“I dislike Trump hugely. But if he is impeached, and we get Pence, then we get a man who knows what a theocracy is and is willing to bet his life on it.”
Millions of Americans had visceral reactions to Donald Trump winning the Presidency. But for Mel White and his husband, Gary Nixon, it affected them differently than most.
“My husband had a stroke in his right eye when it was announced he was going to be President. That’s how we feel in this family,” says White.
For Mel White and Gary Nixon, Trump’s election was more than just a political defeat, more than just disgust at an individual; it was the culmination of their worst fears. Donald Trump had been propelled to the presidency by Christian voters, that a faith they hold so dear had been given the credit for rallying millions of supporters. And, that the evangelical leaders that had praised Trump, and encouraged Christians to vote for him, were former friends and colleagues of theirs. And now they were much more powerful, and influential, than ever before.
Mel White, 77, is retired now but instead of finally relaxing and enjoying the freedom, he’s feeling dejected. He’s assessing the current political climate in the US, and the fruit of his own labor, and sees failure all around.
To understand White’s frustration in 2017, you have to go back and unpack his incredible life journey. Born in 1940, in Santa Clara, California, Mel White was reared in a conservative evangelical Christian home. As a young adult, he used his passions for storytelling and God to pursue a career in writing, filmmaking and teaching. His successes were abundant. In 1965, he launched his own production company, Mel White Productions, and over the course of twenty years made fifty-three documentaries and motion pictures. He also wrote twenty-one books, 9 of which were best-sellers. His films and writings spanned a number of genres: from spirituality, to incredible human survival and perseverance stories, to tales of war in Vietnam. While continuing his burgeoning writing and film career, White also completed a doctorate at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. He went on to teach communications and preaching at the school for more than a decade.
During this span of time, White was offered a series of writing gigs that would radically alter his future. With a solid reputation for storytelling and his Christian foundation, national publishers approached White to write ghost-autobiographies for prominent evangelical leaders. He accepted and throughout the 1980s was responsible for writing books for Billy Graham, Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and several others. In the process, White acquired an intimate knowledge of the people, their ideas and their circle of friends.
Of these people, the one closest to White was Jerry Falwell. Falwell was a fiery, and wildly popular, Southern Baptist preacher from Lynchburg, Virginia. He established a huge audience with his “Old Time Gospel Hour”, a nationally syndicated radio and television ministry. In 1971, he founded a private Christian university called Liberty University. But perhaps Falwell’s most significant contribution was the creation of a group called “The Moral Majority”: a political lobbyist group that aimed to intertwine Christianity with the Republican Party platform. Through Falwell’s charisma and popularity, he swooned politicians and built a strong political support base. The group is considered to be a major contributor to Ronald Reagan’s election as President of the United States. The marriage of Christianity with the Republican Party may seem now like an ancient, inevitable, pairing but it really started in the 1970s with Falwell.
From the outside looking in, Mel White appeared to have it all: a successful career and a happy home with his wife Lyla and their two kids. But White had a painful secret, one he had spent three decades trying to eliminate: he was gay. And as a gay man, especially a Christian gay man, he believed he was living in sin and there must be a way to exorcise this abomination. Eventually, after a 30-year harrowing struggle, which included counseling, prayer, fasting, attempted exorcisms, and even electroshock therapy, White came to peace with this, amicably separated from his wife and started a new life as an out gay Christian.
But now that White had come to terms with himself, and embraced his homosexuality, he was dead set on changing other people’s minds as well. The primary target? The religious right; his former colleagues and friends, who had pushed an anti-gay agenda on the United States. Remember that White used to work for people like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson who initially blamed 9/11 on gays, lesbians and doctors who performed abortions. Their anti-gay rhetoric, he believed, had been responsible for his own pain, but also the pain, suffering and cause of suicides for many, many young Christian men and women.
