En route from San Diego to Washington, D.C., I nearly jumped out of my airplane seat reading Max Blumenthal’s book “Republican Gomorrah” about the demise of the Republican Party. His book was written in 2010 but remains good background material to explain the present circus we are witnessing as the remnants of the Republican Party attempt to choose a viable candidate to run for President.
Blumenthal documents the demise of the party through serial salacious sex scandals and hypocrisy, and how the party became vulnerable enough to be taken over by the Christian Right and a very angry lunatic fringe.
My elevation from my airplane seat came at page 285 where pastor Rick Warren is quoted as saying: “I have never been considered a part of the Religious Right, because I don’t believe politics is the most effective way to change the world.”
Warren serves in Saddleback Church in south Orange County, a location where I served as an Episcopal Rector for nearly a decade. The dominant presence of his 20,000-member mega-church was inescapable. It was ground zero for the “Prosperity Gospel” where conservative political and economic principles were spray-painted every Sunday with a veneer of religious certainty.
Our Episcopalian congregation had been serving Orange County since 1898, so Saddleback was a relatively new faith community in our area. Our church building had been used by Orthodox, Jews and even Baptists illustrating the remarkable ecumenical and interfaith heritage of south Orange County. Indigenous and inclusive Christianity now had a vital and successful new rival in the form of Saddleback Church and its network of 300,000 purpose-driven churches all over the globe. But what was its purpose and where was it driving us to?
Your baptism is invalid
Officially, Saddleback only recognized the validity of adult baptism following a “born again” conversion experience as a mark of authentic Christianity. So, as Christians serving the Saddleback Valley for over 100 years, many of us mainstream denominations were baptized as infants and grew up in Christian communities, yet we were quite “invalid” as believers in the eyes of our mega-church neighbors.
Our adult Christian Education courses were packed because the Saddleback folk (who worked alongside Episcopalians and others in the high rise offices of Irvine and the like) kept bugging us pseudo-Christians about our invalidity. So in response to this workplace warfare, many adults wanted to find out more about what made us different from fundamentalism.
Wedge issues like marriage equality became the litmus test for orthodox biblical interpretation. Marriage had not changed in 5,000 years, according to pastor Warren. After 10 years of living in Orange County I shared in a very important lesson: There’s nothing like a little opposition to wake us up to what we have taken from granted for so long!
The perfect world of Orange County
This kind of spiritual warfare also went on in schools and among adolescents.
“Born again” teenagers would recruit their indifferent counterparts to attend Saddleback’s thriving youth program. Their facilities were hip and high tech, and their potential dating pool was larger than ours. Suntanned surfer dudes and blond OC Barbie dolls flocked to become the first generation to prove that God blesses his people with wealth, good looks and the perfect family.
Like the Pied Piper, Saddleback drained many of the neighboring churches in our region or their high school students. Episcopalians had four of the largest and most successful private schools in the region and our only hope was that our children would enter into the theological certainty of American fundamentalism with enough tolerance and enough questions to save their souls and keep their God- given brains working.
Episcopalians believe we are supposed to love God with our minds as well as our hearts, and not to leave them at the church door. We were taught to love the questions and even protect the questions. We trusted our kids would enter the Saddleback world of certainty, material success and exclusive Christianity with some degree of intellectual integrity and discernment. Meanwhile, their parents were expected to dole out a tenth of their income (called a tithe) and church envelopes for this tithe were sent every three months. If the tithe was received, membership at Saddleback was revoked. You could still attend, but there must be something wrong with your faith if you could not make your tithe.
The prosperity Gospel meets Disneyland
Acres of cookie-cutter homes and Macmansions dominate the Saddleback skyline where newly arrived families seeking community and purpose were drawn to the “Prosperity Gospel” Warren sold to them. Over three decades, this hard-working pastor built his church going door to door and welcoming these displaced new families to south Orange County and had earned a place in the Pastors Hall of Fame.
