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Smoke Signals in Context
Brian tokar and gary Oliver
Capitalism In Crisis?
Slippin' & Slidin'
Right Wing Nixes Gay Christ
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Right Wing Nixes Gay Christ
When the First Amendment Fails
Corpus Christi, Terrence McNally's dramatic refiguring of the Passion with a queer Christ and a sincere message of tolerance for everyone, has opened on Broadway. While the charge of anti-Catholicism and the threat of violence still hangs over the production and the theater, the relative post-opening night calm provides time for some serious reflection on the controversy. From the beginning the entire Corpus Christi scenario seemed more like a dangerous farce than a passion play. But in its outlines it conformed to a traditional American genre of public political theater in which individual and artistic freedom is threatened, the First Amendment is evoked, and while the dark forces of repression are beaten back, they continue to lurk, omnipresent, on the horizon.
After the Manhattan Theater Club announced last May that Terrence McNally's Corpus Christi
would lead their fall schedule, the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, a national lay organization dedicated to defending "the rights of Catholics to participate in American public life without defamation or discrimination," denounced the play and the production as "offensive to Catholics and all Christians." The Catholic League--never having read the script--screamed blasphemy in a crowded theater and it worked. The Manhattan Theater Club, after receiving anonymous threats to fire bomb the theater, kill the staff, and "exterminate Terrence McNally," canceled the production. The lights dim as the specter of censorship and religious bigotry rises center stage.
While the tactics of intimidation by violence and death threat worked--fire bombs bring a whole new meaning to "opening night jitters"--they were quickly countered by protestations from civil libertarians, including PEN, the ACLU and National Coalition Against Censorship. Playwrights such as Craig Lucas, Tony Kushner, Wendy Wasserstein, David Henry Hwang, Edward Albee, and Athol Fugard labeled the cancellation "a capitulation to right-wing extremists and religious zelots." Within two days the play was back in production and a special security staff was hired to protect the theater, its staff, and the actors. The curtain falls on wary and weary liberals who have won--but for how long?
In response the Catholic League stepped up its crusade. William Donohue, the League's president, stated that "while McNally has every legal right to insult Christians, he has no moral right to do so" and threatened to "wage a war that no one would forget" against the Manhattan Theater Club and any other theater who would produce the play. After weeks of tension and anxiety, the play opened and artists and civil libertarians breathed a sigh of relief. The forces of intolerance and fanaticism wait for the moment to make another grand entrance.
The furor over Corpus Christi may look like just another battle in the ongoing culture wars over manifestation of gay culture such as Heather Has Two Mommies and Robert Mapplethorpe's work, but there is a substantial, very important difference in how this attack on public homosexuality is being framed and articulated. The Catholic League argued that Corpus Christi infringes on the rights to Christians "to participate in American public life without defamation or discrimination." The response of the ACLU and National Coalition Against Censorship was the classic First Amendment response of protected speech. But this argument--essentially correct--is ultimately ineffectual because it fails to address the Catholic League's claim of discrimination. By asserting that Corpus Christi doesn't just "offend" Catholics but is part of an organized political (albeit artistic) campaign to "defame and discriminate against" people who hold a certain religious belief, Donohue has partially, successfully, turned the tables on the First Amendment. This strategy is made even more effective because almost all of the pro Corpus Christi statements by civil rights groups include some phase or sentence conceding that religious beliefs and traditions have a right to respect. But the idea of respecting religious beliefs has to be kept in perspective. But the war being waged by the Catholic League is not simply an attack on the First Amendment, but is an attack on religious freedom as well--the freedom to believe in a different sort of Jesus, a sexual Jesus, a mortal Jesus, a sinful Jesus, or a gay Jesus.
The Catholic League is waging a religious war centered on their definition of legitimate dogma and the question of who owns Jesus. The boilerplate story of Jesus has been the basis for cartoons, movie epics, musicals, capitalist diatribes, socialist agit-prop, and comic books--and, of course, religions. From Hollywood schlock like The Greatest Story Ever Told to Pier Paolo Passolini's starkly beautiful and totally communist The Gospel According to Saint Matthew to
Jesus Christ Superstar, hacks and artists have used the story of Christ to hammer home various moral, social, political and emotional truths. But interpretation of Christian scripture is constantly disputed. This has been the basis for all religious persecutions: the Crusades, pogroms, witch-burnings, the Inquisition. Depictions of Jesus's life have always been contested--Jules Renan's now classic Jesus was banned when it was published in the 19th century, just as Nikos Kazantzakis's The Last Temptation of Christ was in the 1950s. The Catholic League's battle against Corpus Christi is no different. By claiming that they "own" the correct interpretation of Jesus the Catholic League is furthering the clear-cut and emphatic anti-gay agenda of the religious and political right. They are doing so under the claim of "religious discrimination" thereby obscuring their real intent and cloaking themselves in the language of freedom and anti-discrimination.