White came out in 1991. And in 1994, he wrote his best-selling autobiography, “Stranger At The Gate: To Be Gay and Christian in America”. And so for the past 24 years, White has dedicated his life to this mission. He started an activist organization called “SoulForce” which is designed to “challenge the Religious Right through relentless nonviolent resistance in order to end the political and religious oppression of LGBTQI people.” He’s also written numerous other books explaining and exposing the doctrine of the religious right — those he would label Christian fundamentalists — and books that unpack his belief that homosexuality is a gift from God.
For his efforts, White was awarded ACLU’s National Civil Liberties Award for “his efforts to apply the ‘soul force’ principles of relentless nonviolent resistance to the struggle for justice for sexual minorities.” He’s also been arrested protesting and trying to get an appointment with Pat Robertson to explain his damaging rhetoric towards gay people. He spent 22 days in jail for his efforts.
There is no triumph in Mel White’s heart today, however. With Trump in the White House many of the leading right-wing Christian leaders that White believes have done tremendous damage for gay people, and distort the good news he cherishes in the Bible, are now either in the White House or close to the President. And it’s particularly distressing because many are either the same people, or their offspring, that White has been fighting to expose. They include: Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell Jr (son of Jerry Falwell, and close friend and supporter of Trump), Betsy Devos, and Franklin Graham (son of Billy Graham, who White wrote for).
There is much I WANNA KNOW from Mel White. I spoke with him via Skype from his home in Los Angeles.
In this candid interview we discuss: Fundamentalism in American Christianity, the forefathers of the religious right: Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, Billy Graham, his fears of Vice President Mike Pence and President Donald Trump, gay conversion therapy, and much much more.
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I wanted to start the interview by setting the scene on your faith and where it stands today, because what will come next will be centered in that I think. You were raised Christian, you were a central figure in the rise of the Christian right in the United States, you’ve also seen the dark sides of being an outcast. So as of today, do you still consider yourself to be a Christian and how would you label your faith?
When my son and I were on the Amazing Race the second time Newsweek did an article on us. They asked my son, “Since you have a pastor as a father, do you consider yourself a Christian?” He said, “No, I don’t”. So they came to me and said your son doesn’t consider himself a Christian, do you? And I said, “No I don’t” . Michael’s smart enough to know that Christian is defined by every generation in a new way and he’s rejecting the current description of what Christianity is. So, I kind of use: I am a mediocre follower of a first century Jewish carpenter and hope that people understand what I’m saying.
It’s a fascinating time to be speaking with you. You were there from the very origins of the religious right, the moral majority’s rise to prominence. You played a big role, through your writings/partnerships with the biggest figures in the movement. But, of course, now your life’s work has really been to speak out against this movement and this ideology. Do you see yourself as being a central figure in developing this movement?
There is an irony in that Simon Shuster and 60 Minutes love to say I was a fundamentalist leader who came out against his colleagues in the movement. In fact, I grew up in an evangelical church. My dad was the mayor. I went to church every Sunday. I never heard of fundamentalism. I never heard of the rapture, or of inerrancy. I understand what you’re saying, but for me evangelical has been a good word until the last few years when it’s taken on the brand of an alt-right society. So I have to reject the word now completely. I don’t want anybody to relate me to the evangelical world because it’s gone crazy. And in its craziness it’s doing huge damage to this country, terrible damage.
Who are the religious right, the radical right? How would you define them as a group today?
I’ve always thought of them as fundamentalists, rather than being Christian at all. Fundamentalism, you know, militant piety. Someone called it Orthodoxy gone cultic. Fundamentalism in Christianity is the same kind of fundamentalism in Islam. And I think it’s as dangerous, if not more dangerous to this country. When the Bible is seen as inerrant, it’s held up as an idol and anything that threatens the Bible, or their understanding of the Bible, threatens their faith. So the truth, discussion about the history of the word and of the 66 books and how they were inspired, none of that works anymore. They just say, the Bible, if it was good enough for Jesus it’s good enough for me. And I’m telling you, I gave up discussing the Bible with these people, for example on homosexuality, because they are not interested. Fundamentalists are not interested in hearing what anyone else has to say.
