Outsider influence over homosexuality at General Conference

By Karen Booth

In 1989, Hunter Madsen and the late Marshall Kirk published a groundbreaking book entitled After the Ball: How America Will Conquer Its Fear and Hatred of Gays in the ‘90s. The book offered step-by-step instructions for winning the war to normalize homosexuality in America as well as tips for overcoming the greatest obstacle: Christian faith communities with biblical teachings about human sexuality and marriage. Since that time gay rights activists have increasingly focused on eliminating or weakening traditional Christian moral teaching, beginning with the more theologically liberal and moderate denominations.

Activists within The United Methodist Church got started long before After the Ball was published, and they have played prominent roles ever since. In 1972 a handful of gay men lobbied the General Conference delegates for full inclusion and acceptance. When the statement that “homosexual practice” is “incompatible with Christian teaching” was adopted instead, the men responded by launching the first United Methodist advocacy group: the United Methodist Gay Caucus, which later was renamed Affirmation. After the 1984 General Conference banned the ordination of sexually active homosexuals, Affirmation leaders spun off a grass roots advocacy program called Reconciling Congregations, which was also later renamed the Reconciling Ministries Network (RMN). Affirmation, RMN, and the longer-established Methodist Federation for Social Action currently lobby together as the Common Witness Coalition to promote the acceptance of monogamous homosexual behavior, the ordination of sexually active homosexuals, and the celebration of same-sex unions.

Similar pro-gay caucuses sprang up throughout the mainline denominations in the early 1980s, and the groups quickly realized they could be more effective by working together. At first they interacted informally as “the welcoming church movement.” But a few decades later six of the denominational networks, including those within The United Methodist Church, incorporated a non-profit organization called the Institute for Welcoming Resources (IWR). In 2006 the IWR became an official program department of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, the oldest and one of the most influential of the secular gay rights groups.

Since the turn of the millennium, other national faith-based organizations have also joined forces with the United Methodist pro-gay caucuses. A group called Soulforce has helped to coordinate their onsite “witness” at large United Methodist gatherings—clergy trials, General Conferences, and Judicial Council hearings. Under Soulforce’s influence the 2000 General Conference degenerated from fairly civil legislative give-and-take to a hyper-dramatic confrontation that resulted in multiple arrests. Though Soulforce has toned down its tactics considerably since that time, its practice of public bullying continues unabated.

The Director of a group called The Religious Institute, Debra Haffner, has worked with denominational officials to develop policies regarding sexual harassment, contributed articles to the General Board of Church and Society’s “Sex and the Church” online education series, and spoken to groups of UM teens. Haffner is a former CEO of the Sexuality Education and Information Council of the United States (SIECUS), an organization that promulgates radical notions of “sexual justice and liberation” based on the work of the notorious Alfred Kinsey.

The last group, Faith in America, trains homosexual Christians and their supporters to share stories about the personal and social harm that results from anti-gay religious bigotry—convincing listeners that intrinsic and unchosen homosexuality is morally neutral and laying a subtle guilt-trip on those who still harbor traditional moral beliefs. Though Faith in America doesn’t exert as much of a direct influence on the denomination, it maintains a strong connection through its co-founder, defrocked United Methodist clergyman, Jimmy Creech.

Secular gay rights groups were initially reluctant to heed Madsen and Kirk’s advice. Many of their supporters had parted company with organized religion because of the stigma and rejection they had experienced and they were initially skeptical of attempts to team up with people of faith. But once they recognized the value of mutual cooperation, vast amounts of their talent and treasure were committed to the effort to morally remake the Church.

The aforementioned National Gay and Lesbian Task Force was the first to get involved. In the late 1990s it developed the National Religious Leadership Roundtable, an ecumenical and interfaith “think tank” that promoted the public witness of gay-friendly religious communities and fostered alliances between them and other secular gay rights groups. All of the United Methodist pro-gay caucuses were Roundtable founding members.

In 2006 the Roundtable released its first joint research project: a landmark study entitled David v. Goliath. More than half of the report focused on pro-gay caucuses in the Protestant mainline churches—“the backbone of American religion.” If these denominations could be won over to the pro-gay cause, “it would … be a tremendous moral victory for the LGBT community,” said the report. Three of the denominations (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Presbyterian Church U.S.A, and The United Methodist Church) were singled out for special attention specifically because of their denominational decision-making processes. Because their legislative gatherings were essentially democratic in nature, they were more susceptible to pro-gay advocacy than other autocratic or autonomous Christian bodies. Because they were conducted on a church-wide basis, greater numbers of people, including those that lived internationally, could be reached. So their general assemblies and conferences were identified as the best settings to introduce and foster proposals for theological and moral revision.

