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January 12, 2001

Religious Right Rogues Gallery

Back in September, John Paulk--a self-proclaimed "former homosexual" who works for antigay Christian media behemoth Focus on the Family--gets caught in a Washington, DC, gay bar and loses his leadership position on the North American board of ex-gay-ministry network Exodus International. FOF takes another hit the very next month, when its senior vice president and radio host Mike Trout admits to cheating on his wife and quits in disgrace. In December, word arrives that Mark Thurman, head honcho of the reputedly family-friendly Florida-based ISP Families On Line, is in deep trouble with the FBI. PlanetOut reports that Thurman, whose site warns visitors that
"[p]ornography, hate sites, perversion, gambling, drugs, violence and all other known forms of social detriment are littered through the Internet like mines in a minefield waiting to explode," is under a federal criminal investigation for possible mail fraud (including claiming falsely that FOL was funded by the religious Trinity Broadcasting Network), wire fraud and money laundering. (One interesting item in the report: FOL's corporate account allegedly shelled out $5,257 to a sex-toy shop. I guess vibrators and the like aren't pornographic, perverted, or socially detrimental after all.) Thurman, whose present rap sheet already includes theft, forgery, and fraud, has not yet been charged in this case, but he's in the middle of a minefield that's likely to blow sky-high. And sadly, that explosion is nothing compared to the A-bomb blast that hit Focus on the Family last month: Steve Wilsey, one of FOF's youth counselors and a man reportedly considered a mentor to kids, was convicted Dec. 19 of one count of "sexual assault on a child by a person in a position of trust." The judgment came after prosecutors charged Wilsey with molesting an 8-year-old boy--the son of another FOF employee--over a period of 16 months. PlanetOut reports that the child's mother accepted Wilsey's offer to "mentor" her three sons in 1992, after hearing a Focus radio broadcast "warning" that sons of unmarried mothers supposedly face a special risk for homosexuality. Wilsey, who left FOF in 1999, will be sentenced Feb. 22; the potential punishment ranges from 12 years' probation to life imprisonment.



I bring all this up not to laugh at religious conservatives or ex-gays. Most right-wing Christians are not adulterers, thieves, or child molesters. Many of these people are decent, some might say misguided folks who don't want to hurt anyone. And I'd rather see these four men not as rogues, but as humans who have major life problems they must solve. I've interviewed and chatted with John Paulk. He was very nice and straightforward (no pun intended) with me; I do believe he has issues with which he and his wife Anne Paulk, who also says she's formerly gay, must deal, but I wish him the best and hope he finds a place of honesty and peace. I also hope Trout, Thurman, and Wilsey can endure the consequences of their actions and come out better for the experience. But the woes of Focus on the Family and Families On Line and their leaders--the real rogues, in my estimation--become media fodder simply because they put a lot of money and effort into telling us how wrong those who hold different beliefs are--and how their truth should be our truth. They want to reclaim America--which, despite what many of them say, is not a Christian nation--for Christ. They don't like pornography and they don't want you to watch it. They want entertainment and media standards to line up with their particular moral code, and if they get a chance to take legal steps to ensure their foothold, they take them. They don't want women to have reproductive freedom, and they want those involved in providing abortion services punished under law for it. (A very few religious radicals are even willing to kill.) They take every measure imaginable to make sure their religious view that deems heterosexuality and heterosexuals supreme remains codified under civil--read: secular--law, whether that means banning mention of homosexuality (and the protection of queer and questioning kids) in schools, keeping gay and lesbian people from adopting, and denying same-sex couples equality in civil marriage. And throughout, many members of the religious wrong make it clear: We're all sinners, but they're not as bad as we are. That was made quite clear in 1999, when I attended the Lynchburg, Va., Anti-Violence Summit between members of the Rev. Jerry Falwell's Thomas Road Baptist Church and the Rev. Mel White and his pro-gay nonviolent direct-action group Soulforce. The event was billed as "dinner with Jerry." In the press room, reporters feasted on sandwiches of roast beef and turkey and ham, courtesy of TRBC. In the summit, only small bottles of Poland Spring water were served. Falwell explained the slim repast he offered his GLBT and pro-gay guests saying that scripture forbade his flock from dining with unrepentant sinners. (And don't tell me journalists aren't unrepentant sinners.) Of course, the obvious question of "who defines what is and isn't sinful" is neither asked nor answered. It's the conservative Christians who make or interpret the rules, even when it comes to the nation's laws--how else can you explain a secular law bowing to right-wing religious wishes and categorically denying legal civil marriage to a group spanning from three percent to 10 percent or possibly more of the population? And that's why so many people snicker and jeer when things go wrong for the religious right. Sure, it's rude, immature, and unkind. I certainly don't condone it, and I make a strong, not-always-successful attempt to keep myself from behaving thusly. But I can certainly understand why it happens.


But there is a silver lining to this black cloud. When nasty incidents in the right-wing closet make the news, eyes and minds spring open. The GLBT newspaper Southern Voice recently reported that Focus on the Family revenues are down; the media conglomerate couldn't keep pace with the $31.6 million in contributions it received in 1999. The drop in donations forced FOF to suspend some of its programs, and its leader, Dr. James Dobson, even issued a special fund-raising plea. Note that this was before John Paulk paid a visit to Washington, D.C.'s notorious Mr. P's last September. (People I've talked with in political-religious-right circles attribute some blame for the revenue loss to FOF co-founder Gil Alexander-Moegerle, who, in 1997, severed his ties with the organization and apologized for its homophobia, stating: "I apologize to any American who has felt the sting of James Dobson and theChristian Right wagging their holier-than-thou fingers in your face, shrieking that because your views differ from theirs, you are ungodly, evil and unworthy of the rights of full citizenship." Alexander-Moegerle mentioned the aggrieved specifically, as he apologized for wrongs Focus did and does to women; Jews and other non-Christian religious groups, ethnic and pigmentational minorities; journalists(!); and "lesbian and gay Americans who are demeaned and dehumanized on a regular basis by the false, irresponsible, and inflammatory rhetoric of James Dobson's antigay radio and print materials.") Paulk's run-in with gay activists at the drag-queen bar didn't cause the losses Southern Voice reported, but it won't help FOF's present and future fund pleas. Neither will Mike Trout's adultery and resignation. And the Steve Wilsey child-molestation tragedy, beyond being an unimaginably hideous thing for the abused child, is one more huge blow to Focus. As for the future, what else may come to light? And will more and more people finally understand the lunacy of basing this country's civil law on the beliefs of religious-wrong rogues? One can hope.

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Posted by Natalie Davis at January 12, 2001 01:52 PM

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