controlled, did thousands of late-term abortions over his eight years in office—so much so that a National Abortions Rights Action League study in 2000 called HHC “the last resort for women with later abortions needs or complications.” And contrary to Giuliani’s 1998 assurances to Blitzer about the “very, very strict procedure” that the city followed in performing the abortions, some city facilities were nightmarishly out of date. Examining the Giuliani-era data alone, NARAL found that “several” city hospitals were employing “archaic second trimester methods,” with “ninety-eight percent of the large volume of second trimester abortions at Kings County Hospital” performed by methods “unnecessarily difficult for the patient.” On the other hand, NARAL said that another city hospital, Jacobi, was “relied upon by the city’s medical community for its physician skill in late term cases,” and was so busy that the “delays” in performing abortions could “span three to four weeks,” making difficult cases “even more medically challenging.” If a Democratic candidate for president had actually managed a hospital system that had become a regional magnet for those seeking late-term abortions, and had been using both antiquated and very modern methods for the procedure, Robertson might be adding him either to his list of 9/11 culprits, or to his more recent litany of people posing “graver threats” than the terrorists.

Twice during an interview last week on the Robertson-created and now Disney-owned Christian Broadcasting Network, Giuliani argued that he “reduced abortion” as mayor by “increasing adoptions.” Giuliani has been offering up this tantalizing equation for weeks, at both presidential debates and in the rare interviews he’s granted on national television, like Fox’s Hannity & Colmes. “What a president can do is reduce abortions, increase adoptions,” he told CBN. “We’ve already done that in New York City. That’s what I did—I saw abortions go down 16 percent, 18 percent, saw adoptions go up 135 percent.” His campaign manager, Michael DuHaime, said it even more directly: “Abortions went down while he was mayor because he cut through red tape, increased the availability of adoptions.”

But records show that Giuliani’s claims are bogus.

Adoptions only increased by 17 percent if you measure them the same way that Giuliani measured the 16 percent decline in abortions. But Giuliani is comparing something else: the adoption total for his eight years versus the total for the eight years that immediately preceded them, contrasting the very different historical epochs of 1986 and 2001—a statistical non sequitur.

In fact, adoptions went up and abortions went down in only one of Giuliani’s eight years as mayor. Otherwise, they moved in unison, either up or down—clearly demonstrating that an increase in adoptions did not produce a decrease in abortions. In 1997, for example, the final year of Giuliani’s first term, adoptions peaked at 4,009. But that was also when abortions peaked in the Giuliani era, at 104,344 (adoptions are calculated on a fiscal-year basis and abortions on a calendar year). The only year that abortions declined and adoptions went up was 1995, which was the year before Giuliani created the Administration for Children Services, the agency he claims prompted the adoption-over-abortion revolution. Both abortions and adoptions then dropped for every year of his second term—as they have ever since, under the proudly pro-abortion Michael Bloomberg.

Neither Giuliani nor anyone in his administration ever claimed at the time to have a program designed to encourage adoption as an alternative to abortion. In 2001, for example, the Mayor’s Management Report stated that the purpose of ACS was “to expedite permanent families for children by reducing the length of time children remain in foster care prior to family reunification or adoption.” Fran Reiter, the Giuliani deputy mayor and campaign manager who was also his key adviser on abortion policy, says: “Nick Scoppetta, the ACS commissioner, was at the morning cabinet meetings. No one said that the policies had anything to do with abortion. He was trying to get kids out of foster care. It was never tied to the lessening of the number of abortions.” Lilliam Paoli, who was the Human Resources Administrator under Giuliani, adds: “The increase in adoptions had to do with all the kids backed up in the foster-care system. There was a huge push to move them out. It had absolutely nothing to do with choice.” Given an opportunity to support his friend of 40 years, Scoppetta declined to comment on Giuliani’s current claims.

The most telling rebuttal of Giuliani comes from a New York University professor, Trudy Festinger, who studied the children adopted in 1997 and 1998. The median age of the children was 8.1 years in 1997 and 8.4 years in 1998. Most had been in foster care for years, with only eight percent spending “three years or less in care prior to being adopted.” The kids were typically almost four years old before the city even formally decided that they should be targeted for adoption.

