Photos by Christopher Churchill
On the morning of January 7, nearly 200 people lined up outside the federal courthouse in Springfield, eager to watch the controversial anti-gay evangelical pastor Scott Lively squirm in front of a judge. The day was sunny and warm. As snow melted on the steps, LGBT advocates passed out fliers and held multi-colored cardboard signs above their heads that read, “Gay rights are human rights,” “Persecution is a crime,” and “Lively is deadly.” Off to the side, about 20 of Lively’s supporters huddled together.
A squat, 54-year-old barrel of a man with a salt-and-pepper beard, Lively had been summoned to court that morning for a preliminary hearing, after having been sued by a group of Ugandan activists for persecution, which international law defines as a crime against humanity. The group, Sexual Minorities Uganda, claims that as part of a decade-long campaign, Lively had conspired with Ugandan government officials and community leaders to deliberately persecute homosexuals in the country. The suit drew special attention to a high-profile visit that Lively had made to Uganda in 2009, which, it alleges, “ignited a cultural panic and atmosphere of terror that radically intensified the climate of hatred in which Lively’s goals of persecution could advance.” Lively was propelled into the international spotlight not long afterward, when a bill was introduced into the Ugandan Parliament that demanded execution as the punishment for some kinds of same-sex relations. “We must exterminate homosexuals,” one member of Parliament thundered at the time, “before they exterminate society.”
Inside the Springfield courthouse, it took more than an hour to herd everyone through security. It was a mob scene, comparable to a celebrity murder trial. The courtroom itself was not nearly large enough to hold the crush of visitors, so the authorities opened up two overflow courtrooms, where those not able to view the action in person could watch it on closed-circuit TVs. One security guard on duty that day told me he’d never seen as large a crowd at the courthouse.
Wearing a dark suit, Lively knifed his way through the crowd and into the courtroom with his attorneys. A protester shouted, “I am the person you want to kill. How does that make you feel?” Later, Lively told me that he’d slept well the night before. “The Bible predicts that Christians would sit in seats like this and have to face these kinds of things,” he said. “I’m not surprised, and I’m ready to do whatever the Lord has for me to do.”
Lively made his controversial trip to Uganda in March 2009, during which he hammered home a single idea to which he has devoted much of his life: that homosexuality is evil, dangerous, and against God’s will. Homosexuality was already illegal by the time of his visit, and in Kampala, the capital, he found a ready audience for his message. He says that he met at length there with leading government figures to discuss the issue; that he addressed it in newspaper interviews, two radio shows, and a one-hour live program on national television; and that he delivered talks about the “gay agenda” at churches, schools, and universities around Kampala. Homosexuals, he declared at one talk, are predators and pedophiles who hunt down children to turn them gay—and worse. “You can’t stop [them] from molesting children,” he said, “or stop them from having sex with animals.”
A YouTube video survives of Lively delivering one of his Kampala talks, a keynote address at an anti-gay conference held from March 5 to 7 at the upscale Hotel Triangle. He had been invited by the Family Life Network, a Ugandan organization led by the prominent pastor and community organizer Stephen Langa, who Sexual Minorities Uganda claims in its lawsuit has been a “co-conspirator” of Lively’s since 2002. Wearing dark slacks and a white shirt, Lively introduced himself to a crowd of religious leaders, government officials, police officers, parents, and teachers.
“My name is Scott Lively,” he began. “I have a brother and a sister who went into homosexuality…. I know about these things personally. After 20 years of observing this as my primary emphasis of my ministry…I know more about this than almost anyone in the world.” He then moved on to the meat of his presentation, spelling out the unsavory ways in which the gay movement in Uganda was dedicated to undermining society. Homosexuality, he argued, is a treatable disorder like alcoholism, and can be cured, but left unchecked it would destroy Ugandan life. The message visibly alarmed some in the crowd. “You could tell how afraid they were, that they needed to stop the gay agenda from happening,” says Reverend Kapya Kaoma, an Anglican priest and vocal critic of Lively’s who was in the audience that day.
