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Part 2: Former AFA columnist Joe Murray answers your questions

This is a follow-up to my interview with former staff attorney and columnist for the American Family Association, Joe Murray. He went from writing anti-gay columns (see my posts Bring on the Sodomy Squadron and Joe Murray, Man-on-Dog, and the Buggery Blitzkrieg) to taking the AFA to task for its support of General Peter Pace for his comments about homosexuality and immorality in Running At The Wrong Pace, at The Bulletin, where he writes today.

He now supports civil equality for LGBT citizens, so I contacted him to learn about his personal journey last time around, and it turned into an far-ranging interview that I knew would generate questions for readers, so I gathered a hunk and sent them on to Joe.

There were plenty of questions left on the topic of LGBT rights and the religious hypocrites to follow up on, but there were quite a few queries about his views on reproductive freedom. I’ve held those aside for a third installment that should prove quite interesting.


I started off with a couple of follow-up questions that I had.

Pam Spaulding: Since you were in the AFA Center for Law and Policy, how did the decisions about policy and legal cases pursued relate to anti-gay initiatives spurred from the ministry? [The Center is headed up by chief counsel Steve Crampton.] What is the functional relationship between the two, and what kind of influence does Crampton and senior attorney Brian Fahling have in the direction of this arm of the AFA?

Joe R. Murray: You pose a good question. But before I get to it, let me clear up one thing from our previous interview. After my interview, Tim Wildmon contacted me concerning my comment about AFA’s participation in writing down the license plates of those visiting the gay bar outside Tupelo. Tim denied that he and AFA were involved in such activity.

That being said, I was told by various sources in Tupelo that this occurred, but will give Tim the benefit of the doubt. Hence, I would urge your readers to investigate this issue so they can decide what occurred. [He’s referring to the documentary small town gay bar. Interviewees said that the AFA encouraged people to scope out a local bridge to write down plate numbers of gay and lesbian residents who drove across the bridge to the only gay bar in the area;  Don Wildmon would then, they allege, read the plate numbers on the AFA radio program on Sunday to “keep people accountable.”]

Okay, back to your question.

I cannot specifically answer this question, as I have certain ethical obligations, but I will speak to how the atmosphere of homophobia directs the law center.

For the most part, the law center operated independent of the ministry, in the sense that it handled the decisions as to what cases to take and what policy positions to articulate. The law center, just like any law firm, would pursue cases it found merit worthy.

This really is not completely out of the ordinary, for lawyers need to be making the decision as to what cases to take or leave. That is why we went to law school. That is not to say that non-lawyers should not have input, but it is the lawyer who is trained as to what elements to look for in a good case.

As for the larger issue of homophobia, it is clear that throughout a large portion of the “family values” world there is a fear of homosexuals. This fear almost borders on paranoia, for many believe that gays are out to recruit the young and overrun the culture. Any advance made by gays, thus, is a loss for Christendom. It is my belief that this zero sum mentality has been interwoven into AFA’s fabric, and the fabric of most “pro-family” groups.

Look, there is no need to see gays as the enemies; such a view is not healthy. I used to believe that gays were part of a grand cultural conspiracy, out to replace the Christian culture, but found this to be untrue.

For the most part, gays want exactly what I want — a family, respect, happiness, the right to follow their dreams. Is this too much to ask? Would granting these rights shred our cultural fabric? Surely not.

Much more, including your questions, after the flip…

Joe continues: Yes there are some extremists on the gay side, just as there are extremists on the Christian side, but we should not let these minority forces drive this debate. It is my belief that some of those at AFA have become so obsessed with the radical faction of the gay community that such an obsession has blinded the ministry from the many gifts bestowed by the gay community. Gays can be good parents, they can be good neighbors and they are excellent people. They are not the enemy; they are our brothers and sisters.

