When American humorist Mark Twain was asked to deliver speeches, he reportedly told inquirers that it was important for them to tell him how long he should speak before he decided whether he had time to prepare the address. He noted he could prepare for an hour speech in a day, but if his speech was to last only 10 minutes it would take him a month.
I felt a bit like Twain when I asked to speak at a plenary session of Feminist Expo 2000 in Baltimore a few weekends ago. Everyone on the panel on countering the Religious Right would have five minutes and there would even be a timekeeper. Since I was one of only about five men asked to speak at this 300-speaker conclave, I felt a particular burden not to mess up.
As it happens, there was a lot of positive response to my message from the convention floor and a large number of really nasty e-mails from Religious Right supporters when I got back to the Americans United office on Monday, since the event was shown live on C-SPAN.
You receive far more than you give at events like this. Some 7,000 people from around the world participated in the three-day event sponsored by the Feminist Majority Foundation. There were thousands of college and high school students who had an opportunity to interact with the some of the founders of the modern feminist movement: Eleanor Smeal, Betty Friedan, Sarah Weddington, who argued Roe v. Wade (and was on the Americans United Board for many years), and so many others. This was truly a high-energy event, and that energy was contagious.
I returned to the Expo early Sunday morning for a longer workshop on the use of religion in politics. Many of the attendees considered themselves "faith-based feminists" and even humanist Robin Morgan, the activist-poet and producer of Sisterhood Is Powerful, talked about the need for outreach even to right-wing women. She reminded attendees that Anita Bryant, who became a cause celebre when she denounced lesbians and gays, had later apologized for the misunderstandings she had held and the pain they had sparked. Activists for many social causes often note how change can come at any time, even to those one least expects (note Paul of Tarsus).
What a difference a week makes. The previous Friday I attended Pat Robertson's 70th birthday gala at the Hilton here in Washington. (Don't worry; I didn't use Americans United money for the $50 per plate dinner tickets. In fact, like most of the attendees, I got mine free.) This was an event filled with praise for Robertson from a raft of family members and colleagues, most of them fully engaged in all of his escapades to gain power and profit while preaching his version of the Gospel. (I noted that four of the eight United States senators who wrote special tribute letters for the fancy dinner brochure were the same people who asked the Justice Department to investigate Americans United last summer.)
Far from embracing differences, as the Feminist Expo crowd, some of these folks were as belligerent as you get outside of a prizefight. I took my new assistant Jennie Oberzan to the event because she had never heard Robertson speak. Prior to the dinner, she had a chance to meet some of my opponents in the "cultural war" including Col. Oliver North, Jay Sekulow and Jerry Falwell. They were predictably polite.
Our "dinner companions" were something else again. I neither hide nor brag about what I do at such events, and if people recognize me, we usually agree to disagree and talk about the weather, raising teenage children or baseball. The woman to our left was clearly suspicious of my presence and asked who I was. When I told her, she asked me how I could possibly support public schools since they now had "queers" in them.
I told her that I resented that language, which only encouraged her to repeat it. I told her that I wasn't having any conversation if she was going to use such pejoratives. She persisted. I even told her that if my son used that word I would ground him for a month.
She then moved on to interrogating Jennie. When Jennie indicated that she was Jewish, the woman literally huffed: "Now I understand." She later pursued Jennie into the hall and told her she was hell-bound, had a demonic presence in her and that only Christians were really Jewish. We left early.
The contrast is not just about two events. It is about two fundamentally differing worldviews. Robertson's crowd thinks it knows the whole truth, spiritually and in every other way. Its goal is to impose that "truth" on all people whether we like it or not. As I pointed out in my Expo speech, the Religious Right wants to return to a "golden era," which turns out to have been golden only if you were a white male. Folks at the Expo are still grappling with how to create a world where justice prevails for all people, where history and tradition have a place but where the future is what counts more.
Count me as a futurist.
Barry W. Lynn is executive director of
Americans United for Separation of Church and State.