The other shoe finally dropped in America—excuse me, in Nigeria. Finally we see the reason behind the push for extreme anti-gay laws in America—damnit, I mean Nigeria.
Oh, I know why I keep confusing the Land of the Free with a deeply troubled African oligarchy.
Let me explain. For months, we've been hearing about Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan's astonishingly cruel anti-gay legislation, which bans gay marriage, gay clubs, gay "associations" and calls for 14-year prison terms for people suspected of same-sex attraction. And that's mild compared to Uganda's call for life imprisonment.
What's driving such extreme prohibitions? Some responsibility definitely goes to the American fundamentalists who have gone to Africa to push anti-gay bigotry. But an article in The New York Times last week suggests the hidden story: "President Goodluck Jonathan of Nigeria removed the governor of the country's central bank from his post on Thursday, after the bank governor repeatedly charged that billions of dollars in oil revenue owed to the treasury was missing."
This story understates the case rather dramatically. The bank governor in question, a man named Lamido Sanusi, was widely seen as a classic "good government" regulator who had been warning since at least September that huge sums—as much as $50 billion—were "disappearing" from the accounts of the national oil company. Sanusi was so respected internally and internationally that, on news of his removal, the local stock market and currency crashed and bond trading was suspended altogether.
So who could have been hacking away at the backbone of the local economy? No specific culprits have been named, but the Times gave a broad hint: "Oil wealth has created a small but immensely wealthy elite in a country where poverty is on the rise; by some estimates, nine-tenths of the economic benefits from oil production go to 1 percent of the population."
One percent of the population? Where have we heard that before?
The thing the Times doesn't mention is that Nigeria is a democracy, and President Jonathan is facing a difficult election next year.
Now put it all together. A tiny elite living it up while the masses starve. Billions of dollars missing from the public coffers. A pivotal election looming. What's a politician to do?
"African people really, really don't like gay stuff," explains a Nigerian specialist I know (and who didn't want to be quoted by name because she doesn't want to lose all her contacts there). "It's the one issue that can unite all the crazy Christians with all the crazy Muslims."
Thank God all of this is happening in far-off Africa, that ravaged and "primitive" continent. Surely nothing like that could happen here in a civilized place like America.
And yet, at exactly the same time that President Jonathan was plotting Mr. Sanusi's downfall behind a smokescreen of anti-gay laws, the good legislators of Arizona and Kansas were pushing bills that allow business owners to refuse service to gay people. This on top of the long fight over the Orwellian "Defense of Marriage Act," which isn't, in fact, an attempt to forbid divorce but an attempt to restrict marriage to the "right sort."
It's true that Arizona Governor Jan Brewer and panicked members of the Republican establishment—under serious economic pressure from Apple and the NFL—finally vetoed the bill a few days ago. But it's important to remember that this wasn't a moral decision, not a choice rooted in respect for individual freedom or the ringing words of the Constitution. Otherwise, Brewer wouldn't have had to take so long to think about it. It was a cold political calculation that could change again with the political winds. So you have to wonder, why does this issue keep coming up? Whose purposes does it serve?
One argument is that the LGBT community stirred it up themselves with their unreasonable demand to marry (please note the sarcasm). Just stay in the shadows and accept your beatings and the bullying and the high suicide rates and Potemkin marriages and forget that silly "all men created equal thing." Somehow such an argument actually makes sense to some people.
Another argument is that we're not so different from the Africans after all. We also have a "small but immensely wealthy elite" that has managed to spirit off the overwhelming majority of our country's wealth, and they are trying to distract us with bullshit. As it happens, the most politically active conservative members of that elite just happen to be in the oil business—e.g., the Koch Brothers.
Let me take you back to a distant time, 1976. In that year, a born-again president took power in America with the support of Christian evangelicals. And here's the shocking thing: He was a Democrat.
In those days, Christianity wasn't yet a wholly owned subsidiary of the Republican Party. Many people have told the story of how conservatives harnessed anxieties over abortion and feminism and civil rights and turned them into eternally unsolved political wedge issues they could milk election after election while ignoring actual problems like unemployment, globalism or the economy-strangling wealth of their big-business supporters.
The abortion wedge issue worked particularly well—if cynically—because conservatives knew they couldn't overturn Roe v. Wade. That made it the gift that kept on giving, enraging and alienating working-class people—many of them sincere believers who had real moral issues with abortion—from the party (i.e., Democrats) that was actually more likely to support their economic interests. And worse yet, alienating them from the country as a whole.
Since then, every time a Republican gets in political trouble, the default move is a moral values campaign. For instance, when George W. Bush was on the ropes in 2004, he suddenly transformed from a "compassionate conservative" who expanded health care to a born-again warrior for school prayer and enemy of stem-cell research. And soon, the Republican platform became "God, guns, and gays."
The truly sad thing is how fundamentally un-Christian it is to turn these issues into divisive political weapons. But I find it hard myself to throw stones at the individual voters bamboozled by this stuff. When the economy gets rough, people get scared. I blame the politicians and power-hungry religious leaders. They know exactly what they're doing. They know, for example, that the country is more and more accepting of gays and gay marriage. Just as with abortion, they know they aren't really going to stop it. I suspect most of them don't even want to stop it. But they cheerfully stir up hatred, and then count the votes and contributions.
But the final irony might be that it was ever thus. As Elaine Pagels argued in her latest fascinating exploration of early Christian history, even the word "fornication" might have originally been a political weapon. The way she breaks it down, the author of Revelations—a man named John of Patmos—was upset because of all the Gentiles who were starting to follow his favorite rabbi. St. Paul was arguing that the Jews should accept these new converts and expand the faith, but John of Patmos hated the thought that these Yeshua-come-latelys weren't following Jewish dietary and sexual laws. So "fornication" didn't really mean sex out of wedlock, as we believe today.
As Pagels explains: "When John accuses 'Balaam' and 'Jezebel' of inducing people to 'eat food sacrificed to idols and practice fornication,' he might have in mind anything from tolerating people who engage in incest to Jews who become sexually involved with Gentiles or, worse, who marry them."
The moral of the story? Beware when politicians speak of morals. And keep your hand on your wallet.