On the flip side, I am fearful that many gays view Christianity as represented by Fred Phelps, and the countless other Christian cronies who are driven by an obsession. Please know that most Christians, I hope, do not buy into the “homosexual agenda” propaganda. These folks do, however, become nervous when they see images of gay pride parades because such images are exploited to serve the political purposes of the pro-family movement. I believe through education and experience, these fears can be rolled back.

Am I offended by some of the behavior demonstrated at these parades? Yes. But I am equally offended when pro-life activists fly banners of aborted fetuses over beaches with vacationing families on them.

Again, we can’t let the extremes, and their stereotypes, frame the debate. It is my fear that some of the powers that be in pro-family organizations, and even some LGBT organizations, have succumbed to this temptation.

PS: The Hate Crimes Bill has already been targeted by the AFA, framing its possible passage as quashing religious freedom/free speech. This is absurd given the other protections already in the law (race, sex, etc.) haven’t resulted in mass lawsuits over religious freedom, but the first thing the Wildmons did was send out an action alert with a link to a video of a Pride parade. From the page: “If this “hate crimes” bill is passed, and you publicly protest, complain or oppose the type of activity in this video, your action could be eventually construed to be subject to prosecution for a criminal act.” From the legal angle, how do you think the CLP continue this quest to fight in court over “religious freedom” issues related to any attempt to pass gay-friendly legislation, like the hate crimes bill or ENDA?

JRM: Just like I stated above, I believe that the folks at AFA, and countless other groups, view this battle as a zero sum game. Let me make one thing clear – it is not! So long as gays are seen as the enemy, the “Christian” soldiers of the right will never yield in battle, even when their actions border on the absurd, i.e. claiming Matthew Sheppard was not murdered because he was gay.

As for hate crimes, I am absolutely sickened by the propaganda campaign that has found its way onto the political landscape. FRC, AFA, and TVC are already scaring supporters into thinking that the hate crimes law will result in preachers leaving the pulpit and checking into prison. This is absurd.

Now, I do not know the motivations of these folks, and I will not say what is in their hearts, but how can trained professionals really think that the hate crimes bill will shred the First Amendment?

Further, just read Conyers’ bill – it does not punish thoughts, it punishes actions that were the product of hateful thoughts. In other words, just thinking or stating a thought will not place you in a paddy wagon.

And these folks know that Christians will not be arrested if this law is passed, which is why they condition such comments with “may be” or “could possibly be.” Such tactics are nothing more than trickery and is down right shameful.

Why is it shameful? Because these groups show Christians in handcuffs and half naked gays frolicking in the streets and then imply that the hate crimes law may result in the censoring of Christianity. Thus, some pro-family organizations fan the flames of fear and then quietly say this might happen. But most people don’t get to the “might happen” because the images are so powerful that they overshadow the meager words and nuances. This type of behavior is expected on K Street, but not by those claiming the mantle of Christianity.

I recently wrote a column on this and would refer your readers to it for further comment. [His column at The Bulletin, Why Must We Always Argue From The Edge?, discusses  the hypocrisy of the religious right in its assault on the Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2007 (LLEHCPA).]

PS: The religious right, particularly Phyllis Schlafly, intends to hold the GOP presidential candidates accountable for what she calls the “Supremacist Judges Legislating from the Bench.” Some of the questions she wants candidates to be asked in town halls and by the media: – Will you sign a law limiting federal court jurisdiction over DOMA (Defense of Marriage Act) – Will you promise that, under your administration, the 1,138 federal laws identified by the GAO as affecting the rights of husbands and wives remain in full compliance with the federal DOMA law?

These are directly related to denying committed gay and lesbian couples any benefits related to civil marriage. What drives this level of anti-gay fervor, given her own son is openly gay? It isn’t rational.

JRM: Again, I cannot and will not speak to the character of someone’s heart. I will, however, make on observation.

