With the seemingly sudden proliferation of laws purported to protect the “religious freedom” of the anti-gay right — essentially laws that carve out a special right for anti-gay wingnuts to discriminate against LGBT people — casual observers might be tempted to buy into the idea that somehow these people’s “sincerely held religious beliefs” and the expression thereof might somehow actually be threatened. Of course, the fact that these laws are being struck down and defeated as fast as the Right can introduce them suggests that the average person isn’t buying their whining, but it’s worth examining what it actually is that they’re worried about. Hint: it’s not Christianity. Indeed, it doesn’t have anything to do with “religious freedom.” Folks like Bryan Fischer set up false fantasy scenarios wherein there is some zero sum game going on between gay rights and Christianity, but when it’s pointed out that millions of Christians are not only not worried about supposed threats to their faith, but that millions of Christians are either LGBT supportive or members of the LGBT community themselves, they ignore it.
What Bryan Fischer, Matt Barber, Tony Perkins and others truly fear is something that they’re unlikely to express explicitly, but that is nonetheless valid, which is that as LGBT equality goes nationwide, and as more and more people, including Christians, have experience with LGBT people, their bigotry, which they cloak in religious faith, will become truly unspeakable in polite company. They fear that the majority of people they see as their cohort — fellow conservative Evangelicals and Catholics — will eventually completely stop caring about whether gays and lesbians can marry or have other equal rights. They fear that, like racist and segregationist beliefs, anti-gay sentiments will be uttered in private by those who still can be bothered to notice, but that those who hold them will eventually not dare to express them to their friends and neighbors, lest they be ostracized for being irrationally hateful and cruel. They fear that, much as the children of racists judge and chide their parents for dropping the N-word, their own children will increasingly correct them when they mutter about “those damn faggots.”
And they’re right. This is going to happen, and there’s nothing they can do about it. Amanda Marcotte addressed this in a piece earlier this week called “Yes, Religion Will Become Less Homophobic. No, That’s Not A Bad Thing.” She’s criticizing Ross Douthat’s much-mocked weekend column, a silly, whiny attempt at casting anti-gay bigots as the real victims as these culture wars start winding down to a close. Ross seems to be terrified, as Amanda says, that “religious bigotry cannot survive being treated as bigotry.” And we know what’s going to happen this time around, because it’s happened before. Though today’s anti-gay bigots caterwaul otherwise, their religious arguments against LGBT people are direct inheritors of, and dare I say essentially plagiarized from, the religious arguments used by racists and segregationists in the years leading up to and during the Civil Rights successes of the 1960’s. Today, you will hear Religious Right folks shamelessly try to co-opt African-Americans for their cause, as they claim that the religious arguments of yesteryear against racial equality don’t stand up to the rock solid case they have against homosexuality, but the fact is that back in the day, they were just as sure that their God condemned mixed marriages as they are today that homosexuality is a sinful behavior that needs to be changed. Amanda explains more:
Douthat is right about this much: The more unfashionable and distasteful anti-gay bigotry becomes, the more religious people will cut it out. Some will come up with theological rationalizations for their change of mind, which is probably the best solution. Some will simply recede to muttering about the gays behind closed doors as they slowly die off. Preaching homophobia from the pulpit will increasingly become taboo. It’s true that Douthat, as Beutler accuses, doesn’t have the confidence that the supposed rightness of religious bigotry will be enough to allow believers to hold fast in face of changing tides. That shows Douthat has little faith, but he does actually understand the real world in this.
I just want to point out that the reason that Douthat knows this is how it goes is because this is how it went down when it came to the end of Jim Crow and segregation. In the decades leading up to the Civil Rights Act, it was common for Christian preachers to rail from the pulpit about the evils of race-mixing. As Ian Milhiser explained, much to most of the justifications for segregation were religious in nature. The KKK, like many anti-gay groups now, held itself out primarily as a Christian organization dedicated to preserving the family. Brown v the Board of Education was largely battled out on religious grounds, with Christian groups starting private schools for the purpose of excluding black students on religious grounds.
In the Ian Milhiser piece Amanda quotes, we see just how religious — how deeply, sincerely personally religious — these beliefs were for the whites who fought to keep the races separate:
For [Mississippi] Senator [Theodore] Bilbo, however, racism was more that just an ideology, it was a sincerely held religious belief. In a book entitled Take Your Choice: Separation or Mongrelization, Bilbo wrote that “[p]urity of race is a gift of God . . . . And God, in his infinite wisdom, has so ordained it that when man destroys his racial purity, it can never be redeemed.” Allowing “the blood of the races [to] mix,” according to Bilbo, was a direct attack on the “Divine plan of God.” There “is every reason to believe that miscengenation and amalgamation are sins of man in direct defiance to the will of God.”
