Southern Baptists and other fundamentalist churches love to hold periodic revivals in which they invite a traveling evangelist to deliver fire-and-brimstone admonitions to their congregants.
It was my misfortune several years ago to attend one such revival at a rural Baptist church just outside a small town in central Kentucky.
The visiting preacher promised that he was going to speak on the great evils of the world and, naturally, I thought, OK, he's going to deal with rape, murder, war or other such similar outrages. But was I ever wrong.
The first great "evil" he mentioned was homosexuality, and my first thought was that somewhere in that gathering was at least one and probably more young person questioning his or her sexuality who had just been told he or she was evil, which struck me as the worst evil of all.
Sometime before that, I had received a letter from an Air Force sergeant in response to a column I had written on gay rights. He described himself and his wife as "good Christians" and said they had disowned their only daughter after she told them she was a lesbian.
"As far as we're concerned, she is dead," he wrote.
Those kinds of sorrowful stories always come to mind when we find ourselves in the midst of yet another argument over whether gays should be allowed to marry, a question taken up this week by the U.S. Supreme Court and stemming in part from California's Proposition 8 ban on same-sex marriage.
A recent poll by the Pew Research Center found that the country's views on gay marriage have become more favorable in large part because of a shift in attitudes among younger adults and a growing tolerance by older adults and by those who know someone who is gay.
Just this month, U.S. Sen. Rob Portman, an Ohio Republican who has been stridently anti-gay in his campaign rhetoric, said he had undergone a change of heart because his 21-year-old son, Will, is gay. Portman's shame remains that it took him so long to come to that conclusion.
But the obsession that those on the Christian and political right seem to have with homosexuality continues unabated and has always struck me as unhealthy to the point of weirdness. If they are truly concerned about family values and what they call "traditional marriage," then it seems to be there are other issues more deserving of their attention.
Yet their leaders continue to play the politics of fear and continue to cherry pick the Bible for passages to defend and rationalize their homophobia. Some of the more reactionary among them will proclaim that God hates gays or that Jesus condemned homosexuality. The fact is that Jesus not only never spoke about homosexuality but condemned those who condemned others.
"Do not judge, so that you may not be judged," he declares in Matthew, Chapter 7.
Furthermore, I have yet to see how two gay people in a loving relationship and forming a family unit is any kind of threat to heterosexual marriage or traditional family values as defined by those on the right. The energy of the anti-gay crowd would be better spent dealing with divorce, adultery, domestic violence, child abuse and other such problems.
That same evangelist I heard in Kentucky also trotted out one of the Christian right's favorite lines. "We love the sinner but hate the sin." That may be the ultimate in arrogance and self-righteousness. Declaring someone as "evil" and somehow unworthy of God's favor does not strike me as a loving message.
After hearing oral arguments, the US Supreme Court will issue its ruling sometime in the next few months. The conventional wisdom is that there will be a 4-4 split between the liberal and conservative factions on the court, leaving the deciding vote to Sacramento's own Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy.
But no matter what the eventual decision, it is unlikely that will end the debate.
The court's landmark Roe v. Wade decision 40 years ago, which guaranteed a woman's right to abortion, has not ended the conversation on that issue. Nor will the court's ruling on gay marriage bring any kind of closure to that issue.
Those who are rigidly anti-gay seem unmoved by reason or logic, have gut-level beliefs and fears pounded into them from the pulpit and talk radio, and are not likely to be dissuaded from giving up their fight. No doubt their ideal solution would be for all gays to return to the closet and stay there.
William Endicott is a former deputy managing editor for The Sacramento Bee.