What can we do when Democratic politicians refuse to defend the very values that form the core of the Democratic Party?
Harold Ford Jr., who represents Memphis, Tennessee in the United States House of Representatives, used to like to portray himself as a supporter of civil rights for all Americans, regardless of sexuality, has suddenly changed his mind.
Caving in to pressure from fundamentalist religious leaders in Memphis, Harold Ford Jr. voted for an amendment to the United States Constitution that would have criminalized same-sex marriage. In doing so, Harold Ford Jr. betrayed the Democratic Party itself, helping to give George W. Bush an election issue against John Kerry.
We shouldn't be surprised, however. In the past, Harold Ford Jr. has consistently shown himself to be the kind of very conservative Democrat who is willing to sell out to Republican causes whenever it suits his political ambitions. Ford supported Bush's invasion of Iraq. Ford supported Bush's faith-based initiative madness. Ford tried to derail the election of progressive Nancy Pelosi as minority leader of the House of Representatives.
Time and time again, Harold Ford Jr. has urged Democrats to collaborate with George W. Bush, for the sake of preserving political power. We think that Congressman Ford has got it backwards. We believe that political power comes from standing up for what's right.
It just so happens that there is one man down in Memphis who is standing up for what's right this year. His name is Jim Maynard, and he's challenging Harold Ford Jr. in an independent campaign for Congress. We spoke with Mr. Maynard about his candidacy, and we've placed the transcript of our interview here. Mr. Maynard certainly does not have the big budget that brings coverage from the mainstream media, but we're happy to do our part to give his work the attention it deserves.
Well, I actually was considering running against him in the primaries. I had been hesitant to challenge him, but I don't feel that he really represents the Democratic Party on many issues, especially when it comes to Church and State and religious issues and the military and the war.
What broke the back for me was last week, when he voted for the Federal Marriage Amendment in the House. In the past, he has voted against such measures. He voted against the Marriage Protection Act, which had something to do with the Defense of Marriage Act and keeping judges from overturning the Defense of Marriage Act, which he also voted for back in 1996.
All of his statements to gay and lesbian organizations and the people who have gotten in contact with him is that he opposes amending the Constitution, that even though he opposes gay marriage he does not favor amending the Constitution. Up until this point he has been saying that he thinks that the Defense of Marriage Act would withstand any court challenges, and that it wasn't necessary to amend the Constitution. He had a similar position to Kerry's.
I think that what has happened is that he has been bombarded with a lot of phone calls and emails from a group of churches here in Memphis. There's a group that I have found out about called Memphis City Churches, and I think it's headed up by some of the really conservative African-American clergy. There's the Church of God in Christ, which is headquartered here in Memphis, and there's the World Overcomers, which is a really conservative church. They've been putting out big ads in the Commercial Appeal, which is our main paper here, attacking gay marriage, but even going beyond that with very homophobic anti-gay stuff. Anyway, they've got a coalition of churches, which includes the very conservative churches here in Memphis, and they sent a letter out soliciting money to put ads in the Commercial Appeal. My suspicion is that they just bombarded him with phone calls and letters, so he switched his position.
He has always opposed gay marriage, but he has not been in favor of the constitutional amendment until now. That's what broke the camel's back for me. I felt that I could not vote for him. I don't think that he has a good record on a lot of other issues, plus this just was too much for me.
John Kerry is against that amendment. The Democratic Party has come out against that amendment to the Constitution. So, it's really startling to me that Harold Ford Jr. would break ranks with the entire Democratic delegation in the House, except for a Southern representatives, and he would vote with the Republicans.
I decided, even though it's kind of late and it's a write-in candidacy and there's no chance of me winning, I just wanted to make my voice heard. I wanted to give voters, gay and lesbian voters and others, to have a chance to vote for someone else.What does it say to you about the kind of politician Harold Ford Jr. is that he just switched, and now he's favoring something so strong as this constitutional amendment?
It's no secret that he has his eyes set on a Senate race and eventually President. So, I think it was a political calculation. I think it was pretty obvious that the amendment was going to fail. It would not get the two-thirds necessary to pass. I think he felt safe voting for it in order to satisfy all the religious fanatics here so that they would not use it against him in the future when he runs for the Senate. He's going to be competing across the state, and Tennessee is a very conservative state.
On the other hand, he's like a lot of politicians, and a lot of them are trying to talk out of both sides of their mouth. In his emails to those of us who oppose the amendment, he would say things along the lines that he thinks that this should be left to the states. Then, I got an email by mistake, when I emailed him to ask him not to vote for this, that he opposes gay marriage, voted for the Defense of Marriage Act, and that he would go along with the will of the people who support the constitutional amendment.Was it difficult for you to decide to challenge a Democratic representative at a time when the Democrats are struggling to regain a majority position in the House of Representatives?
