A Critique of the New "Imago Dei"Campaign

A reality show producer, an angel and a Televangelist walk into a meeting.

Yes, it reads like the beginning of a joke. Unfortunately, I have no punch line. 

But it is true that a group of Christian leaders have launched Imago Dei (Latin – “image of God”), an online effort focused on the verse from Genesis that all people are created in the image of God, regardless of race, sexual orientation or citizenship status. They want to intervene in the hotly debated issues among Christians and interject civility into the conversation, particularly when it comes to homosexuality.

The new campaign was formed by Rev. Samuel Rodriguez Jr., president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Coalition. Also included on the leadership roster are TV producer Mark Burnett (Survivor, Shark Tank) and his wife, Roma Downey (Touched by an Angel), Jim Daly, President of Focus on the Family, Matt Staver, founder of Liberty Counsel, specializing in "religious liberty litigation" and Fundamentalist Televangelist James Robison.

The goal is to recruit people who will embrace the affirmation: “I recognize that every human being, in and out of the womb, carries the image of God; without exception. Therefore, I will treat everyone with love and respect.” They are so serious about this intention that they detail the objects of this new perspective: the suffering, the marginalized, the oppressed, the hurting, those with whom we disagree, those who oppose us, those that persecute and slander us, friend and foe; acquaintance and stranger; strong and weak; oppressor and liberator. At some point, they will sell bracelets that can be worn by those who have taken the pledge. Billboards and PSAs are also planned.

First, let me say that I don’t deny the need for this kind of campaign. The rhetoric that spews from Fundamental pulpits is hateful, deceptive and harmful. Words of hate in the sanctuary can lead to acts of hate in the streets. According to Imago Dei’s press release, they want “to facilitate a platform for the advancement of a loving truth conversation while simultaneously repudiating rhetorical bullying. The campaign seeks to change the world by sharing truth via the grace-filled amplifier of love.” In other words (and plainer words), they want Christians to talk nicer about and to gay people. And I can certainly appreciate that ambition.

Granted, this approach is much preferred to the position of many Fundamentalists who tell their followers not to associate with homosexuals, painting us to be unclean, untouchables and apparently contagious. Perhaps coming into contact with a actual gay person might dispel some of the lies and deceptions that’s been preached by religious leaders for so long.

Moreover, I acknowledge there is potential value in a call to end the adversarial approach. Anger, misinformation, half truths and name-calling get in the way of any actual communication.  If people will listen to one another, they might learn that what they are saying…even what they believe about gay people…is not accurate. I know that too often when I hear Fundamentalists talk about “evil homosexuals” and the “sinful gay lifestyle,” I have no idea who they are talking about. (My next post will cover this in more detail.)

So, for those reasons, I wish them well on this endeavor. However, I have some serious reservations and unanswered questions which prevent giving them any kind of support or endorsement.

1. It’s only a hollow change in tone.
On their website, it state that this campaign “does not sacrifice truth on the altar of cultural or political expediency but rather it elevates it on the catalytic stand of grace and love.” They make it clear that the effort is “led by Christ centered, bible believing Evangelicals for the purpose of recognizing the image of God in every human being in and out of the womb, without exception.”

They believe the Bible.
They are Christ centered.
They will not “sacrifice” truth.

It doesn’t take much imagination to realize this group is not advocating any kind of change in what the church believes about homosexuals, just how it behaves towards us. In other words (as I see it), they still think they’re right and I’m wrong, they just want to say it in a nicer way.

Please know, I’m not merely speculating. As I’ve read the interviews and explanations from the leaders, it’s wasn’t difficult to draw my conclusion.

Rodriguez told The Christian Post that he and his co-signers are interested in respectful conversations but are not putting their approval on "anything that runs counter to a biblical worldview."

When speaking about the new initiative with Time magazine, Jim Daly emphasized that seeing people in the image of God doesn’t mean he has to condone their behavior.

I do believe I’m created in the “image of God.” I also believe that part of that creation includes my sexual orientation. If you think I’m sinful, if you dismiss my orientation as behavior that I could control, if you advocate that I should change…you are dismissing the “image of God” in me. That’s not respectful. It’s judgmental as well as condescending. Why do I care if you say it in a nice way?

This feels like simply a surface make over; same Fundamentalist theology, spray painted with a polite veneer. In my opinion, this entire endeavor is nothing more than a repackaging of “love the sinner, hate the sin.” Yes, it might improve the delivery, but the message has not changed. And I can assure you, no matter what tone of voice is used, the love is rarely heard over the hate. (I go into more depth in a previous post)

Whether someone is holding a sign telling me that “God Hates Fags” or giving me a hug while believing I’m going to hell, I’m not sure there’s much difference in the end. Especially as the “end” relates to eternity. Yes, I prefer the hug to the hate, but I am still seen in a negative way, regardless of the nice words being used when talking to me. I’m still bound for eternal damnation because I’m gay. At least I know exactly what the people carrying the hateful signs believe about me, minus any obligatory pretense of niceness.