In other words, not exactly newborns.

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NewFest 2007

Whatever your brand of queer, NewFest has got you covered. The most undiscriminating film festival in the world, NewFest recognizes the diversity of New York’s gay community by scrupulously programming its lineup of 200-plus films with all the colors of the rainbow in mind. Bears, twinks, dinge queens, chicks with dicks, chubby chasers, chicken hawks, bull dykes, muscle fags, hustlers and the men who buy them—NewFest pleases all, except for the breeders who will inevitably confuse the fest’s box office at the AMC Loews on 34th Street for advance sales of Knocked Up.

Jerry Falwell is dead—Tinky Winky sad—and the crusade to legitimize gay marriage rages on. Sure, the festival program is still chockablock with hackneyed stories about hustlers and tweakers that exist only to glorify the perfect male schlong (sex sells!), but this year’s slate is also notable for docs, like God Only Knows: Same Sex Marriage, that capture and examine gay rights and religious faith at precarious crossroads. Fifty years from now, when queers can legally shack up even in Dubya’s home state, will we praise NewFest for paving the way?

A more pressing question: Why are lesbian flicks in such short supply here? Perhaps a future symposium will reveal that lesbians are less interested in making movies than gay men or that distribution companies are more willing to bank- roll boy-on-boy stories. But for now, one thing is for sure: Tripe like Nina’s Heavenly Delights, with its tired mix of ethnic-identity trauma and food porn, shouldn’t be indulged. A more sincere nostalgia trip is Kirsi Liimatainen’s Sonja, which coasts on fuzzy aesthetic vibes that neatly jibe with the angst and anticipatory anxieties of a horned-up young girl’s Sapphic awakening. It’s no Fucking Åmål but it’ll suffice.

As always, art fags must trek through an arduous high grass of fetishistic shorts, sub- Ducastel-Martineau blather like L’Homme De Sa Vie (The Man of My Life), adorably slight political statements (My Super 8 Season, about gay activism in 1970s Paris, coddles those who had trouble with Regular Lovers‘ torpor), and a predictable string of shrill rom-coms to find their best-in-show. Last year it was Two Drifters, and though I’ll reserve final judgment until I’ve seen RuPaul tearing up the action extravaganza Starrbooty, this year’s top dog may be Glue, a sticky, poetic reflection on carnal pleasure intensely keyed to the wonderful-miserable experience of being an outsider teen. In its bid to sate every taste, NewFest even satisfies a former skater dork like myself.

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A Storm of GOP Proposals

WASHINGTON, D.C.—Here in la-la land, life proceeds as usual. Hundreds of thousands running from Category 4 Hurricane Rita in Texas? The threat of another killer storm swamping cities and the federal budget? Renewed questions about the role of global warming in the recent natural disasters? You wouldn’t know it inside the Beltway.

There was a nice book party a couple of nights ago for
Jesse Helms, across the river in Virginia. Jerry Falwell
said that next to Ronald Reagan, Helms was the greatest man
around. Right wingers are a little
worried about all the commies and queers pouring into
town for Saturday’s march, whom John Tierney of the
Institute for World Politics described to the Washington Times as “ideologically very hard core
left.”

The conservative controlled Congress sent a tough message to hurricane evacuees, current and future, by
setting into motion plans to finance the President’s
hurricane bailout by cutting Amtrak, U.N.
contributions, raising Medicare costs, and postponing the
new drug program—all under the rubric of making “hard
choices.”

The cuts in social services amount to $340 billion
over 10 years, said Robert Greenstein, head of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities ,a Washington think tank that follows social welfare legislation. “Nearly 40 percent of the savings in the package would come from cuts in assistance for America’s low-income citizens”—including children and seniors.

Meanwhile, the right-wing Congress and Bush will keep the new all tax cuts for the wealthy in place. They will also extend a 50 percent tax break to casinos rebuilding in Mississippi.

