TOPICS > Politics

A Party Divided

July 22, 1998 at 12:00 AM EST
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JIM LEHRER: The perspectives now of Gary Bauer, president of the Family Research Council; Elizabeth Birch, executive director of the Human Rights Campaign; Rich Tafel of the Log Cabin Republicans; and Congressman Steve Largent, Republican of Oklahoma. So, one at a time here, beginning with you, Gary Bauer.

Is this a debate about morals or politics?

GARY BAUER, Family Research Council: Well, I think it ends up being a debate about both. When Sen. Lott was asked a question, it became a debate about morality and one’s concept of sin, et cetera. The part that I’m comfortable with and I’ve devoted my time to is to public policy debate. What do we want to do as a matter of law in our country and things like same-sex marriage. I’m against it. I think the institution of marriage should be a man and a woman. Are we going to let the schools be used to promote gay acceptance or acceptance of that lifestyle? I don’t think so. I’m against gay adoption. Those are legitimate public policy issues. I think they’re going to be fortunately or unfortunately a larger part of the American debate, and I hope my party, the Republican Party, will stand for traditional values in those areas.

JIM LEHRER: Public policy debate or politics or morals, Ms. Birch?

ELIZABETH BIRCH, Human Rights Campaign: These ads are crassly manipulative. They have everything to do with politics. They were designed in an election year to really charge up the firebrand right wing grassroots of the Republican Party. My organization works with good Democrats and Republicans. We think that these are-this is very bad medicine for the Republican Party. We think this is a disaster, and that it’s short sighted, and it’s not what most Republicans want.

JIM LEHRER: Congressman Largent, is this not what most Republicans want?

REP. STEVE LARGENT, (R) Oklahoma: Let me say, Jim, that in all fairness that both sides have used this for political purposes. This hasn’t been a one-sided debate or issue. And I think that’s truly unfortunate, but the honest truth is that any time you’re discussing public policy all the decisions that you make are moral issues.

JIM LEHRER: In what way is this a moral issue to you?

REP. STEVE LARGENT: Well, I think that what we have to understand is that you have to rely upon 2,000 years of Judeo-Christian history when you start talking about the issue of homosexuality. Believe me, before I came to Washington, D.C., I wasn’t aware of how aggressively the homosexual community is pursuing a very well thought out, well financed agenda in Washington. And so I’m here as a legislator to defend those 2,000 years of Judeo-Christian history that I follow. And that’s the moral guidelines that I use.

JIM LEHRER: And Mr. Tafel, do you see it in moral terms, or in political terms?

RICH TAFEL, Log Cabin Republicans: I see it as a moral debate that’s playing itself out in the political arena. I see the gay rights movement frankly-I’m motivated to be involved with it because of my morals and my Christian faith. I believe it’s a movement about people who want to love each other. It’s a movement about people who want to be honest about who they are. Personally, I care about young kids-when you hear of a third of teen suicides are gay young kids, it is a moral debate, and I think throughout our country there’s always been an attempt to demonize people who are different and very often back that up with-quoting scripture or saying it’s God-given.

JIM LEHRER: Well, let’s take the moral issue for a moment. Define it in your terms, Mr. Tafel. What is at the heart of the moral debate here?

RICH TAFEL: At the heart of the moral debate for me is how we treat people who are different. We’ve always had people who were different. We’ve always had a hard time with it. Our country has done well at times and bad at times, and each generation has had to confront people who are different, whether it was blacks, immigrants. At the Salem witch trials people of different faith-we’ve struggled with it, we’ve failed at times, and then we’ve moved forward as a more tolerant country. I see that as the core of this issue. Gay people are different. Some people are uncomfortable. We’re a small minority in the country, easy to pick on, and it does charge up certain people in the country to pick on us.

JIM LEHRER: Congressman Largent, is that the way you see it, that these people are different, and that’s why they’re being targeted?

REP. STEVE LARGENT: Well, I don’t believe that’s the case at all, but I would agree with Rich in this case. The thing that is fascinating to me about studying the life of Jesus is how he was able to confront people with their sin, but at the same time, they never felt rejected; they always felt loved. And I think that that’s the way that we need to deal with this issue as well.

JIM LEHRER: So what you said a while ago is the moral issue for you, that it’s 2000 years, it’s a sin, homosexuality is a sin in your eyes, correct?

REP. STEVE LARGENT: That’s correct.

JIM LEHRER: And that is the heart of the argument and from a moral standpoint for you?

REP. STEVE LARGENT: It is, but let me say at the same time that I don’t think that there’s a hierarchy of sin that I would say the same thing is true about adultery or any sort of promiscuity that people are committing today.

JIM LEHRER: Ms. Birch, where do you come down on the sin part of this, or the moral part of this argument?

