Sunday, May 15, 2022

What a New Heaven and Earth Might Look Like

“I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and earth had passed away.”

It is rare that I choose the epistle as the text for my sermon. It is even more unlikely that I would ever choose to preach on a text from the Revelation of John. It is a text that is full of symbol and metaphor that does not readily lend itself to ordinary discussion.

At a basic level, John of Patmos wrote this work in code that one needs a decoder ring to decipher. Problem is, he didn’t leave us the decoder ring.

John of Patmos, Sandro Boticelli (1492)

John’s goal was to communicate to fellow believers in a time of persecution in a manner that they would understand but the average reader would not. That includes us. 

Many of the early versions of the Christian scripture did not include John’s Revelation. The early councils of the church wrestled with this book for years before deciding to include it in the canon. And we have been trying to figure out what it’s actually about ever since. As I often told my undergraduates when we covered this material in class, if your pastor tells you exactly what Revelation means, you should not walk away, you should run.

So why am I focusing on this writing today? I think this excerpt has something important to say to us that we need to hear in a time of tumult in the world around us.

Apocalypse: The Unveiling

The actual name for this final book of the Christian scriptures is the Apocalypse of John. 
 Since the 19th CE, the word apocalyptic has been hijacked by those who would presume to tell us about the end of the world. One of the more popular versions originated with an Anglican Bishop of Ireland, James Ussher, who created a timeline which worked its way back to Adam and forward to Armageddon. It is Ussher’s timeline that informs the young Earth thinking that places the age of the Earth since its creation in Genesis at about 4000 years, billion year old fossils to the contrary.

Apocalyptic theologies have provided the basis for incredibly self-serving understandings like the Great Tribulation in which the real Christians are taken from Earth prior to its dramatic end while all the rest of us jerks will be, as the movies describe us: Left Behind. The spectacular visions of John’s Apocalypse - with their armies of men charging across the plains of Megiddo and armies of angels descending from the heavens, all of which ends in a fiery finale - make for great films like Hal Lindsay’s The Late Great Planet Earth.

But I suspect there is more than titillation that feeds our interest in apocalyptic thinking. The word apocalypse means unveiling. And by implication, apocalypses arise on the occasion of the passing away of old paradigms and the birth of new ways of being human. As John tells us in today’s epistle, “I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and earth had passed away.”

If we allow ourselves to see it, we all recognize that much of the dirty underbelly of our way of life is currently in the process of being exposed. With the rise of body cams and cell phones, police brutality on our streets is now documented. Our self-serving politicians see their rise to power as dependent upon turning Americans against one another. The result has been a series of laws preventing any substantive discussion of racism and homophobia. This evidences a powerful denial of our collective Shadow as a people.  

The failure of our country to mobilize as a united front in responding to a deadly pandemic lays bare any delusions of an America that is united in any manner that is not superficial. And the reports from scientists in our polar regions of melting ice caps and  meteorologists predicting ever more savage weather patterns tell us that we no longer have the luxury of denying the reality of climate change or avoiding its impact.

A New Beginning: No Need for Despair

If we are being honest with ourselves, we will have to admit that this earth as we have known it is indeed passing away. At a very basic level, the apocalyptic visions from our popular culture from zombie films to movies in which we are told “Don’t look up” to see the approaching asteroid threatening an extinction event – all these visions reveal something deep in the human soul that we already know but don’t want to consider. The world we knew and took for granted is passing away. And our visions of heaven, of a rescuing deity who will swoop down to save us from ourselves, are passing away as well.

Such realizations could readily prompt one to despair. As the artist known as Prince once counseled us, “It’s Party over, oops, out of time….So tonight we’re gonna party like it’s 1999.” And some seem to have taken that advice to heart.

But it’s important to note that even in writing these letters full of death and destruction, John of Patmos does not leave his readers in despair. Writing from a time when his world was, indeed, passing away, under the persecution of a Roman emperor he would construct as the Beast, John goes on to say that not only will there be a new heaven and earth, G-d will be present among mortals, dwelling with them as their G-d and they will be his people.

This is the time we might want to ask ourselves: What might a new earth look like? What would a new understanding of heaven and the Holy One we see as present there look like? Most importantly, what would a way of being human in which the divine permeates our lives, a way of living in which G-d’s presence would be inescapable, look like?


