Ministers Hate Fags Too

The Rev. Jerry Johnston is telling an Overland Park room filled with about 150 Kansas City-area church leaders on July 6 about a certain group of unrepentant sinners who may bring about the end of the world.

According to Johnston, the Almighty’s wrath is so great, he may very soon call down Armageddon on the people of the Earth.

Such is the Lord’s displeasure, apparently, with one group of backsliders in particular.

The Kansas Statehouse.

Johnston and other conservative preachers are still seething over the Kansas Legislature’s decision in May not to join with other states, such as neighboring Missouri, that have placed constitutional amendments on their ballots to ban same-sex marriage. (Gay marriage is already against the law in Kansas. Proponents of the failed amendment, however, argue that a state constitutional ban will protect the law from “activist” judges and fickle legislators.)

The Sunflower State would seem the least likely place to make a stand for gay rights. Its capital, Topeka, is home, after all, to that most visible — and most easily dismissed — of homophobic clowns, the Rev. Fred Phelps, whose rallying cry, “God hates fags,” has long made him synonymous with the word intolerance.

But just 2 and a half miles from Phelps’ Westboro Baptist Church, state senators and representatives have twice torpedoed the proposed amendment — even though such a ballot measure probably would enjoy wide support among the voting public. Polls show that Missouri’s proposed amendment will pass with ease on August 3, making a same-sex marriage ban part of the state’s primary legal document. But Kansans won’t have that same opportunity.

And that’s left Johnston seeing red.

And orange and yellow.

Johnston’s has become the loudest voice in northeast Kansas rallying other ministers in a highly visible campaign to wreak vengeance on state lawmakers who voted against the proposed amendment.

His campaign is so well-organized that it’s color-coded.

During the July 6 seminar at his First Family Church, Johnston projects the images of Kansas legislators like so many mug shots on a 15-foot screen. Each is accompanied by brief texts — name, district and the lawmaker’s stance on only two issues.

The names of representatives and senators who support the constitutional gay-marriage ban and who oppose legal abortion are printed in bright, sunshiny yellow. The names of representatives who oppose the amendment and support abortion rights are printed in blood-red. Those with mixed records have their names printed in orange.

The message is simple: The ministers in the room want the red-colored lawmakers to pay for their votes. But such a blatant political goal, rousing Kansas congregations to throw the bums out in future elections, can put the ministers and their churches in jeopardy. As nonprofits that don’t pay taxes, churches are banned from endorsing or opposing particular candidates. Doing so means risking their tax-free status.

But Johnston and his colleagues believe they have that figured out as well.

The July 6 seminar begins with a pep rally of sorts when Johnston introduces his first featured speaker, former gay activist Joe Dallas.

Dallas has made a career talking about how he gave up being gay. And, as his book explains, you can, too. Desires in Conflict — Hope for Men Who Struggle With Sexual Identity, the title reads. “You may know someone who needs this book,” suggests the cover blurb of the book, which is handily available in the First Family lobby.

Addressing the pastors, Dallas draws comparisons between proponents of gay rights and Nazis in Denmark during World War II. The mass murder of Danish Jews began with a rock thrown through a synagogue window and anti-Semitic graffiti painted on the property of Jewish shopkeepers, Dallas says.

Those relatively minor acts were intended to gauge the reaction of the rest of the Danish people, to see if they’d go along, Dallas explains.

Television shows such as Will and Grace and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy are like that rock, Dallas argues. The couple of gay men who demanded to be served communion during a 2002 Catholic bishops’ conference are like that graffiti.

None of the ministers in the room bother to point out to Dallas that thousands of homosexuals actually were victims of the Holocaust along with Jews and that equating gay activists with Nazis is, well, rather queer.

Instead, the audience appears very receptive to Dallas’ message. “The true horror of the gay rights movement … is only coming to us slowly,” Dallas says. “It is as though they are testing us.”

Johnston and his group of like-minded Kansas pastors are determined to pass that test — but still stay in the good graces of the Internal Revenue Service.

