AP Hit Piece On Palin, Focus on the Family

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The Associate Press published a piece today that it's hard for me to see as anything but a hit piece. It misrepresents Focus on the Family and ties them and Sarah Palin to views more extreme than they actually hold. This has become standard fare in the media over the last couple weeks, but I'm not going to accept it as perfectly ok just because they keep doing it.

Apparently Sarah Palin's church is promoting a conference called Love Won Out, sponsored by Focus on the Family. This is actually the first time I've heard of this, so everything I'm about to say is readily available on the web. The AP piece, written by Rachel D'Oro, describes the conference in their headline as promoting the conversion of gays. The first sentence reads, "Gov. Sarah Palin's church is promoting a conference that promises to convert gays into heterosexuals through the power of prayer."

Now I looked at Love Won Out's website, and here is what they say about converting gays into heterosexuals:

Are you here to "cure" gays? Absolutely not. The only time you'll ever hear the word "cure" used in relation to our event is by those who oppose Love Won Out. They also like to claim we want to "fix" or "convert" gays and lesbians and that we believe people can "pray away the gay." Such glib characterizations ignore the complex series of factors that can lead to same-sex attractions; they also mischaracterize our mission. We exist to help men and women dissatisfied with living homosexually understand that same-sex attractions can be overcome. It is not easy, but it is possible, as evidenced by the thousands of men and women who have walked this difficult road successfully.

But your goal is still to make gays straight, right?
That is a gross and narrow oversimplification. We aren't here to "make" anybody do or become anything; we are here to offer a biblical and experiential perspective on the issue of homosexuality that is, sadly, underreported in the mainstream media. Our goals include aiding parents who want to learn how to better love their sons or daughters without compromising their faith; helping people who want to better understand the many factors that can lead to someone adopting a homosexual identity; and assisting those who struggle with unwanted same-sex attractions and want to discover how they might also start upon the path ― a difficult path, as noted above ― to overcoming those desires.

Do you believe homosexuality is a choice?
We do not believe anyone chooses his or her same-sex attractions. We concur with the American Psychological Association's position that homosexuality is likely developmental in nature and caused by a "complex interaction of environmental, cognitive and biological factors" (www.apa.org). We would also agree with the American Psychiatric Association when it states "some people believe that sexual orientation is innate and fixed; however, sexual orientation develops across a person's lifetime." If you ever hear us use the word "choice," it is in relation to men and women who struggle with unwanted same-sex attractions choosing to steward their impulses in a way that aligns with their faith convictions.

So the organization insists that they do not seek to convert gays to straights. They seek to help gay Christians who believe a lifestyle of being gay is wrong. They seek to help them live in a way that resists their same-sex attraction and keep their desires in check, the same way that Christians seek to help single heterosexuals to live a celibate life. It's clear that their language about overcoming their desires is not conversion to heterosexuality, since it's held up in contrast to exactly that.

Yet D'Oro's AP piece defines the group most fundamentally as promising to do the very thing they insist they do not seek to do.

The piece goes on to call Focus on the Family a "Christian fundamentalist organization". Focus on the Family is well within the mainstream of evangelicalism and well outside fundamentalism. Fundamentalists tend to see groups like Focus on the Family as compromised by their commitment to the kind of psychology taught in universities, as opposed to psychological principles that can be derived from the Bible directly.

Then D'Oro goes on to say that Palin herself hasn't taken a view on the so-called "Pray Away the Gay" movement. First, this expression, to my knowledge, is a derogatory way for critics of groups like Exodus Ministries to refer to them while insulting them. It's strange to see it matter-of-factly used in an AP article. It doesn't say that some groups criticize that movement with such a name. It just uses the name and inserts "so-called" to attempt to remove responsibility for using the expression. But the damage is done. Second, that expression refers to groups that really do advocate what the article falsely claims Love Won Out to be doing, but that's not what they're doing. They're counseling people who are gay who want to resist living a lifestyle they see as immoral. They accept that the cause of homosexuality are complex and that these desires may well not be removed by prayer.

Then we finally see where this is coming from. She quotes an opponent of Love Won Out, a quote that uses the same language D'Oro has used throughout the article:

"I think gay Republicans are going to run away" if Palin supports efforts like the prayers to convert gays, said Wayne Besen, founder of the New York-based Truth Wins Out, a gay rights advocacy group.

This language of converting gays comes from the opposition, and she just uses it as if it's accurate, either without bothering to check with the organization that's putting on the conference (and a quick Google search will give her all she needs for that) or because she's deliberately trying to further the aims of Truth Wins Out with a piece that's supposed to be merely reporting the news. So shame on D'Oro, and shame on the AP for publishing this piece of inaccurate reporting, perhaps even outright partisan misrepresentation.

