Who's Afraid of Michael Heath?
Michael Heath may well be the most disliked man in Maine. Oh, hell, let's be honest — there are people in Maine who hate Mike Heath's guts.
With good reason, from their point of view. They think he hates them back.
As executive director of the Christian Civic League of Maine, Heath has broken the back of the gay-rights movement at the polls in Maine twice in recent years. Now he's trying to make it three for three. In late June Heath led a coalition of gay-rights opponents who submitted more than 57,000 signatures to force a referendum question on the November ballot that would veto a gay-rights bill passed by the legislature in March — the third attempt in less than ten years to include sexual orientation as a protected class under Maine's anti-discrimination law.
For gay-rights advocates, the goal is simple: They want protection for the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered community against discrimination in housing, education, employment, credit, and public accommodations. Maine is the only state in New England that lacks gay-rights legislation.
But as far as Heath is concerned, this is a major battle in a culture war that has raged since the free-love 1960s. "I see [the gay-rights bill] as the fierce point of an agenda that's being pushed," he offers, an agenda whose aim is the complete public and legal acceptance of what Heath calls the "homosexual lifestyle," including gay marriage. Losing the war would mean "we have to throw the Bible away," Heath argues. "The reinterpretation of the Bible would be so radical that there wouldn't be much left of it."
That conviction — that he is fighting to preserve the core beliefs of his most sacred document — is at the heart of Heath's constant, even single-minded, devotion to fighting gay rights. In recent years it has led to accusations of bigotry and demands for his resignation. He has been labeled a hatemonger and a homophobe.
But by some accounts, such single-mindedness has also led Michael Heath to become one of the most powerful people in Maine. Mobilizing a well-honed network of evangelical churches and volunteers, in 1997 Heath defeated a gay-rights bill in a "people's veto" referendum campaign. In 2000 the legislature sent another gay-rights measure to the voters for approval, and again Heath was instrumental in defeating it. This year Heath and Paul Madore, of the Maine Grassroots Coalition, put together a hasty petition effort that garnered 6,500 more signatures than needed in just ninety days.
"I and the people I represent will not stand down from this," Heath insists. "The culture war and sexuality are organically connected. I've made up my mind, obviously, that Christianity is true and plays an essential role in Maine in helping us to form a good and decent society."
So what kind of Maine is Heath trying to create? What motivates him, and where is he taking the Christian Civic League? Is he engaged in a quixotic rearguard action against the inevitable, or is Mike Heath mapping Maine's future?
With his choir-boyish face and dark hair, Heath doesn't look like he just turned forty-four on August 12 and that, with his wife, Paulie, he is the father of three teenage sons. (The middle son reports for Marine Corps boot camp August 1.) He met his wife as a senior at Cony High School in Augusta — his family moved to Maine from Maryland when he was seventeen — and they married while he was still a student at Roberts Weslyan College in Rochester, New York. He graduated with a degree in philosophy and religion, but Heath is not an ordained minister. Paulie Heath is well known in her own right as a composer and performer of Christian music with five CDs to her credit.
In person, Heath has the direct gaze of someone accustomed to looking into the lens of a television camera. He sits ramrod straight in one of the guest chairs in his office on the second floor of league headquarters, a wood-frame house less than two blocks from the State House. When he laughs, which he does frequently (the man is not without a sense of humor), his back doesn't bend even when he throws back his head. At the risk of making an unfair comparison, Heath's body language is almost identical to that of comedian Dana Carvey's Church Lady, from Saturday Night Live.
Heath's education in evangelical activism began in the mid-1980s, when he began reading the writings of Christian theologian and Presbyterian pastor Francis Schaeffer, who is credited with sparking a return to political activism among evangelicals and fundamentalists. Heath then attended a seminar by John Rankin, whose three-volume First the Gospel, Then Politics is a handbook of evangelical political involvement and opposition to the so-called "gay agenda."
"It was Rankin who told me about the Christian Civic League of Maine," Heath says. "I looked it up, made an appointment to go see [then-executive director] Jack Wyman, and ended up on the board. That turned into a staff position."
The Christian Civic League of Maine was founded 108 years ago as an advocate for Prohibition and a campaigner for honest government at a time when backroom deals and under-the-table payoffs were the norm. Many Mainers today still associate the league with Benjamin Bubar, who twice ran for president on the national Prohibition Party ticket.
Bubar retired in the mid-1980s and was replaced by Jasper "Jack" Wyman, who steered the league toward more modern concerns, such as environmental protection and AIDS awareness. In 1989 Heath joined the league after four years as executive director of Bethany Acres, a treatment center in Winthrop for recovering alcoholics and drug addicts and the mentally ill. He quickly became the league's associate director.