Taking “This Fragile Earth, Our Island Home” Seriously

I think our other readings today give us some hints. Psalm 48 is a hymn praising the Creator beginning with the heavens and working its way all the way through the created order to the wild beasts, the creeping things and the winged birds. A new earth begins with a gratitude and an appreciation for a very good Creation, seeing ourselves as a part of that Creation but only a part. And if we take the words of Genesis seriously, we are called to be good partners, stewards and caretakers of the created order.  

The threat of extinction posed by climate change reminds us that our presence on this planet is not a given. A new earth will require humanity to take the gift of “this fragile earth, our island home” seriously. It will require a new way of being human. I believe we are entirely capable of doing so. But the alternative is untenable.

Our reading from the Acts of the Apostles gives us suggestions about how we are to relate to one another. In a world where our news media is filled with images of destroyed apartment buildings and floods of refugees and our social media is filled with demonic images of those we designate as our enemies, a new earth in which G-d dwells among us seems far away.   

Domenico Fetti, “Peter’s Vision of a sheet with animals” (1619)

That was true for Saint Peter in the days following Jesus’ departure as well. He had been trained to see everyone outside his sect within the Hebrew faith as unclean, people to be avoided. But Peter has a dream that draws that understanding into question. Cast in terms of dietary restrictions G_d says to Peter, “What God has made clean, you should not call profane.” In other words, your prejudices against all those outside your tribe must be reconsidered. In a new earth, humanity will not have the luxury of engaging in a self-serving tribalism that sees outsiders as less than fully human.

Finally, in John’s Gospel today, we get Jesus’s last words to his disciples as he prepares to depart the world for the final time. “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples…” 

Note what Jesus does not say here. He does not say “Believe the right things.” He does not say “Castigate those who don’t share your understandings wrapping self-righteousness under a banner of orthodoxy.” He doesn’t say invite people to your altars only after you’ve checked their IDs to confirm they’ve been baptized. He simply says, love them, warts and all. That’s how people will know you are my followers. If those of us who would follow Jesus are going help create a new earth, it will have to begin with this. Loving profligately, recklessly, unconditionally.


Resurrection Comes After Death

So here is how I see it. We live in apocalyptic times. The seamy underbelly of our lives is being revealed. The way of being human that we have taken for granted has reached its expiration date. That includes the way we envision the Holy. The old heaven and earth are passing away as we speak. And a new heaven and earth are being born.  

This is not a new phenomenon nor is it foreign to us. This is the fifth Sunday of Easter, a season that celebrates resurrection. But like all resurrections, it was predicated upon death. It is necessary for the old to die for the new to come into being. 

If we as a people prove willing to live into the challenges these changes present us, we may well come to know the reality of a world in which G-d will dwell among mortals. But that will come only on the other side of much change, some of which will be painful.

The good news is that we do not have to do this alone, G-d is always present with us. And all we are ever called to do is our part. As our Baptismal Covenant so ably instructs us, our answer to every true calling is always “I will with God’s help.”



Collect for Easter V: O God, whom truly to know is everlasting life: Grant us so perfectly to know your Son Jesus Christ to be the way, the truth, and the life, that we may steadfastly follow his steps in the way that leads to eternal life; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.





 Harry Scott Coverston 

   Orlando, Florida

  If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding. Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.

  Those who believe religion and politics aren't connected don't understand either. – Mahatma Gandhi

  For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d?  - Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures

  Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it. - Rabbi Rami Shapiro, Wisdom of the Jewish Sages (1993)

  © Harry Coverston, 2022



Monday, May 09, 2022

Mother’s Day in a Troubled Land

Sunday was Mother’s Day. Amidst a barrage of consumer advertising marketing everything from flowers to jewelry, many Americans saw this day as a time to acknowledge the enormous debt all of us owe to our mothers. Though not all of us hold cherished memories of the woman who gave birth to us, if nothing else, we must acknowledge her role in helping bring us into being.