And so, if you’re in a world where no one is interested in hearing what you have to say, why would you keep talking to them? I’ve turned down so many interviews because I just don’t want to be harassed again by people who don’t listen. I believe that I know Jesus as well as I ever did maybe better because of the pressure we’ve been under lately. I feel like I walk with Jesus everyday. I talk with Jesus when I’m walking on the beach. I imagine him. And prayer is a lot of imagination. But then I hear these guys talking about Jesus and I say I don’t want anything to do with that Jesus. Your Jesus is an idol and I reject him entirely.
So it’s interesting when you say that about the religious right’s use and interpretation of the Bible. Growing up, the Bible was something taught as infallible. It was hermeneutically sealed, perfection in truth, that every generation could use as their guide. So then, what is the Bible to you? Is it a guide? A book to interpret and learn from?
Hermeneutically sealed. That’s kind of a nice expression. I never heard it quite like that before. The Bible to me is an amazing book of stories. And those stories inform our lives. When I read the Jewish testament, there are a lot more biographies and autobiographies in the Jewish than in the Christian testaments. The stories of Esther, for example, how could you not be informed by that? When she has to face and speak to power and risk her life doing it. All of these stories, they come down to immediate application. The Christian stories too – whether it’s Saul, who is realizing he’s doing the wrong thing and has to turn around. For me it’s the greatest story book ever written and if you just listen to the stories, listen to the spirit of God, as she speaks through those stories then you can have a great time in the Bible. But when you take it inerrantly, you forget that in the Jewish testament there were 626 commands that they keep, and by keeping those rules they were people of faith. Jesus came with a new covenant and said it’s not keeping rules that gets you in, it’s keeping the faith. And the faith is in loving God and loving your neighbour. And so I see these fundamentalists, who call themselves Christian, rejecting entirely the notion that Jesus said love your enemies, do good to them who hate you, pray for those who persecute you. My God, they are so far off that now they can’t even say they read the Bible, let alone act upon its truths. It’s so frustrating to me.
When you look at the conservative Christian ties with politics. There seems to be an incredibly strong alliance today. We saw a direct correlation between evangelicals and their support for Donald Trump and him being elected President. What was it like for you to watch not only Trump win the Presidency but do so through the support of Christians?
Go back a little on this one. It’s a great question. You know when fundamentalism took hold in this great country of ours in the late 70s, it was Francis Schaeffer talking to Jerry Falwell and Jerry said I need to win the world to Christ, but I can’t do it with all the Christians we have, we need more. So Francis Schaeffer said, the Bible shows we can use pagans to do God’s will . Why don’t you use pagans? And that’s when they invented the term co-belligerents. Find issues that they are co-belligerent with, so the Catholics will come on board against abortion, so the Fundamentalists will come on board with you against homosexuality. So Falwell picked all these issues that had nothing to do with Christian truth in the Bible. They had to do with issues that were deep down beneath the world of fundamentalism. So when I watched Trump get elected it was to me the ultimate proof that co-belligerency works, that the evangelicals had taken hand in hand, the most godless, racist, misogynist, homophobic, anti-feminist people. The alt-right that they are in bed with is just totally showing how they’ve let co-belligerency become their religion and forgot in the process who Jesus was.
My husband had a stroke in his right eye when it was announced he was going to be President. That’s how we feel in this family. And our blood pressure is regulated by drugs and it was perfectly calm and his eye went boom. We are so stunned by this, and so embarrassed that Christians have been given the credit for electing him and he keeps calling out who is Christian and who isn’t.
For me, it’s incredible to think that the voices of support for Donald Trump, and the voices that remain the most influential on the Christian right are still people you know and worked with. Franklin Graham, son of Billy Graham, announced God had helped Trump get elected; Jerry Falwell Jr was one of his vost vocal supporters and still is; Pat Robertson is absolutely a Donald Trump fan, with a recent fawning interview. This must be a bit surreal for you to see the enduring prominence of these leaders and their offspring.
