(RNS) Decrying Atlanta pastor Charles Stanley’s “sordid history of virulent homophobic statements and actions,” a gay Jewish group is protesting the Jewish National Fund for plans to bestow a high honor on Stanley, senior pastor of First Baptist Atlanta and a former president of the Southern Baptist Convention.
Stanley, who rose to national prominence in the 1980s with his “In Touch” television series and books that sold millions of copies, “has publicly called AIDS God’s punishment for America’s acceptance of homosexuality and called homosexuality ‘destructive behavior,’” reads a letter to JNF Southeast region leaders from the Southern Jewish Resource Network for Gender and Sexual Diversity (SOJOURN).
“He has said that ‘God does not agree with the lifestyle of the homosexual’ and that accepting gay people is ‘an act of disobedience to God,’” the letter continues.
The controversy reflects the sometimes awkward embrace between American Jews and evangelicals — fervent partners in support of Israel but also outspoken opponents on many domestic social issues, including homosexuality and abortion rights.
Though not known as a culture warrior in the mold of the late Jerry Falwell or televangelist Pat Robertson, Stanley, 82, nonetheless recently joined an amicus brief at the Supreme Court that warned that nationwide legalized gay marriage would result in government actions to “silence religious dissenters who continue to hold to their millennia-old definition of marriage.”
Stanley led the Southern Baptist Convention from 1984 to 1986, and his son, Andy Stanley, leads the 30,000-member North Point Ministries in Alpharetta, Ga., ranked last year as the nation’s largest megachurch.
The award to be given to Stanley at an April 23 breakfast in Atlanta is coming from the group’s Atlanta office, not the JNF’s national headquarters in New York. JNF national spokesman Adam Brill defended the Atlanta chapter’s right to award it and said he has heard from both supporters and opponents.
“Not everybody is going to agree with what we do at all times, but what we do at all times is for the benefit of the people in the land of Israel,” Brill said.
The elder Stanley, who has led First Baptist since 1971, has taken many in his flock to Israel and is frequently a featured speaker at events sponsored by Christians United for Israel.
In a statement provided by Brill, JNF said Stanley “represents one of the largest Christian communities in the South which has always supported the Jewish people in times of peace and conflict.”
Stanley’s ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Last summer, during the war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, the statement continued, “when few would travel to Israel, hundreds of congregants from the First Baptist Church Atlanta went to stand united with the people of Israel. For such heroic actions, we honor this esteemed community, our neighbors in love.”
Rebecca Stapel-Wax, executive director of Atlanta-based SOJOURN, said that most of Atlanta’s Jewish community is “incredibly supportive” of LGBT rights and that the JNF’s decision stands in stark contrast to that consensus. More than 50 people have signed the SOJOURN letter, Stapel-Wax said.
At the same Atlanta breakfast in years past, JNF has honored Holocaust survivors and Israeli diplomat Reda Mansour, a Druze who served as consul general in Atlanta.
JNF, in addition to ecological work, sponsors Zionism education programs, promotes tourism and helps build Jewish communities in Israel. Some pro-Palestinian groups say JNF has been complicit in Israeli appropriation of Palestinian lands, a charge JNF has denied, pointing to conservation projects with Israeli Arabs.