The billboards sponsored by Faith in America.
At the first CNN/YouTube Presidential Primary Debate in Charleston, S.C., in 2007, the Rev. Reggie Longcrier, Faith in America supporter and pastor of Exodus Mission and Outreach Church in Hickory, N.C., asked then Democratic candidate John Edwards “Why is it still acceptable to use religion to deny gay Americans their full and equal rights?”
The question, following Edward’s statement of opposition to same-sex marriage in relation to his Southern Baptist background, drew the loudest applause of any question, according to audience members at the debate.
Mitchell Gold, who in 2005 founded Faith in America, a non-profit organization with the goal of counter-messaging prejudices toward the LGBT population by religious institutions, contends that “political and religious leaders have long sold discrimination under the guise of religious beliefs and religious teachings, and that religion-based bigotry is the number one impediment to full equality for lesbians and gays.”
Faith in America came about after Gold moved from New York to a very rural and socially conservative community in North Carolina in the late 1980s to form a large furniture company with over 700 employees.
“I soon realized that so many of the employees were good, decent, hardworking Americans, yet many of them harbored deeply rooted hostility toward homosexuals, with the moral and religious stamp of approval,” Gold said.
The widespread oppression that he observed in the lives of gay youths especially hit Gold hard and served as the catalyst to begin plans to combat discrimination by religious institutions.
With the help of Jimmy Creech, former chairman of the board of directors of Soulforce and a former Methodist minister who in 1999 was stripped of his ministerial orders by the Methodist Church after having blessed a gay union, and Brent Childers, a conservative evangelical Christian, Faith in America was formed to educate the public about religion-based bigotry’s harm to the LGBT community.
Childers, a former journalist and current Faith in America executive director, admits that he once “garnered hostility towards gays” and he had once been “a voice for the religious right.”
“I had publicly derided gays and lesbians under the banner of Christianity. Soon though, I realized the hostility wasn’t at the center of my Christian beliefs, it was being instilled in me by the church itself,” Childers said. “For centuries various leaders have used the Bible to preach slavery and segregation, to promote sexism, and to decry interracial marriage.
“The Bible has a divine place for the spiritual life of a person, but you can’t get past the fact that it was written by individuals and has gone through various translations and interpretations,” Childers said. “The teachings in it are a wonderful example of how one should lead their life but shouldn’t be taken literally.”
In 2006 Faith in America gained national attention after the organization disseminated a series of educational campaigns that stirred controversy in a number of communities across the nation. The newspaper ads, radio spots and billboards featured the image of Jesus Christ along with Biblical passages such as “Jesus affirmed a gay couple (Matthew 8:5-13),” “Jesus said some are born gay (Matthew 19:10-12)” and “The early church welcomed a gay man (Acts 8:26-40).”
According to Childers, polling in each community where the ads ran showed an increase in acceptance levels of the LGBT population in comparison to polling completed prior to the running of the ads.
In 2008 the organization published the book “CRISIS: 40 Stories Revealing the Personal, Social and Religious Pain and Trauma of Growing Up Gay In America.” The book, a collective of short stories from LGBT individuals, parents, straight allies and ministers, illuminates the psychological and emotional harm religion-based discrimination has caused.
Childers said that “the book includes people like Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, telling stories, talking about the pain and trauma they experienced during their youth. It doesn’t just come from the perspective of the individuals, but reinforcements from clergy and others.”
Faith in America, which has focused on a community by community approach, is currently undergoing an expansion phase as it seeks to impact a larger segment of the country.
“Our youth initiative will launch in the coming weeks to ensure that LGBT youth are provided with the best information to combat religion-based prejudice,” Childers said. “I feel it is one of the most important initiatives we’ve undertaken to date.”
And in early 2011, Faith in America will launch a yet to be announced campaign in California. Leaders of the organization have already been in Southern California networking with various religious leaders and like-minded organizations in advance of the campaign.
Gold said that Faith in America is “ready to take a giant step forward, but we need the help of the LGBT community in order to do so.”
Learn more about Faith in America at www.faithinamerica.com.
A. Latham Staples is the president and CEO of Empowering Spirits Foundation, a national LGBT civil rights organization based in San Diego. Staples and his husband were one of the first same-sex couples to legally wed in California. Following the passage of Proposition 8 in California in November 2008 that defined marriage to be between only a man and a woman, Staples felt the need to become active in the LGBT civil rights movement. Staples, a 2010 Echoing Green Fellow, has a bachelor of arts in journalism and political science from the Honors College at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.