LGBTQ Equality

The Religious Right’s Gay Agenda

  Rob Boston

This article was originally published as the feature story in the October 1999 issue of Church & State.

The Rev. Jerry Falwell is not one to mince words when it comes to gay people.

Writing to supporters recently, Falwell thundered, “[T]hese perverted homosexuals…absolutely hate everything that you and I and most decent, God-fearing citizens stand for…Make no mistake. These deviants seek no less than total control and influence in society, politics, our schools and in our exercise of free speech and religious freedom….If we do not act now, homosexuals will own America!”

Across the country in Colorado Springs, James C. Dobson, founder and president of Focus on the Family, also fulminates about gay people and their influence on America. While some might suggest building bridges to the gay community, Dobson told supporters in a June 1998 letter that that is not possible. It can’t happen, he warned, because the Bible specifically prohibits homosexual acts. The aggressive posture frequently assumed by gay groups makes the job all the more difficult, he wrote.

Beware the Gay Lifestyle

“We believe their ideas are dangerous to society at large and to the family in particular,” Dobson wrote. “Nevertheless, their advocates seem to be everywhere at once. The gay lifestyle is aggressively promoted throughout our culture, especially in television sitcoms, Hollywood movies and on university campuses. Yet there is scarcely a politician or national leader anywhere who has the courage to oppose it. I suspect that many pastors and priests also avoid the subject because of the intimidation factor that has become so pervasive in recent years. It is one subject most influential people are afraid to address, unless, of course, they are echoing pro-homosexual rhetoric.”

Back in Virginia, Martin Mawyer, who runs a small Religious Right outfit called Christian Action Network (CAN), takes anti-gay rhetoric to new extremes. In a letter mailed in January of 1998, Mawyer blasted the 1997 ABC television sitcom “Ellen,” which featured a lesbian as the lead character, Mawyer accused the show’s star, comedian Ellen Degeneres, who is gay in real life, of “DUMP[ING] HER FILTHY LESBIAN LIFESTYLE RIGHT IN THE CENTER OF YOUR LIVING ROOM!! IT’S THE FIRST TIME IN THE HISTORY OF NETWORK TV THAT THE LEAD CHARACTER IS A SODOMITE!”

Criticism of homosexuals is a strategy that Falwell, Dobson’s FOF, the Family Research Council, Concerned Women for America and other Religious Right organizations return to time and time again. At the same time Dobson was blasting gay influences in society, CWA’s Beverly LaHaye, for example, was accusing “radical homosexuals” of “forcing you and every other American citizen to gradually accept their lifestyle.” LaHaye asked recipients of her fund-raising letter to complete a “National Survey on Homosexual Rights” and send it back to her with a contribution “before homosexuals completely win the cultural war and our families have lost.”

Condemning Gay People

None of this is exactly new. Shrill condemnations of gay people have been a standard Religious Right tactic for years–at least since the late 1970s when singer Anita Bryant launched an anti-gay crusade that ushered in the modern era of Religious Right gay bashing. But lately the Religious Right’s attacks on gays and lesbians seem to have increased in both frequency and severity. What’s going on?

A series of complex, and sometimes interrelated, factors may be at work. Since the mid-1970s, gay activists have been increasingly vocal about securing their civil rights. As more gays came “out of the closet,” they also made themselves more visible targets for the wrath of Religious Right groups.

The new development is that public opinion polls are starting to show that American attitudes toward homosexuality are changing, with solid majorities–even among self-described fundamentalist Christians–now saying they oppose overt discrimination toward gay people. While Americans remain deeply divided over issues like gay marriage and adoption of children and acknowledge that religious groups have diverse views on homosexuality, increasing numbers Americans are adopting more tolerant views toward gays overall–a development that has alarmed the Religious Right.