After Dallas’ rallying cry, Johnston introduces a representative from the Alliance Defense Fund, who goes over the dos and don’ts of their nonprofit status. The Alliance Defense Fund was founded a decade ago by thirty Christian ministries. The group challenges perceived discrimination against Christians by employers, the government and the American Civil Liberties Union, an organization the ADF’s Web site calls “radical.”

Pastors can talk all they want about issues, the ADF representative says. They can speak about what they believe are the dangers of homosexuality or the problem with legalizing gay marriage. But to avoid running afoul of the law, they must stop short of speaking for or against individual candidates when representing the church.

Not that the risk is actually very great. Experts tell the Pitch that actions taken by Johnston and his gang already step over clearly marked boundaries for nonprofits. But past examples of blatant politicizing by churches show that enforcement is rare.

And really, what is there to worry about when one of the people in the room, egging on the vengeful ministers, is the state’s chief law-enforcement officer?

Kansas Attorney General Phill Kline’s speech may be the most impassioned of the day.

He stalks the stage as if he’s part of a gospel revival, as if the cinder-block walls are tent cloth, as if everyone in the room faces eternal damnation if he fails to get his message across.

He hunches over the microphone, more preacher than politician, speaking quickly. He tells of visiting a high school class and being appalled at the students’ conclusion that right and wrong are relative and determined by government.

He describes putting his hand on the shoulder of an African-American student in the class and explaining that, during the 1800s, he could have beaten or killed the teenager without being punished. The example probably horrified the chosen student, but to Kline, it makes his point that governments can make mistakes, that the law he is sworn to enforce can err. The Bible never does, he tells the pastors. “If we can’t have faith in the words in this book … can we have hope in the God that authored it?”

Legalized abortion and the failure of a gay-marriage amendment in Kansas, Kline says, are examples of how bad things have become.

“We have a culture going the wrong direction in the silence of the church,” he implores. “We need you to rise up. We need you to lift your voices.”

And those nagging legal issues? Kline announces that he will hold a seminar of his own with Kansas U.S. Attorney Eric Melgren to answer questions about the tax code. (That July 14 event drew about 100 people, many of them pastors, to Johnson County Community College in Overland Park. The attendees were given a lesson on the dos and don’ts for nonprofits interested in participating in politics.)

A week before Kline’s July 6 appearance, the Pitch faxed to Washington, D.C.-based watchdog group Americans United for the Separation of Church and State a copy of a voter guide Johnston distributed. The guide included the yellow-orange-red, mug-shot lineup of state legislators.

Robert Boston, a spokesman for AU, says Johnston’s guide is problematic on two fronts.

“Number one, it is very narrowly focused on two issues,” Boston tells the Pitch. “The IRS recommends that a voter guide be broadly based.”

And Johnston’s introduction at the front of the guide makes it clear that he supports a marriage amendment.

“It’s comparing the votes of members of the Legislature with the church’s view and making it clear which members voted in a way that angered the church,” Boston says. “This would be OK for a PAC [political action committee], but for a nonprofit, it could easily be construed as a type of back-door endorsement.”

At the July 6 seminar, Johnston distributed a second version of his voter guide. Johnston’s new introduction was toned down and included no specific reference to his abhorrence of gay marriage. But it still held politicians accountable for only two votes.

The pastors at the seminar are told that serious punishment by the IRS is unlikely.

Though the IRS has 300 employees to qualify and audit nonprofit entities, there are few examples of churches being sanctioned. Boston’s best example is more than 10 years old.

He recalls that in 1992, a Binghamton, New York, church ran a full-page newspaper ad during President Bill Clinton’s first election campaign. The ad condemned Clinton for his stance on various “family values” issues. After investigating the ad, the IRS revoked the church’s nonprofit tax exemption.

An ADF representative points out, however, that the sanction was retroactive and affected only the year during which the ad ran.

If such a blatant act of campaigning was treated lightly, how much trouble could come to a Johnson County pastor who says something inappropriate?

Although parishioners in Kansas churches face plenty of local problems — troubles with state funding of schools, a stagnant economy, slow job growth, abuse of children in a shoddy state foster-care system, among others — some of their ministers are hopping mad because men and women in the state of Massachusetts married their gay partners.