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‘Slutty Summer’; ‘Paternal Instinct’

Welcome to Jerry Falwell’s worst nightmare: In the new romantic comedy Slutty Summer, New York exists in an alternate universe populated entirely by gay men. The cast has room for exactly one heterosexual, a struggling actress searching in vain for a decent (not to mention straight) man. She’d have better luck finding one in a monastery. Summer has an interesting premise—if all men are pigs, gay monogamy may be impossible—but first-timer Casper Andreas approaches his subject with the subtlety of a wrecking ball. Tired jokes are repeated over and over; one bit about a masturbating restaurant manager gets used three times in one scene alone. Andreas plays the lead, a mopey guy named Markus who embarks on the titular sexpedition after discovering his boyfriend’s infidelity. Unfortunately he flubs most of his dialogue; though he wrote the screenplay, Andreas seems incapable of remembering his lines.

One character in Summer declares, “You can’t promise to love someone forever,” but the subjects of the compassionate documentary Paternal Instinct would certainly disagree. Mark and Erik, happily married for 10 years, decide to start a family and employ Wen, an affable witch from Maine, as the surrogate mother. As intimate as a home movie, Instinct has only one flaw: its length. In this form, there isn’t sufficient screen time for Wen, whose motives for participating despite a husband and adolescent son of her own, remain frustratingly obscure. Still, it’s difficult not to be won over by Instinct‘s humanity; celebrating his own 40th birthday, Mark delivers an unforgettable, heartfelt message to his unborn child. In contrast, the most memorable line from Slutty Summer is “Hey you! Nice nipples!”

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Say What?

“For conservative people of faith, voting for principle this year means voting for the re-election of George W. Bush.” —Jerry Falwell, in The New York Times: 7.16.04

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Petaphilia

I’ve never had sex with a dog. He wouldn’t respect me in the morning. But I have lusted in my heart for certain canines, and apparently I’m not alone. Lots of people yearn to marry their best friend, or so many opponents of gay marriage seem to believe.

“Why can’t we have marriages between people and pets?” the bishop of Brooklyn recently remarked. “I mean, pets really love their masters”—and, let’s face it, the feeling is usually mutual. Was the bishop being fanciful or does he really think America will go to the dogs if gays are allowed to wed? Only his confessor knows, but for what it’s worth, this is a major clerical fixation, and not just among Catholic prelates. Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson have warned that gay rights will lead to bestiality. I hadn’t realized that so many men of God are worried about folks helping sheep through the fence.

After the Supreme Court nullified sodomy laws, both Antonin Scalia and Rick Santorum uttered the B-word. But it was the Massachusetts marriage ruling that brought this issue to the paw-front. “What about a person who loves their pet?” asked a legislator from New Hampshire. “Should we allow them to marry?” Nebraska’s attorney general had a similar query: “Does that mean you have to allow a man to marry his pet?” (Decency forbade him from including women and their four-legged fancies.) A Boston rabbi put it more concretely: “What’s next? Marrying a dog? Marrying your cat?” (At least he was species inclusive.) Even Marilyn Musgrave, the Colorado Republican who wrote the federal marriage amendment, has raised the fearsome question, “Are you going to discriminate against . . . animal lovers?”

To be fair, pet nuptials are not the only thing on these troubled minds. Opponents of gay marriage also worry about incest, polygamy, and, in Scalia’s case, rampant masturbation. But what really gets them hot and bothered is the love that dare not speak, bark, mew, or quack its name. (Yes, some people are worked up over man-duck love.) Is this a case of great minds obsessing alike, or are we in the midst of a national hysteria in the grand tradition of alien abductions, complete with anal probes?

Inquiring minds want to know—so I consulted the journalist’s oracle, Lexis-Nexis. Feed this database any combination of words and it will spit up every mention of them in the media. I entered gay marriage and pets, expecting perhaps a dozen hits, but the number exceeded the system’s 1,000-citation capacity. When I narrowed the search to the past two months, nearly 500 pieces popped up. Most of them contained earnest warnings about people tying the knot with their pets. Perhaps you are among the many readers who have written to the local paper about the rough beast slouching toward Bethlehem (Pa.) to be betrothed.

I’d like to agree with the columnist from Memphis who thinks all the fuss about animal love is “just folks being dramatic.” But when a fantasy repeats itself again and again, you have to consider what it means. To borrow a timeless insight from Titanic, a right-winger’s heart is an ocean that holds many secrets. Just ask Strom Thurmond’s black paramour. So it’s fair to wonder: What lust lurks behind the fear of gay marriage? A specter might-could be haunting America. It is the specter of petaphilia.


