The religious right's four-month smear campaign against Department of Education Office of Safe and Drug Free Schools director Kevin Jennings ramped up this week, with heightened calls for his resignation. Among other bogus claims, the Family Research Council, which has led the charge, insists that Jennings is "viciously hostile to religion" because of his past remarks condemning the religious right and challenging his conservative religious upbringing.
Last night, Serene Jones, president of Union Theological Seminary, on whose board Jennings serves, spoke to me about his commitment to education and to his faith. She addressed the two main claims being made by the religious right: that Jennings is anti-religion and that he has "promoted homosexuality" to children through the organization he founded in 1995, the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN).
One of the country's preeminent seminaries, Union carefully vetted Jennings before its 40 members voted unanimously to appoint him to the board, Jones said. He was recommended by a board member who had "worked with him at GLSEN and over the course of 20 years was repeatedly impressed with Kevin’s ongoing commitment to education, children and their welfare and the growing depth of his faith."
Jennings' past comments about "hating God" and questioning his faith were not surprising given that he grew up the closeted son of a conservative Baptist preacher. "It’s not at all hard to imagine dynamics that would prompt" him to renounce religion, said Jones. "Religion can do devastatingly bad things to people in the name of righteousness. Christians have to be vigilant against that happening." By speaking out, Jones made clear her own vigilance against the "prolonged attempt to marginalize gay and lesbian people or supporters through the tactic of defamation, to effectively silence them and remove them from public conversation."
Growing up in that environment "must have been a very awful struggle as a child," Jones continued. "The thing that struck me about him saying he hates God is that nobody says they hate God unless they love God. ... It's not a mark of disengagement. It's a sign of internal struggle. Clearly God mattered to him. There were some very positive things about Kevin’s upbringing in a community of faith that he still values. It’s not as if every single nook and cranny of his childhood faith was evil." Doubt, she added, "has always been a mark of the faithful."
In fact, it was Jennings' work at GLSEN that led him to return to his faith, Jones said. "Some of most caring people he was meeting as he was starting GLSEN were in fact Christians. He began to remake the story of what it means to be a person of faith." His decision to join the Union board represented a deeper commitment to educate "the next generation of pastors and theologians so they can be better and more caring of our children."
Jones called the accusation that he is "promoting" homosexuality "ludicrous. ... God's creation holds a number of different kinds of lives and perspectives in it. By no means does supporting a person’s right to flourish mean that you are promoting or trying to recruit other people. Just because I like pizza doesn't mean everyone should. Just because I'm a Christian doesn’t mean I have to convert everyone in the world just to prove God’s love for them."
Jones dismissed the religious-right fear tactic that GLSEN sexualizes children. The organization "helps them become strong, full adults, which includes addressing all of the possible major risks to their life, which includes attending to all spectrum of things. Wouldn’t it be nice if one part of our existence could be chopped off? ... Kevin helped make us aware of how really psychologically devastating being in the closet is."
Jones sees Jennings as not just an advocate against the bullying and defamation of LGBT people, and for their full dignity and inclusion, but as a prophetic truth teller who challenges faith communities to engage social justice issues. "I hope," she said, "the religious leaders we’re training now will have a Kevin in their midst in their congregations who, 20 years from now, tells them what they’re not paying attention to."