Elite, secretive anti-gay group meets in Orlando this weekend

This weekend, at the luxury Ritz Carlton hotel in Orlando, Florida, an evening series of briefings will kick off the premier funding event of the evangelical right in America, a four-day annual conference known as The Gathering. Scheduled to speak at the conference are David Brooks of the New York Times (also a National Public Radio commentator) and Michael Gerson of the Washington Post.

It’s an invite-only event, reserved for speakers and heads of evangelical foundations that dole out over $200,000 a year. Foundations associated with The Gathering now dole out upwards of $1 billion dollars annually.

Giving a presentation at the Sept. 25 kickoff was Terry Parker, a board member of the nonprofit that hosts The Gathering and also a co-founder of the National Christian Foundation, which is now the 12th biggest charity in America by one ranking and whose anti-LGBT funding pattern is so extensive that I’ve written a small encyclopedia to profile some of the more egregious anti-gay groups NCF bankrolls.

Another Sept. 25 briefing was hosted by Fieldstead & Company, the unincorporated funding vehicle of billionaire Howard F. Ahmanson – one of the original members of The Gathering and who spent $1,395,000 (the second biggest donor, behind the Knights of Columbus) to pass California’s anti-same sex marriage Proposition 8. Until 1995, Ahmanson was the principal financial benefactor of the Christian Reconstructionism movement whose leaders advocate imposing pre-Talmudic bibical law, including the death penalty for a range of offenses including adultery, homosexuality, idolatry, and witchcraft.

In 2004, Ahmanson – one of the most dedicated and strategic anti-LGBT rights funders in America [see: 1, 2, 3, 4] told the Orange County Register that “I don’t think it’s at all a necessity” to “stone people for the same thing that people in ancient Israel were stoned” but that “It would still be a little hard to say that if one stumbled on a country that was doing that, that it is inherently immoral, to stone people for these things”

Judging by its website and roster of event speakers, The Gathering might seem to the average onlooker to be a politically moderate, forward looking gathering of concerned evangelicals who simply want to make the world a better place. Not to this observer.

As Director of Truth Wins Out’s new project, the Center Against Religious extremism, I’ve been closely studying The Gathering, including listening to audio recordings of The Gathering conference sessions going back to 1996 – audio that was wiped from The Gathering early in 2014.

Through that audio record, The Gatherings’ still-available trove of newsletters, and from my background of ten years’ intensive study of the American religious right, I’ve pieced together a radically different profile of what’s going on at the event.

Over a half century ago, folk singer Bob Dylan penned the song line, “The executioner’s hand is always well hidden”, and it’s as true now as it was when Dylan wrote the immortal line.

Recently, government-encouraged outbreaks of mob violence against LGBT persons in countries from Uganda to Russia, and draconian new anti-gay legislation in those countries too, have gained growing media notice – some of which has focused on the role American evangelicals have played in inciting such hatred.

But the American culprits are not being funded from the margins. Tens of millions (possibly evens hundreds of millions) of dollars for that project is coming from the foundations whose representatives assemble yearly at an event known as The Gathering, where multimillionaire and billionaire evangelical funders of the culture wars from the families DeVos, Coors, Prince, Maclellan, Friess, Ahmanson, and others, and heads of the mammoth National Christian Foundation, gather, dine, and strategize.

Could leading New York Times, Washington Post, and National Public Radio columnists and commentators really be planning to speak at an annual event that, in financial and legal terms, is probably the epicenter of anti-gay rights evangelical activism from the U.S. to Uganda to Russia ? The answer
is yes

Are they aware of what they’re participating in (and implicitly supporting by lending their names to the event) or have they been conned ? We may never know the truth but we can safely assume the answers will lie on the “ignorance” side of the dilemma.

But such high profile mainstream media patronization of The Gathering raises the question: if such esteemed NYT, All Things Considered and Washington Post columnists and commentators – who have been granted their big and influential media platforms because of their supposed penetrating level of insight, can’t parse mainstream evangelicalism from what’s going on at The Gathering, why should we – or Washington and New York elites – pay attention to their opinions on religion and politics ?