I have found that when individuals have such high levels of obsession with an issue and completely allow a single issue to take over, there are either some subconscious issues at play or it is just basic fear. This statement is not geared towards Miss Schlafly, but human beings in general. Until one comes to terms with his subconscious or fears, the obsession continues. At least that is what I have learned over my short life.

PS: What do you think about the recent comments James Dobson made about actor/former Senator Fred Thompson: “Everyone knows he’s conservative and has come out strongly for the things that the pro-family movement stands for. [But] I don’t think he’s a Christian; at least that’s my impression…”

Is he saying that there is a religious test to be President of the United States — and why has Dobson anointed himself as the arbiter of what a “good Christian” is? Does that mean he’d never support a candidate who was a Jew, Muslim, a Buddhist? Obviously an atheist, even a conservative one, would be off the table for Dobson.

JRM: This is a common theme among evangelicals, for they believe that they have the authority to declare who is Christian and who is not. This is ludicrous.

I can relate to Thompson, for while in the south my Christianity was constantly challenged by employees at AFA, as well as folks in the South. There is a belief among some fundamentalist Christians that Catholics are not Christian, and while such a position may not be institutionalized in AFA, it definitely runs through the minds of some of its employees. Why people feel the need to seek approval of their Christianity from fellow men is beyond me.

In the end, it seems to me that the Christian litmus test is one that would bestow a great deal of influence to individual leaders, for if they become the “one” who signs off on the Christianity of a candidate, they would wield a great deal of political power. Hence, I believe such a litmus test is one to garnish political influence, not to express principled concern.

Obviously, nobody can determine if a person is Christian enough-the last time I checked, such a decision belonged to a higher power.


Question from readers:

KC @ Pam’s House Blend: What are the chances that Don Wildmon or someone like Peter LaBarbera (I would give up on Michael Savage or Fred Phelps) would ever come to see the perspective that you and so many of us have — which is that their efforts to “oppose the homosexual agenda” are, in essence, mean, unfair, un-Christian, and based in ignorance?

JRM: I do believe that with God, all things are possible. While it is a long shot, since many of those folks have held these views for quite some time, I believe that the Holy Spirit can move the heaviest rock.

But, there is no doubt in my mind that anytime an entire group of individuals are singled out and demonized because of a trait they have no control over such persecution must be resisted at every level.

One would think that spokespeople of a faith whose early pioneers were fed to the lions would be a little more conscientious of this fact.

Anton1969 @ Pam’s House Blend: What has been effective in breaking through that hard armour within the AFA or other groups like Focus on the Family?; and: What kinds of experiences or information or emotional changes would be required for the Wildmons or Peter LaBarbera to arrive at the change or heart, and understandings, at which you’ve arrived?  (from KC @ Pam’s House Blend)

JRM: My best guess would be a personal experience. When you have objectified a group of individuals for so long, declared them as immoral, and divorced them from humanity, theoretical arguments will be as effective as a band-aid on Titanic. Hence, it takes a human experience to break through the armor.

In other words, I believe it will take a “real life experience” to open the eyes of hard core Christians who have used selected Biblical interpretations to justify institutionalized condemnation. And, unfortunately, a human experience might be too much too handle, causing the individual to exhibit more resistance before any signs of change can be seen.

Sharon B @ Pam’s House Blend: How do you feel about the efforts of Wildman, Dobson and the ADF intervening in relationships between parents and using the children as a weapon against a GLBT parent?

JRM: One word-shameful. How can pro-family organizations capitalize on splitting up families? The lesson of Solomon was not learned.

Nancy P @ Pam’s House Blend: One of the most distressing parts of the demonization of LGBT by some Christians is that it can drive a wedge between parent and child. Some of the “ex-gay” conferences and speakers contribute even further by using outdated psychoanalytic theories to blame the child’s gayness on some failure of parenting or on molestation, reducing the parent’s ability to cope. It would be A Good Thing if parents of newly out youth could attend a culturally specific (literalist conservative evangelical) parents’ group that would take parents through the same education process that you went through, and a similar youth group that would handle the newly out kids. How would you approach families to convince them that it is possible to be gay and Christian?

