Mel White has made a name for himself in religious right circles by staying on the down low—he spent his early years in the movement ghostwriting books for the likes of fundamentalist Christian superstars Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and Billy Graham.
White documented his time inside the religious right, his experience with “ex-gay ministries” and his subsequent banishment from the movement when he finally came out as a gay man, in his 1994 autobiography Stranger at the Gate.
In the years that followed, White has used his status as clergy within the Metropolitan Community Church, and later in the founding of Soulforce, an organization dedicated to social justice for the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender community, to unmask the anti-gay agenda of his former comrades.
He and his partner Gary Nixon even went so far as to move to Lynchburg, Virginia and rent a house near Falwell’s Thomas Road Baptist Church, where they attended services every Sunday. They would stand silently whenever Falwell began to preach against homosexuality—a tactic that was effective at first, but eventually lost its punch with the congregation.
White and Nixon recently left Lynchburg, not because of their reception at Thomas Road, but because the politics of the state have radically changed over the years. Voters passed an amendment to the state constitution in 2006 banning marriage equality and newer laws have banned gays and lesbians from adopting.
“During our 10 years in Virginia, we’ve watched this great state turn against its gay and lesbian residents,” White said in an op-ed that appeared in the Lynchburg newspaper, so they decided to cut their losses and move back to California.
White spoke recently with Religion Dispatches about the release of his newest book, Holy Terror: Lies the Christian Right Tells Us to Deny Gay Equality, and the ongoing battle between the religious right and the LGBT community.
Candace Chellew-Hodge: You start your book with a litany of religious right characters who have either laid the groundwork for the battle against LGBT rights, or who are still warriors in this ongoing battle. Names like Billy Graham Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, James Dobson, Francis Schaeffer and others. You say they are waging war on the LGBT community—but why did this ever become a war?
Mel White: It really was a conscious declaration of war for various reasons, including fundraising, on a community for whom it caused this great suffering and death. Even the religious right will not admit that its rhetoric leads to all kinds of horrors. It really was launching a war and this is the way they were going to fight it and they’re fighting it that way now, so let’s look at it again and see what we ought to do.
I really believe that terrorism gets its way through violence or threats of violence. Here the Southern Baptists gathered recently to say that homosexuality is a sickness, that our relationships are sinful and we have 16 million Americans under the influence of that crowd and nobody confronts it.
This war is going on and some of us who can pass don’t need to hear much about it—but those out in the boondocks in Southern Baptist homes, they don’t understand that God is on their side, and this book is trying to say that.
This is a valuable book of history. You outline a secret summit in 1994 at the Glen Eyrie conference center in Colorado Springs, Colorado where 55 fundamentalist Christians gathered to discuss the consequences of the “militant homosexual agenda.” What happened there?
I compare it to the Nazis creating a solution for the Jews. These guys literally crafted a solution to the homosexual problem. The record of that conference, which was very secretive, wasn’t even released to the press. Somebody recorded it and it ended up at Tufts University library and a couple of lesbians found it there.
So we uncovered this radical piece of history where leaders from the Christian Right from all over the country gathered to decide the plan against gays and lesbians and that plan is still in place.
That plan was simply to release misinformation to create fear and then raise money to mobilize volunteers and create a backlash among the American people that would keep LGBT people from getting rights and protections. They have worked to convince Americans that once our community is seen as a legitimate minority and recognized as that, then God’s hand of protection on America will be withdrawn.
They’re saying the danger is that America is going with the culture and the culture is going to sentence us to death as a nation.
When they talk about God removing his hand of protection they’re talking about something very specific—the ruin of capitalism.
You got it! It’s the 1% versus the 99%. Religion has become crippling to the 99% without them knowing it. They’ll do things against their own economic best interests because the religious right has them convinced it’s going to save the nation.
At the heart of it, though, isn’t it really about protecting their wealth and raising money on the back of the LGBT community?
Behind the Koch brothers and the WalMart folks and the Chic-fil-A’s—these guys who are funding the religious right, that’s their goal—to protect their money from being too generous with the poor.
It’s the fundamentalists themselves who are leading the movement. None of them is particularly rich. Pat Robertson is phenomenally rich, but Jerry Falwell never made much money to speak of, and [James] Dobson never lived high on the hog. The billionaires are putting their money into saving the fundamentalist right because the fundamentalist right is on their side. The fundamentalist right, though, is really intending to save the nation. They believe they’re going to save the nation by eliminating LGBT rights. They’re not phony—they are true believers. And when you don’t take a real believer seriously you cause trouble for yourself.
We laughed at these guys until suddenly in 2006, bam, they win. And they could win again. We thought with the election of Obama they were gone, the religious right had been defeated—but now they’re back in full force as the Tea Party.
