Years ago, I debated Dinesh D’Souza.
This was long before President Donald Trump issued a presidential pardon for the conservative filmmaker, pundit and provocateur. In fact, it was much earlier than D’Souza’s conviction for election fraud or his forced departure as president of the Christian liberal arts college The King’s College because of an extramarital dalliance.
My encounter with D’Souza came in the late 1990s. It was at an Indianapolis high school.
He was on the speakers’ circuit. I was the executive director of what is now the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana.
We shared a stage not long after two thugs kidnapped, pistol-whipped and tortured Matthew Shepard, then left him to die tied to a fencepost in Wyoming. Shepard fell into a coma. He died six days later.
The young men who attacked him beat Shepard to death because he was gay.
My opening statement focused on Shepard’s murder.
I’d studied D’Souza, whose devotion to Christian apologetics seemed devoted exclusively to reconciling Jesus’s teaching with far-right and often racist and homophobic talking points. It seemed a fair bet that, given an opportunity, D’Souza would try to argue that Christ would condone murder if the victim was a person D’Souza disparaged.
That’s pretty much what D’Souza did.
The parallels between the figure nailed to the cross and the young man tied to the fencepost were lost on him.
He started with a pro forma denunciation of the thugs who did the killing, but then couldn’t help himself. He said incidents like this were a product of a culture that was too permissive, particularly in sexual matters.
Thus began our joust.
He argued that it was too bad Shepard had been killed, but “lifestyles” such as his were an affront to decent people. People had a right to be offended.
I contended that a great deal of research demonstrated sexual orientation was a condition of birth, not social conditioning – a matter of nature rather than nurture – but, even if that weren’t true, didn’t people have a right to make their own choices? And, if D’Souza was going to condemn Shepard’s supposed sexual laxity, shouldn’t he also condemn a bigotry that led to murder with equal fervor?
D’Souza responded by saying that I was trying to make legitimate concerns about a gay lifestyle sound like an unreasoning prejudice. I was trying to make it sound, he said, as if people such as him were opposed to left-handed people simply because they were left-handed.
When I pointed that, earlier in history, there was a prejudice against left-handedness as a sign of the devil’s influence – the English word “sinister” is derived from the Latin word for left-handed – D’Souza was flummoxed.
He grew frustrated.
At one point, he said to the auditorium full of high school students, “Enough with the gays, already.”
The students didn’t oblige him.
They asked question after question about Shepard’s death and issues of equal rights for gay citizens. They pushed him hard on the central contradiction in his thinking – given that he styled himself as an advocate for personal freedom unrestrained by government influence, shouldn’t that freedom also apply to people who disagreed with him?
His answer was tortured. In short, he argued that people had a right to their own beliefs, so long as those beliefs squared with his.
That just fired up the students even more.
D’Souza didn’t cope well with the students’ ongoing queries.
He tried telling jokes, but it’s hard to be funny when the subject is a gruesome murder. He tried, again and again, to change the subject, but that didn’t work, either.
Then the hour ended.
I came away from the episode with the impression that D’Souza’s commitment to his beliefs was absolute, but that the thought that went into supporting those beliefs was maybe a millimeter deep. He was not a man given to reflection and reevaluation.
Now, Dinesh D’Souza is back in the news, recipient of a fresh pardon from a president who dismisses all facts contradicting his assertions as “fake news” and who thinks study, research and analysis are for sissies.
Somehow, the fact that these two – the pardoned felon and the president at war with knowledge and truth – found each other isn’t a surprise.
They’re made for each other.
John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 Indianapolis and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.