John Shore and his wife Catherine had been attending the First Presbyterian Church of San Diego for six years when they were nominated to serve as deacons. But before they could be ordained, they were asked to sign a document agreeing that no person in a same-sex relationship should hold any position of authority within the church, which is one of the city’s oldest. It was 1990. The couple had never heard the pastor or any of his fellow church-goers talk about homosexuality.
"At first I thought she was kidding," John says. "I said something to the effect of, 'Wouldn't it be funny if there really were a document like that?'" John and his wife refused to sign. A few days later, copies of an article the pastor had written calling acceptance of homosexuality a heresy were stacked at the church's entrances. "That's how we learned there was a whole world of Christians out there that doesn't condone homosexuality," he says.
Since then, John has dedicated himself to fighting the idea that being a good Christian means hating gay people. He has been blogging about faith and gay rights since 2007 on his own website. He also wrote a book on the subject, Unfair: Christians and the LGBT Question in 2011.
But his message is about to get a much bigger audience: He has teamed up with several prominent gay-rights activists—including sex columnist Dan Savage and Truth Wins Out founder Wayne Besen—to launch the NALT (Not All Like That) Christians Project. The project centers around notalllikethat.org, a website where gay-affirming Christians can upload video testimonials in support of LGBT people. The site, which went live today, takes its inspiration from the "It Gets Better" project, a similar media campaign started by Savage to counteract bullying of LGBT teens. Like "It Gets Better," the NALT Christians Project is also intended to serve as a resource for LGBT youth seeking guidance about the connection between themselves and their faith.
"Over the last 30 years, the Christian right has worked to make anti-gay bigotry almost the only defining feature of Christianity—you can be an adulterer like Newt Gingrich and get the support of fundamentalist Christians so long as you’re anti-gay," says Savage, who coined the term "NALT Christians" after receiving e-mails from fans explaining that not all Christians were anti-gay. "Christians who are not anti-gay bigots need to speak out and come out."
The project is a call to arms for Christians who want to take back their faith from the religious right, which has sucked up much of the air in public debates on faith and policy. When conservatives like Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum become synecdoches for Christians writ large, it doesn’t leave much room for people like John and Catherine Shore—those who mirror public opinion far more closely than the anti-gay Christians on Fox News.
Indeed, while polling shows support for gay rights varies by denomination, the majority of Catholics and mainline Protestants—the country's two largest Christian sects—favor same-sex marriage. But the anti-gay crowd seems to have won the public-relations war: In a well-known 2007 study of to 16- to 29-year-olds, 91 percent of non-Christians and 80 percent of active churchgoers described Christianity as "anti-homosexual." Savage and Shore attribute the disconnect on the religious right's well-funded media machine; when gay rights are in the news, media bookers turn reflexively to virulently anti-gay personalities like the Family Research Council's Tony Perkins or Pat Robertson. "Tony Perkins is very loud and the NALT Christians are very quiet," Savage says.
Fixing Christianity's anti-gay image is not just a cosmetic touch-up intended to make it more hip to young people; it's a matter of survival. "The conflation of Christianity and anti-gay bigotry is harming Christianity itself," Savage says. "People are walking away because of it." According to the Barna Group, a Christian polling organization, 59 percent of young Christians leave the faith because they perceive the church to be too exclusive, particularly when it comes to LGBT people. Religiosity has also declined overall. According to the most recent Census figures, from 1990 to 2008 the number of Americans who identified as Christian dropped from 86 to 76 percent while those with "no religion" doubled.
The project’s goal is as much to change attitudes within the Christian community as outside of it. "The problem with the perception of pro-gay Christianity is that we're not really being Biblical, that somehow we're lax in the relationship to the fundamentals of our faith," Shore says. "Exactly the opposite is the case.I'm tired of Christians who are gay-affirming being placed on the defense; I'm as true a Christian as you are."
The success of the NALT Project, of course, hinges on participation. While organizers say it will be hard to match the response the "It Gets Better" campaign generated—which received 50,000 submissions, including many from celebrities and high-profile politicians—they are confident there are enough Christians frustrated with how their faith is perceived to generate a good response. "People roll their eyes and say 'these guys don't represent us,' but if you don't stand up and speak out, who's going to speak for you?" Besen says.