Those Massachusetts nuptials set off a national firestorm as conservative state legislators scrambled to get a one-man, one-woman definition written into their state constitutions.

Republican-dominated Kansas, however, rejected a proposed amendment not once but twice.

That doesn’t mean gay Kansans will be able to marry, or even that their marriages performed elsewhere will be recognized. Kansas law already declares marriage to be between one man and one woman. And the Defense of Marriage Act, signed into law by Bill Clinton in 1996, means that gay marriages aren’t recognized by the federal government and that other states aren’t bound to honor them.

But the legislative defeat seems only to have emboldened the amendment’s backers.

“I came back from Topeka … really frustrated and realizing that the church was not really involved, and the people of faith had kind of taken a back seat in the political realm,” says Joe Wright, pastor of Central Christian Church in Wichita. “I really decided the church needed to wake up, and Christians needed to get involved in the process.”

Though Dennis Slavens, senior pastor at Antioch Family Worship Center in Overland Park, has had voter-registration tables at his church before, he says he plans a more aggressive campaign this time around.

“There is a lot of power, a lot of power in persuasion. That can be used wrongly. That can be used rightly,” Slavens tells the Pitch. “We have no intention of breaking the law. We have every intention of exercising our rights.”

Johnston also is determined to pay more attention to politics. Before being drawn into the fray on gay marriage, Johnston favored what he called a Billy Graham approach — preach the Gospel, and “everything will take care of itself.”

Watching the state House of Representatives defeat the bill, Johnston says, he experienced a calling of sorts. “I don’t want this to be perceived as an arrogant statement,” he says. “I really believe God is raising me up to help marshal the clergy.”

Johnston believes that, unchallenged, homosexuals will only push their agenda further.

“I don’t believe the gay community is going to stop at same-sex marriage,” Johnston says. “I can’t accept teaching homosexuality to elementary school children…. It’s not normal. It’s not healthy.”

Wright doesn’t want government meddling too much in what he considers church business.

“It does strike at the very foundation building blocks of our homes and our society and our churches, which is the family,” Wright says. “It’s the government redefining holy matrimony.”

But Wright doesn’t have the same problem with churches getting involved in government business.

Wright’s own call to arms is still posted on his church’s Web site: “We must activate every person who wears the name of Christ to battle this evil that is pervading our lives and the lives of our precious family members, including generations to come!”

Wright was the one who alerted Johnston to the issue, and in Concordia, Marion, Parsons, Topeka, Norton, El Dorado, Augusta and a host of other small towns, Wright has pressed for more pastors in politics.

“I tell them it is their responsibility to educate, motivate and mobilize their congregation members to become registered voters and not to attempt to tell them who to vote for but to educate them as to the voting records of those who are already holding office and the platforms of new candidates,” Wright says.

Terry Worthington, pastor at Norton Church of God, says Wright seemed sincere when he visited his church.

“I don’t think he’s out to be a grandstander. I don’t think he’s out to be a showman taking center stage,” Worthington says. “I thought it was very positive. It wasn’t anything critical of the gays per se by any means. More than anything, he was just concerned about the gay-marriage proposal.”

The Rev. Richard Brooks heard a presentation Wright made in Concordia. The 80-year-old Episcopal priest calls himself a “middle of the road” person who doesn’t believe gays should be allowed to marry. He says he appreciated Wright’s message, but he worries about how it will be received.

“I’m very concerned about pastors becoming too political,” Brooks says. “Some of our pastors responded so vigorously, it kind of worried me a bit.”

Soon after it became apparent that Kansas ministers were banding together to take down uncooperative legislators, an unlikely group announced that it was coming to the rescue of the country’s tax laws.

Kansas churches, the public was told, would soon be infiltrated by “spies” determined to bust pastors who turned their pulpits into tools of Republican campaigns.

The Mainstream Coalition, a political action group founded, oddly, by clergy, made news recently by revealing its intention to send about 100 volunteers to local churches to monitor what was said by politicized preachers.