Consider the following writing, just one example of NCF funding at work out of many – from a pastor who is funded by the biggest foundation at The Gathering and who is South Africa’s answer to America’s notorious anti-gay crusader Scott Lively:

“The Pink Agenda exposes the truth about homosexual behavior and its links to crime, violence, suicide, substance abuse, paedophilia and disease. It explodes the myths that homosexuals are ‘born that way’ and ‘cannot change’ “. – from Rev. Peter Hammond’s description of his 2001 book (co-authored with Christine McCafferty) The Pink Agenda: Sexual Revolution in South Africa and the Ruin of the Family, which mirrors many of the arguments to be found in the more widely known anti-gay jeremiad by American evangelist Scott Lively, The Pink Swastika. The Pink Agenda [link to video coverage of controversy over book aired on South African TV] has been banned in South Africa as unsuitable for audiences under the age of 18.

Hammond’s two associated ministries received $834,810 in 2001-2012 from the National Christian Foundation. Rev. Hammond also has some strong words for the late assassinated civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr.:

“King was not a legitimate reverend, he was not a bona fide PhD, and his name was not really ‘Martin Luther King, Jr.’ What is left? Just a sexual degenerate with a Marxist agenda… Even in the 1960s, ‘the controlled’ media and politicians were determined to push their racial mixing program on America. King was their man and nothing was allowed to get in their way.” – from op-ed by Rev. Peter Hammond

For the uninitiated, the well-manicured, soft-spoken public face of The Gathering might seem worlds apart from such hateful rhetoric as Rev. Hammond’s. That’s by design. Lurking beneath the genteel and seemingly benevolent face of The Gathering are stark, unsettling realities

Over the last several decades, as elite conservative evangelicalism has organized and amassed startling financial heft (the various philanthropic foundations associated with The Gathering now dole out upwards of $1 billion dollars a year in grants) it has also learned to cloak its less savory activities in layers of public relations, studied deceit, and legal mechanisms to anonymize the fund of hate speech.

The National Christian Foundation (NCF) is one such anonymizing mechanism. The NCF cracked the Chronicle of Philanthropy’s “Philanthropy 400” list in 2005, and by 2013 it was ranked #12 on the list, which ranks America’s biggest charities (including classic 501(c)(3) nonprofits but also more complex philanthropic entities such as donor-advised funds.) Based on the NCF’s meteoric rise on the list, it may soon become of one America’s top three charities.

The National Christian Foundation is also probably the biggest (and certainly the most prolific) anti-LGBT rights funder in America. I’ve chronicled that finding in stories written for Twocare.org including the most recent, The Secret Antigay U.S. Money Behind The WCF and the Global Evangelical War on LGBT Rights (the WCF is the World Congress of Families, and Twocare.org Index #1: From Russia To Uganda, the War on Gay Rights Leads to The Gathering (2014).

The NCF’s 990 for 2012 is over 600 pages long and lists over 12,000 funded entities. In 2012 it dispersed over $600 million in grants. In 2013 that total was projected to rise to $675 million.

The magnitude of the NCF’s anti-LGBT funding comes as news even to the gay rights community. But, in my capacity as Director of Truth Wins Out’s project The Center Against Religious Extremism, I’ve written an entire mini-encyclopedia to profile over 125 of the more notable and egregious anti-LGBT organizations funded by the NCF. I’m constantly finding more to add too, because the NCF’s latest available IRS 990 tax form was over 600 pages long, with over 12,000 funded concerns.

One of the luminaries joining David Brooks and Michael Gerson (who also spoke at The Gathering 2011 along with popular New York Times op-ed columnist Ross Douthat) will be Atlanta, Georgia lawyer and financial expert Terry Parker, one of three co-founders of the National Christian Foundation.