The British writer Mark Simpson, who gave us the concept of the metrosexual, sees this mania as a homosexual panic in sheep’s clothing. He thinks gay men are perceived as creatures of the world beyond the sexual order. As the embodiment of sodomy, their very mention raises feral associations. Any elevation of homos is a breach of the boundaries that keep sodomy distinct from civilized behavior. In this view, gay marriage is a gateway drug leading to all sorts of sexual temptations—and there are many. Tomes have been written about the flirtatiously drawn derrieres of farmyard animals in classic Disney films. In the sin-sensitive mind, it’s a short step from this fantasia to dawg-on-dog desire. Only the law prevents men—and beasts—from straying.

It’s interesting that no one refers to Catherine the Great and her allegedly equine tastes when speculating on the implications of lesbian weddings. I wonder whether same-sex marriage would be such an issue if women were the only contenders. No doubt the average American stud would like to be the best man at a lesbian union—for him it’s a porn film in the making. As for dykes who aren’t looking for a phallic blessing, most men assume they don’t have real sex at all. But if a guy can wed a guy, the gates of hell are thrust open and anything is possible. This speaks to the real meaning of my favorite Bob Dylan couplet: “If dogs run free/Then why not we?” Like any great prophet, he was trying to warn us!

Maybe this panic isn’t merely symbolic; maybe it’s the subconscious demanding to be heard. When dudes talk about doing it doggy-style, are they alluding to the real thing? When they call Hillary Clinton a bitch, are they paying her a compliment? If all men are dogs, what does that say about their predilections? How can we be sure that, left to their own devices, many guys wouldn’t opt for Lassie or—shock horror—Trigger?

In the palmy days of the Cold War, a prankster argued that farmyard animals should be fitted with clothes so children wouldn’t get the wrong ideas. He even produced samples of cow attire, which were shown on TV with much fanfare—and a serious debate ensued. It’s easy to laugh in retrospect, but perhaps he was getting at a fantasy so unspeakable that it could only be accessed by a prank. Back then Americans were worried about all sorts of monsters from the id. I guess we still are, perhaps with good reason.

The libido harbors many possibilities. No one knows that better than men of the cloth. (Can you say altar boy?) No wonder many clerics feel compelled to speak out about the wages of gay marriage. Imagine what America would be like if their fears came to pass. Millions living in muttrimonial bliss. Consecrations performed by the Church of Labrador Saints. Why, the North American Man-Dog Love Association would be bigger than the AARP. Attention must be paid before “The Lord Is My Shepherd” takes on a romantic ring.


To those who struggle against the longing to marry their animal companions, let me say, I feel your pain. The heart is a lonely pointer; I know that all too well. But there are ways to keep this passion on a leash. You can stay away from dog runs, avoid pet-store windows, and relieve your tension with erotica like the Westminster Dog Show. But first you’ve got to stand up and admit, “I am a petaphile!”

With support and prayer, you may come to understand that gay marriage won’t open the door to anything—except your fantasies.

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ART ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES Theater

Lives in Play

Tartuffe is a very simple play—so simple that it couldn’t be the masterpiece it is without some deep mystery inside it. As with Hamlet, the mystery is in the characters’ hearts, buried so tantalizingly deep that three centuries’ worth of scholars and stage artists have been unable to pluck it out. There it stays, keeping Tartuffe fresh and fascinating and relevant in every era. In the ’90s, its analysis of the gigantic frauds carried on in the name of Christianity matched exactly what we were living through in the era of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. Nowadays it sounds more like the Republican Party mouthing off in the Senate: To marvel at Molière’s prescience, check out the similarity between the apologias of Trent Lott and Tartuffe’s “confession” after the climactic confrontation with Damis.

