Ted Cruz and Ben Carson had just left the stage to a standing ovation, bringing an end to Proclaim16, a four-day showcase of right-wing Christian leaders hosted by the National Religious Broadcasters, an event I’d been monitoring as part of my work as an opposition researcher (a.k.a. “queer spy”). I beelined for the door and was about to congratulate myself for making it through the week relatively unscathed when a woman with long brown hair and an unseasonably dark tan approached me with the sort of smile I’ve learned not to trust.
We’d met a few days prior at a special luncheon featuring conservative megachurch pastor Rick Warren. It was clear that she’d found me out and was on a mission to save my (very queer) soul. Before I could dart away, she skipped right past casual small talk and launched into her testimony: “I’m one of the most sexual people I know,” she said with a furrowed brow, “but I’m a 40-year-old virgin because God calls us to sexual purity.”
To clarify, “sexual purity” means “no sex outside of marriage” (including “same-sex marriage,” of course, because no matter what the Supreme Court says, that doesn’t count). For NRB-affiliated folks, this is the rule.
NRB is an international network of fundamentalist Christian media makers with immense cultural and political clout. All 1,400-plus NRB member organizations are bound by an explicit antigay mandate located within their Code of Ethics. The document requires members to “refrain from any sexual conduct or lifestyle, such as homosexuality or adultery, which is inconsistent with Scripture, or any promotion of the same.” This requirement effectively inscribes homophobia into the policies of all NRB member organizations, thereby further promoting the silencing, erasure, and oppression of LGBTQ people.
Suffice it to say, I won’t be signing up as a member any time soon.
Later this month, the National Religious Broadcasters group will again gather for its annual convention, this time at Orlando’s World Center Marriott. The event attracts thousands of conservative Christian media makers every year, including representatives of some of the most infamous anti-LGBTQ, right-wing institutions in the country. Proclaim17’s speaker list currently features a slate of major players on the Christian right, many of whom are counted among the LGBTQ community’s greatest adversaries.
That these foes of equality will be gathering in Orlando, a city still reeling from last year’s Pulse nightclub massacre, is at once cruel and also unsurprising. The World Center Marriott is situated on the southwest edge of the city, close to Disney World’s Magic Kingdom. The venue is also about a 20-minute drive from the now-infamous Pulse, where in the early hours of June 12, 2016, a gunman opened fire in the midst of a Latinx-themed event. By the time dawn broke, 50 people were dead and dozens more injured, making it the worst mass shooting in U.S. history.
Gun violence, however, isn’t the only form of violence endured by LGBTQ people.
According to the old children’s rhyme, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” Indeed, verbal attacks don’t leave visible scars or bruises, but the mental, emotional, and spiritual violence that accompany anti-LGBTQ rhetoric can inflict lasting damage on queer and trans people. Furthermore, those words — the ones that supposedly don’t do any harm — ultimately serve to embolden individuals who seek to inflict physical harm.
Some of the most notorious American propagators of harmful, anti-LGBTQ rhetoric — and the ideologies that fuel it — are on NRB’s roster. The list includes the Alliance Defending Freedom, Family Research Council, Focus on the Family, and the American Family Association, organizations whose work has influenced generations of Christian right warriors, impeding progress for equality and promoting laws and policies that further inhibit bodily autonomy, self-determination, health care access, and human rights.
In the wake of federal marriage equality and growing popular acceptance of LGBTQ people, the right has been forced to seek out new strategies for oppressing and attacking sexual and gender minorities. The redefinition of religious freedom has emerged as a favored tactic, and this foundational national principle (and progressive value) is being manipulated from its original purpose — that of a shield — into a dangerous weapon designed for the purpose of legalizing discrimination and accelerating Christian dominionism.
Jerry Johnson, NRB’s president and CEO, regularly tells people, “NRB wants to be for the First Amendment, what NRA [National Rifle Association] is for the Second Amendment.”
To further advance this vision, NRB maintains “a close working relationship” with the Federal Communications Commission, Congress, the courts, and the executive branch. In July of last year, the organization also relocated its headquarters to Washington, D.C., within a few blocks of the U.S. Capitol, due to “growing concerns among our members about their First Amendment rights to proclaim the Gospel.”
NRB’s advocacy is currently focused on advancing the First Amendment Defense Act, legislation that would prohibit the federal government from taking “discriminatory action” against businesses or individuals who discriminate against LGBTQ people. Building off the damaging precedent set by the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision in 2014, which effectively qualified privately held businesses for the same sorts of legal exemptions previously reserved for religious institutions, the act would further blur the line between church and state.
Jenny Pizer, law and policy director at Lambda Legal, warns, “This proposed new law violates both Equal Protection and the Establishment Clause by elevating one set of religious beliefs above all others,” (e.g. the belief that unmarried 40-year-olds are meant to be virgins). She goes on to explain, “There cannot be even one iota of doubt that this bill endorses one set of religious beliefs above others, and targets people in same-sex relationships, married or not, as well as unmarried heterosexual couples who live together. It’s an unconstitutional effort to turn the clock back to a time when unmarried mothers has to hide in shame, and LGBT people had to hide, period.”
In other words, NRB is trying to return America to that period of “greatness” when it was totally acceptable to oppress anyone and everyone who didn’t fit into the white, heterosexual, conservative Christian model. Now that it’s no longer acceptable to criminalize homosexuality, the right is seeking to decriminalize discrimination against LGBTQ people.
Vice President Mike Pence, who received NRB’s Faith & Freedom Award in 2009 for being a “stalwart defender of religious liberty,” signed a “religious freedom” bill during his tenure as governor of Indiana in 2015. Much like the proposed First Amendment Defense Act, Indiana’s law essentially legalized discrimination against LGBTQ people. Now, with NRB cheering Pence on from just down the road, we can anticipate that similar attacks are on the horizon.
Resistance, however, is on its way to Orlando. Soulforce, an organization that aims to “challenge the Religious Right through relentless nonviolent resistance in order to end the political and religious oppression of LGBTQI people,” will be holding a vigil throughout the entirety of NRB’s convention. To learn more about their #KeepPulseAlive campaign, visit Soulforce.org/keep-pulse-alive.