David V. Goliath also challenged secular activists to recognize the political advantages of working with people of faith and to support their new friends with intellectual, political, and financial resources. In 2005 the Human Rights Campaign (the largest national group with over one million members) harkened to the call, starting its “Religion and Faith” Program with the help of a former United Methodist student pastor named Harry Knox. Committed to influencing the “moveable middle,” the Program’s most recent focus has been Hispanic believers. A comprehensive pro-gay resource entitled A La Familia was written and edited by retired United Methodist pastor Ignacio Castuera and Iliff Seminary Professor Miguel De La Torre.

Around the same time, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) also began its “Religion, Faith and Values” program. It was founded by J. Ann Craig, who served on staff of the Women’s Division of the Board of Global Ministries for over 15 years. Under her direction, GLAAD taught media skills to the lesbian couple that sued the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association and to two transgendered pastors who “came out” to the denomination: Drew Phoenix and David Weekley.

On Valentine’s Day 2010 all of the previously mentioned organizations cooperatively launched the Believe Out Loud Campaign in order to reach the 41 percent of surveyed mainline clergy who were still in “the moveable middle.” In other words, these pastors favor full inclusion but have not yet taken action. The Reconciling Ministries Network coordinates the United Methodist portion, which may have been the pilot project for the campaign. According to its online training manual, 500 Reconciling trained advocates “told their stories” to 250 of the United States delegates to the 2008 General Conference. Strategy for the upcoming General Conference has focused on coalition building on the Annual and Jurisdictional Conference levels.

 

Funding

Everything described above has required colossal amounts of money. Most of it has been donated by three major funding institutions that have strong commitments to gay rights: the Arcus Foundation, the Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund, and the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation. (Records of their annual giving are easily accessible online, either reported on the organizational website or as part of their IRS 990 forms.) In just four years (2007 to 2010) Arcus alone contributed over $20 million to hundreds of pro-gay “religion and values” initiatives. Almost half of them targeted the Global South, one of the last strongholds of traditional Christian morality.

United Methodist advocates received $850,000, with about 90 percent of that going to the Reconciling Ministries Network. In addition, RMN was also co-beneficiary of a $350,000 grant to a public relations firm that helped them with communications and “branding.”

The Hass Fund was only slightly less generous, giving a third of its $30 million pro-gay grants to faith-based “allies.” The bulk of that—$9.2 million—was aimed at mainline denominations, though individual advocacy caucuses received only a small piece of the pie. However, United Methodist groups did get a slightly bigger slice, possibly because the Fund’s “Gay and Lesbian Program” is led by a United Methodist layman, Randall Miller. The Reconciling Ministry Network acquired $230,000 for their programs, and Glide Memorial United Methodist Church in San Francisco received $50,000 for its community outreach.

Finally, though the Carpenter Foundation has given the smallest amounts to individual United Methodist advocacy groups ($40,000 to Reconciling Ministries), its $3 million in grants for theological education is bound to have a substantial long-term effect. Vanderbilt Divinity School in Nashville and Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley both have Carpenter-funded Gay and Lesbian Studies Programs; and one of the most recent programs at Brite Divinity School in Fort Worth will be lead by United Methodist pastor, Joretta Marshall. All three seminaries are approved by the United Methodist University Senate.

Of the three mainline denominations specifically targeted in the David V. Goliath report, only The United Methodist Church has managed to hold the line on traditional moral teaching. But leaders from the Reconciling movement have gone on record predicting that the 2012 General Conference will finally reward them with long-awaited victory. At the very least, they expect compromise legislation to be passed that would enact policies stating United Methodist are “not of one mind” about homosexuality. For Lutherans and Presbyterians, that was the first step toward the downhill slide to full inclusion.

In order to prevent that, morally traditional General Conference 2012 delegates will have to be winsome and outspoken witnesses to the biblical truth about sexuality. Moderate delegates, some of whom may be stuck in the gray area of the “moveable middle,” need to realize that compromise has not served us well for the last 40 years and could very well destroy us in the long run. And all the delegates, even those who are liberal or progressive, should express outrage over the non-Methodist and non-Christian “outsider” influence and money that have been manipulating our system.

We in The United Methodist Church cannot afford to tolerate that kind of unscrupulous interference, and we must not allow it to sway us to overturn two millennia of Christian moral teaching on a cultural whim. If we do, then perhaps we are no longer the Church that Christ founded and for which he died.

Karen Booth is a United Methodist clergywoman and the director of Transforming Congregations. This article is adapted from several chapters in her forthcoming book Forgetting How to Blush: United Methodism’s Compromise with the Sexual Revolution. It will be released by Bristol House Publishers in the spring of 2012.

 

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