Long talk on the porch last night with my friend Betty about the project. Since it is coming to a close (the grant that is) I have been thinking about what this thing has meant, where it can go, what people can do. Did I ask the right questions? Have I been able to speak to enough people? Why did I really choose this subject in the first place?
Although I can’t be sure and answers are fleeting, I think I chose it because I see God being used as a sword, not a shield. That religion is so entrenched in every aspect of Mississippi government – bad religion – it is causing harm to the least among us. In the case of Mississippi, young women and teen moms (for the purposes of my project).
Let me explain what I mean by bad religion.
A few years ago I was speaking to the head of the Interfaith Alliance, Reverend Welton Gaddy. Welton is a proper southern gentleman who works in DC during the week and flies home to Monroe, Louisiana at week’s end to minister to his flock. I consider him a friend. Welton introduced me to the concept of bad religion. Or, more accurately, put a name to it as I had seen it all around but didn’t have the go-ahead of a religious man to call it for what it is.
We were talking about a group in Iowa that I had been reporting on. The group took millions in federal funding while simultaneously lobbying for a ban on gay marriage. They said homosexuality was worse than the cancerous ravages of second-hand smoke and advertised retreats where one could pray themselves out of the “homosexual lifestyle”. The organization was founded, it claimed, on family values rooted in an abiding belief in Jesus Christ. They were the true believers who had caused a lot of harm by with their callous words, their sponsorship of bad bills, their constant rhetoric.
I spoke to the leaders of the organization many times. I tried to find a shred of common ground – something that would suggest to me that there could be a dialog between the left and the right politically and spiritually. But, I found there was none. There was no give in their belief of what is and isn’t “sin”. They co-authored a letter circulated to hundreds of Iowa pastors which likened liberals to Nazi’s and gays to the jack-booted “Brown Shirts” that were Hitler’s chosen, vicious henchman.
Their refrain of love the sinner hate the sin was cold and convenient. The Iowa group displayed what Welton called bad religion. Although “bad” religion can take any form, in any belief system, in the US it is right-wing Evangelical Christians who hold sway.
The State Capitol is empty. I was able to walk the building, domed and stained glass without interruption. I walked through both chambers of the legislature taking photos and gawking at hallways lined with life-sized oil paintings of the great men of Mississippi’s government(s), the empty rows of comfy chairs, and the silence. A silence so obvious I took its picture.
The session is over, for goodness sake, the chambers assuredly would be silent. But the offices were quiet, the governor’s office was shuttered and locked the Lt. Gov’s office was open but no one was around so I went in and walked around there too.
I had some time to kill between my meeting with the ACLU of Mississippi and Mississippi Public Broadcasting. The ACLU offices were so close to the Capitol – why not? I was hoping to bump into someone, anyone I spoke to last fall during my long stay. Maybe Governor Bryant himself would be knocking around the halls and I could finally get him to talk to me about his love of ab-only and how the program was going thus far. Or Nycole Campbell Lewis, his head of the teen pregnancy prevention program who won’t return my calls or emails.
But, I did leave the Governor a note: