When a sponge cartoon meets a spiritual crusade

Every couple of years, something else that evangelical Christians and the LGBT community have in common shows up on the national radar. It’s already a formidable list: a sense of persecution, a fondness for gospel divas (gay men and black evangelicals) and earnest acoustic rock (lesbians and white evangelicals), an over-representation in Republican policy circles. As of last week, some will add SpongeBob SquarePants.

It takes a deeply suspicious reader of popular culture to watch SpongeBob and Patrick hold hands and conclude that they’re the gayest couple under the sea. The asexuality of actual sponges and starfish aside, the characters strike me as too childlike to be sexual.But many gay Americans, like their counterparts under the evangelical umbrella, are just such readers, always scanning the cultural landscape in search of their own. Lesbians speculating about Carmen Sandiego’s sexuality and youth group kids wondering about Linkin Park’s spiritual history are engaged in basically the same activity. Both have been trained to think in code. The closet imposes such secondary signals. So does mainstream radio, which only plays Christian bands who leave their faith rooted in metaphor.

The result is that both subcultures practice what my professors call a “hermeneutic of suspicion,” an assumption that the real meaning of a text is probably hidden. Yalies will know Freud’s hermeneutic of suspicion. An example: The director of Concerned Women for America has an office directly overlooking the Washington Monument. On its surface, that statement is rather innocuous, but many readers of this newspaper will, like me, find it hilarious. The joke nevertheless requires a couple of different hermeneutics of suspicion at once: one to turn the Monument into the great American phallus, and one to name CWA as the ladies’ auxiliary of the patriarchy.

The twist that gets us to the evening news, however, comes with the differing worldviews underlying these suspicions. The New Testament portrays the cosmos as a spiritual battleground. Christians, the book of Ephesians teaches, are at war — and not against obvious physical enemies, but against spiritual powers, which appear in our realm only in disguise. Evangelicals are therefore always on the lookout for their friends and enemies. Queer people, on the other hand, are just looking for other queer people. Their enemies seldom feel any need to hide.

It is in this context that we must place Dr. James Dobson’s work. At his Colorado Springs-based media company, Focus on the Family, he works to strengthen what he sees as a New Testament vision of the family and to expose those who would undermine that vision’s authority by treating all families as created equal. In particular, he identifies the state and the mass media as vectors for spiritual threats and so treats their collaborations with suspicion. Liberals ought be forgiving: In the Bush age, they have sounded similar themes.

So it was entirely unremarkable to Dobson-watchers when he denounced a video intended for public elementary schools, showing various cartoon characters singing “We Are Family,” with a message of tolerance for all kinds of people and families. It combined three of his usual triggers: children’s television, the public schools and disregard for the New Testament’s reworking of Hebrew and Roman family law.

But when he singled out SpongeBob from the video’s characters, he ran unwittingly into trouble. In 2002, several news outlets had carried stories about gay men who believed SpongeBob was one of them. When those outlets covered Dobson’s denunciation of the video, they often included a reference to that earlier story. So it looked as though Dobson had, in fact, concluded that SpongeBob was gay and was denouncing him for that reason.

Christians periodically come into the business of denunciation. When Dr. Martin Luther King stood up to Bull Connor’s tyranny and Jerry Falwell called Tinky Winky anti-family, both were claiming a prophetic mantle. I happen to find the former inspiring and the latter embarrassing, but they share a common structure. The prophet identifies a spiritual enemy (racism, “the radical homosexual agenda”) and denounces its earthly outcroppings (segregation, a video featuring SpongeBob).

Denunciations make good television, especially when they involve television characters with lots of footage already on file. And when every step in the argument is right, they can produce irreplaceable public and religious goods. When the identified spiritual evil is actually an evil, an embodied denunciation will bring that truth out. The peaceful Birmingham marches brought out the hoses and the dogs; and America’s heart was changed, or so the elders tell us.

The danger is that you might denounce an innocent. That is always the danger of suspicion: If it is not so absolute as to admit no innocents, then it may be turned on one. In this case, Dobson’s and the gay community’s suspicions were aimed at targets similar enough that television reporters couldn’t tell the difference. SpongeBob, a sublime innocent, looked like Dobson’s target. And it was Dobson, not SpongeBob or the video, who came off looking the worse for the exchange.

Dobson blames the media’s malice for his notoriety. The claim is plausible; he attacks them enough. But I would hesitate to call him an innocent. It’s a dangerous world out there, and he knows it. If he’s been injured, he’d best see to his holy armor. Which piece did Dr. King, who was not hurt by dogs or hoses, have that Dobson does not? I suggest what Ephesians calls the girding of his loins — that is, the truth.



Christopher Ashley is a senior in Silliman College. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.

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