On this day, I give thanks to my Mother, a dear woman whose compassion, tenacity and wisdom prompted many who knew her to call her Saint Marge. In all truthfulness, it has been difficult for me to celebrate Mother’s Days for awhile. After ferociously battling breast cancer for 18 years, St. Marge departed this life 14 years ago. One of the longest days of my life was the day that as her priest son I conducted her funeral.

I still miss her. Every single day.


I also give thanks for the many women in my life who have Mothered me along my highly unpredictable and tumultuous life journey all these 68 years. I am who I am because there have been strong women in my life whose examples spoke to me of equality and fairness, of love for and grounding in the creation, of compassion for the suffering and for the courageous unwillingness to give in or give up in the face of systemic injustice.

Henrietta, our family Nanny 

To all of these Mothers and to those whose shoulders they stood upon, beginning with the Great Mother who comes to me in visions and dreams, I am grateful this day.

This year, Mother’s Day falls amidst a growing sense of dis-ease across our country in the face of a pending Supreme Court decision regarding abortion. A court now stacked with Federalist Society ideologues who owe their souls to the Roman Catholic fundamentalist sect, Opus Dei, stands ready to strike down a 50 year legal ruling making legal abortions available to women seeking them.

In a twisted logic which idolatrizes fetuses while devaluing the women who carry them, this is somehow seen as serving a “pro-life” agenda. The real question is: Whose life?


A Fortunate Birth to Fortunate Parents

I am the oldest of three siblings in my family. But I was not the first. My parents’ first attempt at conceiving a child resulted in an ectopic pregnancy. The embryo that could have developed into a child in a successful pregnancy somehow failed to descend to her uterus and got stuck in one of my Mother’s fallopian tubes. When the tube ruptured, my Mother almost bled to death before my Father was able to get her from their home in Labelle to a hospital some 90 miles away in West Palm Beach. Her doctor later told her that another 30 minutes and he would not have been able to save her.


Saving her meant excising the fallopian tube along with its undescended embryo. She would go on to deliver three children from the one remaining tube. But had she not had the ability to secure this vital obstetric assistance for her first pregnancy, she would not have survived and we would not be having this discussion today.

There are several things notable about that story. First, my Mother had a husband on-site who had the means and was willing to do whatever he needed to do to help her. My Dad absolutely adored my Mother and he was there for her in her time of need and thereafter in her recovery. I can only imagine how incredibly frightened my Father must have been as they sped across that 90 mile stretch through the cane fields and lake rim towns of South Florida along a two-lane highway with deep canals on either side. 

In the end, they both were very lucky.

Second, my Mother had access to the medical care she needed when she needed it. This was hardly a given in 1952 when this occurred and it is not a given today for millions of women in this country. There is a reason that America ranks at the top of infant mortality rates in the developed world. Only two of our states have rates lower than the average among the 19 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development nations.


Third, my Mother was surrounded by a supportive family and community. There was never a point when she was alone in this struggle nor in caring for the children that would come thereafter. There would be the casseroles brought to the house in the days after her return from the hospital. There would be the concerned well-wishers who stopped by to make sure she was OK. There would be my Dad’s colleagues at the high school where he taught offering whatever help he needed including time off.

The fabled village needed to raise a child assembled to care for my Mother and the children that she would later bear.


    50th Wedding Anniversary, 2000, Bushnell, FL 

Fourth, the circumstances of all of her conceptions, including the failed pregnancy that almost cost her life, were very fortunate. The three children she delivered were not all planned but they were always wanted. They were the result of consensual sex within a stable married relationship, not from rape or incest. And they did not come from encounters with biological fathers who were unable or unwilling to be responsible fathers, disappearing from the scene once pregnancy arose.

In all of these circumstances, my Mother was fortunate as was my Father and the three of us they produced. But our story is not necessarily the norm for Mothers today. And that reality is about to get much more savage for women across our country.


More Than a Means to an End

One of the most troubling aspects of the “pro-life” self-description is that it is dishonest. On the one hand it fetishizes human fetuses even as it demeans the women who carry them. And that reasoning is frequently rationalized by appeals to religion.

