HRC: A formidable force for LGBT cause

"We must find ways to love, without endorsing behavior that is biblically described as sinful."

-- John Stonestreet

WASHINGTON (BP) -- The Human Rights Campaign brings a notable track record of helping alter public opinion on homosexuality. Now it has set its sights on persuading Baptists and other Mississippians that homosexuality is compatible with Christianity.

The country's largest lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) civil rights organization unveiled its "All God's Children" public relations campaign Nov. 10. The drive to increase public and legislative support for LGBT rights is focused on faith in a state Gallup pollsters found early this year to be the most religious in the country.

"We want to successfully engage a majority of Mississippians on the issue of LGBT equality," Jason Rahlan told Baptist Press in an email interview. He is communications director of the Human Rights Campaign (HRC). "This suggests that the best way to do so is to speak -- authentically and from the heart -- in the context of faith. As this campaign has shown and will continue to show, we're doing just that."

Many of the Mississippians targeted by HRC are Baptists. While HRC's working estimate for all Baptists in the state is 55 percent of the population, Southern Baptists constitute 22 to 30 percent of Mississippi residents. The Mississippi Baptist Convention reported nearly 664,000 members in its churches in 2013. The Association of Religion Data Archives showed in 2010 about 907,000 Southern Baptists among a state population of 2.99 million.

Seeking to convert so many Baptists and other conservative Christians would appear to be a losing proposition for a LGBT group, considering the Bible's clear teaching that sex is reserved for a man and a woman in marriage. HRC, however, seems to think a worthwhile payoff is possible from the $310,000 campaign.

"To HRC, the South embodies the sort of thinking about LGBT rights that is the problem," John Stonestreet, speaker and fellow with the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview, said. "To be successful [in the South] would go a long way to selling the 'historical inevitability' argument we so often hear" about acceptance of LGBT rights.

HRC acknowledges the campaign in Mississippi may be the forerunner of others in the South.

"'All God's Children' was also built to test a replicable model that can be used to move people of faith on LGBT issues throughout the South in the future," Rahlan told BP. "And if we find success in this Mississippi campaign, we will absolutely consider similar efforts in other states as well."

HRC already has a campaign that reaches beyond faith communities to promote the LGBT cause in the Deep South. Announced in April, its Project One America seeks to bolster LGBT equality in Alabama, Arkansas and Mississippi. HRC has committed $8.5 million for the first three years of what it calls "permanent campaigns" in those states -- and 20 staff members. No pro-LGBT laws exist at the state or local level in Alabama and Mississippi, and only one city in Arkansas has such an ordinance. The citizens of Fayetteville, Ark., will vote Dec. 9 on whether to overturn it. In addition, the constitutions of all three states bar same-sex marriage.

Described by an online LGBT publication as "the nation's 10,000-pound, gay charity gorilla," HRC gives every indication of being in the struggle for the long term with the resources necessary for such an effort. Founded in 1980 as a political action committee, HRC has amassed -- especially during the last two decades -- the support from within the government, corporations, media and popular culture needed to sustain a perpetual push for its cause.

The Southern Baptist Convention's lead ethicist said campaigns like that of HRC's effort in Mississippi "will only continue."

"Red states and Bible Belts do not provide adequate protection from these cultural trends," Russell D. Moore said when the "All God's Children" campaign was launched. Moore is president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC).

Instead, efforts to gain acceptance of the LGBT cause, including same-sex marriage, call for particular responses from Baptists and other evangelicals, leading commentators said.

Churches must be "preaching and articulating a Christian vision of sexuality as rightly expressed in the one-flesh union of a man and a woman," Moore said. Preaching and teaching "must not stop at morals but go on to show how marriage is rooted in the Gospel, as a picture of Christ and the church. And our churches must be, like Jesus and His apostles, those who call for repentance of sin and those who offer mercy to all who come to Christ in repentance and faith," he said. 

In an email interview with BP, Stonestreet recommended a three-fold response:

-- "First, churches need to clearly teach the inherent dignity of all people, because we are made in the image of God. When Christians respond to the LGBT community without that undergirding everything else we say and do, we inadvertently endorse a very bad anthropology that is at the root of our sexual confusion.

-- "Second, we need to teach a solid theology of sexuality and gender. Christians say "no" to various expressions of sexual sin because of God's great, brilliant gift of sexuality. This has to be understood.

-- "Third, the church should find ways to reach out to, and truly love, members of the LGBT community. If we are honest, 'love the sinner, hate the sin' is a bad mantra, and we've done a whole lot more hating the sin than ever loving the sinner. We must find ways to love, without endorsing behavior that is biblically described as sinful."

Moore and Stonestreet both spoke on such issues at the ERLC's National Conference in late October on "The Gospel, Homosexuality and the Future of Marriage."

Other concerns accompany the church's response to the advance of LGBT rights, evangelical leaders said.

Religious liberty and the beliefs of millennials are among those, said Chelsen Vicari, evangelical action director at the Institute on Religion and Democracy.

Millennials -- those born beginning in the early 1980s -- support same-sex marriage at a nearly 70 percent rate overall. Millennial evangelicals back such unions by a much smaller percentage but still to an extent that concerns Vicari, who, at 27, is one of them.

