Welcome, White Americans, to Your Future: This is What it Feels Like to be a Minority

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Something Thomas Frank published in the Guardian this week rings true to my own overarching theory about what is truly behind the huge success of the Trump movement.  Yes Trump is a white racist who unashamedly appeals to other white racists.  Yes, many evangelicals have whole-heartedly climbed on his lily-white bandwagon, even to the dismay and befuddlement of many of those same white evangelical Christians.  Yes, the Republican Party and its joined-at-the-hip ally, American evangelicalism, are reaping a harvest of cancerous bitterness sown in their ugly and unethical war against every measure of progress in the areas of civil and human rights in 20th century America. But there is something larger and more consequential happening here that is not simply explained, even in the plethora of public comments about why evangelicals support Trump, by appealing to the reality of racism alone.   Frank brings to the discussion the undeniably powerful recognition that large portions of white America now fear that their future will continue to be marked by crippling and marginalizing economic decline.  I would add that this painful economic reality is forcing white America, for the first time in our nation’s history, to respond to the thoroughgoing experience of economic, political, and religious minoritization.

 

So yes, there is a racial backdrop to this movement that Trump is leading.  Take a look at any photo of a Trump rally and you will see a sea of white.  However, there is something going on that is more than just a revival of traditional commitments to white supremacy. We must not fail to see the bigger picture if we are understand the wave of white fear that that Trump is so skillfully and adroitly riding.   This fear, masked by a sometimes openly raging anger directed toward an array of minorities, is the fear of a white majority that is thoroughly panicked by the awareness that it is on a slow but inevitable march from a majority to a minority status in American society.   The Trump phenomenon is a warning shot that says, “We will not go gently or quietly into the night that we perceive as belonging to a disempowered, disestablished, and economically marginalized white minority.”

 

Here is what Trumps legions are truly afraid of.  At the risk of putting words in their mouths, this is the hope, as I would phrase it, they have placed in him.  “We know, in spite of our best efforts, which have always worked, at least up until now, that we are losing our place of power, prosperity, privilege, and prominence in this society.  We can see that we are well on our way to becoming a minority.  We fear retribution and persecution. Even more, we fear poverty that we assume will accompany our new status.  We know how we have treated America’s minorities and our greatest fear is that there is a coming Karmic level of justice that will demand that we be treated by the minorities-come-majority just as we have treated them.  We fear our very survival is at stake. Among all of the candidates, Trump promises to stop this march to minority status.  He will close the borders to Hispanics and Muslims and stop the rising tide of diversity that threatens our hallowed and protected place of eternal privilege.  He is perhaps our last ‘great white hope.’  Only he among the candidates offers to save us from the consequences of an America we have created and which is now is being turned against us, an America where we are no longer the majority.  Only he promises to “Make (White) America Great Again.”

 

For those of us who do not fear a multicultural/multiethnic/multi-faith America this mindset is incomprehensible. We believe that this evolving society is much better than this and that the dividing forces of discrimination can and must be once and for all left behind.  We have faith in African-Americans who have generation after generation born their abuse and persecutions with dignity and grace.  We know the true character of the Hispanic masses that have found their salvation in this place.  We know Muslims who love this country even more than we do. We admire and welcome them.  We do not fear them. We also know Hispanics and African Americans who they can teach us the necessary lessons of adjustment that we have thus far failed to learn.  They are not a threat. They are our allies, not our adversaries. They will tutor us, if we invite and are open to them, about how to be a healthy, humane, and included part of this larger society’s future.  We believe that a democracy founded on the absolutes of equality and justice for all serves us all, including those of us who are white.  There has to be a better way for the Trumpites to adjust to the realities of who we are going to be as a nation.  We have hope for all, including them.