I have two pictures on my desk right now. One of Jerry and one of Jerry Jr. with Trump and I say to myself, “Jerry isn’t dead, he’s alive and well and doing everything he dreamed of through his son.” He could hardly get into the Reagan convention, remember after all the help he gave, but his son is being asked to be the Secretary of Education or an advisor. This is what Jerry dreamed of that we could get our fundamentalist forces inside an administration and then live out the realities as we see it. It’s crushing.
I was in those homes when those kids were running around in diapers, those kids that are now leading us. Betsy Devos I’ve travelled with all over the place, with her and her husband. I know these people who are in power. When I think about those people in power, and I think if Jerry is alive and listening, he is having hysterics, and saying we started this and in those few short years we’ve literally taken over the country through this crazy Trump. Trump has no idea he’s being co-beligerized. He doesn’t know his position at all. He’s just lucking it up that they’re voting for him. Why they’re voting for him, when he’s so unchristlike, no one’s going to explain that to me. Those people aren’t evangelical, they are racist and misogynist and all those other things, who have taken on the evangelical term, but they are not that. They don’t even know what that is. Evangelical means good news. And they are in our history the bearer of the worst news this country could hear. So evangelical? Good news? Don’t kid me.
You knew Betsy Devos? What do you make of all the attention and negative press she’s gotten since coming into office?
I rode with her in her in father-in-law’s private 727 jet from Grand Rapids to tokyo. You have a lot of time to chat. The only other passenger was Rich Devos and her child. Fundamentalists are usually nice. I’ve never met a fundamentalist that I couldn’t like. And that’s one of the reasons people really dislike me sometimes, because I really liked Jerry Falwell. He was a lot of fun to be with. I don’t like Pat Robertson. Pat Robertson is messianic. Jerry was having a ball. When you’re around Betsy, she’s nice and she means well, but her children never rode in an airplane that wasn’t theirs until they were in their 20s. They have their own private airport. They are surrounded by luxury. They are surrounded by bubble. So her kids went through this whole process that she would like to see all kids go through. I don’t think she’s ever walked through the ghetto. She’s never really cared about the poor who need an education who can’t afford it. I think she’s a nice person who’s terribly deceived, self-deceived, arrogant and entitled. So I have to hate what she does, and hate what she stands for. But I know Betsy she’s a nice well meaning person.
You wrote more than 20 years ago, in Stranger At The Gate, that “Leaders on the radical right do not believe in democracy but in theocracy. Our nation should not be ruled by the will of the people but by the will of God, as they understand him…The leaders of the radical right do not believe in the separation of church and state.” Does this statement still hold true today? Is a theocracy really the end goal for them?
Yeah, it’s ironic because Trump is the one they elected. He couldn’t be a theocrat. He doesn’t even know what God is about. If they’d elected Jerry Jr. then we could have had a theocracy pretty quickly. But since Trump is working for them in so many ways, they are doing a theocracy by default. They’re saying, what we believe about God is against killing little embryos, so you don’t kill embryos, you don’t have the right to abortion. So that’s their God understanding, their theocratic understanding, being placed into law.
Look at the health thing, the health plan that they have in mind is so un-Godlike, but it enforces some of those things that the theocrats would like to have. Before long that there will be prayer we have to pray in school. So they get little things that are theocratic along the way. But we’re not a theocracy yet, we’re a blundering, crazy nation without any kind of leadership. We have no political guidance from history. We’re just blundering along. And so, I said what I said 20 years ago, I believe it exactly the same way, that they want to have God as they understand him be law. Not the constitution.
Do you think people like Jerry Falwell Jr, Pat Robertson, Franklin Graham, and all those guys, really believe what they are trying to do for America? Do they believe in their hearts these theocratic things? Or is it just something they do for power, money?
They believe what they are trying to do for America, and they would never in 100 years call it a theocracy. They would call it a democracy and I would call it democracy run amok. Falwell never talked about a theocracy and Schaeffer never talked about a theocracy, these guys didn’t talk about theocracy, they just wanted what they understand in the Bible to become law. And that’s theocracy.
