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From damnation to salvation.

Political rallies in the nation's capital are often defined by fiery rhetoric and fervent calls to action. But the massive Promise Keepers gathering last October on the Mall in Washington, D.C., was remarkable as much for what wasn't said from the podium as for what was.

The procession of speakers made no mention of homosexuality, which had been a preoccupation of Bill McCartney, founder of the evangelical men's group. The former University of Colorado football coach rose to prominence during the campaign for Amendment 2, Colorado's antigay ballot measure, when he announced to one and all that homosexuality is an "abomination of Almighty God." The D.C. rally was dominated instead by entreaties for religious redemption and submission to God's will.

Call it the "kinder, gentler" religious right. As 1997 draws to a close, conservative Christians, hoping to broaden their support beyond a core group of die-hard activists, have adopted a more conciliatory approach toward gay men and lesbians. Fire-and-brimstone rhetoric and statewide antigay campaigns have been, at least for the time being, eclipsed by offers to minister to gays and to "convert" them to heterosexuality.

"The Right definitely seems to be scaling back the worst of the antigay rhetoric we have witnessed in recent years," says Donna Red Wing, national field director for the Human Rights Campaign, a Washington, D.C.-based gay rights lobby. "Gay people are being embraced as children of God who have gone astray. It then falls on the religious right to redeem them."

Beneath the surface rhetoric, of course, the religious right continues to lobby vociferously against gay rights causes, including same-sex marriage and federal legislation that would outlaw discrimination against gays in employment. And in post-rally interviews McCartney has made it clear that while gay men are as welcome in the Promise Keepers as anyone else, "the sin of homosexuality cannot be excused."

"Basically, leaders of the religious right have learned that you can still take antigay positions but that strident rhetoric doesn't play very well," says Clyde Wilcox, author of the book Onward Christian Soldiers? The Religious Right in American Politics. "To make inroads among moderates, they just have to tone it down. If they can achieve that -- and that's no easy task -- it could take them a long, long way."

For gay activists, the religious right's new direction cuts two ways. "On the one hand they are lowering the volume on the hateful rhetoric, which is good," says the Rev. Mel White, minister of justice for the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches, a predominantly gay denomination. "That's progress. But on the other hand it is simply a more sophisticated way to undermine what we are doing, only lovingly."

During his travels around the country in the past year, White, a well-known former ghostwriter for televangelist Pat Robertson and the Rev. Jerry Falwell, was confronted repeatedly by members of Exodus, a religious group that counsels gay men and lesbians to surrender their sexual identity. "They are very effective at what they do," he says. "They seek out gay people who are vulnerable to charges that God does not love gay people. They bombard them with negative messages about homosexuality. A lot of gay people would be surprised by the number of folks who leave their same-sex lovers to join these groups."

The softer tone has been echoed in some unlikely places. Before his June departure as executive director of the Christian Coalition, Ralph Reed spoke critically of harsh language aimed at gay men and lesbians. And in a letter to HRC, Reed, who is now a political consultant, denounced the bombing of a gay nightclub in Atlanta.

Not everyone in the religious right was receptive to Reed's appeals. "It has never been fully explained why Reed left the Christian Coalition," says Robert Boston, a spokesman for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a group that monitors right-wing organizations. "Some people think he wanted to get out of [Christian Coalition founder] Pat Robertson's shadow. Others say that Robertson found him too soft and liberal."

Less than a year into the tenure of the Christian Coalition's new leadership, with former Reagan administration secretary of the Interior Donald Hodel serving as president, the organization's direction remains unclear. "Gay rights is now about third on its list of priorities, behind education and abortion," says Boston. "The attempt to use gay rights as the bogeyman is not really going anywhere. At this point it's more of a fund-raising ploy than a real threat. "

The power vacuum left by Reed's departure may be filled by the Family Research Council, a religious-right group based in Washington, D.C. The group's president, Gary Bauer, has argued that Reed's strategy risked alienating the movement's rank and file, who view opposition to homosexuality as a higher priority. Peter LaBarbera, the longtime editor of the antigay newsletter "Lambda Report," was hired as a consultant by the group in November.

Yet even FRC appears to be moderating its rhetoric. In a November 10 statement, the group denounced Fred Phelps, the Baptist minister who holds demonstrations at which he brandishes signs declaring GOD HATES FAGS. "We regret that Mr. Phelps has offered the media a crude caricature of Christian resistance to the homosexual agenda," Robert Knight, a spokesman for the group, said in a statement. "While we share [his] opposition to homosexual activism, we believe that homosexual individuals deserve compassion and are capable of hope, healing, and salvation."

Still, it is unclear whether such strategic internecine criticism will have much impact on the tone of grassroots antigay crusaders like Phelps. In Maine, for instance, despite cautions from Reed, the state chapter of the Christian Coalition is sponsoring a drive to repeal a state gay rights law, and caustic moral rhetoric has remained the order of the day. A vote on the ballot measure is scheduled for February 10.

Even if the image of antigay organizing has changed at the national level, the substance often remains the same. Boston says that by distancing FRC from Phelps, Bauer is merely attempting to bring his group the sheen of mainstream respectability. "It's not good for an established group with a big budget and a new office in Washington to be associated with the dregs of the religious right, the bottom feeders," he says. "The scurrilous attacks and wild charges of Phelps hurt the group's image as an emerging political player."

The lack of unanimity among members of the religious right could present an opening for gay activists. But they have work to do if they are to take advantage of that, says Meg Riley, director of the Washington, D.C., office of the Unitarian Universalist Association, a liberal religious body. "Gay activists and their allies must do a better job organizing within less-conservative denominations and tailoring their arguments to the majority of Americans who consider themselves believers," Riley says.

"If the opposition appears more sympathetic than you do, you are lost," she adds. "For years gay rights supporters have had the edge because they looked kind, while the Right looked mean, telling gay people that they were going to hell. Now we are faced with a far more sophisticated foe. We're going to have to be more subtle in our response to them. The question is whether we are up to the challenge."
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Title Annotation:religious right and homosexuality in 1997
Author:Bull, Chris
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Date:Jan 20, 1998
Words:1219
Previous Article:Adopting a family: court decisions and perseverance opened the doors more than ever in 1997 for gays looking to be parents.
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