Caroline McKnight, the group’s executive director, admits that announcing publicly the plan to covertly surveil churches might not have been the most effective way to catch violators red-handed. But, she tells the Pitch, “The goal was to raise awareness, which is certainly what’s happened.”

About 165 clergy are connected with the Mainstream Coalition. One of the tenets of the group is to promote separation of church and state. “We feel it is altogether proper to theologize these social issues, not politicize them,” says Bob Meneilly, former pastor at Village Presbyterian Church in Prairie Village. A Meneilly sermon reprinted in The New York Times sparked the formation of the coalition in 1993. The sermon advocated separation of church and state and criticized the religious right for becoming involved in politics. Meneilly’s concern has only grown since then. “For the last three decades, the whole political climate has changed in our democracy,” Meneilly says now. “This struggle between church and state has increased.”

In the past couple of weeks, the city has fairly buzzed with righteous indignation — over both the political aspirations of the conservative ministers and the very idea of double agents slipping into congregations around the state.

From the reactions she’s heard, McKnight figures she must be on to something.

“We’re getting all this raggy stuff about how we are tromping on someone’s First Amendment rights,” she says. “Based upon the firestorm that has ensued, there are some people doing some things they shouldn’t be.”

Last week, the Pitch asked to tag along with a Mainstream Coalition spy to see what the cloak-and-dagger world of nonprofit-tax-violation busting was really all about.

Marie Shannon, a Mainstream Coalition member who asked that her real name not be used, agreed to take along a reporter and admitted that she really did want to catch a preacher violating the law. Frankly, Shannon says, she was a little disappointed when McKnight announced the group’s plans.

“I thought we were going to be true spies,” she says.

The 72-year-old woman grew up Catholic and now attends a liberal Protestant church. She says she’s troubled by the noise being made by some evangelical and conservative pastors. “It uses a religious, spiritual organization that should be addressing things that are more heartfelt … rather than getting into the political fray,” she says.

McKnight suggested that Shannon visit First Baptist Church of Overland Park on a more or less random basis. Some volunteers were given a couple of churches from which to choose. Others were told to pick any church they wanted. That unscientific approach had an unintended result: Shannon later learned that another Mainstream Coalition spy also had staked out First Baptist Church.

The church, near 96th Street and Antioch, was going to be well-monitored.

Shannon tried to time her arrival to just a couple of minutes before the start of the 10:45 a.m. service. Hoping to avoid too many questions as a visitor, she wanted to blend into the crowd. She wore a simple, white dress with seashells embroidered on the front. She occasionally removed her keys from one of the dress’s two pockets, only to replace them again. But she insisted she wasn’t nervous.

When she entered, just a couple of minutes before the start of the service, there was no crowd to blend into. Only one old woman was hobbling to the door from the parking lot.

“We should hurry and go in with her,” Shannon said.

Just inside the glass door, an elderly couple smiled wide at Shannon’s unfamiliar face.

“Good morning,” the hostess said, extending a hand. “We’re glad to have you. Are you from nearby?”

Shannon stammered an answer. “I … I’m moving here,” she offered.

“Wonderful,” the woman responded. She pointed toward the sanctuary.

McKnight had given Shannon two documents. One was a brochure with a summary of the laws governing what religious organizations can and can’t do legally during election season. The other was a worksheet she could fill out to report questionable action by the church or its pastor. Shannon left both in the car.

First Baptist was one of those churches that must have seemed so modern and minimalist and cool when they were built in the 1960s or ’70s. Now, with its concave roof, geometric décor and wall-to-wall carpet, it just seemed very brown.

About fifty people were present for the 10:45 a.m. service on July 11. Maybe ten of them were younger than 50. Shannon took a seat on a padded pew toward the back and studied the bulletin offered by an usher.

The service alternated between prayers and hymns, led from the front by the church staff and accompanied by an organist and the Rev. Andrew Currier on guitar. Shannon participated in the prayers but declined to join the congregation as it sang, In Christ there is no east or west/In him no south or north/But one great fellowship of love/Throughout the whole wide earth. She put a dollar in the collection plate.