I have always had an enormous devotion to Mary, the Mother of Jesus, in all the ways she is imagined, particularly in the form of La Guadalupana, Our Lady of Tepeyac. I have been to mass at her basilica outside Mexico City twice and both times was overwhelmed by the spiritual energy that is present there. Her statue dominates a small shrine in my office where she oversees my writing and before which I regularly light candles and incense as I pray for her presence with me.

Mary is one of humanity’s most revered Great Mother archetypes. But it is telling that one of her primary constructions is the Theotokos coming from Eastern Orthodoxy. Based in trinitarian understandings of Jesus of Nazareth as G-d incarnate, Theotokos means the god bearer.

As much as I revere Mary, the notion of Theotokus has always left me cold. This vision is highly instrumental. Mary is not fully human in this understanding. Her value is inevitably derivative, not innate.  She is simply a vessel of the divine, a means to an end and not an end in herself. That, according to Kant, is inevitably both immoral and irrational (Second Formulation, Categorical Imperative). 

This instrumentalist reasoning permeates self-described pro-life rhetoric. It is a rhetoric that emphasizes “life” even as it almost always proves hollow in its disregard for fully developed concerns for life. These range from opposition to prenatal care for impoverished women to support for state killing. It is particularly notable in the denial of the existential crisis surrounding climate change.  Whatever else this rhetoric might be, it is rarely the “seamless garment” that Roman Catholic Cardinal Joseph Bernardin articulated.


Theologians and ethicists historically have offered a wide range of understandings of when life begins from conception to birth. The Hebrew Scripture offers us few consistent clues as to how Judaism – and thus Jesus – might have understood this. And Christian thought by the middle ages spoke of notions of “ensoulment” that never occurred prior to the quickening of a fetus. There is nothing close to a universal consensus on this.

What we do know is that embryos in all stages of development are at best proto-human beings. If everything goes right, many make it to birth and, given vital infant care, survive to full personhood. But that is never a given. Its likelihood turns on a number of factors, not the least of which is economic status and social location. Given that reality, calling a fetus a human being and the termination of pregnancy as murder mainly serves to obfuscate an already complex issue with dishonesty in its framing.

This argument which elevates the fetus to an unmerited personhood is almost always combined with the demotion of the actual human being, the Mother, to a mere receptacle for that fetus. Her life is seen in instrumental terms, at best a secondary consideration. That is particularly apparent in the political rhetoric surrounding conceptions caused by rape and incest in which the resulting pregnancies are termed “gifts” by men who will never have such “gifts” imposed upon them and not the additional trauma an already victimized woman must endure.

Laws criminalizing the termination of such pregnancies, particularly in young teens and preteens, evidence a complete lack of concern for the lives of the women impacted thereby. Indeed, the declaration of fetuses to be human beings whose rights must be protected at all costs ranks along with the declaration of corporations to be persons as one the more cynical moves in modern jurisprudence. Increasingly, it is such brazenly partisan rulings that have cost the court system any real sense of legitimacy.


So much for being “pro-life”: The real question is “Whose life?”


Understandings Based in Experience

Intellectual honesty requires that I engage in full disclosure here. My views have not arisen in a vacuum. In principle, I oppose abortion. In the best of all worlds, I see the birth of children to be one of the true miracles of human life. In theory, I want every child with the possibility of birth to realize that potential. And I wish for them a healthy productive life thereafter and am willing to do what I can to insure that is true for every child including paying more taxes. 

I am also very much a proponent of adoptions. I have had four adopted cousins in my family who have been important parts of my life. I regret that they did not have biological families of their own. But, conversely, their presence in the adoptive families where they grew up were a blessing to all of us. I dearly value my adopted cousins.

I am also troubled by the consumerist constructs that are said to surround the rhetoric of choice. To the degree this thinking actually does drive the decision making about terminating a pregnancy (and it is unclear how much of that is mere projection from anti-abortionists), concerns for convenience and comfort fall well short of the concerns for a potential life. Choosing to abort a fetus is not in the same moral universe as choosing a new vehicle from Carvana.

But the women I have known who have had abortions did not engage in such superficial reasoning prior to those procedures. In all three cases, the father of the child was not around. In all three cases, the woman was not capable of caring for the child alone and had no family willing to support them had they carried the pregnancy to term. In all three cases, the likelihood of them being emotionally or psychologically capable of giving up their newborn infant after delivery was low. And adding trauma of a forced delivery to a woman already dealing with abandonment and the rigors of an unwanted pregnancy might well have been too much for any of the three to survive.

