The wrong year for the Right – religious right – includes related article
The religious right started the year in triumph. It was downhill after that
Gary Bauer is a zealous campaigner against gay men and lesbians. From his perch as domestic-policy adviser to President Reagan in 1987 and 1988 to his current post as president of the Family Research Council, one of the nation’s most powerful religious-right groups, he has fought AIDS funding, called gay activists “jack-booted thugs” and “perverts on parade,” and employed a full-time research team dedicated to disseminating virulent antigay propaganda through special reports and fund-raising letters.
But for most of October and November, at least, Bauer and his conservative allies were reduced to a far more defensive–and conciliatory–posture. In the aftermath of Matthew Shepard’s crucifixion-style slaying, the Christian right tried feverishly to deflect charges that years of antigay rhetoric, culminating in this summer’s “ex-gay” advertising campaign, had created a hostile atmosphere in which discrimination, harassment, and even violence thrive.
“It was amazing to watch the media ask these really hard-hitting questions about their rhetoric and the Shepard murder and to watch the religious right squirm,” says Meg Riley, director of the Washington, D.C., office of the Unitarian Universalist Association, a liberal religious body. “While the rhetoric may not cause murder, it certainly doesn’t help anyone. When you say that homosexuals are out of God’s sight, then it stands to reason that what’s done to them is out of God’s sight.”
With dizzying swiftness, the religious right went from being in the catbird seat to being in the hot seat. Says Robert Boston, a spokesman for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a Washington, D.C.-based group that monitors right-wing organizations: “To use an old cliche, the religious right `doth protest too much’ about the connection. Unstable people can be whipped into a frenzy by their rhetoric.”
Religious conservatives began 1998 riding high with an upset victory in Maine’s February 10 special election that overturned a gay rights measure. But by the end of the year, their sense of triumph had turned to ashes, and not only because of the Shepard killing. The Christian Coalition boasted that it distributed 45 million voter guides in churches across the nation for the November 3 election, only to see the same numbers used to underscore the group’s get-out-the-vote shortcomings. A disproportionate number of antigay candidates with close ties to the religious right were defeated, including Alabama governor Fob James Jr., Sen. Lauch Faircloth (R-N.C.), and Senate candidate Bob Inglis, a South Carolina Republican. Religious-right advocates were able to claim victory, however, for the passage of ballot measures in Alaska and Hawaii that will permit prohibition of same-sex marriages.
“Despite the marriage wins, the religious right just didn’t do very well this year,” says Boston, author of The Most Dangerous Man in America? Pat Robertson and the Rise of the Christian Coalition. “There is no way to paste a smiley face on this one. Voters are, rejecting the religious right as extreme.”
In the special Maine election last February, however, voters repealed, by a 52%-48% ratio, an antidiscrimination measure that had been adopted by the state legislature one year earlier. The FRC was so pleased by the success of the antigay campaign that it picked Michael Heath, executive director of the Christian Civic League of Maine, to serve as director of state affairs in its Washington, D.C., headquarters. (Heath, the subject of a state investigation into fiscal irregularities at the league, later declined the offer.)
The victory emboldened the religious right. Spurred on by Senate majority leader Trent Lott’s comments in June comparing homosexuality to kleptomania and alcoholism, the FRC and a coalition of religious conservative groups launched their big project for the year a pricey ad campaign in major metropolitan dailies calling on gay men and lesbians to surrender their sexual identity.
The ads received a torrent of press coverage, including the cover of Newsweek, transforming the previously obscure “ex-gay” movement into a modern-day media phenomenon. “There’s no question, the ads were a stroke of genius,” says Riley. “They got a lot of attention and allowed Bauer to repeat the `Love the sinner, hate the sin’ line over and over again.”
But on October 7–the day before the coalition announced its plans to take the ads to television–Shepard’s battered body was discovered tied to a fence outside Laramie, Wyo. The media, encouraged by gay activists, immediately linked the murder to the ad campaign and to antigay rhetoric. For instance, in an October 26 cover story, “The War Over Gays,” Time magazine juxtaposed photos of and antigay quotes from Bauer, Lott, and Christian Coalition founder Pat Robertson with the question CAN POLITICS CAUSE HATE?
Such aggressive reporting prompted religious conservatives to react more sheepishly than usual. For instance, responding to New York Times columnist Frank Rich’s October 14 opinion piece accusing the FRC of “stirring up the fear that produces hate” and saying the ex-gay ads “oozed malice,” Bauer cited his “disagreements with the homosexual activist agenda” but denounced Shepard’s murder as “heinous.” Such tame language was a far cry from the virulent rhetoric of his previous diatribes. And in a prepared statement, James Dobson, president of Focus on the Family, a Colorado Springs, Colo.-based religious-right group, addressed those who saw a connection between religious rhetoric and Shepard’s death by saying, “Just as Hillary Clinton’s `vast right-wing conspiracy’ … [was] fantasy, so too is the idea that the biblical standard on homosexuality leads to murder.”