No, because the purpose of a last-minute write-in candidacy like this is not to win. I'm not going to win. I'm no threat to him getting re-elected at all. It's for a political statement.
I wish now that I had challenged him in the primary, because there are a lot of people in the Democratic Party here who would support me. Already, the people I've talked to here are very angry at Harold Ford Jr. for voting for the amendment to the Constitution.
You don't have to be for gay marriage to not support the constitutional amendment. Those are two separate issues.
I think, to be consistent and be with his party and his candidate, John Kerry, whose campaign he chaired here in this state, he could take the same position as Kerry. He's not. Basically, I think he caved in to religious bigotry, to these right wing anti-gay clergy. He caved in to them, and he did it for political expediency.Harold Ford Jr. is also fighting a challenge from Republican Ruben Fort. How does your campaign fit into the competition between the two of them?
Well, I think that my campaign is so small that it's going to be very difficult for me to get votes at all. In the gay community, my announcement missed the deadline for the gay publication here, so the gay community doesn't even know about it. So, I'm relying on word of mouth and email. The only public announcement of it here is going to be the Memphis Flyer, which is an alternative newspaper here. They're going to have a story on it and it's already on their web site.
I've sent press releases out, and I haven't seen anything yet in the Commercial Appeal, and I haven't seen anything on the local television stations. I did get a call from the Associated Press in Nashville and there was another story in a newspaper in the eastern part of Tennessee. It was an article about how the gay activists across the state were upset with Harold Ford Jr.'s vote. That's about it.You talked about the influence of the conservative clergy. What has that done to the democratic process in Memphis?
Well, unfortunately, like just about everywhere else, especially in the South, they outnumber people who believe in the separation of Church and State. Most people here do not seem to understand the issue of the separation of Church and State. I'm a gay and I'm an atheist and I'm a democratic socialist, so one of the issues that I feel very strongly about is the separation of Church and State.
Here, like across the country, when it comes to issues like the Pledge of Allegiance and In God We Trust and the Ten Commandments, people overwhelmingly and totally ignore the Constitution and the First Amendment. They believe that it's a Christian nation and that the laws should be based upon the Bible.
What's going on here, and across the South, especially in swing states, is that Republicans are using that religious conservatism, these fundamentalist beliefs, against the Democrats. That's why they're pushing things like this marriage amendment. That's the only reason why they pushed to have it voted on, is so that they could push to have Democrats on the spot across the South, and use it on the voter guides that the Christian Coalition is going to be sending out.
What Ford did is politically smart, just like when Bill Clinton signed on to the Defense of Marriage Act. It's a politically smart thing to do because it protects them from the charge that they are anti-marriage and anti-family, but it compromises their integrity. It compromises their integrity if they want to claim to defend gays and lesbians or the separation of Church and State.
The central issue for me is not even gay marriage. It's separation of Church and State, because all the arguments against gay and lesbian civil rights, including marriage, it all comes down to people's beliefs about the Bible and God and Adam and Eve and all that crap. None of it has anything to do with our civil rights. Nothing. It has nothing to do with our constitutional rights. But that's what the debate is about. That's how people talk about it and that's how they vote, and politicians respond to that.
Think about it. If you're a politician, especially in a conservative Southern state, you've got all these churches that will email you and fax you and write you letters - thousands and thousands and thousands - and you only may have a hundred, at most, taking the other side. Which of those groups are you going to try to pander to, to get their votes?So what can atheists and other freethinkers and non-fundamentalists do against that kind of force?
Well, I don't think we can win at the ballot box, but I think we have to keep pressing on and making the arguments and challenging them. That's what I should have done in the Democratic primary, to challenge the Democratic candidates.
I think that anyone who thinks rationally, and I think that most people in the Democratic Party, even here, do, fall on the side of separation of Church and State, and even though they may be Christian and religious, they're not right wing fundamentalists. I think they would be open to our arguments.
The difficulty for the Democrats is that they've got to win elections. That's a very difficult situation for them, because the way that you win these elections is that you play into these religious arguments.If secular Americans can't win at the ballot box, what then is the future of our constitutional rights and separation of Church and State?
