The Rev. Louis P. Sheldon, a forceful opponent of gay rights who had the ear of prominent political figures in the 1980s and ’90s and used his platform to lobby against what he called “the homosexual agenda,” died on May 29 in Southern California. He was 85.
The Associated Press said his son-in-law, James Lafferty, attributed his death to an unspecified “longstanding condition.”
Some 40 years ago, Mr. Sheldon, aided by Herb Leo, a businessman in Anaheim, Calif., formed the Traditional Values Coalition, a network of conservative churches that campaigned against the gay rights movement as it was gaining steam.
Mr. Sheldon left his pastorate at the Trinity Church of Anaheim to become a full-time representative of the coalition, which started out working on issues in California, then established an office in Washington and became a national presence.
Representative Newt Gingrich, the Georgia Republican who became speaker of the House in 1995 after a conservative surge in the 1994 elections, was among those whom Mr. Sheldon could count on to listen. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, Mr. Sheldon also met with President George W. Bush several times during his administration.
And his messages could be stark, demonizing gay activists in alarmist terms.
“They want not only to redefine the concept of family and normal sexual relationships but also to destroy the family as we know it, and they have said as much,” he wrote in “The Agenda: The Homosexual Plan to Change America,” a book he published in 2005. He called on his readership “to rise up and say no and somehow put a stop to their desperate gambit.”
By the time that book came out, Mr. Sheldon had begun turning the coalition over to his daughter, Andrea Sheldon Lafferty. And the clout of the group, which often claimed to represent 43,000 churches, was waning. The Law Center said its website disappeared in 2017.
Mr. Sheldon espoused the widely discredited view that homosexuality is a choice and that people could and should be freed from its grip.
“Let me be quick to say that I do not hate homosexuals,” he wrote in his book. “And I know that there are many caring and well-meaning men and women trapped in the homosexual lifestyle who would give anything to be free of it.”
Louis Philip Sheldon was born on June 11, 1934, in Washington to Gertrude and Rex Sheldon. His mother was an Orthodox Jew, and his father was raised in the English Protestant tradition. Mr. Sheldon embraced evangelical Christianity as a teenager, he told The New York Times in 1994.
He earned a bachelor’s degree in history at Michigan State University in 1957 and a master of divinity degree at Princeton Theological Seminary in 1960. He was ordained a minister in the conservative Presbyterian Church in America.
Mr. Sheldon and his wife, Beverly Sheldon, whom he had met at Michigan State, lived in North Dakota and Delaware and relocated to California in 1969. He worked at a church in Encino before moving to Anaheim in 1973 and eventually founded the interdenominational Trinity Church there. He also worked for a time for the evangelist Pat Robertson’s television ministry.
A full list of his survivors was not immediately available.
In 1978, after working on behalf of several conservative political candidates and causes, Mr. Sheldon became involved in an unsuccessful ballot measure to bar gay and lesbian teachers from California schools, a campaign that he said solidified his interest in effecting change through political activism.
Other conservative Christian political efforts, like Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority, which found that they could galvanize supporters and sway elections by attacking gay rights, were also coalescing at the time.
“There’s no accident to this,” Mr. Sheldon told The Los Angeles Times in 1985. “I believe this is an ordained fact of God.”
He spoke out on an assortment of issues, including abortion and freedom of religious expression in the workplace. But his calling card was his crusade against gay rights.
For National Coming Out Day in 1995, for instance, Mr. Sheldon sought to counter an event at the Capitol in Washington that featured Candace Gingrich, Mr. Gingrich’s half sister and a lesbian activist. He called his protest “National Coming Out of Homosexuality Day” and enlisted speakers who claimed to be “former homosexuals.”
In 2002, Mr. Sheldon squared off on CNN’s “Talkback Live” against Dan Savage, the writer and L.G.B.T.Q. advocate, over whether gay couples could make good parents.
“The issue comes down to this,” Mr. Sheldon said. “Very clearly, homosexuality is a social disorder. This has been stated again and again by many people.”
Mr. Savage shot back: “It’s been stated again and again by Reverend Lou Sheldon. That doesn’t make it true.”