News & Views
A ghostwriter and speechwriter for famed evangelical preachers such as Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and Billy Graham, Rev. Dr. Mel White came out as gay in 1994 and has been a voice for gay acceptance in the Christian church ever since. Sometimes controversial, always opinionated, White is the co-founder of Soulforce and the author of Stranger at the Gate: to be Gay and Christian in America. His new book, Holy Terror: Lies the Christian Right Tells Us to Deny Gay Equality, has just been published. In this exclusive interview with Liberty Education Forum, Rev. White discusses his perspectives on gay equality, evangelical nuance, and fostering environments for greater inclusion among people of faith.
[Reverend White’s answers are his own and do not necessarily reflect the opinion and perspective of Liberty Education Forum.]
Q: What lessons can be learned from achievements for LGBT acceptance in mainline Protestant faiths that could be applied in securing a similar place among evangelical Christians?
First, we need to acknowledge how few achievements for LGBT acceptance have been made in mainline Protestant denominations on behalf of full equality even by Soulforce.
Traditionally “achievements” are measured by three things:
1. Is the ethical stance a denomination takes towards homosexuality for or against us? For example, in the United Methodist Book of Discipline homosexual behavior is labeled, “incompatible with Christian teaching.” The Methodists—with their misleading logo, “Open Hearts. Open Minds. Open Doors”—have voted against us for approximately 40 years and yet they are the largest and most progressive of the mainline churches. Changing the basic statement of the mainline churches from anti to pro has been the activist’s primary goal for decades with very little to show for it.
2. What is the denomination’s stance on ordaining lesbians or gays in a committed relationship? After debating the issue for almost half a century in recent years the Lutherans and the Presbyterians have finally voted to ordain lesbians and gays, but the United Methodists still refuse to ordain us. In fact, they still have on their books that local clergy can even deny membership to gay and lesbian Christians.
3. What is the denomination’s stance on same-sex marriage? Again, after at least a decade of futile debate, the ELCA (Lutherans) voted to ordain and marry us, while the Presbyterians and United Methodists continue to deny us the rites of marriage. Even the liberal Episcopal Church is losing local congregations because this most progressive of the mainline denominations appointed an openly gay bishop.
Second, if we learn anything from this sad history, we need to learn impatience. The few advances we have made with mainline denominations were achieved by activist organizations working from within, for example: Integrity (Episcopalians); More Light (Presbyterians USA); Lutherans Concerned and Extraordinary Candidacy Project (ELCA); and The Reconciling Ministries Network and the Methodist Federation for Social Action (United Methodists).
They were achieved by activist organizations working from without as well. For example: Soulforce, the organization my partner Gary Nixon and I co-founded. Those working from within were far more patient in their impatience, willing to spend decades working to influence denomination policy through the system. Soulforce, on the other hand, was also committed to influencing by mail, phone call, personal appointment, dialogue and debate; but when the “negotiations” proved fruitless, Soulforce—guided by the principles of relentless nonviolent resistance of Gandhi and King—also organized vigils, protests, marches, and nonviolent acts of ecclesial disobedience that often led to arrest, court appearances and even jail time.
There were times when the insiders felt resentful of Soulforce because we were too impatient for their tastes, but after 35 years (in the United Methodists, for example) Soulforce agreed with Dr. King that the anti-gay forces were simply keeping the dialogue going (decade after decade) to avoid making the ultimate decision. “Justice delayed,” King reminded us, “is justice denied.”
By the way, any civil rights movement will have at least occasional disagreement between organizations and individuals whose long range goals are the same but who differ in their choice of tactics. Consider the stormy relationship between the NAACP and Dr. King’s [Southern Christian Leadership Conference] or the relationship between [Congress of Racial Equality] and [Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee].
Q: Should the LGBT community build bridges to conservative people of faith, including evangelical Christians, or should the LGBT community simply seek to strengthen its relationships with more progressive institutions?
At the outset, a caveat: Very little change will be accomplished by dealing with any of the religious institutions as institutions, liberal or conservative. Denominations change as their influential leaders and members change. And though this might sound like an exaggeration, I believe people (influential leaders and members) only change when they know LGBT people and have their preconceptions and prejudices undermined by them.
But your question is still valid. We have to go on trying to change institutions as institutions. By the way, when you say “conservative people of faith” including “evangelicals” you’ve left off a third “conservative” label: “fundamentalist.” Then we can ask a third question: Should we (even attempt to) build bridges to Fundamentalist Christians (like Falwell, Robertson, the mega-churches, and big independent Bible churches)?
Christian fundamentalists, like fundamentalist Jews or Muslims, read their “holy books” literally. For fundamentalist Christians the Bible is clear: homosexuality is a sin. “God said it. I believe it. That settles it.”
Trying to build bridges with fundamentalists is a game I’ve played—a war I’ve fought—for 20 years and I’ve lost almost every battle.
Fundamentalists don’t listen to facts let alone to personal experience. What the Bible says to a fundamentalist Christian parent is more significant, has more weight, than what they see in the lives of their own children. I have stopped even trying to build bridges with fundamentalists. When one of them asks me, “Have you read Leviticus 20?” (a verse when taken literally demands that men who sleep with men should be killed) I reply, “You’ve confused me with someone who cares about what you think of Leviticus 20.”
Evangelicals see salvation as an act of faith, a very personal encounter between the believer and his/her God. The more historic churches see salvation as a sacramental act, through receiving the Eucharist. Most fundamentalists are evangelical but all evangelicals are not fundamentalists. There are many examples of progressive, even open and affirming evangelicals and we should go on trying to build bridges with every progressive evangelical we encounter.