JRM: Telling parents or loved ones that you are gay can be a challenging experience, especially loved ones who have been raised in a fundamentalist culture that views gays as immoral beings. The only way, I believe, that a gay person can convince families and friends that it is possible to be gay and Christian is to lead by example. Use hope, not anger, to show that in face of persecution, gays will cling to the promise of Christ.

How do you lead by example? I would refer folks to Matthew 31-46. The Gospel reads: 

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit upon his glorious throne, and all the nations 15 will be assembled before him. And he will separate them one from another, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.

He will place the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

Then the king will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.

For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.’

Then the righteous will answer him and say, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?’

And the king will say to them in reply, ‘Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.’ Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you accursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.

For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, a stranger and you gave me no welcome, naked and you gave me no clothing, ill and in prison, and you did not care for me.’

Then they will answer and say, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or ill or in prison, and not minister to your needs?’ He will answer them, `Amen, I say to you, what you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me.’ And these will go off to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

Follow the words of Jesus-that is how you show that you can be gay and Christian.

Lurleen @ Pam’s House Blend: How can we effectively discredit AFA and FOF-type persecution of LGBT youth?  How can we make the average citizen want to embrace LGBT youth for who they are?

JRM: Another good question. Patience is the answer. As more and more gay youth emerge on the scene, and as science shows that being gay is a genetic trait, Americans will be have to recognize that a person is born gay, and just like a person born black should not be discriminated against, the same should apply to a LGBT citizen.

Time is on the side of justice, not injustice. Time will prove that the hoopla of the homosexual agenda is nothing more than well spun hate. And while it pains us to see such hate in America today, I truly believe such a rationale is going the way of the Dodo bird.

I would also caution gay folks from channeling their understandable anger towards the Church. Gay Americans (and Christians) have every reason to be upset with the way they have been treated over the years. They have been treated like second class citizens, and there is not justification for such behavior.

But when some gays lash out against the Church, they lash out against something held dear by many people and take the bait of those seeking to portray all gays as anti-Christian at heart. And whether such anger is reasonable becomes moot as the images plastered in action alerts shape the minds of Main Street Americans.

In other words, don’t fall in to the “us vs. them” mentality.

kt @ Pam’s House Blend: Is there anything the GLBT community or individuals could have done to hasten his change of heart?  Or was it something for him that could only happen on his own time, in his own way through his own process of rethinking his basic assumptions?

JRM: A little bit of both. As stated above, images of radical folks bashing the church, dressing as nuns and mocking key tenets of my faith did not help my turnabout. But it was my internal restlessness that caused me to open my eyes, and my heart, to the possibility I missed something.

My fear is that some folks might not experience such restlessness, as it would require a worldview adjustment, and may not get to the point where they can understand why many are angry.

RachelPhilPa @ Pam’s House Blend: Do you personally know any gay / lesbian people, especially close family members or friends, and if so, how did this inform the views that you’ve expressed in this interview?

JRM: Good question. Yes and Yes. This question goes to the core of what I said earlier–that until the gay issue leaves the theoretical and is seen in the practical, i.e. has a human face, it is tough for some people to grasp the humanity of the issue. It is a lot easier for folks to argue that being gay is a “personal choice” or gays are “depraved” than it is to face the fact that you are born that way. In the latter, you then have to do some in depth soul searching, and that, quite frankly, can be nerve wrenching.

I often marvel how some argue the how being gay is a personal choice and that you can learn not to be gay. How can you choose who you love? How can you choose who you are attracted to? These are arguments born of theoretical ignorance and until an anti-gay activist is met with a human face or a human heart, I think it is they will objectify the issue.