In 1994, the politically ambitious Wyman took a leave of absence to run in the Republican gubernatorial primary. He left his young protégé, Heath, to hold his seat as executive director. Wyman lost, both at the polls and in his attempt to return to the league. Heath had won over the league's board with his pledge to follow their direction and his promise to take the league back to its socially conservative roots.
One of his first acts was to reverse the league's previous, Wyman-instigated support for adding sexual orientation to the Maine Civil Rights Act.
Heath insists that the league's focus on sexuality issues in the years since has come at the direction of his eleven-member board of directors, but there's no denying that he has made it the Christian Civic League's bread-and-butter issue. He also acknowledges that these days the league is often perceived as a single-issue organization.
"I ask [the board] to set priorities," he insists, "and the priority that is at the top of the list has always been issues related to sexual orientation."
Yet even Heath admits that the league's stance has grown out of an internal debate he instigated in the late 1980s. "The homosexual issue had taken off, and [we] were discussing what to do," he recalls. "At my urging, we talked about taking a strategic step back. We decided we've got to go on the offense politically speaking, morally speaking, religiously speaking. We decided that we needed to take on this issue."
Heath has heard the criticisms that Ben Bubar would never have taken the league in its current direction. Bubar, Heath points out, never had to deal with gay rights. "I don't think Ben ever thought [gay rights were] going to go anywhere as an agenda," Heath offers.
Despite the rise of political activism among conservative Christians in the late 1970s, Bubar stayed away from the hard-edged, confrontational style of politicking that characterized Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority. Due largely to Bubar's influence, Maine was the only state in the country without a local Moral Majority chapter.
If Falwell had a representative in Maine, it was the Reverend Herman C. "Buddy" Frankland, founder of the Bangor Baptist Church and one-time gubernatorial hopeful. It's an indication of how both the Christian Civic League and Maine's evangelical community have changed in recent years that the current pastor of Bangor Baptist, Jerry Mick, now sits on the league's board. He unabashedly speaks of the need for his church, the league, and other believing Christians to become deeply involved in political issues.
"Our church historically has gotten involved in civic matters," Mick says. "We feel we have an obligation to have an impact on our culture in an evangelical way." He considers the Christian Civic League today to be "the conservative evangelical voice in Augusta."
Mick acknowledges that "some evangelicals take the position that they've been called to share the gospel and leave politics alone. My feeling is that they're intertwined, and the vast majority of our church's members feel the same way."
Heath's fervor in opposing homosexuality has occasionally backfired, most egregiously in March 2004. He broadcast an appeal on the league's Web site for "tips, rumors, speculation, and facts" concerning the sexual orientation of public officials and state bureaucrats. The implication, of course, was that Heath intended to "out" closeted homosexuals in state government. He ended up backpedaling frantically in the face of universal condemnation, including a highly critical letter signed by all thirty-five state senators, a public tongue-lashing from Governor John Baldacci, and anti-Heath editorials in just about every newspaper in the state.
Incredibly, Heath survived the public-relations disaster with a mea culpa and a brief retreat from the television cameras. "We know he is committed to what he is doing, that he has a good heart," says Mick in explanation of the board's decision not to fire Heath. "Yeah, there have been things he could have worded differently. But he operates under constant pressure. There has been no relief in this battle for years now."
Heath denies hating anyone — gay, straight, bisexual, or transgendered — although he admits there's no love lost for the "liberal elite" whom he believes is pushing an agenda that would destroy the moral basis of American society. He also denies gays need any further protection than that already offered by the law to every Mainer. Indeed, he denies homosexuality, calling it a choice that can be unmade as easily as it is made.
"What's at the heart of what's being pushed here in this anti-discrimination bill is the idea that all sex is good sex as long as it's consensual," Heath explains, "and that one's sexual orientation is something you can't help. I think that's a very dangerous idea."
The idea that homosexuality is a choice rather than a genetic trait has wide currency among evangelicals. For them, homosexuality is a sin that can be redeemed through God's forgiveness and a change in their behavior.
"We have homosexuals who worship here," points out Bangor Baptist's Mick. "We don't ask at the door who they're sleeping with. We are not against what people do in their bedrooms. But we are against homosexuality being accepted publicly. [Homosexuality] is anti-Biblical. It is a behavior. We have homosexuals in our church who have changed that behavior. We shouldn't be passing [anti-discrimination laws] to protect someone's behavior."
