BY DUNCAN OSBORNE | In late 2007, four gay groups wrote to six mega-churches seeking to “share the message that justice for LGBT people is compatible with Christian teaching,” the groups said in a statement.
Dubbed an “American Family Outing,” the groups hope to hold potluck dinners, picnics, and have “soulful talk” with the mega-chu rches that collectively count their members in the tens of thousands.
“Our families seek first to understand, and then to be understood, as we break bread and converse with families and leaders at each church,” Jeff Lutes, executive director of Soulforce, one of the gay groups, said in a statement. “It is our sincere hope that the American Family Outing can be a healing step toward reconciliation.”
Then the Family Research Council (FRC), a right-wing lobbying group, learned of the effort. In a fundraising appeal, Tony Perkins, FRC's president, wrote, “Their goals are simple and insidious: to intimidate these large churches and, by extension, the wider population of conservative Christians.”
Perkins posited that the effort was secretive and part of a carefully orchestrated plan.
“A trained lesbian activist couple will discreetly attend a church without making their relationship obvious,” he wrote. “Then once they've gotten to know the basic routine, that's when they strike: They'll demand that the pastor dedicate 'their child' during a Sunday morning worship service or that they be allowed to 'marry' in the sanctuary… When the pastor refuses, the couple will call the media or lawyers or both. Public demonstrations begin, and dangerous propaganda floods the congregation.”
Almost at the same time, Peter S. Sprigg, FRC's vice president for policy, said in an interview with a student journalist from Northwestern University that “I would much prefer to export homosexuals from the United States than to import them into the United States because we believe homosexuality is destructive to society.”
Less than a week later, Sprigg, who declined to comment to Gay City News, apologized for the comment on FRC's web site.
“In response to a question regarding bi-national same-sex couples who are separated by an international border, I used language that trivialized the seriousness of the issue and did not communicate respect for the essential dignity of every human being as a person created in the image of God,” he wrote. “I apologize for speaking in a way that did not reflect the standards which the Family Research Council and I embrace.”
When they talk among themselves, as with the FRC fundraising appeal, right-wingers continue to use harsh anti-gay rhetoric, but increasingly it appears that when they use that same rhetoric in front of the wider public, it is rejected.
Indeed, the six mega-churches – Houston's Lakewood Church, the Potter's House in Dallas, California's Saddleback Church, the Hope Christian Church in Maryland, the New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Georgia, and the Willow Creek Community Church in Illinois – embrace the biblical condemnation of homosexuality, with varying intensity, but they have generally avoided becoming identified with divisive social issues.
The heated anti-gay language is no longer acceptable to many Americans.”They are falling under the category bigot,” said George Lakoff, a professor of linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley and the author of the 1996 book “Moral Politics” which explored conservative rhetoric.
“If you're under the category bigot, you're not only bigoted against gays, you're bigoted against all minorities. You're not only a bad person, you're anti-American.”
Mark A. Smith, a professor of political science at the University of Washington who has also studied conservative rhetoric, said this has been developing for some time.
“If you look at trends in the public perception of homosexuality there have been large movements in the past 15 years,” Smith said. “It has been in the direction of more liberal views… Privately, you can still do your gay-baiting. Publicly, you can't do that anymore.”
Smith noted that in 2007, General Peter Pace, then the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had to back off comments in which he said that homosexuality was “immoral” and that justified the military's Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy.
This is not to say that most Americans support the political goals of the lesbian and gay community. Many Americans might agree with FRC's positions on homosexuality.
“I think a lot of those policy positions are still acceptable to the American public, but intolerant attitudes are not acceptable to most Americans,” Smith said. “I wouldn't overstate the tolerance of the American public.”
Right-wing groups continue to use anti-gay rhetoric because it is an effective fundraising and organizing tool among true believers.
Such appeals first describe a “vital social problem that is wrecking our culture, wrecking our world,” said Pam Chamberlain, a research analyst at Political Research Associates, a Boston-based think tank that studies the US political right. They offer a solution and, finally, they ask for money.
“It's also designed to bring people into a mobilizing effort so that they feel part of something that is very important,” Chamberlain said.
Of the four gay groups looking for dialogue with the mega-churches – Soulforce, the National Black Justice Coalition, Children of Lesbians and Gays Everywhere (COLAGE), and the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches – FRC mentioned only COLAGE in the letter, presumably because it was the only group with gay and lesbian in its name, said Beth Teper, COLAGE's executive director.
Gay men and lesbians are angered and offended by the rhetoric, but they also cannot even begin to recognize the vast queer conspiracy secretly advancing on Western civilization that is found in the right-wing letters and speeches.
“It makes me wonder where they are getting their information from,” Teper said. “It makes me sad that they are resorting to misleading people to support their own agenda.”