For the past four years, Pastor Bill Dunfee of the New Beginnings Ministries Church has led his congregation in picketing The Foxhole, a tiny gentleman’s club in Warsaw, Ohio. Church members usually arrive at the Foxhole on weekends at 11:30 p.m. bearing signs, bullhorns, and cameras. While the picketers invite club patrons and employees to their church, they also employ intimidation tactics such as photographing the license plates of anyone visiting the club.
These kinds of pickets are a common pastime for conservative evangelicals around the country. In addition to abortion clinics, popular targets include strip clubs, swingers clubs, and even convenience stores that sell pornography. For picketers, these protests are a literal battle against the forces of evil. An especially militant group, “Repent Amarillo,” even created a battle map of their town with each undesirable business marked as a target.
Those targeted in these protests often have little recourse. In 2007, Tommy George, the owner of the Foxhole, filed a lawsuit against the church asking for restitution for loss of business. When the lawsuit was dismissed, he petitioned the county to remove the protestors. This request was also denied citing freedom of speech—though a judge limited the number of protestors that could be present to fifteen.
So on August 8, George and several of his strippers decided to turn the tables by holding their own protest in front of the church during Sunday morning services. The Foxhole dancers (some of whom complained of sleep deprivation) did not match Pastor Dunfee’s zeal. Rather than bullhorns, they came equipped with lawn chairs and a grill. Media coverage of the event describes the strippers lounging about in bikinis and enjoying hamburgers. They did, however, come equipped with signs showing that they too had knowledge of scripture:
If Pastor Bill is my ticket to HEAVEN, I’d rather be in HELL with my FRIENDS
Matthew 7:15: Beware of false prophets who come to you in sheep’s clothing.
Revelations 22:11: He that is unjust, let him be unjust still.
The church initially responded by broadcasting Dunfree’s sermons outdoors. However, they stopped when the strippers began dancing in the streets. While there was a hug-filled detente at some point mid-August, at the time of this writing, the situation continues to be a standoff.
The Nature of Good and Evil
Both sides of this conflict appeal to the New Testament. In the Gospels, Jesus does consistently side with “sinful women” against the Pharisees, to whom he states “The tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you” (Matt: 21:31). On the other hand, Jesus’ lenient attitude towards sinners assumes that they will repent if given a chance. After saving the adulteress in John 8 he tells her, “Go now and leave your life of sin.”
Pastor Dunfee, despite doing everything in his power to shut down the Foxhole, claims to have compassion for the women who work there. His congregation has been ordered to treat picketing strippers cordially. Dunfree has even promised the dancers that he will find a way to provide for their families if they will quit their jobs and join his church.
What is ultimately at stake in Warsaw is a conflict about the nature of good and evil. Dunfee and his followers are engaged in a cosmic battle against evil that leaves no room for ambiguity or compromise. Dunfee has stated:
What it comes down to is this: In our society, in the world, there’s good and there’s evil. There’s right and there’s wrong. There’s light and there’s darkness. And what we’re dealing with right now, whenever you take a look at the strip club, it’s evil.
Dunfee is not describing a social evil, but a transcendent one. In 1988 sociologist William Swatos surveyed a group of Christians picketing the sale of pornography at 7-Eleven. 98% affirmed their belief that there was a force of “transcendent evil” involved in pornography. For many evangelicals these kinds of protests supersede mere politics: They are acts of spiritual warfare against Satan.
On the other side of the protest, good and evil are not so neatly aligned. Gina Hughes, a dancer and married mother of six, offered her take on the problem of evil: “I don’t think necessarily either one of us are good or evil. I think there’s good and evil in everyone whether you’re affiliated with the church or affiliated with the Foxhole.” Those sympathetic to Foxhole point out that opposing a strip club contradicts with other social goods, including the welfare of the dancers and their families. Hughes commented on the picketers, “They say we’re homewreckers and whores. The fact of the matter is, we’re working to keep our own homes together, to give our kids what they need.”
Others have expressed support for the Foxhole out of respect for individual freedom. These positions are rooted not in evangelical Christianity, but in American civil religion. Robert Bellah once described American civil religion as, “an institutionalized collection of sacred beliefs about the American nation.” It is exactly these beliefs that George appealed to when he said of his counter-protest, “The great thing about this country is that everyone has a right to believe what they want.” Another local business owner, Larry Mizer of Mizer’s Country Kitchen commented, “They have every right to be open, just as I do. This is still America.”
Like so many conflicts involving religion, each side sees the other as a threat to their conception of the good: sexual agents of Satan or theocratic enemies of freedom, respectively. Unfortunately, neither side is likely to change its position in the near future. Such open confrontations rarely cause people to question their ideology and often cause partisans to entrench further.
This is especially true for New Beginnings Ministry who already see themselves engaged in a supernatural battle against the forces of darkness. Pastor Dunfee says, in fact, that the presence of the Foxhole at his church has only solidified his ministry.