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Religious Conference Attracts Controversy

By Hana N. Rouse and Benjamin M. Scuderi, Crimson Staff Writers

A conference to promote religious social activism slated to kick off at the Harvard Extension School tomorrow includes a set of panelists and speakers that have generated controversy due to the homophobic and anti-Islamic remarks that they have made in the past.

Conference organizers, who declined repeated requests for an interview over the past week, say that the speakers have assured them that they will not make hateful statements.

At least two groups—Join the Impact Massachusetts and Truth Wins Out, which both advocate for gay rights—plan to protest the conference.

According to the conference website, the conference will seek to catalyze a religious re-awakening at Harvard and the greater Boston area.

The conference consists of five sessions with topics ranging from identifying ways to initiate a “social transformation” to helping attendees “test God’s reality.”

The conference features ten panelists—including business leaders, consultants, and motivational speakers—who advocate for faith in business. According to the conference website, the speakers will discuss “how faith-based social transformation efforts can improve and better our society, communities and institutions.”

According to a press release from the Harvard Extension Service & Leadership Society, the organization behind the event, the conference will focus on “social transformation, social entrepreneurship, socially responsible business, faith in the workplace, and about clarifying our mission and purpose in life.”

Gay rights groups have seized on statements made in a YouTube video by conference panelist Laurence Wallnau that decry social conditions in the U.S. that allow for homosexual relationships, abortion, and individuals who practice Islam.

“So you’ve got your homosexual activity, your abortion activity here, Islam coming in, you’ve got a financial collapse—all of this, to those of us who are Christians, is an apocalyptic confirmation that when you remove God from public discourse, when you don’t line up your thinking with kingdom principles, you inevitably hit an iceberg like the Titanic and you go down,” Wallnau said in the video.

Wallnau is an advocate of the “Seven Mountains” movement, founded by fellow conference panelist Os Hillman. According to the group’s website, the movement advocates for Christians to reclaim the “seven mountains of culture”—arts and entertainment, business, education, family, government, media, and religion.

“This is a divisive conference that demonizes and dehumanizes entire groups of people,” Wayne Besen, the founder of Truth Wins Out, said on the organization’s website. “It promotes religion-based bigotry in the guise of improving society.”

HESLS released a statement late last night that called for dialogue between organizers and their critics.

“Harvard’s avowed traditions allow for the fullest expression of vital, vibrant, spiritual, and intellectual voice on its campus, delivered powerfully, justly, with compassion and egalitarianism,” organizers said in the statement.

The press release also said that organizers planned to meet with members of the LGBTQ and Islamic communities on campus, though that could not be independently verified late last night.

But organizers also said in an earlier statement that the conference will avoid more controversial issues.

“We have been assured by our speakers that they have not supported any hatred directed towards any group and that allegations to the contrary are untrue and/or misinterpreted,” a press release from the HESLS stated.

In another press release, the Harvard Extension Students Association, an umbrella group that is not associated with the conference, distanced itself from the conference.

“[HESA] does not endorse the views of any particular club and does not have final authority to approve or restrict student club events,” the organization wrote in a press release.

“We have been assured by the student organizers that this conference is not intended to foster enmity toward any group,” the statement continued.

—Staff writer Benjamin M. Scuderi can be reached at bscuderi@college.harvard.edu

—Staff writer Hana N. Rouse can be reached at hrouse@college.harvard.edu

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