Well, it doesn't look very good right now. I think we have a long struggle ahead of us. I think we're going to make more advancements in terms of gay and lesbian civil rights. The rights of atheists and non-theists are way behind even those of gays and lesbians, but they're all tied together. Gay and lesbian issues, especially marriage, and the rights of non-Christians, it all comes back to the separation of Church and State. They're all related. I think that there is more openness to gay and lesbian civil rights than there is for atheists, because you can at least make a religious argument for gays and lesbians. There are many Christians and other religious groups who are very liberal and open to gays and lesbians. It's more difficult to get social acceptance or political support for atheists and non-theists.
It's just like Martin Luther King Jr. He was able to be somewhat successful because he could appeal to the religious propaganda and the basic moral religious beliefs in the Bible and Christianity to move the civil rights movement along. That can help gays and lesbians to some extent too.So what can secular Americans learn from the success of the gay rights movement to make the separation of Church and State more popular?
I think we have to work in coalitions with other groups. Atheists alone can't do it. They're too small and don't have any political power. There are liberal Christians and other religious groups that support separation of Church and State. Groups like Americans United for Separation of Church and State, most of their officers are probably from liberal churches, so we have to work with them. We have to reach out to those churches and religious groups that do support separation of Church and State, and even let them make the arguments for us or with us.
An atheist out there yelling, "Church and State! Church and State!" won't get a lot of attention. Ministers and rabbis out there making the argument gives it more appeal.Just to ask the obvious question for someone who might happen upon our web site and be a Christian fundamentalist, when you say that you're an atheist and you're running for Congress, is your intention to do all the things they accuse Democrats of, like outlawing the Bible and forbidding prayer? What would your program be as an atheist in Congress?
It would be to follow the Constitution. Our government is not even following the Constitution right now. After 9-11 especially, they just threw the First Amendment out the window. Hardly any of our political leaders are willing to challenge this theocracy, this theocratic movement in this country.
As an atheist, I defend religious freedom. I think it's fundamental. The First Amendment anti-establishment clause has two parts to it. The first is that Congress cannot make laws to establish religion. It also cannot make laws to infringe upon people's religious freedoms. I support religious freedom. I support the right of people to pray and read the Bible. What I don't support is the imposition of those religious beliefs on other people, or government siding with one religious group over other religious groups or people who don't have religious beliefs. That's precisely the argument that Thomas Jefferson and James Madison made. So, I would go back and just quote Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, because these same issues were debated back when our Constitution was first written. They intentionally set up a secular Constitution. We have a secular government. God and the Bible are nowhere to be found in the Constitution of the United States because they intentionally set up a secular document to be the foundation of our rules and our laws and our rights.And yet, we have a theocratic movement. How far do you think that could go, if George W. Bush wins re-election and the Republicans keep Congress?
I'm pretty scared right now. My partner and I, we want to leave this country. If we had the financial resources right now, we would leave this country. I will probably move to Canada, eventually, because I don't know how long I can stand it in this country. It's becoming unbearable to me as a gay person, as an atheist, and even as a democratic socialist.
You get all these forces together, big business and capitalism and militarism and nationalism and religion, and it's very similar to Nazi Germany. I think we have a neo-fascist country at this point. It's neo-fascist, and it's moving toward fascism.You're talking about moving to Canada. You're a gay, atheist democratic socialist. So what are you doing living in Memphis?
Gays, atheists and others, we live in all parts of the country. It's where I'm from. I'm from Arkansas. My family lives in Arkansas. I came to Memphis to go to school, and it just happened that this is where I made friends and found a community and settled down. I think a lot of it is just geographical. It's my area. I have no friends or connections in other parts of the country.
I'm somewhat joking about moving to Canada, but it's something that I may consider. I think more than that, I want to stay and fight. I am a fighter. I've been a fighter all my life, and I believe in standing up for what I believe in and fighting. So, I'm for the foreseeable future, in Memphis.
That's the answer, I think. We're part of an ongoing struggle, and there may not be an end to the struggle in sight, but that struggle continues. It's like every other movement for social justice. They're always ongoing, and you have to keep organizing and mobilizing. I've been an organizer for most of my life.
Most people, they're burned out or they're tired or they're apathetic. It's an uphill battle to motivate them and keep them encourage to get involved. It hurts when you try to get gays and lesbians active in the Democratic Party for your representative to vote against you, like Harold Ford Jr. did. You have some support in the party, but you don't have enough support in the party.What could our readers do to support your campaign?
Well, if they live in Memphis, vote. Go get a write-in ballot and write me in. What you need to do, whether you live in Memphis or not, is to be politically active. There are groups in almost every city, if it's a freethought group or a peace and justice group, and if there isn't you can start one.
We are social beings and we are part of communities and we cannot do anything by ourselves. We cannot just sit home and nothing is going happen if we just stay at home in our own little shells. We have to go out and work with other people for social change.
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