“Cowardice asks the question, ‘is it safe?’ Expediency asks the question, ‘is it politic?’ Vanity asks the question, ‘is it popular?’ But conscience asks the question, ‘is it right?’” – Martin Luther King, Jr.
Stephen Singular is a New York Times bestselling author. He’s written twenty non-fiction books on a variety of subjects, everything from current events to politics to biographies of athletes. He is a native Kansan, a local boy done good from Lydon, a small town an hour South of Topeka. Singular’s best and most popular writing deals with religious and political extremism. His first book was about the murder of a radio talk show host by a white supremacist group. More recently, Singular has written an exposé on Warren Jeffs and Mormon fundamentalism. His newest book, The Wichita Divide, deals with the murder of Dr. George Tiller, and abortion politics right here in the state of Kansas.
Singular came to Johnson County to speak earlier this summer. Few noticed. A group of about fifty people came out to hear him, cramming into a conference room at a local community center. The only way his visit was advertised was on the email distribution lists of a handful of small political organizations.
When Singular spoke to us he was clearly frustrated at the challenges of finding an audience here in Eastern Kansas. Universities, colleges, and public libraries had all turned down opportunities to host him. Independent and chain bookstores passed as well. The press, including public radio, passed on the opportunity to cover his visit. That he’s been ignored is so very tragic and infuriating because his book is about us. Not us as Unitarian Universalists, but us as Kansans. It is about the extremist organizations that make our state their home. It is about politicians from right here in our county, such as Phill Kline, who’ve made careers off of anti-abortion sentiment. And, this sermon is about what the lack of a response to Singular’s visit says about us.
In a book published almost a year ago, Chris Hedges writes about something he calls “the death of the liberal class.” What he means by the liberal class is this: the liberal class is a collection of institutions that include academia, the press, the arts, labor unions, and progressive churches that play an important role in preserving democracy. Hedges writes that these groups are the watchdogs of society, exposing injustice and deception, opposing totalitarianism and greed, and recalling us to the best of our humanity.
Hedges warns that the institutions that make up the liberal class are constantly threatened by temptations, the temptation of getting swept up in propaganda, the temptation of protecting their own little niches by playing it safe and not doing anything unpopular, the seduction of being able to touch the hem of the garment of power and prestige. The temptation to sacrifice principles.
When the liberal class betrays its own principles it is willing to turn over lists of professors, artists, and actors to Joseph McCarthy. When the liberal class betrays its own principles it will eagerly publish fabricated White House intelligence reports about Iraq’s nuclear weapons program without any journalistic verification.
I saw a similar betrayal in the way Stephen Singular’s visit was basically ignored. The bookstore says it is a business and it wants to protect its bottom line, not alienate any of its customers. The universities would rather play it safe and not invite controversy or jeopardize funding. And so it comes to pass that murder and violent religious extremism become something that’s too dangerous and too controversial to address and speak out against.
More than a century ago, Lord Alfred Douglas wrote the poem, “Two Loves” in which he coined the phrase “the love that dare not speak its name.” During the infamous court case in which Oscar Wilde’s sexuality was put on trial, Wilde was asked to tell the court what that phrase meant. Wilde famously answered by telling the court that it is what society does not understand and what the government attempts to punish and silence.
It really struck me going to hear Stephen Singular and reading Chris Hedges’ book. I began listening for imposed silences, the times when someone declares, “That isn’t something we can talk about.”
Last month I attended the meeting of the Johnson County Commissioners. At their meeting they were going to vote on whether to accept or decline a half million dollars in grant money offered to the county health department so that the health department could run sexuality education programs targeted to at-risk youth. Johnson County was selected to receive this grant because of rising rates of teen pregnancy and an alarming outbreak of chlamydia. I attended this meeting and spoke in support of accepting the grant money for the health department.
During the discussion the Johnson County Commissioners ceded the floor for more than ten minutes to an anti-abortion activist from Wichita who drove three hours to come warn our County Commissioners about the moral dangers of teaching teens about contraception. The County Commissioners agreed, voting by a narrow 4-3 margin to accept a portion of the health grant with the stipulation that contraception education not be discussed. They deemed contraception too controversial to mention.
