Gay Marriage Stirs New York Evangelicals

On Feb. 4, the Reverend Joe Mattera got a call from WMCA, the popular New York Christian radio station. The host was looking for his comment on a State Supreme Court ruling in favor of same-sex marriage.

Mr. Mattera, a trim 46-year-old with a thick Brooklyn accent, didn’t like what he heard, so he dashed off an e-mail to his network of 500 evangelical Christian ministers.

The ruling marked “the greatest threat ever launched against traditional marriage,” the e-mail said, calling for a Valentine’s Day rally on the steps of City Hall. “No anti-gay banners permitted,” it added.

When Mayor Bloomberg decided to split the baby on gay marriage earlier this month, appealing the court’s decision while coming out for expanding the definition of marriage, Mr. Mattera and the Christian Right were hardly at the top of his list of worries. There were angry gay-rights groups and outraged Democratic candidates. The people Mr. Mattera represents-who are among the roughly 50 percent of New Yorkers who oppose same-sex marriage-have had little voice in a public debate between the left and the center-left.

That may be about to change. Mr. Mattera and his allies have begun to harness the city’s booming evangelical Christian population-numbering as many as 1.8 million, according to one recent survey-into the kind of political force that has already changed the face of American politics.

“One of these days, we’re going to wake up and you’ll have a female, Hispanic, Pentecostal Mayor saying that the public schools will have abstinence education,” said Tony Carnes, a Columbia University researcher and writer for Christianity Today. His survey of evangelical churches (financed by Brooklyn’s Christian Cultural Center) counted between 1.5 million and 1.8 million believers last year. That number, however rough, includes booming Hispanic and Chinese churches in storefronts and basements, as well as older African-American congregations with traditions of more liberal politics.

New York has just begun to take note of the evangelicals’ existence, with a New York Times story last year turning up unlikely supporters of President Bush. But the political infrastructure is only beginning to keep up with the evangelical movement’s numbers in New York.

Same-sex marriage, however, could be the force that turns New York’s evangelicals into a political movement, much like Roe v. Wade energized conservative Christians across America. A leader of the Bronx Pentecostal clergy, State Senator Ruben Diaz, led a rally of at least 5,000 Christians in the Bronx last March to protest gay marriage. Last July, Mr. Mattera’s group brought thousands of protesters to City Hall Park to celebrate the renewal of married couples’ vows.

The Mayor’s decision to appeal the State Supreme Court ruling may have won him some unlikely support among evangelicals. Mr. Diaz condemned leading Democratic Mayoral contender Fernando Ferrer for his support of gay marriage and said his supporters might sit out this year’s election rather than vote for Mr. Ferrer.

“We’re not blaming homosexuals for the plight of marriage-we believe it’s the fault of the heterosexuals that we have gotten this far,” Mr. Mattera said in an interview at the massive Calvary Cathedral of Praise, a major evangelical institution that stands across from two dilapidated stables in Kensington, Brooklyn. “To do away with traditional marriage just because you’ve had some problems-that’s the worst thing you can do.”

Mr. Mattera’s engagement in large-scale politics began in 1999, when he went to Albany to lobby-unsuccessfully-against the Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act. He got a polite hearing from legislators, then met with Duane Motley, a longtime anti-abortion crusader based in upstate New York.

“I told them that people up here call them the ‘firecracker crowd,’” Mr. Motley recalled. “Usually they get fired up about one issue, and they’ll make a big noise-a big bang-and go away.”

The realization stung, so Mr. Mattera formed the City Covenant Coalition, a nonprofit group that recently sprouted the more overtly political (for tax purposes) City Action Coalition, both of which include pastors of churches across the evangelical and ethnic spectrum, as well as some Catholics. The degree of their influence remains to be seen, but a pair of recent public-opinion polls-one by the Global Strategy Group, and one by Quinnipiac University-put the opposition to same-sex marriage at 42 and 49 percent, respectively, with large margins for error. The Global Strategy poll also showed nearly universal support for extending specific rights, like hospital visitation, to gay couples.

Growing Strength

Mr. Mattera’s congregation, Resurrection Church, offers a clue to his movement’s strength. It is a looming, slightly ramshackle structure on high ground in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park, and on a recent Sunday the church’s three services drew more than 400 people. In a departure from most traditional denominations, the congregation is mostly young, with Hispanic, white and black parishioners in roughly equal measure.

