Houston's Ordinance No. 2014-530, the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO), prohibits employment, housing, and services discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, among other categories. Anti-LGBTQ activists blasted the ordinance, smearing HERO as an alleged threat to religious liberty.
According to Religion News Service, Houston Mayor Annise Parker was a strong supporter of the HERO ordinance. This October, opponents of HERO sued Mayor Parker, seeking an injunction to suspect the ordinance and place a repeal on the November ballot, reports Lone Star Q. After the suit launched Houston city attorneys issues subpoenas to five pastors seeking all speeches and sermons related to HERO, LGBTQ issues, or Mayor Parker. Mayor Parker later withdrew the subpoenas, reports Religion News Service.
The Religious Right used the withdrawn subpoenas and the HERO ordinance as a rallying cry, culminating in an event devoted to blasting LGBTQ equality and lamenting the supposed persecution of Christians. I Stand Sunday took place on November 2nd, 2014 at Grace Church in Houston, TX. The gathering was sponsored by Family Research Council, Alliance Defending Freedom, American Family Radio, and other Religious Right groups. I watched a video recording of the event and found it brimming with the Religious Right's usual persecution rhetoric and unease with LGBTQ equality.
Family Research Council president Tony Perkins opened the event by praising the subpoenaed Houston pastors. "If the pastors would not stand, we have no one to stand with. Thank you, pastors, for standing for God's truth," Perkins said at the start of the event. "I believe this is a night, Nov 2nd 2014, that we will remember until the Lord returns," he told the audience.
After Rick Santorum spoke in a pre-recorded plug for his new film One Generation Away, seven Houston pastors at the center of the subpoena controversy spoke on stage. Pastor after pastor depicted the withdrawn subpoenas as a heinous attack on religious freedom and freedom of speech. First, Steve Riggle, pastor of Grace Community Church, described the subpoena controversy as the means by which the HERO ordinance became a national "firestorm" at the 34:40 mark.
"This is what happens when we stand together, right here. We've been in this battle regarding this ordinance now for many months, but when the mayor decided to send subpoenas to all of us, it seemed like it was the match that was the ignition needed to raise a firestorm all over the nation."Hernan Castaño, pastor of Iglesia Rios De Aceite, cited his heritage while condemning the subpoenas at the 37:16 mark.
"As a Hispanic American, as a pastor of this city, as the son of parents that came from South America with a dream to live in the nation of the free and the nation of the brave, I stand here today with you, as you stand with me, to continue living that dream. The dream that every vote counts, the dream that no signature will be ignored, the dream that every voice will be heard. I stand here today with you that I may speak, preach, and teach on the issues that deal with society, the issues that the Bible speaks about, and be not afraid to be condemned, to be subpoenaed, or to be intimidated by attacks."Magda Hermida, founder of Magda Hermida Ministries, likened the subpoenas to oppression in communist Cuba at the 39:26 mark.
"My husband and I left Castro's communist Cuba to seek freedom in the United States, and thank God, we found it here, and we have been blessed by it for almost fifty years. We used to live in Cuba through a police state in which our possessions, our speech, our faith were monitored closely by the government, with the fear of punishment if we said something or did something those in power didn't like. We never thought we would see the happening that is now in this country, here in Houston, in our beloved America, but it is here, and it is now. This mayor wants to use her power to see the sermons of our pastors and use them against us. The police state this creates, it is saying that my husband and I are [inaudible] in Cuba."As if the Cuba hyperbole wasn't outlandish enough, a video presentation used a Nazi Germany hyperbole to convince listeners that American religious liberty was under threat. In a short video entitled "I Stand Sunday: Learn from History", Mike Huckabee and Eric Metaxas discussed Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his resistance to Nazism. As images of Nazi Germany flashes across the screen, Metaxas compared Nazism's threat to the church to the alleged threat that "big government" poses to religious freedom today. At the 1:09:19 mark, he had this to say.
"[Bonhoeffer] knows that its possible to wake up the German church, and he does everything he can, but they don't wake up. Bonhoeffer saw that they had lost. The church was unwilling to take a stand, and at some point, the battle was over. In Germany in the thirties, you had the different sides, different parts of the church unwilling to link arms in a sense, and in retrospect, you think, 'oh my goodness, imagine not linking arms against Adolf Hitler'. Here you have such a clear enemy of the church. Now, many of them were ignorant. They did not understand what an enemy he was of the church, but Bonhoeffer was trying to wake them up and say that, 'listen, we are all united in this. We all need to link arms and fight as one and hold this line or Germany and the German church will die'. Here's a picture of religious liberty under siege, and Bonhoeffer, for whatever reason, sort of like a prophet, was the only one to really see this with clarity ... The parallel today is simply that you have a government estate which is getting larger and larger and more and more powerful and is beginning to push against the church. There's a window of opportunity where we can fight. If we don't wake up and fight before then, we won't be able to fight. That's just what happened in Germany, and that's the urgency we have in America now."Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee painted an ominous picture of alleged religious freedom and Christian passivity. At the 1:14:16 mark, Huckabee warned Christians that they already have a stake in abortion and alleged threats to religious freedom.
