People For the American Way Foundation

Anti-Gay Politics and the Religious Right


The recent highly publicized ad campaign by a coalition of fifteen Religious Right organizations is the latest tactical ploy in a long-term political strategy of vilification and political marginalization of gay and lesbian Americans. Far from the campaign of compassion that Religious Right leaders have portrayed, the recent ads further an explicit political agenda that seeks to criminalize gay relationships and deny basic rights to gays and lesbians in a range of critical areas:employment, housing, and families.

Anti-gay politics have long been at the core of Religious Right fundraising and organizing efforts. As the Religious Right becomes an increasingly powerful element of the GOP base, anti-gay rhetoric and policies have become more prominent in party platforms, legislative fights, and public policy at local, state, and national levels. Republican Party leaders risk being caught between public support for equal rights for gays and lesbians and the unremitting hostility toward gay rights from Religious Right groups that form the party’s core activist base. Congressional leaders’ willingness to embrace anti-gay rhetoric and legislation may be part of a strategy to energize Religious Right voters for the fall congressional elections, and it may reflect the longer term impact of the Religious Right’s growing strength within the party. Nevertheless, some GOP leaders are concerned that the party’s close identification with anti-gay bigotry may cost it support among the general public in the year 2000.

This memo briefly analyzes elements of the Religious Right’s broader anti-gay political strategy; our staff can provide in-depth information on any of these topics. People For the American Way Foundation has monitored the Religious Right political movement and its attacks on gays and lesbians for nearly two decades. The Andrew Heiskell National Resource Library, which is open to researchers and journalists, has catalogued a wealth of original source material, including Religious Right groups’ direct mail and television and radio broadcasts. In addition, People For the American Way Foundation publishes an annual report called Hostile Climate, which extensively documents incidents of institutionalized anti-gay bigotry and discrimination from around the country.

The Ad Campaign

In early May, House Majority Whip Tom DeLay hosted a summit meeting between GOP congressional leaders and a group of disgruntled Religious Right leaders who demanded more congressional action on right-wing social issues in return for encouraging religious conservatives to go to the polls in this fall’s election campaign. Rep. Joe Pitts (R-PA) was put in charge of a “Values Action Team” to make sure that Religious Right concerns were high on the GOP agenda.

Three weeks later, President Clinton issued an executive order protecting lesbians and gay men from employment discrimination in the federal workforce, provoking outrage among Religious Right leaders. On June 15th, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott compared homosexuals to alcoholics and kleptomaniacs while appearing on the Armstrong Williams show, a cable television talk show. His comments generated criticism from gay organizations and from the White House, and elicited support from Religious Right groups.

In mid-July, fifteen Religious Right organizations launched a newspaper ad campaign that Bob Knight of the Family Research Council called “the Normandy landing in the larger cultural wars.” The same week, Rep. Joe Hefley (R-CO) proposed an amendment to overturn the Executive Order and Rep. Frank Riggs (R-CA) proposed an amendment to withhold federal housing funds from San Francisco as punishment for the city’s domestic partner benefits ordinance.

In the public debate spurred by the newspaper ads, organizers of the ad campaign claimed that the ads were not political, and that the message was one of “hope” that gays could be “cured.” The timing of the ads and the political nature of many of the groups that signed them made it clear that those protestations were not credible. The ad campaign was an effort to change public debate from a discussion of discrimination to a discussion over whether homosexuals can be “cured” and turned into heterosexuals. For civil rights advocates, the answers to complex nature/nurture questions are irrelevant to civil rights issues; for anti-gay activists, a simplistic model of gays as diseased — and “curable” — is central to their fight against equality.

Janet Folger, director of the Center for Reclaiming America, organized the ad campaign. The Center is a creation of Coral Ridge Ministries, the $40 million empire of Florida-based teleevangelist D. James Kennedy, who has been hard at work to build his national profile. For the past five years, Coral Ridge has hosted an annual “Reclaiming America for Christ” conference that has attracted many GOP leaders; in 1995 Kennedy established a foothold in Washington, D.C. with the Center for Christian Statesmanship.

Gays as Diseased

The ad campaign followed a public furor touched off by Sen. Lott’s equating gays with alcoholics and kleptomaniacs, but it has long been a central tenet of Religious Right groups that homosexuals are diseased, and can be “cured” with a combination of religious indoctrination and psychological counseling. Reparative therapy as practiced by a variety of “ex-gay ministries” includes a large dose of gender stereotyping: men are encouraged to play football or learn auto mechanics, women to wear dresses and makeup.