If you believe in the Bible, you would think it might be good to find a way to take these truths and apply them. But I suppose it just comes down to a difference in interpretation between you and them?
When I was going around the country talking about homosexuality in the Bible, I had to use bulletproof vests, I had to be let in through crowds in underground passages, because they were being so hostile because I wasn’t believing in Leviticus 20. One day my husband said to me, “Mel you ought to say, leave your Bibles and your guns at the door, they are both as dangerous.” And at this point, that they like the Bible scares me. Stay away from the Bible. You guys stay away from the Bible. You don’t know what it’s about. And you’re taking passages out to enforce your theocratic notions that are so dangerous to this country and so undemocratic, but you don’t get it. They wouldn’t call it a theocracy, but they would call it a Bible-based culture. And when they talk about Bible based culture I run for the hills because I know us gay people are dead again.
You also said, which I find highly interesting and relevant, that “Their political worldview is dangerously un-American. Current leaders of the radical right are scrambling to rewrite American history. Our forefathers, Jefferson, Adams, even Ben Franklin, are being portrayed as zealous, Bible believing, evangelical Christians, committed to “traditional family values”. A lot of Christians totally buy into this. Why? And if it’s a myth, where did it come from?
As people read into the Bible, they read into biography. If they see once Ben Franklin said we have to have prayer in the Congress, they just don’t mention that it was voted down by the delegates, but they hold up that passage. One of the delegates to the Constitutional Convention said we ought to have prayer in these meetings. The group said no, we’re not going to have prayer, but they hold up that line and say see our forefathers wanted to have prayer at their meetings. It’s history again gone amok. It’s inerrant history, picking and choosing what you want from history and saying this is what history was. But it wasn’t history. Jefferson and his battles with the Baptists and trying like to mad to keep this country religion and the government separated, he worked so hard, and he’s written so many beautiful things about it. But they don’t get those old narratives that show what was the heart of the forming of this country, we will not let religion get in the way of this democracy. We will not let people put their religion on top of us, that’s why we’ve come here. But they don’t believe that, they see those same guys picking from their speeches. They say Jefferson was one of the first evangelicals. And Ben Franklin was a wise and virtuous person. Hello.
It seems pretty clear that Trump’s pick of Mike Pence as VP was a big boost for his Christian support. I saw many people sharing his video addressing the Christian community, telling them he was a man of God and that Trump was a man of God. Does Mike Pence concern you as VP when it comes to his conservative Christian agenda for the United States?
You know, I dislike Trump hugely. But if he is impeached, and we get Pence, then we get a man who knows what a theocracy is and is willing to bet his life on it. Pence is a theocrat, working in guise as a democrat. For me, Pence has said so many evil things, but he understands what he’s saying. Trump says evil things without even knowing what he’s saying. He’s not nearly as dangerous as Pence would be if Pence had power. But right now Pence is exercising his power through Trump.
Would you label Mike Pence a Christian fundamentalist?
Pence is the modern illustration of what a fundamentalist is. If you look at what he says, he’s taking all these passages to do all these quote “family values” and he’s tried to legislate them in his state, as he’s going to try to legislate them here. No, I’m afraid of Pence even more than I am of Trump, except Trump is doing so much damage while I’m waiting for Pence.
Under Obama for the last 8 years, there was that sense that the needle had turned towards a more progressive agenda in the United States. You saw the Supreme Court legalizing gay marriage in 2015, for example. There was this sense that the Christian right was definitely losing these culture wars, and were now awakening to a reality that America had shifted more towards secularism or liberalism. Do you think all that’s happening now under Trump, with the resurgence of the religious right, signals that that was certainly not the case? Or perhaps is this push from the right going to be an outlier and really is a last gasp of air for this movement?
