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David Dewhurst’s Terrible Swift Sword

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It’s been striking to see Christian Right wedge issues almost entirely disappear from Gov. Rick Perry’s bag of political tricks as he runs for his third term. Thus far, his campaign has been all anti-government, states’-rights bluster all the time—a canny, if cynical, appeal to the recent burst of libertarian energy on the grassroots right. It’s also an implicit acknowledgment that the audience for grandstanding about “life” and “family” and the “gay menace” has dissipated as the Christian Right retreats (at least temporarily) from center stage in GOP politics.

But fear not, ye Godly bigots of Texas! For Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, running for re-election while eyeing Kay Bailey Hutchison’s U.S. Senate seat, hath not forgotten to pander to thee.

This week, the eccentric gazillionaire who owns the most powerful elected office in Texas injected himself into a small-but-heated local kerfuffle over a student production at Tarleton State University. Dewhurst’s denunciation of one of the plays, Terrence McNally’s Corpus Christi, clearly played a role in its last-minute cancellation.

The backstory in a nutshell: Students in an advance directing class at Tarleton State had been allowed to choose their own one-act plays to produce on Saturday, March 27. (Apparently the professor forgot that he was in Texas, where freedom of expression is strictly limited on the basis of religious correctness.) One of the students, a gay Christian named John Otte, picked Corpus Christi, which tells the story of a gay Jesus figure (called Joshua) born in the play’s title town in the 1960s and ultimately crucified as “King of the Queers.”

After protests and threats from so-called Christians, the audience for the production had already been restricted for safety reasons to classmates and family members. University officials had taken serious security measures to protect against potential violence and disruptions by those who deemed the play “blasphemous,” among other choice words.

Even though just a small number of folks would see the one-time production, that wasn’t enough for Texas’ Grand Ayatollah wannabe, who on Friday issued this statement:

Every citizen is entitled to the freedom of speech, but no one should have the right to use government funds or institutions to portray acts that are morally reprehensible to the majority of Americans.

Texans don’t deserve to see their hard-earned tax money used to debase their religion. This lewd display runs completely contrary to the standards of scholastic excellence and common decency that we demand in our publicly-funded institutions for higher learning.

What “acts” in the play were “morally reprehensible?” Dewhurst didn’t get specific, and for a good reason: There are no sexual acts depicted in Corpus Christi. But there is a lot of hugging and blessing and rather silly and salty banter between gay men. (Interestingly enough, a Newsday critic panned the play in 1998 by saying that “As a drama, its biggest danger is being overly pious, overly reverent and tied to the inevitable outlines of the story” of the Gospels.)

After Dewhurst blessed the ignorant and bigoted, Otte’s professor finally felt compelled to cancel the play and end the madness. The Lite Gov celebrated with another forked-tongue statement, reading in part:

The cancellation of the play,
Corpus Christi, by the university was the right thing to do. While I’m a strong defender of free speech, we must also protect the rights and reasonable expectations of Texas taxpayers and how their money is used.

Dewhurst’s argument against the production mimics those of such self-appointed moral censors as the late Sen. Jesse Helms and the Revs. Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. Which is to say: It is fundamentally anti-American. In a nation whose founders embraced the radical notion of religious tolerance, and rebelled against state-sponsored religion, Dewhurst is asserting—like the folks he’s pandering to—that his state does have an official religion. And like the right-wingers on the State Board of Education, he is injecting the moral standards of some Christian conservatives into a secular arena.

He is also, of course, tacitly agreeing that merely imagining Jesus and the apostles as gay is, on its very face, “lewd” and profoundly offensive.

In the end, the many controversies over productions of McNally’s play—a minor effort by a major playwright that was received tepidly by most critics—have never had anything to do with Christianity. They’ve all been about anti-gay bigotry. And it’s in the name of a prophet who said nada about homosexuality—but who did say, quite clearly, in the Book of Matthew: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.”

Apparently, Dewhurst—a very rich man indeed—knows some things about Christianity that Jesus Christ did not.

Dewhurst has not necessarily proven himself to be a homophobic hypocrite (though if you want to interpret it that way, be my guest). But he has unquestionably shown himself, once again, to be a petty and pandering politician. He shamelessly exploited this minor controversy—and turned it into a bigger one—to help position himself as the “values” candidate against the other leading GOP contender for Hutchison’s Senate seat, Railroad Commissioner and social conservative Michael L. Williams.

For Dewhurst, academic and constitutional freedoms clearly take a backseat to political gamesmanship. For gay Texans like myself, this dust-up is yet another reminder that we are not only violently despised by a minority (a shrinking but still loud and dangerous one) of our fellow citizens and “Christians,” but also that these people’s hatred and willful ignorance continues to be sanctioned and cheered on by unprincipled people in power.

When will we see Dewhurst condemn acts of violence and discrimination against gay Texans with a similar “moral” force? There’s only one obvious answer: when and if it ever becomes politically advantageous for him to do so.