Scientifically, the benefits of so-called “reparative therapy” are dubious at best: the American Psychological Association has denounced the practice as ineffective and potentially harmful, while groups claiming to “cure” gays provide no evidence to back their claims, carefully neglecting to conduct follow-up studies of their former patients. John Paulk and his wife Anne are the current “poster children” of the “ex-gay” movement, appearing on the cover of Newsweek; in 1993 John Paulk told the Wall Street Journal that “To say that we’ve arrived at this place of total heterosexuality — that we’re totally healed — is misleading.”

Politically, Religious Right groups use the disease or addiction model to assert that civil rights protections should not be afforded to gays and lesbians. According to this “logic,” public policy that treats gays with equality and dignity actually inhibits individuals from seeking to be “cured.” In Maine earlier this year, “ex-gays” were featured in one of the television commercials run by Religious Right groups during the successful campaign to overturn a statewide anti-discrimination law.

The recent ads also attempt to equate homosexuality with AIDS and other diseases; one of the recent ads was titled, “From Innocence to AIDS,” cleverly alluding to Religious Right myths about gay recruitment of children and promoting Religious Right efforts to portray homosexuality as a”death-style.” Typical of such rhetoric was a recent Chuck Colson article about Billy, a doll being marketed in the gay community. Colson suggested that all Billy dolls should come with a plastic coffin, asserting that most gays are “men whose lives are tragically marked by disease, addition, misery, and early death.”

Dr. Robert Garofalo, a Boston pediatrician who authored a health study of gay teens last spring, complained to the Boston Globe that the recent ad campaign, was “a complete misrepresentation” of his research on substance abuse and other high-risk behavior. Garofalo told the Globe he believes the disproportionate risk of gay youth for substance abuse and suicide are the result of alienation gay teenagers face in a “culture that is often unaccepting.” Religious Right groups attributed the problems to homosexuality itself, which Garofalo calls “the complete opposite conclusion of what the paper actually concluded.”

Misrepresenting ideology as science is a favored tactic. Paul Cameron is a virulently anti-gay “researcher” whose methods led to his being ousted from the American Psychological Association. Although Cameron has been thoroughly discredited, his “research” continues to be a favored source of ammunition for the Religious Right. William Bennett, Chuck Colson, and others continue to repeat Cameron’s conclusion that the life expectancy for gay men is 43 years, a statistic based on his reading of obituaries in gay newspapers. (Cameron’s statistic was effectively demolished in online magazine Slate) Bennett’s trumpeting of this statistic last year on ABC’s This Week and in the Weekly Standard was picked up by National Review and continues to circulate as the kind of “truth” that the Religious Right wants to tell America.

Killing with Kindness

The Evolution of Religious Right Strategy

The ad campaign was a reflection of Religious Right organizations’ increasing sophistication on this issue, having learned that overt hostility toward gay people does not play well among the American public. Earlier this year, Religious Right strategist and former Christian Coalition executive
director Ralph Reed spelled out a public relations strategy for Religious Right activists dealing with gay issues:

“You’ve got to make it clear that your purpose is not to hurt or punish someone else. It’s not a negative-based movement or a fear-based movement or an anger or hate-based movement but instead the movement is about love and honor and respect and about modeling for our children a healthy lifestyle. That’s what the issue ought to be about. I think if we can define it in that way, we can’t lose.”
Jay Sekulow Live radio show, February 20, 1998

Reed’s advice reflects the reality that most Americans take a live-and-let-live approach to their gay and lesbian neighbors. Polls show that strong majorities favor protections from discimination in employment and housing. Religious Right groups seek to re-shape public attitudes, and thus influence public policy, by denigrating gays. It’s far easier to convince voters to support discrimination if you have previously convinced them that gays and lesbians are out to molest their children or destroy their churches. But harsh gay-bashing rhetoric, which motivates core supporters, has proven less successful with the general public. So now even the most virulent anti-gay organizations, such as Gary Bauer’s Family Research Council, adopt the language of compassion when it suits their public relations needs.

This change is purely tactical. The language of love and compassion is an effort to soften the sounds of an agenda that remains unchanged. The Christian Coalition’s Randy Tate recently provided an excellent example of how seamlessly Religious Right leaders move from a declaration of compassion to support for discriminatory public policy:

“I think that as Americans, and particularly as a person of faith, that we need to extend Christian charity to all individuals. That doesn’t mean in the public policy realm that we need to extend special privileges to individuals based on their private sexual behavior.”
Hardball with Chris Matthews, August 11, 1998

The Big Lie — “Special Rights”

The Big Lie of the campaign against equality for gay and lesbian Americans is the assertion that seeking protection from discrimination is somehow the equivalent of demanding “special rights” or “special privileges” that are not available to other citizens. The “special rights” message was the key to passage of an anti-gay referendum in Colorado in 1992, and is now the centerpiece of similar campaigns, including this year’s referendum in Maine, where voters overturned an anti-discrimination law. After the Maine vote, the Christian Coalition’s Randy Tate said, “The American people rejected the notion of special rights based on sexual activity behind closed doors.”