President Barack Obama initiated pastor Warren into this Hall of Fame when he invited him to lead the nation in prayer at his inauguration. It was a controversial decision and some would say a payback for Warren’s support of Obama by inviting him to his church for an historic debate with John McCain.
The Obama decision was also more difficult to stomach for those of us in the trenches in OC fighting for LGBT equality from 2006 to 2009, knowing Saddleback Church was the epicenter of the anti-marriage equality movement. Warren said he loved gay people but how come I ended up with one of his former staff who claimed Rick fired him and his wife when he came out and had an amicable divorce? Their marriage obviously did not emulate the biblical view of marriage Saddleback was supporting.
To the credit of the Warren family, Rick and his wife Kay had a revelation in the early 2000s that AIDS was a problem the world needed to address. They saw how the disease ravaged families and communities, and several trips to Uganda and Rwanda convinced the Warrens this was a cause they needed to embrace. HOW they embraced AIDS locally and internationally is still controversial. It is wonderful to see Rick and Kay and their congregants marching in the Orange County AIDS Walk supporting people locally and internationally whose lives as ravaged by this disease.
Sanitizing the unsanitary
In south Orange County, the Warrens and Saddleback had to overcome the problem that HIV was still a disease for mainly gay men and other marginalized populations like IV drug users and sex workers. The Warrens still believe gayness and drug use was a choice, an addiction and an evil one.
In their early days of trying to embrace HIV as part of their extensive addiction ministries programs, our leading HIV doctor in Orange County was disinvited from a forum at Saddleback Church when they found out he was not only gay but was not a born again Christian. This Cuban ex-Catholic was too hot and did not fit the theological perspective the purpose driven HIV agenda for “the OC” and Africa.
Many of our Southern Californian local AIDS organizations were suspicious of our “Johnny Come Lately AIDS activists” particularly around proselytizing. Warren not only believes homosexuality is against the will of God as revealed in Scripture, but also gave major political support to the battle against marriage equality in California. He wrote letters of support to breakaway congregations within the Episcopal Church who did not want openly gay people in religious leadership. He became close friends with the presidents of Uganda and Rwanda and had close associations with some of the leading anti-gay pastors of Uganda like Martin Ssempa.
In 2009, Warren quickly disassociated himself from the draconian legislation “Kill The Gays” bill through a video letter “to the pastors of Uganda” directed particularly towards Ssempa’s support for the bill. He came close to supporting the decriminalization of homosexuality. However, last summer when I tried to get him to send a letter of support to Bishop Christopher Senyonjo who was speaking at the United Nations on the effects of criminalization on the delivery of HIV prevention and services, Warren declined to go that far.
Warren’s support of the bishop and many civil society organizations who were all saying the same thing – criminalization of homosexuality and IV drug use is supported by faith communities in 76 countries who do not want these populations to have the same access to prevention and health services as the majority population, is morally wrong. It is also one of the largest barriers to effectively stopping further HIV infection in populations who are three times more likely to get infected than others. Warren remains silent on this issue with thousands of other religious leaders in these countries. Criminalization and ex-gay therapy remain the most significant deterrent they see to the spread of HIV. Our request to him read as follows:
More specifically, I support the efforts and vision of Bishop Christopher Senyonyo calling upon the nations of the world to remove all legal and cultural barriers that are inhibiting the vitally needed process of education and allow for more personal and collective responsibility for HIV prevention and health services. I support his call to:
• Remove all legal and cultural barriers that inhibit women from fulfilling their potential as partners and co-creators with men and share the same economic and legal protections and responsibilities under state and international laws.
• Decriminalize homosexuality globally and to invite religious and political leaders to condemn all acts of violence in word and deed against the LGBT community and to protect their human rights locally and internationally.
• Invite clergy and all who have responsibility to prepare couples for marriage to engage in a deeper conversation to help couples negotiate the sharing of power and responsibility while actively condemning the scourge of domestic violence that has been such a difficult issue for people of faith to engage and repair.
