Don't Write Off the Right
An Interview with Soulforce Founder Mel White
By: Candace Chellew-Hodge
Since 1999, Soulforce has been working hard to secure a place at the table for GLBT people in church and society. They've staged sit-ins at Focus on the Family, protested at denominational conventions and synods, lobbied for same-gender marriage and the end of the military's Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy as well as staged two massive Equality Bus Rides around the country.
By all measure, Soulforce has been a success - except by founder Mel White's measure.
"To me, its failure," White told Whosoever in a recent interview. "I thought it would be over by now. I thought the churches were about to give us our rights. That's why Soulforce doesn't have offices. We didn't want to form something that had to be supported. It means we just have to keep fighting."
White, a former ghostwriter for fellow evangelicals, including Billy Graham, Pat Robertson, Jim Bakker, and Jerry Falwell, founded Soulforce using non-violent principles espoused by Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Since leaving the fold of the radical right, White has been monitoring the fundamentalist movement for the past 15 years.
In his latest book, Religion Gone Bad: The Hidden Dangers of the Christian Right, he traces the beginning of conservatives' major push against gays and lesbians back to a secret meeting in 1994. Held at the Glen Eyrie conference center near Colorado Springs, Colorado, the fifty-five fundamentalist Christians gathered with just one goal: "to plan their 'short term' solution for the problem of gay and lesbian Americans." (p. 123)
Since that meeting, we've seen their agenda against gays and lesbians play out all over the country in the form of state constitutional amendments banning same-gender marriage, a federal form of the same amendment, and a push in some states to ban adoption by same-gender couples. Our lives were used as the main "wedge issue" in the presidential election in 2004 where so-called "value voters" went to the polls to vote against our right to marry and for candidates who promised to continue oppressing us. The religious right has also thrown their support behind openly anti-gay candidates and still hold sway as a base voting block that many in the Republican party are terrified to displease.
White warned that we must take the Christian right seriously, because they seriously want to see us eliminated. Why do those on the Christian right believe gay and lesbian people are such a threat to the nation? White said it has everything to do with what conservative Christians call "God's chain of command."
"They see very clearly that the whole universe falls apart if order isn't kept," he said. "God created the order from God to Jesus, from Jesus to men, from men to their wives, from wives to their children. So men play a critical role in bridging the gap between the deity and the family. The human male is the person that God uses to bring the truth to the world and the family. If the man quits acting like a man and doesn't take the man's responsibilities - that's what they call gays - then the structure falls apart."
Therefore, if a nation honors gays and lesbians and grants them full rights, that will anger God who will take his hand of blessing off that country, White continued.
"So, they've got to save the male role, but they also have to save the country for God's blessing. If the country recognizes us in any way like in hate crimes, domestic partnership, the military, or marriage. One of those official recognitions could be the final straw that will break God's back and have God pull away from us," he said.
We've already experienced this argument when Jerry Falwell laid the blame for 9/11 at the feet of abortionists, feminists, gays and lesbians, the ACLU and People for the American Way. The press blew it off as another odd rant from the religious right, but according to White, this is the heart of their belief. The way those on Jerry's list live threatens "God's chain of command." Women are out of their place, choosing when to reproduce, declaring independence from their men and loving other women. Gay men have abandoned their role as real men and are no better than women. The misogyny of the religious right runs as deep as its homophobia. We ignore them at our own peril, White warned.
What can we do to fight back? White's book outlines many non-violent tactics anyone can use to oppose the religious right.
"We should stop cooperating in every way with those who oppress us. We should stop giving money at the churches, playing the organ at the churches, singing in the choir at the churches. We should stop paying our taxes. We should not cooperate with governments or churches that make us second class citizens," White said.
If that sounds radical, it is. Non-violence is not for the weak-hearted. Many non-violent resistors have given their lives to advance their causes in the past. In many ways, non-violence is harder than violence because the personal sacrifice is always greater. For example, not paying your taxes is a serious personal sacrifice to make to fight a government that oppresses you. It's not a step everyone would feel comfortable taking because the personal cost could be too great to bear. White, however, encouraged everyone to find some way to resist the discrimination our community faces daily in society.
"Everyone is on the front lines, but some of them are not fighting. Every day you're called upon to resist. Once we get alert to the fact that we are the resistance movement then we will find ways to resist, individually. It's not mobs in the street, but place by place," White said.
For example, White said putting a picture of your partner on your desk at your homophobic job is resisting non-violently. Coming out on that job or bringing your partner to a company function is resisting non-violently. Holding hands in church or taking communion together is a form of non-violent resistance. Writing a letter to the editor is non-violent resistance.
"All of that is flying in the face of expectations," said White. "Gandhi said we must be the change we want to see and to me that says it all."
White and those who have joined Soulforce over the years have been trying to put those words into practice, being the change they want to see. Soulforce is continuing its fight sponsoring even more events like Seven Straight Nights where straight allies have held press conferences around the country to support marriage equality. Three vans toured the state of New York to support a marriage bill there. Bus tours have also been held in Eastern Europe where homosexuality is still not accepted. White said they are also working on a Web page to help connect people who are contemplating suicide with professional counselors who can help them.
Even though White believes the fact that Soulforce is still working and growing represents a failure to create real and lasting change, he's proud of the work it's done and the lives that have been changed.
"We've trained way over 10,000 people in non-violence," he said. "Doing those things have caused people to change. Once they've taken a stand they're never the same. So I feel very successful in helping to raise up another generation of activists."
Candace Chellew-Hodge is a recovering Southern Baptist and founder/editor of Whosoever: An Online Magazine for GLBT Christians. Her new book, Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians, will be published in the Fall of 2008 by Jossey-Bass. She currently serves as associate pastor at Garden of Grace United Church of Christ in Columbia, S.C. She is also a spiritual director, trained through the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta. She has worked for the past two decades in journalism and public relations. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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