Many Christian leaders recognize the dangers posed by religious political extremists calling themselves Christians. One such leader is the Rev. Randy Hyvonen, 51, a minister in the United Church of Christ. He is the immediate past president of the MAINstream Network (Moderate Alliance of Informed Neighbors) located in Cincinnati, Ohio.
"The MAINstream Network is a nonpartisan group united to counteract threats to constitutional freedoms," according to Hyvonen.
When asked the group's purpose, Hyvonen gushed, "The Network is dedicated to preserving the traditional American principles of the separation of church and state, freedom of religion, freedom of speech, pluralism, public education, individual rights, responsibilities and choices, and to educating and activating our constituents on issues of concern, so that they may educate public officials, political candidates, and the community regarding the organization's principles. In this way, we will counter attempts to impose intolerant ideologies on our community and its institutions."
In 1994, a loose coalition of organizations in Cincinnati first met in response to political organizing by religious right groups. The event that propelled it the most was an ordinance banning equal rights for gays and lesbians in housing and employment. This was similar to Colorado's Amendment 2. While the issue is still alive in Ohio — a district court judge asserted that the ordinance was valid — it is now being reconsidered because this past term the US Supreme Court declared Colorado's Amendment 2 unconstitutional.
"The blatant discrimination against gays and lesbians was the galvanizing moment," Hyvonen said.
The coalition also addresses censorship issues. Cincinnati has spawned some of America's most notorious pro-censorship activists, including Presbyterian minister Jerry Kirk and convicted felon, Charles Keating.
It's not surprising to Randy that in many ways Cincinnati is a bit behind the times. Quoting Mark Twain, he said, "If the world ever comes to an end I'm going to Cincinnati, because it takes 20 years for everything to get there."
Another Cincinnati-based activist, Phil Burress, heads Citizens for Community Values, an anti-gay group attempting to establish anti-gay legislation models for the nation.
"When they tried to remove the gay newspaper, The Advocate, from public libraries in the county, I showed up at one of their meetings," Randy told the Freedom Writer. He said the meeting began with a prayer about this being "one nation under God." "I just can't believe everyone in this county is Christian and straight," he said. At this point, The Advocate remains in the libraries, although access is restricted.
The MAINstream Network also monitors the school board, which has three religious right members who usually vote as a bloc.
The Jewish Community Relations Council and the American Jewish Committee helped to found the MAINstream Network. Someone invited Randy Hyvonen to come to the first meeting, which was attended by about fourteen people. "This was an exciting opportunity to meet people from a wide range of organizations," he said.
When activists consider organizing their local community to counter the agenda of the radical religious right, the question of who to include is always one of the first things considered. "We spent the first two years getting to know and trust each other more," Randy said. "We decided early on that as a mainstream organization we couldn't speak for all the member organizations, but, as a group we've addressed a lot of key issues."
Randy Hyvonen grew up in Montana, then went to Stanford University in California. His college roommate was activist David Harris. "He wasn't politically inclined at that time," Randy said, "Then he married Joan Baez."
Hyvonen lived in Germany for a couple of years where he met a number of Holocaust survivors. This, he said, increased his sensitivity to fascism.
While teaching at a private school in Cleveland he was touched by Kurt Vonnegut's frequently banned book, Slaughterhouse Five. One year, during Banned Book Week, Randy read aloud from that book at a gay and lesbian bookstore in Cincinnati which had previously been raided by the police.
"As Christians," Rev. Hyvonen said, speaking individually, not as a representative of the MAINstream Network, "we always need to remind ourselves that Jesus reached out to the outcasts; that's where he spent all his time. The Christian faith, as taught and lived by Jesus, is inclusive of everyone; it always includes the outcasts."
Long-time activists recognize burnout as an occupational hazard. Rev. Hyvonen described how he deals with this danger.
"I'm not a barricades person," he said, "yet, I have stood up at times. I think if your style is to be on the barricades all the time it not only increases your visibility, but your tension. My style is to try to be a bridge builder and peacemaker. I can talk with people who differ from me."
Randy feels he's achieved an important balance. "I'm measured in my activism, but committed for the long haul," he said.
"Burnout," paraphrasing William Willimon, chaplain at Duke University, "is more a factor of boredom than fatigue. If you are doing what is meaningful and energizing, then you're not bored and you don't burn out."
"I was a runner in high school and college," Randy added, "I continue to run. If I'm feeling stressed it helps to go out and run for three miles."
"I believe in keeping moving forward. And, I recognize that we need conservatives to keep some balance, for the truth is somewhere in the middle."
Rev. Hyvonen recently moved with his wife to Spokane, Washington, where he will continue to serve the United Church of Christ.
To contact the MAINstream Network, write to the group's new president, Rabbi Robert Barr, at 1720 Section Road, Cincinnati, OH 45237.