Director of Issues Analysis
American Family Association,
Dear Mr. Fischer,
It was with great and growing hope that I read your recent tweet, which said, in part:
“…we need an Underground Railroad to deliver innocent children from same-sex households.”
Now please understand: like most human beings, I find the idea of smuggling children away from their legal parents and guardians simply appalling. But, on the other hand, I’m quite pleased to see that you looked to the Underground Railroad for your inspiration.
You see, I suspect that it must be a source of pride for you that the messages you propagate on your radio broadcasts permeate the culture in certain places, becoming part of a unified voice that drowns out all debate.
After all, you and your network of church-based political operatives are adept speakers, gifted in the art of persuasion, and in the art of intimidating dissenters–even Presidential candidates–into silence.
In such a climate, a person like yourself might be in danger of coming to believe that his religious point of view is–and has always been–the only version of Christianity.
So it is with no small measure of relief that I greet your newfound discovery of the Underground Railroad as a touchstone, since you must at least suspect that there are many differences between your own religion and the Christianity that motivated those brave Abolitionists.
Therefore, in the interest of encouraging this new fascination of yours, I thought it appropriate that someone provide you with a little more information.
The Underground Railroad was a name for a network of Abolitionists, many of whom were inspired by their religious faith to give assistance and sanctuary to escaped slaves during the period leading up to the American Civil War.
The Reminiscences of Levi Coffin–nicknamed the “President of the Underground Railroad” for the sheer number of slaves he aided–are among the most compelling and informative first-hand accounts of the Underground Railroad movement. In his Reminiscences, Levi recounts his first mission:
“I prayed earnestly that I might be guided and rightly directed in everything I uttered–that self might be entirely subdued and nothing but the cause of Christ and his poor have any place in my mind”1.
Here, Mr. Coffin is recalling Jesus’s teachings on the blessings of the downtrodden, most famously found in the Beatitudes (Mt. 5:3-12). You remember those right? They were Jesus’s reminder to the world’s meek that they were due blessing, not scorn. Blessed are the poor. Blessed are the peacemakers. Blessed are the merciful. Coffin is asking that all worries other than concern for the oppressed leave his thinking altogether.
You, by contrast, certainly have things on your mind other than “Christ and his poor”–things like your much-touted “Winnable War” that includes this statement of purpose:
“…by the time of the founding until the late 20th century, homosexual activity was a felony offense in the United States of America, there is no reason why it cannot be a criminal offense once again, absolutely none.”
There’s nothing particularly gentle or peacemaking about that.
But the Underground Railroaders differed from you in more than just their priorities; they also made it a practice to elevate compassion over legalism.
In his book, Coffin quotes an influential Abolitionist pastor, JB Rogers, who recounts seeing in Abolition the “difference between talking Christianity and acting it; between devotion to creeds and formularies and love for Christ and for souls”2
Rogers’s distinction between creeds and souls reminds us of Jesus’s clear example whenever he found his compassion to be at odds with legalistic Biblical “formularies”.
Time and again, throughout his life, when Jesus was confronted with a choice between strict adherence to Biblical law and compassion for those who needed it, Jesus chose compassion.
- Mark 1:40-42, Jesus touches a leper in violation of Hebrew law.
- Mark 2:23-27, Jesus ignores the scriptural prohibition against working on the Sabbath.
- Famously, in John 8:3-11, Jesus ignores the law in defending a woman who was to be stoned, saying “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.”
There are many examples. Need I continue?
You, on the other hand, are a master of “creeds and formularies,” with a stated agenda of applying legalistic interpretations of scripture to American law. According to rightwingwatch.org, you’ve continually stated that you’d replace the American legal tradition with the strict letter of Hebrew Scripture in judicial appointments, military intervention, sexual mores, the death penalty, and immigration, even–no, especially–when those scriptures contradict Jesus’ very clear example of compassion before legalism.
Naturally, since you carefully avoid criticizing those things that may be at all popular to your target audience, you don’t give opinions on the sinfulness of wearing blended fabric (Deuteronomy 22:11), or whether eating shrimp is an abomination (Leviticus 11:10), or whether people should be stoned for cursing (Leviticus 24:16).
Apparently disinclined toward stoning, the Christians who ran the Underground Railroad (unlike some other Abolitionists) were famously non-violent.
“I could not take a gun and go out to shoot anybody; that is contrary to the spirit and doctrines of the gospel. Christ instructed us to love our enemies and to do good to them that hate us, and I am a full believer in his teachings”3.
