What is it about certain leaders of the Religious Right that drives them to self-parody? I mean, do they purposely try to undermine their credibility by making wild, ludicrous charges that do little more than provide fodder for the monologues of late-night TV comics?
The latest in this series of unfortunate events (unfortunate from the point of view of the religious conservatives, not their targets) comes from James Dobson, psychologist and Lord High Executioner of the Focus on the Family empire based in Colorado Springs. As reported in the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel on January 21 ("Christian critics say SpongeBob video is 'pro-homosexual'"):
On the heels of electoral victories to bar same-sex marriage, some influential conservative Christian groups are turning their attention to a new target: the cartoon character SpongeBob SquarePants.
"Does anybody here know SpongeBob?" James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, asked the guests Tuesday night at a black-tie dinner for members of Congress and political allies to celebrate the election results.
In many circles, SpongeBob needs no introduction. He is popular among children and grown-ups as well who watch him cavorting under the sea on the Nickelodeon cartoon program that bears his name. In addition, he has become a well-known camp figure among gay men, perhaps because he holds hands with his animated sidekick Patrick and likes to watch the imaginary television show "The Adventures of Mermaid Man and Barnacle Boy."
Now, Dobson said, SpongeBob's creators have enlisted him in a "pro-homosexual video" in which he appears alongside other children's television characters such as Barney, Blue from "Blue's Clues," Clifford the Big Red Dog and Jimmy Neutron, among many others.
The makers of the video, he said, plan to mail it to thousands of elementary schools this spring to promote a "tolerance pledge" that includes tolerance for differences of "sexual identity." He urged his allies to stand together to stop it as part of a "spiritual battle" for the country.
Despite denials by the video's producer Nile Rodgers (composer of "We Are Family") about SpongeBob's alleged "inclinations," the Focus on the Family folks stood firm:
On Wednesday, however, Paul Batura, assistant to Dobson at Focus on the Family, said the group stood by its charges, even as it acknowledged that the "tolerance pledge" was available only on the We Are Family Web site and not in material sent to the schools.
"We see the video as an insidious means by which the organization is manipulating and potentially brainwashing kids," he said. "It is a classic bait and switch."
Dobson apparently learned about SpongeBob's subversive, perverse lifestyle from the American Family Association, based in Tupelo, Mississippi. According to the Associated Press:
However, the Mississippi-based American Family Association, in a detailed article by the editor of its monthly journal, insists the endeavor has a pro-gay subtext.
"On the surface, the project may appear to be a worthwhile attempt to foster greater understanding of cultural differences," wrote Ed Vitagliano. "However, a short step beneath the surface reveals that one of the differences being celebrated is homosexuality."
To back his assertions, Vitagliano said the foundation's Web site contained links to other organizations' educational material supporting tolerance of gays and lesbians.
Vitagliano also complained of a "tolerance pledge" found on the We Are Family Web site, borrowed from a civil rights group. It says in part, "To help keep diversity a wellspring of strength and make America a better place for all, I pledge to have respect for people whose abilities, beliefs, culture, race, sexual identity or other characteristics are different from my own."
Focus on the Family and the American Family Association deserve the opprobrium they have begun to receive, and not just because their charges are so ridiculous. (Cartoon characters can certainly be gay -- Smithers, call your office! -- but only when their creators agree that they are. SpongeBob does not fall into that category.) They deserve criticism because they are showing themselves to be opponents of teaching our kids that intolerance and bigotry are wrong and that Americans should be able to live together despite their differences. Do they disagree with President Bush, who said this in his Second Inaugural Address on Thursday?
In America's ideal of freedom, the public interest depends on private character - on integrity, and tolerance toward others, and the rule of conscience in our own lives. Self-government relies, in the end, on the governing of the self. That edifice of character is built in families, supported by communities with standards, and sustained in our national life by the truths of Sinai, the Sermon on the Mount, the words of the Koran, and the varied faiths of our people. Americans move forward in every generation by reaffirming all that is good and true that came before - ideals of justice and conduct that are the same yesterday, today, and forever.
In America's ideal of freedom, the exercise of rights is ennobled by service, and mercy, and a heart for the weak. Liberty for all does not mean independence from one another. Our nation relies on men and women who look after a neighbor and surround the lost with love. Americans, at our best, value the life we see in one another, and must always remember that even the unwanted have worth. And our country must abandon all the habits of racism, because we cannot carry the message of freedom and the baggage of bigotry at the same time.
An editorial in today's Louisville Courier-Journal caught the true meaning of Dobson's remarks:
Dobson alleges that SpongeBob, along with other civilizational threats, such as Barney, appear on a video promoting tolerance, including for sexual identity. Well, Dobson is wrong. The video makes no reference to sexual orientation. And the TV show itself is utterly devoid of sexual content.
When push comes to shove, some religious extremists would turn their back on the shunning, taunting and bullying that gay children are exposed to, in order to thwart any message that young people should be tolerant of different sexual identities. And, remember, they do this ugliness in the name of Christianity.
The whole thing reminds me of the flap a few years ago, when the Reverend Jerry Falwell, founder of the Moral Majority and of Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, discovered that one of the Teletubbies was gay! (The horror, the horror!)
At the time, Gays and Lesbians for Individual Liberty addressed Falwell's inanity with this news release:
Even Tinky Winky Has Right to Privacy, Asserts Gay Libertarian Leader
Falwell's ‘Outing' of Purple Teletubby Violates Sacred Trust
(WASHINGTON, February 11, 1999) --- News reports circulating this week about the Reverend Jerry Falwell's criticism of Tinky Winky, the gay Teletubby, carry a subtle but dire warning: leaders in the Religious Right no longer respect the privacy rights of individuals, even fuzzy fictional TV characters.
"Although most of us agree that honesty is the best policy and that people should be open about their sexual orientation, everyone still enjoys a right to privacy," said Richard Sincere, president of Gays and Lesbians for Individual Liberty (GLIL), in response to the Tinky Winky controversy.
"Jerry Falwell has ‘outed' Tinky Winky without Tinky Winky's permission. If Tinky Winky wants to come out of the closet, it should be his (her?) choice as to where, when, and how. Falwell shows little respect for an individual's right to privacy -- and shows how close he is in spirit to his one-time nemesis, Hustler publisher Larry Flynt." (Flynt has recently made headlines by revealing the secret sexual peccadilloes of Republican members of Congress. He and Falwell were adversaries in a lawsuit that reached the U.S. Supreme Court.)
"At a time when the U.S. government is infringing more and more on individual privacy -- such as the proposed 'Know Your Customer' regulations for banks -- political and moral leaders like Jerry Falwell should be more circumspect about invading people's privacy," said Sincere, his tongue partially in cheek.
Gays and Lesbians for Individual Liberty was founded in February 1991 to advance the cause of individual responsibility and personal liberty within the gay and lesbian community, and to urge all people to respect the liberties of gay and lesbian citizens. For more information, ... visit GLIL's homepage.-30-
Every time incidents like this take place, it becomes increasingly difficult to take seriously the opinions and advice of Dobson, Falwell, and their allies. They undermine their own cause with each misstep they take.