HRC's message of compatibility between homosexuality and Christianity is succeeding because millennials "know that if we affirm sexuality as defined by God and reserved for marriage between one man and one woman, then dissenters will be outnumbered, ostracized, dubbed bigoted and uncompassionate," she said in an email interview with BP. "So it's easier to compromise rather than speak up.

"HRC will continue to dictate culture and millennials will continue to buy into that culture rather than Christianity unless faithful Christians commit to 'speak the truth in love' as the Apostle Paul instructed us in Ephesians 4:15," Vicari said. "Both truth and love are necessary components Christians must employ if we want to take back the culture, demonstrate Christian leadership to the rising generation and spread the Gospel. Simply put, we must love others enough to tell them about God's truths."

The "All God's Children" campaign is troubling, Vicari told BP, because "it expects Christians to suppress our convictions for the sake of others' feelings." She expressed concern HRC wants to achieve "total asphyxiation of faithful Christians' convictions" in a state that protects religious freedom, including the right of small business owners to decline to participate in same-sex ceremonies.

At times, HRC gives attention to disparaging some of those who oppose the expansion of LGBT rights, including gay marriage. Its website includes a report on "exporters of hate," those Americans who are working to help other countries resist the effort to enact LGBT rights. Among this "network of American extremists" -- some shown in drawings that are similar to sketches of criminal suspects – are Jordan Sekulow of the American Center for Law and Justice, Benjamin Bull of Alliance Defending Freedom, Mat Staver of Liberty Counsel and Janice Shaw Crouse of Concerned Women for America's Beverly LaHaye Institute.

HRC criticized Focus on the Family in a Nov. 13 blog post titled "10 Things You Should Know About Focus on the Family." Two Focus staff members -- President Jim Daly and Glenn Stanton -- urged attendees at the recent ERLC national conference to develop friendships with and love those who disagree with them on LGBT issues, including same-sex marriage. HRC acknowledged and commended the tone of Daly and Stanton's comments in its post.

Resistance to the cause promoted by HRC and its allies has declined in recent years in the face of mounting LGBT accomplishments. On its website, HRC counts these among its victories:

-- Favorable rulings by the Supreme Court in June 2013, one which invalidated a section of the federal Defense of Marriage Act that defined marriage as only between a man and a woman.

-- Expansion of legalized gay marriage, now in 32 states and the District of Columbia.

-- HRC's endorsement of Bill Clinton for the presidency in 1992 -- a first for the organization -- and the first meeting by LGBT leaders with a sitting president after Clinton took office.

-- Its two-time endorsement of President Obama and his speech to HRC's national dinner in 2009.

-- Repeal in 2011 of the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy, which barred open homosexuals from military service.

The mounting victories for HRC and other LGBT organizations have coincided with growing support from the public, politicians, celebrities, corporations and other sectors of American society -- as well as greater funding. HRC counts 1.5 million members and supporters. The combined revenue and support for HRC and its foundation in its latest annual report was more than $53 million.

Among its "celebrity supporters" are Brad Pitt, Anne Hathaway, Lady Gaga, Jennifer Lopez, Pink, Sally Field and Jennifer Hudson.

HRC's top tier of national corporate partners includes American Airlines, Apple, Citibank, Microsoft and Nationwide Insurance. Other corporate partners include Bank of America, BP (British Petroleum), Chevron, Coca-Cola, Dell, Google, Hershey's, IBM, Macy's, MetLife, Nike, Orbitz, PepsiCo, Shell, Showtime, Starbucks and Whirlpool.

The organization -- which has 150 employees in its Washington, D.C., headquarters and more in the field -- runs a variety of programs and projects simultaneously. They include the Religion and Faith Program; Children, Youth and Families Program; and the Coming Out Project, which helps people who begin to live openly as LGBT.

HRC also charts LGBT advances in a variety of categories. It compiles annual indexes on corporate equality, municipal equality, and healthcare equality. It also documents voting on LGBT issues by members of Congress and tracks state laws and policies.

HRC's Corporate Equality Index (CEI), which rates businesses based on their policies regarding LGBT employees, has shown the rapid progress in that sector of American society. The 2014 index gave scores of 100 percent to 304 companies of the 734 ranked. Only 13 businesses received a score of 100 in the first CEI in 2002.

The CEI rankings provide information for HRC's Buyer's Guide, which is designed to help consumers know where businesses stand on LGBT issues and shop accordingly. For instance, in the "Oil & Gas" category, Chevron ranked at the top this year with 100 percent, while ExxonMobil was at -25. In "Health & Beauty," Avon gained a 100 score, and Mary Kay received a zero.

The LGBT advance has been especially pronounced among the country's largest corporations. Of the Fortune 500 companies, the percentage with "sexual orientation" in their non-discrimination policies has grown from 61 to 91 percent since 2002. The percentage with "gender identity" in their policies has ballooned from three to 61 percent in that time span.

Tom Strode is the Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention's news service. BP reports on missions, ministry and witness advanced through the Cooperative Program and on news related to Southern Baptists' concerns nationally and globally.
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