 

You may say, “Look, white America controls so much of the wealth, so much of state and federal governments are under their thumb.  All of our religious and secular institutions have been and still do continue to serve their interests first.  Such a profound sense of disempowerment and disenfranchisement seems to be so ridiculously absurd in 21st century America.”  You may ask, “And why is the white America Trump represents so angry at Washington, in spite of the fact that white America still enjoys a remarkably consolidated hold on our political and legal systems? What is it that their religious leaders and political representatives at federal and state levels have been unable to deliver to them that angers them to the point of burning it all down?”   It is the inability of their leaders to secure the impossible guarantee that they will continue to enjoy the privilege of majority status that frightens and angers them. Every progressive advance only serves to remind them that their status of dominance is imperiled. They would do much better, many of us conclude, if they stopped demanding that their politicians and religious leaders do the impossible for them.

 

Frank reminds us that the sense of many white Americans, that they are increasingly on the short end of the stick when it comes of a declining share of the American economic pie, is not simply just a matter of delusion. Here they are not succumbing to an irrational sense of paranoia. They would do well, however, to stop listening to and to being so easily directed by billionaires like Trump who are committed to hoarding wealth and to carving out their own personal safety net to protect them from the realities of minoritization.

 

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Race, Religion, and the 2016 Presidential Election

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This week Isabel Wilkerson the renowned historian, social scientist, journalist and Pulitzer Prize winning author, appeared on MSNBC  to discuss Bernie Sander’s comments about poverty, institutional racism, and the ghettoization of America.  After advising that we must be disabused of our outdated stereotypes that invariably arise in such discussions, Wilkerson shared her thoughts about recent images of young black women being assaulted at Trump’s rallies.  She spoke of being deeply disturbed by how easily animosities surrounding race can be triggered and openly displayed in America in 2016.  She said, “We should be well past this.  We have been here before.  We’ve seen the movie before and here it is playing out again.  How quickly, how easily people’s passions in these matters can be invoked.  Wilkerson then pleaded, “We need to know our country’s history. We need to know how far we’ve come, and yet how much farther we have yet to go, so that we can actually address this issue. One thing I can say (repeating something she said in New Orleans in  July of this year) is that we can change the laws, but that doesn’t mean we’ve changed the heart, and I think that the heart is the last frontier for many people.”

 

As painful as it is for me to say, it may be that Donald Trump, regardless of what is at the heart of his motives, intentions, and his rhetoric, may be helping America face a most painful truth about itself.   There is no use pretending anymore.  Our national divisions are not superficial.  They defy all attempts at a reasonable resolution. Trump has held a mirror up for us all to see with crystal clarity that most original flaw or sin that has from the very beginning kept America from fulfilling her every aspiration to greatness.  Trump has brought us face to face with the frightening reality that America cannot much longer exist, let alone be great, unless we stand together in a unified recognition that if we continue to refuse to wholeheartedly embrace and fully institutionalize racial and ethnic equality in this society then none of us have a bright future.

 

The anger that we are witnessing at Trumps rallies, as is evidenced in the surprising level of support from self-identifying evangelicals, is an anger born of fear.  It may be the fear that we will never find our way out of our national dilemma that revolves around race.  A national commitment to discrimination that breeds hatred continues to manifest without interruption in every successive American generation. It corrupts our discourse, it makes us believe in war, not peace, as the reason for our collective being. It bankrupts us, it makes us increasingly violent, and it keeps us from constructively and collectively addressing other immanent existential threats like the very real possibilities of nuclear or environmentally disastrous holocausts.  Our failure to be great here as a nation is this one thing that guarantees that we shall surely fail at everything we attempt.

 

Where will our salvation come from?  Certainly not from a Donald Trump who fails to comprehend that which truly keeps America from embracing a much better destiny. Religion and politics can be helpful.  Neither has provided the solution. Perhaps it is fair to say, that if they have been offering guidance and wisdom, too few have been listening.  In fact, both political and religious institutions are buckling under the weight of our national, collective failure to resolve that which divides us as a nation.   We the people have put a burden on our secular and religious institutions that they cannot much longer endure.  And neither our religious institutions nor our government can do for us what we must do for ourselves – commit ourselves to a revolutionary transformation of the heart and soul of America.  A double-minded nation we can no longer be.  The perils that confront us and the entire human race are too great.

