By Patricia Nell Warren

1998 is not only a Presidential election year, but a turning point in U.S. history. This year's winner will be the one-and-only President who ushers in a millennium -- that horizon of the next thousand years. It's perfect timing for the radical right. After all, they believe that their God has mandated massive social change for this new era.

The gay community enters 1998 with undeniable progress -- more media visibility, more politicians in public office, more acceptance for domestic partners benefits, more awareness of anti-gay violence in school. Last year's Jamie Nabozny decision sparked a rash of lawsuits, as other battered students try to hold their schools accountable for violence. At California's Youth Lobby Day on January 21, I talked with students who felt they were denting some legislators' long-standing coldness on this issue. "Maybe they're finally listening," said one.

Yet 1998 voters -- especially those in the gay community -- have a hair-raising challenge ahead of them.

Once again, Pat Robertson and his Christian Coalition are aiming to capture the Republican presidential candidacy. But this time the radical right says it will learn from its 1994 mistakes. The RR already has racked up wins in state and local levels, referendums and school boards. On every front, it intends to roll back civil-rights victories -- from abortion to youth rights, from censorship to gay rights. Already Americans are living with more laws that are skewed by RR thinking. If more right-wing people get voted into office in 1998, there will be even more repressive new laws.

Already the RR Republicans and the moderate Republicans are squaring off in bloody pre-nomination duels, over key issues like abortion.

Many straight Americans who watch Pat Robertson on "The 700 Club" and nod approval of his grandfather image don't realize that this man is a major player in the reconstructionist movement. "Reconstructionism" is a fancy academic term for a new belief that democracy should be junked -- to be replaced by a post-millennial church dictatorship whose penal law is based on the Old Testament. Citizens will be required to be "Christian" as defined by the RR. Only approved "Christians" can hold public office. Death penalties will be handed down freely, for everything from homosexuality to cursing, "because the Bible says so." The RR aims to establish this kind of church government not only in the United States but in other nations around the world.

Church money, still untaxed, creates a tilted playing field where far-right religion has a huge advantage in elections. Campaign costs are so bloated that none but the wealthy and incumbents can stay in politics. The law regulates corporate giving to campaigns. Yet the law gives far-right church organizations free rein to lobby and support candidates. They get money through tithes and so-called "love gifts" (donations). Some families tithe as much as 15 percent of their incomes before taxes. With a single telethon, Pat Robertson can raise more money than HRC or NOW in a year of fundgrubbing on the banquet circuit. One wonders when the Supreme Court will finally wake up and level the playing field by making churches pay taxes like everybody else.

The question is: Will enough voters risk the loss of democracy by staying away from the polls this year?

In no other nation does the average citizen talk so much about democracy, yet do so little about it! In Russia two years ago, a huge majority turned out for their first free election in half a century, because communist rule had taught them to cherish the vote. Not so in America, where people worry more about losing their credit cards than losing the right to vote. It is commonly believed that "one person can't make a difference" -- or that "dictatorship could never happen here." In the 1994 election, only a minority of eligible Americans actually registered to vote. Of these, only a minority went to the polls. Liberal voters were apathetic enough in the last state and local elections that a 15-20 percentage of right-wing voters swung the vote -- and put a bunch of right-wing candidates in office across the country.

I can think of five urgent reasons why democracy-loving Americans should shake off their credit-card values and get their asses to the polls in 1998:

1. Apathy is still growing among liberal voters.

RR publicists are successfully escalating Presidential zipper scandals into the news. They have timed it perfectly, with Clinton being dragged into deposition just months before the election, and new zipper allegations this week. The media are eating it up -- even O.J.'s comeback attempt is lost in the frenzy. Endless scandal makes for public apathy -- many Democrats might feel that their cause is now tainted beyond repair. Once again, as in the last election, voter apathy might make room for a few right-wing voters to swing an election. Only this time it might cost us the Presidency.

2. Far-right voters are far from apathetic.

Fired by fierce belief, schooled in "obedience to the Lord," they do what they're told by leaders and pastors. They obediently give money for political church activism. They obediently write, phone and fax their legislators on issues. And they obediently go to the polls. This could give the reconstructionists a clear edge in November.

