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Clay Farris Naff Headshot

Michael Sam and the Last Few Yards: Will We Fumble?

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The sight of Michael Sam's eyes welling with tears will stay with me forever. Unfortunately, for the fanatics of Old Time Religion it's the sight of Sam kissing his boyfriend after becoming the first openly gay man drafted into the NFL that will remain indelible.

The religious right is determined to force a turnover. With public approval of equal rights for LGBT community surging, some may believe that the path to the goal line lies wide open. That could prove a fatal error. As detailed by the New York Times, a smart, powerful and well-financed force has lined up in the red zone and will mount a strong goal line defense.

The conservative Christian group calling itself Alliance Defending Freedom has racked up a series of victories in court, most recently persuading the Republican majority on the Supreme Court that prayers said in the name of Jesus are somehow not Christian prayers when they open a town council meeting. Rather, they are some sort of customary utterance that imposes no harm on anybody.

As Katherine Stewart notes, this is a big gain for the religious right's "long game" to reimpose Christianity as the undeclared yet official religion of America. Anyone who thinks that Justice Kennedy became a protector of gay rights in last year's DOMA case should shudder to see him writing for the majority in upholding official prayer.

DOMA fell on a technicality. Can we be confident that Kennedy will break with the other GOP justices to uphold equal rights? The Christian right's theocratic agenda (which they call "freedom") is precisely why freedom from religion and equal LGBT rights are inextricably linked.

While Michael Sam may appear to be the Jackie Robinson of our day, unless the forces of progress unite in meaningful action, Sam might prove to be a Jack Johnson instead. Johnson was a champion boxer in the early 20th century. A black man with Muhammed Ali-like self-confidence, he defied social convention in many ways -- most notably in marrying white women. Because of his celebrity, he largely got away with it, until a Southern jury convicted him of a crime that was not on the books when he "committed" it -- crossing a state line with a white woman for "immoral" purposes.

Johnson fled the country to avoid jail. Interracial marriage remained illegal in much of the country for more than another half-century.

The Supreme Court has broad independence, but it is not immune to public pressure. What pressure does its conservative wing feel? The signs aren't good. The Christian right has great discipline, huge resources, and an unwavering focus on its theocratic goals.

The progressive majority? Not so much. We like to boast of tolerance, but we squabble endlessly. Far too many atheists fire off blunderbuss volleys against anyone who is religious... or even consorts with the religious. Far too few mainstream and liberal religionists speak up about the encroachment of religion in the public sphere (only a handful filed amicus briefs in the Town of Greece prayer case, compared with a boatload of briefs from the Christian right). And far too many of the young Nones leave public policy for others to worry about while they go in pursuit of fun, adventure, and personal advancement.

Here's a sight that should chill your marrow. So determined are the forces of Old Time Religion that conservative evangelicals, who traditionally hate Catholics with a Calvinist fervor, have appointed one to head their legal alliance. Then again, they fervently support Israel -- in the hope that World War III will break out, the Arabs and Jews will be annihilated and sent to hell, and Jesus will rule from Israel for a thousand years. How's that for tolerance?

Progressives have a lasting advantage, however. We genuinely hold tolerance as a value, even when we fail to practice it. In fact, it comes first in the list of values that I believe lay the groundwork for a lasting alliance. Here they are in full. (The meaning of these terms can be found in an earlier essay.)

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This silken thread can stitch together a quilt of differing worldviews with shared values. We'd better get to sewing soon, or we will reap a whirlwind of religious fascism. Whether you are religious, spiritual, or (like me) a secular humanist, you can make a start by liking and sharing the Good Faith Alliance on Facebook. Do it now. There are yards to go, and the clock is ticking.