At a conference of several thousand conservative Pentecostals at Virginia Beach's Rock Church this spring, Bishop Harry Jackson was recruiting soldiers for the next wave of anti-gay activism.
"God's getting ready to shake us up," roared the Harvard MBA-turned preacher, rousing the audience to divinely ordained political action. With the crowd cheering, applauding, and speaking in tongues, Jackson shouted, "God's looking for a SWAT team ... he's looking for a team of Holy Ghost terrorists!"
Jackson wasn't having any ordinary come-to-Jesus moment, exhorting his followers, as most neo-Pentecostal preachers do nearly every Sunday, to wage battle with the devil. He was organizing a political war of words, fought with letters, e-mails, and telephone calls. His target was the Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act, also known as the Matthew Shepard Act, which would add sexual orientation and perceived sexual orientation to the classes protected by the federal hate crimes statute, which provides for enhanced penalties for violent crimes motivated by racial bigotry.
Opposition to the legislation runs high among the usual suspects of the Christian Right -- Focus on the Family, Family Research Council, and Concerned Women for America -- but Jackson, a relative newcomer, has emerged as the movement's chief talking head against it.
Jackson's dominance on the hate crimes issue is no accident. The pastor of a large church in the heavily black and Democratic Washington, D.C., suburb of Prince George's County, Maryland, the registered Democrat has become steadily more visible since 2004, when he publicly endorsed Bush. Since that time, Jackson has become a favorite speaker at Family Research Council events such as Justice Sunday, the highly publicized rally against the bugaboo of "liberal judges," and the Values Voters Summit last fall, which gave activists an early look at most of the Republican presidential hopefuls. Jackson is a regular commentator on the conservative Christian Salem Radio Network, and a columnist on Townhall.com, the conservative opinion website formerly operated by the Heritage Foundation, which is now owned by Salem.
But Jackson wasn't elevated just because of his preaching style, his popularity, or his voter registration. Because Jackson is black, his claim that granting rights to gay people amounts to discrimination against Christians is more emotionally charged -- and, in a sense, more credible -- than if it came from someone white.
Only in the rhetoric of the Christian Right can an effort to protect the civil rights of one's fellow Americans be turned into a war against Christianity. And that's exactly how Jackson and his allies have deceitfully framed the issue. The Matthew Shepard bill, they claim, will "criminalize" speech and thought, and in particular, make preaching the gospel a crime. Never mind that the bill deals only with crimes involving "bodily injury" and specifically exempts from prosecution "expressive conduct protected from legal prohibition by, or any activities protected by the free speech or free exercise clauses of, the First Amendment to the Constitution."
Jackson nonetheless maintains that the legislation could be amended in the future to "widen" the definition of a hate crime to include his preaching on "one man, one wife, for life," which he says is "appropriate biblical morality." And while he insisted to me that painting him as anti-gay is "terribly offensive" and "bigotry in reverse," to his audience in Virginia Beach, Jackson promised that "God is going to lift up a standard against this abomination that wants to take the freedom away from our nation."
The church has been "diminished," he claimed, and "the authority of the evil one in the nation has continued to ascend and get stronger and bolder. 'Til now we're dealing with the fact that if God doesn't move and you don't act, they're about to shut us down with a Hate Speech [sic] legislation." Somebody, he added, "needs to reverse the curse," and everyone in the audience could start by signing the petition in the church lobby.
Despite Jackson's efforts, the Matthew Shepard bill passed the House by a 57-vote margin last month, and has been voted out of committee in the Senate. But regardless of the bill's ultimate outcome (Bush has threatened a veto), Jackson's work portends what we should expect in anti-gay activism from the Christian Right in the coming years. With 45 states outlawing gay marriage by either law or constitutional amendment, there is not much fertile ground for Chicken Little claims about gay nuptials destroying the institution of marriage.