There are several variations on this message. For example, Pat Robertson told his TV viewers earlier this year, “I just don’t think we should craft laws that give privileges on the basis of the way people perform sex acts.” Gary Bauer took a more circuitous path to the same destination when he said, “While I believe homosexuals have rights, I do not think they are right. And they certainly don’t have more rights than the rest of us. They have a right to their own life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, but they do not have a right to impose their views upon our lives, liberties and happiness.”

The special rights lie, asserted endlessly, is designed to overcome Americans’ overwhelming support for equal rights and replace it with resentment and hostility against gays and lesbians; it is often buttressed by questionable statistics about gays’ allegedly high income levels. This is especially true of the Religious Right’s efforts to recruit anti-gay allies from among African American churches. During a Cincinnati referendum in 1993, anti-gay groups produced a videotape targeted to African American audiences; the tape featured Trent Lott, Ed Meese and other right-wing luminaries warning that protecting the civil rights of lesbians and gay men would come at the expense of civil rights gains made by the African American community.

In addition, the battle cry against “special rights” was the centerpiece of opposition to a federal anti-discrimination bill, the Employment Non Discrimination Act (ENDA), which was defeated by one vote in the U.S. Senate in 1996. More recently “no special rights” was the core message of the Religious Right’s campaign to overturn President Clinton’s executive order banning discrimination against gays in the federal workplace. Carmen Pate of Concerned Women for America said the executive order was “not about equality under the law, but about special privileges.” In the last instance, the rhetoric was so plainly and patently untrue that a sufficient number of Republican members of Congress voted in favor of equality on the job and the executive order was allowed to stand.

“Special rights” rhetoric masks the pro-discrimination policy positions Religious Right groups are staking out. Their attacks on corporations that offer domestic partner benefits make it clear that Religious Right leaders’ anti-gay ideology will not permit something as basic as extending simple fairness to gay employees. Religious Right groups’ calls for a national boycott of Disney are well known. A few years ago, American Airlines was attacked for its anti-discrimination policy in hiring and for its support of gay community organizations.

A host of Religious Right leaders, including D. James Kennedy, Gary Bauer, James Dobson (Focus on the Family), Beverly LaHaye (Concerned Women for America), Don Wildmon (American Family Association), and Richard Land (Southern Baptists) signed an open letter, printed as a newspaper ad, attacking American Airlines. Gary Bauer’s claim that the airline’s anti-discrimination policies somehow actively promoted discrimination against religious employees were so ridiculous that the airline’s own Christian employees’ organization disavowed it. American Airlines officials met with Religious Right leaders but rejected demands that they discontinue marketing to the gay community.

The Live and Let Live Lie

Religious Right leaders have responded to criticism of their anti-gay onslaught by claiming that gay rights advocates are the aggressors, seeking to destroy families and faith, and that conservatives would be happy for gays to just live their lives in peace. Religious Right leaders and their political allies try to tap American’s common sense respect for privacy by asserting that no one wants to regulate what gays do in private; the truth is far different.

On a recent edition of ABC-TV’s Nightline, the anti-gay ad campaign’s mastermind Janet Folger tried to assert a claim of reasonableness, saying “No one wants to take away from the rights that every citizen enjoys, the equal rights that are enjoyed even by those in the homosexual community.” Yet when she was pushed, she admitted that she supported laws that advocate imprisonment for homosexual contact — the kind of laws that essentially define gays as criminals. Religious Right groups and elected officials and judges use criminal sodomy laws to deny gay parents custody of their own children and toargue that gays shouldn’t be allowed to be teachers or hold other positions of public trust. The Family Research Council recently defended criminal sodomy laws as necessary to discourage homosexual behavior and thus prevent the collapse of society. An American Family Association publication put it very simply and clearly: “We resist the effort of the homosexual community to establish their lifestyle as legitimate.”

The Child Molester Lie

The most incendiary element of Religious Right groups’ anti-gay efforts is falsely equating homosexuality with pedophilia. The Family Research Council’s Bob Knight falsely asserted that the Employment Non Discrimination Act would extend legal protections to pedophiles. Parents are told that gays and lesbians are out to molest their children. Gay rights groups are falsely accused of supporting legalization of pedophilia, when in fact every major gay organization denounces it as criminal. Just this week a Michigan gay rights organization won a defamation case against a state legislator who falsely accused the group of supporting sex between adults and children. The accusation itself, of course, is emotionally explosive and incomparably damaging, and so continues to be hurled at gay rights advocates.