Pop Culture

Equally distressing to the Religious Right is the emergence of a vibrant gay pop culture that sometimes intersects or overlaps with the larger popular culture. Homosexual characters, once taboo in television shows and movies, are becoming more visible. In 1997, when the character on “Ellen” came out as a lesbian, it infuriated the Religious Right but failed to shock the rest of America. The show, which was later cancelled due to poor ratings, marked the first time a network sitcom had a gay lead character.

All of this has occurred at a time when Religious Right organizations have been on the prowl for new enemies and scapegoats as they seek to raise funds and capture headlines. Gay rights activists seemed a natural choice.

No one questions the right of religious denominations and religious groups to take stands on issues such as homosexuality. However, many observers are troubled when a religiously based political movement such as the Religious Right tries to demonize gay people through its public rhetoric.

Gay Agents of Satan

While many fundamentalist Christians are quick to claim that they–a large, wealthy and influential segment of American society–are persecuted, they don’t seem to mind singling out a much smaller portion of society and targeting it for unrestrained abuse. Religious Right leaders have worked to portray their gay fellow Americans as literal agents of Satan.

Religious Right groups are rarely upfront with Americans about their theocratic goals. Unable to ban all abortions, for example, they sought to prohibit a certain type of late-term abortions, which they call “partial birth” abortion. To some who observe the Religious Right, the movement’s attacks on gays look like another attempt to create a “wedge” issue that will bring it support from Americans normally wary of mixing religion and politics.

For many gay rights activists, dealing with constant attacks from the Religious Right are a part of life. Remarks Jerry Sloan, a gay activist in Sacramento who has monitored the Religious Right for decades, “It’s like everybody in the Religious Right has said, ‘We don’t have the Commies to kick around any more, so let’s go after the gays.'”

Through Project Tocsin, a Religious Right watchdog group that he runs, Sloan has paid special attention to ultra-conservative groups like the Eagle Forum and the Traditional Values Coalition that have sought to influence legislation in California. Recently, he said, he attended a forum in Sacramento held by the Eagle Forum that featured several state senators. Sloan described the event as “just an orgy of gay bashing.”

“This has been an issue since Anita Bryant,” Sloan told Church & State. “Guys like Lou Sheldon [founder of the Traditional Values Coalition] have literally made it a profession, I mean started a family business out of this issue.”

The Homosexual Agenda

Sheldon, who can probably be termed the Religious Right’s godfather of gay-bashing, still cranks out regular fund-raising mail on the issue. Like a lot of Religious Right leaders, he pretends to be protecting children. A recent TVC letter warned about 11 pending pieces of legislation in California that, if passed, would implement the “homosexual agenda.”

“Our little children are being targeted by the homosexuals and liberals who are pushing for this legislation,” wrote Sheldon. “They want our preschool children…. They want our kindergarten children….They want our grade school children….They want our middle school and high school children….To be brainwashed to think that homosexuality is the moral equivalent of heterosexuality. We can’t let that happen.”

Sloan says part of the increasing hostility toward gays shown by Sheldon and other Religious Right leaders may be fallout from recent trends in American business. In the past few years, many companies have launched special advertising aimed at gays and placed ads in gay publications, hoping to tap into a market they perceive as potentially lucrative. This has infuriated Religious Right leaders, since in their view it legitimizes homosexuality.

“As businesses and other institutions start saying, ‘We’re making room for gay employees,’ that will drive the fundamentalist mentality into what I call a remnant mentality,” Sloan said. “They believe, ‘We’re standing here against the tide.’ It puts them in an isolated mindset.”

Some of the more extreme Religious Right groups already seem to have adopted that mindset. In Forest, Va., Mawyer’s CAN pumps out a steady stream of virulently anti-gay mailings, some of which border on the hysterical. Mawyer, a former official with the Rev. Jerry Falwell’s now-defunct Moral Majority, usually refers to gay people as “perverts” in his letters.

