Faith-based equality

What would Jesus do, indeed. Hundreds of straight religious leaders are coming out in support of gay men and lesbians—both in speaking to their congregations and lobbying lawmakers

BY Sarah Wildman

August 28 2005 11:00 PM ET

In November 1980,
Steve Clunn was a 19-year-old with two dreams: become a
minister and see Ronald Reagan get elected president. He
remembers thinking that the 40th president was just
the conservative force needed in the United States to
“keep the queers out of the classroom.”

A quarter century
later, Clunn has come full circle. He is pastor at
First United Methodist Church in Schenectady, N.Y., and one
of the state’s most outspoken supporters of gay
and lesbian rights.

“I
understand the pull of being raised homophobic, because I
was,” says Clunn. “I went from a place
of ignorance and fear to a place of understanding
because people had the courage to talk to me. I don’t
know if they saw something redemptive in me.”

As the antigay
right continues to use religious rhetoric as a political
tool to stall equality, Clunn and hundreds of other straight
religious leaders are speaking up for LGBT Americans.
More than 450 religious leaders participate in the
Pride in the Pulpit program run by New York gay
equality group Empire State Pride Agenda. The Washington,
D.C.–based National Gay and Lesbian Task Force
has run a religious roundtable with primarily LGBT
clergy members from inclusive congregations of all faiths
since 1998, and during the past year and a half that project
has turned increasingly toward national advocacy work.
Also in D.C., the Human Rights Campaign announced in
June the launch of its nationwide Religion and Faith
Program.

Meanwhile,
activists in 25 other states have called on religious
leaders to fight against statewide campaigns that seek
to deny marriage rights to gay couples. These projects
are not simply a response to last year’s
election—most began before—but they have
increased in urgency as a result of the aggressive use
of religious rhetoric by those who advanced homophobic
amendments and legislation.

“If
it’s just LGBT people talking and organizing, then we
lose,” says Alan Van Capelle, executive
director of Empire State Pride Agenda. “The
most important thing we could do was find nontraditional
allies to organize around our issues.”

The religious
leaders in the program reject the use of religious rhetoric
toward homophobic ends, the biblical literalism of certain
antigay religious leaders, and the idea that being gay
is a sin. They are challenging the efforts to paint
people and politicians who speak for LGBT rights as
somehow ungodly, and they are taking pains to show the
face of a very different religious world, one in which we
are all, to paraphrase these clergymen and women,
God’s children.

Clunn was pleased
to be approached by Pride in the Pulpit. There is a
sense of relief both on the part of the clergy members who
have long desired to have a say in the use of
religious rhetoric and a chance to reject the
homophobia used in the name of religion and on the part of
LGBT activists.

Clunn’s
changed views regarding gay men and lesbians came when he
entered the seminary in 1985. He saw gay friends who
were active in the church but forced to stay in the
closet. It enraged him. Clunn ended up leading a group
of students working to change the doctrines of the United
Methodist Church.

Today, he pastors
at a “reconciling” congregation—one
that consciously appeals to LGBT parishioners. It is
akin to “reconciling” congregations in
the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and
“welcoming” Presbyterian churches
affiliated with that denomination’s More Light
movement.

Having such
religious leaders speak out in support of gay men and
lesbians is crucial in the current political climate, says
Pride Agenda’s Van Capelle. For example, if an
antigay state lawmaker “gathers religious
leaders to denounce homosexuality and gay marriage…we
now have our rapid response team from within the Pride
in the Pulpit team that is able to stand as religious
leaders and say, ‘No, there are many religious
leaders in New York that are against discrimination,
including discrimination against gays and
lesbians.’ ”

NGLTF’s
roundtable and HRC’s Religion and Faith Program try
to do this on a national level.

“Some try
to make the claim that LGBT equality is not related to civil
rights. I think that’s bogus,” says the
Reverend Cedric A. Harmon, a Baptist minister and
member of the NGLTF roundtable who describes himself
as a “same-gender-loving” man.

Harmon adds,
“Liberation is for all, and as long as one person is
not free, all of us are still in bondage. The
roundtable is uniquely positioned and doing a good job
of getting more religious voices out there so LGBT
persons and persons of faith can communicate with each
other in ways that have not happened in the past. We talk
about what’s going on nationally, and we find
ways to respond to the religious right, who seem to
have taken Christianity and religious thinking
captive.”

After the last
roundtable in September 2004, a delegation of
interdenominational clergy went to Capitol Hill to lobby
legislators to oppose the antigay Federal Marriage
Amendment. “Often they don’t know that
there are religious communities and religious leaders,
pastors, and clergy who are supportive [of LGBT
rights],” says Harmon.

There are hurdles
to such programs, however. Progressives generally have
an understandably great distaste for weakening the barriers
between church and state.

“We have
been very reluctant, I think, to talk about our individual
faith journeys and what motivates many of us to be
involved in the justice movement, because we
didn’t want to be disrespectful,” says
HRC’s Religion and Faith Program director Harry
Knox, an ordained Methodist minister from Georgia.
“But what we have lost in that process has been
important, and we need to recognize we have to reclaim it,
which is the power of authenticity. What motivates us
individually as advocates and activists? For many
people, it is their faith.”

HRC, NGLTF, and
Freedom to Marry will hold a Washington, D.C.,
informational summit in September that will bring together
leaders from the 25 states that have progressive
clergy coalitions.

“What we
are doing now is going to our colleagues around the country
who have already been doing this work, like the LGBT
affinity groups in various denominations,” says
Knox. “We are asking this question: What will
the Religion and Faith Program look like if it is relevant
to the communities you serve, enhancing of the work
you are doing, without co-opting that work?”

Recently Clunn
wrote a letter to his congregation in which he addressed
the presence of God in all relationships, no matter what the
couple’s sexuality. “My marriage and
family life and/or values aren’t threatened in
any way by two people of the same sex trying to live out
what I’ve had the good fortune to find,”
he wrote. “Yes, I am personally in favor of
marriage for same-sex couples, but it has so much more
behind it than an extension of rights and privileges
that I enjoy as a married person. I simply
don’t want anyone to be denied the ability to
discover the same joy I’ve found in my
marriage.”

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