In Ted Kennedy's new memoir, being published today, the Senator describes his first meeting with Bill Clinton in the White House. The new president had stumbled into a firestorm about gays in the military and invited the Democratic members of the Armed Services Committee to a meeting. All of the senators went around the room giving their opinions, so much so that the meeting lasted a whopping two hours, costing Kennedy a seat at the ballet that night.
Kennedy spoke in favor of lifting the ban; Robert Byrd spoke against. Finally, the president spoke up. Here is Kennedy's telling:
President Clinton stood up. His response was short and sweet. "Well," he said. "Moses went up to the mountain, and he came back with the tablets and there were ten commandments on those tablets. I've read those commandments. I know what they say, just like I know you do. And nowhere in those ten commandments will you find anything about homosexuality. Thank y'all for coming." He ended the meeting and walked out of the room.
Clinton was technically correct. The Ten Commandments do not mention homosexuality. But the Five Books of Moses do, in ways that have plagued homosexuals for centuries. Leviticus 18:22 says, "Do not lie with a male as one lies with a woman." Leviticus 20:13 says this "abomination" is punishable by death. Conservative Jews and Christians have long cited these two verses in their condemnation of homosexuality, though more liberal-minded believers have claimed these verses occur in the context of idol-worship or other passages that render them irrelevant to current conventions. In any event, many offenses for which the Bible calls for the death penalty have not been punished in that way for millennia, if ever.
Clinton's quoting Moses to support his softening of the ban on gays in the military recalls another use of the Hebrew prophet. In 1948, Harry Truman issued an executive order integrating the U.S. military. Noting that polls showed 82 percent of American were against the policy, Truman wrote in his diary: "How far would Moses have gone if he had taken a poll in Egypt?"
From the pilgrims to the founding fathers, the civil war to the civil rights movement, American leaders have used Moses in the face of staunch opposition to advance the cause of justice. Obama, though, might have a trouble quoting Moses to support his policy toward gays in the military. Just last month he cited Moses in support of his health care plan.