Finally, I share with today’s gathering my own personal renewed commitment to work together in the next decade with UNAIDS and its many partners. We are all called to repair God’s world and we please God when we share this calling and responsibility as one global interconnected people”.
Rick declined our invitation. Sharon Slater of Family Watch International would lead a very sinister campaign at the UN that summer to make sure all references to LGBT, MSM (men who have sex with men), IV drug users and sex workers would be omitted from the UN AIDS Declaration. She nearly succeeded.
Sex tourism of the Christian Right exposed
For Warren to see himself as not only disconnected from the Religious Right but someone who does not feel politics is an effective way to change the world is possibly delusional.
Jeff Sharlett reminded the COMPASS Coalition Conference at Union Theological Seminary in Manhattan last October that Warren’s tactics are similar to American sex tourists who go to Thailand to experiment with activities that they would not normally do at home. Sharlett’s analysis of Warren’s double standard is worth hearing, given his prominence in the upcoming World AIDS Conference to be held in Washington, D.C. from July 22 to 27. You can watch his talk here “Missionary Positions: The Sex Tourism of American Fundamentalism.”
Sharlett paints a very different picture of the work that fundamentalism is doing in south Orange County from that in East Africa. Both worlds (that have remained relatively separate) will collide for the Warrens in Washington this summer. Rick and Kay hope 100 Washington churches will be “welcoming” congregations to the 20,000 international visitors who will be there. But what exactly does “welcoming mean? It may mean “You are welcome to come to our church’s ex-gay group or we will visit you in prison when you are arrested for being gay or an IV drug user in any of the 76 purpose driven countries where criminalization remains one of the weapons fundamentalism uses for political attention.”
Will there be another religious narrative in Washington this summer to counter the claims of fundamentalism on HIV prevention and care? I hope so.
Listening to the voiceless
St. Paul’s Foundation for International Reconciliation has been supporting the difficult work of LGBT inclusion and provision of HIV services in 76 countries where it is illegal to be LGBT. We want to ensure voices from these countries will be present at the World AIDS Conference and a two-day faith conference held prior.
We hope the Washington faith community will provide hospitality and pulpits to our 76 voices who will share the reality of what criminalization and fundamentalism is doing to their lives and that of their communities. These will be the kind of stories Rick and Kay will not want to be told to their fellow believers in south Orange County, never mind in Washington. We are a long way from Disneyland. There are many issues we can agree to work on including the need for funding, care of the sick and orphaned, but we must be honest and name the things we do not agree on including our attitudes to “ex-gay” therapy and criminalization of LGBT people.
The economics of misinformation
Every mega-church in the USA provides access to “deliverance” or ex-gay therapy ministries, often charging $60 a pop to attend conferences and healing sessions. Some gay friends who are close to the Warrens have told me how the Warrens have personally struggled with the gay issue, had several lengthy meetings with gay evangelicals and may be personally sympathetic to the plight of LGBT people, but will not yet come out to support our cause. Why should they when they have a foothold in 300,000 “purpose driven churches” who continue to buy their books and add to their personal wealth?
Most of these churches are in the global south, so no matter what Kay and Rick may think personally about us and even love us and count us among their friends, the “purpose driven” empire has much to lose if it embraces LGBT people right now. Rick knows this. Like sectarianism, homophobia remains imbedded in the DNA of our institutions, not necessarily in the relations between individuals. Rick may honestly claim to “love gay people” even when he knows his institution can fire and silence us while continuing to make money on the backs of our oppression -- on a global scale.
If you want to know more about how to be part of the counter narrative during the Washington conferences or to be part of a more inclusive and welcoming faith initiative, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Let’s make sure we know our purpose and know where we are driving.
RGOD2, written by the Rev. Canon Albert Ogle of St. Paul’s Cathedral in San Diego, looks at faith and religion from an LGBT point of view. Ogle is known around the world for his work in support of LGBT rights and HIV-prevention efforts. He is president of St. Paul’s Foundation for International Reconciliation. Donations to the foundation can be made by clicking HERE.