Bilbo was one of the South’s most colorful racists, but he was hardly alone in his beliefs. As early as 1867, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court upheld segregated railway cars on the grounds that “[t]he natural law which forbids [racial intermarriage] and that social amalgamation which leads to a corruption of races, is as clearly divine as that which imparted to [the races] different natures.” This same rationale was later adopted by state supreme courts in Alabama, Indiana and Virginia to justify bans on interracial marriage, and by justices in Kentucky to support residential segregation and segregated colleges.
In 1901, Georgia Gov. Allen Candler defended unequal public schooling for African Americans on the grounds that “God made them negroes and we cannot by education make them white folks.” After the Supreme Court ordered public schools integrated in Brown v. Board of Education, many segregationists cited their own faith as justification for official racism. Ross Barnett won Mississippi’s governorship in a landslide in 1960 after claiming that “the good Lord was the original segregationist.” Senator Harry Byrd of Virginia relied on passages from Genesis, Leviticus and Matthew when he spoke out against the civil rights law banning employment discrimination and whites-only lunch counters on the Senate floor.
He goes on to tell the story of Bob Jones University, evangelical Christianity’s last major hold-out when it comes to segregation and institutional racism, whose “religious freedom” (by the current wingnut definition) was infringed when the IRS revoked their tax-exempt status for refusing to admit blacks. He quotes conservative elder Paul Weyrich, whose arguments in defense of BJU’s bigoted policies sound eerily familiar:
This decision, that the IRS would no longer give tax subsidies to racist schools even if they claimed that their racism was rooted in religious beliefs, quickly became a rallying point for the Christian Right. Indeed, according to Paul Weyrich, the seminal conservative activist who coined the term “moral majority,” the IRS’ move against schools like Bob Jones was the single most important issue driving the birth of modern day religious conservatism. According to Weyrich, “[i]t was not the school-prayer issue, and it was not the abortion issue,” that caused this “movement to surface.” Rather it was what Weyrich labeled the “federal government’s move against the Christian schools.”
But, but, but…religious freedom! Same song, different verse.
Amanda also quotes Max Blumenthal, writing about Jerry Falwell, the deceased figure who is still highly revered on the Christian Right, and Falwell’s crusade against African-Americans and the equality of the races:
But for Falwell, the “questions of the day” did not always relate to abortion and homosexuality–nor did they begin there. Decades before the forces that now make up the Christian right declared their culture war, Falwell was a rabid segregationist who railed against the civil rights movement from the pulpit of the abandoned backwater bottling plant he converted into Thomas Road Baptist Church. This opening episode of Falwell’s life, studiously overlooked by his friends, naïvely unacknowledged by many of his chroniclers, and puzzlingly and glaringly omitted in the obituaries of the Washington Post and New York Times, is essential to understanding his historical significance in galvanizing the Christian right. Indeed, it was race–not abortion or the attendant suite of so-called “values” issues–that propelled Falwell and his evangelical allies into political activism.
As with his positions on abortion and homosexuality, the basso profondo preacher’s own words on race stand as vivid documents of his legacy. Falwell launched on the warpath against civil rights four years after the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision to desegregate public schools with a sermon titled “Segregation or Integration: Which?”
“If Chief Justice Warren and his associates had known God’s word and had desired to do the Lord’s will, I am quite confident that the 1954 decision would never have been made,” Falwell boomed from above his congregation in Lynchburg. “The facilities should be separate. When God has drawn a line of distinction, we should not attempt to cross that line.”
Falwell’s jeremiad continued: “The true Negro does not want integration…. He realizes his potential is far better among his own race.” Falwell went on to announce that integration “will destroy our race eventually. In one northern city,” he warned, “a pastor friend of mine tells me that a couple of opposite race live next door to his church as man and wife.”
If this information is new to you, it’s because the Christian Right likes to pretend it never happened. But indeed, the fathers of their own movement were motivated first by animus against black people. And it was deeply, sincerely, super-personally held religious animus. When we say that today’s Tony Perkins figures are inheritors of that legacy, we don’t mean that they just happen to use a lot of the same lingo, but rather that we are dealing with the same exact lineage of people. Hell, Tony Perkins got his start with David Duke’s mailing list. It’s not truly a game of “connect the dots” if you’re only connecting two damn dots, now is it?