The Maine victory may also have given antigay activists, already prone to overreaching, a false sense of security. In the November election, for instance, South Portland, Me., voters passed a gay rights measure, 54%-46%, after the Maine chapter of the Christian Coalition placed an antigay insert, “The Gay Agenda,” into the October 28 edition of the Portland Press Herald. After receiving a barrage of criticism for accepting the paid advertising, which recycled a slew of graphic “statistics” about gay sexual behavior, the newspaper said in an editorial that it was “deeply sorry” and urged residents to “vote overwhelmingly” for the antidiscrimination ordinance.
“The inserts provided an extremely strong motivation to our supporters to get out and vote,” says David Garrity, vice president of the Maine Lesbian and Gay Political Alliance. “Though it may have confused and excited some who voted against the ordinance, overall it was a gift to our side.”
The election results left religious conservatives second-guessing the popularity of their agenda. “We live in a post-Christian culture,” Andrea Sheldon, executive director of the Traditional Values Coalition, a right-wing advocacy group, told The Washington Post. “People say they go to church, they pray” while simultaneously having a “live-and-let-live, do-whatever-feels-good attitude.” Lamented Dobson: “There has been a radical change in the moral tone of this country.”
Actually the election results may simply provide the religious right the underdog status it covets. “After going through several elections against the Christian Coalition, I’d like to tell everyone around the country to never underestimate the power of a foe who can draw on evangelical churches to get out the vote,” says Garrity. “We have yet to develop an organizing tool that comes even close.”
RELATED ARTICLE: The holy wars continue
For gay and lesbian believers, church is still not a sanctuary
BY CHUCK COLBERT
When it comes to religion, the past year was one of few blessings for gay men and lesbians. One denomination after another condemned homosexuality or pro-gay ministers, leaving few bright spots for the year.
Perhaps the biggest setback came at the Lambeth Conference, held in August in Canterbury, England, where Anglican bishops, representing more than 73 million members of the church worldwide, declared that homosexual activity is “incompatible with Scripture.” The church leaders also advised against the ordination of homosexuals as priests and opposed the blessing of same-sex unions. In the same breath, however, the bishops condemned the “irrational fear” of homosexuals and assured gay men and lesbians that “they are loved by God.”
The lopsided vote–526-70, with 45 abstentions–primarily reflected the presence of bishops from Africa and Asia. Although the Lambeth resolution was nonbinding on the 37 church provinces, to many gays within the American branch of the Anglican Communion–the 2.4-million-member Episcopal Church–the action was a terrific disappointment.
Gays did find some support within the Episcopal Church. In response to the Lambeth resolution, the diocese of Massachusetts, the church’s largest, passed a resolution in November calling for a “continuing process of prayerful and respectful discernment concerning the Church’s teaching on the various expressions of human sexuality.”
But there were other disappointments for gay Episcopalians. The Rev. Canon Gene Robinson, a gay Episcopal priest who serves as principal assistant to the bishop of New Hampshire, lost his bid to become the country’s first openly gay bishop.
News was not much better in other denominations. The Rev. Jimmy Creech, a Methodist minister in Omaha, faced charges of disobedience for performing a holy union ceremony for a lesbian couple in September 1997. A church jury narrowly acquitted Creech in March, but he was not reappointed to his church.
The Creech trial prompted a judicial body of the 8.5-million-member United Methodist Church to formally ban same-sex unions. The panel ruled in August that pastors who perform these unions could be tried before church courts under a provision of the church’s Social Principles and could be reprimanded and defrocked. “Ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions shall not be conducted by our ministers and shall not be conducted in our church,” reads a sentence in the principles.
Growing tensions in the Catholic Church spilled over into the public arena in September in Rochester, N.Y., during a national three-day conference of the National Association of Catholic Diocesan Lesbian and Gay Ministries. Nearly 600 people, passing by police escorts, attended a Mass celebrated by Bishop Matthew Clark while 75 conservative Catholic protesters stood outside the church.
Still, there were some rays of hope. In November the Rev. Paul Sherry, head of the 1.4-million-member United Church of Christ, asked all 6,000 churches in the denomination to read a pastoral document supporting the full participation of gay men and lesbians in the church. Even more impressive, many U.S. Catholic bishops stood by their 1997 pastoral letter, “Always Our Children”–despite efforts by conservative Catholics to revoke it–addressed primarily to parents of gay children. This summer they reissued the letter with only seven minor modifications. But this time the letter, widely perceived to be essentially gay-friendly. also had the approval of the guardian of church teaching and doctrine, the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which has never been known for its gay-friendly attitudes.
Colbert is a freelance writer in Boston.
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