None of them made their decisions spontaneously or frivolously. And all of them have lived with largely repressed painful memories of those decisions as a result.

 I accompanied one of them to the clinic to have her procedure. She knew my feelings about abortion. But I was unwilling to have her pounded by crowds of perhaps well-meaning but ultimately cruel protesters obstructing the entrances to the clinic at one of the lowest moments of her life, adding insult to an already gaping wound.

For me, the question of “Whose life?” was easy to answer. Her life was the life I knew and loved. It was a life into which an ocean of pain had already flowed. And I was determined to do my part to insure that no more pain would be added to that.

As I waited to take my friend home, I talked with a woman whose procedure was completed and was waiting for her ride. She had not known she was pregnant. She was carrying twins. But not knowing this, she had engaged in serious partying involving both drugs and alcohol. My guess is that was how the pregnancy arose in the first place. She told me she did not know who the father was.

One of the twins was already dead. The other had developed with its brain outside its body. It would likely not have survived if it had made it to birth. The woman was sick with grief as we talked. Had the six week limitation on abortions been in place, she would have been forced to carry the remaining fetus full term. I can only imagine how devastating being forced to carry a dead fetus and a dying fetus to term under penalty of law would have been for her.

There is a word for that. It is called “cruel and unusual punishment.” There is a reason our Constitution prohibits that. For whatever that might mean anymore, given the current court system. 

I have also known women who have brought their fetus to term and then given it up for adoption. I deeply admire them. I am not sure I could have done that. But I am sure that not every woman is capable of that, particularly when the circumstances of conception have been toxic. 

One size rarely fits all.

Whose Lives? Mothers’ Lives

As I remember with gratitude this day all the Mothers in my own life who have made me who I am, I shudder to consider the impact this pending ruling is going to have on all the potential Mothers who cannot, should not or do not want to bear a given child.

I worry about those incapable of insuring that the child that would result could have a healthy, productive life. I worry about their lives in a country dominated by a toxic patriarchy which sees women as means to ends and not as ends in themselves. And I worry about those in states which refuse to take seriously the painful actions these potential Mothers feel driven to take just to preserve their very lives, choosing instead to criminalize them and their medical providers.

Some issues simply do not lend themselves to one-size-fits-all legalities. This is one of them. Indeed, ethical decision making by definition is rarely served by a legalism which - like every other ideology - is more often than not a means of avoiding critical, contextual  thinking.

The fact that these questions are complex and painful does not provide us the luxury of giving ourselves a pass on making them, case by case, as difficult as that may be. And when we do, the ethical question is, as always, “Cui bono?” Good for whom and at whose expense?

As we mark this deeply troubled Mother’s Day, I insist on answering the ethical question “Whose lives?” with a simple answer:

The Mother’s lives.

Every one of them.

Those I have known and loved

Those I never knew but who have my gratitude

Those who became Mothers only to struggle to survive.

And those who never did.

Happy Mother’s Day to them all.




 Harry Scott Coverston 

   Orlando, Florida

  If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding. Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.

  Those who believe religion and politics aren't connected don't understand either. – Mahatma Gandhi

  For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d?  - Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures

  Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it. - Rabbi Rami Shapiro, Wisdom of the Jewish Sages (1993)

  © Harry Coverston, 2022


Wednesday, April 06, 2022

Don’t Say Gay – Florida’s Latest Moral Panic

This week a bill was signed into law in Florida which has widely come to be called the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. It is an egregious abuse of power on the part of the state legislature and its politically ambitious governor which targets the politically less powerful unable to fend off the abuse it will impose upon them. In the words of James Madison, it’s a pretty classic example of the Tyranny of the Majority.

But its pathological potential exceeds any concerns for the mere abuse of power. This law could destroy lives. I know. I’ve seen this show before.

A Cynical Use of State Power

The provisions of the law are wide ranging. It begins with prohibitions against the discussion of gender and sexuality in the first three grades and to those older when “inappropriate.” In fact, what the language of the statute dictates is that any discussion of gender and sexuality will turn on cisgender, heterosexual terms. Discussion itself is not banned, only its parameters and content have been proscribed.

