Institute on Religion and Democracy
June 18, 1999
The church body to which both President Clinton and Vice President Gore belong has overwhelmingly denounced Clintons "recess appointment" of the nations first openly homosexual ambassador.
It was not the first time that the Southern Baptists have publicly excoriated their most prominent member for his liberal policies regarding sexuality. The dispute between the President and Americas largest Protestant body illustrates how the nations culture wars do not simply pit religious opinion against secularism, but also divide traditionalists and liberals within religious organizations.
"Messengers" representing the nearly 16-million member Southern Baptist Convention, which is outnumbered only by Roman Catholics among Americas churches, voted nearly 2 to 1 to "rebuke" Clinton for appointing James Hormel ambassador to Luxembourg. At their recent annual convention in Atlanta, the Southern Baptists also voted in equal numbers to denounce Clinton for declaring June "National Gay and Lesbian Pride Month" in a presidential proclamation, the second time he has done so.
Clinton is a lifelong Southern Baptist, even though he has attended a liberal United Methodist church with his wife since coming to Washington. Southern Baptist Convention President Paige Patterson had wanted to ask the Arkansas church to which Clinton still belongs to "discipline" their errant church member, but the Conventions delegates ruled this motion out of order. Few local churches formally admonish erring church members.
The U.S. Senate had declined to confirm Hormel as ambassador after nearly two years of controversy, prompting Clinton unilaterally to appoint the meatpacking heir to his post during a congressional recess, which the Constitution allows.
Southern Baptists asked Clinton to recall Hormel from his ambassadorial post. The resolution deplores Clinton's "most public endorsement of that which is contrary to the Word of God" and calls on him to rescind his gay pride proclamation. But it also affirmed their love for the president and "for people enslaved in sins of all types, including homosexual sins," noting that rebuke can be a "loving corrective." Southern Baptists likewise condemned violence and hatred aimed at homosexuals.
Clintons support for abortion rights, especially partial-birth abortion, has earlier elicited Southern Baptist criticism. So too have Clintons personal sexual scandals. Patterson was probably the most prominent church leader to call for Clintons resignation in the wake of the Lewinsky revelations. But Clintons support for homosexualitys acceptance has drawn the most sustained fire from his church, starting with the Presidents appointment in 1993 of lesbian activist Roberta Achtenberg as a senior official at the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
In 1997 Clinton became the first president to address a homosexual rights organization when he spoke to the Human Rights Campaign, which James Hormel helped to found. He has also appointed prominent homosexual activists to a senior position in the Interior Department and to the White House staff. And Clinton supports the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which would elevate sexual orientation to a status equal with gender, race and ethnicity in workplace discrimination law.
Hormels position as a representative of the United States to a foreign country made his appointment especially sensitive. Conservative opponents in Congress and elsewhere focused on Luxembourgs being overwhelmingly Roman Catholic and thereby supposedly offended by Hormels homosexual advocacy. At a 1996 Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgendered Pride Parade in San Francisco, Hormel laughed and said "All right!" before a television camera while drag queens cavorted in nun costumes.
Actually, religious observation in Luxembourg is low, as in most European countries. Accusing Hormel of anti-Catholic bigotry and offensive to a nominally Catholic nation is an argument that panders to special interest politics and contrived outrage over "intolerance." Hormels promotion of same-sex marriage, opposition to the Boy Scouts exclusion of homosexual scout masters, and support for gay affirmation in public schools and on publicly subsidized television does and should concern more than just Roman Catholics.
Largely forgotten during the latest debate over Hormel is Clintons attempted appointment of him as ambassador to Fiji in 1995. The idea was abandoned when the administration realized that Hormels sexual practices are punished by prison terms of 7-14 years in the conservative South Pacific nation. Fiji is dominated by the Methodist Church, not Catholicism.
Ambassador Hormel would arouse more indignation almost anywhere in the still religiously traditional Third World than he would in permissive and mostly secular Western Europe. Social opinion in America lies somewhere in between.
Conservative Catholic pundits in America have condemned the Hormel appointment, but Catholic Church prelates have been largely silent. Religious opposition has come from Southern Baptists and conservative parachurch groups and political lobbies, such as the Family Research Council and the Christian Coalition.
A prominent United Methodist pastor in San Francisco has been warmly supportive of Hormel. "He comforts people. He cares. His heart is so big he would embrace any folks, even people against him," said the Rev. Cecil Williams of the large Glide Memorial United Methodist Church, where same-sex unions and other unorthodox sexual arrangements are openly celebrated. Hormel has contributed as much as $50,000 a year to Glide for its urban ministry.
Hormels ambassadorial appointment is a victory for homosexual rights activists, but only a superficial one. A majority of the Senate refused to be intimidated by charges of homophobia and bigotry. And the nations second largest church body was not reluctant once again to risk the indignation of liberal pundits who cannot comprehend why traditional religion has not yet faded away. Despite the millions that Hormel has contributed to homosexual advocacy groups and media to transform public opinion, many Americans are still not ready to accept a completely laissez-fair attitude towards sexuality.