Monthly Archives: January 2018

Would MLK Have Supported Gay Rights?

As we approach what would have been the 89th birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr., I am reminded of the longstanding debate over whether or not King would have supported gay rights, particularly gay marriage, had he lived longer. Looking to his family provides few definitive answers, since they have been heavily divided on the issue. Coretta and his oldest daughter, Yolanda, for example, favored gay rights, while his youngest daughter, Bernice, and his niece, Alveda, oppose gay rights. Alveda, in particular, was humiliated after making up a story about her uncle’s opposition to gay rights. And, of course, one can never be certain precisely how someone would have evolved over the course of forty-plus years. King’s former driver, Civil Rights Movement veteran Tom Houck, certainly takes the position that his old boss would have become a gay rights supporter. But nobody can really say for sure. Nevertheless, there are reasons why we can make an educated guess. Please note that most of what I am saying here about King’s views specifically has been covered by other writers, but I will paraphrase it here and make some additional points.

There is little reason to think that King was a gay rights supporter while he was alive, at least not in the 1950s. In 1958, he received a letter from a “boy” who was experiencing same-sex attraction and asked for advice. “Your problem is not at all an uncommon one. However, it does require careful attention. The type of feeling that you have toward boys is probably not an innate tendency, but something that has been culturally acquired . . . I would suggest that you see a good psychiatrist who can assist you in bringing to the forefront of conscience all of those experiences and circumstances that lead to the habit. You are already on the right road toward a solution, since you honestly recognise the problem and have a desire to solve it.” King’s advice was neither affirming nor helpful, but while this in no way excuses his homophobia, he was writing in a time when homosexuality was illegal in every state, and no public gay rights groups existed in America. As scholar Michael G. Long points out, it may be relevant that King made no attempt to invoke the Bible, use the word “sin,” or urge the gay youth to deal with his feelings by praying or going to church. Thus, in some sense, King was giving what would have been a boilerplate American liberal response to homosexuality in the 1950s.

This segues into another important point. As seems to be generally acknowledged by historians and theologians, King’s religious views were not fundamentalist or evangelical. King was an ordained minister brought up in a fundamentalist home and frequently invoked religion, but his theology was liberal. As a theology student, he wrote that, “Others doctrines such as a supernatural plan of salvation, the Trinity, the substitutionary theory of the atonement, and the second coming of Christ are all quite prominent in fundamentalist thinking. Such are the views of the fundamentalist and they reveal that he is opposed to theological adaptation to social and cultural change. He sees a progressive scientific age as a retrogressive spiritual age. Amid change all around he is willing to preserve certain ancient ideas even though they are contrary to science.” While King at times hedged as to whether he believed in a literal eternal Hell, he once said, ““In reality I know nothing about heaven … personally I don’t believe in hell in the conventional sense.” He also believed that, “If Christ by his life and death paid the full penalty of sin, there is no valid ground for repentance or moral obedience as a condition of forgiveness. The debt is paid; the penalty exacted, and there is, consequently, nothing to forgive.” The simple fact is that if he were alive today, King would probably be rejected as even a Sunday School teacher for most evangelical and fundamentalist churches. And while few theologically liberal Christians defended homosexuality or gay rights in the 1950s, many would later become strong supporters, in contrast to most evangelicals and fundamentalists. Thus, it is reasonable to suspect that King would have likely made the same intellectually journey on gay rights, including marriage equality, as many other liberal Protestants–some of whom, like William Sloane Coffin, were involved directly in the Civil Rights Movement. After all, the religious opposition to gay rights in the late twentieth and twenty-first centuries has come primarily from theological conservatives.