Blasting ABC for airing “Ellen,” Mawyer wrote, “You and I know that it [homosexuality] is not normal…it is dirty and dangerous…it is even criminal in a number of states…and it is coming after you and your family! If we allow the tidal wave of gay and lesbian smut to continue to pour into our homes, it will utterly consume us in no time at all!”

Elsewhere Mawyer accused gay people of “molesting innocent children…flaunting their grotesque lifestyle…committing murder and sex crimes more than any other group of people…”

Homosexuality and the Death Penalty

Some of the Religious Right’s anti-gay preaching is even harsher. Leaders of the Christian Reconstructionist movement, which advocates imposing the Old Testament’s legal code on the United States, argue that homosexual acts should merit the death penalty. Such rhetoric may seem limited to obscure theocratic movements, but it can influence the more well known Religious Right groups as well. Several Religious Right organizations, including the Christian Coalition, have promoted and sold Reconstructionist George Grant’s 1993 book Legislating Immorality: The Homosexual Movement Comes Out of the Closet, which says the Bible requires the death penalty for homosexuality.

Many Americans are also familiar with the antics of the Rev. Fred Phelps, of Topeka, Kansas’ Westboro Baptist Church, who frequently marches at gay funerals carrying signs reading “God Hates Fags.”

But the type of over-the-cliff rhetoric employed by Phelps and CAN is the exception among Religious Right leaders these days–indeed, several of them, including Falwell, have denounced Phelps’ tactics. While the larger Religious Right groups may not use language as shrill as Phelps’ they continue to harshly denounce what they call the “gay agenda” and criticize attempts by gay groups to increase tolerance of gays in society.

The Ex-Gay Movement

Many Religious Right leaders have endorsed the so-called “ex-gay” movement, which argues that homosexuality is a chosen behavior and that gay people can become heterosexual if they convert to fundamentalist Christianity.

TV preacher D. James Kennedy is a good example of this approach. Kennedy is clearly obsessed with the so-called “gay agenda” and issues frequent letters to his supporters on this topic. But in those letters Kennedy at least goes through of the motions of saying that he does not hate homosexuals, and he rarely resorts to name calling. Still, Kennedy makes it clear that he sees homosexuality as a threat to America.

Last February Kennedy issued an urgent appeal begging supporters for funds to stop PBS stations from airing a documentary called “It’s Elementary,” which discusses gay tolerance programs being used in a handful of public schools. Kennedy promised to use the money to pressure Congress to take action against PBS and to produce his own video to respond to “It’s Elementary.”

“When they go into schools–and now, if they have their way, directly into homes–and lure children into ACCEPTANCE of homosexuality…they are going TOO FAR,” penned Kennedy. “THIS IS CHILD ABUSE! Here we need to block the tidal wave of immorality and deception. Here we need to call a halt to the recruiting of children for the homosexual lifestyle.”

Kennedy helped the ex-gay ministries gain national attention last year, when his Center for Reclaiming America in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., coordinated a campaign to place full-page ads featuring ex-gays in many newspapers. The Center later tried to air television ads trumpeting the movement, but the gambit met with limited success when many secular stations balked at airing them.

Homosexuality as Choice

Ex-gay ministries play an important role in the Religious Right’s crusade against gay people. According to Religious Right dogma, homosexuality is a matter of personal choice, not biological destiny. The Religious Right argues that if people choose to be gay, then they should not be entitled to anti-discrimination protections. And, Religious Right leaders argue, gays can choose to become heterosexual by adopting fundamentalist Christian beliefs.

Kennedy and his top lieutenant, Janet Folger, who runs the Center for Reclaiming America, say their campaign, called “Truth in Love,” is not designed to be hostile toward homosexuals. But critics note that Folger has backed laws on the books in some states, which are currently rarely enforced, that make homosexual acts crimes punishable by prison terms. (In his book Character & Destiny: A Nation In Search Of Its Soul, Kennedy pines for the days when laws against homosexuality were enforced.)