And, needless to say, we should go on trying to build bridges with the liberal or progressive churches but if the label can be trusted, if a church or denomination is correctly described as “liberal” or “progressive” they are already working with us. Unfortunately, we continue to call the historic mainline churches “liberal” and “progressive” when on our issue they are neither.
Q: Is it necessary that the LGBT community integrate itself with other social justice causes, such as the Occupy Wall Street movement, Planned Parenthood, labor institutions or do you believe that the LGBT community should reach outside the traditional progressive institutions in its efforts to achieve equality?
On several occasions I’ve been invited to spend time with leadership of the Occupy Wall Street Movement. I’ve addressed the crowd in Zuccotti Park. Now that I’m retired from Soulforce I have time to volunteer to work on various oppression issues. All the oppressions are intermeshed. All oppressed people face the same oppressors. At the beginning of my life as a gay Christian activist I erred in two ways:
First, when founding Soulforce I reached out primarily to people of (the Christian) faith. That was a mistake. Now Soulforce has members who are from every faith (and from no faith) traditions.
Second, I thought we should narrow our focus to the LGBT issue. I was wrong. As Dr. King said, “Injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere.” If in Gandhi’s words “we are to be the change we hope to see in the world,” that means we reach out to and work with all the oppressed.
Here’s one example: Our first Soulforce board was primarily gay men and a few heterosexual male allies. So, though we were working to win justice for LGBT people, we were racist, sexist, and classist without knowing it. Our new young Soulforce Equality Riders taught us old guys some very important lessons. Now our board is—or is becoming—as diverse as the world we hope to help create.
Q: Some of your tactics and rhetoric could be described as confrontational, sometimes even hostile. How does this help to make our case to conservatives and moderates, and is there a risk in turning people off?
Those who say that Soulforce has been “confrontational” and “even hostile” as a criticism don’t really understand how Soulforce works. We’ve not educated our critics well enough and that’s just one of our weaknesses. What our critics don’t see is all that happens before any event that might look “confrontational” or “even hostile.”
Before we stage a march on the Southern Baptist Convention, for example, we spend a year trying to get face to face appointments with Southern Baptist leadership. We carefully monitor and collect their anti-gay rhetoric. We do interviews across the country with LGBT Southern Baptists, their friends and families to collect deeply moving, very personal examples of the tragic consequences of their rhetoric. We respond to their false charges in a written case backed by the psychological, historical, and personal evidence.
By the time we ask for face-to-face meetings with Southern Baptist leadership we have sent them copies of our case that are as professionally laid out and printed as they are researched and written. After we build and present our case, and after we spend a year trying to get them to take our case seriously, and after we have been refused appointments by their leadership time and time again, then we begin to organize our nonviolent protest.
Here’s one example from our work to build bridges with the Southern Baptists: Their annual convention was in New Orleans. We filled a casket with the tragic stories of Southern Baptist LGBT youth who have been “confronted” by their “hostile” anti-gay pastors or parents. We included in the casket our carefully researched and illustrated case against their antigay words and actions. With the casket on the shoulders of our LGBT Southern Baptist volunteer activists, we followed a jazz band in a traditional New Orleans funeral march through the streets and up to the doors of the Super Dome where 50,000 Southern Baptists were meeting.
For months in advance we had prepared the New Orleans police and Super Dome management of our plans. We explained our goals for the march to Southern Baptist Convention officials, told them the date and time would be arriving at the Super Dome. We asked them to receive the casket and the true stories within. They refused. So we marched to the Super Dome, were arrested, handcuffed and placed on police busses while the Southern Baptists looked on.
We only organize for vigils and protests and nonviolent demonstrations when all the non-confrontational options have been exhausted. But there are times when confrontation is necessary, when we must risk turning people off.
Q: What is the role of forgiveness in reaching out to Christians who have sometimes engaged in what you call “spiritual violence and oppression”?
You ask about forgiveness. First we need to understand what will have to be forgiven. In my new book, Holy Terror: Lies the Christian Right Tells Us to Deny Gay Equality, I tell the dramatic true story of the rise of fundamentalist Christianity in the last 40 years. I show clearly how homosexuality and abortion were the issues fundamentalist Christian leaders chose early on to raise money, mobilize volunteers and create fear and vulnerability.
I present examples of the half-truths, hyperboles and lies about homosexuality and homosexuals that they continue to use to underwrite and achieve their goals. I use their words to express those goals: to break down the wall that separates church and state, to superimpose their ‘moral values’ on the U.S. Constitution, to replace democracy with theocratic rule and ultimately to create a new ‘Christian America’ in their image.
I use the latest data to show that the Tea-party is simply the old religious right back among us in disguise and that their two primary goals are to end a woman’s right to choose and to reverse the gains in civil rights that LGBT Americans have made, pass a Constitutional Amendment to end all possibilities of marriage equality, and to drive LGBT people back into our closets.
You ask about forgiveness. It’s way too early to talk about forgiveness when the anti-gay Tea Party mentality is sweeping the nation, when homophobia is on the rise again and when the Christian church, Catholic and Protestant alike, are the primary source of intolerance and discrimination towards LGBT Americans.
We are quick to forgive any of our oppressors who seek forgiveness but until they recognize the terrible consequences of their spiritual violence against God’s LGBTQ people, we will continue to work to convince and convict and then to confront and condemn until intolerance ends and equality is achieved. When leaders of the Christian right confess their sins against us, we will forgive them gladly but until that day we will not forgive and we will not forget.