3. Not enough women vote.

Gone are the days when suffragettes chained themselves to the White House fence -- when marching mothers helped get us out of Vietnam. Today, many women are apathetic about politics. Or they are focused on single issues like sexual harassment. In recent election, only around 30 percent of eligible women voted. Far-right women, same as their men, are driven by a fierce sense of mission. RR women's organizations like Concerned Women for America have a cozy relationship with the Christian Coalition. This could mean slick political sledding for the reconstructionists, who intend to give all spiritual and civic authority back to men.

4. Not enough gay people vote.

Gay rights will be a super-hot campaign issue in 1998. We like to claim 10 percent of the population, but honest arithmetic shows that the percentage of adults who actually vote in both national and local elections is way less than that. Many gay people ignore local elections -- as I've learned from canvassing in L.A. "What school election?" I was asked when knocking on doors in West Hollywood during Jeff Horton's last run for the Board of Education. California's LifeLobby tells me that we are often shockingly lazy about phoning or faxing legislators on gay-friendly bills. In Hawaii, activists tell me, the same-sex marriage cause is funded by only a handful of donors, compared to millions of RR dollars pouring into Hawaii to defeat it. In contrast to the awakening activism of LGBT youth -- who are tired of being beaten up in school -- older adults often focus on relationships, careers, lush lifestyles. Some gay voters feel that we have "already won" a place at the American table.

Others feel that "one person can't effect change." Yet key local elections and legislative lobbying are often decided by a handful of votes. In Virginia, gay activists told me how a key legislative seat was carried by only 11 votes. In California, the Dignity for All Students bill, which would have prohibited discrimination against LGBT students in school, was defeated by a single vote.

Our version of the festering Presidential zipper scandal is the return of many gay and bisexual men to unsafe sex. Organizations like Sex Panic! continue to defend radical sex causes, while critics of this trend -- writers Michelangelo Signorile, Gabriel Rotello and Larry Kramer, as well as growing numbers of women who knocked themselves out for AIDS causes -- are appalled at the new statistics of calculated risk. "Barebacking is a disgrace," a woman activist told me recently.

Beyond community pros and cons, these sex issues will powerfully skew the straight vote on gay or gay-friendly candidates. Circuit parties, and the money that some entrepreneurs and AIDS fundraisers make off circuit parties, are getting hostile coverage in the mainstream media. American Airlines just dumped the circuit-party travel business. Thirty states already criminalize sex by HIV positives, while 28 states have passing mandatory HIV reporting for both adults and adolescents. In Los Angeles, lesbian city councilmember Jackie Goldberg suffered a stinging defeat over a sex club she defended. If we ourselves are so divided on these sex issues, what sympathy can we hope to get from straight voters?

In other words -- if the gay community can't clean up its image in the next few months, plus get its own people to the polls, plus inspire enough gay- friendly straights to support us, do we have any chance to keep the RR from "cleansing America of sodomites"?

5. Straight voters need to understand that the gay community is a test case for preserving democracy.

However controversial our expressions of sex might be, we are well worth defending on other fronts -- like free speech, privacy, disease control, the workplace, the military. Indeed, we queers are the canary in the coal-mine of American human rights. Freedoms that the RR yank away from homosexuals today will be taken away from heterosexuals tomorrow -- all in the name of that "kingdom to come".

Will enough Americans -- including enough of the real Christians out there -- get educated on the real issues and oppose reconstructionism? Will enough organizations get their members registered and off to the polls? Will enough thinking 18-year-olds and newly naturalized citizens register and cast their first votes? Will enough housebound seniors mail in their votes? Will American voters meet this hair-raising challenge to their freedom?

The answer to that question will tell us whether November's winner is a reconstructionist robot -- or a defender of rejuvenated democracy.

Patricia Nell Warren is a widely read commentator, as well as author of best-selling fiction like THE FRONT RUNNER, HARLAN'S RACE and BILLY'S BOY. She is a commissioner of education in the Los Angeles Unified School District. Her publisher is Wildcat Press, whose web page is located at www.wildcatcom.com.


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