And, at least publicly, the Christian Right has gotten over it. Oh, many of them are still deeply racist, but they know they can’t say it in public, so they resort to code words and dogwhistles about welfare and entitlements. Lee Atwater taught them how to do that, explaining in 1981 how Republicans held onto the racist vote without actually saying technically racist things:
You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger”—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.”
And that’s already happening with gay rights. The “pro-family” euphemism was the beginning, and now they’ve moved into the utterly bullshit idea that their “religious freedom” is being threatened, when what they really mean to say is “God hates fags” and “Faggot, faggot, faggot.” God knows how convoluted their lingo will be in twenty years when they’re less than twenty percent of the population and even many of their own churches are willingly marrying gay couples.
What? Evangelical churches marrying gay couples?! Yeah, it’s going to happen, and nobody’s going to be forced into any of it. Back to Amanda Marcotte:
This is what Douthat clearly and openly fears will happen on the question of homophobia. He knows that churches will never be forced to marry gay couples. They aren’t forced to marry interracial couples now. But the cultural tides shifted in the wake of anti-discrimination legislation, and most churches that would have balked at marrying interracial couples 40 years ago wouldn’t bat an eye at doing it now. That’s why his hand-waving over how these situations are so different is so utterly dishonest. He knows the reason that the reason “remaining adherents” to a homophobic worldview “can be marginalized, set against one other, and encouraged to conform” is because that’s exactly what happened to the people who tried to hold fast to the notion that racism was also biblically mandated. He doesn’t even hide it, arguing, “Organizations and businesses that promoted the older definition of marriage would face constant procedural harassment, along the lines suggested by the mayors who battled with Chick-fil-A. And, eventually, religious schools and colleges would receive the same treatment as racist holdouts like Bob Jones University, losing access to public funds and seeing their tax-exempt status revoked.”
That’s right, Ross! And sure, there will be holdouts on the gay issue. Some churches may never enter modern times on the issue, but eventually they’ll be similar to those stories we hear once in a while of some backwoods congregation that won’t marry an interracial couple or doesn’t welcome a black family into their pews. And it may be a long while before we reach that point — I mean, it’s not like black folks and white folks really worship together all that often in 2014, though strides are being made.
Movement toward acceptance of LGBT people in more conservative churches is happening, though, and it’s been happening for a long time. It’ll be a long process, but Ross Douthat’s and Bryan Fischer’s fears will indeed come to pass. When I was in high school, I attended a very doctrinally conservative Presbyterian church that happened to also be a who’s who/”see and be seen” congregation, and still does. It’s a church in the city, and many of its members are CEOs and COOs of major corporations based in the area. They’re not removed from society — they are Society, capital “S” intentional. And back in the 1990’s, when I went there, there was indeed “gays burning in hell” crap being bellowed in a Southern Virginia accent out of the pulpit, but even then, some church members were starting to slowly, but surely, open up. As a closeted kid (and later, having left the church and come out), it was still obnoxious to witness, how these nice Southern Christian people would openly say the most horrific things about homosexuality, but yet it was very much okay and expected for their interior designers, florists and hairstylists to be gay. Indeed, many of the women of this church socialized with those types of gay men on a regular basis, all the while holding on to hypocritical beliefs that said that their decorators were just so wonderful (“WUN-duh-ful!”), but that they were also hellbound sinners who didn’t deserve equal rights. Many of those same people today, whether or not they’ll admit it publicly to their fellow church members, no longer believe the crap they were taught about LGBT people. And their kids really don’t buy it, at least not in the numbers of previous generations. Will that church continue to be publicly anti-gay? Sure, probably, for another couple of generations. But at some point, their anti-gay contingent will be on par with the old farts who — fun fact — created that church in the first place, because their original church had become too full of black people in the 1950’s.
And this is an extremely conservative church I’m talking about. Think about all the vaguely evangelical, non-denominational mega-churches that have sprung up, the ones that are basically theme parks with sanctuaries (“worship centers”), which attract all manner of Christian families, mostly due to the fact that they’ve got great kids’ programs. There will come a time when churches like that think nothing of marrying gay couples, giving them premarital counseling, baptizing their children, yadda yadda yadda, just as today, they think nothing of it when an interracial couple who just moved to town visits, gets involved and decides to join. “Racist? We were never racist at this church!” And in those days, when whatever remains of the Religious Right is fighting for whatever extreme position they’re currently all about, when people say, “um, you sound a lot like the homophobes from fifty years ago,” they’ll respond, “ARE NOT! THIS IS DIFFERENT!”
So yeah. Bryan Fischer, Tony Perkins, Ross Douthat and all the rest — their greatest fears will indeed come true. They’re just not the fears they publicly admit to.