08/07/2012 04:25 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

91 Days Till Minnesota Votes on My family

I promised that this blog would be about the religious right's point of view on homophobia. It's a topic I don't much like talking about anymore, but there was a time when I couldn't shut up about it.

I got obsessed with this subject in 1992, when I directed the Unitarian Universalist Association's LGBT office. That year, voters in two states had anti-gay constitutional amendments to consider: Amendment 2 in Colorado and Ballot Measure 9 in Oregon. Amendement 2 passed and was thrown out by the Supreme Court in 1996. Ballot Measure 9, which was much more vitriolic, failed. (There is a great documentary about Oregon in 1992, called, fittingly, Ballot Measure 9, available on Netflix.)

At a national conference for LGBT equality called Creating Change, right after the presidential election in 1992, I first heard of something called the "religious right." When I got home to Boston, I settled into a research phase at a nonprofit called Political Research Associates. Through the long, cold New England winter, I waded through books, pamphlets, training manuals, videos, and other materials created by groups like the Traditional Values Coalition, Focus on the Family, and the Christian Coalition. I read books that proposed concentration camps for people with AIDS, electroshock therapy treatment to "heal" homosexuality, and other sickening ideas.

Most of it, though, seemed to me to go in an endless loop: God hates gays because gays are bad, so God hates gays, so we hate gays. I kept thinking, "There's something else, though!" Knowing that the same Bible cited to condemn gays could have been used to advocate for the extermination of people who blasphemed (Leviticus 24:16: "One who blasphemes the name of the LORD shall be put to death; the whole congregation shall stone the blasphemer"), I kept trying to figure out exactly why LGBT folks were so particularly targeted.

Of course, one reason for being targeted might have been that LGBT people were, sometimes effectively, advancing equality and understanding, and blasphemers weren't. But I kept looking for something deeper.

And then I finally read a book that really helped me understand. James Dobson, who made a fortune and a name by founding Focus on the Family, first came to prominence by writing the book Dare to Discipline: A Psychologist Offers Urgent Advice to Parents and Teachers in 1970. This book is still widely read; indeed, much of it is sound advice about setting limits for kids. But here is the passage that made me sit up straight in my chair and blink slowly:

The issue of respect can be a useful tool in knowing when to punish and how excited [a parent] should get about a given behavior. First, the parent should decide whether an undesirable behavior represents a direct challenge of his authority -- to his [sic] position as the father or the mother. Punishment should depend on that evaluation ... In my opinions, spankings should be reserved for the moment a child expresses a defiant "I will not" or "You shut up!" When a youngster tries this kind of stiff-knecked rebellion, you had better take it out of him, and pain is a marvelous purifier.

Dobson then went on to describe his own mother's behavior when he sassed her (this section is removed from later editions of the book but there in the original years): "I learned very early that if I was going to launch a flippant attack on her, I had better be standing ten or twelve feet away. This distance was necessary to avoid being hit with whatever she could get in her hands. On one occasion she cracked me with a shoe, at other times she used a handy belt."

He then describes a particularly painful thrashing and writes that "from that day forward I cautiously retreated a few steps before popping off."

With no sense of irony, he begins the paragraph after describing his mother's violent attacks with this: "Respect is unsuccessful as a unilateral affair; it must operate on a two-way street. A mother cannot require her child to treat her with dignity if she will not do the same for him."

Oh! The religious educator in me, the one who had studied faith development of children, suddenly realized that for Mr. Dobson, the term "respect" and the term "fear" were one and the same. The key was obedience, doing what authorities told you to do! And that's what LGBT people were refusing to do.

Suddenly it became very clear to me: The people who are so upset by the mere existence of LGBT people are those who do not want anyone to upset the system of obedience to male authority. Now, one could say that Dobson's views are biblical: Leviticus 20:9 says, "Anyone who dishonors their father or mother must be put to death." He could claim that his mother let him off easily!

I'm curious about reader reactions to this assessment. Do others agree or have different readings? For those who were in and then left fundamentalist religions, I always appreciate your viewpoints!

(End note: I can't write about this time without gratefully remembering some of my amazing teachers: Suzanne Pharr, Donna RedWing, Scot Nakagawa, Chip Berlet, Jean Hardesty, and Mel White, just to name the tip of the iceberg.)