On election night, everything changed for me. If Hillary, or any of the democrats had been elected we would be reinforcing the days that Obama brought in for us, I think. But they weren’t elected. And now we have this crazy man who doesn’t know the truth from a lie. So when you say where are we on culture? Culture took a huge u-turn on election night and started back to its roots just as fast as it could, back towards fundamentalism, back towards conspiracies, back towards all these things which scare me. We don’t have a resistance movement going within the LGBT community. We’re still celebrating marriage equality. And already in so many states, they’re working to end the rights of gay couples and lesbian couples. For me, nothing has changed. I spent 30 years on the frontlines of that battle and now it’s all begun again. As though it had never been fought. I don’t think we’re headed towards that wonderful kind of state, the progressive state, no I think we’re heading right back towards McCarthy.
There has been talk among Christians who oppose Trump about the need for a Bonhoeffer moment, referring to Dietrich Bonhoeffer a German theologian who led a nonviolent resistance against Adolf Hitler. I know he’s one of your non-violent role models for resistance. So is there a desperate need for a leader/leaders in the church to speak up and act in courageous ways? Are we seeing that in any meaningful way?
You know in Germany, there was not a Bonhoeffer moment. There were all kinds of people like Bonhoeffer, men and women alike, who were taking a stand against Hitler. He was a writer, so his wonderful reputation lasted, but we need Bonhoeffer’s all over this country to speak truth to power. I don’t think we can ask for ourselves to have a hero — a Martin Luther King, a Bonhoeffer – that will lead us. Bonhoeffer didn’t lead the people of Germany, he was hanged because the people of Germany hated him. So for me, our heroes are more likely to be hanged, than they are to be listened to. Now in North Carolina, we have Reverend Barber, that’s a hero to me. That man is standing up and saying exactly what needs to be said. And he’s saying it with courage, he is so eloquent at the same time.
I think we have a lot of Bonhoeffer’s who are writing now about things we need to listen to, but we don’t need heroics. We don’t need someone who can stand on the steps of the Lincoln Monument and say this is my dream. We need people in local school boards who are saying this is my dream. We need some Republicans in the Congress who will say this is my dream. Bonhoeffer should come to life in the Republican party.
Also, how would you advise Christians to protest this Presidency and its agenda, and perhaps to convince other Christians to see through the rhetoric?
It’s impossible. A Trump person who is real is a fundamentalist at heart, whether he’s from the alt-right and doesn’t know anything about God and the Bible. Or he’s from the fundamentalist world. They’re not listening to the other sides of the story. Have you ever tried to sit down and talk with someone who only watches Fox? They don’t have any information to discuss things with you. I watch Fox off-and-on to make sure I know the craziness that’s going on there. For me, I have to say to the Christians who are following Trump, you have left Christ in the dust. You are calling yourself by a name that doesn’t fit you anymore, so leave Trump and get back to feeding the hungry, and housing the homeless and clothing the naked, get back to what Jesus said because Trump and the Republican congress are moving away from that as fast as they can run.
One issue, of course, that is profoundly linked with you and your work is the issue of gay rights and gay acceptance/celebration in the church. You were arrested in the 90s trying to get an appointment with Pat Robertson to help him understand the tragic consequences of his endless antigay rhetoric, yet you still see him on TV saying gay people are ruining marriage, and lots of other strong rhetoric. So, do you see genuine progress more broadly?
Are you trying to say I’m a failure? I’m a failure. Let me say it. Nothing has changed within the church. The Roman Catholic Church is the biggest in the world. Their policies are strictly anti-gay regardless of what Francis says. You know they are going to enforce anti-gay policies. The methodist church, with all its history in Wesleyan, with their coming over to the US to work with the Native Americans, the second biggest protestant church, is still anti-gay. They won’t marry us, they won’t ordain us. There’s a few churches like the United Church of Christ, and the Evangelical Lutherans, and individual congregations in all these denominations, but the mass of Christian followers in this country are living under, whether they are obeying it or not, you shouldn’t be gay. And your kids shouldn’t be gay.
