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On Second Street
Henry A. Giroux
Slippin' & Slidin'
Deliver Us From Reverends
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Deliver Us From Reverends
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, Whitebefore he came outspent 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 Falwelland several highly publicized hunger strikesWhite 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 Falwells 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 Ill 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.
Falwells church, for instance, would not put up any of Whites delegation because the Bible forbids the housing of sinners. While the conservative Reverend did break bread with Whites 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 Falwells 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 surfacedexcept as a "punishment" in the form of Michael Johnstonand 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 ("dont 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-UPs 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. Its working. The media loves him. Who cares if he has to lie about gay peoples lives to promote his own career. Check out the Soulforce.com website. Its religious tone and appeal for funds is a kinder, gentler, and less homophobic version of Reverend Falwells.
With Falwells minute move toward "Christian charity" and Whites 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 doesnt 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.