Cover Story

Shouting down Christians?

Future historians will almost certainly see 1998 as a turning point in American history-and not just because of the impeachment debate. The other watershed of the year could be the impeachment of debate itself: what may be the beginning of the end for free speech among Christians in the United States. Two murders created two cultural martyrs-and, perhaps, two more excuses to muzzle the views of those who believe in speaking the truth, no matter how unpopular.

Issue: "The tolerance police," Dec. 19, 1998

For Gary Bauer, it should have been just another speaking engagement. The Family Research Council president appears at more than 100 events every year defending traditional values (and, perhaps, running for president). But early on, there were signs that his speech in Livonia, Mich., on Oct. 22 would be far from normal. A week earlier, Matthew Shepard, a homosexual student at the University of Wyoming, had been brutally beaten, tortured, and strung up on a fence to die. Like almost every other Christian leader in the country, Mr. Bauer condemned the murder and called for swift justice for the perpetrators. But some homosexual activists wanted more than that. They wanted Mr. Bauer's head.

Within days of the murder, the switchboard at FRC's Washington headquarters was jammed. Angry callers shouted obscenities at operators, damning Mr. Bauer and laying the blame for the Shepard death squarely at his feet. "God hates you," raged one caller. "You will all burn in hell." Said another, "The blood of Matthew Shepard is on your dirty, disgusting, hate-filled hands."

With criticism giving way to damnation and then to threats of physical violence, tensions were high as Mr. Bauer headed to Livonia on a bright, cold afternoon. Dozens of uniformed police patrolled the streets, the parking lot, and even the roof of the Burton Manor conference center. Outside, more than 100 protesters surrounded incoming cars, screaming at the startled occupants, "God hates you!" and "Take your hate home." Various speakers, armed with a red bullhorn, lumped Gary Bauer with Adolph Hitler and compared the FRC to the KKK. The crowd roared its approval, hoisting signs that read, "Your words are killing us," and "Traditional family values suck."

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Again and again, biblical values were blamed for the death of Mr. Shepard. "Hate happens ... in our pulpits," said one young man who said he had himself been seriously beaten two years earlier. (He never explained from what pulpit his attacker-the bouncer at a local bar-might have learned his hate.)

A Metropolitan Community Church minister, with a stiff white collar and silver cross around his neck, asked the crowd to join with him in praying "to whatever god you worship," then went on to ask forgiveness and enlightenment for "those who preach hatred and who fail to see that the violence of their words leads to violence of action." (Metropolitan churches are popular among homosexuals.)

As the sun sank lower in the sky, so did the level of rationality in the rhetoric. A rather large lesbian rendered the red bullhorn redundant as she screamed of the people inside the hall, "It is they who destroy family values by saying we can pray our way out. It is they who destroy this country with a sickness and a hatred that breeds intolerance. It is they whose words bring death to our young.... We come tonight to say, You have brought sin and hatred and pain to this country, and you should pray tonight for redemption. You need it."

Although Mr. Bauer escaped unscathed from the confrontation in Livonia, he still professes to be baffled by the hostility of the crowd. After all, he's never called for the stoning of homosexuals, and-unlike the in-your-face followers of Fred Phelps in Omaha, Neb.-he didn't show up at Matthew Shepard's funeral with a placard reading, "God hates fags."

What he did do, along with leaders of 14 other Christian organizations, was help to fund an ad campaign highlighting groups that minister to homosexuals who want to change, or at least control, their behaviors. Under a photo of hundreds of homosexuals who now say they are straight, the ad copy stresses, "We believe every human being is precious to God, and is entitled to respect." It goes on to tell of thousands of men and women who left the gay lifestyle "because someone cared enough to love them, despite where they were, and to confront the truth of their sexual sin. For the Christian, that love comes in the person of Jesus Christ and motivates our commitment to this issue."

Despite the measured tone of the ads and the conscious effort to avoid any personal attack on homosexuals, critics immediately raised the specter of "hate speech." Under pressure from gay-rights groups, many newspapers refused to run them. The Christian message was effectively shut out-even when framed as a paid advertisement.

Mr. Bauer says he was initially stung by the tone of the attacks against him, which he calls "much more of an incitement to violence than anything I've ever said." As the phone messages and faxes piled up, however, he realized that the hostility served a purpose: "It finally hit me that what they were trying to do was not just say, 'You're wrong.' They were trying to say, 'You are illegitimate; you cannot say what you believe about the sanctity of life and the gay agenda. To merely speak it is to incite violence.'"


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