Lively spent three days at the conference, and his reach during his trip was extraordinary. The evening of his arrival, he says, he met with more than 50 members of Parliament. He also claims to have spoken privately for 30 minutes with the country’s minister of ethics and integrity. In all, he estimates, he directly addressed about 10,000 people. And then there’s the much wider audience he reached with his media appearances. He was particularly proud of what he’d managed to accomplish at the Hotel Triangle conference. On March 17, while still in Uganda, he boasted online that someone in Kampala had told him that his campaign there had been “like a nuclear bomb against the ‘gay’ agenda,” and he went on to say that he prayed that this was true.
Changes undeniably did follow his visit. Newspapers printed hysterical headlines (“HANG THEM; THEY ARE AFTER OUR KIDS”) and began publishing names and photographs of people suspected of being gay. Stone-throwing mobs gathered on the streets, and suspects were harassed, beaten, and forced into hiding. Hostility to gays wasn’t new in Uganda, of course, but this was an escalation. Frank Mugisha, a gay man and plaintiff in the lawsuit against Lively, has said that before the conference homosexuals were “looked at as different,” but that “no one bothered them,” whereas afterward, he continued, “people were being reported to the police as homosexuals, were thrown out by their families, or thrown out by the church.”
In this rising climate of anger and fear, anti-gay agitators and concerned citizens began to call for stronger legal action against homosexuals. And the Parliament member David Bahati sponsored what’s now widely known as the “Kill the Gays” bill, which proposed the execution of homosexuals with HIV, those who’d had homosexual relations with minors or the disabled, and offenders convicted more than once of same-sex relations.
An anti-gay march in Uganda.
Lively, who refers to himself as the “father of the Ugandan homosexual movement,” insists he never advocated for the death penalty during his visit, and that he argued only for “therapy.” But it’s hard to deny that some of the bill’s language echoed his own. In a draft of its preamble, for example, the bill stated that children are the “most vulnerable to recruitment into the homosexual lifestyle,” and elsewhere it asserted that “homosexuality has a variety of negative consequences, including higher incidences of violence, sexually transmitted diseases, and use of drugs.”
Reverend Kaoma sees a direct connection between Lively and the bill. “I remember a teacher saying, ‘After seeing Dr. Lively, we realized our laws are very weak.’ Lively robbed LGBT people of their humanity and turned them into devils. He provided the rationale for stiffer penalties and moved the [homosexual issue] from a religious battle between churches to a political battle and policy issue. And by making it a political issue, he took it to the next level.”
Leaders around the world reacted with disgust, and the international outcry slowed consideration of the bill, which has yet to be passed. It has recently been reinstated on the Parliamentary agenda, however, as an item of importance. Rightly or wrongly, Lively himself quickly became associated with the bill in world opinion after it was introduced, and in the years since, he’s been the subject of negative coverage in such outlets as the New York Times, the New Yorker, ABC News, National Public Radio, and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.
The Daily Show hit Lively the hardest, airing a segment in 2010 that mercilessly portrayed him as a fool. Discussing his sense that he was on a mission from God, Lively told the Daily Show reporter Jason Jones, “I wish I had gotten a different assignment, actually.”
“What would that assignment be?” Jones asked.
“Well, I would have loved to have been just hanging out on the beach someplace, but instead I got stuck with dealing with homosexual Nazis.”
“Yes,” Jones went on to say in a voice-over, while the camera showed Lively sitting on a park bench. “It’s a tough job, but somebody’s got to do it. Actually, wait. No, no one has to do it.”
“They hammered me,” Lively recalls.
LGBT and civil rights leaders, too, have focused their attentions on Lively. “He supports practices and laws that endanger people’s lives,” says Katherine Hancock Ragsdale, the president and dean of the Episcopal Divinity School, in Cambridge, herself openly lesbian. Nobody feels more strongly than the Ugandan activists who have filed suit against Lively, among them Pepe Julian Onziema. Despite the fact that the proposed law has yet to pass, Onziema argues that real damage has already been done, in the form of “escalating homophobia and persecution in Uganda.”