But Biblical condemnation of homosexuality isn't universally accepted among religious leaders. "Jewish and Christian Scriptures contain truths in them that are eternal," observes the Reverend John McCall of the First Congregational Church/United Church of Christ in South Portland, "but the ways they were expressed then and are applied now must be based on a contemporary understanding of faith. There are a lot of things in Deuteronomy and Leviticus that we don't do anymore, such as sell our daughters to foreigners."
Jesus reinterpreted strict Jewish laws, McCall notes. "One of the things I have to consider is how do I live as a Christian," he explains. "How does Jesus' life teach me to live in this moment? For me, gay rights is a given. "
"We feel the central, core message of the Bible from beginning to end is love and toleration," adds Dr. Edward W. Poitras, of Freeport, president of the Maine Council of Churches and for forty years a professor of theology. "If you read the New Testament carefully, what you discover is that Jesus was very open and accepting of folks other people disapproved of. He was constantly being criticized as a hedonist — he went around with prostitutes and tax collectors and drunkards. He touched lepers!
"Jesus supported and affirmed people who had been rejected by society," Poitras adds. "If you're going to be a Christian, that's the attitude you should have."
Pollster, pundit, and Maine political historian Chris Potholm, of Brunswick, refuses to grant Heath and the league the influence that many people attribute to them. As far as Potholm is concerned, Heath didn't win the last two gay-rights referendums — gay-rights supporters lost them. They allowed Heath and his followers to set the agenda and the tone of the debate by putting supporters on the defensive with accusations that the measures granted "special rights" for gays that other Mainers would lack. The pro-gay rights side also suffered from internal bickering and lack of a clear, focused message.
"The league doesn't swing a lot of weight with the electorate, in my opinion," says Potholm. "Because the other side has always run such a poor campaign, the league looks like this huge dragon when it's really just a paper tiger."
But it's still a tiger than can motivate a substantial number of Mainers on hot-button issues, making Potholm's claims of weakness sound rather like he's whistling past the graveyard. "About 40 percent of Mainers favor gay rights, period," Potholm explains. "About 40 percent oppose 'special rights.' The battle is for the 20 percent in the middle."
According to Potholm, gay-rights supporters have to convince voters that discrimination is real and still occurring; that gays are born, not made; and that Maine has fallen behind similar protections offered in Rhode Island, Vermont, and New Hampshire. "Skip over Massachusetts," he advises, "because if this becomes a referendum on gay marriage, the Christian Civic League will win by far more than 55 percent of the vote."
Making gay marriage the central issue is exactly what the league and its allies intend to do. "If the current law stands, we will have same-sex marriage," Heath declares. The group that collected the signatures was named Coalition for Marriage. Even their tee shirts announce: "Marriage: One Man, One Woman."
"We are absolutely convinced that, if we lose in November, homosexuals will launch a direct drive for homosexual marriage," Reverend Mick of Bangor Baptist says. "For anyone to say this is an anti-homosexual issue is just not true. This is an anti-homosexual marriage issue."
"They've built their whole campaign around gay marriage because they don't want to talk about what is in the law," responds Edward "Ted" O'Meara, former head of the Maine Republican Party and chief advisor to Maine Won't Discriminate, which is working to defeat the referendum and allow the bill to become law. "There is nothing in the law that encourages gay marriage. Maine law already defines marriage as between a man and woman, and nothing here changes that."
"It's a very simple issue, but we're going up against a campaign of misinformation and fear," adds Jesse Connolly, campaign manager for Maine Won't Discriminate. "Our opponents have decided they can't win on the merits of this bill. We have to show that Maine is a state with zero tolerance for discrimination, and this law will demonstrate that."
At a different level, the referendum raises the question of whether Mainers should be voting on any minority's rights. "This is absolutely like allowing the people of Mississippi to vote in 1964 on the federal Civil Rights Act," which ended segregation, McCall points out. "I just take extreme exception to the idea that in any democracy the larger group of people should vote on civil rights for another, smaller group of people."
No matter who wins in November, both sides hope the vote will put the issue to rest once and for all. No one is optimistic. If the civic league wins, neither Heath nor anyone else believes the legislature will abandon gay rights. And if the league loses, it will retrench on gay marriage.
Heath doesn't feel like he's fighting a rearguard action against a rising tide of liberalism and moral laxity, at least not yet. "After the presidential race last year, seventeen states had amended their constitutions to ban same-sex marriage," he points out. "We actually had more people circulating petitions this time than we did in 1997. If anything, our base has gotten larger and stronger."