I have come to believe over and over again that what is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood.
The conventional wisdom that links American Christianity and homophobia misses the large and growing number of Christians who are committed to building an inclusive church and an equal society. The trouble is that the pro-gay Christians haven’t had all the tools and resources needed to spread their message and build their movement. And they’ve worked in some degree of isolation from one another; within denominational silos and without much common issue framing.
A bold new campaign aims to change that. Believe Out Loud is a sophisticated social marketing effort, anchored by a rich new Web portal and with powerful messaging lines, that was launched nationally on February 14—Valentine’s Day. The campaign will also offer on-the-ground organizing support to existing advocacy groups both inside and outside of denominational lines.
While some 40 million mainline Protestants in seven denominations form the primary target audience of Believe Out Loud, the campaign’s viral outreach is also expected to attract the attention and involvement of significant numbers of Roman Catholics and younger evangelicals. Part of the idea is to remind individual Christians who totally embrace LGBT equality that there are millions more like them—a genuine “cloud of witnesses,” to use the biblical expression.[Full disclosure: I was significantly involved for over two years in the early development of this project; my agency was paid for its work but is not directly involved at this point.]
Rev. Robert Chase, former communications director for the United Church of Christ and now the head of Intersections International in New York City (the organization responsible for administering Believe Out Loud) predicts that the campaign will change the American landscape regarding LGBT equality. He says:
Believe Out Loud signals that the effort to achieve LGBT justice within American Christianity has reached movement proportions. By reaching out to those who are still uncertain about homosexuality in the church, we expand the conversation. As individuals begin to move from fear to empathy, from ignorance to understanding, and from apathy to action, a new space is created for extravagant welcome to all.
Chase and others involved in the campaign say that the biggest challenge in many Protestant churches is that too many clergy leaders are silent friends; i.e., they are quite sympathetic to the justice claims of LGBT people but worried about stirring controversy.
Rev. Steve Clapp, whose Midwest-based Christian Community organization studies and supports moderate clergy and congregations, originated the term “silent friends” in a book he wrote with that title. Clapp says that he enthusiastically welcomes Believe Out Loud as a “tremendous new movement that will give these conflicted clergy friends better opportunities to raise their voices in support of love, hospitality, and justice for all people.”
The Uncertain Middle
A major strength of the new campaign is that it builds directly a very large and recent quantitative study of clergy attitudes that was conducted by Robert P. Jones of Public Religion Research. Jones identified roughly 40 percent of mainline clergy in the “uncertain middle” who might be willing to demonstrate more leadership on LGBT issues if they that felt their congregants would welcome it. Other research shows that many Mainline Protestant laypeople have been waiting for their clergy leaders to initiate a dialogue.
According to Charlie Cardillo, principal and creative director at San Francisco-based Underground Ads (the firm that developed the campaign’s messaging), this missing or phantom conversation creates an ideal opening for a subtle intervention.
“The advertising gently confronts people,” notes Cardillo, “challenging uncomfortable or ambivalent feelings toward the LGBT community with the most basic tenet of Christian faith: that we should love our neighbors as ourselves. From there, we encourage people to take their own steps to start the conversation—and to learn more via the many Web-based resources we are providing.”
Believe Out Loud has serious ambitions: it does not simply aim to lay the groundwork for healthier conversations and new perceptions within Christian communities; it expects to spur a significant increase in the number of congregations that are actively engaged in formal processes either to become officially welcoming for the first time—or to upgrade the quality of their LGBT-related ministries, in the event that they are already officially “on record” as welcoming queer people.
Supercharging the Faith-Based LGBT Movement
Organizers feel that the sky is the limit with respect to the campaign’s ultimate impact. They note that even before the campaign goes public, Believe Out Loud has attracted over a thousand Facebook fans. They are convinced it will have special appeal to younger people, and they are making sure that BOL subscribers will have access to all of the goodies that today’s young social networkers crave, such as opportunities to gift each other with campaign tokens.
Whereas many socially progressive movements have been four or five beats behind the emerging technology curve, Intersections project manager Sung Won Park says that, in contrast, Believe Out Loud is specifically designed to close the gap in social movement organizing in respect to adapting the latest technologies.
“BOL will supercharge the faith-based LGBT movement,” predicts Park, “giving it the boost it needs to move into the forefront of the larger social justice movement.”
Denominational and other leading LGBT advocates say they welcome the new effort to create shared resources and some common campaign branding.
Troy Plummer, director of the Reconciling Ministries Network within the 8.5-million-member United Methodist Church, brought his group on board early. “Over 500 United Methodist justice activists who gathered recently in Colorado chanted ‘believe out loud’ in unison as we launched a new fifty-region national organizing campaign tied to this theme,” Plummer reports.
Rev. Michael Adee, whose More Light Presbyterians are also working hard to advance significant policy change within their 2.5 million-member denomination, observed that “Presbyterians have a longstanding history of social justice… and of politeness. We do not typically wear our faith on our sleeves. But now it is time for us to confess that faith and proclaim our care for LGBT people and their families in a strong, clear voice—which is to say, out loud!”
Ann Craig, veteran United Methodist leader who now directs the Religion, Faith and Values program for the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) says that she has “watched the Believe Out Loud campaign emerge step by step over the course of three years—and I know the expectations are high for the Valentine’s Day launch. We all know this campaign won’t translate into instant success,” Craig adds, “but when people of faith do in fact declare out loud that all people are equal before God, I am convinced that more hearts will change.”
Harry Knox, the creator and longtime director of the Human Rights Campaign’s Religion and Faith Program, also appreciates the way organizers of Believe Out Loud have tried to build it as a big tent with resources that every part of the movement can adapt and use in their own way.
LGBT people, their families and friends are calling for full inclusion in the life of the church. Clergy, too, are hearing their call for justice and hearing God’s call to leadership. Believe Out Loud will equip these clergy to take up the prophetic mantle with pastoral grace in ways that are consistent with their individual faith traditions.
Some secular LGBT advocates (none of whom wished to be identified for this report) have questioned why an effort of this scale and sophistication is even necessary, given the fairly steady advances that LGBT groups have been making within the mainline Protestant world; most recently within the Episcopal Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. But Intersections International’s Bob Chase believes that the overall social impact of rapidly building up an already substantial base of pro-gay religious leadership within American culture should not be underestimated.
Chase also doesn’t think that it’s nearly good enough to assume that time will be a sufficient healer of the wounding gay people continue to suffer as a result of clergy timidity and bad religion.
“When you hear the stories of exclusion and grudging ‘tolerance’ rather than genuine welcome, you just know that the churches can and must do better on this issue,” Chase says. “The clergy know it, too: many of them are just waiting for an opening to make it better, and our job here is to provide that opening for positive change.”