He’s right, of course. Violence is “contrary to the spirit and doctrine of the Gospel”. As fond as you are of literal interpretations, I’m surprised this one is so difficult for you:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” - Matthew 5:38-39
I can’t see much that would be further from “the spirit and doctrine of the Gospel” than this exhortation you made on your radio show, in one of your many calls to violence:
“[T]he nation had lapsed into rampant immorality. … [Phineas] found an Israelite in flagrante with a Philistine woman and he ran them both through with a spear… . And that shook up the nation, it got their attention and they transformed… God is obviously looking for more Phineases in our day.”
But all this talk of non-violence must have me sounding like a hippie or some sort of fifth columnist to you. Well, let’s be clear: the people I’m quoting today are as traditional as can be.
See, the “President of the Undergound Railroad,” Levi Coffin, was a Quaker.
The Quakers were among the first people in America to realize that their faith was incompatible with the practice of slavery.
They were intimately involved with the founding of our country, having fled here to escape persecution. William Penn, for whom the state of Pennsylvania was named, was a Quaker. Quakers are as American as apple pie, and most have kept the principles of compassion, social justice, and non-violence at the forefront of their faith for hundreds of years.
Between the Quaker Abolitionists and you, I see the precise difference between “talking Christianity and acting it; between devotion to creeds and formularies and love for Christ and for souls”.
Do you see the difference?
Those Quakers strove for justice for the downtrodden; you’re just mean.
Those Quakers showed mercy before legalism; you tout legalism when it suits your purpose.
Those Quakers were faithful to Jesus’s non-violent example; you promote violence.
We put our Quakers on the side of our oatmeal; you’d put our kids on the side of our milk.
Social justice, mercy, faithfulness to Jesus’s example–these things don’t make great radio, I guess, but they made a pretty good Underground Railroad, so I encourage you to do further reading.
Perhaps you’ll discover that these values are longstanding Christian values reflected in everyone from St. Francis to Martin Luther King, Jr., and that the Quakers are just one part of a grand and noble Christian tradition that you and your church-based political operatives have practically shouted out of the public consciousness.
But, to be fair, you are part of an even older religious tradition, sitting alongside many notables who have used their positions of influence to harm people while adding to their own wealth and prestige. Indeed, your philosophy goes all the way back to the time of Jesus. It’s your philosophy that he addressed when he said:
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.” – Matthew 23:23-24
I realize that this letter, if you should even happen to see it, has little chance of persuading you—a man who has been willing to baldly manipulate both history and science to promote his harmful agenda—to change. I do have hope that your heart will one day be chastened, but I leave the details of your redemption to God.
My true purpose here has been to reach even one of the thousands of people that you influence through your American Family Association and your Focal Point radio show; specifically, the LGBT people of all ages who suffer daily under your influence or that of your proxies: bosses, parents, pastors, teachers, bullies.
If this letter serves to momentarily remind even one of those dear LGBT sisters and brothers, their friends, or even their tormentors that Christianity is bigger than you; that God’s love is bigger than you; that your mortal, loveless chatter is a clanging cymbal next to the ageless, swelling song of human compassion, then maybe I will have made a small difference.
If not, at least I have reminded myself.
- Wayne Self
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Cartoon by Ben Moss.
Wayne Self is a playwright and composer whose current project is a musical tribute to the 32 LGBT and allied victims of the 1973 arson fire at the Upstairs Lounge in New Orleans, LA. Considered by many to be the largest hate crime against LGBT people in U.S. history, the fire is sometimes seen as a lesson in the perils of silence. ”Upstairs” will give voice to the victims of the fire–many of whom self-identified as Christian–and is scheduled to premier next year, in time for the 40th anniversary of the tragedy. For more information about the Upstairs fire, please visit http://tinyurl.com/8g6lr8j. For booking or production information, contact ewayneself via email at owldolatrous.com.
1 Coffin, Levi, and Ben Richmond. “Chapter 7.” In Reminiscences of Levi Coffin, the reputed president of the Underground Railroad. Richmond, Ind.: Friends United Press, 2001. 242.
2 Coffin, Levi, and Ben Richmond. “Chapter 19.” In Reminiscences of Levi Coffin, the reputed president of the Underground Railroad. Richmond, Ind.: Friends United Press, 2001. 624.
3 Coffin, Levi, and Ben Richmond. “Chapter 18.” In Reminiscences of Levi Coffin, the reputed president of the Underground Railroad. Richmond, Ind.: Friends United Press, 2001. 602.