We must also recall that King favored separation of Church and State. In response to the 1962 Supreme Court ruling on teacher-led prayer in public schools, he opined, “Contrary to what many have said, it sought to outlaw neither prayer nor belief in God. In a pluralistic society such as ours, who is to determine what prayer shall be spoken, and by whom? Legally, constitutionally or otherwise, the state certainly has no such right. I am strongly opposed to the efforts that have been made to nullify the decision. They have been motivated, I think, by little more than the wish to embarrass the Supreme Court. When I saw Brother [Alabama Governor] Wallace going up to Washington to testify against the decision at the congressional hearings, it only strengthened my conviction that the decision was right.” And he had little sympathy for religious arguments against birth control. In a speech that Coretta delivered on his behalf to Planned Parenthood, he argued that, “There is no human circumstance more tragic than the persisting existence of a harmful condition for which a remedy is readily available. Family planning, to relate population to world resources, is possible, practical and necessary. Unlike plagues of the dark ages or contemporary diseases we do not yet understand, the modern plague of overpopulation is soluble by means we have discovered and with resources we possess.”

Finally, MLK’s views on interracial marriage suggest that he would eventually have extended the same line of reasoning to gay marriage. “Marriage,” according to King, “is at bottom a mutual agreement between two individuals. One always has the freedom to say yes or no to the agreement. Individuals marry, not races.” Additionally, “When any society says that I cannot marry a certain person, that society has cut off a segment of my freedom,” because, “It hasn’t given me the possibility of alternatives.” This line of argument from King has been cited by his old ally and longtime LGBT rights advocate, the inestimable Congressman John Lewis, on multiple occasions. Obviously, not everyone who supports interracial marriage supports gay marriage. Nor does everyone who supports gay marriage support interracial marriage. But there is strong correlation between support for both policies. The aforementioned William Sloane Coffin officiated the first interracial marriage in Virginia legally performed post-Loving and later became an early advocate of gay marriage. The United Church of Christ and the Unitarian Universalist Association endorsed interracial marriage in the 1960s and gay marriage in succeeding decades. Fundamentalist people and groups such as Jerry Falwell, Bob Jones University, W.A. Criswell, and John R. Rice have also opposed both interracial marriage and homosexuality and/or gay marriage. The Northeast has been the quickest region to legalize both interracial marriage and gay marriage and the South the most resistant. Indeed, religious disagreements over both interracial and gay marriage tend to break down on similar lines: Southern and theologically conservative religious people and institutions are more likely to be opposed, Northern and theologically liberal religious people and institutions are more likely to be supportive. According to Ebony magazine in 1965, “practically all major religious denominations in the U.S. outside the Southern Bible Belt have gone on record as being in opposition to restrictive marriage laws based on race.” [emphasis mine] Anti-gay individuals, including those from MLK’s own family, should think twice about invoking him to oppose LGBT rights.

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Why Trump’s Comments were S@#%y

Let me be clear. Calling certain countries “s@#%holes is not the problem per se. The problem is when we have a president with a history of racism who uses the condition of primarily nonwhite countries as a reason for not letting people from those countries immigrate here. The other problem is that Trump made no acknowledgement of how certain countries ended up the way they are now. Haiti was effectively established as a plantation colony for white French planters to exploit black slaves. These slaves were forced to secure their freedom in a violent rebellion. During that rebellion, the federal government funneled money to French planters trying to put down the revolt. After that, countries such as the U.S. and France continued to exploit Haiti in any way possible. France bullied Haiti into paying them a large amount of money in exchange for political recognition. The U.S. brutally occupied them for almost twenty years starting under the Administration of Woodrow Wilson.

The fact that conditions are bad in certain countries does not mean that immigrants from those countries will not contribute positively to the United States. To take Haiti as an example: just because I wouldn’t want to live in Haiti, thanks to what countries like France and the U.S. have done to it, does not mean that most Haitian immigrants who come to America will not work hard and livrte here peacefully. To suggest otherwise would require a massive logical leap. During the 1930s, conditions in Germany were far worse than in Haiti now, because German Jewish immigrants who came here ended up as some of our most prominent scientists and human rights advocates. We need look no further than Albert Einstein. Mexico has high levels of poverty and crime, but most of immigrants who to the U.S. from Mexico work hard and commit crime at lower levels than native-born Americans. Nor is it true that everyone who comes here from countries like Norway is a saint. Some people may come here from Norway because they find the country too liberal on issues like race, LGBT rights, and feminism. When assessing which immigrants to take, we should look at whether they have a criminal record or if there is any other compelling reason why that specific person is very likely to be a danger. If not, we should welcome them.