The ex-gay ministries have also been cash cows for the Religious Right, although there is evidence that some of the money raised through gay bashing has been diverted to other uses. Last month, Wired Strategies, a gay-oriented online news service, reported that Anthony Falzarano, founder of a Religious Right ex-gay front group set up by the Family Research Council, held a press conference in Washington to complain that right-wing organizations had hung him out to dry.

Falzarano, who ran Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays (P-FOX), singled out FRC, the Christian Coalition and Kennedy’s Center for Reclaiming America by name. “[We] did that very successful newspaper campaign last year…The Christian Coalition did not send us a dime,” he said. “D. James Kennedy did not send us a dime. All we’re asking for is possibly some money to pay for postage stamps.”

Falzarano charged that Kennedy had raised more than $4 million on the ex-gay campaign, but said P-FOX got none of it.

Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin

The Religious Right’s constant need for money all but guarantees a steady stream of anti-gay rhetoric. Thus, Kennedy, Dobson and other Religious Right leaders, who refrain from using words like “pervert” and often speak of loving homosexuals while hating their sin, may claim to have a kinder and gentler attitude toward gays–all while continuing to incite their members’ fears to raise funds.

Many gay activists are not impressed by some Religious Right leaders’ claims of “love the sinner, hate the sin.”

“These letters create a vicious atmosphere,” says Wayne Besen, associate director of communications for the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), a leading gay rights group in Washington. “We all know about Matthew Shepard [a young gay man who was beaten to death in Wyoming last year]. The Religious Right has created a climate of fear, and one of the ways they do that is through their direct-mail campaigns. They keep ratcheting up the rhetoric. They will do what it takes to fill their coffers. Unfortunately, it’s also filling coffins.”

Besen, who tracks the Religious Right for HRC, adds, “Religious Right fund-raising mail has always been anti-gay. I think they go through cycles on this. I don’t think the attacks on gay people are going to stop until the money stops coming in from these fund-raising letters. There are a whole lot of things they could rail about, but they’ve zeroed in on this one issue. It’s easy to scare people who don’t know any gay people.”

Oddly enough, the Christian Coalition, the nation’s leading Religious Right organization, doesn’t base many of its fund-raising appeals on attacks on gay people. In a 1998 “State of the Family Survey,” Randy Tate, then the Coalition’s executive director, warned about “the militant Homosexual Lobby,” which, he claimed, has “declared open war against the traditional family.” But more recent CC appeals have focused primarily on the group’s efforts to build a church-based political machine. However, the group obviously knows that homosexuality is a hot-button issue for its members and nearly always includes some question related to the issue on its “voter guides.”

Pat Robinson and the Christian Coalition

Also, it’s clear that TV preacher Pat Robertson, founder and president of the Christian Coalition, is a relentless enemy of gay people and gay rights. Robertson blasts homosexuals frequently on his “700 Club” television show, and during one memorable episode that aired on March 7, 1990, called homosexuality “a pathology. It is a sickness, and it needs to be treated.” On the same program Robertson claimed, “Many of those people involved with Adolf Hitler were Satanists, many of them were homosexuals. The two things seem to go together.” A pamphlet distributed by Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network goes as far as to assert that homosexuality may be caused by demon possession.

In June of 1998 Robertson asserted on the “700 Club” that the city of Orlando’s decision to allow a local group to fly rainbow flags from light poles during “Gay Days,” a privately sponsored event at Disney World, could lead to an outbreak of divine wrath, including “terrorist bombs…earthquakes, tornadoes and possibly a meteor….”

Robertson insisted his televised Orlando screed was not designed to stir up hatred of gay people, but his words seem to have had that effect on one local viewer. On June 8, just four days after Robertson’s anti-gay tirade, Orlando police arrested a 19-year-old city resident and accused him of ripping down dozens of the rainbow flags and tossing them in a lake. The suspect, Brendan Shawn McGarity, became infuriated about the flags–a widely used symbol of gay pride–after seeing Robertson’s broadcast, his 15-year-old sister told The Orlando Sentinel.

