Friday, February 24, 2012

Christian Pride

My Tabloid Friend on Facebook linked today to this Washington Post article on the controversy over same-sex marriage in black churches in Maryland.
All of a sudden, they are bigots and haters — they who stood tall against discrimination, who marched and sat in, who knew better than most the pain of being told they were less than others.

They are black men, successful ministers, leaders of their community. But with Maryland poised to become the eighth state in the nation to legalize same-sex marriage, they hear people — politicians, activists, even members of their own congregations — telling them they are on the wrong side of history, and that’s not where they usually live.
Sometimes, the pastors say, the name-calling and the anger sting.
Wow! I can totally relate, y'know, because I've experienced anger and name-calling too -- from their side. When you take a moral stand, you have to expect some anger and name-calling, and you don't whine about it.  (If you're a Christian, you're supposed to glory in it.)
... But Thomas and the 77 other Baptist ministers in the association do not see same-sex marriage as a civil rights matter. Rather, they say, it is a question of Scripture, of whether a country based on Judeo-Christian principles will honor what’s written in Romans or decide to make secular decisions about what’s right. In Maryland, as in California and New York, opinion polls have shown that although a majority of white voters support recognition of same-sex marriage, a majority of blacks oppose it, often on religious grounds.
This is a false dichotomy. Freedom of religion, for example, is a matter both of civil rights and of Scripture and religious belief. Many religions, and subdivisions within religions, require the chastisement of people with dissenting beliefs. (At first I wrote "persecution" there, but that's not how the religious see the killing, torture, and expulsion of people with the 'wrong' beliefs. "Persecution" is what you do to me, not what I do to you, even if we do the same things.) For Christians, the target can be non-Christians (Jews, Muslims, "pagans") or it can be other Christians (Catholics vs. Protestants, Anglicans vs. Baptists, and everybody against "heretics"). In the days when Christians took their faith seriously, as a matter of life or death (life for me, death for you), it was absurd to argue that people had a right to believe the wrong thing. As Robert Wilken wrote in The Myth of Christian Beginnings (Notre Dame, 1971),
Most English-speaking American Protestants trace their origins to the colonists who came from England in the early seventeenth century and settled at Massachusetts Bay and Plymouth. Parents, schoolteachers, clergymen have told and retold generations of children the tale of persecution and oppression in Europe and the desire of these first Americans to establish religious freedom in the new land so that men might live together peacefully, tolerating different views.
... Even such a fundamental pillar of American life as the separation of church and state is widely thought to be an inheritance from the first settlers. Yet those Pilgrims never dreamed of establishing religious freedom in their colonies. Indeed, they had no idea of toleration. "All Familists, Antinomians, Anabaptists, and other Enthusiasts shall have free liberty to keepe away from us." And another: "Tis Satan's policy to plead for an indefinite and boundless toleration. ..." The land, however, was spacious, and men could, if they found the atmosphere confining, simply move on to form a new colony [8-9].
There's debate nowadays over whether freedom of religion includes freedom from religion. As you can see, freedom of religion in America traditionally meant my freedom to burn you at the stake, unless you exercise your freedom to get the hell out of Dodge first. But we've left those days far behind in our secularist abandonment of all traditional values.

Still, as late as the 1960s and after, the Civil Rights movement had opponents who insisted that the Negro question was not a matter of civil rights but of Scripture, and whether a country founded on Christian values would honor God's wishes or not. The material I'm about to quote comes from the journalist Robert Sherrill's Gothic Politics in the Deep South (Ballantine, 1969), which has a chapter on the topic. Page numbers refer to this book.

The chapter begins with a quotation from the late Senator J. Strom Thurmond: "This war we're in [over desegregation] is basically a fight between the believers in a Supreme Being and the atheist" (234). (Thurmond, you may remember, managed to defy God long enough to father a daughter on his family's black maid.) One of the ministers quoted in the Post article said, "It’s really believers against nonbelievers." Mostly the chapter is devoted to Bob Jones University in Greenville, South Carolina, "the school that dismissed Billy Graham as a student for breaking rules, later gave him an honorary Ph.D., then reversed itself again and damned him as a heretic in an argument that still rattles the Fundamentalist world" (237).

