Meet The Anti-Gay Pastor Fueling Fox News' Christian Persecution Complex
Fox News has reported on a number of alleged cases of Christian persecution in the military, relying heavily on the claims of a San Antonio pastor with a history of peddling misinformation about efforts to protect LGBT people.
On September 30, Fox News Radio reporter Todd Starnes published an article warning that the Air Force is “punishing evangelical Christians” - a right-wing myth he's been peddling unsuccessfully for months.
His article relied largely on statements made by Steve Branson, pastor of Village Parkway Baptist Church in San Antonio, Texas. According to Branson, persecution of Christian service members is on the rise thanks to the growing acceptance of gays and lesbians in the military:
“There is an atmosphere of intimidation at Lackland Air Force Base,” said Steve Branson, the pastor of Village Parkway Baptist Church in San Antonio. “Gay commanders and officers are pushing their agenda on the airmen. There is a culture of fear in the military and it's gone to a new level with the issue of homosexuality.”
“The religious persecution is happening,” the pastor said. “It's getting bigger every day. Gay and lesbian airmen can talk about their lifestyle, but the rest have to stay completely quiet about what they believe.”
Starnes primarily relied on the case of Air Force Sgt. Phillip Monk, who baselessly claims he was reprimanded for opposing marriage equality despite repeated denials by the Air Force, to support this conspiracy theory.
Aside from Monk's story, Starnes' only evidence of a military-wide anti-Christian conspiracy is what Branson claimed to have been told at a private meeting with “at least 80 airmen” at his church:
Branson tells me at least 80 airmen attended a private meeting at the church where he heard them voice their concerns about religious hostilities at the Air Force base. It was a standing-room only crowd.
“They're getting mirandized several times a month - but most of the accusations never stick,” Branson tells me. "Branson said he's getting email and letters from military personnel across the country - telling him their stories of religious persecution - and asking for help.
Starnes never questioned Branson's claims, even though the San Antonio pastor has a history of overblown anti-gay commentary. During the recent debate over the expansion of San Antonio's non-discrimination ordinance, Branson was one of the chief opponents of the measure, falsely claiming that it lacked exemptions for religious organizations.
Branson also has a history of extreme anti-gay rhetoric. He called the Episcopal Church's acceptance of openly gay bishop Gene Robinson “just another step on the slippery slope to the destruction of the life that we know in America." He cited growing acceptance of same-sex marriage as evidence that America is “spinning out of control” and has lost its “discipline to live a good and decent life." And recently, he's demonstrated a willingness to work with groups like the notorious hate group Family Research Council (FRC).
There's no way to substantiate or even debunk Branson's tales of religious persecution. So far, similar horror stories from right-wing commentators haven't held water. Given Branson's record of commenting on LGBT issues, it seems unlikely that these will either.