This article was originally published by Salon, on June 29, 1998.
The flap over Sen. Trent Lott’s remarks about homosexuality illustrates the way people on both sides of the political debate have come to talk about this issue — and shouldn’t.
For those who missed it, Lott was asked on a radio talk show whether he thought homosexuality was a sin. Instead of passing the question on to theologians, whose opinion would be more appropriate, Lott answered that he did. His answer was gobbled up by the carnivorous media and spat in the direction of House Majority Leader Dick Armey. Instead of recusing himself for a similar lack of professional competence, Armey pulled out a Bible to “prove” that it was, adding that as a Christian he was instructed to love the sinner and hate the sin.
Eager to exploit an opportunity for political advantage, the White House joined the fray. Lumping all traditional religious believers with Republican legislators, Press Secretary Mike McCurry said: “The president thinks the American people understand how difficult it is to get business done in Washington sometimes when you’re dealing with people who are so backward in their thinking.”
In fact, in almost the same breath with which he had invoked the lightning, Lott also made an attempt to show that he was really progressive in his thinking. Genuflecting to the therapeutic standard that liberals and progressives have created, and under whose rubric everything from alcoholism and cigarette addiction to gang activity and gun violence is officially construed as a public health problem, Lott backed away from the stern authority of the biblical text to explain that homosexuality was a kind of disease and its victims should be helped “just like alcohol … or sex addiction … or kleptomaniacs.”
But his bowing to the left proved even more damaging than his original sin. “It’s an indication of how the extreme right wing has a stranglehold on the leadership” of Congress, cried Winnie Stachelberg, political director of the Human Rights Campaign, the 250,000-member gay and lesbian political organization. Her comment was echoed by other gay leaders, giving it the clear outlines of a party line. Lost in the outcry was the fact that Trent Lott had gone as far as he had to show tolerance for homosexuality, while establishing that it was a “lifestyle” he does not approve of.
The things that are wrong with this picture are the result of formulations that have been introduced into our public discourse by both left and right in recent decades.