Parker sits on the board of The Gathering, Inc., the Tyler, Texas-based 501(c)(3) nonprofit that hosts The Gathering. He was also listed, on its 2013 990 tax form, as being on the board of the Family Research Council, which is classified by the Southern Poverty Law Center as an anti-LGBT hate group [see 1, 2.]

President of the FRC Tony Perkins is, in turn, Vice President of the Council For National Policy – one of the US right’s leading, secretive yearly confabs which, in the words of leading architect of the new right Paul Weyrich, is “where the big doers meet the big donors to get things done.” The CNP is a venue where secular far-right donors such as the Koch Brothers can do business with the hard religious right. In turn, The Gathering sends its elite emissaries, such as members of the DeVos clan, to Koch-sponsored strategic confabs.

“The Gathering Is Not a Secret Society”
“I can assure you, we are not a secret society – Fred W. Smith, President of The Gathering

In the Summer 2012 newsletter of The Gathering, president Fred Smith tackled a difficult issue head on:

“We’ve just received the results of some research we had done by an independent consultant to ask our participants – those who are new and those who know us best – what makes them reluctant to recommend people they meet to The Gathering. You already know what one of the responses was, don’t you? “We thought it was a secret society and we had to get permission before saying anything.”

A quick glance at the website of The Gathering, and its roster of scheduled speakers (that this year includes the comforting visages of New York Times columnist and frequent National Public Radio commentator David Brooks and the Washington Post‘s Michael Gerson) will reveal to the uninformed next to nothing about the real nature of the event.

In addition, early in 2014 most of the audio archive of sessions from The Gathering conferences dating back to 1996 were wiped from The Gathering’s website. Anticipating such a purge, I had already harvested the trove – many hundreds of hours of sessions.
One of the terms I hear not infrequently while listening to those The Gathering audio archives, from featured Gathering speakers, is “infiltration”.

The word is used in the context of the need for believers – defined in this case as evangelical Christians who sign onto something called the the Lausanne Covenant (which includes the proposition that the Bible is the authoritative and infallible word of God and the ultimate source of guidance for all human life and conduct) – to infiltrate all major sectors of society: government, business, education, media, and so on.

And that’s not altogether surprising given that the conference known as The Gathering was, per it’s own description, hatched in 1985 at The Cedars – the Arlington, Virginia mansion overlooking the Potomac which serves as the headquarters for The Fellowship, the secretive global network of political, business, religious and cultural elites which hosts the National Prayer Breakfast.

In 2010, journalist Jeff Sharlet – who authored two books critical of The Fellowship, whose blandly ecumenical National Prayer Breakfast has been attended by every U.S. president since Eisenhower – accused The Fellowship of having inspired Uganda’s notorious Anti Homosexuality Bill.

While Fellowship spokespersons predictably denied the allegation, such anti-gay hatred is woven into the very fabric of The Fellowship’s familial offspring, The Gathering.

The Gathering 1997, 2006, and 2013
In 1997 The Gathering featured a special briefing from a team assembled by Howard Ahmanson’s Fieldstead & Co., which presented (and solicited funding for) a master plan to combat “organized homosexuality”.

Emceeing the presentation was Don Schmierer, a longtime Fieldstead & Co. program manager – who in March 2009 joined Scott Lively during an infamous anti-gay conference in Kampala, Uganda. Schmierer has also attended multiple events of the World Congress, which has been credited with played a major role in inciting anti-LGBT hatred and legislation in Russia. Like Lively, Schmierer has made the rounds from Russia and Ukraine to Uganda. But Schmierer got to Uganda in 1994, eight years before Lively”s first trip the African nation.

From 2005-2012, Don Schmierer’s His Servants ministry – which sells a Schmierer-produced line of ex-gay books, pamphlets, textbooks and CDs – got over $1.5 million from the National Christian Foundation. Schmierer’s ex-gay books have been translated into dozens of different world languages including Russian, Ukrainian, Hindi, Spanish, Portuguese, and Tagalog.