 There is no small amount of duplicity in this.

The statute is intentionally cast in vague terms. The failure to define what constitutes “inappropriate” discussions for students beginning in the fourth grade means that the law will serve to chill free speech about those issues in all succeeding grades through this use of intentionally vague statutory language.

The law also requires informing parents when students have received any kind of counseling, making confidentiality with the student impossible. For kids wrestling with sexual orientation and gender identity questions, this cuts off one of the few trustworthy sources of counseling many might receive. The inordinate incidence of suicide and homelessness in such children evidences what can happen in such cases.

The worst aspect of the bill provides a right of action for any parent to sue school districts should they believe that its employees have violated any of these provisions. It also requires the districts to absorb the costs of such lawsuits, no matter how frivolous they might prove to be. In a state where schools are underfunded to begin with, requiring school districts to absorb the costs of litigation could potentially bankrupt them.

This is nothing short of criminal.

Exacerbating the harmful impact of this law is its cynical peddling to the public under the rubric of “parental rights.” That’s clearly an appeal to populism, pitting parents against a supposed “elite” (or worse yet, the incredibly tired – and, true to form, vague - reference to “woke”) policy makers who run school districts. In my experience of school boards over the last six decades, this alone evidences how completely out of touch these white male politicians are with reality. Florida’s local school boards may be described in a number of ways but possessed of a high level of consciousness is rarely among them. 

This dissembling is deliberate. And as M. Scott Peck has observed in his People of the Lie, it is when wrongdoing is combined with deception that we begin to talk about evil. 

What is clearly missing in this cynical calculus is any respect for the rights of the teachers upon whom we rely to educate our children. The corresponding right of the citizenry to have an educated - rather than indoctrinated - public (the actual purpose of public education) is also missing. Finally, the rights of any of the students involved who are, in the end, the most vulnerable of the parties in this entire savage calculus, are absent from the law’s provisions.

It is telling that, for the most part, none of these interested parties were involved in the decision making in Tallahassee. I found myself wondering the other day what it must be like to be the group of people that have been targeted by such discriminatory legislation. But I don’t have to wonder about that. I know first-hand what that experience is.

Walking Into a Hornet’s Nest

In the fall of 1976 I came to a small town on Florida’s west coast to teach language arts and social studies in the middle school there. I had a freshy minted undergraduate degree from the University of Florida where I had minored in Journalism and Political Science while majoring in History and Secondary Education. A true child of the 60s, I had come to help change the world.

To say I was na├»ve would have been an understatement. I had presumed that the world needed to be saved and that this small town to which I had come would welcome my efforts on their behalf. In retrospect, there was also no small amount of faulty presumptions  - much less grandiose thinking - in all of that.

The timing of my arrival could not have come at a worse moment. As I was struggling to figure out my own sexuality, our state erupted in a moral panic over what was then just beginning to be referred to as gay rights. Miami-Dade County had just removed the ordinances from its city code that made gay bars illegal (for most of the 20th CE homosexual acts were second degree felonies in Florida). In what county leaders perhaps saw as a compensatory act, they then voted to create an ordinance prohibiting discrimination in employment, housing and public assistance based on sexual orientation.

In response, Florida’s religious right, which has always had a major presence in its politics, erupted. Led by Florida Orange Juice spokeswoman Anita Bryant, petitions to place an initiative on the county ballot in a special election to revoke the ordinance soon began circulating. Bryant called the initiative “Save Our Children” deliberately confusing sexual orientation with allusions to pedophilia. Not surprisingly, when voters went to the polls that fall, the Human Rights Ordinance would be repealed by a 2-1 margin. The ripple effects of this highly publicized movement would impact people across the state and the nation.

A Classic Moral Panic

I wouldn’t know what a moral panic was for another couple of decades until I studied this phenomenon in a Sociology of Deviance course I took at Cal-Berkeley while in seminary. As I read about this phenomenon, I immediately recognized that Anita Bryant’s “Save Our Children” crusade in 1977 had all the classic aspects.