To claim McNally's First Amendment rights to write and produce Corpus Christi is to miss the point of the Catholic League's argument. Progressives and gay rights advocates cannot concede the high moral ground to the Catholic League by allowing them to claim their conception of Jesus as the only one that is proper and correct. To do so is to loose not only this battle but a larger one as well--a battle that conforms to the decades-old scenario of censorship vs. the First Amendment. We live in a culture in which religion and religious belief is hyped and not taken seriously, where it is treated as a political football while relegated to the ambiguous realm of the "private." This battle against "religious discrimination"--the "right" of religious people to have their beliefs respected and then valued over differing beliefs only makes sense in the context of a broader analysis of religion and politics.
To begin with the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights presents itself as a religious, non-partisan, non-political church-based group who wants to defend the Roman Catholic church against defamatory attacks. Yet even a casual examination of who they are reveals something quite different. Founded in 1973 by Father Virgil C. Blum, S.J.--a conservative Jesuit priest--the League is dedicated to preserving the "religious freedom rights and free speech rights of Catholics whenever and wherever they are threatened." But the League did very little until, in 1988, it gained some notoriety by helping other religious groups protest Martin Scorsese's acclaimed film of Kazantzakis's The Last Temptation of Christ.
After that the League had a low profile until William Donohue became its president in 1993. Donohue pulled the League from the brink of financial ruin and generated enough money and attention to hire an 11 person staff and organize 12 chapters across the United States. The League's membership has jumped from 11,000 in 1993 to 350,000 today.
But Donohue did not come out of nowhere. In the 1980s, while working for the right-wing Heritage Foundation, he was a consultant for the Bush administration and helped spearhead George Bush's attack on the ACLU. Since taking over the Catholic League, he has relied on high-profile cases to promote the organization and its conservative message. Most recently, their attacks on "anti-Catholicism" in the media included campaigns on the film Priest (they managed to keep it out of some theaters and caused some papers to refusing advertisements) and mounted a successful campaign against the now-defunct ABC series "Nothing Sacred," that featured a progressive priest who dealt with issues such as abortion, divorce, and homosexuality. They have been successful in obtaining apologies from mainstream papers like the San Francisco Chronicle for allegedly "anti-Catholic" articles, and have filed numerous amicus briefs in court cases ranging from an Ohio case in which a lawyer sued to revoke the legal holiday status of Christmas, to separation of church and state cases that would deny church employees the right to sue for discrimination. In the past year the Catholic League has instigated and funded anti-condom subway poster campaigns in Boston and New York. One of their most recent campaigns is a promotion of school voucher programs--and ceaseless attacks on anyone who is against the program as "anti-Catholic." Most frequently the issues raised by the Catholic League concern "negative" representations of clergy or instances in which legal statutes are enacted to inhibit church activities, or deny public funds to church activities.
But this is only part of the Catholic League's program. Much of what they have promoted has a mark of distinct anti-Semitism about it. In the campaigns against The Last Temptation of Christ they accused Jewish producers of being the instigators behind the blasphemous film (no mention was made of the fact that Kazantzakis was a Greek Orthodox Catholic or that Scorsese's religious and cultural background is Italian Catholic.) Their press releases stated that the producers of "Nothing Sacred" were "non-practicing Jews. (Apparently sensitive to the charges of anti-Semitism the League has now taken to attacking "non-practicing Jews" rather then Jews in general.)
But they are also involved in issues like accusing the Holocaust Museum of anti-Catholicism because of a film they show which states that Hitler was born Catholic. They have accused the Simon Weisenthal Center of anti-Catholicism for calling the about-to-be-beatified-by-the-Vatican Yugoslavian Cardinal Alojzije Stepinac a war criminal and Nazi collaborator. Stepinac's war and political record is well documented and most historians and journalists agree upon his involvement as a collaborator. These attacks on Jews and Jewish institutions underscores the basic Christian fundamentalism and dogmatic--even inquisitorial--beliefs of the League.
The Catholic League's political stands--and their enormous success at garnering media attention and publicity--are part and parcel of the tactics of the political right. It is clear from the issues and battles they pick that theirs is a deeply reactionary political agenda. Their use of "religion" and religious belief as a political tool is also in sync with better known political/religious groups like the Christian Coalition. In the past two years it is clear that the political and religious right has realized that claiming religious discrimination is a potent organizing tool. Recent attempts by the right to pass a "religious freedom" bill in Congress (clearly aimed at "protecting" Christians) has been a way to influence foreign policy. Nationally, their attempts have been aimed primarily at gay rights organizing. These take a number of forms, from claims by Christian parents that their children are being discriminated against by curricula that is non-judgmental on gay issues or institutional school support of gay groups or projects like this summer's spate of ex-gay ministry ads ("don't call me a bigot because my religious beliefs condemn homosexuality") explicitly claimed that gay rights groups "oppress" devout Christians. This promotion of religious belief as a form of "identity politics "--an ironic turn since so many progressives and the left are seeking alternatives to the identity politic model--has helped re-establish religion as a vigorous force in secular politics.
The Catholic League's attack on Terrence McNally and Corpus Christi is but the latest example of the (mis)use of religion and faith to in an attempt to challenge liberal and progressive social policy and trends. By crying "discrimination"and the implicit "right" to define dogma and belief in a secular society, the Catholic League has half-won their battle. By refusing to take the implications of this seriously, by relying on simplistic First Amendment arguments, by ceding the moral high ground to institutionalized religion, the liberal response has, so far, been a failure.