It was an Oscar Wilde moment, with the County Commissioners deciding that they need to protect society from the prophylactic that dare not speak its name. That of which we dare not speak.
Last spring I attended a community forum on school finance hosted by the MAINstream Coalition and held in the basement social hall of the Asbury United Methodist Church. A panel composed of State Senator John Vratil, Sue Storm of the State school board, and Blue Valley school district superintendent Tom Trigg discussed the dire state of school funding and the effects that proposed cuts would have in our community. The question and answer period turned bizarre. One audience member asked the panel about whether we could use schools to generate advertising revenue. Which begs the question of whether there is money to be made in sending your child to Ronald McDonald elementary or Coca-Cola East high school. It seemed like an eccentric question, until the next person asked about building more casinos (in a much poorer neighboring county, no less!) I happened to be sitting next to the moderator, a woman of impeccable common sense, and we turned to each other and said, there is something not being spoken here. The moderator used her privilege to ask the next question, about whether we were in denial about our ability to fund the types of schools we would be proud to send our children to without raising taxes. The response that came back was very matter of fact. One of the panelists told us that the conversation about raising taxes is not a conversation that can be had in Topeka.
Does that sound familiar? In the recent federal debt-ceiling debate were we not told from the outset that increasing revenue, even in the form of closing loopholes or letting tax cuts expire, was off the table? The compromise that dare not speak its name. That which dare not be spoken.
Now, let’s return to Stephen Singular’s lecture earlier this summer. I believe we are witnessing one of the most vicious assaults on not only abortion rights, but also on health care for women, and especially health care for the poor, that I’ve seen in my lifetime. In the time remaining I want to say a few things about this. I want to briefly describe the current state of affairs here in Kansas and nationally. I want to talk about all of this in light of the idea of “unspeakability,” how this issue has become one of which too many dare not speak.
In 2010 state legislatures in the United States considered more than 600 pieces of anti-choice legislation, passing approximately 5% of those bills. The outcome of the 2010 mid-term elections assured that this trend would only increase in 2011. In the first legislative session of 2011 alone, the Kansas legislature considered 13 pieces of anti-choice legislation, passing five of them. The legislature spent 25 hours of its time in session working to restrict abortion access. In the past few weeks, federal judges have granted injunctions against two of those new laws and our Governor is sparing no expense when it comes to assembling a legal team to defend the new legislation in court.
One of the laws that the courts have ordered put on hold is a law that would allow the state to re-allocate money from Title X family planning programs. Title X was created during the Nixon administration in order to provide family planning funding in conjunction with other health services to poor women. It is funded annually to the tune of around three hundred million dollars. In 1976, Congress passed the Hyde Amendment which prohibited federal funding for abortions. So, there are clear laws about what Title X funds can and can’t be used for.
Legislative attempts to cut off Title X funds are based on a new strategy based on the reasoning that if legal efforts to ban a specific medical procedure are unsuccessful, then the next step is to attempt to defund health centers entirely. Three weeks ago, the Dodge Globe reported on the imminent closure of a family planning clinic in Dodge City. This clinic provides testing as well as cancer and diabetes screenings to as many as 850 women per year who cannot afford health care. The article began,
Dodge City's Family Planning Clinic may close soon unless it can plug a $39,000 hole in its budget. Clinic director Karla Demuth learned last month that the clinic would not receive federal dollars in 2012, due to a budget provision that cut off federal family-planning funding for Planned Parenthood… Planned Parenthood of Kansas and Mid-Missouri have filed a federal lawsuit over the provision. The Dodge City clinic is not affiliated with Planned Parenthood and does not perform abortions. The clinic does, however, provide pregnancy tests and other women's health services, as well as some services for male clients.Writes author Stephen Singular,
Highly disturbing pieces of the [extremist] mindset, [characterized by] anger, fear, blame, hatred, and absolutist thinking… have gradually crept from the fringes of our society into the American mainstream. They’ve become normalized inside major religions, the corporate media, and political leaders at the highest levels of our society. They are at the root of what all but shut down our federal government on the night of April 8, 2011, when the anti-abortionists were willing to sacrifice the jobs of 800,000 employees because they don’t accept what has been settled law in the United States since 1973. [That they believe] their religious ideology trumps the rule of law [is] the very definition of extremism.Earlier, in bringing up those subjects about which many do not speak, I was talking about things that “major religions, the corporate media, and political leaders” have deemed unspeakable, have tried to pretend does not exist, or have attempted to silence either through punishment or policy. A gag order is placed on speaking about these things because they are too controversial or unpopular or dangerous. But, now I turn the question to us. To what degree do we contribute to making something unspeakable? What sinister silences do we participate in?