Schmierer’s 1998 book An Ounce of Prevention: Preventing The Homosexual Condition in Today’s Youth (1998, Word Publishing/Thomas Nelson) provides the following scriptural guidance concerning homosexuality (pp.81): Leviticus 20:13 – “If there is a man who lies with a male as those who lie with a woman, both of them have committed a detestable act; they shall surely be put to death. Their bloodguiltiness is upon them.” (NASB)

In 2006, FRC president Tony Perkins was part of a 3 and 1/2 presentation to The Gathering during which the Alliance Defense Fund (now “Alliance Defending Freedom”) briefed The Gathering on its ongoing legal activities. In 2014, Human Rights Campaign Vice President Fred Sainz told the New York Times that the ADF was “easily the most active antigay legal group [in America]”.

During that 2006 The Gathering briefing, ADF lawyers opined that the separation of church and state was “not in the Constitution”, likened their planned legal campaigns to the allied storming of France’s Normandy Beach (vividly depicted in “Saving Private Ryan” starring Tom Hanks) during World War Two, and described the Alliance Defense Fund as the Family Research Council’s “sister organization on the policy side”.

Introducing a speech by Tony Perkins, current ADF president Alan Sears – whose planned presentation at The Gathering 2013 was advertised in The Gathering’s summer 2013 newsletter – told the elite philanthropists of The Gathering 2006,

“Our two organizations [ADF and FRC] each have a distinctly different but very complimentary mission. We need each other for our common success… Tony’s my good friend. He’s a man of great integrity and he’s a winner.”

Taking the stage, Perkins warned The Gathering 2006 of two great threats facing America,

“I would say there are two great threats to our nation today,and I don’t think liberals understand either one of them. I think we’re at great threat, externally, from radical Islamists who want to destroy us and our way of life… there’s about forty million of these radical Muslims who simply want to kill us.

The second greatest threat I think this nation faces is internally, and it’s from the radical homosexuals that want to destroy the underpinnings of our nation.

…the homosexual, the radical homosexual, wants to destroy our way of life”.

In 2013, Alliance Defending Freedom president Alan Sears – whose ADF has been called, by Human Rights Campaign Vice President Fred Sainz “easily the most active antigay legal group” – was an advertised speaker at The Gathering, which that year was held in Scottsdale, Arizona, the home base of the Alliance Defending Freedom, which in 2012 received over $10 million dollars – over 25% of its total budget – in funding from the National Christian Foundation.

The same year, top ADF leader and attorney Benjamin Bull joined Focus on The Family’s Tom Minnery (FoF got over $5 million from NCF in 2012) in Moscow at a planning conference, attended by close allies of Russia’s president Vladimir Putin, to arrange the anti-gay World Congress of Families VIII event, slated to be held in September 2014 in Moscow.

Later in 2013, Brian Brown, the President of the National Christian Foundation-funded National Organization for Marriage, could be found at a Moscow, Russia conference – a spinoff of the planned but then cancelled anti-LGBT World Congress of Families VIII event – that called for passage of anti-gay laws in countries across the globe.

Although one could consider The Gathering to be the beating financial heart of the culture wars, and the financial epicenter of Protestant evangelical funding of anti-LGBT activism, The Gathering’s ideological agenda goes far beyond militant opposition to gay rights. The Gathering is also close to the epicenter of religiously-based global warming denialism in America.

For example, from 2001 to 2012 the National Christian Foundation gave over $140,000,000 to evangelical organizations that refuse to recognize human activity which is releasing gasses such as CO2 and Methane is driving climate change. These organizations have even banded together in a PR effort that depicts environmentalism as a demonic “green dragon” which is “one of the greatest deceptions of our day” and that is bent on imposing a tyrannical one-world government.

Participants in that “Green Dragon” PR effort include the heads of anti-gay organizations which have been prominent at The Gathering, including Tom Minnery of Focus On The Family and Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council.

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