The First Unitarian Universalist Church of Columbus has monthly debates on hot topics on Friday nights (or at least used to do this). In 2003, I was asked by the coordinator of these events if I would debate the issue of gay marriage with a minister from a local church. That sounded interesting enough, and the debate occurred. What was interesting about it was the very conflicted young minister I was debating. His church’s interpretation of the Bible clearly deemed homosexuality a sin, but he was personally concerned over condemning good people to hell simply because of whom they loved. In his arguments he kept flopping back and forth. I said my usual things. When the debate ended and we were shaking hands, I discombobulated the minister by remarking that I hadn’t been needed at all; he was debating himself admirably. Perhaps cruelly, I then further startled him by predicting that before he died he himself would officiate at a gay wedding.
When the UU coordinator called me the following year and asked me to do a similar debate, I agreed under the condition that it not be a minister. The reason: ministers of this stripe have only one argument: the Bible demands gay marriage be condemned. How can one argue with that? It’s either right or wrong, but not open to debate. The coordinator called back two days later and said he’d found an opponent who fit the bill: Dr. Patrick Johnston, a Zanesville physician who was the first witness to testify in the Ohio Legislature in favor of a constitutional amendment (which did pass) forbidding Ohio to recognize gay marriages. Just the man, I agreed. He then said that Dr. Johnston would like to speak to me on the phone ahead of time, and I again agreed.
Dr. Johnston’s phone call came the next evening. First he was bothered by the fact that the internet revealed my writings all were about law (this is before my novel, “Imaginary Friend”), and there was nothing about homosexuality. Why, he asked, was I suitable to debate this topic? I replied that I had quite a history with the gay rights movement in central Ohio, and was known as a spokesperson for that cause. Dr. Johnston then switched questions. “In most debates,” he said cautiously, “one party makes a statement, then the other does, and there is no give-and-take.” He wanted to add a segment where each debater could cross examine the other. “Like a Socratic dialogue?” I asked innocently. “YES!” Of course I then agreed to such a part of the debate [“Don’t throw me into that briar patch, Br’er Fox”---see "The Socratic Dialogue in Law Schools," my post of January 31].
That night I thought about how to trap Dr. Johnston. How far would he go? A traditional method of showing a weakness in an argument is to carry it to extremes, so at some point the person being questioned draws the line. That would do nicely here.
Comes the Friday night of the debate and I arrived at the church to find a huge display in the lobby about the debate, with large photos of the two debaters and many news clippings about gay marriage and the controversy it had caused. A number of friends of mine were UU members, including some gays who had turned up just to hear me. One of these is what movements call a “bomb thrower”: someone who has few limits and is willing to do outrageous things on behalf of the cause (useful if watched carefully). “Do you know who this man is?” he asked me. On confessing my ignorance, I was told all. Dr. Johnston was the same man who went into a local church during gay pride week the year before, waving his Bible and shouting as he disrupted an ecumenical service celebrating the religious beliefs of all people, no matter their sexual orientation. That depressed me; it was again going to be religion versus a practical evaluation of the issue, a non-winner as explained above. My bomb-throwing friend then added that the room contained around thirty of the “Minutemen,” a local Christian group who were attending, Bibles in hand, to support Dr. Johnston; they were taking up the first couple of rows of pews. Wonderful.
About five minutes before the debate began, I went into the men’s room to relieve myself, and, as I was about to exit, the door opened and Dr. Patrick Johnston himself entered (we both recognized each other from the large photos in the lobby). He was a man in his 30s, very genial, happy to meet me, and so we shook hands and I left him and went into the main (very lovely) room of the church where services were held. There was a good size crowd; already the air was buzzing. I don’t know if my entrance was the catalyst for what followed, or whether it was just coincidence, but one of the Minutemen jumped to his feet, Bible on high, and yelled, “The wages of sin is death!” Cheers and boos. At this the bomb-thrower leaped to his feet (courageously he was sitting in the front row with his enemies) and screamed back, “Keep your superstitious nonsense to yourself!” The coordinator, very upset, began pounding the lectern with his fist, demanding order. Great start, I thought, as I took my seat on one side of the platform, with Dr. Johnston, following and going to the other side.
The debate was just as predicted. We each had fifteen minutes. Dr. Johnston started first, and he was a one-note song. Unless you believed in his version of Jesus Christ (not all versions, just his), you had no moral basis for your decisions and were going to hell. My reply was a standard review of the need for gay marriage and a prediction that in 50 years the whole issue would seem as absurd as whether blacks should be allowed to vote.