In order to marvel, however, you first have to see Tartuffe performed, and in this regard the Roundabout is offering an enormous obstacle in lieu of a production. I thought I had seen, in 40 years of theatergoing, about everything you could do to the play, but Joe Dowling’s rendition offers an approach that is quite new to me, and a real head-scratcher. There is no mystery at all about the characters’ motives in this Tartuffe, or, rather, there aren’t any motives, beyond a faint glimmer here and there that sounds more like an effort to break up the rhymed couplets. The result is that the play’s surface, which used to seem as lucid as a clear-water lake, now appears almost totally opaque. People come in and out of rooms for no particular reason, raise their voices or stay calm for no particular reason; even the scenery changes twice for no particular reason, the second time in the middle of a formerly coherent speech.

It is all very theatrical and self-conscious, yet Dowling takes great pains to hide its theatricality, as if declaring the play to be a play would be a gesture too coarse for a genteel poet like Molière. When the cynical servant Dorine makes her asides to the audience, and her employer Orgon asks her sharply who she is talking to, she replies, “Myself,” and Dowling must think she means it, since he carefully puts her as far as possible from the audience, though Dorine is played by J. Smith-Cameron, virtually a specialist in audience rapport, whose beaconlike eyes manage to register a few signals despite all the distancing.

Not that Dowling meant, I assume, to pull the play as far from the audience as possible; he seems simply not to have thought about what sense he wanted it to make in New York in 2003. Orgon is a middle-aged widower with two nearly grown children, who has lately become rich in a time of crisis (by supplying the king’s armies during an attempted civil war) and taken a much younger second wife. Feeling an inexplicable guilt over his good fortune, he has brought into his house a con man, Tartuffe, who poses as a pious ascetic. Tartuffe is a transparent fraud, loathed by everyone except Orgon and his cranky, devout mother; nevertheless he manages, in the course of the play, to wheedle himself into becoming Orgon’s heir, his daughter’s designated husband, and his wife’s declared lover. For a topper, when his attempt to seduce Orgon’s wife is revealed, he betrays his benefactor’s most dangerous secret to the king’s justice: Though supporting the state, Orgon has been friends with a rebel supporter now in exile, and is keeping the man’s papers for him—a capital crime if discovered. Orgon and his family are about to lose everything—fortune, home, and life—when a royal deus ex machina intervenes.

Summarized this way, as I said, it’s a simple story. What complicates it are the characters’ feelings, as they challenge each other, retreat, plot, plead, bicker, have hysterics, or let impulses carry them away. Reason, embodied in Orgon’s maddeningly fair-minded brother-in-law Cleante, is no help at all. The play’s subtitle, omitted as usual at the Roundabout, is The Impostor, which refers specifically to Tartuffe, but could at various times apply to any number of other characters, given the enormous amount of deceit and self-deceit practiced during the play. Bringing religious fanaticism into one’s house, Molière seems to say, is like opening Pandora’s box; all the fraudulences in the world fly in with it, so that getting rid of it becomes an enormously tangled ethical problem.

Molière illuminates these snarled emotional and moral depths with the harsh glare of comedy. Though always anchored in some reality, the writing is carefully pushed to the edge of the ridiculous. Orgon’s delusional admiration for Tartuffe is made so extreme that you instinctively start to look for the psychosis behind it. The beauty is that the exaggeration doesn’t keep the play from being sharply observed: Orgon’s mother and his son share his obstinate, reactive taste for haughty vindictiveness; his wife Elmire, in contrast, shares her rationalist milksop brother’s tendency to play down even the worst crises. The play’s gift for psychological comedy is summed up in its one gem of a cameo role: a bailiff, ironically named Loyal, whose attempt to show respectful consideration toward Orgon while serving him with an eviction notice can be either horrifying or hilarious, or both at once.

Needless to say, Dowling’s production offers his actors no such chance. Brian Bedford’s Orgon, firm and respectable, seems hardly interested enough in the goings-on to be at their center. His interest in Henry Goodman, whose mild manner and shopkeeper face make him the least intriguing Tartuffe in decades, seems largely based on having at last found a kindred spirit with a mid-Atlantic accent. Kathryn Meisle, whom I don’t recall ever disliking except in a previous Dowling/Roundabout venture, makes an earnest and rather vague Elmire; John Bedford Lloyd makes heavy going of Cleante’s ratiocinations; and T.R. Knight’s Damis, which suggests a rather skittish otter being trained as a bullfighter, can hardly be called a performance at all.