After his Uganda trip, Lively returned to Springfield, where he’d moved from California in 2008 as part of a mission to “re-Christianize” the city. Eager for some time away from the spotlight, he turned his attention to running the Holy Grounds Coffee Shop, which he and his wife opened in 2010. For a time, he devoted himself to serving the city’s poor and homeless.
In moving to Massachusetts, Lively was coming home. He grew up in the town of Shelburne Falls, about an hour from Springfield. He had a difficult childhood there: As a teen, he got into trouble with the law and developed drug and alcohol addictions. After high school, he left home, drifted across the country for a couple of years, and ended up in Oregon, where he tried repeatedly to cure himself of his addictions. But nothing, not even Alcoholics Anonymous, seemed to work—until one day in 1986 when, in a moment of despair, he surrendered himself to God, became an evangelical, and was saved. He says he hasn’t had the desire to drink or do drugs since. Political activism has become his addiction.
In 1989, Lively joined the Oregon Citizens Alliance (OCA), an anti-abortion and anti-homosexuality political organization founded by radical right-wing Christians. He quickly ascended to the role of communications director, writing op-ed pieces, holding press conferences, and debating politicians, and soon became a force in local politics. His biggest success came in 1992, in the town of Springfield, a suburb of Eugene, when an anti-gay charter amendment he had promoted passed 54 percent to 46 percent. The measure made it illegal for the city to “promote, encourage, or facilitate homosexuality,” and was the first anti-gay law ever passed in the United States—although the state passed a law the next year that prevented all anti-gay ordinances from being enforced.
After the victory in Springfield, Lively and the OCA focused on passing an amendment known as Measure 9 to the state constitution. Similar to the law that had passed in Springfield, it would have prohibited Oregon from using state money or property to “promote, encourage, or facilitate homosexuality,” and declared homosexuality to be “abnormal, wrong, unnatural, and perverse.” During that effort, Lively alleged that being gay was a “voluntary lifestyle based on sodomy,” and that the most likely cause of homosexuality was child molestation by other gays. The measure eventually failed, but only by a thin margin. Lively had proved himself to be an activist who could get his message out and translate it into votes. “Put before an audience receptive to fear,” says Tarso Ramos, who worked to defeat Measure 9, “Lively can have a devastating effect. He was successful in getting a high percentage of the vote, and it was too close for comfort. He’s not a statesman. He’s not a diplomat. He’s not the master of a subtle turn of phrase. He’s a bomb thrower.”
During the campaign, Lively’s opponents often called him a hate monger and a Nazi. Upset with that latter characterization, Lively began researching the history of the Nazi party—and concluded that it had been founded by a core group of homosexuals who had gone on to help perpetrate the Holocaust. He wrote an op-ed on the subject in a local newspaper, and much to his delight, he recalls, it “touched a nerve,” which, he says, “was really cool to see.”
An anti-Lively protest outside of Holy Grounds.
Encouraged by the response to his essay, Lively decided to write a book on the subject, The Pink Swastika, published with coauthor Kevin Abrams in 1995. “While we cannot say that homosexuals caused the Holocaust,” they wrote, “we must not ignore their central role in Nazism. To the myth of the ‘pink triangle’—the notion that all homosexuals in Nazi Germany were persecuted—we must respond with the reality of the ‘pink swastika.’”
Lively was well aware of what publishing The Pink Swastika would mean for him. “I knew when I sat down to write that book,” he told me, “that if I crossed this line and actually published this, that I’m sort of sacrificing any future I could have in the mainstream world, because it’s so radical and will bring such incredible hostility…. At the same time, I had a sense of being self-sacrificing.”
