Updating the Image of Anti-LGBTQ Bigotry

About Frederick Clarkson

Frederick Clarkson is a senior fellow at Political Research Associates. He co-founded the group blog Talk To Action and authored Eternal Hostility: The Struggle Between Theocracy and Democracy.
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imago dei

The most recent “softer-language” campaign to launch from the Right is the Imago Dei Campaign, organized by a group of Christian Right leaders and Hollywood allies. The group, whose name translates from Latin to “image of God,” is seeking to alter its leaders’ well-established reputation as promoters of anti-LGBTQ bigotry and discriminatory legislation. The Campaign has been well received in the media—which often finds itself prematurely declaring the so-called “culture wars” at an end (or just about). And while the group is proposing some ostensibly welcome changes, there is also much about the Campaign social justice advocates, journalists, and scholars should be skeptical of.

Before we discuss the point for which the Campaign is best known—acknowledging that gay people are made in the image of God—we should note that the Campaign is unequivocal and uncompromising in its attack on reproductive justice and as an exercise in religious supremacism. The intended effect is to drive a wedge between LGBTQ equality supporters and defenders of reproductive justice—factions that have historically sought to make headway together.

The central statement of the Imago Dei Campaign is actually a profoundly anti-abortion declaration: “I recognize that every human being, in and out of the womb, carries the image of God; without exception. Therefore, I will treat everyone with love and respect.” [Emphasis added]

Thus, far from a de-escalation of the culture wars, as some have suggested, this effort is an opportunistic effort to further divide their political and religious opposition.  Many Christians (not to mention people of other and no religious traditions) not only see abortion as a moral decision and consistent with their Christian faith, but that it is no obstacle to seeing others as created in the image of God. But the Imago Dei Campaign, and by extension many in the Christian Right leadership, have sought to gain control of and own the definition of Christianity—projecting an image to the world that all Christians have the same opinion about a woman’s right to choose.

Leader of the Pack

Leading the Campaign is Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference (NHCLC). Joining him is Jim Daly, President of Focus on the Family; Mat Staver, President of Liberty Counsel (who also sits on the Executive Committee and General Counsel of NHCLC); longtime televangelist James Robison; and Hollywood TV and movie producers Mark Burnett and Roma Downey (responsible for the popular movie Son of God – a spinoff of the mini-series The Bible, which aired on the History Channel in 2013).

“For the image of God exists in all human beings,” the Campaign declares, “black and white; rich and poor; straight and gay; conservative and liberal; victim and perpetrator; citizen and undocumented; believer and unbeliever.”

Declaring that “every human being” is made in God’s image is certainly a remarkable departure from the type of rhetoric we have heard for so many years from both opponents of marriage equality in the United States, and promoters of anti-LGTBQ sentiment in Africa and Russia. And it is arguably an improvement over previous efforts to reconcile Christian love with the alleged sin of homosexuality in the 1980s, when conservative Christians were urged to “hate the sin, but love the sinner.”

“The church of Jesus Christ and the word hatred should not even appear in the same sentence,” Rodriguez said. “What if every single person can recognize the image of God in the other? Wouldn’t that bring down the noise of the hateful rhetoric? Wouldn’t that build a firewall between intolerance and bullying? Wouldn’t that build a firewall against extremism?”

There is no question that words and tone are important, and all people of goodwill hope their efforts will make a difference. But these changes alone only serve to mask an ongoing campaign that is virulent as ever in its effort to combat LGBTQ justice. Indeed, it could actually be a hindrance to the fight for LGBTQ equality by lulling equality supporters into complacency while the Christian Right pursues its broader political and religious objectives.

For example, while this campaign of supposed brotherly love splashes across the media, the Christian Right leadership continues to claim that Christians are being persecuted in America—stirring the stew of bigotry and resentment on the farther right of American religious and political life. “This is not an issue of equality,” Rodriguez said, regarding marriage equality on a radio show in May 2012. “There is an attempt to silence the voice of Christianity, there is an attempt to silence the voice of truth, of righteousness and Biblical justice.” That talking point is followed with legislation that would condone commercial discrimination against LGBTQ people on religious grounds (such bills have appeared in Arizona, Georgia, Missouri, Mississippi, and Utah, and several other states).

The Other Shoe Drops

Let’s look at a few other things the Campaign has said—and a few things they have not.

First, let’s note that the Campaign’s leadership did not bother to apologize or ask forgiveness for the culture of personal and political bigotry and discrimination they have promoted for decades as individuals and via the organizations they lead. Nor did they say that they will in any way change or alter their activities or (even more importantly) their policies. The objective of the Campaign seems simply to come across as nicer while they pursue an oppressive political agenda against LGBTQ people.

Jim Daly has told reporters that the Campaign is seeking to avoid framing its message in warlike terms, such as in the “culture war” framing. But Daly’s remarks notwithstanding, there is little indication they are moderating their war of aggression on the civil and human rights of others. Indeed, the Campaign acknowledges that it has not changed its opposition to marriage equality or the idea that homosexuality is a sin. What’s more, the recent initiatives of Citizen Link—the national political arm of Jim Daly’s Focus on the Family—and its state political affiliates demonstrate that the changes in language may be superficial and are intended to distract from or take the edge off of their recent effort to legalize anti-LGBTQ discrimination for reasons of “sincerely held religious belief.”

Sarah Posner, writing at Al Jazeera America, noted that Citizen Link affiliates in Arizona, Idaho, and Kansas have been centrally involved in the development and promotion of similar bills. As I reported in The Public Eye magazine last year, these groups are  part of a well-coordinated national network of state “family policy councils” that have promoted anti-LGBTQ legislation and ballot initiatives—particularly against marriage equality and non-discrimination laws—since their formation in 1988. Daly would have us focus on his softer words and tone, turning a blind eye towards the horrific legislation he and his religious and political empire are promoting.

It is also worth noting that Tom Minnery, Executive Director of Citizen Link, is a longtime member of the board of directors of the Arizona-based Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF, formerly known as the Alliance Defense Fund). Acting as a Christian Right legal strategy network, the ADF was instrumental in drafting the Arizona legislation seeking to codify anti-LGTBQ discrimination.

In addition, Mat Staver heads the small Christian Right law firm Liberty Counsel, which is representing virulently anti-gay Christian Right activist Scott Lively in Federal District Court in Massachusetts. Lively is accused of committing crimes against humanity for inciting anti-LGBTQ violence in Uganda and for his role in the creation of that country’s recently enacted Anti-Homosexuality law. “This lawsuit against Rev. Scott Lively,” Staver declared in a press release when the suit was filed, “is a gross attempt to use a vague international law to silence, and eventually criminalize, speech by U.S. citizens on homosexuality and moral issues. This suit should cause everyone to be concerned, because it a direct threat against freedom of speech.”

Lively and other evangelicals have engaged in a wide ranging effort, as Eric Ethington has reported here, “to completely whitewash their own history of involvement with Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality law.” The same could be said of the Imago Dei Campaign by Christian Right leaders—seeking to whitewash their own history of involvement in the spread of damaging, un-Christianlike homophobia, and turning a blind eye to the gross excesses of others, to the point of pretending that they never even existed.