"When the government comes to your pastor and says cough up all of the sermons, sermon notes, and the correspondence that the pastor has had with his own parishioners, you are already involved. When they come to your church and begin to approve or disapprove what is said from your pulpit, my dear friend, you are involved. When 55 million babies in this nation have been murdered in their mothers' womb since 1973 that would have been a workforce, a prayer force, you already are involved."Huckabee urged the audience to vote, arguing that voting was part of their Christian duty at the 1:15:01.
"We cannot blame the people who don't love God. We'd better look inwardly and say it's because we've told our people that they can effectively be wonderful Christians, just going to church and reading their Bibles and praying, and voting wasn't that important. Now we're beginning to reap what we have sown, and it is time we plant some new seeds of citizenship in the ground of the United States of America, and become involved, be the salt and be the light."
Huckabee then asked audience members to hold up their smartphones with photos of any loved one whom they would die for. "If you would die for the image on that screen, could you not at least vote so that they would not live in an America where they would be told they could not pray and preach and worship and believe as their conscience would tell them to do?" Huckabee asked, and the audience burst into applause.
The gathering not only depicted religious liberty as under attack, but mocked LGBTQ rights. For example, Erik Stanley, senior legal counsel at Alliance Defending Freedom, painted LGBTQ equality as an affront to religious liberty, insisting at the 1:37:58 mark that "these subpoenas, though, are one front in a rapidly developing conflict, and the philosophy underlying this conflict is that sexual liberty trumps everything, including religious liberty." He called the Houston subpoenas "an unprecedented attack on religious liberty".
Phil Robertson, star of Duck Dynasty, implied that the HERO amendment would lead to men in women's restrooms by making a transphobic joke that he would never enter the ladies room. At the 1:45:24, he said this.
"For all you ladies in Texas, trust me when I tell you this. When you're seated in your restroom, putting on your Mabeline, when I need to take a leak, I'm not going there."As a side note, Robertson lamented the absence of Christianity in America's political discourse at the 1:46:45 mark.
"The reason the political pundits argue ad hominem, ad infinitum -- the reason no one ever changes their mind on television, night after night after night after night --they call each other left, right, liberal, right-wing, left-wing -- but there's never any gospel there, ever. No talk about sin. No talk about repentance. None. No talk about Jesus the son of God, nothing! And we wonder why we wound up like we are."David and Jason Benham, sons of anti-abortion activist Flip Benham, were also on hand at I Stand Sunday. The Benham brothers talked about the HGTV show they lost due to David's homophobic rhetoric, as well as the "firestorm" that erupted over Phil Robertson's interview with GQ Magazine. (As discussed in a prior post, Phil Robertson made homophobic comments in a 2013 interview with GQ Magazine's Drew Magary.) The Benham brothers grieved that they did not stand up for Robertson out of fear of losing their HGTV show, which they lost anyway. The fact that Robertson made troubling comments about gays, African Americans, and non-Christians did not seem to perturb the two men.
At the 2:04:39 mark, David Benham made a vague statement about resisting the "prevailing worldview" that is seeping into churches. Given the context of his speech, I can't help but wonder if the "worldview" he was referring to was acceptance of LGBTQ people.
"We have lost the meaning of resistance, Godly resistance, in our churches today. We have replaced it with relevance. When a prevailing worldview comes to the church, it is up to us to restate, reaffirm and reapply Biblical truth. It is not up to us to simply reconcile the scripture to the prevailing worldview so that we might be more relevant."
The more of I Stand Sunday I watched, the more I realized that the gathering wasn't really about subpoenas, but about reinforcing Religious Right ideology before the November 4th elections. Speakers told listeners that they were on the side of God, that challenges to their beliefs constituted "persecution", and that LGBTQ advances were a threat to their rights. Hyperbolic rhetoric comparing the U.S. to communist Cuba and Nazi Germany created a siege mentality, instilling listeners with a sense of moral urgency. Listeners were urged to vote for the sake of their future. The problem is, none of this rhetoric was grounded in reality.
No one is taking Christians' freedom of religion away. No one is silencing or oppressing Christian religious leaders. No one is hurling Christians out of the public square. Advances in LGBTQ rights are about equality and fairness, not stifling religious freedom. The rhetoric of I Stand Sunday, no matter how passionate, doesn't change these facts.
To read additional commentary, visit the following links.
Think Progress: Thousands Rally Against LGBT Rights In Houston
GLAAD: LGBT advocates tell the truth about Houston's Equal Rights Ordinance on #IStandSunday
Right Wing Watch: Eric Metaxas Is Not At All Being 'Hyperbolic' When He Warns That America Is At Risk Of Turning Into Nazi Germany