One of my favorite teachers was a wiry little man with thick, horn-rimmed glasses who taught us fifth grade. It's been 40 years, but I can still see his crooked grin and hear his voice cracking with excitement.
He made learning fun, constantly getting the class to act out skits to reinforce one lesson or another. His eyes were keen and his heart was big: He always made sure that kids from broken homes or the wrong side of the tracks got starring roles in our productions. He helped implant in me a lifelong love of history. I was out sick with the flu for a couple of days that year; he waited until I returned to resume class readings of a Civil War book that he knew I loved. He was everything a great teacher is supposed to be: unfailingly kind, considerate and dedicated.
He was, also, we learned much later, gay. But because this was the mid-1960s in a small town, he didn't dare live as such -- especially since he doubled as the school's principal. Only in his twilight years did he follow his heart, moving to a city to live as a gay American.
Imagine for a moment, however, that it wasn't four decades ago but four days ago that my teacher was reaching out to help a less fortunate kid with a thorny math problem. And imagine that he'd had the courage in that small town to "come out" and had taken up residence with his partner. In the new world order dictated by champions of "moral values," this wonderful, caring teacher might be branded dangerous. Emboldened by national conservative leaders, the town's evangelicals -- and there are plenty of them -- could well have raised a hue and cry to keep this teacher and "his kind" away from their children. And the town's young people would have been denied the chance to have their lives shaped by a remarkable educator.
Here's what Republicans of conscience have to understand about the machinations of Karl Rove and company. Fear isn't some emotion that can be easily bottled back up after it's been -- viciously -- unleashed. It isn't a once-every-four-years vehicle that can be wheeled out for a few months, then stowed back in the garage to be retooled for the next election cycle. Encouraging fundamentalist preachers to pound their pulpits and inveigh against gay people has consequences. It puts men and women in communities across this country at personal and professional risk. There's nothing more despicable than creating a phony political issue (just how many gay couples are clamoring for marriage certificates in the state of Ohio, anyhow?) and preying on people's prejudices.
So now it's up to discerning Republicans to wrestle with this quandary: You won all right, but at what cost? What happened to the party that once shared Abraham Lincoln's faith in the "better angels of our nature"? That fifth-grade teacher taught me to appreciate how -- through Lincoln's resolve -- our nation overcame a cataclysm of hate to stop the Union from dissolving. Back then, certain avatars of ignorance were called Know-Nothings, which, come to think of it, is an apt description of more than a few right-wingers today.
"Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid," Lincoln wrote in the years leading up to the Civil War. "As a nation, we began by declaring that 'all men are created equal.' We now practically read it 'all men are created equal, except Negroes.' When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read 'all men are created equal, except Negroes and foreigners and Catholics.' When it comes to this, I shall prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving liberty -- to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure and without the base alloy of hypocrisy."
There are a lot of Republicans troubled by their party's exploitation of contemporary know-nothingism. You know who you are. And before your party's degeneracy is complete, you ought to do something about it. Because camouflaging the fear and loathing of gay people as "moral values" isn't the base alloy of hypocrisy. It's hypocrisy itself.
Timothy M. Gay is a Washington writer.