This originally appeared in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on October 31, 2002.
It is far more common to hear someone say “I think …” than to hear “I believe …” A statement of belief is a risky venture, since it is very likely that others will hold us to such a strong statement in the future. Somehow, though, politicians seem to get a free pass in this regard. Perhaps because their strength more often rests on their popularity and charisma than on their integrity; few people even bother to peek beneath the rhetoric and see if a public figure has ever really stood for something. If a voter does go to the effort, they are rarely surprised if a holder of the public trust has failed to take a consistent stand on what they claim to believe.
We have seen two prominent examples of this in local politics. Recently, in an apparent reversal of his public commitment to Georgia Right-to-Life’s zero-tolerance opposition to abortion, Georgia Senatorial candidate Saxby Chambliss stated that he now supports abortion in certain cases. Chambliss’ previous, stronger stand was made when he was courting far-right voters in a primary. Now that he needs moderate support in a statewide race, he seems to be painting himself as a moderate. What does he really believe?
Similarly, in the 11 th District Republican primary, the Rev. Dr. Cecil Staton – a former colleague in the explicitly pro-gay Alliance of Baptists – decided to reinvent himself as a champion of the causes of the radical right. Using their divisive rhetoric Dr. Staton turned the primary into a competition to see which candidate could prove himself to be the most anti-gay. On the surface, this should not have been a tough call considering Gingrey’s record and Staton’s former membership in the Alliance of Baptists.
Unfortunately, the Staton campaign fell back on a tactic that gay and lesbian people know all too well – they dissembled. Claiming ignorance of the Alliance’s well-known stand, Staton began to heavily downplay his role as a leading publisher of progressive baptist scholarship. In a similar fashion, Chambliss now claims that he was not aware of the extremism of the Georgia Right-to-Life pledge he endorsed.
This kind of waffling is nothing new to politics, or to faith communities for that matter. Most clergy hold onto their pulpits using the same skills that others use to gain political office – and with similar results. When leaders – be they political or religious – act out of expediency rather than conviction, then the institutions they serve continue to be vehicles for oppression.
It is therefore no surprise that the topics which Staton and Chambliss felt compelled to hedge around dealt with sexual minorities and women. If a political leader is more concerned about placation than integrity, then strong stands for either of these groups are a liability to their success. On the other hand, when a politician wins because of their ability to change with the political winds, we as their constituents become the losers.
We lose the opportunity for our children to see clear examples of people acting with integrity. We lose the opportunity for honest dialogue – a prerequisite for genuine understanding and real progress on any issue. Finally, we lose because the voices of the minority views are never heard.
I have seen this first hand in local faith communities – particularly in relation to Gay-Lesbian-Bisexual-Transgender people of faith. Time and again I have heard clergy state their willingness to affirm homosexuality in private; only to mumble their unwillingness to do the same from the pulpit. Their lack of integrity allows bigots to continue to use “religion” as a club against gay and lesbian persons. In addition, it places their GLBT parishioners in the untenable position of feeling as if they must choose between their faith and the person they love.
As an explicitly pro-gay, socially liberal minister, it would be my preference to vote for candidates who clearly and explicitly – without prevarication – support my ideology. Barring the unlikely arrival of such a candidate in Georgia, I would rather vote for a person who openly and consistently disagrees with me than support someone who simply says what they think I want to hear.
At some point we have to set our respective agendas aside and say that – even in politics – there is a level of dishonesty that is completely unacceptable. Ideology is important. Honest dialogue on our beliefs, however, can only take place among people of character. It is therefore incumbent on all of us – liberal or conservative – to insist that every candidate for the public trust be held to the highest standard of integrity. If we do so consistently and vocally, across party lines, perhaps we can draw the kind of leaders who will sincerely work for all of us, and not just for themselves.