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Clean campaigns

Clean campaigns

Are homosexuals stuck in the mud or able to change?

Our "Don't ask, don't tell" cover story last month showed some candidates wondering whether to mention their opponents' homosexuality. These days, if a politician has a moral defect considered significant by many potential voters-say, taking advantage of interns-the press is starting to do its job of informing the public. But, as gay-rights groups last week tried to make political hay out of a brutal murder in Wyoming, homosexuals became even more, in the eyes of many reporters, a protected class: Few dare call sodomy sin, and many think it wrong even to bring up the subject so that voters can make up their own minds.

If the press is not doing its job, should a candidate do his best to make sure that voters have the opportunity to assess character as well as public statements before they cast their ballots? Of course.

Citizens are electing not a voting machine but a human being. Officeholders who not only break the moral law (as we all do) but proclaim its lack of validity in one area are likely to do the same in another. Those who get big bucks from particular interest groups are likely to vote as their patrons desire.

When a candidate has publicly espoused homosexuality, publicizing that proclivity represents no invasion of privacy. Some secret homosexuality has always been with us, but secrets tend to remain secrets when the biblical standard of testimony-a requirement for two or more witnesses-is upheld. Private homosexuality is tragic for the individuals involved, but homosexuality is a political question now only because the practice is flaunted and proclaimed as good.

So candidates should not be seen as intrusive when they point out what others would ignore. The harder question, both theologically and tactically, is how they should speak. Please allow me to apply here a lesson I learned in 1995 and 1996 when I was advising Washington officials on how to think through and talk about welfare reform: Emphasize individual opportunity. The sadness of life on welfare is obviously different from the sin of homosexuality, but in both situations change is possible.

That's something neither conservatives nor liberals concentrated on from 1970 through 1995. Liberals often viewed folks on welfare as pets: Put some food in their bowl, maybe pat them on the head. They viewed the irresponsibility and even thievery that went on as petty and excusable (you can't blame them, they're victims of circumstances). But conservatives who merely orated about "welfare queens" did not help matters, because they also tended to view recipients as inevitably stuck in the mud.

The crucial breakthrough for Republicans on welfare came when more of them started to view and speak about welfare recipients as people made in God's image who are capable (with Bible-based help) of making good choices. Republicans neutralized cries of mean-spiritedness when they could point to anti-welfare programs that embodied the true compassion of volunteers suffering with those who truly wanted to change their lives.

Let's apply that lesson to speaking about homosexuality, a practice not only wrong but (contra some hyped pseudo-science) not inevitable. The success of Exodus and other ministries to homosexuals shows that those sunk in this particular sin can change, just as people who have gotten stuck in welfare can change-and it's the opportunity for transformation that those who want to be leaders rather than demagogues should emphasize.

Homosexual politicians and organizations fight the opportunity for transformation; their goal is to make the immoral seem moral and the abnormal normal, so that there is no reason to talk of change. Conservatives who orate about "them vs. us" merely play into the hands of those who teach and preach, "Once a homosexual, always a homosexual." The better way, however, is to note that all of us are sinners and in need of Christ, and that movement from sadness and sin to joy and truth should be encouraged.

In the 1970s "welfare rights" organizations discouraged movement off welfare; now, homosexual groups viciously criticize Christians who help individual homosexuals to be reoriented to heterosexuality. Conservative candidates should ask their homosexual opponents: Do you support ministries that show true compassion for homosexuals by helping them to change? Such talk will not forestall charges of "gay-baiting," but note the movement from broad attack to specific analysis of ways to help homosexuals change.

Of course, candidates who do not pretend to be perfect themselves will be most successful with such a strategy. The key to political and personal success is to remember that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.