Jeffrey Carlson, as Valere, speaks his lines very clearly. It would be unfair to judge his acting, since he has to do it while wearing an outfit roughly as large as the rest of the show’s wardrobe stitched together; his hat alone is larger than J. Smith-Cameron. Like most of the show’s other gestures in some interpretative direction or other, this one is obfuscatory and aimless: Even if Valere’s outlook differs from Orgon’s, and the latter has enforced a puritanical mode of dress on his household, Valere hopes to marry Orgon’s daughter; he would hardly pay a call dressed in a way guaranteed to infuriate the man. I don’t blame Jane Greenwood, who has at least made his getup look like a textbook-worthy costume plate. What directorial instructions Dowling gave her to provoke such a result, I can’t imagine; I find his other choices equally puzzling, though less extravagant. My least favorite Tartuffe used to be the film version with Gerard Depardieu, based on one of those lethal “postmodern” productions that have destroyed theater in Europe and its teaching in American universities. The filmed performance is stark, shrieky, and unrelentingly grim; what scares me is that, compared to Dowling’s dressy, polite, pointless version, it is also a model of artistic integrity and commitment. If I waste one more sentence on the Roundabout version, I may start thinking of that wretched film with nostalgia.



Nostalgia, mingled with a healthier disquiet, is the basic element at the molten core of Ain Gordon’s Art, Life & Show-Biz, a play that isn’t a play and has the honor to tell you so virtually from the beginning. In a talk-show setting, with illustrative slides, reading his own stage directions and intervening comments from a script, Gordon presents three mature women from disparate modes of theatrical adventure: Helen Gallagher, Lola Pashalinski, and his mother, Valda Setterfield. Though occasionally talking among themselves, or taking roles in each other’s narrations, what they mainly do is tell, at Gordon’s prompting, key parts of their own stories. But in art, to steal a phrase of Franca Rame’s about feminism, “we all have the same story”: the crisis points; the leaps forward in success and back in failure; the struggle between personal and artistic lives; the unexpected trauma or triumph; the distressing and gratifying ways in which age sneaks up on you. But as still another feminist said, Steinishly, “everything being the same everything is always different,” and Gordon’s trio of divas has plenty of induplicable anecdotes, joyous or traumatic, to offer.

My only regret, in fact, is that the evening actually is a play, and that under the seeming casualness Gordon has in fact organized and shaped it to build very carefully to summarize his point about artistic experience. This game is too much fun, and these lives too fascinating, to be confined to a work of art. But, of course, that is Gordon’s point as well; his tactics are as sneaky, and as lucid, as Molière’s.

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What Falwell Really Meant

I really believe that the pagans, and the
abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the
lesbians…the A.C.L.U., People for the American Way,
all of them who have tried to secularize America, I
point the finger in their face and say, “You helped
this happen.


—Jerry Falwell, September 13th, on The 700 Club
about last week’s terrorist attacks


I sincerely regret that comments I made…were taken
out of their context.


—Jerry Falwell, September 14

Nine Possible Contexts:


1. “…NOT.”


2. “You know, I’m really high right now, so this may
not make any sense, but…”


3. “Keeping in mind that today is Opposites Day, I
emphasize that…”


4. “My son showed me this cool thing on Alta Vista,
where you type something in English and then have the
computer translate it into French and then into
Spanish and then into German and then back to
English—it’s kinda like ‘Telephone,’ you know?—and something that made sense at the beginning will
come out sounding like…”


5. “If an infinite number of monkeys typed on an
infinite number of typewriters, one of them would
write…”


6. “I want to take a break from the grim events of
this week, and salute the brave people who’ve spent
years making America a better and more tolerant place.
Who’s done this, who’s helped this happen? Well, I’ll
tell you: …”


7. “An insane man off camera is pointing a gun at my
head and forcing me to read this statement. Quote,…”


8. “Please join me in praying that, in the wake of
this horrific tragedy, Christ’s message of peace will
prevail, our entire country can unite in compassion,
not aggression, and that no misguided person will
state…”


9. “I truly believe that if Osama bin Laden had been
born in America, right now he’d be saying…”