Sherrill describes with bemused awe the restrictions on BJU students in those days:
A student who is merely caught inside -- not necessarily buying anything, just inside -- any of a dozen anathematized stores near the campus is automatically dismissed from BJU. These are stores -- drugstores and grocery stories, as well as eateries -- that obtained liquor licenses over the protests of the college. Also the students are not allowed to:
Listen to jazz on the radio, or sing or play it themselves.
Go into the gym in mixed groups.
Date off-campus without written permission.
Sit or lie down on blankets anywhere on the 185-acre campus.
Leave the campus after 10:30 p.m.
Borrow anything from townspeople.
Release any information to newspapers without getting it approved by the administration ...
The parade-ground crackle is awesome. Students rise with a bell, and go to sleep with a bell; they must attend all chapels; they must go to all meals; they must study at certain times and not study at certain other times; they must wear certain clothing (stockings for the girls at all times; for the boys, ties to class, coats at evening meal); girls must not loiter in the halls; and all classes must open with a prayer, and all discussion groups close with a prayer [241].
(By the way, I used to work with a man about ten years my senior who thought it a shame that students nowadays aren't required to dress the same way at meals at Indiana University -- a state school, mind you -- as they were when he attended Ball State in the Fifties.)

But then, as "Dr. Bob [Jones], Sr, was fond of telling the BJU students in chapel, 'If you don't like it here you can pack your dirty duds and hit the four-lane highway'" (240). Freedom of religion, just like the Pilgrim Fathers!

The Founder (as he often called himself) explained, "If you are against segregation and against racial separation, then you are against God Almighty because He made racial separation ... It is no accident that most of the Chinese live in China. It is not an accident that most Japanese live in Japan ... " (247). But Bob Jones III explained to Sherill in an interview:
I don't want you to ... don't misconstrue this as an attack upon the Negro -- it's not. We love the Negro people. Some of the finest Christians I've ever known were Negroes. In fact, they put me to shame. And I have looked at several Negro Christians and wished to God I could be as Christlike as they are. And among Christian Negroes there is no strife between them and us -- we are brothers in the Lord. I'm for the Negro being able to have rights, to be able to ride on the bus with the white man, to eat at a restaurant if he wants to, to have education in a state institution -- he pays taxes like everybody else and he should have the privileges his tax money brings. I believe this and I'm all for it [247].
"He seemed to be heading toward a modest pitch for integration," Sherrill reflected, "but I knew he wouldn't be able to make it all the way" (248). I'd point out that Jones's rhetoric is perfectly mirrored by today's antigay Christians, who assure us that they love us, and are not against letting us visit each other in the hospital, and recognize us (as one of the ministers in the Washington Post article put it) as fellow sinners. "This young man sitting across the desk from me, godlike in his certitude, was also stretching forth a finger to touch the Negro into a life of fellowship," Sherrill continued. "But there was still the small gap, in this case requiring his imagination to effect the bridge, so I knew it would never happen."

Jones did not disappoint.
... Until we have our redeemed, supernatural bodies in Heaven we're not going to be equal here, and there's no sense in trying to be. Here's what I say. The Negro -- and I'm not, it's not my own feeling -- but a Negro is best when he serves at the table, when he does that, he's doing what he knows how to do best. And the Negroes who have ascended to positions in government, in education, this sort of thing, I think you'll find, by and large, have a strong strain of white blood in them. Now, I'm not a racist and this is not a racist institution. I can't stress that enough. But what I say is purely what I have been taught, and what I have been able to study in the teaching of the Scripture [248-9].
I'll spare you the ensuing tirade against the United Nations, but it's worth mentioning because today's Right continues that vendetta.

So, you may be thinking, this is one wacko college, but they only speak for themselves. I quoted the Joneses because they were handy, but I remember hearing the same arguments from racist whites throughout the period. The Christian schools that sprang up all over the country, but particularly in the South, from the 1950s were intended to hide racism behind a religious front. The trouble was, they claimed tax-exempt status as well, and managed to get it for a long time, supported by the Supreme Court. (The same question is arising about Christian schools and gay students.)

Besides, for all its marginality, Bob Jones University achieved a kind of martyr status on the Right when it lost its tax-exempt status because of its ban on interracial dating. (BJU had begun admitting black students in 1971, but until 1975 they had to be married, and even after that they could not be in an interracial relationship. Despite Jones Sr.'s remark about God putting the Chinese in China for a reason, the school had always admitted Asian students.) The school took the fight to the Supreme Court, where it lost in 1983, despite then-President Reagan's intervention on BJU's behalf. "Reagan would later say that the case had never been presented to him as a civil rights issue." In 2000 George W. Bush visited BJU to deliver a campaign speech, igniting a firestorm of criticism which led to the school abolishing its policy against interracial dating. Bob Jones III told Larry King that it was "a rule we never talk about" and "We can't back it up with a verse from the Bible." Most damning, BJU abandoned its official racism not under government pressure, but under criticism from the worldly and ungodly. (When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth? Not even at Bob Jones University.) Keeping up with the Joneses isn't easy.