For example, a direct mail letter from Don Wildmon of the American Family Association included this emotional appeal. “For the sake of our children and society, we must OPPOSE the spread of homosexual activity! Just as we must oppose murder, stealing, and adultery! Since homosexuals cannotreproduce, the only way for them to ‘breed’ is to RECRUIT! And who are their targets for recruitment? Children!”

One newsletter from D. James Kennedy’s Coral Ridge Ministries featured a photograph of very young children under the headline “SEX WITH CHILDREN? HOMOSEXUALS SAY YES!” The newsletter asserts “Adult sex with children has been a crucial component of the homosexual movement all along, and officially since the 1993 March on Washington when it was included as a demand (#55) in their famous manifesto.” That assertion is a blatant misrepresentation of the platform plank Kennedy refers to; the same newsletter reports the text of plank #55 as supporting “the implementation of laws that recognize sexual relationships among youth, between consenting peers.” Thus a measure clearly aimed at decriminalizing sex between consenting teens was distorted by Kennedy’s rhetoric and falsely portrayed as an effort to legalize adult sex with young children. This is, unfortunately, an indication of how little respect is accorded to the truth by Religious Right groups on this issue.

Earlier this year, the Oklahoma House unanimously passed a bill that would have banned school districts or companies that contract with them from employing openly gay people. The consequences of fearmongering around gays and children can be brutal. In Michigan two years ago, a popular high school music teacher was hounded out of his job and harassed mercilessly after his homosexuality became public after he and his partner held a commitment ceremony. The teacher, in his 30s, died of a heart attack shortly thereafter. A lesbian teacher in South Fork Utah is currently being subjected to similar unrelenting harassment.

Gays as Enemies of Faith

It’s a favorite organizing and fundraising tactic of the Religious Right to demonize those with whom they disagree. Religious Right leaders portray civil rights advocates — and liberals in general — as enemies of faith. D. James Kennedy once asserted that “the diabolical mission” of People For the American Way was “to crush the influence of the Christian religion in American society.”

But of all the enemies the Religious Right loves to hate, they reserve their most poisonous invective for gays and lesbians. Pat Robertson asserted earlier this year that the city of Orlando was inviting divine retribution in the form of meteors or hurricanes by allowing rainbow flags to fly from city lightpoles during a gay pride celebration. Other examples abound.

I really believe that Christian oppression is just around the corner. I really believe that the level of anger arising out of the homosexual community primarily, but the whole humanistic movement that’s out there… as they gain political power — and they got it now — they’re going to continue to oppress us.
James Dobson, Focus on the Family

When lawlessness is abroad in the land, the same thing will happen here that happened in Nazi Germany. Many of those people involved in Adolph Hitler were Satanists. Many of them were homosexuals. The two things seem to go together.
Pat Robertson, Christian Coalition, 700 Club 1/21/93

[Homosexuals] want to come into churches and disrupt church services and throw blood all around and try to give people AIDS and spit in the face of ministers.
Pat Robertson, Christian Coalition, 700 Club, 1/18/95

Satan uses homosexuals as pawns. They’re in, as you know, key positions in the media, they’re in the White House, they’re in everything, they’re in Hollywood now. Then, unfortunately, after he uses them, he infects them with AIDS and then they die.
Anthony Falzarano, PFOX, Janet Parshall’s America, 2/27/96

If the militant homosexuals succeed in their accursed agenda, God will curse and judge our nation… The goal of the homosexual movement is to ‘mainstream’ unspeakable acts of evil… Their cries for tolerance are really a demand for our surrender. They want us to surrender our values, our love for God’s law, our faith, our families, the entire nation to their abhorrent agenda.
Randall Terry campaign literature

Marriage and Family

The prospect of same-sex marriage being legally recognized in the state of Hawaii has been a boon to Religious Right organizing around anti-gay issues. Religious Right groups provided the muscle behind the federal “Defense of Marriage Act” and similar state bills barring recognition of same-sex marriages. In November, voters in Hawaii and Alaska will vote on anti-gay marriage state constitutional amendments; national Religious Right groups are funding both campaigns. Polls show that legal recognition for gay marriage has less popular support than do anti-discrimination ordinances. Religious Right groups are taking advantage of that gap in public opinion to milk the gay marriage issue for maximum political benefit.

