A mea culpa by the Executive DirectorBy Chris Schertenlieb
by Dale McGowan
Executive Director, Foundation Beyond Belief
Foundation Beyond Belief is the current focus of my career and the greatest challenge I’ve ever taken on. Mostly things have gone well, but now I’ve made a serious mistake.
As you know, we decided early on to focus the vast majority of our charitable work on strictly secular organizations, but to also occasionally give members the choice of supporting an organization with a progressive religious identity that does good work and does not proselytize. Our support of a Quaker peace organization succeeded brilliantly at this.
When the organization Soulforce came to our attention, we were riveted. Short of explicitly nonreligious critics, we had never seen such a clear condemnation of the toxic central role religion plays in the struggle for LGBT rights. Even though they are not affiliated with a denomination themselves, the condemnation is enhanced by the presence of religious leaders on their staff. They train members of ten denominations that hold anti-gay doctrines to work for change within their churches. They get themselves arrested at Focus on the Family and the Southern Baptist Convention. They put the heat on and keep it on.
It’s brilliant work that no one else is doing at that level. Critiques from outside the church doors can be powerful. But when a religious leader (finally) says, “The organized Christian religion has become the enemy of God’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered children,” it’s an extra body blow to our shared target. I pushed for consideration.
But in our enthusiasm for Soulforce’s work, I failed to take sufficient care in assessing other aspects of their message — less prominent, but no less significant.
During the review process for this quarter, we investigated 96 nominees. In the final phase, I personally spent hours going over Soulforce’s financial statements, mission and vision, press releases, annual reports, and history of activism, as well as in-depth third party assessments. We knew the organization used religious language to reach their own audience; that’s to be expected. But in reviewing their website, I glossed over a “credo” page too quickly, including a statement that we “can never really be free” or powerful unless we “love God” and see ourselves as “child[ren] of a loving Creator.” Among other things, that crosses the line from “we believe” to “you must believe.” I hesitated…then rationalized it away.
Looking back, I can’t quite believe I did that. It’s a counterproductive statement that directly contradicts the message of our Foundation. No amount of good work justifies that. And even if it was somehow acceptable to me, I owed it to our membership to bring it to their attention. Not doing so was a failure both of judgment and of leadership.
In retrospect, it was also a classic example of compartmentalization. I was clearly blinded by how much I appreciated the work they do in churches and saw what I wanted to see. It was a mistake, one we will do our best to never make again.
So while we continue to applaud the work of Soulforce, their current messaging makes it impossible for us to support them with our members’ donations. We are withdrawing our sponsorship and selecting a new human rights charity for this quarter, a secular organization that was already a finalist in our process. Needless to say, it will undergo an additional, thorough review first.
Since the recent and ongoing survey of our members shows a clear majority supporting the idea of occasionally sponsoring a progressive religious charity, we will continue to look for appropriate opportunities. When we do, you can expect a better process, including more formal member review prior to selection.
We believe that organizations can be run by religious people while still being entirely in accord with humanist values, and that it’s a point worth making, even if we occasionally stumble. While some atheists feel uncomfortable giving their donations to those organizations, others consider it a perfect expression of humanism writ large. They are a huge subset of nontheists, and one too often ignored. So despite the challenges, we will continue to look at organizations run by religious groups when we consider our beneficiaries. If we feel one is worthy of consideration, we’ll bring it to our members’ attention.
Finally, I want to make it clear that this error in judgment was mine alone. I’d like to think it’s the last blunder I’ll make in this, but that’s not likely. All I can hope to do is make them few and far between. Thanks for your patience and input as a community.