Funny how these eternal-will-of-God, God's-ways-are-not-our-ways policies have a tendency to crumble over time. But you know, the anger and the name-calling sting. Could it be that Christian opposition to same-sex marriage will go the same way eventually? Probably.

But again, the point of going over this history is to point out how the same themes keep recurring in Christian bigotry. Was racial equality a civil rights issue or a religious issue? It was both, of course. Is same-sex marriage a civil rights issue or a religious issue? Both, of course. In both cases, it's illegitimate for churches or other religious institutions to dictate social policy. That they can't see that they are repeating the same worthless arguments that were made against the Civil Rights Movement a half-century ago speaks very badly for them, as men of the cloth and as human beings. Somewhere the apostle Paul said that if Christ wasn't raised from the dead, then his preaching was in vain and Christians' faith is in vain; and Christians are of all men most to be pitied. That's pride speaking, Christian pride; it's certainly not evidence for the Resurrection.

Back to Nathaniel Thomas, the minister quoted before in the Post article:
Take the word ‘marriage’ out of this bill, and we’re pretty much in agreement,” Thomas says. “Everyone should have full legal rights and would have them with civil unions. You wouldn’t see me down there protesting against civil unions. The state is the state, and the church is the church. I understand that. But put the word ‘marriage’ in there, and now you’re redefining something that is in the Bible and in our principles as one man and one woman. Why do you need to use a biblical word in a civil situation?”
If Thomas and his allies really feel this way, they should be lobbying to take marriage out of the civil sphere altogether, including for heterosexuals, and give civil unions to everybody who wants state recognition for their relationships. Can you imagine the fury that would ensue over that? It would come mostly from Christians. The word marriage is already "in there." (Does he think Loving v. Virginia should have settled for giving the Lovings a civil union while denying them marriage?) Thomas must know that he's lying in his teeth, because the Bible does not define marriage as one man and one woman: polygamy is the Old Testament norm, and the New Testament has nothing to say on the matter. Christians abandoned polygamy to conform to Roman norms, not for biblical reasons. Nor is marriage a biblical word; it can be found in most religions and most cultures. (By his standard, non-Judeo-Christian heterosexuals shouldn't be allowed to marry either.)

As I've noticed before, the biblical prohibitions of sex between men (and I agree that they are there) aren't about marriage: men aren't allowed to commit buggery even if they are not married to each other. Yet Thomas is willing to ignore Romans and Leviticus, even to extend full civil rights to sodomites and sapphists; he only draws the line at civil marriage. How does he justify that? His hypocrisy is staggering, especially here:
Over and over, the ministers return to the image that some supporters of same-sex marriage have painted of the church as hater. “There is not one of us who doesn’t have persons in our family with that lifestyle,” Thomas says. “And I tell them, ‘You are still mine.’ ” His voice cracks; he halts for a moment. “You are flesh of my flesh, blood of my blood. No, I will not discriminate against him. We are a people of mercy. But the state may not tell me that I must sanction his behavior, just as I may not sanction behavior of the adulterer or the liar.”
Thomas already sanctions "his behavior," by his willingness to let those with "that lifestyle" have civil unions. Nor will legalizing same-sex civil marriage force him to sanction "that lifestyle," leaving aside the fact that he already sanctions it. The Maryland bill already includes a completely unnecessary religious exemption, since churches are not required to recognize even heterosexual marriages that don't meet their cult requirements. And if this debate is between "believers and nonbelievers," which suggests that it's only non-Christian gays who will want to get married, then what does Thomas have to worry about? (In fact, there are plenty of gay Christians who'll want church weddings, and being Christians they view the First Amendment as a mere piece of paper. But in time the churches will come around without state pressure, just as they did on race.)

Looked at rationally, it's hard to see what the fuss is about. Certainly it's not a religious issue, except insofar as these shameless bigots are making it into one. But all religious issues are made by human beings. Maybe it's not a civil rights matter either; the civil rights issues involved are shaky, in my opinion, but it's not necessary to view same-sex civil marriage as a civil rights issue in order to legalize it. These men may not want to see themselves as bigots; the truth often hurts. But I can't see what else to call them, except fools.