A friend of mine, a woman of powerful religious convictions,was talking about the great emphasis the GOP has placed on ''family values.''
''What they are trying to do,'' she said, ''is remind people that this country was founded on Judeo- Christian principles and that many of the problems we face are a result of our having strayed from those basic values.''
To which I replied: ''What does that have to do with the recession, or the loss of manufacturing industries, or the problems of our cities? Are you suggesting God is punishing America economically because we have gone astray?''
''You liberals always twist things around to make them mean something else,'' she snapped. ''What I am saying is that this country was founded upon certain moral principles that derive ,, from the Judeo- Christian tradition. You cannot separate private morality from civic virtue; the values that guide us in our homes are the same values we bring to our public affairs. That's why values are so important. The Democrats seem to have forgotten that.''
''There you go again,'' I joked. ''I suppose next you're going to say the Republicans are the party of God and the Democrats are agents of the other fellow.''
''Seems that way sometimes.''
''You can't be serious!'' I cried. ''This election isn't about religion, it's about public policies: how to provide health care for the 37 million people who don't have medical insurance. How to employ people in the inner cities; how to reform the public schools.
''Listen,'' I said. ''Nobody's against 'family values.' But reasonable people can disagree over the best way to fix the economy, put people back to work and make America competitive in the global marketplace. That's what I wish the Republicans would talk about.''
''The Democrats want to treat homosexuality as just another life-style choice,'' my friend replied.
''Are you suggesting that gay people shouldn't have the same rights as everyone else?''
''You're twisting around what I'm saying again,'' she said. ''I'm talking about values. The Democrats want to let homosexuals marry and adopt children, and that's against everything the family stands for. If we go down that road, we're finished.''
I said, ''There's a big difference between government promoting policies that help families and denying people civil rights based on their sexual orientation. That's like denying people their civil rights because of their race.''
''No it's not,'' she insisted, ''the Bible clearly says homosexuality a sin and an abomination. It's a question of basic values.''
I was surprised. ''You and I are both black and old enough to remember when the Bible was routinely cited as justification for racial discrimination,'' I said.
''That's different,'' she said.
Hmmm. Let's try another tack. ''The Bible also says we should love each other,'' I opined. ''Couldn't that be interpreted to mean should treat gay people as we ourselves would wish to be treated?''
''The Scriptures only apply to the community of believers,'' she said. ''If a person really believed the Bible was the word of God they wouldn't practice homosexuality.''
''Wait just a minute,'' I said. ''According to you, gay people can't even believe in God. No wonder you're so ready to deny them equal rights. That sounds like intolerance toward anyone who doesn't share your religious views or your particular interpretation of the Bible.''
''You liberals just don't get it,'' she retorted. ''It's not 'interpretation.' It's spelled out clear as day. The Bible is absolutely unambiguous on the subject.''
I reminded my friend that the Bible, like all literary texts, only yields the meaning its readers ascribe to it.
''One of the great discoveries of deconstruction has been that the ultimate meaning of any text is indeterminate, since all contain contradictions that prevent them from meaning only one thing,'' I observed. ''In fact, the Bible is a perfect example of such a text; different people have interpreted it in very different ways throughout history.''
My friend looked at me as if I already had one foot poised over the gaping maw of hell. ''That's the kind of secular-humanist nonsense that's gotten this country into so much trouble already,'' she observed. ''Look to your soul!''
''We're not talking souls,'' I shouted. ''You want to turn politics into theology. You're just confusing the issue with all this talk of homosexuals and Bibles.''
''I'm talking about values,'' she shot back, ''I'm saying this country is going to be in a world of trouble if we don't pay attention to the basic principles this country was founded on.'' And so the conversation ended exactly where it began.
Glenn McNatt writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.