What I hear you saying is that the moneyed interests have captured the ideals of the true believers for their own wealth, but then those who are perpetuating the campaigns against LGBT people, on one level, really believe that granting LGBT people equal rights would ruin America not just economically, but in a real, moral sense.
And a theological sense, so the church can’t support us. The Southern Baptists have to keep denying our rights because they don’t want to be part of the collapse of the country and get God’s displeasure—which is God being a terrorist. They don’t use bombs and bullets to enforce their views, but they use this fear of God. They threaten that God will send people to hell—what’s more violent than that? They have violence on their side, too. It’s the fear of God’s violence, so God does the dirty work.
Earlier this year, the Southern Baptist Convention passed a resolution saying gay rights are not civil rights and within that resolution they say they don’t want any gay bashing or violence to come to LGBT people. Do they really not understand that passing these types of resolutions is gay bashing?
The trouble is I don’t think a lot of our people get it. They think religion has a right to believe what they want to believe and we don’t have any right to change religious opinions. But, I say, c’mon folks, this is the source of the violence and we’d better face it.
What do you make of the rash of pastors speaking out against LGBT people, like suggesting putting them all behind electrified fences and that sort of thing. For a while you can convince yourself that the LGBT community is making progress and then these sorts of things pop up, and we’re, of course a wedge issue in the presidential campaigns. So, while we seem to be making progress, we’re also slipping back.
The problem is we really believe that progress is permanent, but all we need now is a defeat of Obama and the Congress with him to see all the things we have advanced denied us again.
Right now, they have 34 states on their side for a Constitutional amendment and if they have the House and the Senate and the president and 34 states, we could have a Constitutional amendment in this next election year that would deny us the rights and protections owed to us by the Constitution.
The worst thing about the marriage issue, as the Massachusetts Supreme Court noted, isn’t denying the rights, its making LGBT people inferior citizens, making them outcasts. When all is said and done I’m not as worried about my rights as I am all these young people who are hearing from the Southern Baptist pastors or Catholic priests that their relationships are sick and sinful.
How do they break out of that without having to leave the church? The demeaning of American LGBT people that all this talk does is even more important to me than the rights.
What has been the most effective weapon the religious right has used against the LGBT community?
When you think about how effective they’ve been politically, state by state, it’s been awesome. We have six states that will marry us and 34 states that won’t. With all the progress we’ve made in those six states we forget all the progress they’ve made. In terms of politics, these guys are really impressive. They have made advances politically, signing petitions, getting email addresses.
I sat down in the airport the other day next to Karl Rove and I didn’t even realize who it was until I looked up and recognized him.
I said to him, “Excuse me, Mr. Rove, but your spears are constantly in my side.”
He said, “What do you mean?”
I said, “Basically these anti-gay shafts that you’re throwing are killing us.”
“I’m not anti-gay,” he said.
“Oh, you and the Tea Party are not anti-gay?” I said.
He said, “I’ve been trying to get them to drop that issue but since they won’t, what can I do? It’s not really an issue anyway.”
I said, “It is an issue and it’s killing my brothers and sisters.”
He said, “I have two out gay men working for me. I like gays. We have gay friends in the family. I’m not against it, but this issue works.” From the horse’s mouth. He’s not even anti-gay and he’s leading a political movement to deny our rights.
So, is the blindness willful on the part of people like Rove?
I think so. I learned from Falwell that fundamentalists that say saving the country is the end goal that any means are okay. One of the means is to lie and Jerry Falwell lied all the time and even when he was caught in his lies, it didn’t matter because he was doing it for the good of the country and to follow God’s will. So, lying becomes a just means. Even Karl Rove is taking advantage of fundamentalist simplicity.
So, what’s the solution? How do we fight them and still keep our religion?
There’s only one solution, and that’s to come out. Until people know us for who we are they will be against us. But, once they know who we are and they know enough of us, then they’ll simply turn against the Karl Roves of this country and say, “This is bullshit.” That’s happening, but we’re just hoping it happens fast enough.
In a corporate sense, you talk in your book about using “relentless nonviolence” to make change. What does that look like?
For those still in denominations like the United Methodists that are not accepting of LGBT people, go to your church and put a note in the offering plate that says you won’t give until things change. Every time we’ve tried that, the pastors have called people in immediately to talk to them and it opened up a dialogue in that church that was serious because they could see that that could spread among other people who are pro-gay. One thing you can do is withhold your money. Why are we supporting our own oppression?
Another way is for Methodist pastors to be like Jimmy Creech who said, “I’m not going to go along with the teachings of this church. I am going to disobey them. Ecclesial disobedience. If enough ministers simply said they were going to go against polity, they can’t fire them all. But they can fire them one at a time when they don’t combine.
Also, forget the debates and dialogues. Fundamentalists don’t listen to dialogues. As I say in the book, “To play along with this game of studying, debating, and discussing if we are worthy of our civil rights is to help postpone justice and support the structures of religion-based bigotry.”