Well, that was tumultuous.

A proposal from Honolulu City Council Chair Ernie Martin and City Councilman Joey Manahan to provide a taxpayer gift of $250,000 to the New Hope building fund hit Civil Beat’s front page on Monday evening, created a tsunami of outrage over the next 45 hours and was abruptly withdrawn by Martin on Wednesday afternoon.

It wasn’t entirely surprising. The funding request was so dubious on its face, in its effort to help build a New Hope meeting hall complex and in its unconstitutional mix of church and state, that attorneys contacted by Civil Beat doubted it would survive the city budget process, much less a court challenge.

Some might have been surprised, however, by the volume of outrage aimed at New Hope. By 8 a.m. Thursday, three Civil Beat news stories and one editorial on the subject had reached a total of nearly 137,000 Facebook users, who generated about 9,400 shares and reactions on the social media network.

A man helps register voters before a morning service at New Hope Oahu in 2014.
A man helps register voters before a morning service at New Hope Oahu in 2014. Eric Pape/Civil Beat

Between CivilBeat.com and Facebook, readers left more than 800 comments, many of them not just irritated or disappointed, but bristling with righteous indignation and red-hot anger. And those numbers have continued to grow over the past 24 hours.

To be sure, much if not most of that ire was focused on Martin and Manahan. But no small measure was directed squarely at New Hope — its leaders, its collective ambitions and its history of political involvement in Hawaii public affairs.

For a coalition of 32 church congregations and their thousands of members throughout Hawaii, such reaction surely must come as a shock.

After all, this is a spiritual community, one that provides opportunities for people to come together in their search for faith, meaning and fellowship — and one engaged in numerous good works. Feeding the hungry; ministering to the sick and addicted; supporting families broken by divorce, domestic violence or death — these are some of the worthy activities that characterize New Hope and its people.

So why the venom?

Ambition, Suspicion And Corporate Strategy

The church’s political action, ambitions to use its size and resources to leverage further growth (marked by phrases like “church multiplication” and “church planting”) and its misuse of public resources have created a level of suspicion and brand drag that might send any corporate enterprise into crisis communications mode. A few examples:

  • Its growth has been facilitated in large part by not focusing on building actual church buildings, but using public spaces to house many of its enormous worship services. But its practices in paying the fair charges for those spaces was called sharply into question when it settled a lawsuit in 2014 for $775,000 over allegations that three New Hope churches owed the state nearly $4.6 million in unpaid rents and fees for under reporting the amount of time they used state facilities. Correction: An earlier version of this column incorrectly said similar allegations against other New Hope churches are under investigation by the individuals who brought the original suit. Other Oahu evangelical churches face legal action over similar allegations, but they are not New Hope churches.
  • New Hope and other evangelic Christian churches organized loud protests in the Capitol rotunda — shouting menacing comments at legislators in the most heated moments — in an effort to block the state’s marriage equality law during a 2013 special legislative session. New Hope members and others opposing the legislation repeated angry promises that “the people will remember in November” at full volume for days as legislators passed the law. At least nine gubernatorial and legislative candidates ran for election the following year, prompted entirely or in part by their opposition to the law and led by New Hope Metro Pastor Elwin Ahu, who ran for lieutenant governor. None were elected, and most lost by large margins.
  • New Hope churches are sometimes sites of political candidate forums that showcase candidates who align with church beliefs. New Hope is involved in government relations, conducts voter drives and encourages members to run for office, all in service of political issues important to the church. New Hope says its attorneys closely monitor its churches’ activity, which sometimes seem to push as hard as possible at the edges of what is permissible for organizations that enjoy non-profit, tax-exempt status.

While those activities are, by and large, perfectly legitimate — after all, everyone has a right to run for office and engage in the political process — collectively, they leave an impression of a big, influential church too eager not just to be involved, but to impose its agenda on all of us.

These aren’t isolated developments. Since at least the launch of the late televangelist Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority in 1979, evangelicals across the country have been seeking a greater role in America’s politics. Their fellow citizens too often have seen a voting bloc relatively uninterested in sharing the mundane responsibilities of governing at the local, state and federal level, but obsessed with legislating religious, “social conservative” beliefs and forcing others to be governed by a specific, inflexible moral code.

The marriage-equality wars in recent years serve as a vivid case in point. Despite their inability to demonstrate any negative impacts of allowing same-sex couples to wed, evangelicals across the country organized to demand that marriage remain restricted to opposite-sex couples and to pressure lawmakers to fall in line.

While some of those political activities are perfectly legitimate, collectively they leave an impression of a big, influential church too eager not just to be involved, but to impose its agenda on all of us.

When Hawaii settled the matter in 2013, state Rep. Bob McDermott and leaders of self-styled “pro-family” religious organizations continued to fight the law with one unsuccessful lawsuit or court action after the next. That foreshadowed similar efforts elsewhere after the U.S. Supreme Court resolved the matter nationwide last year. Alabama Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore and Rowan, Kentucky County Clerk Kim Davis are among multiple evangelicals who continue to engage in high-profile resistance to implementing marriage equality in their jurisdictions.

More recently, the opposition has taken the form of state bills that seek to strip away discrimination protection for sexual orientation and gender identity. Such legislation has created major firestorms in Indiana and North Carolina, and evangelical groups continue to push for these bills in other states around the country.

Critics may be quick to point out that I’ve been personally and professionally involved in the marriage wars and don’t exactly have an unbiased opinion. Guilty. I’m a gay man, married to my husband of nearly 19 years and co-father to our two sons. Prior to my work at Civil Beat, I served in leadership roles for multiple organizations committed to equality for LGBT individuals while I worked for multiple universities as a senior administrator.

But I’m far from the only person to have concerns over the efforts of New Hope and other evangelical groups to dictate social policies that closely correspond to their own narrow interpretation of the Bible. Nor are these concerns confined to marriage equality. Restricting reproductive choice, pushing creationism in public school classrooms and myriad “family values” issues are also among their priorities. They consistently advocate for an orthodoxy in which only their views would be legal.

Hawaii voters are rightly wary of that — and of politicians who pander to the voting blocs and interests of evangelical megachurches. Martin and Manahan learned that lesson the hard way this week, and despite their retreat, let’s hope it’s a lesson with enduring consequences.

“Funny — well, not really, but members of this church were pontificating about making ‘Hawaii the first Christian State,’” wrote one of many commenters on this week’s coverage. “The absolute disregard for the founding principles of our government is appalling — bad enough from the church, but these politicians? Vote smart, people.”

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