And, indeed, Lively has been vilified for writing the book. Citing it, for example, the Southern Poverty Law Center has added Lively’s Abiding Truth Ministries, which he founded in 1997, to its list of hate groups. But the book found its audience, as Lively knew it would. Now in its fifth edition, it has been printed in five languages and has become a popular manifesto in the anti-gay movement. “The Pink Swastika is a landmark book,” says Bryan Fischer, the host of Focal Point, a conservative radio show that reaches roughly a million people each week. “I feel it [contains] a message that needs to be disseminated. If it was not an influential book, it would simply be ignored. Instead, the Left rails against it. And that alone is a sign of the enormous influence he’s had on the public debate over homosexuality.”
Around the time the book came out, Lively left Oregon and moved to California, where he not only launched Abiding Truth Ministries, which he claims is one of the first Christian organizations devoted exclusively to opposing homosexuality, but also went to law school. After becoming a lawyer, he began to travel abroad, preaching his anti-gay message, and in 2002 made his first trip to Uganda. He broke into Eastern Europe in 2006, he says, when he was invited to speak about the “gay agenda” at a conference in Riga, Latvia, hosted by the New Generation Church, a global evangelical ministry based in the city. The following year he visited Lithuania, where he began to make his political influence felt. Rimvydas Baltaduonis, of the Tolerant Youth Association in Lithuania, says that prior to Lively’s visit, nobody in the country was talking about the “threat” of homosexuality. Then Lively showed up, announcing, as he himself would later put it, that “discrimination against homosexual behavior is necessary.” During that period, a censorship bill aimed at keeping information about homosexuality away from children was introduced into Parliament. The bill passed in 2009, despite a presidential veto.
This past fall, curious about what Lively had been up to since his Uganda trip, I reached out to him. Wary of the media, he nevertheless agreed to talk, and invited me to come meet him in Springfield. I paid him a series of visits, during which he spoke to me openly about his past, his beliefs, and his ambitions. Despite the aggressive posture he often adopts publicly, I found him to be easygoing and affable. As we talked, however, he stuck firmly to his controversial beliefs. When we parted, he forgave me in advance for what I might say about him.
Unlike many evangelicals who oppose homosexuality, Lively has no interest in softening his rhetoric or scaling back his activism in response to the remarkable shift in public opinion toward the acceptance of gays that this country has witnessed during the past decade. When I mentioned that his views might offend or hurt people, he expressed no sympathy. “Grow up,” he responded. “Get over it.”
This kind of attitude, not to mention the negative media attention he has received, only makes Lively more of a champion to those on the anti-gay fringe, who admire his willingness to stand up and act in the name of his beliefs. “To us,” says Bryan Fischer, the conservative radio host, “Scott Lively is a hero. He’s shown courage, he’s shown bravery, and he’s refused to retreat in the face of hostile fire. He is the homosexual lobby’s number-one target. And he is an inspiration.”
Lively told me that after he returned to Springfield he decided to pay no attention to his critics. But then came the lawsuit filed by Sexual Minorities Uganda. “I was shocked,” he told me. “Crimes against humanity? Are they crazy?”
Outraged by the move, and by how he’s been treated in the press, he said he’s now decided to fight back. “The lawsuit was the final straw that called me out,” he told me. “I was ignoring everything, but when they did this, it shows they’ll do whatever it takes to shut me up. So they’ve called me out, and it’s high noon. So I’m back out on the street to have a showdown. Twenty-thirteen is the beginning of renewed activism on my part, and I’m going to start organizing people in this state.”
Not only that, he’s exploring a run for governor.
Lively at Holy Grounds with his Bible.
One recent Sunday afternoon, I paid a visit to Lively at Holy Grounds, where each week he delivers a sermon to a small group of followers. I found him there carrying in a box of baked goods and a Crock-Pot of soup to feed his flock after he spoke.
As people trickled in for the sermon, a woman approached Lively to complain that there was no room at a nearby homeless shelter. Used to ministering from a distance on the radio, TV, and at large speaking events, he appeared uncomfortable in this kind of one-on-one encounter, and managed to offer her only awkward platitudes of comfort. “Most people show up later,” he joked to me, “when we get closer to eating time.”