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I Miss Senator Russ Feingold

While the victory of Donald Trump in 2016 was a horrible event, I think it may in some ways be even worse that Russ Feingold, perhaps the greatest civil libertarian of the Senate from 1992 to 2010, failed to regain his seat in a rematch against the second-rate Ron Johnson. Since the House just passed a bill to renew a major NSA surveillance program that you can read about here (https://www.washingtonpost.com/…/5d7f7088-f6d1-11e7-91af-31…), I thought it would be a good time to provide this quote from Feingold’s speech in 2001 explaining why he was the only Senator to vote against the Patriot Act: “Of course, there is no doubt that if we lived in a police state, it would be easier to catch terrorists. If we lived in a country that allowed the police to search your home at any time for any reason; if we lived in a country that allowed the government to open your mail, eavesdrop on your phone conversations, or intercept your email communications; if we lived in a country that allowed the government to hold people in jail indefinitely based on what they write or think, or based on mere suspicion that they are up to no good, then the government would no doubt discover and arrest more terrorists.
But that probably would not be a country in which we would want to live. And that would not be a country for which we could, in good conscience, ask our young people to fight and die. In short, that would not be America.
Preserving our freedom is one of the main reasons that we are now engaged in this new war on terrorism. We will lose that war without firing a shot if we sacrifice the liberties of the American people.”

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If Medieval Kings Had Twitter

1. Charlemagne: Everybody is arguing about whether or not it is a BAN. Call it what you want, it is about keeping bad pagans (with bad religions) out of the empire.

2. Henry II: Now that Eleanor of Aquitaine is out of the dungeon for the holidays, she is unaccepting of what I did for her and thinks supporting a rebellion against me is no big deal. I should have left her in the dungeon until next Christmas!

3. Richard I: My coronation had the largest audience of any coronation ever!

4. King John: Had an open and successful kingship. But the nobles, incited by the Pope, made me sign the Magna Carta, giving up much of my power. Very unfair!

5. Richard II: If a peasant wants the privilege of keeping their head on their shoulders, he or she should not be allowed to disrespect my kingship. If not, you’re beheaded!

6. Charles VII: It wasn’t Joan of Arc, the noblemen, or the French Army who won the Battle of Pay. IT WAS ME!

7. Henry VI: Crooked Richard of York also played these cards very hard and, as everyone knows, went down in flames. I went from VERY successful prince to top European monarch I think that would qualify as not smart, but genius….and a very stable genius at that!

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Heavy Sanctions on Iran–and Saudi Arabia–Are Reasonable and Necessary

Donald Trump is a terrible president. Nearly all of his policies are and have been wrong. However, that does not mean that one should oppose a policy merely because Trump supports it. The issue of sanctions on Iran is a prime example. For decades, the U.S. has imposed sanctions on the regressive theocracy. The U.N. did for a time also, before lifting most of them almost two years ago. Trump has been a supporter of strong sanctions, while many liberals argue that they are counterproductive. The debate over U.S. policy toward Iran is unlikely to subside anytime soon, especially in light of recent Gestapo-style tactics deployed against protesters by the Iranian government, tactics that left over twenty demonstrators dead. It is worth recapping some of Iran’s other human rights atrocities:

  1. Homosexuality is a capital crime.
  2. Women are legally forbidden from going out in public unveiled or watching “men’s sports” in stadiums. According to Human Rights Watch, ” Iranian women face discrimination in many aspects of their lives, ranging from issues related to marriage, divorce, inheritance and child custody, to restrictions on dress and even access to sports stadiums as spectators.” Polygamy is also allowed for men but not for women.
  3. Strict laws exist to impede interfaith marriages–Hiddush, an Israeli organization dedicated to promoting civil liberties and equality, gave Iran a 0 for freedom to marry. Lest anyone accuse Hiddush of bias, Israel received a 0 also.
  4. Freedom of speech is almost nonexistent. According to Rod Panjabi, Executive Director of the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center, “The government of the Islamic Republic of Iran has engineered one of the most repressive environments on the planet in terms of the right to free speech … For decades, journalists, scholars, artists and indeed all Iranians have been forced to navigate censorship, self-censorship, and the aggressive and often arbitrary policing of the public space by a government whose distaste for free speech has long been a matter of identity. As long as these trends persist, Iran will be poorly governed.”
  5. Marital rape is legally permitted, even when the marriage was forced to begin with. Remember this if someone tries to claim Iran has a low rate of rape. It’s easy to claim that rape is rare if your legal definition is narrow, and you look the other way.

These are not benign cultural differences. These are vile, heinous policies and practices that decent people should be sickened by. Many people on the Left have rightfully called out human rights violations committed by Israel. A case can be made for the proposals of the BDS Movement. However, the idea that Israel should be boycotted, divested from, and sanctioned and Iran spared is absurd. It is certainly true that the U.S. had a hand in the current political situation in Iran. The United States government toppled a secular, democratically elected prime minister in 1953 and put a “friendly dictator” in power, which eventually helped lead to the emergence of Iran’s current theocratic government. However, that is not a good argument against sanctions. The fact that America helped create the conditions for the Ayatollah does not in any way mean that America should essentially subsidize this current regime through trade. If anything, this fact increases America’s obligation to promote freedom in Iran through nonmilitary means. If I am wrong, then so is the BDS Movement. After all, the United States has played a role in helping shape current conditions in Israel in a number of ways. So if America’s enabling the Shah of Iran means we have no right to impose sanctions or boycotts on Iran, then the same goes for Israel.

Some opponents of sanctions argue that sanctions will not promote human rights in Iran and that honey would work better than incense. There are several problems with this argument. Firstly, the U.N.’s decision to lift most of its sanctions on Iran has utterly failed to prevent Iran from continuing on the path of oppression and violence. Secondly, history has proven that sanctions can be an effective tool for promoting human rights. In 1986, Congress passed sanctions on South Africa, over Ronald Reagan’s veto. Many conservatives at the time argued that they would ineffective. But within less than ten years, Apartheid had ended. Claiming that sanctions were the only reason would be absurd, but so is claiming that they played no role. Sadly, while certain other Western nations outpaced the U.S. in terms of taking a hard line on Apartheid, the U.N. and European Union have undercut American sanctions on Iran. Thirdly, Americans and all people have a moral imperative not to financially support countries or other institutions that are brazenly oppressive. Harsh sanctions, preferably including a trade embargo, should be maintained against Iran until such time as the country is willing to make substantive steps for human rights.

Of course, the fact that Trump’s basic policy on sanctions is largely correct does not change the fact that he is extremely hypocritical about it. For one thing, even by the standards of American politicians, he has been incredibly friendly with Saudi Arabia, a country with human rights policies every bit as bad as Iran’s and possibly worse. Any sanctions implemented against Iran must be implemented against Saudi Arabia as well. For another, Trump shares many of the worst aspects of Iran’s political and religious leaders, from sexism and homophobia to a penchant for violence and censorship. And of course, Trump’s travel ban prevents Iranians who wish to flee their repressive regime from coming to the United States.

I should also make clear that I vehemently oppose any calls to go to war with Iran. Iran has not shown any intention of attacking the United States, and I consider myself to be a military isolationist. But there is a difference between supporting military isolationism and believing that the U.S. should do nothing to promote human rights abroad. Sanctions for brutal regimes are a reasonable, necessary alternative to war.

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