I can guess their answer: The Pences are deeply religious, and their views on homosexuality are based on their religious convictions. To this, I say, so what? The Bible was used to justify slavery, and in my own time, racists cited this or that biblical passage to assert that racial segregation was precisely what God intended — the “curse of Ham” or the “mark of Cain,” both used to add biblical authority to the rantings of bigots. The mark or the curse is now on the Pences, who share views that in our nation’s history have caused much suffering, including violence.
The other thing Republicans would be sure to say is that racism is different than “mere” anti-gay bias. Yes, indeed. Richmond was the capital of the Confederacy. Virginia is the state that once led the nation in number of slaves. The inhumanity of slavery is difficult to fathom. It’s more difficult still to comprehend that great men — Washington, Jefferson, Madison . . . you know the names — not only condoned it, but benefited from it.
Later came slavery’s progeny — the Jim Crow era. I am talking of everything from the absurdity of segregated state parks to the barbarity of lynchings. In Atlanta in 1899, a black man was mutilated and then burned, with portions of his body distributed among the crowd. The man’s name was Sam Hose. He was probably innocent of murder but not, of course, of being black.
The destructive power of blackface and Ku Klux Klan robes in that yearbook picture cannot be underestimated. But let’s ponder, too, the harm of hateful homophobia. It has taken countless lives over the years, caused huge suffering and, like racism, persists to this day.
Homophobia is a staple of the racist right — Nazis, white nationalists and other adherents of mindless goonery — and, at times, results in the murder of gay and transgender people. In 2017, 20 gay, bisexual or queer men were murdered in hate crimes, an increase of 400 percent from the previous year. The problem is hardly going away. And, infamously, in 1998, Matthew Shepard, was beaten, tortured and left to die because he was gay. Last year, his ashes were interred at Washington National Cathedral in a ceremony presided over by a gay Episcopal bishop, with music provided by the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington.
And when racial hatred and homophobia are combined, the results can be particularly disturbing. Last week, singer and actor Jussie Smollett was attacked in Chicago by two men who allegedly yelled anti-gay and anti-black epithets.
Pence has long been criticized as being hostile toward LGBTQ issues. He has linked same-sex couples to a “societal collapse” and even once seemed to support conversion therapy, which is a form of torture. A vice president who has expressed such intolerance is a dangerous model.
In certain corners of the right-wing media, criticism of Karen Pence for recently taking a job at the Immanuel Christian School in Springfield was denounced as nothing less than religious bigotry. After all, the argument went, the school is a Christian school, ultraconservative and ultratraditional, and is entitled to teach according to its deeply held beliefs. No doubt. But while the United States has traditionally given religion wide berth — and still does — lines have been drawn. Utah was not admitted as a state until the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints renounced polygamy.
No one is advocating a law requiring Immanuel Christian to practice tolerance, both in its pedagogy and its hiring practices. But the First Amendment that guarantees the school’s rights also gives us the right to criticize. It is simply wrong to foster a belief that homosexuality and same-sex marriage are immoral.
I have been torn about Northam — about whether a single yearbook photo negates a lifetime of tolerance. But I am not torn about Mike and Karen Pence. They are figures of consequence, and their bigotry — regardless of their religious justification — has to be confronted.
Read more from Richard Cohen’s archive.