I’ve always tried to avoid engaging in the hoary journalistic practice of filling space at the end of December by summing up the best and worse news events of the preceding year. But it seems to me that this year, in the United States, two ongoing stories truly did embody the continuing struggle between rigid religious values, rooted in a literal intepretation of supposedly sacred texts, and a secular world view based, to the extent that human beings are capable of transcending their fearful and superstitious past, on reason. Without question, the most important victory for secular values this year, or any other year in recent memory, is the repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.
The repeal of DADT is, of course, a milestone for gays in their struggle for recognition as citizens entitled to the same rights as other citizens. It is an equally important landmark for all who believe that public policy in this country should be made not by some passage in Deuteronomy or Leviticus but by rational discourse based on all we have learned about human biology and emotions in the millennia since human beings first began writing down rules about everything from sexual practices to the kind of art that offends the Lord.
The importance of the repeal –especially since it was accomplished by legislative rather than judicial or executive action–cannot be overstated. This legislation represents a major change of mind and heart on the part of a great many lawmakers, their constituents, and the military, for whom gay rights did not even register as an issue 40 years ago. Most of the credit goes to the gay rights movement, which has exerted an even greater impact on the young than on the various cohorts of the baby boom generation. For the older boomers, born in the late 1940s and early 1950s, it has been a mind-changing experience to understand, over time, that we went to school with and worked with many gay men and lesbians in our youth but never knew it because they concealed their sexual orientation. Every gay person who came out–who must have silently endured anti-homosexual slurs for years–has driven the nail ino the coffin of homophobia for all but those in thrall to far-right religious doctrine. This change of values is evident in the parade of military leaders–nearly all of them older boomers–who stood up and testified in favor of repealing DADT.
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, left, and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, favored repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell”
But I don’t think the gay rights movement would have been as successful without the growing strength of the secular movement in this country and the emerging relationship between secular values and liberal religious denominations that have rejected biblical literalism and opened the ranks of their clergy to both gays and women. For a secularist and for people of the more inclusive brands of faith, the sexual preference of adults who love other adults is not a moral issue, period. The moral issue is whether the straight majority condemns and forces a double life on those who happen to desire members of their own sex.
The end of DADT will not end homophobia as an issue in this country; what it will do is increasingly marginalize the issue in our politics–and that’s why it is the most important secular American story of 2010. Within the military, the presence of openly gay male and female soldiers is simply going to become a non-issue in the next ten years. When President Harry S. Truman issued his executive order desegregating the military in 1948 –a step he took not because it was popular but because it was right–there were all sorts of dire predictions about whites refusing to serve under black (then called Negro) officers and the violence that would ensue when southern white soldiers, long accustomed to Jim Crow, were required to eat and shower with blacks. Sound familiar? The great virtue of the military as a laboratory for social change is that it is not a democracy. Good soldiers must obey their superior officers.
The acknowledged participation of gays in the military will–and more quickly than anyone thinks–become a talking point confined to bitter old men like John McCain and far-right religious figures living in a biblical cartoon universe in which the Lord smites people (or turns them into pillars of salt) for everything from eating the flesh of an animal with a cloven hoof to turning to look back on the destruction (wrought by the same Lord, of course) of their native city.
The ending of DADT is one of those rare political issues in which morality is more important than any other consideration. It is simply wrong for a government to demand that people lie about who they are in order to enjoy the rights and take on the responsibilities of a citizen.
By contrast, my nominee for the worst anti-secular American news story of the year has little to do with morality–unless one considers sheer stupidity a form of immorality. The Texas State Board of Education, having already altered the state’s biology curriculum to deemphasize evolution, then turned its attention to the way history is taught in Texas classooms.
In May, the Texas board gave final approval to a set of revised texbook standards that either imply or explicitly promote the falsehood that the founders were all devout, orthodox Christians who established a Christian government. Thomas Jefferson, because he coined the phrase “wall of separation,” is actually eliminated from a list of writers whose works influenced revolutions. Jefferson was replaced by, among others, Thomas Aquinas. The board jettisoned the word “capitalism” and replaced it with terms like “market economy.” (Apparently the Texas businessmen and housewives who make up the board–even though they approve heartily of capitalism–consider the word verboten because it was also used by Karl Marx in his writings.) At the heart of the board’s changes is the denigration or outright omission of all secular influences in American history.
(Texas school board member and dentist Don McLeroy led the movement to alter Texas curriculum.)
This development, like the Texas board’s earlier efforts to de-emphasize the scientific consensus about evolution, is particularly important because it exemplifies a provincial know-nothingism that has placed American public schools at a disadvantage in comparison to their European and Asian counterparts. Texas is the second largest public school system in the nation: the demands made by Texas board members influence texbooks written for schools throughout the country. “Because the Texas texbook market is so large,” writes Michael Birnbaum of The Washington Post, “books assigned to the state’s 4.7 million students often rocket to the top of the market, decreasing costs for other school districts and leading them to buy the same materials.”
The Texas board’s actions exemplify the anti-intellectualism and contempt for expertise that are so closely linked with anti-secularism in this country. In recent years, there have been victories over anti-secularists of the religious right, most notably Federal District Court Judge John E. Jones’s decision, in the widely publicized Dover, PA, school case that intelligent design was a religious doctrine that could not be taught in science classes.
However, the influence of anti-intellectual school boards over curriculum, at both the state and local level, is unknown in the Asian and European countries whose students regularly outperform Americans in science, mathematics, and history. The Texas school board members who declared Jefferson a revolutionary non-person are of like mind with those who will, when textbook revision time rolls around in 2020, want to write the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” out of the chapter on recent American history. The influence of anti-secular anti-intellectuals on American public education in 2010, precisely because it could easily remain the most important anti-secular story for decades, is my No. 1 pick on the downside.
I wish you all the best in 2011–even those of you in thrall to the the absurd belief that an atheist must possess a heart of stone. If you prick us, do we not bleed…?