The Obama Watch

Hard Knox

A convenient embarrassment to the Obama administration.

By 7.9.09

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When President Barack Obama spoke to a crowded East Room on June 29 commemorating Pride Month, he took time to recognize a few people from a key constituency in the audience. "It is great to see everybody here today. And there are just -- I've got a lot of friends in the room. But there are some people I want to specially acknowledge."

Among those in the audience, according to a list published by the White House, was Harry Knox, the director of faith and religion programs at the Human Rights Campaign, the largest gay rights lobby group. Who can say whether Obama deliberately for a reason left Knox off the list of people he called out loud? There were more than 170 invited guests.

But Knox -- a member of the United Church of Christ and a long time voice for faith and gay issues -- became known in recent months for inflammatory remarks he made about Pope Benedict XVI and the Catholic Church, most of which surfaced after he was named to the 25-member President's Advisory Council on Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

On March 17, in a published statement on the Human Rights Campaign website, Knox wrote that the pope's position on condom use "is hurting people in the name of Jesus."

In a March 19 article published in the San Francisco-based newspaper the Bay Area Reporter, addressing Proposition 8 -- which defined marriage under the state constitution as between one man and one woman -- Knox said: "The Knights of Columbus do a great deal of good in the name of Jesus Christ, but in this particular case, they were foot soldiers in a discredited army of oppression." The newspaper went on to say that "Knox noted that the Knight s of Columbus 'followed discredited leaders,' including bishops and Pope Benedict XVI. 'A pope who literally today said condoms don't help control AIDS.'"

Asked on April 6, the day of his appointment to the council, if he stood by his comments regarding the pope, Knox told CNSNews.com, "Absolutely. The pope needs to start telling the truth about condom use. We are eager to help him do that. Until he is willing to do that and able, he's doing a great deal more harm than good -- not just in Africa but around the world."

In April 2007, Knox blasted a bishop for denying communion to a lesbian couple in Cheyenne, Wyoming, saying: "It is immoral and insulting to Jesus to use the body of Christ the reconciler as a weapon to silence free speech and demean the love of a committed, legally married couple."

Though the Knox comments did not garner a lot of mainstream media attention, it drew rebuke from many Catholic organizations as well as three Republican House members -- John Boehner, Mike Pence and Thad McCotter -- who released or signed onto written statements calling on Obama to withdraw the Knox appointment.

It even sparked a feud in the Gingrich family, as former House Speaker Newt said on Fox News that the Obama administration is "intensely secular." "Why would you put an anti-religious, left-wing zealot on a faith-based council? It's a perfect pattern for this administration."

Newt's openly lesbian sister Candace Gingrich fired back in an op-ed on the Huffington Post. "I don't take kindly to bullies," she told her brother. "To say that Harry is anti-religious is ruthlessly absurd. I know Harry and can say without hesitation that he is a devout Christian who believes deeply in the teachings of the Bible. He has studied and knows it calls for us to work for the common good."

Knox, whose Southern drawl makes him seem an unlikely activist, established a weekly preaching resource that provides scriptural commentary to pastors interested in the homosexual perspective on the Bible, according to the HRC website. He also helped create a network of 22 "progressive state clergy coalitions" around the country.

Knox's sexual orientation shouldn't be a distraction from the fact that what he has said about an entire Christian denomination is similar to anti-Catholic comments made by evangelical pastor John Hagee -- comments Hagee was rightfully lambasted for. For someone expressing anti-Catholic sentiments to serve in the administration is one thing. To serve on the advisory board with input about which religious-based charities are eligible for tax dollars is quite another matter.

"I don't care about people who criticize the Catholic Church on public policy issues, let them have at it," said Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Liberties. "But Knox is not content to disagree. He must demonize."

Days after the Knox appointment Pence, the House Republican Conference chairman, was first to step up and ask for Knox to be removed, in a statement saying, "Appointing a man who has publicly attacked the pope and other religious leaders for their support of traditional marriage is deeply offensive to millions of Americans and the faith-based community he is appointed to serve. I call on the president to withdraw the appointment and select a person who can serve the faith-based community with the respect and dignity it deserves."

About a month later, Boehner, the House Republican leader, and McCotter added their names to a strongly worded letter signed by about two dozen conservative Catholics. "Knox is a virulent anti-Catholic bigot, and has made numerous vile and dishonest attacks against the church and the Holy Father. He has no business on any council having to do with faith or religion," the letter said.

In a press conference the day after the letter was released, Boehner said: "I just think that the appointment of Harry Knox to head the office of Faith-Based activities, considering his anti-Catholic rhetoric over the years, is inappropriate and that's why I signed on to the letter. I would hope that more members of Congress would raise objections as well."

No more did, and the issue has largely waned.

For his part, in response to the May 13 letter, Knox told Newsmax, "I love the Catholic Church and love my Catholic sisters and brothers very much. I have a tremendous amount of respect for the Roman Catholic Church and for all the good that it does. I do think that we have a real disagreement about the role of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people, both in the role of the church and in the role of public service."

It's funny how he rarely used such conciliatory language about love and honest disagreements before.

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, in response to a question about the letter that Boehner and McCotter signed onto, said, "I haven't seen that letter, but I think the President is comfortable with the makeup of his faith advisory council."

To the victor goes the spoils. One would expect Obama to name to the panel such left-wing clergy as the Rev. Jim Wallis, the Rev. Otis Moss Jr. (father of the current pastor at Obama's former Chicago church, Trinity United Church of Christ) and Rabbi David N. Saperstein, who all advocate more social spending, less restrictive immigration policies and more environmental regulation. To his credit, the president has also named conservative evangelicals such as the Florida megachurch pastor Joel C. Hunter and Frank S. Page, president emeritus of the Southern Baptist Convention to the board.

Despite earlier reports that prompted objections from the gay community, former Indianapolis Colts Coach Tony Dungy -- a vocal opponent of same-sex marriage -- was not named to the council. That was likely a move to mollify an important Democratic voting bloc still peeved that Rick Warren prayed at the inauguration and that Obama is moving really slow on keeping his promise to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act and the Don't-Ask-Don't-Tell military policy.

These are all reasons that Obama would not likely heed the call of conservative Catholics -- most of whom are not supporters anyway -- to throw Knox overboard, as doing so would upset an already impatient constituency. On purely political grounds, it is understandable why Obama would want to select a gay activist to serve on the faith panel. What is not understandable (unless we just chalk it up to another demonstration of infamously poor vetting system) is why the president couldn't find someone with less of a paper trail for making bigoted comments in the name of equality.

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About the Author

Fred Lucas is the White House correspondent for CNSNews.com.