Last month, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst objected to a play subsequently canceled by a professor, citing security concerns, at Tarleton State University in Stephenville, 70 miles southwest of Fort Worth.
Dewhurst said in a March 26 press release: "Every citizen is entitled to the freedom of speech, but no one should have the right to use government funds or institutions to portray acts that are morally reprehensible to the vast majority of Americans."
Reprehensible acts dramatized at a state-supported university?
In support of Dewhurst’s statement that the acts presented are "morally reprehensible to the vast majority of Americans," Dewhurst spokesman Rich Parsons pointed to an aggregate of Gallup Polls taken in 2008 indicating that 77 percent of Americans consider themselves Christians compared with 91 percent when Gallup began tracking religious identification in 1948.
When we asked what acts the lieutenant governor was referring to in the play "Corpus Christi" by Terrence McNally, Parsons didn’t specify them. Parsons said in an e-mail that Dewhurst generally supports artistic expression "but he would also never support the denigration of any American’s religion."
So what are the play’s offensive acts?
Tarleton State University declined to provide a copy of the abridged version of the play that students in a directing class planned to present. We checked out a copy from the Austin Public Library.
The play depicts the life and death of a gay Jesus-like figure, Joshua, and his conversations with his homosexual disciples. The protagonist is born in a Corpus Christi hotel room. As an adult, Joshua wanders the desert, performs miracles and also officiates over a gay wedding; there's male-on-male kissing too and moments suggestive of sex such as a beach blanket scene and sounds of heterosexual coupling. Toward the end, Joshua has a last supper with followers before being betrayed by a friend named Judas. He is crucified.
The play drew protests when it made its New York premiere in 1998, though Time magazine critic Richard Zoglin wrote: "Years from now, when the brouhaha is past, Corpus Christi may get its due as one of McNally's best, most moving and personal works. His updating of the Christ story is witty but not patronizing, as sober and cleansing as a dip in baptismal water."
Mark Holtorf, the Tarleton State theater professor whose students had planned a single performance of the play, said he interprets the drama as a commentary on what it was like to grow up gay in Corpus Christi in the 1950's. Referring to McNally, who grew up there, Holtorf said: "In a way, it’s somewhat autobiographical. I walked away from the play having a much better understanding of what this poor guy must have gone through."
Holtorf said the version that was to be performed had women filling eight of 13 roles because of the preponderance of female drama students. He said the only use of government funds would have been the cost of class time devoted to the play and utilities associated with a campus building; tuition-paying students also paid about $200 out of pocket for permission to perform the play and to receive scripts.
Parsons, of Dewhurst’s office, pointed us to reports on objections to the Tarleton State production. An article posted by Catholic Online calls the play "blasphemous," quoting a leader of the American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property saying: "With this play Tarleton State University is offending the honor of Our Lord, the Apostles, and 68 million Catholics. What makes it even worse is the fact that it’s taking place right before Holy Week." The play was scheduled for the Saturday before Palm Sunday.
Another Catholic Online article quotes Catholic League President Bill Donohue calling the play "hate speech directed at Christians and (as) far more than just a ‘gay Jesus’ play."
Short of Dewhurst revealing what acts in the play he believes most Americans consider morally reprehensible, we'll assume he's referring to the provocative element that suffuses the play—depiction of a Jesus-like figure and his acolytes as gay men.
We found no polling on such specifics. But the non-partisan American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, a think tank with conservative roots, recently updated a compilation of national polls that suggests adults are divided in their views of homosexuality, though attitudes have relaxed over time.
In 2006, 56 percent of respondents said sexual relations between two adults of the same sex are always wrong with another 5 percent saying they almost always are wrong. The institute, quoting the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, says that in 1973, 73 percent of adults said such relations were always wrong with 7 percent saying they're almost always wrong.
In a May 2007 Gallup poll, 55 percent of Americans said that homosexual relations between consenting adults should be legal, up from 32 percent in 1986, according to the institute. In 2008, a Gallup poll found 48 percent of Americans saying homosexual relations are morally acceptable and 48 percent saying they’re morally wrong, the institute said. In May 2008, a Gallup poll found 57 percent of Americans saying they feel homosexuality should be considered an acceptable alternative lifestyle; 40 percent said not.
Among adults who attend church weekly, 79 percent considered sexual relations between two adults of the same sex always wrong in 2002—compared to 46 percent of respondents who attended church once a month or less, according to the institute.
Daron Shaw, a University of Texas professor of government and the polling director for UT's Texas Politics Project, cautioned against assuming that widened tolerance of gay lifestyles means Americans would be comfortable with presenting a play at a public university that depicts a Jesus-like figure as gay. In Texas, Shaw speculated, 80-plus percent of residents would object.
"Close to 50 percent of Texans identify themselves as evangelical, fundamentalist, or born again," Shaw said in an email. "Furthermore, if you were to actually poll-test this item, I'd be stunned if there weren't huge majorities who think a play protraying Jesus as gay would be offensive (and probably deeply offensive)."
Where does all this leave Dewhurst’s statement?
Dewhurst accurately recaps the play's intended presentation at a state-supported institution, though the use of government funds would have been minimal.
While he doesn't share what "morally reprehensible" acts he believes most Americans abhor, we assume he's upset at the play's gay aspect.
Polls indicate that a large percentage of Texans see themselves as religious. And most frequent church-goers consider gay sex morally wrong.
Yet that's not the "vast majority of Americans," as Dewhurst put it. Americans in general are split on whether gay relations are immoral; it's unmeasured how they'd rate unspecified acts in a play.
We rate Dewhurst's statement as Barely True -- granting that this could change should Dewhurst identify the acts he considers reprehensible.
Editor's note: This statement was rated Barely True when it was published. On July 27, 2011, we changed the name for the rating to Mostly False.