More recently, Robertson went on a verbal rampage against gays in Scotland last October after gay groups joined clergy, academics and others in an ultimately successful drive to pressure the Bank of Scotland to drop out of a business deal with the TV preacher. Robertson called Scotland “a rather dark land” and added, “In Scotland, you can’t believe how strong the homosexuals are. It’s just simply unbelievable….It could go right back to the darkness very easily.”

Gay groups point out that scapegoating like this can only inflame hatred of gays and lesbians. Nevertheless, the leaders of the nation’s Religious Right organizations get angry when anti-gay violence is laid at their doorsteps. After the murder of Shepard, for example, several Religious Right leaders heatedly denied that their words bore any responsibility for violence against gays.

“The Religious Right wants to have it both ways,” observes Sloan. “They don’t want to take responsibility for what their rhetoric generates. They put out all of these position papers and fund-raising letters, but when people bash and kill gays they say, ‘Oh no, that’s not our fault.’ They don’t understand that their rhetoric generates this violence. They can’t have it both ways. Their rhetoric obviously affects some people.”

The Culture War

Are Religious Right groups and gay people destined to be eternal enemies? The Religious Right has certainly prepared for war. In October of 1994, a broad cross-section of Religious Right groups met at a secret summit in Colorado to discuss a coordinated effort to combat the “gay agenda.” Representatives from more than 40 groups attended, including Focus on the Family, Concerned Women for America, the Christian Coalition, the Family Research Council, the Traditional Values Coalition, the Eagle Forum and the American Family Association.

During the meeting, FOF’s John Eldridge remarked, “I think the gay agenda–and I would not say this as frankly as I will now in other cultural contexts–I think the gay agenda has all the elements of that which is truly evil. It is deceptive at every turn….It is destroying the souls and the lives of those who embrace it, and it has a corrosive effect on the society which endorses it, either explicitly or even implicitly.”

Religious Right groups have also labored to make opposition to homosexuality and gay rights a litmus test for Republican office seekers. For example, despite the GOP’s frequent proclamations in favor of encouraging local control in government, the Republican Congress, when prodded by the Religious Right, does not hesitate to meddle in local matters that it perceives to be pro-gay.

Congress has in the past year approved measures that would have cut off federal aid to the city of San Francisco because that city requires city contractors to offer “domestic partnership” benefits for gays and approved a budget bill for Washington, D.C., that bans adoption by gay couples. Both votes came at the behest of Religious Right groups.

Religious Right organizations also held up President Bill Clinton’s nomination of James Hormel as ambassador to Luxembourg. Hormel, who is openly gay, got the job only after Clinton did an end-run around Senate approval by appointing Hormel while the Senate was in recess.

Religious Right lobbyists are even blocking congressional action on hate crimes legislation intended to reduce violence against gays. Family Research Council spokeswoman Heather Farish told The Washington Times last year that she thinks the bill is “dangerous.” “Basically, it’s a thought crime–it’s getting into someone’s head,” she said.

With Religious Right opposition to gays so entrenched, it would seem futile for gay activists to try to enter into a dialogue with leaders of the far right. Nevertheless, gay pastor Mel White has decided to try. White, an evangelical Christian who once worked as a ghost writer for Falwell, came out as gay six years ago. This month he plans to take 200 gay rights supporters to Lynchburg to meet with Falwell and 200 of his supporters. White told The New York Times last month that he does not expect Falwell to drop his opposition to homosexuality but does hope he can convince the Lynchburg preacher to tone down his anti-gay rhetoric.

