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Faith leaders condemn US Christian right groups ‘exporting hate’

Progressive Christians denounce right-wing groups for denying LGBTIQ rights, spreading misinformation and ‘interfering’ in foreign countries.

Lou crop.jpg Teddy Wilson
Lou Ferreira Teddy Wilson
2 November 2020
A member of the Episcopal Church at an LGBTIQ Pride Festival in Santa Ana, California, in 2019.
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Dustin Nguyen/Wikicommons.

Progressive Christians and faith leaders have denounced US Christian right groups for “exporting hate”, in response to an openDemocracy investigation that has revealed the global scale of their spending and activities against women’s and LGBTIQ rights.

openDemocracy’s investigation has traced more than $280 million spent overseas by 28 US-based organisations that have been accused of engaging in ‘culture wars’ and, in some cases, spreading COVID-19 and other health misinformation.

“There’s nothing Christian about denying our LGBTQ+ neighbours their rights,” Rev. Dr. Debra Haffner told openDemocracy. “There's nothing Christian about interfering in other countries’ legal and political systems. There's nothing Christian about exporting hate.”

Haffner, a pastor at the Unitarian Universalist church in the small city of Reston, Virginia, said that her faith – and that of millions of others – teaches that sexual and gender diversities are a blessing. “Let no one believe that these hate-mongering groups represent what God wants for people created in the divine image,” she said.

Rev. Michael Schuenemeyer said he was concerned that the groups were spreading misinformation and reinforcing harmful stigmas. “We know, particularly from a public health standpoint, that stigma is not our friend,” Schuenemeyer said. “It drives people into isolation, it causes violence against people and it also inhibits people from getting the kind of healthcare that is needed. It creates an environment of fear.”

Schuenemeyer is executive for health and wholeness advocacy at the United Church of Christ (UCC), an Ohio-based Protestant Christian denomination that was formed in 1957 following the merger of the Congregational Church and the Evangelical Reformed Church. “From both of those traditions comes a strong belief in social justice, a strong belief in reaching out and caring for those who are at the margins of society,” he said.

The UCC was the first historically white denomination to ordain an African-American man (1785), a woman (1853) and a gay man (1972). It was also the first Christian church in the US to affirm same-sex marriage. Members describe progressiveness as inherent to their faith, to their belief in “a God that is all-loving and inclusive".

‘This president doesn’t represent our faith’

While US ultra-conservative groups often explain their opposition to women’s and LGBTIQ rights in religious terms, claiming they are defending Christian beliefs and biblical truths, there is significant diversity – theological, ideological and political – among Americans who identify as Christian. This is true for evangelical Christians too.

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Marriage equality supporters demonstrate in front of the US Supreme Court in Washington, DC in 2013. | Pete Marovich/MCT/Sipa USA/PA Images

The number of Christians who say they support LGBT dignity and equality has grown substantially in recent years, according to Adam Polaski, communications director for the Campaign for Southern Equality advocacy group based in North Carolina.

“It’s troubling that ultra-conservative Christian groups seem to have the loudest megaphones. Their divisive anti-LGBTQ views don’t reflect where most Americans – including most Christians – actually stand […] We want to see more stories about the many Christians who support, affirm and love the LGBTQ people in their lives,” he said.

Many LGBT people identify as religious, Polaski added. His group’s executive director, Rev. Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, is also a minister in the United Church of Christ.

Evangelical Christians are often viewed as solidly conservative, both socially and politically. But only 56% identify as Republican and 55% as conservative, according to polling from the Pew Research Center. While white evangelicals voted overwhelmingly for Trump in the 2016 presidential election and remain supportive of him, there’s anecdotal evidence that a growing number of Christians have had a change of heart.

Evangelical leaders from several mainstream Protestant seminaries and universities have announced their support for the Democratic presidential candidate, Joe Biden.

Jerushah Duford, granddaughter of the US evangelical icon Billy Graham, has declared that she is voting for Biden because the “Jesus we serve promotes kindness, dignity, humility, and this president [Trump] doesn’t represent our faith”.

John Fea, a historian and professor at Messiah University in Pennsylvania, wrote that Trump has “manipulated the Christian faith to advance his own unrighteous ends”.

John Piper, a prominent theologian and chancellor of Bethlehem College and Seminary in Minneapolis, said that Trump’s “flagrant boastfulness, vulgarity, immorality, and factiousness” are “nation-corrupting” and denounced what he called a “culture-infecting spread of the gangrene of sinful self-exaltation, and boasting, and strife-stirring”.

‘My Christ is inclusive!’

Some Christians have used social media to condemn what openDemocracy found in its investigation, including US groups’ involvement in anti-rights campaigning, such as court cases against trans rights, same-sex marriage and anti-discrimination laws.

One reader tweeted: “Any group involved in such activity is misappropriating the term Christian.” Some called these organisations “religious fanatics” or “just another hate group”. Another said: “calling them Christian is like calling Comrade Trump honest.”

In general, the message is simple: these groups are not Christians. Because they perpetuate harmful stereotypes “and support a fake idol in Trump as a messiah,” one tweet says, “I can’t think of anything further from [Christianity].”

Another Twitter user described these groups’ anti-rights agendas as “anti-Christ bigotry,” adding: “My Christ is inclusive!”

The Center for American Progress (CAP) a non-partisan policy research and advocacy group, previously reported on what it calls the “misuse” of religious liberty arguments by Trump’s administration which it warns has prioritised certain religious beliefs above others, and “weaponised” religious liberty “as a tool for discrimination and political gain.”

Rights advocates also warn that freedom of religion arguments have been used increasingly to enable individuals and organisations to ‘opt out’ of tolerance, and to gain exemptions from laws that safeguard the rights of women and LGBTIQ people.

“It certainly doesn’t resonate with the Christian faith that I know,” Rev. Schuenemeyer told us. “It’s a message of love, not of hate; it’s a message of welcome and acceptance, not of rejection and being ostracised from the community; it’s a message of reconciliation and healing, and of ministry with those who are most marginalised.”

Instead, he describes these groups’ assault on rights as an “extreme” form of Christianity. “It’s in contrast to every value that I know Jesus calls us to live by.”

In the run-up to the US election this week, several faith-based organisations including Faithful America are encouraging Christians to vote against Trump. “As Christians, we reject the hatred and discrimination of the current administration,” this group’s website says. “We stand instead for the Gospel’s values of social justice, equality, and dignity – and we’re voting with hope and love in our hearts.”

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Grace Blakeley Staff writer at Tribune magazine and author of ‘Stolen: How to Save the World from Financialisation’ and ‘The Corona Crash: How the Pandemic Will Change Capitalism’

Cristina Flesher Fominaya Editor-in-chief of Social Movement Studies Journal; her previous books include ‘Social Movements in a Globalized World’ and ‘The Routledge Handbook of Contemporary European Social Movements’

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