Do politics and religion have to rip us apart? That was the question on the table at "Across the Great Divide," the latest Planet Political Party, a public forum held Jan. 30 at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center.
Jobsite Theater's slightly skewed version of the National Anthem got things off to a lighthearted start. And Planet Political Editor Wayne Garcia, the moderator, tried to keep things, well, moderate, at least in mood.
But it didn't take long for battle lines to be drawn. Even though Wayne tried valiantly to explore the broader implications of the question, the argument kept returning to one issue — gay rights, and more specifically gay marriage.
More than one person in the audience regretted that focus. Maybe the dominance of gay issues was inevitable, given that we'd included two leaders from the gay and lesbian community — OK, three, with Joe Redner — on the panel. But it wasn't just Redner, or Rev. Phyllis Hunt of the Metropolitan Community Church or Equality Florida's Nadine Smith, who drove the discussion. At one point, Wayne asked panelist Bill Keller — he's the televangelist who hosts Live Prayer on UPN-44 — a neutral question about how he prefers to counsel people, and his answer led somehow to a defense of the Defense of Marriage Act.
The obsession with gay issues on the part of the right always makes me wonder: Why oh why do we fascinate you so? I've mostly been of the opinion that anti-gay demagogues really couldn't care less who sleeps with whom; they just want to push the right buttons to get elected or fill the collection plate. But I have to say that, seeing Absolute Truthmongers in the flesh (not just Bill Keller but a particularly vocal supporter of his in the front row), it was both appalling and reassuring to realize that these guys aren't playing propaganda games — they actually believe I'm going to hell. So in a way, if this edition of the Political Party never found the middle ground, from my point of view it did have educational value: I got to know my enemies.
Still, as one observer noted in a post-panel e-mail, maybe it was oxymoronic to invite a religious fundamentalist to a debate. If you believe in Absolute Truth, then you're not about to entertain alternatives. Then again, Nadine and Phyllis and Joe are absolutists, too. They don't view gay rights as debatable, any more than the rights of women or African-Americans are debatable — and being on their side, as it were, I would agree. I don't think there's any middle ground when it comes to whether gay people deserve marriage equality, for instance, and there was no way any debate would have swayed me.
So, do religion and politics have to rip us apart? Well, yes — as long as religion gets injected into politics in a way that fundamentally limits equal treatment under the law.
Still, it's interesting to note that the panelist who got just about unanimously good reviews after the debate was the Republican political consultant Renee Dabbs of the Victory Fund. Dabbs outlined the difficulties faced by moderate politicians in the current political climate — even though the mood of the country as reflected in the opinions of younger people is turning distinctly moderate. Fellow panelist Brendan McLaughlin of ABC Action News shared that view, observing that the idea of a polarized nation is somewhat of a media myth. Yet, as both pointed out, even if the majority of Americans land somewhere in the middle, they're not the ones being mobilized to vote.
How do we reach beyond our differences? How do we take advantage of the common ground that does exist? Maybe "Across The Great Divide" did no more than provide evidence of the problem. Perhaps what was needed, as attendee Ed Goebel pointed out in an e-mail, was a different approach: "Rather than argue why we are right and the other is wrong, let's ask each other if there is any way we can disagree more amiably and still respect each other's views without agreeing with them ..."
You can find more of Ed's comments, and those of others who attended the Political Party, at http://creativeloafing.typepad.com/tampapoliticalparty/. We invite you to join the conversation.