Fifteen minutes after that, Lively mounted a small stage set up in the shop and began delivering his sermon to an audience of about 20 people. He seemed more comfortable. He exuded calm, spoke naturally, and kept his message simple. Always looking for ways to show that the Bible should be interpreted literally, he stood next to a map and cited the recent bombings in Gaza as proof that the Bible had correctly prophesied war in the Middle East. In this sermon, at least, he made no mention of homosexuality.
People kept filtering in as he talked, and by the time he finished, more than 30 were in the audience. I asked one of them, Paul Carvalho, a 48-year-old ex-Marine, what drew him to Lively. “He makes me feel good,” he said. “He is very honest and just tells you to follow the Bible. He doesn’t say you have to be [anti-gay] or you can’t come here. He knows I’m on the fence, but he doesn’t hate gay people, and prays for them, and does everything he can to help people.”
Lively’s work for the poor and homeless in Springfield doesn’t mean that he has abandoned his anti-homosexuality crusade. He has testified against LGBT rights in front of the Massachusetts legislature. He has denounced the state, famously the first in the country to legalize gay marriage, as “the most morally corrupt state in the Union.” He has given talks with such titles as “The Truth about Homosexuality” and “The Global Threat of Homosexuality.” He says that just last year he made some 30 radio appearances and delivered 10 speeches around the country, including one in April, at a Tea Party rally on the Boston Common, where LGBT activists rushed the bandstand area in protest. And he continues to churn out essays and op-ed articles online.
Not surprisingly, a number of Springfield residents worry about having Lively in their midst. The Stop the Hate and Homophobia Coalition, a local social-justice organization, has picketed in front of Holy Grounds on several occasions and helped organize the mass turnout at the federal court hearing in January. “What worries me the most,” says Holly Richardson, the group’s director, “is that other people who he’s influenced will act out and hurt someone. We do not want to drive him out of town, because then he’s someone else’s problem, but our goal is to educate people and try to keep his wings clipped.”
That’s also the goal of the Ugandans who have filed suit against Lively. Whether they will succeed in their efforts is unclear. At the January 7 court hearing, Lively’s lawyers argued that the suit is an attack on Lively’s right to free speech, and as such should be dismissed. At times, the judge appeared to side with Lively, saying that he struggled to see a concrete connection between Lively’s anti-gay advocacy in Uganda and specific acts of persecution committed there against gays. He also noted, however, that the legal standard for dismissing a case is high, and gave no timetable for when he will rule on Lively’s request to toss out the lawsuit.
Lively, for his part, has recently turned over daily operations of Holy Grounds to a local pastor, so that he can focus on his activism. He says he’s negotiating with government officials in several countries, though he would not say which ones, about making speaking tours, and in his newsletter he has begun asking for donations to help his efforts in Massachusetts. He’s 95 percent certain that he’ll run for governor. All of the negative media exposure he’s received since his Uganda trip, he feels, will only help him if he does. “To be blamed for a campaign of hate and violence, when that’s the opposite of what I believe, was really tough,” he says. “And after 20 years of being in this issue, I came out of it with more resolve and more courage. I’ve got skin like a rhinoceros. So now it’s like, ‘Bring it on.’”
As part of the buildup to his run, Lively plans to launch protests at abortion clinics, to speak out against the funding of the “gay agenda” in public schools, to rally Massachusetts conservatives to his cause, and to bring “biblical values” back to the state. “I get to stand for the truth of God,” he says, “at a time when very few people are willing to do it.”
This past November 23, a utility worker in Springfield accidentally punctured a gas line underneath a strip club, injuring more than 20 people. No one was killed, but the blast blew out nearly every window within a three-block radius and damaged 42 buildings. On his blog the next day, Lively wrote that for the past two years he had been praying for the destruction of Satan’s works in Springfield, including strip clubs. And now it had come to pass. “I believe this was the hand of God at work,” he wrote, “in answer to our prayers.”
Holy Grounds, the coffee shop that Lively founded and runs in downtown Springfield, where he moved in 2008 to “re-Christianize” the city.
Some of the buttons that Lively hands out to the poor and homeless in Springfield.
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