Then came time for the Socratic dialogues. The doctor started, and his question was “What is your moral basis for making decisions?” I replied that I took my guidance from the Golden Rule and the idea of loving your neighbor, at which point one of the Minutemen jumped to his feet and loudly told me those concepts came from the Bible itself! Of course they did, was my response, and I added that they were the genius of Christianity and if we all followed them life would be much better, particularly for gays. Dr. Johnston followed up by asking how we answered those Biblical questions, and I said the history of civilization was the development of a universal consensus on what was fair and what was not. He thought that too wishy-washy.
Now my turn came to question him, and Socratic dialogue expert that I am I knew I’d have him flattened in no time. Not a chance. I never laid a glove on him. “Is it all right to discriminate against gays in housing?” Absolutely. “In employment?” Of course. “What, Doctor, fire perfectly good employees just because of their private life?” Yup. How about making homosexuality a crime? No problem for the good doctor; the Bible condemns such people to hell, so merely putting them in jail is quite appropriate. “How about slavery, Doctor?” I asked him. Also okay. “Slavery?” “Sure,” he replied easily. “We make prisoners work on chain gangs—what is that but institutionalized slavery?” How about death? “That would have to also be on the table,” was his statement, producing a gasp from the audience members who were not Minutemen. I followed up on that. “And by death, Doctor, I assume you would permit the sort of thing that’s currently going on in the Middle East: dropping walls on such people, tossing them off cliffs, beheading them, or, in at least one case, burying the offender up to his neck in the sand and stoning him to death.” He was nonplused by these possibilities, so I commented, wondering at it all, “You know, there’s simply no possible punishment worse than that: horrible death in this life and eternal damnation thereafter.” So?
In the question and answer session that followed, they took Dr. Johnston’s microphone away from him to use to pass around the audience, so he slid his chair over next to mine that we might share the remaining microphone. “Are you sure you want to be this close to me?” I asked, gleam in my eye. “After all I’m a known homosexual and we did meet in a men’s room.” He roared with laughter and in a subsequent forum when we casually met, he informed all those within hearing that we’d met in a men’s room. [At this same later event when he was asked by someone in the audience if it was true he approved of the death penalty for homosexuality, he denied ever saying that, at which point a mild-mannered looking woman in the audience leaped to her feet shouting, “I was there and I heard you say it!”]
After the debate, some friends came up and asked me if they could walk me to my car. That surprised me; I hadn’t thought I might be in any trouble in the dark parking lot of a church. Bothered, I took them up on this kindness, and my departure was uneventful.
Shortly thereafter Dr. Johnston described the debate on his website: http://www.rightremedy.org/, where you can order DVD of it for $25 (I have the DVD also, provided by UU). Here is his website commentary:
“On April 2, 2004, at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Columbus, Dr. Patrick Johnston debated Professor Doug Whaley, award-winning Professor of Law at OSU's Mortitz School of Law and founder of Stonewall Columbus (one of the largest homosexual activist organizations in the midwest). Traditional marriage was defended, the wicked were reproved, the gainsayers were silenced, and Jesus Christ was glorified! The presuppositional method of defending the faith was employed and Biblical Christianity was set forth as exclusively true.”
In August of 2014 Dr. Johnston attracted headlines in Ohio by claiming that allowing women to go topless ("public nudity") should be banned in the state, particularly at gay pride events where such women swelled the ranks of spectators, causing the Columbus Gay Pride March in 2014 to be one of the largest in the nation with 500,000 marchers. See http://www.rawstory.com/rs/2014/08/18/ohio-anti-abortion-leader-ban-public-nudity-breastfeeding-because-boobs-promote-gay-pride/.
"The Aging Gay Rights Activist," March 24, 2010
"Frightening the Horses," April 4, 2010
“Straight Talk,” May 10, 2010
“Marijuana and Me,” July 11, 2010
"Choose To Be Gay, Choose To Be Straight," January 25, 2011
"The Homosexual Agenda To Conquer the World," February 8, 2011
"Seducing Straight Men," March 3, 2011
"Coming Out: How To Tell People You're Gay," March 27, 2011
"The History of Gay Rights in Columbus, Ohio," June 4, 2012
“Gays Will Be Able To Marry in All States By July of 2016 (and Maybe 2015): A Prediction,” February 14, 2014
“A Gay Hoosier Lawyer Looks at Indiana’s RFRA: The Religious Bigot Protection Act,” March 30, 2015; http://douglaswhaley.blogspot.com/2015/03/a-gay-hoosier-lawyer-looks-at-indianas.html
“A Guide to the Best of My Blog,” April 29, 2013