Moral Panics designate a scapegoated group which social theorist Stanley Cohen described as “folk devils:”

[I]ndividuals who are socially alleged or defined to be responsible for bringing a    threat to society. Unlike other malicious characters, folk devils are entirely evil          and are stripped from anything positive or anything that could possibly contribute to their likeability. They are simply the embodiment of a "bad guy" and are deemed the antagonists in a moral panic drama.

There is always a yawning gap between the supposed dangers alleged and any actual dangers in a moral panic. Exaggeration, hyperbole and isolated anecdotal evidence become the stock in trade of the Moral Entrepreneurs, the individuals and groups who promote the panic.

In turn, the Media play an essential role in the rise of moral panics to public consciousness through repetitive reporting which includes distortion of words and events, predictions of the dire consequences of failure to act and the creation of caricatures that signify the designated scapegoats to be a danger to society.

Once the moral panic has sufficiently roused public alarm, the agents of societal control with institutional power (lawmakers and law officers) feel both compelled as well as empowered to act.  The result is a crusade against the demonized “folk devils” who have been reduced to things, no longer bearing the marks of human beings and no longer entitled to human dignity.

Ripple Effects

In 1977 Florida that would mean the passage of two major laws penalizing gay people. The first was a prohibition on same sex marriage that would stand until the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Florida’s law along with that of virtually all of the other states in
Obergefell v. Hodges in 2015. The other was a prohibition on same sex couples adopting children, a law which would be ruled unconstitutional by a Florida District Court of Appeals in 2010 and revoked by the legislature in 2015.

During the raucous sessions of the Florida Legislature at the height of the Save Our Children moral panic, Florida’s politicians increasingly turned their attention to Florida’s teachers. While Anita Bryant was busy calling gay people “human garbage” from whom we needed to “Save Our Children,” Florida’s ostensibly progressive governor, Reuben Askew, readily signed both the marriage and adoption bans adding that he would not want his children taught by “known homosexual[s].” In the meantime, legislators would make headlines with quotes demanding that Florida’s gay teachers “Go Back in Your Closets.”

As if any would have ever dared to have been out in the first place.


Daily life for gay teachers in Florida came to mean enduring vicious caricatures of ourselves in the papers each morning and hearing ourselves pilloried on broadcast  media by blustering moral entrepreneurs each night. It meant enduring sharp increase of slurs from emboldened bigots in public and learning not to answer one’s phone after dark to avoid obscene phone calls. The ripple effects of the moral panic brewing in Miami and Tallahassee were widespread and deeply demoralizing.

Bills of Attainder – Singling Out Scapegoats

A year later, I left public school teaching to begin law school at my alma mater, University of Florida. In Constitutional Law classes, we learned of the prohibition in our Constitution against bills of attainders, laws which single out individuals or identifiable groups of people for punishment. We also studied the significant case law around the 14th Amendment and its equal protection clause barring discrimination against less powerful minorities.

In theory, our constitutional law stands foursquare against the abuse of state power - what Framer James Madison called a “tyranny of the majority” – to impose laws which dehumanize those less politically powerful. Constitutional democracy is more than a mere majoritarian exercise in which the powerless can be voted off the island at the whim of the powerful.

But, in fact, our caselaw reflects a long history of such abuses of power beginning with the genocidal displacement of indigenous peoples, the protections of chattel slavery written into our Constitution whose ongoing legacy plagues us to this day, the incarceration of Japanese-Americans in WWII and in laws aimed at LBGTQ people like the one just enacted here in Florida. The actual practice of our law often stands in stark contrast to its noble ideals. The “Don’t Say Gay” bill is a classic example.

But neither the current “Don’t Say Gay” nor the “Save Our Children” moral panic targeting gay people in Florida which proceeded it is hardly original. In 1956, white male politicians had begun to realize that their quest to keep Florida racially segregated would fail in the face of Supreme Court decisions ruling such laws unconstitutional. A new scapegoat onto whom the Shadow of the racist, white male ego could be projected was needed. 

A common tactic in Southern resistance to desegregation was to declare civil rights activists to be communists. Organized by the state legislature, a self-described  “investigatory” committee was formed under the leadership of Charley Johns, a former governor who had returned to the state senate. This Red Scare witch hunt would cross the state to remove books from university libraries and grill professors about the content of their teaching. (Sound familiar?) If it was determined the professors were a little red (i.e., pinko), they were hounded out of their jobs.

