Southern Baptist Anti-Gay Stance Echoes Its Prior Support of Segregation

At the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention taking place in Columbus, Ohio this week, SBC President Ronnie Floyd took a defiant stance against same-sex marriage in anticipation of the upcoming Supreme Court ruling on the issue. Declaring "spiritual warfare," Rev. Floyd urged his followers to ignore any Supreme Court ruling that finds a constitutional right to same-sex marriage because "the Bible is God's final authority about marriage and on this book we stand."

The angry opposition of the SBC toward granting gay couples the same rights as heterosexual couples echoes back to an earlier troubling time in church history in which southern Baptists fought against equal rights for another oppressed minority group in this country: blacks. The SBC was founded in 1845 in Augusta, Georgia as the national Baptist convention fractured over the issue of slavery with the southern churches (hence the name Southern Baptist Convention) forming their own organization and then spending the next century using Biblical passages to support slavery and then segregation. It took 150 years before the SBC issued a formal apology in 1995 for their racist origins and former segregationist positions. Now that Rev. Floyd and his supporters similarly use certain Biblical passages to support a new agenda of exclusionism and discrimination, the question arises: will the SBC be issuing another apology in a future decade for its short-sighted positions today?

The anti-LGTB views of fundamentalist evangelicals like Rev. Floyd originate in a literal interpretation of Scripture unsustainable in the 21st century. Hiding one's fears and bigotry behind selected passages from the Bible because they are "God's words" ignores the fact that God did not write the Bible; pre-modern men did. That these many authors (and editors and translators) over the centuries may have been inspired by their encounter with a holy dimension to life deeper than their everyday realities does not mean that every word they wrote in a different age with different cultural norms, different understandings of the workings of nature, and different philosophies of society must be the inerrant, absolute truth. Some of the earliest and most thoughtful church fathers such as Origen and Augustine read scripture metaphorically, not literally. Rev. Floyd and his flock no longer stone children to death for disrespecting their parents (as required by Scripture), yet they selectively choose to hold onto a few passages condemning homosexuality.

The Bible is also full of outright contradictions and inconsistencies: from the two contradictory creation stories found in Chapters 1 and 2 of Genesis to the irreconcilable differences in the descriptions of Jesus' life and teachings in the Gospels, especially between the synoptic Gospels (so-named for their similarities) of Matthew, Mark and Luke with the very different and later-composed Gospel of John. Among a variety of possible interpretations, the SBC chooses to emphasize the "sin" (as they define it) committed by gays rather than embracing Jesus' explicit teachings that we should not judge other's acts when we cannot see "the log in our own eye" (Matthew 7:3-5) and that above all else we should "love your neighbor as yourself" (Mark 12:31). Nothing in the tone and language of Rev. Floyd's speech opposing gay marriage radiated these Christian values of love, compassion, justice, and empathy, but instead displayed the opposites of condemnation, anger, repression, and judgment.

In a bold act of misappropriation Rev. Floyd quoted German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) to justify his decrying the sins of same-sex marriage and the responsibility of evangelicals to take a stand on this issue: "Silence in the face of evil is itself evil...Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act." Using Bonhoeffer to justify this bigotry is especially egregious considering the context in which Bonhoeffer composed these words. He wrote from a Nazi prison where he was held captive and then executed for opposing Hitler's brutal treatment of the Jews, the minority group on whom Hitler blamed the woes of Germany. The Nazis also persecuted homosexuals with thousands dying in concentration camps.

As quickly as attitudes are shifting, the debate over LGBT rights and same-sex marriage will soon be over, and the positions taken by those wishing to deny these rights will one day be seen as similarly backwards as those who supported segregation. It is not a coincidence that these are often the same groups who denied blacks rights in the 1950s and who wish to deny LGBT equal protection today.

When churches and their leaders insist on living in the Middle Ages, they relegate themselves to a world that no longer exists, yet they despair over declining church attendance and the secularization of society. With high-profile church leaders like Rev. Floyd taking positions based on intolerance, it's no wonder that the fastest growing segment of the population, especially among young people, is the "Not Religious." Religion at its best should call to us toward love, forgiveness, compassion, reconciliation, and charity. Religion should bring peace within us and in our communities. When it sows distrust, anger, and division, we should hear alarm bells and then heed Bonhoeffer's words of not staying silent in the wake of evil.