ELIZABETH BIRCH: First of all, theologians disagree, and we obviously disagree with Rep. Largent, who really does spout really the views of the extreme right wing of the Republican Party. The fact is, is that in a world full of divorce and adultery and in a country where we haven’t adequately figured out how to care for the sick, the poor, the dying, our children, how we can take care of all of our community, it is curious this obsessiveness with one sin that didn’t even make it into the top ten-the so-called sin of homosexuality, a characterization with which we do not agree-didn’t even make it into the top ten and about which Jesus didn’t utter one word-the central message of the scriptures is about love. It’s about unity. And what this is all about is what kind of a nation are we going to be? Are we going to be a nation that discriminates and singles out one group for discrimination? And what is the Republican Party going to be? Is it going to be the party of discrimination?

JIM LEHRER: Mr. Bauer.

GARY BAUER: Well, there’s absolutely no question in my mind as a Christian that homosexual conduct is a sin. Every major faith teaches that. Theologians may disagree. Theologians today-you can find a theologian that will spout almost anything-but there’s no doubt that over thousands of years the Christian faith has taught that-Orthodox Jews believe the same-every major religion does. There are a lot of things that Christ mentioned, but certainly the overall message of the gospel is that there’s a natural order that God intends for man, and among the things in that natural order is that marriage, the family unit ought to be a man or a woman. But, again, you know, the theological debate is extremely important. We’re going to have that debate in churches and synagogues. I think in this city, however, the debate turns on public policy. What is the public policy we want for our country?

JIM LEHRER: How do you-so let’s go back on that one, beginning with you, Mr. Bauer. If you believe that homosexuals are, in fact, committing sin, how should they be dealt with by the rest of society?

GARY BAUER: Well, the question is what share of public policy they earn. Public policy-we take an institution like marriage-there is a heated debate now, in Hawaii, in Alaska, California is going to have a referendum. It will come to your state soon, wherever you happen to live-over whether or not we should take thousands of years of civilization and redefine marriage, which has always been a man and a woman, to be two men or two women. That is a fundamental. It’s hard to imagine something more fundamental in society to do. I want my party-without shame or embarrassment or hesitation to say we stand for marriage as being a man and a woman. It would be suicide politically for the party to do anything else, and I think the overwhelming majority of the American people will agree with us on that.

JIM LEHRER: Do you challenge that, Mr. Tafel, the overwhelming number of the American people would agree with Mr. Bauer’s approach?

RICH TAFEL: I don’t think they would agree with this approach. His interpretation of scripture-in fact, the Roman Catholic-

JIM LEHRER: I mean, on what he just said on the issue of single-sex marriage.

RICH TAFEL: On same-sex marriage I think that, yes, I think that you can just look at public opinion polls. That’s a new concept and people are having-it’s a new idea. Again, he is justifying again, saying this is the way it’s always been in scripture-for example, if you go into the Old Testament, you find out that Solomon has 500 wives and 300 concubines. I mean, it hasn’t always been that man and woman in the sense of marriage. I should also point out that every time people have tried to keep a group down they’ve always said it’s always been this way, and so it must always remain this way. We realize it’s a difficult issue. All we’re asking for is the tolerance for people to live their lives as they want, and we will have public issue debates, and that’s fine.

JIM LEHRER: When you say a difficult issue, what-define difficult issue. Why is this so difficult?

RICH TAFEL: It’s difficult because if you are a heterosexual person, you can’t-it’s hard to imagine, hard to think about, it’s hard to understand. It’s different from you. The same way-a hundred years ago-or two hundred years ago-the idea about slavery, that, you know, there was-people believed that blacks were second-class citizens, they were demonized, they were–all kinds of horrible things were said about them. We actually had slavery. There was an evolution in thinking that took place, that had to take place.

JIM LEHRER: Congressman Largent, why has this come up now?

REP. STEVE LARGENT: Well, I think that it’s not an issue that has just come up now. This is an issue that’s been around for a long, long time.

JIM LEHRER: But why in such a major way, in a public way, as we did in our setup piece, as Spencer Michels laid out, just in the last two or three weeks, it’s become a real public issue?

REP. STEVE LARGENT: Well, I think it’s a reflection, Jim, of the fact that there are some very deep-seated emotions on both sides of this issue, and it’s flash point, there’s no question about it, and I don’t know if there was a lull in anything newsworthy, but whenever this issue is struck up, it becomes a flash point, it becomes very, very heated, because, as I said, I mean, people have very, very strong feelings on both sides.

JIM LEHRER: Do you think, Congressman, that it should be talked about openly and debated just the way we’re doing it here tonight?

REP. STEVE LARGENT: Well, I do, and the thing is I think that you have to try to get to the actual heart of the issue. As Gary said, we’re talking about public policy. We could have a long discussion about the theological ramifications or justifications on this, but in this town what we’re talking about is legislation, about public policy, about where we want to see this country move on issues like same-sex marriage, on issues like in the employment non-discrimination act, and other issues like that, about confirming a nominee for ambassador to Luxembourg. Those are public policy issues that we need to talk about, and I just believe that America is not ready to move in the direction that the homosexual agenda wants to push us.