Falwell, known for anti-gay outbursts such as his Tinky Winky-may-be-gay episode, has already made it clear that his theological stance is firm. “I continue to believe that God has given us unmistakable Divine instructions for living–and homosexuality is not a part of it,” said Falwell in a Sept. 3 press release. “The message of God’s word is clear…any sexual activity outside the heterosexual bonds of marriage is–very plainly–sin.” Falwell did promise, however, to “ensure that no rhetoric from any of my ministries has the connotation of condoning aggression toward homosexuals.”

Fundraising through Fear

But some gay activists who track the Religious Right think even that is too much to hope for. They note that Religious Right organizations raise millions annually through caustic attacks on gay people and are unlikely to do anything that might interrupt this lucrative cash stream.

A previous effort by White to convince another Virginia TV preacher, Robertson, to stop engaging in hateful anti-gay rhetoric met with only limited success. In 1995, White, who also worked as a ghost-writer for Robertson, launched a hunger strike in jail after he was imprisoned for trespassing at Christian Broadcasting Network, where he had been unsuccessfully seeking a meeting with the televangelist.

Robertson agreed to confer with White in jail and also dropped the trespassing complaint. Observers noted that for a few weeks after that, Robertson did seem to let up on anti-gay vituperation. He soon returned to it, however.

Sloan, who once attended seminary alongside Falwell, said he finds White’s experiment interesting but doubts it will result in lasting change for the Lynchburg preacher. “There is certainly nothing wrong with sitting down and talking,” he said. “But I don’t see that it changes minds. Falwell has already said that he is always going to believe what he believes about homosexuality. Falwell and his supporters will not agree with modern scholars who show that words in the Bible have been mistranslated. They just won’t believe it. They dismiss it. It shuts down the dialogue. It’s like that old saying, ‘Don’t confuse me with the facts; my mind is made up.'”

HRC’s Besen has similar doubts. While he said he has great respect for White, Besen told Church & State, “He is certainly trying to conquer a larger mountain than has been conquered before. If he can change Jerry Falwell on this, it would be an historic event. But it remains an uphill battle, to say the least.”

Fighting Back

Meanwhile, an umbrella group of more than 40 religious and civil liberties groups has pulled together to find ways to defuse the Religious Right’s attacks on gay people. The organization, calling itself the National Religious Leadership Roundtable, met in Colorado Springs in late August. (An Americans United staffer attended the event.)

The Roundtable ended its session by issuing a statement calling for a meeting with Dobson to discuss the “false and inflammatory rhetoric against homosexuality and homosexuals that regularly flows from Dr. James Dobson and Focus on the Family.” Then group said it wanted to sit down with Dobson so he could “hear our case, and together, to being a process of seeking the truth about homosexuality and homosexuals.”

But Ann Tracy, FOF’s manager of public policy information, said Dobson would not meet with the group. Tracy told the Associated Press that the Roundtable’s letter was harsh and accusatory and said Dobson resented the letter’s charge that his anti-gay remarks lead “directly and indirectly to broken families, to divided churches and to suffering and death for God’s gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people.”

Remarked Tracy, “I challenge them to present any evidence coming out of Focus on the Family that would support charges such as broken families, divided churches and even the death, directly or indirectly, of gays and lesbians.”

What does the future hold? Both Sloan and HRC’s Besen say they don’t expect the Religious Right’s attacks on gays to let up anytime soon. Nevertheless, both are optimistic that, as time passes, more and more Americans will reject hate-mongering.

“Someday these anti-gay people will be somewhat isolated,” says Sloan. “The question is, how does that affect the rest of society? Public policy is eventually swinging our way, but it means more time, more work and more education.”

Besen concurs, “These attacks are a desperate attempt by Religious Right groups to regain power they once had,” he told Church & State. “But despite these conservative times politically, gay people are still advancing, and people are becoming more comfortable. More gay people are coming out each day. There is a long way to go, but I think if we look back, there’s a lot to be optimistic about. The Religious Right’s attacks on gays will end at some point, but until they do, these groups will continue to use them to try to fill their coffers. In the end, that’s what they’re really all about.”

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