RachelPhilPa @ Pam’s House Blend: There’s been a great deal of violence and discrimination against transgender /transsexual people in the news as of late, including the firing of Steve / Susan Stanton.  What do you feel about the innateness of gender identity that conflicts with the physical sex of one’s body, and about the need for trans people to be protected from harrassment /discrimination on the basis of gender identity and expression?

JRM: Truthfully, I am still confused about gender identity, but just because I am confused does not mean that these folks should be discriminated against. A person should be hired and fired based on merit, not their line of clothing, sexuality, race or any other discriminatory reason. I was silly enough to think that is why conservatives were against affirmative action in the first place. What ever happened to just doing a good job?

scioto @ Pam’s House Blend: Why doesn’t the religious right tackle the divorce issue at least half as much as they attack gay civil marriage?  They dishonestly claim that being gay is simply a choice and so marriage to an opposite sex person is an option for gays.  Divorce however is clearly a choice, yet they do not demand that straight people honor their vow before God “til death do we part.”

JRM: My guess, it is too close to home and there are many more divorcees in the pews than gays.

tzs @ Pandagon: How much knowledge does Murray think that the average AFA member has of the Bible. Realizing that you are at the mercy of the translators and you might want to look at what the original wording really was is a pretty obvious first step when carrying out any analysis. Why isn’t this more done? 

JRM: I think that many people know Biblical form, i.e. the can quote Scripture from heart, but the substance is beholden to the local minister and family history. I also believe that some folks, especially in the conservative states, are afraid of being ostracized if they publicly challenged the orthodoxy of the day.

IMU @ Pandagon: One of the things you said made me curious to know more. You made mention of a “weekly mandatory devotional” at AFA. I suppose it shouldn’t come as a surprise that AFA had mandatory prayer sessions for their employees, but it definitely made me wonder. Could you speak more about what day-to-day work life was like while at the AFA, and how it differed from some of the more conventional work environments that most of your readers experience?

JRM: For the most part the day to day life was just like any other business. There was tension, drama, and office politics. There were good times, laughs, and office jokes. Minus the devotionals and the fact that AFA frowned on drinking, it was no different than any other job.

IMU @ Pandagon: Can you explain as briefly and completely as possible why conservative Christians are so anti-abortion? Speaking as a Christian who has studied the Bible much as you discuss in this interview, Nothing in its teachings led me to an anti-abortion position. Nothing in its pages convinced me to confuse an acorn with an oak tree, nor a blastocyst with a baby. Indeed, the culture of the Bible, both of the ancient Jewish state and the Jewish/Roman culture of the New Testament, would never have recognized the life of an unborn child. No one was considered a person unless they were born alive. Even the Catholic practice of waiting for christening has its roots in the high infant mortality that was common place in Europe. What exactly in the Bible convinced you that anti-abortion was the morally correct position and why?

JRM: I will be touching on this topic in great detail in my next interview with Pam, and will answer your question then. I will say that such a belief comes from the fact that many believe that life begins at conception. I will be providing both a biblical and scientific analysis as to why many Christians believe this to be the case (although I would mention that it is not just Christians who believe life begins at conception).

mythago @ Pandagon: There are a lot of people who will react to your change of heart with mistrust, and who believe that you are either insincere or are not undoing anything you’ve done to the LGBT community. How would you respond? (from mythago @ Pandagon)

JRM: They have every reason to be cautious, I know I would be. I would ask that I be given time to prove myself, and then I can be judged by the LGBT community. I guess I am saying what my grandmother has always told me, “Actions speak louder than words.” Give me time and I will give you action.


As I said, the third installment will address the issues on choice/reproductive freedom, and it will be an interesting conversation to be sure, since Joe’s going to throw some questions my way.


Note: Joe appeared on SHAKE! the LGBT radio show airing on the San Francisco station 960 The Quake last week; you can listen to the podcast. I was on the same show a few days earlier to talk about gays and “passing” as straight and my post, Loving — and respecting — the sissy.

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Pam Spaulding

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