I can't say that I know D'Oro is motivated merely by a desire to do as much damage to Palin as possible, but it's hard to resist that kind of speculation given the consistent, ongoing media misrepresentation of Governor Palin since the McCain campaign revealed her as McCain's running mate a week and a half ago. The article ends with a reflection on how this is going to lose her votes among gay Republicans. It's really hard to read that as anything other than a statement to gay Republicans that they better not vote for her. The article seems rhetorically crafted to give exactly that impression.

6 Comments

There's no straightforward denial of the AP quote, though I agree a more sophisticated presentation may have been appropriate.

In response to the question of whether the group seeks to "make gays straight" they claim that that characterization is a "gross and narrow oversimplification". That isn't a denial of the claim. From what they say, the claim may even be true. Their worry seems more to be that the claim is likely to be seriously misunderstood (or likely to lead to serious misunderstandings) in the absence of further information. Moreover, their claim that they aren't trying to " 'make' anyone do anything" suggests, by means of the scare quotes around the word "make," that they are particularly concerned to deny charges of coercion - not charges of conversion (the sentence is ambiguous and for some reason I find this interpretation the most plausible). Of course, they call talk of conversion "glib" in the first paragraph you presented, but again, their language isn't couched in terms of denial, but a concern for context and the way such words are likely to be misunderstood in the absence of further information.

I think you've placed a little too much emphasis on the group's self-characterization. I agree that the piece could have given some attention to it, but I don't think such self-characterizations should always be taken at face value. Such groups could be confused or self-deceived about their mission/goals -- or just plain lying. And, as I've pointed out, even if one takes their self-characterization at face value, they simply haven't denied what the AP piece says - they're calling for a more sophisticated understanding of their mission, which is consistent with the AP claim being true (though perhaps misleading in the absence of further information).

I don't see the AP piece as a hit piece at all - just another example of carelessness in popular media. And probably less careless than a lot of other stuff in popular media.

Well, in the context of the media incompetence (or agenda, depending on whose interpretation is correct) with Palin, it's hard to see this as excusable negligence. There have been too many representations of her views as more extreme than they really are for anyone to be excused for publishing a piece that presents a group as pretty significantly different from how they present themselves unless there are neutral sources that can confirm that the group is deceptive or self-deceived in how it presents itself. The only other source used was a critic, and the critic's own language was used throughout the article and was left as the last word.

My sense from reading the statement on their website is that they mean conversion to be someone starting out gay and ending up wholly straight without any remainder from being gay. They realize the causes of homosexuality are complex, and they accept that being gay isn't sinful. Their view is that the Bible teaches acting on homosexual desires can be sinful, and they want to help people who are in the position where they have desires that are like that. One reason they probably don't want to deny the conversion element entirely is because they don't want to limit God. But at the same time they want to avoid the triumphalism of assuming God will do whatever you want to do given Paul's discussion in II Corinthians 12 of his thorn in the flesh that God didn't remove despite three intense periods of Paul pleading with God to remove it, because it was meant to humble Paul.

So there's a perfectly reasonable explanation of why they would speak about it the way they do. The fact is that their view is not more simplistic and extreme view that enough prayer and enough faith will turn a gay person straight, and the sense I get from reading the article is that the writer simply accepts this group as thinking that they hold exactly that view, pretty much on the authority of the critic quoted in the article. It's hard to see that in the light of the fake Palin scandals and misrepresentations of Palin as being extreme without concluding that it's either willful negligence or deliberate oversimplification for the purpose of political harm.

I think the opposition is concerned (or trying to tar the event with) things like the quote on the side that implies a father can't have a loving relationship with his son without the conference and the implied coercion that he would place on his son.

I'm not sure what quote or example you're referring to, and I'm having trouble understanding your comment without that background.

OK sorry Jeremy I should have been more clear

" I have been struggling for 20 months with the fact that my son tells me he is gay. I have gone through all of the first three stages of grief. I found this conference on the internet. We drove from Orange, TX, last night to the conference in Atlanta to begin on the reconstruction phase of our grief. Thank you for giving me hope for a loving relationship with my son. "

It is on the left side of the website you linked to and quoted from.
http://www.lovewonout.com/questions/

I don't see anything remotely coercive about that, though. It looks like it's someone who has made the attempt to have a better relationship with his son, and the conference helped him do that. It doesn't even say anything about what this has done for the son in terms of being gay, moving away from being gay, or anything of the sort. So I'd have to conclude that if that's driving this, then it's an irrational conclusion based on what the quote actually says.

I would be a little surprised if this is driving it, though, because seeing that quote would require going to the website, where too many misimpressions would be corrected. I doubt the author of this piece did explore the website, so I'd be surprised if she saw the quote.

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