Republicans must denounce the bigotry of the Pences
WASHINGTON -- I have a question for those Republicans who, along with Democrats, demand the resignation of Virginia Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam for the abhorrent photo that appeared on his page in his medical school yearbook: If bigotry is repugnant, why not demand the resignation of Vice President Mike Pence for his ugly views on homosexuality? And while they're at it, why not insist that Pence's wife resign her position at a school that discriminates against gays and lesbians?
I can guess their answer: Pence and his wife are deeply religious, and their views on homosexuality are based on their religious convictions. To this, I say, so what? The Bible was used to justify slavery, and in my own time, racists cited this or that biblical passage to assert that racial segregation was precisely what God intended -- the so-called "curse of Ham" or the "mark of Cain," both used to add biblical authority to the rantings of bigots. Now the mark or the curse is on the Pences, who share views that in our nation's history have caused much suffering, including violence.
The other thing Republicans would be sure to say is that racism is different than "mere" anti-gay bias. Yes, indeed. Richmond was the capital of the Confederacy. Virginia is the state that once led the nation in number of slaves. The inhumanity of slavery is hard to fathom. It's harder still to comprehend that great men -- Washington, Jefferson, Madison ... you know the names -- not only condoned it, but benefited from it.
Later came slavery's progeny -- the Jim Crow era. I am talking of everything from the absurdity of segregated state parks to the barbarity of lynchings. In Atlanta in 1899, a black man was mutilated and then burned with portions of the body distributed to the crowd. The man's name was Sam Hose. He was probably innocent of murder but not, of course, of being black.
So I am not belittling the power of blackface and KKK robes in that yearbook picture, and I do not underestimate their powerful connections to America's everlasting shame. But those who react to that injustice ought to ponder the harm of homophobia. It has taken countless lives over the years, caused huge suffering and, like racism, persists to this day.
Homophobia is a staple of the racist right -- Nazis, white nationalists and other adherents of mindless goonery -- and results in the murder of gay and transgender people. In 2017, twenty gay, bisexual and queer men were murdered in hate crimes, an increase of 400 percent from 2016. This problem is hardly going away. And, infamously, in 1998, Matthew Shepard, was beaten, tortured and left to die on account of being gay. Last year, his ashes were interred in the Washington National Cathedral in a ceremony presided over by a gay Episcopal bishop, with music provided by Washington's Gay Men's Chorus.
Last week, singer and actor Jussie Smollett was attacked in Chicago by two men who yelled anti-gay and anti-black epithets. The actress and LGBTQ activist Ellen Page connected the attack to Mike Pence, whose homophobia once even seemed to support conversion therapy, which is a form of torture. I don't know if I would link the attack on Smollett to Pence, but I do know that his views are not far from the attackers'. He and his wife have to face facts: they are enablers.
In certain corners of the right-wing media, criticism of Karen Pence for recently taking a job at the Immanuel Christian School in Springfield, Va., was denounced as nothing less than religious bigotry. After all, the argument went, the school was a Christian school, ultra-conservative and ultra-traditional, which was entitled to teach according to its deeply held beliefs. No doubt. But while America has traditionally given religion wide berth -- and still does -- lines have been drawn. Utah was not admitted as a state until the Church of Latter-Day Saints renounced polygamy.
No one is advocating a law requiring Immanuel Christian to practice tolerance, both in its pedagogy and its hiring practices. But the First Amendment that guarantees the school's rights also gives us the right to criticize. It is simply wrong to foster a belief that homosexuality and same-sex marriage are immoral.
I have been torn about Northam -- about whether a single yearbook photo negates a lifetime of tolerance. But I am not torn about Mike and Karen Pence. They are figures of consequence and their bigotry -- regardless of their religious justification -- has to be confronted.
Richard Cohen's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
(c) 2019, Washington Post Writers Group