One of the Right’s tactics in opposing gay marriage is to fan the flames of unfounded fears that gays are dangerous to children; Religious Right groups are at the forefront of state and federal efforts to ban gays from adopting children or serving as foster parents. In a disturbing number of legal cases, judges have cited homosexuality as a justification for declaring parents unfit and denying them custody of their own children. At the core of opposition to gay marriage is an adamant refusal to recognize that loving gay relationships can have any worth or merit.


Religious Right groups have devoted extraordinary amounts of time and energy to blocking Senate confirmation of James Hormel, who has been nominated by President Clinton to serve as U.S. Ambassador to Luxembourg. Religious Right leaders, who claim not to favor discrimination, believe that no openly gay individual should be allowed to serve in a position of high visibility. In order to provide cover for this overtly bigoted and discriminatory position, Religious Right leaders have accused Hormel of endorsing pedophilia and child pornography.

Andrea Sheldon of the Traditional Values Coalition combed a gay archives established in Hormel’s name at the San Francisco Public Library and distributed materials that Senators might find offensive, even though Hormel’s financial support for the archives gave him no role in the selection of
library materials. Another cover story for blocking Hormel is the assertion that his appointment would offend mostly Catholic Luxembourg; in reality that country’s officials have made it clear that Hormel would be welcomed as ambassador.

Hormel’s nomination has caused some splits between the Religious Right and some Republicans who are opposed to the Religious Right’s flat opposition to a gay person serving as ambassador. Senator Majority Leader Lott has allowed a few Senators to block Hormel’s nomination from getting to the Senate floor, where it is considered likely that he would be confirmed.

In response to a National Review editorial that being gay should not disqualify Hormel from serving as ambassador, Religious Right patriarch Paul Weyrich asked, “Shall we tolerate pedophile or rapist or necrophilia ambassadors?”

The Death Penalty for Homosexuality

Among the hardest core of the Religious Right are those who embrace “reconstructionism,” which advocates imposing a radically fundamentalist interpretation of “Biblical law” onto American society. On the September 4, 1998 Armstrong Williams talk show, Colorado talk-radio personality Bob Enyard called for the death penalty for gays and adulterers. Last year, a Christian radio talk-show host in Costa Mesa, California said, “Lesbian love, sodomy are viewed by God as being detestable and abominable. Civil magistrates are to put people to death who practice these things.” The announcer urged listeners to contact legislators and ask that they enact capital punishment for homosexuality. The station manager called the program “an honest dialogue concerning Christian beliefs.” Congressional candidate Randall Terry, former head of Operation Rescue, extends this view of “Biblical law” to include “Biblical slavery” and capital punishment for rebellious teenagers.

Gays and the GOP

In Texas earlier this year, after state GOP officials denied Log Cabin Republicans, a gay Republican group, a table at the party’s June convention, party spokesman Robert Black called LCR a “deviant group” and equated gays with child molesters and the KKK. A peaceful protest by the gay group was met by embarrassingly venomous counter-protesters.

There is a degree of consternation among Republican party leaders about embracing Religious Right groups and their priorities during an election year. Certainly the parade of presidential hopefuls who will speak from the Road to Victory podium indicate a strong desire for the support of motivated activists who are likely to vote. In a year when pundits are predicting record-low voter turnout, energizing the activist base will hold the key to dozens of elections.

Yet GOP strategists worry that too close an embrace of the Religious Right may alienate mainstream voters who disagree with movement positions such as the criminalization of all abortions and legalized discrimination against gays and lesbians. Religious Right activists have made major gains in the control of local party structures in many states, yet some of this year’s early elections indicate that visible support from Religious Right leaders is no guarantee of electoral success, even in Republican primaries.

Religious Right Groups and the Hostile Climate

Earlier this year, at a candidate forum sponsored by the Northwest Arkansas Christian Coalition chapter, Springdale mayoral candidate Timothy Hill elicited applause when he declared “Homosexuals are perverts….I will do everything I can do keep them out of Springdale.” He promised to post a sign at the city limits saying “No fags in Springdale” and another reading “Welcome to Springdale: Home of God-fearing armed Christian citizens.”

People For the American Way Foundation has extensive files on major Religious Right groups and smaller organizations, such as Americans for Truth About Homosexuality, which publishes the anti-gay Lambda Report. Our Hostile Climate report and ongoing research documents the very real dangers of the Religious Right’s anti-gay campaigns, not only to civility and civil rights, but to the very lives of gay and lesbian Americans, who are increasingly the subject of violence and harassment.

For a copy of the 1998 edition of People For the American Way Foundation’s Hostile Climate report, please call 202/467-4999.