2. I’m reading your words, but I remember your history.
While the website gives many high-minded objectives and talking points, history has shown that some of the leaders involved are incongruent with the stated mission. In fact, they have been vocally and actively opposed to gay rights, and their words has contributed to the kind of rhetoric the campaign now seeks to curb.

On the Focus on the Family website we find: “Focus on the Family is dedicated to defending the honor, dignity and value of the two sexes as created in God’s image—intentionally male and female—each bringing unique and complementary qualities to sexuality and relationships.”  That clearly implies that only straight people are created in God’s image.

One only has to look at the titles of Matthew Staver’s books to know what he believes and what he wants! Just last week, his organization sued the state of California over the ban on reparative therapy (i.e., curing gay kids), and their client is one of the most virulent anti-gay propaganda organizations in the country.

Focus on the Family once funded the most visible “ex-gay” organization in the country, and they have consistently put out inflammatory and deceptive materials about gay people, particularly for the purpose of fundraising.

James Robison recently compared “gay marriage” to allowing pedophiles to walk around in a park full of children.

Have these leaders changed?
If so, show me!!
Until then, call me…Skeptical. (Latin – “scepticus”)

3. It’s essentially PR.

One of their goals, as listed on the website:

Enrich and redeem the narrative of American Evangelicalism by replacing the perceived image of an angry homogenous evangelical demographic that opposes everything to a convicted yet compassionate multi-ethnic kingdom culture community committed to sharing truth with love.

I worked in public relations for 25 years. Getting past the multitude of what my grandmother called “fifty-cent words,” I can assure you this has all the elements of a sophisticated (but not original) PR plan. They are aware that people are leaving the church in record numbers, and studies have shown that those outside the stained-glass windows perceive the church as homophobic. So in addition to emphasizing the “image of God” they are trying to fix the tarnished image of the Evangelical church as mean and judgmental. That’s PR!

4. I need some clarification.
The founders have made it clear where they stand on the issue of same-sex marriage, and homosexuality as a sin. But then on the website, there is the call to work for “justice” and it’s linked to the work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. And one of their key talking points involves the desire to “advance a universal human rights movement founded upon the principle that all stand created with the image of God.”

I want to know what they mean by “human rights.”
How is that different from GLBT rights?
They want their followers to wear a bracelet, but I want to wear a wedding ring!

5. Who wrote their website content?
I’m sorry. I don’t mean to sound pissy, and that’s why I put this one last…but it does annoy the crap out me. It sounds like a seminary student, trying to impress a theology professor. But I am not sure it reaches their target audience—the average Christian who probably watches Fox News.

 “Edify a multi-ethnic, trans-generational firewall against moral relativism, spiritual apathy, cultural decadence, ecclesiastical lukewarmness, rhetorical pornography, bullying, phobias, nativism, racism, slavery, violence, and hatred.”

“… we must stand committed to reconciling the vertical Imago Dei — the image of God in every human being — with the horizontal Habitus Christus — the habits and actions of Christ. This requires a new narrative, an alternative discourse where we stand for truth without sacrificing civility.”

Come on!
Who talks like that?

Are they trying to cover up how shallow the campaign is with the overload of words, including words that most people rarely use in everyday conversation?

It was C.S. Lewis who said “Don't use words too big for the subject. Don't say ‘infinitely’ when you mean ‘very’; otherwise you'll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite.”

This is primarily a campaign about “perception”—a strong emphasis on changing how Christians “see” others, as well as the stated goal to improve how the Evangelical church is “perceived.” Those who sign on to the campaign are told: when you hear someone making disparaging remarks, remind them that we are all created in “the image of God.”

But is that all?

As I read the website, there is very little transformative or substantive action suggested. There is no call for repentance from those who have been so insulting to homosexuals for all these years. There is no emphasis on dialogue with gay people, or the need to hear how we’ve been hurt by the hateful rhetoric and rejection. There is not even a hint that the church could be wrong on the issue. It’s nice to be nice, but after decades of being abused, I would prefer a bit more contrition.

If someone pledges to see me, a gay man, “in the image of God,” what changes?
They are not challenged to re-examine their beliefs. My sexual orientation continues to be sinful, and not God's best. I will be expected, even encouraged to either change or abstain. I still will not be allowed to join their churches. I certainly would not be able to serve in leadership. They won’t be working for my equality, including the right to marry my partner of 15+ years. 

The wordy goals are impressive sounding, but my "perception" is that the life of a gay person is not going to improve because of this campaign, and I don't "see" how someone wearing a bracelet makes much of a difference in the push for equality. Or even civility. 

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