The Ministry of Half-Truth
The image of a rather uncomfortable-looking Janet Folger was beamed by satellite from South Florida onto TV screens across the country. Her controversial ad campaign, aimed at "healing" gays and lesbians, had landed her on on ABC's Nightline.
But Folger, the director of an outreach program of the Fort Lauderdale-based Coral Ridge Ministries, wouldn't have an easy go of it.
The full-page ads -- costing more than $500,000 and running in major newspapers including the New York Times, USA Today, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal -- claim that homosexuals can stop committing their "sexual sin." Folger dubbed it the "Truth in Love Campaign."
Forrest Sawyer, the show's host that night, was certainly seeking the truth. The show was asking a central question: Are the ads truly a compassionate call for God's healing or simply a political maneuver to force the Republican Party's hand to crush gay-rights legislation?
Folger, who works on Federal Highway across the street from the palatial Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church, told Sawyer she wants to "try to break away from the hostility, to try and and call an end to the name-calling."
"Did you have a political goal behind this?" Sawyer shot back. "Did you want to affect legislation?"
If she answered yes, she'd be admitting that the ads aren't an innocent message of good will, and she'd be labeled as just another agent of the Christian Right trying to break down the walls between church and state.
She said no.
It would be a tough night for Folger, a 35-year-old who is usually perky and decisive. Doing her best to conceal her political bent, she looked nervous. At one point she reluctantly admitted, upon Sawyer's repeated calls for her to answer the question, that she believes that gays should be imprisoned for violating sodomy laws.
But she never gave in on her denial that the ads (which recently inspired a Newsweek cover story) and the Coral Ridge outreach that she runs, called the Center For Reclaiming America, are politically motivated.
She's still denying that accusation.
"The message in the ads is a message of hope," Folger says. "We know that change is possible. Thousands have done it.... We're not the Christian Coalition. They're political. We're educational."
There's a problem with that statement, however -- it's not true.
Agree or disagree with its stand on issues, the Center For Reclaiming America is nothing if not political. Had Sawyer been armed with a few easy-to-get facts, he might have proved it. Instead the question was left dangling in the air.
For an answer forget that Folger recruited the Christian Coalition to sponsor the ads. Forget, too, that Folger is a former director of Ohio Right to Life and was renowned in that state for her aggressive, and often quite successful, lobbying. (She compares the abortion-rights crowd to the Nazi Party and was instrumental in passing the first law banning partial-birth abortion.)
Forget that her boss, Dr. D. James Kennedy, who boasts three million followers, has a long history of encouraging Christians to involve themselves in government or that Broward County politics has been heavily populated with many of the 9000 members of his church (which is known for its 300-foot steeple).
Forget, even, that the center holds an annual conference in Fort Lauderdale designed to teach Christians how to get involved in government.
Instead, just examine the center's own Websites on the Internet.
An introductory page consists of a message from Kennedy, identified as President of Coral Ridge Ministries. Amid his appeal for "day-to-day action on the local grassroots level," is an inset picture of Kennedy posing in front of the U.S. flag. The entire page, in fact, is backgrounded with an American flag. The center, after all, is "on an offensive to reclaim our nation for Christ!" Kennedy exclaims in his appeal for volunteers.
Kennedy -- who counts among his ventures the church, a Christian school called Westminster Academy, and a national TV and radio conglomerate -- identifies the enemy: the "anti-God radicals" who've "oppressed" the "cause of Christ."
With a few clicks of the mouse, the center's political agenda is spelled out on the screen. The issues are controversial, and the center's stand is presented in simple terms. It's for prayer and choice in schools. It's against gambling, abortion rights, pornography, and assisted suicide. Most important, in light of the ad campaign, the center is against what it calls the "Homosexual Agenda."
With another click -- on something called "Alert Bulletins" -- come the details. The page includes a state-by-state breakdown on various legislation and how to influence it. The site is dominated with their opposition to gay-rights legislation in many states, especially same-sex marriage. Among the many political tips they provide is one urging Floridians to write letters to Gov. Lawton Chiles asking him to sign a bill that would invalidate same-sex marriages.
The center, according to the Website, also opposes extending health insurance and other benefits to the partners of gay employees and attacks United Airlines for doing so. Among dozens of legislative points, they urge the citizens of Washington state to support a bill that would prohibit "the teaching of homosexuality in public schools as positive or normal." They support a college Christian group in Iowa that was banned from campus because it had a policy excluding homosexuals from leadership positions.
When asked why a nonpolitical center would take a stance on specific legislation, Folger challenges: "Can you point to anything like that?"
When the alert bulletins are mentioned -- specifically the appeal for people to write letters to Chiles to urge him not to support same-sex marriage -- Folger changes course.
"Do we want to defend marriage? Yes," she says.
Folger again repeats that the center is nonpolitical, but this time says it's a matter of semantics.
"We speak on issues, and those issues can be addressed in different ways," she says. "There are semantics involved here. We speak on issues."
That the issues happen to regard restricting gays and lesbians from marrying and their partners from getting health and insurance benefits casts a cynical cloud over the "Truth in Love Campaign," say detractors.
A Broward County group called Gays United Against Repression and Discrimination (GUARD) has been battling the Center For Reclaiming America since the center was formed two years ago. GUARD's president, Tony Ramos, says Coral Ridge Ministries has a history of divisiveness, rather than compassion. He says he's viewed it on the Coral Ridge TV show.
"Until this recent campaign, they've always promoted hate and bigotry towards gays and lesbians," says Ramos. "It was always 'gays are destroying our communities, they've got to be stopped, they're eating our children.' Then they got so much flak from the public about their hatred that now they've changed it to, 'We love them and want to change them.'"
Folger says Ramos is wrong, but in Broward County the fact that Coral Ridge is a hotbed of political activity -- whether by design or not -- has never been a secret.
Former Broward Republican Party leaders like Barbara Collier and Michael Curran were both affiliated with the church. Curran, who was also once a Wilton Manors city commissioner, was convicted of fraud in 1995, prompting Kennedy to write a letter recommending leniency in sentencing, according to media accounts at the time.
A former Fort Lauderdale vice mayor, Doug Danziger, was a devout member of Kennedy's church and was well-known for his fight against nude dance clubs. In 1991 he resigned from office in disgrace after a videotape surfaced of him having sex with a prostitute.
Fort Lauderdale Mayor Jim Naugle isn't a member of Coral Ridge but considers Kennedy an asset to the city. He says members of Kennedy's church are scattered throughout various city advisory boards and that he sometimes hears from them in regard to city hall issues.
"If someone is a pillar of the church, they should also be a pillar of their community," says Naugle. "[Kennedy] teaches family values and a lot of good things."
Currently, three of the five city commissioners in Oakland Park are members of Kennedy's church. One of them, Robert Joynt, says he has nothing to do with the Center For Reclaiming America and wasn't even aware it had sponsored the ad campaign. He agrees that the center is political and says he's sympathetic to its stance on issues.
Joynt, who also teaches at Westminster, says he was first encouraged to run for office by fellow church-member and commissioner Robert Sproc. He concedes that his affiliation with the church may have helped him get votes among Christian citizens but says that any suggestion by the media that the church controls him or any other candidate is ridiculous.
Ramos and others say it's all politics at Coral Ridge, and that's where he'll hold a protest August 22 against the "Truth in Love Campaign." He says 30 organizations, including some local religious leaders, have agreed to take part.
The protest, by all accounts, is political. Says Ramos: "I think it's time the public at large comes to realize that this is all a political joke.
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.