JIM LEHRER: Ms. Birch, is America not ready to go where you want it to go?

ELIZABETH BIRCH: America is completely ready to go where we want to go, and the reason that people like Rep. Largent and Mr. Bauer here love to cling to the notion of gay and lesbian marriage, which is a brand new concept, has rarely been debated, discussed, or analyzed, and I mean here civil marriage, not religious marriage, is they know that is a flash point. The fact is, is that on something like employment and many other issues affecting gay and lesbian Americans, the American public is there. The majority of Republicans, Democrats, and independents agree that the Employment Nondiscrimination Act should be passed precisely because you can be fired in most jurisdictions in this country simply because you’re gay, and most Americans think that is wrong. If I could just add that I think that Rep. Largent is being very disingenuous-the fact is that this add campaign was paid for by the exact same organizations that went up to the Hill, met with Sen. Lott, issued an ultimatum, a set of ultimatums, threatened to bolt the Republican Party if they weren’t that, and, in fact, that the product of that became Sen. Lott’s comments, and he has emboldened these people, organizations like Mr. Bauer’s, to run these ads. Mr. Bauer would like to be President of the United States, and he’d like every representative in Congress to be a fundamentalist, born-again Christian. And I thought we settled the issue of the division of church and state over 200 years ago.

GARY BAUER: You know, Jim, what’s really striking about this debate to me is how often my opponents, our opponents on this get to this kind of personal insult. I mean, Rep. Largent and I are supposed to be the intolerant ones, and yet you can’t have a debate on this issue without the kind of rhetoric that Ms. Birch just used. You know, it’s-we’re not going to be intimidated. Sen. Lott’s not going to be intimidated. The overwhelming majority of American people believe broadly speaking in a set of fairly traditional values-let’s just take the issue of tolerance-groups like Boy Scouts and Salvation Army have been under incredible attack across the country because they won’t change their basic religious views and their traditional values to accommodate Ms. Birch, so she’s willing, and that movement has been willing to use the force of law not to allow the Boy Scouts or the Salvation Army to be tolerated for their traditional views but to brow beat them into changing their most deeply held values. At the end of the day this is a really important decision that’s going to face the country. Are we broadly speaking going to promote family values, traditional values, or are we going to go down this road that no culture that has succeeded in centuries has ever gone down without incredible impacts on their children, their families, and their values.

JIM LEHRER: Ms. Birch.

ELIZABETH BIRCH: Well, Mr. Lehrer, first of all, I take offense at Mr. Bauer characterizing my conduct in any way. I think that I show sort of amazing discipline to sit here next to him, given that the tactics and strategies that he uses and engages in on a day to day basis. The fact is, is that we’ve always stood for free speech and protecting the right of people to hold their religious views. That has never been at issue. On the issue of whether any organization can use public funds to foster those views, that is where we separate company.

JIM LEHRER: Mr. Tafel and then to Congressman Largent, is this an issue for which there can never be-I mean, unlike some issues, well, we’ll go off and we’ll have a compromise and we’ll work this thing out-is this one so deep-seated that there can never be a compromise-there’s always going to be an agreement to disagree?

RICH TAFEL: No. I think some day we will look back on the people who oppose equality for gays, as we do with George Wallace right now, or, you know, the Civil War. I think we look back on history and certain people said this is the way it always will, it always will be, and you look back and things do change, and I think it will change, and I think we will win. I just want to respond on a personal level. We’re talking about this-this is not just a public policy discussion, and this is why we get so upset-this is very personal. We are being personally-Gary Bauer said that a litmus test for him, for George W. Bush is will he allow gays to be in the GOP? We had a rally down in Texas, the Texas GOP, we were called queers, faggots, sodomites, God hates you, I hate you-this is really serious. These words have consequences beyond the public policy debate in Washington.

JIM LEHRER: Congressman, what’s your reaction to that, that this is more than just politics? Just respond to what Mr. Tafel just said.

REP. STEVE LARGENT: Well, I think, again, as I said earlier, it is very hard to get to the facts and to the figures and to debate this in a non-emotional setting, I mean, even in our conversation today people have been offended and said, you know, I’ve been disingenuous, been accused of being disingenuous. It’s hard to keep it on a level debate structure, and I think if we could do that, and believe me, I don’t condone the types of things that Mr. Tafel said took place in Houston, Texas. That’s not right. I mean, this should not be a political issue that we bash people with. That’s not right. It’s clearly wrong.

JIM LEHRER: All right.

REP. STEVE LARGENT: But what I would say is that when you get to the facts that this homosexual sex between men is an unhealthy lifestyle, totally unhealthy lifestyle, and that it’s unnatural-when you start talking about things like that and we could have a good debate-and I hope we do-but I do believe that it’s an issue much like abortion, that I don’t think that there’s a middle ground.

JIM LEHRER: All right. Thank you. We have to leave it there.