Whether we win the debate or not, the parents who hear it who have gay kids, the gay kids suffer just because we’re talking about it. Because their parents argue with us, even if it’s from a distance. So, the new resistance movement, SoulForce for example is all run by five amazing women who are so far ahead of me in terms of knowing what resistance means, these women have strategies. I’m going on Women’s Marches, I’m seeing how women are leading the resistance, and men like Barber. There’s something going on in terms of resistance, I don’t know how effective it could be. When someone like Trump interprets a million women standing outside his door as those losers, they don’t understand, they’re just bad losers. There’s a million women standing outside your door, does that mean nothing to you? What kind of resistance will mean something to him? How to resist the disconnect is totally unknown to me.
Gay conversion therapy is still widely practiced in the United States. Rhode Island did, recently, become the 10th state along with Washington D.C. to pass legislation banning it. If it seems like a very destructive process, so why is it taking so long to disappear?
You ask good questions. I went through that process you know, the ex-gay movement and I suffered for decades after having gone through their program. I’ve buried more gays and lesbians that have killed themselves who were in the midst of that program. I’ve watched parents double over in grief because their children believe that program that they pushed on them. I’ve shown them evidence over, and over and over, again that this is from hell. And it’s hurting people and hugely across the country. But it doesn’t matter what the truth is to these people. Once again, they’ve taken two or three passages out of their context in the Bible and they are using it to defend a program that science, that medicine, that psychology, that everyone says is evil and their putting their kids in it.
I worked once for H.L. Hunt, I was writing a book for him. He gave his son, H.L. Jr. a lobotomy because it was scientifically sound in those days, just a small period of time. He lobotomized his own son, who was one of the brilliant guys, apparently, in the oil business. I wandered around that huge house of theirs in Dallas with the son who didn’t know who he was or who I was. And I thought, we’re doing this to our gays kids. We’re destroying their hearts, we’re destroying their hope and they’re wondering around in a daze and you Biblical people are saying, they shouldn’t be what they are. So I’m angry and I’m sad and I’m feeling hopeless.
Do you regret the chapter of your life you spent hanging out with and working for religious right figures? Or do you see that work and experience as helpful, productive for your work that came after?
I was on that NPR show Fresh Air with Terry Gross. She had read everything. That’s the way she prepares. One of her questions was, have you ever written anything against homosexuality? And I died right on the spot. I thought, oh my God, all the books I’ve written. I said, “I really don’t think so, because I’ve never really been against it, I just didn’t think I should be one.” Well she said let me read this from Jerry Falwell’s autobiography. She said, you’re writing for Falwell, “Gay people are Americans too and they have the rights and protections they deserve from the constitution. All of them deserves equal rights and opportunities.” She said, how did you get by with that? I said the biographies I write for these guys, they never read, they’re only using them to bring in money. I trusted Jerry to never read anything. But when she said that’s the only thing you wrote about homosexuality, I said, thank you God.
These men you worked for you’ve protested them and spoken out against them. But overall, do you assess them to be an overall force of good or evil? Do you see any benefit to their other teachings?
I’m telling you, almost everything they say I’m in disagreement with. I no longer fight for LGBT rights, now we have to come together and fight for rights of all the others, outsiders, that these right wingers see. So for me, their stance on race, on children, I’m against everything they stand for. They’re not standing for Jesus. But they are standing on Jesus. Pat Robertson, these guys come along and there’s almost nothing they have to say that’s good because the other side drowns it all out anyways.
Pat Robertson, in my view, is a very vile character. You knew him, how would you describe him and his work?
There are things I would say about Pat Robertson that I have evidence for that I can’t get into now. He is not virtuous. I’m talking about money, I’m talking about leadership. The man is messianic. He really believes that God has sent him to this nation, for this time, to save this nation. He believes that he is a kind of messiah. He doesn’t believe he’s Jesus. But he believes he’s a kind of Jesus. That’s why he stays on that broadcast until he’s become a talking skeleton. Because he believes he has this thing to say. Anyone who thinks they’re messianic you know they’re not listening to anyone else. And they are certainly not entering into dialogue on those programs. It’s all propaganda, over and over and over. And it’s the kind of propaganda that’s not true. Prosperity theory, you know, if you give to God, God will give you as much back.
Pat Robertson is dangerous to all those who listen to him. My mother and father had Pat Robertson at the top of their will instead of me and my brother. And my grandmother was one of the founders of the CBN with her donations. And I finally sat down with them long enough and I showed them the programs, and I said, do you think this is true? And when you start listening carefully to Fox or to Pat Robertson, you start seeing great discrepancies, great errors. They listened to him and I said, he’s not selling Jesus, he’s selling Pat. By the time they’d watched him carefully for a while, they put me and my brother back in the will. We have to get people to listen carefully to what they’re saying. You people who watch Fox you’re being lied to 24 hours a day. When I watch MSNBC, I know Rachel will make mistakes and she’ll come back and say I made a mistake. Pat Robertson would never say I’ve made a mistake because he’s special.
What is the legacy of these men (Falwell, Robertson)? I always think of this Gandhi quote: “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians”. How can you measure the impact of these people on turning people away from God? Away from Christianity, a faith you hold so dear?
I think history will say, the reason we have a Trump, and we have a Washington in absolute chaos is because of their influence. I think Falwell started it, Robertson picked it up, that Dobson and these guys went on, the Tea Party is just one more stage in that. Trump is that final ultimate act. If Pence gets in that it’s really the final ultimate act because Trump doesn’t know what he’s talking about. So I would say, they have done so much more damage than they’ve done good that it cannot be measured.
Now fathers and sons, I believe that Billy Graham didn’t do a lot of damage. I wrote for him. I stayed and watched him in his crusades, I heard him say I’m not into the homosexual thing, I’m not into the abortion thing, I’m here to preach the gospel of good news. He constantly denied any opportunity to take a stand on any of these family values issues. But his son is a fascist by definition. Franklin is evil. And doing so much damage. So the father thing is so interesting to me. Robertson’s son is just like Robertson. Falwell’s son is so much like Falwell. But I think Franklin Graham is so unlike his father. So I would say Billy Graham is such a good influence on this country.
One major issue the religious right, and its leaders, tend to discuss frequently is Islam. Franklin Graham, for example, calls Islam “a very evil and wicked” religion. Jerry Falwell called it “satanic”. Where do you stand on this current debate?
When I lived in Lynchburg, Virginia, I met with pastors once a month for lunch.
And once a month our Muslim Imams were there. And once a month, we went around the table, and we heard the testimony of the Rabbi, and the Imam, and the Catholic priest and the Protestant. I heard these men who were representing their faith and I believe that everyone of them had a unique vision of God and I could trust them with my life. And I believe there are so many Muslim clerics, and so many Muslim believe, who I would trust with my life and who I think God will say, you didn’t know Jesus and that’s kind of sad, but I know the kind of life you lived and you lived very much like Jesus would have had you. I don’t think there’s going to be a curtain only Christian get behind. If there is such a thing as heaven.
But in practical terms, right now living in this country, go to the Muslims in your neighbourhood befriend them, eat with them, understand who they are. Go to the Jews in your neighbourhood, eat with them, understand who they are. We’ve got to reach out to people of faith in all these religions because so many people of this faith have the same kind of hope, the same kind of dreams, and ethical standards that we have. So we don’t condemn Islam, you condemn the Islamic terrorists. I don’t condemn Christianity, I condemn the fundamentalist Christian terrorists.
You do seem a bit pessimistic about the near term situation in the US, but in the long term are you hopeful that things can turn around?
What I learned about doing justice, that’s fighting for equality for others, and fighting for others people’s rights. What it does for you, the fighter, is what’s important. Whether we win or not isn’t important, but to be fighting for the rights of others that is what God intended us to be. Most of the Christian heroes through the ages, they didn’t see what they hoped for come true. I had to realize that most of my heroes were shot and killed, their country turned against them. I have a feeling our country is going to go through a very bad time for LGBT people, for Black people, for Muslim people, for poor people, I think we’re going to go through some dark, dark times. And I don’t know if the church will ever change about these things. But I invite people to see that God created you for a reason: and that reason is to do justice, and love mercy and to walk humbly. You do that and it doesn’t matter whether we win or lose.