From the rock ‘n’ roll hymns-Mr. Mattera is the guitar soloist-to a sermon which passes from the connection between prayer and prosperity to a dig at evolutionary biologists, the content seems closer to a Midwestern mega-church than to anything indigenous to New York City.

Mr. Mattera was ordained in the Assemblies of God, a charismatic movement based in Missouri. But his church is now unaffiliated, and he’s known around the neighborhood for running a youth program and for his anti-pornography crusades. And his new political groups have kept their distance from the national evangelical movement.

“We purposely have shied away from affiliating ourselves with some of the white evangelical groups, because we felt like we were uniting Democrats and Republicans in New York, and we have a lot of black and Hispanic clergy standing with us because of some of the moral issues,” said Mr. Mattera, who grew up in Brooklyn with Italian-American and Hispanic parents. “Some of these [national] organizations only talk about some of these moral issues, but they don’t get involved in some of the urban concerns,” like poverty, and race, he said.

It’s a sentiment echoed by other members of his coalition.

“We’re not some right-wing fanatics, and we’re not just white evangelicals,” said Michael Faulkner, the pastor of the Central Baptist Church in Harlem and a prominent figure among the small but growing group of overtly conservative black clergy. “We are very much New Yorkers.”

This doesn’t mean, however, that they don’t share the national movement’s deep antipathy to the practice of homosexuality, although they draw the customary distinction between the “sin” and the “sinner.” While Mr. Mattera bans anti-gay material at his rallies, he referred to homosexuality in an essay in the magazine Freedom’s Alert as a “death style” (as opposed to a lifestyle). He also drew a link to abortion: “Since homosexuality is essentially a culture of death because it cannot be self-perpetuating, it is attracted to death-the killing off of our generations!

“A cultural war is presently being waged that is more important than the war on terrorism or any other war we can imagine!” his essay continued.

Other New York evangelical leaders use similar language in discussing gay rights and homosexuality in general.

Mr. Diaz told a room full of Bronx ministers on Feb. 11 that he doesn’t hate gays, but then referred to them as “sons of the Devil.”

“I reject the lifestyle they bring the same way I reject a pastor who abuses a child,” he said.

Mr. Diaz, a telegenic preacher with a throaty voice and a Spanish accent, has been fighting gay rights for a decade, with little visible impact. His provocative comments and his base among new immigrants, many of whom aren’t citizens, may have limited his appeal. Mr. Carnes also pointed out that many evangelical churches are clients of the government through allied social-service groups. That further constrains their ability to speak out.

But Mr. Diaz’s strength shows no sign of fading, and evangelicals around the city said they see him as an ally.

Some observers argue that the rightward trend isn’t inevitable. The only prominent local politician with a deep knowledge of the evangelical movement is Adolfo Carrion, the Bronx borough president, whose father is a minister and a prominent figure in the Assemblies of God. Mr. Carrion attended Kings College, an evangelical institution now housed in the Empire State Building, before entering politics, but he takes generally liberal positions on social issues and supports civil unions. He wouldn’t take a position on same-sex marriage in a recent interview, calling it a “distraction” from issues like poverty and domestic abuse.

“It’s the friction of a segment of the population resisting a change which is inevitable,” he said of the anti-gay-marriage movement. “There will be a period of adjustment in the second generation of people who grow up in these churches.”

That would be news to Mr. Mattera, who stood in the cold rain on Valentine’s Day in front of City Hall, flanked by the burly Reverend Faulkner and Jeff Beacham, a traveling Australian charismatic with an unmistakable resemblance to John Travolta. The Empire State Pride Agenda circulated a statement of support for same-sex marriage from 56 clerics, and a half-dozen counterprotesters took cover from the rain.

The City Action Coalition is still figuring out the mechanics of politics. Their supporters came out onto the City Hall steps a few minutes early and then forced some 75 ministers to wait in the rain while a spillover crowd sang the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” in City Hall Park. Even Tom Ognibene, who is challenging Mr. Bloomberg for the Republican Mayoral nomination, took refuge beneath the umbrella of the director of the Pride Agenda’s executive director, Alan Van Capelle.

A small, slightly puzzled group of reporters at Mr. Mattera’s press conference asked a couple of halting questions. A cameraman reminded Mr. Mattera to speak into the microphone. Then the Brooklyn minister called it to a close with the words, “We’re not going away!”