It was during the children’s time that Shannon realized she would have little to report back to the Mainstream Coalition. Adjunct Pastor Jennifer Schneider, a blond woman who had helped lead the singing, called three young boys to the front. She had to prod her own son just a little to get him to join her.

Schneider’s message was about ice cream and siblings and M&Ms. “We’re not all like each other, just like M&Ms are not all the same,” Schneider said. “God loves each of us. It would be no fun if we were all exactly the same.”

Schneider’s point was picked up by Currier during his sermon on the biblical story about the good Samaritan. The title character of the story is the only one willing to help a wounded Jewish man lying in the road. The moral lesson about helping those in need also carries a message about racial tolerance. In the era of the story, Jews and Samaritans were sworn enemies; the story challenges Christians to treat everyone as they would a neighbor.

“Let’s rejoice in the fact we are all different,” Currier said.

So much for rooting out a raving bigot at the pulpit.

Shannon shook Currier’s hand at the end of the service and told him she appreciated the sermon.

“I didn’t feel like it was a waste of time,” she said afterward. “I went to church. It was uplifting … I thought it was quite spiritual, actually, which it should be.”

She did feel for Currier. “I felt sorry for the pastor who had so few people there with as much energy as he spent on that sermon,” she said. “That’s sad, really.”
If McKnight thought her threat to spy on pastors would quiet their political fever, it may actually have had the opposite effect.

“We have the Mainstream Coalition to thank,” says Slavens, pastor at the Antioch Family Worship Center. “What’s going to happen is they are going to wake a bunch of us up.”

Meanwhile, the targets of Slavens’ and Johnston’s rage prepare for the onslaught of angry Christian soldiers in election campaigns throughout the area.

John Ballou, a committed Christian and anti-abortion conservative, has found himself challenged after a decade as a state representative for southwest Johnson County.

He called the marriage-amendment vote the hardest he’s ever had to make. As it neared, he lost sleep and agonized over the decision. In the end, the conservative voted what he thought was a conservative stance. He voted down the amendment.

“I consider the vote against the amendment a conservative vote,” he says. “A conservative believes in limited government and freedom. How does denying rights to one group of people because you don’t like them make you a conservative?”

Ballou knew what to expect. He’s been a part of the conservative camp for years. Sure enough, his seat is being threatened by a fellow Republican who claims unwavering devotion to fighting gay marriage.

But Ballou doesn’t understand the fixation on this one issue at the expense of others.

“We sit here and do nothing with education that affects 400,000 students in the state. We put transportation on the back burner,” he says. “To me, there are a lot of things that are a lot more important that affect a lot more people than whether or not a couple of gays or lesbians get married.”

Representative Stephanie Sharp also voted against the amendment. The Shawnee Republican argues that the gay-marriage issue was not the most important of the session; she says it wasn’t even the most important for people who profess to be Christian. Sharp believes a better biblical argument could be made for offering in-state tuition rates for children of immigrants seeking citizenship or for fully funding the part of the social-services budget that offers assistance to the state’s elderly and disabled, two proposals that were opposed by many conservative legislators in recent years.

Would Jesus obsess over two women or two men tying the knot? Or would he be more concerned by the adequate education of thousands of children?

“I had a hard time reconciling the different messages the Bible sends on the issue,” Sharp says. “The overall message of the Bible is love…. Nowhere in the Bible does God give over his judgment authority to the Kansas Legislature or the citizens of Kansas.”

But others see much less ambiguity. Ray Parker is among a slate of candidates set to run against legislators who voted down the constitutional amendment. He faces incumbent Ed O’Malley in the 24th District Republican primary.

“That was one of the main reasons I became a candidate … the failure of the Legislature to protect the institution of marriage from activist judges,” Parker says. “That is going to be the primary focus of my campaign.”

Parker is a computer technician and political newcomer who sees a lot at stake in the gay-marriage debate.

“Marriage is ordained by God and blessed by the church and recognized by state and local governments as the fundamental building block of our society,” he says. “When that is undermined by experimental social reconstructionists, we stand to see the ruin of our society within one generation.”

Yes, the sky is falling.

At least during this election cycle.

Categories: News