Chris Hedges alleges that, “In the name of tolerance – a word that the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Jr., never used – the liberal church and synagogue refuse to denounce Christian heretics who acculturate the Christian religion with the worst aspects of consumerism, nationalism, greed, imperial hubris, violence, and bigotry.”
“The liberal church and synagogue.” Is he talking about us? It is doubtful that he has us in mind. This sermon wouldn’t rank in the top 10 of “controversial” sermons I’ve delivered. But, for dozens of my friends who are ministers in mainline Christian denominations, this morning’s subject would be taboo, something of which they dare not speak. For them it is a sinister silence. But, it is something that can be spoken here. Our denomination has used the democratic process to vote to adopt no fewer than 10 unequivocally pro-choice resolutions making our denomination one of very few that has been able to articulate a pro-choice position with moral as well as verbal clarity. And I wouldn’t have it be any other way.
There is a sense in which the unspeakable needs to be a part of our lives for our own good. Sometimes you may just need to delete the horrible emails your obnoxious in-law sends you. That is healthy differentiation. It becomes unhealthy when you confuse your elected leaders with your obnoxious relatives. You can delete emails; you can’t delete public policy. Or, to put it another way, your obnoxious in-laws don’t hold your access to health care over your head. The state did pass a law banning insurance companies from covering abortions in their health plans. It is as sick as it is foolish to believe that silence will appease extremists. Silence is just not an option. Silence is death.
Towards the end of Martin Luther King’s ministry he turned his attention away from civil rights in the south and became an outspoken critic of the war in Vietnam. King is venerated today, but we forget how unpopular this move was in his lifetime. In King’s lifetime civil rights for African-Americans moved the discussion of race relations from something that you didn’t mention in polite company to something that was at the forefront of our national conversation. (The popular Kathryn Stockett novel The Help plays with this idea of speaking about what is unspeakable.) King was criticized roundly for taking on the war. Many of his followers deserted him. We forget how unpopular it was for him to speak about the unspeakable when it came to Vietnam. In one of his last sermons at Ebenezer Baptist Church, King said,
I've decided what I'm going to do. I ain't going to kill nobody in Mississippi ... [and] in Vietnam. I ain't going to study war no more. And you know what? I don't care who doesn't like what I say about it. I don't care who criticizes me in an editorial. I don't care what white person or Negro criticizes me. I'm going to stick with the best. On some positions, cowardice asks the question, “is it safe?” Expediency asks the question, “is it politic?” Vanity asks the question, “is it popular?” But conscience asks the question, “is it right?” And there comes a time when a true follower of Jesus Christ must take a stand that's neither safe nor politic nor popular but he must take that stand because it is right.That of which I speak is not easy or comfortable or safe. Safety and the comfort are seductive illusions. Hedges would say that they are “temptations” that lead us to betray our principles. Anything that feels safe and comforting to us was won with sacrifice and dangerous effort. Our church, a place of welcome and comfort, was formed by heretics who faced banishment, imprisonment, and even death to create a free religious community. The freedom of speech, the freedom of assembly and petition, the freedom of the press, artistic freedoms, and the freedom of the ballot: none of these were easily won. None of these freedoms were thought to be safe.
Speak out! Challenge the unspeakable silences of those who would say "that's not something we can talk about" or "we can't go there." Speak out! Say out loud: "We need to go there." "That is something we need to talk about." Go forth and speak your conscience with bravest fire.