In the next wave of activism, the alleged threat is even more dire, as Jackson and his cohorts fret that protection of the rights of LGBT people embodied in the Matthew Shepard bill represents a threat to the church itself. And like most Christian Right rallying cries, any outcome befits their rhetoric: If the Matthew Shepard bill fails to become law, they will be victorious. If it does become law, it will cause a backlash of conservative Christian activists who now vehemently believe their rights to free speech and free exercise of religion have been infringed upon by a marauding band of sodomites.
To shield themselves, however disingenuously, against charges of homophobia and anti-gay bigotry, the Family Research Council, in particular, has courted conservative black Christians like Jackson to lead the charge that it is an insult to blacks to equate gay rights with civil rights. People don't choose to be black, the argument goes, but they do choose to be gay, and it's an affront to blacks (and to the black church specifically, according to Jackson) to suggest that gay people deserve the same civil rights protections.
As a political strategy, it doesn't come out of nowhere. The powerful political operations like Focus on the Family and FRC have, over the past several years, increasingly taken steps to recruit black followers beyond traditional white evangelicals (as has the GOP). Through preachers like Jackson, they can reach the audiences in the country's non-denominational, neo-Pentecostal mega-churches, which draw large black followings both in their pulpits and through televangelism, even when the preacher (Rod Parsley or John Hagee, for example) is white.
These non-denominational churches, in contrast to their Pentecostal counterparts, have a very contemporary focus on money, success, and self-empowerment, yet simultaneously cling to the hellfire and brimstone of Biblical fundamentalism. They revile homosexuality, believe they are in a perpetual spiritual battle with Satan, and therefore are perfectly receptive to Jackson's message.
Jackson is hardly FRC's only black recruit in this war. Wellington Boone, who ordained Jackson through his non-denominational organization, The Fellowship of International Churches, is also heavily involved. Boone distributed his pamphlet "The Rape of the Civil Rights Movement: How Sodomites Are Using Civil Rights Rhetoric to Advance Their Preference for Sexual Perversion" to the attendees at the Values Voters Summit, where he also called gay people "faggots" and "sissies."
At the same event in Virginia Beach at which Jackson spoke, which commemorated the 400th anniversary of the settlement of Jamestown as evidence of America's Christian heritage, Boone asserted that "sodomites are trying to shut up the church," and, after referring to homosexuality as an "abomination," pronounced Barack Obama's name "Obamination."
Boone traveled the country with FRC President Tony Perkins and Focus on the Family head James Dobson in 2004, rallying Christians to vote for Republicans and gay marriage bans. His Network of Politically Active Christians (NPAC), housed in the FRC offices, recruits conservative blacks who want to govern from a "biblical perspective" to run for office. NPAC is modeling its own Douglass Leadership Institute on both D. James Kennedy's Center for Christian Statesmanship, which cultivates Christian Right activists for government service, and Morton Blackwell's Leadership Institute, the conservative training ground whose graduates include Karl Rove, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, and gay porn star turned White House "correspondent" Jeff Gannon.
Dean Nelson, who works for NPAC, told me at an event at Jackson's church earlier this year that NPAC's pet issues are abortion, homosexuality, and schools (public schools are bad; home-schooling and vouchers are good). When I asked Nelson about NPAC's position on the Iraq war, health care, and global warming, he told me that the group is against universal health care, didn't have a position on the war, and worried that efforts to bring evangelicals into combating global warming was an effort by left-wingers to divide them. As Boone's brainchild, NPAC promises to cultivate the next generation of black conservative activists arguing, like Jackson, that gay rights "dishonor" the black church.
Unlike many Christian Right political operatives, who don't shy away from often grotesque public condemnations of homosexuality, Jackson goes to great lengths to insist he isn't anti-gay. But his strenuousness reeks of protesting too much. On the Christian Daystar television network last month, he claimed that a "radical gay element" is trying to "overthrow the nation" and "close down every church in America."
"What's next?" the program's host, Marcus Lamb, wondered aloud, "a hate crimes bill for drug addicts and shoplifters?"
Jackson smirked, "We need one for Christians."