Deliver Us From Reverends


Michael Bronski

Across
the country the headlines made everything look great. The Raleigh News
and Observer blared "Falwell Apologizes to Gays" while the San
Jose Mercury News
trumpeted "Falwell Welcomes Gays." The Washington
Post posited a beltway-spin deal with "Mutual Apology for Hateful
Speech: Christian Leader Falwell, Gay Rights Activist Talk Tolerance" and Time
magazine commented: "An End to the Hatred: In a Dramatic Turnaround, Falwell
Reaches Out to Gays and Lesbians, a Group he Once Openly Despised." But was
the news really that good?

From the looks of
it the highly touted meeting between Reverend Jerry Falwell and Reverend Mel
White was, if not the tremendous theological triumph some had hoped for, at
least the media circus that made everyone happy. Falwell, the founder of the
Moral Majority and one of the more voracious hate-spewing homophobes in
right-wing Christendom had consented to a meeting with Reverend Mel White, a
conservative, evangelical, openly gay preacher, and founder of Soulforce, a
religious group dedicated to ending violence and hatred by using the principles
of Gandhi and Martin Luther King. To make the story even better, White—before
he came out—spent 30 years as a right-wing evangelical minister and
fund-raiser, worked closely with Falwell, and even ghostwrote his autobiography.
Since his coming out conversion White has been pressing his ex-boss to enter
into a dialogue about homosexuality. After repeated rebuffs from Falwell—and
several highly publicized hunger strikes—White finally got his wish. On
October 23, 1999 Falwell (and 200 heterosexual, conservative Christian church-
goers) met with White (who brought 200 gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and
straight supporters) at Falwell’s Thomas Road Baptist church in Lynchburg,
Virginia.

The meeting was
framed around the question of "hate speech" and was explicitly called an
"Anti-Violence Forum." So it was no surprise that Falwell addressed this
question and told his followers that violence against homosexuals was
unacceptable and even urged parents to love their gay children. For a man who
has perfected the vicious homophobia tirade for fund-raising purposes (and has
made millions off of 20 years of hate), this was a step forward, and the media
ate it up. But the meeting at Lynchburg was hardly the pro-gay,
love-thy-neighbor love fest many of the mainstream media reports portrayed.

The media did
report that Falwell stated that he was not changing his theological view of
homosexuality. "My ultimate goal, and I’ll make no bones about it, is to
bring them out of the lifestyle and to the Lord," he explained. But they were
less forthcoming on some of the other details of the weekend.

Falwell’s
church, for instance, would not put up any of White’s delegation because the
Bible forbids the housing of sinners. While the conservative Reverend did break
bread with White’s people, the next day at a communal lunch most of his
followers did not because the Bible also forbids eating with sinners. There was
little mention of how Falwell’s message had changed. While he emphasized an
ethic of "hate the sin but love the sinner," he also repeatedly compared gay
people to drug addicts, alcoholics, unwed mothers, gluttons, and bootleggers.

Also, Falwell
brought ex-gay Michael Johnston up on stage to speak. Now living with AIDS,
Johnston spoke of how "the homosexual lifestyle consumed him" and how he is
still being bitterly attacked by the "homosexual community" for his work in
the ex-gay movement. For Falwell, apparently, the only good gay is an ex-gay and
a sick one at that. So much for Christian behavior and good faith.

Falwell was never
challenged on his positions on gay marriage, gay teachers, or gay rights
legislation (he is against them all). Indeed, the issues were never raised.
Incredibly AIDS also never surfaced—except as a "punishment" in the form
of Michael Johnston—and the lack of attention paid to it by the majority of
the Christian church was never addressed. Throughout all this, Falwell, by
making only the smallest move to a theological or political center ("don’t
kill gay people"), is now being portrayed in the press as morally responsible
and reasonable.

This reclamation
of Falwell as a defensible and popular moral leader was also helped by the
presence of the even more detestable Reverend Fred Phelps, famous for picketing
the funerals of gay men who have died of AIDS with songs such as "Fags Burn in
Hell" (his website is GodHates Fags.com).

By specifically
making this an "Anti-Violence Forum," Reverend Mel White allowed and
encouraged two very dangerous ideas to surface. First, Reverend Falwell was able
to promote one of his newest and most offensive concepts: "Most hate crimes in
America today are not directed at African-American or Jewish people or lesbians.
They are directed at Evangelical Christians." Claiming that the deaths at
Columbine High School and the Wedgewood Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas are
examples of anti-Christian violence Falwell claimed a victimhood for Christians
that is untrue, and that erases the most harmful and hateful excesses of
Christian fundamentalist teaching. Photos of the Columbine and Wedgewood dead
were hung alongside those of Matthew Shepard and Billy Jack Gaither. To add
insult to injury Falwell also exculpated himself from any personal or
institutional guilt by declaring that "nothing [he or the other major leaders
of the Religious Right] has said or written has led to violence."

Even more
outrageously, Falwell and White agreed that gay people fueled anti-Christian
violence. Reverend White, at the conference and in a long letter to Falwell
posted on the Soulforce website, has explicitly implicated gay men and lesbians
in anti-Christian violence. "Speech has power. Words do not fade. What starts
out as a sound ends up in a deed. I know that our community is guilty of ‘hate
speech’ against you. I am doing everything I can to end it."

By
making a direct correlation between the violently homophobic incitements and
utterances of Falwell, Pat Robertson, and their ilk and the criticism leveled at
Christian fundamentalists by gay activists, Reverend White is telling a serious
lie and insulting gay and lesbian people. When this lie is repeated in the
mainstream press it is seriously harmful to gay people.

The media hoopla
around the meeting of Reverends White and Falwell is troubling. The publicity
that this weekend received was greater than anything that ACT-UP’s Treatment
and Action Group (TAG) ever received for forcing pharmaceutical companies to
make life-saving drugs available to people with AIDS. It is more attention than
Lambda Legal Defense gets for winning a court case that guarantees lesbian
mothers the right to custody or for discriminatory statutes for people with HIV.

Falwell is
struggling to maintain his hold on the public imagination as a moral leader by
attempting to shed his image as a fire-and-brimstone, politically conniving, and
seriously-out-of-touch lunatic fringe fundamentalist to be the next Billy
Graham. White is striving to become the moral voice of the gay and lesbian
movement. White has spent half a decade publicly modeling himself as the perfect
moral, reasonable, non-political, and, literally, holier-than-thou homosexual.
It’s working. The media loves him. Who cares if he has to lie about gay
people’s lives to promote his own career. Check out the Soulforce.com website.
It’s religious tone and appeal for funds is a kinder, gentler, and less
homophobic version of Reverend Falwell’s.

With Falwell’s
minute move toward "Christian charity" and White’s promotion of the lie
that gay hatred causes violence allows the mainstream media to construct an
image of the gay movement in which understanding and love can take the place of
political action, where gay people are as guilty as hate-spewing homophobes, and
where the tragedy and catastrophe of AIDS doesn’t exist. It is the perfect
fantasy world of white Christianity and conservative politics. Welcome to the
rapture.     Z


Michael
Bronski has written numerous books and articles on culture and gay and lesbian
issues. He has been a regular contributor to
Z since 1988.