POINT LOMA, Calif. California beauty queen Carrie Prejean stood in front of millions of Miss USA viewers and, in response to a question from a pageant judge, stated her belief in traditional marriage. It wasn't long before she was dressed down by Perez Hilton, the left-leaning judge who posted a vulgar tirade on his blog, and by other gay activists who pilloried her for being a bigot and a homophobe.
Days later she was defending herself again, this time when her own dressed-down, scantily clad modeling images surfaced on the Internet. This time much of the criticism was lobbed from the right; from evangelicals incensed at her youthful decision to bare more flesh than clothing for a modeling portfolio. Others say it is morally unfitting for a Christian to even participate in such pageants because of their revealing swimsuit competitions.
Despite the photos, Donald Trump, the owner of the Miss USA and Miss Universe pageants, decided Prejean could keep her California title.
So how should the church respond?
"I think it's very shortsighted to say, 'oops, we find an imperfection, we need to bail on her,'" said Miles McPherson, lead pastor of the Rock Church where Prejean attends. "We should stand by her. It doesn't mean we don't acknowledge it. It doesn't mean we don't encourage or correct or teach, which she is very open to. But it definitely does not mean we abandon her."
McPherson, who launched his ministry in the San Diego area in the 1990s with his Miles Ahead youth crusades, has carved out a regional niche with young people. A majority of the 11,000 attendees of his church are teens and young adults.
Much of his teaching has been on purity and, following the biblical model of sexuality, he often cites his own history of drug use and immorality. When the photos of Prejean emerged, McPherson and his staff used it as a teaching moment for the young adults.
"We deal with it every day," the pastor said. "It's an issue on the front of people's minds and it's in the media every day. It is something created by God. It's a beautiful thing if treated properly; it's a very dangerous thing if not treated properly."
In a news conference with local media, McPherson said Prejean learned a valuable lesson not only about modesty, but also about consequences.
"It's a good thing for us to stand with those people who want to do something right and help them move on in their development," he said, adding that it would be wrong to suggest that "because she did this one thing she doesn't have a right to an opinion; she doesn't have a right to be right about something. That's not true. The church is full of, the world is full of, imperfect people. There are no perfect people."
He also warned the church, in its quest for righteousness, to not become ungracious.
"The church needs to accept that we are all sinners saved by grace and that we are all in a process. All of us have a sinful past, some a sinful present, but we are trying to walk with God. That is what grace is all about. That is the definition of what Christ is doing in our lives."
If not careful, McPherson said, Christians can inadvertently idolize those who take courageous stands. When they do, someone will always get hurt.
"We have to be careful not to put perfection requirements on people who do something good," he said. "It's human nature and very natural to be excited about someone who does what she did."
Jim Garlow, senior pastor at Skyline Church in La Mesa, Calif., hosted Prejean during its services the first weekend of May and stands by her.
"The focus on Carrie in the last few days has been on her youthful indiscretion as a 17-year-old," Garlow said after the photos emerged.
"Candidly, I know of few families that could withstand the scrutiny to which the anti-natural marriage activist organizations will subject her. I would not welcome such scrutiny of any family, including my own. All of this, however, is an attempt to distract from the key issue: the definition of marriage."
Garlow said he and his church do not condone her posing for the photos, but echoed McPherson's assessment that the church is not an oasis of perfection.
"We are called a 'redemptive' community on purpose," he said. "We are to redeem, bring back, what sin and sinful actions take. That's the joy of confession and forgiveness.
"We don't gather as the church because we 'have it all together.' We gather together each weekend because we know we DON'T have it all together.
"Calling ourselves a part of a church is not because we think we are better. It is because we know we are 'worse.' Worse than what God envisions. Worse than what we know we ought to be. Worse that what others rightfullyor sometimes wrongfullyexpect from us."
Focus on the Family's James Dobson also commented about the photos in conjunction with a two-part interview with Prejean aired on Dobson's daily radio broadcast May 11 and 12.
"A photo of (Prejean) in lingerie has surfaced since we recorded these interviews," Dobson said on CitizenLink. "We agree with those in the audience who oppose that kind of sensuality. We have chosen to go ahead and air these two programs after Carrie explained that the pictures were taken when she was 17 and she regrets doing it and would not do it again."
A deeper issue
Garlow said the controversy is really about a deeper issue.
"The radical gay agenda detests Carrie because they must hold on to the young adult vote if they have any hope of destroying natural marriage," said Garlow. "They speak with bravado of their success at getting the young vote whichthey contendbodes well for them in the future."
Garlow, who called Prejean articulate, bright, poised, bold and deeply convictional, added that 45 percent of California voters age 18 to 29 voted for traditional marriage in November.
"Carrie flies in the face of their conventional wisdom. She is young, and she can influence. And she is pro-natural marriage. They know what is at stake. … All Carrie has to doand other articulate young spokespersons like heris to move 6 percent of young adults to favor traditional, natural marriage. That, they know, will spell doom for their anti-biblical agenda. That is why they will do anything they can to devastate Carrie and her family."