Putting Faith in America

What do a defrocked Methodist minister, a furniture maker and a former, self-described, homophobic, right-wing bigot have in common? A commitment to ending religious-based discrimination against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. Their weapon of choice? Advertising.

“These ads are intended to start something – to provoke reflection and conversation, in much the same way that ads draw attention to products no one had thought of before. It’s using the tools of marketing to try to begin to change people’s attitudes,” said Jimmy Creech, the former Methodist minister who now leads “Faith in America,” the organization spearheading the advertising campaign.

The organization, based in Raleigh, North Carolina, is the brainchild of Mitchell Gold, a businessman who founded a successful furniture company in Taylorsville, North Carolina. Over the past several years Gold became more keenly aware of the role religion played in justifying discrimination against GLBT people, Creech said. Last year, Gold had the idea of using ads in newspapers around the country to convey the message that religion has been used in the past to justify slavery, racial segregation, to deny women their full rights, to persecute non-Christians and Christians with minority beliefs and deny them full rights.

“Most folks today don’t argue with the fact that those religious justifications are wrong and evil. The same misuse of religion is justifying discrimination against GLBT people today and they are no less wrong and evil. That’s the message being put out in the ads to get people to reflect on history, to learn from history and to being to think about how religion is shaping their thoughts today,” Creech said.

Enter Brent Childers – owner of a small ad agency in Hickory, North Carolina. Two years ago, Childers described himself as a “homophobic, right-wing Christian, Republican bigot,” according to Creech. His epiphany came during a dinner with his mother.

“He went on a homophobic rant after which she said to him, “Brent, your attitude is not Christ like.’ He reflected on that and thought about why he thought as he did about GLBT people and the religious influences that caused negative thoughts. Now he’s very affirming of GLBT people,” Creech said.

Gold approached Childers about an ad campaign asking him to create advertisements that would have moved him before he changed his mind about homosexuality. What he produced are a series of powerful ads, full of provocative images and words.

The first ad that ran, called “Supreme Injustice,” features a picture of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and his wife Virginia with the headline, “Offense Before God?” He is black, she is white. The ad makes the point that the Thomas’ marriage would not have been legal before 1967 when state laws against inter-racial marriage were struck down by the Supreme Court. The ad notes that “opponents of inter-racial marriage cited the Bible to justify this discrimination” and compares this injustice in marriage to the injustice now being done to GLBT people who aren’t allowed to marry.

The ad proclaims: “Using Religion To Justify Discrimination Is The Real Offense Before God.”

The ad, sponsored by the National Black Justice Coalition, ran in Roll Call, the Congressional newspaper in Washington, D.C. in January.

“Tucker Carlson saw the ad and had Alexander Robinson, the executive director of the NBJC, on his evening program and just grilled him for involving Mrs. Thomas in this controversy. Alexander said he was delighted that Virginia and Clarence Thomas are allowed to marry and that’s all we’re asking for same-gender couples,” Creech said.

Another ad shows a Ku Klux Klan cross burning, asking “Remember when the cross was used to promote discrimination against people of color? Let’s not use it today to promote that same attitude toward people who are gay.”

Nine ads are available, and Creech hopes that they can form partnerships with organizations and churches around the country to get the ads placed in newspapers in every market, large and small. Faith in America supplies the ads for free, depending on the churches and organizations to raise the funds to place the ads. At the moment two campaigns are going one – one in Indianapolis, sponsored by Jesus MCC, and another in the area around Gold’s factory in North Carolina.

“Mitchell feels strongly that if he’s going to challenge religious-based bigotry he needs to do it in his own neighborhood and be very open about it,” Creech said.

In addition to a four-week ad campaign in the newspapers, Gold also sent a 3-page letter to all of his 750 employees telling them about the campaign and why it’s important to him. Gold’s greatest fear was that some employees would quit over the campaign, but so far, employees have been “either very supportive or very quiet,” according to Creech.

But, changing such deeply held religious beliefs about GLBT people is no easy task, and it will certainly take more than an ad campaign. Creech said he believes the underlying problem is millennia of anti-erotic and anti-sexuality beliefs that are deeply engrained in both society and the church. So, affirming GLBT people in both society and in the church is an affirmation of sexuality in general – and that’s a big step.

“When you talk about GLBT people immediately sexuality is part of the definition. When you talk about people in general you can ignore the sexual dimension of people. But to speak of GLBT people is to speak of sexuality and to affirm them is to affirm sexuality – not as a mechanical act to procreate, but a source of pleasure and an act of love and that is, I think, in our culture very, very difficult. So, to truly affirm GLBT people is to affirm sexuality beyond the act of procreation and that is troubling within the conservative arm of Christianity,” Creech said.

Creech hopes the ads, then, will begin a deeper conversation that will have the same affect such conversations had on Childers – creating an atmosphere of change.

“We suspect that most of the thoughtful people who are really going to be impacted by these ads are not going to respond right away. It’s going to take some time for this reflection to happen. It won’t be immediate. We’re hoping that the change of minds and hearts will happen over time.” Creech said.