Reaction to the growing and multifaceted acceptance of homosexuality in US society continues to be an animating feature of Christian Right activism. Like abortion, homosexuality is a permanent, defining issue for the movement. In the 2000 elections, several antigay referenda were put to the voters. In Vermont, punishing legislators who had voted to pass a bill allowing civil unions for gay men and lesbians was pivotal in many races for the state legislature. This antigay campaign went by the coded, nativist-style slogan "Take back Vermont." Also in Vermont, out of state Christian Right interests supported an antiunion backlash, and succeeded in defeating several prounion incumbent Republicans in the Republican primaries. In the general election, several pro-union Democrats lost to antiunion Republicans. The result was that Republicans-the majority of whom are antiunion-took control of the Vermont House of Representatives from the Democrats.
In Oregon, an antigay initiative that would have prohibited positive discussion of homosexuality in public schools was narrowly defeated, while initiatives in Nevada and Nebraska banning gay marriage and civil unions passed. An initiative in Maine that would have banned discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in employment, housing and public accommodations, narrowly failed.
One notable aspect in these campaigns is a shift away from the sharp, homophobic rhetoric so characteristic of Christian Right leaders in the past. Perhaps weary of being described as hate mongers and as responsible for creating a cultural climate that fosters violence and hate crimes or simply acting strategically in response to the public's increasing tolerance, even as some radical Christian Right leaders, notably John Whitehead of the Rutherford Institute,33 have backed away from strident antigay rhetoric. There is, however, no evidence of any significant change in their underlying views. Similarly, the emergence of "ex-gay" ministries such as Exodus International have sought to put a friendlier face on religious opposition to homosexuality and gay civil rights. These groups promote supposedly curative therapies, which actually involve little more than efforts to convert people to evangelical Christianity.34
Recently, this approach has further evolved in the form of a broader "love the sinner" antigay politics, expounded by Rev. John Rankin, a graduate of Harvard Divinity School, and professional debater, who heads the one-man Theological Education Institute in Hartford, Connecticut. In the Fall of 2000, Rankin keynoted an area conference on "A Biblical View of Sexuality" in Northampton, Massachusetts. The event was organized, according to Rankin, in response to "a growing number of evangelical women [who] claimed that lesbianism is affirmed by God." Northampton, he explained, "is the location of Smith College, the nation's premier women's college where lesbianism is as strong as anywhere. . . ."35 Rankin emphasized that homosexuals should not be hated, but pitied and shown the gospel. He claimed that homosexuals tend to be victims of child sexual abuse.36
The seemingly obscure Rankin has debated approximately 50 leading liberals, usually before liberal audiences on college campuses. "I do my forums in the presence of the country's best skeptics," he declared, "and my goal, much of it, is to defang the opposition, so people can hear the gospel."37 Among those he debated in 2000 through the vehicle of his so-called Mars Hill Forums, were Patricia Ireland, president of the National Organization for Women, Debra Hafner, former executive director of Sexuality, Education and Information Council of the United States, (SEICUS) Frances Kissling, president of Catholics for Free Choice, and Rev. John Buehrens, president of the Unitarian Universalist Association.
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