By 1958, the
Johns Committee had located a more profitable scapegoat, switching gears to target gay teachers at Florida’s public schools and colleges. In a tortured twist of logic which arose from the socially sanctioned homophobia of the time, those who were accused of being gay were presumed to be easily manipulated by communist agents and thus a threat to national security. Professors and students would be picked up in the middle of the night by local police and grilled without legal representation. They were pressured to inform on others who might be involved in behaviors that UF President J. Wayne Reitz would call “a complete aberration.”

This homophobic hysteria would lose steam by the early 1960s about the same time that Florida’s public facilities were finally ordered to desegregate. In 1965 the legislature stopped funding the committee’s activities ending a decade of persecution of the designated “folk devils” du jour and a resulting chilling effect on the educational process in Florida. That hysteria would lie dormant awaiting new opportunities to rear its ugly head in Miami-Dade County in 1977 and more recently in Tallahassee this year.

There is No “There” There

Like Bryant’s “Save the Children” crusade and the Johns Committee crusade before it, the current moral panic has posited a danger that does not exist in reality. There has been no evidence produced that teachers are talking about sexuality to children in grades one to three. Similarly, there are no reports of students being counseled to undergo sexual reassignment surgery. Whatever rights parents might have in the process of public education have been cynically marshalled to prevent predatory practices which simply are not occurring.

It’s the stuff of classic moral panics.

Like every bill of attainder, this law singles out identifiable groups of citizens for punitive treatment - folk devils to demonize - simply because of who they are. And as my own experience demonstrates, its ripple effect has enormous potential to harm unforeseen victims at the hands of those whose bigotry has been legitimized by state power holders and who now feel empowered to act upon the same.


This law will require LGBTQ teachers to be dishonest with others about who they are and to deny the realities of the lives of LBGTQ students and families. It will require people who know better to lie to those to whom they owe the truth about matters central to their personhood. And it will gaslight many who are trying to come to grips with their own identities, telling them that what they know to be true about themselves is false.

 Such demands always come at a major cost to the souls of all the parties involved.

This law has been pursued by inordinately ambitious moral entrepreneurs seeking political gain at the expense of the very humanity of the powerless. But it also comes at a huge cost to the legitimate interests of the nation’s third largest state facing actual crises of environmental degradation, sea levels rising from climate change, gridlocked highways and underperforming schools, all largely ignored by politicians busy shoring up their “base” through culture wars.

As a grateful retiree, I am not directly affected by this new law. But this deceptively packaged law deeply troubles me as a former teacher. In all truthfulness, having parents involved in the education and welfare of their children I taught would have been a largely unknown luxury during my time in public schools. But that is not what this bill encourages. Rather, it creates an adversarial relationship pitting parents against teachers.

There are no winners in such contests.


As a fourth generation public educator, were I just coming out of undergraduate today, knowing what I know, the chances I would enter public school teaching in Florida would be negligible at best. And as a sixth generation Floridian, I must sadly acknowledge that if I had no generational ties to this state, I would never choose to live here. Indeed, as I vicariously experience once again being the target of yet another Florida moral panic, I sometimes wonder how long I can stay.  

Moral Panics inevitably have very human costs. Many of them are immediate but many are also unforeseeable. That makes them much more dangerous. In the end, moral panics leave indelible scars on the souls of those whose lives they touch.

As citizens, we are all complicit in the harm done in our names by those to whom we have given political power. The reputation of our state has suffered enormous harm in this debacle. To paraphrase John’s Gospel, increasingly the rest of the nation wonders, “Can anything good come out of Florida?”

But our teachers deserve better. Our children deserve better. And when our citizens exercise our responsibilities, we will deserve better. Now is the time to do better.



 Harry Scott Coverston 

   Orlando, Florida

  If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding. Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.

  Those who believe religion and politics aren't connected don't understand either. – Mahatma Gandhi

  For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d?  - Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures

  Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it. - Rabbi Rami Shapiro, Wisdom of the Jewish Sages (1993)

  © Harry Coverston, 2022