 

Wilkerson says that this is a Karmic moment in the life of America in that we are trying to deal with the unavoidable question about who we are as a country.  Let us admit that what we should not fear the most is Trump or any other of the 2016 candidates for the Presidency.  What we must fear are the consequences that will surely play out in an America that does not willingly and energetically conquer this last frontier of the heart.  Let us hope that this present electoral process will serve to shock us into an awareness that we must turn all of our resources –  secular, intellectual, economic, cultural, and religious – to the freeing of the human heart from any devotion to the idea of inequality based on gender, race, or ethnic heritage.

 

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The Devil Demands His Due: the Faustian Nightmare that is Playing out in the Republican Party and in the Evangelical Church

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2016 is obviously shaping up to be a year of seismic change in America’s political and religious landscapes.  The Republican Party, which was already buckling under the pressures and demands of the Tea Party and the religious right, and the Party’s closest and historically most dependable ally, the evangelical church (see David Gushee’s statement about the seismic breakup that is underway in the evangelical community), are both now facing the possibility of deeply damaging and destabilizing schisms that will render all of our established assumptions and accepted conventional wisdom about both to be meaningless and obsolete.

 

Donald Trump has not created the fault lines along which Republicans and their evangelical partners are now dividing.  His hostile takeover of the Republican Party certainly has exacerbated these divisions even as he has ingeniously and adroitly exploited them for personal political gain.  Trump is deftly riding a multi-factional wave of angry white working class Americans, many of whom are evangelicals who are fearful that they will soon be written off as just another marginalized and disenfranchised minority.

 

It is fascinating to watch commentators, political scientists, and evangelical religious leaders  grapple with the question, “Why have so many self-proclaimed white evangelicals wholeheartedly embraced the pompous, hedonistic, vitriolic, narcissistic, bigoted, vulgar, and barely religious Donald Trump as their candidate for the Presidency?”  Many are also puzzling over why these self-identifying evangelicals are paying remarkably little attention to the guidance of prominent evangelical leaders who have expressed their preference for Ted Cruz.  Just as we can say that this is no longer your father’s Republican party we can also say this is no longer your father’s evangelical church.

 

The roots of the current calamity that has befallen the Republican Party can be traced back to the Party’s fateful embrace of Nixon’s Southern Strategy.  But the most pivotal event that sealed the collective fate of Republicanism and evangelicalism in America took place in the summer of 1980. In August of that year another anti-establishment/entertainer, Ronald Reagan. Who had four years earlier risked spliting a divided Republican Party, arranged and presided over the marriage of the Party with ulta-conservative evangelicals who were already instigating and overseeing a bloody and ruthless schism within mainline American Protestantism.  At that very public wedding ceremony evangelicals were instructed by their leaders to use every resource at their disposal to get Reagan elected and to “take control of the country.”

 

Many old-guard white evangelicals, long-since frustrated that the full and final accomplishment of the goal of completely taking over the country has not yet been fully realized, have flocked to Trump, who has resurrected their hopes and reclaimed Reagan’s campaign slogan, “Let’s Make America Great Again.”  These white evangelicals, who believe that they have been betrayed, besieged, and marginalized, even by the Party they have fully embraced, hope that Trump will roll back the progressive achievements of the Obama years and that he will enable them to once again become  the “moral majority.”  Many of these evangelicals have decided that Trump, warts and all, offers the best hope for making their regressive social agenda an irreversible reality.

 

Evangelicals, some will fairly and correctly point out, are not a monolithic entity that can be reduced to stereotypes. A significant percentage (28%) of evangelicals are Democrats.  Some are African American.  Many evangelicals are not pleased about where this dysfunctional marriage of church and state has taken them.  Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention, says that he is deeply troubled by the evangelical contribution to and association with Trump’s rise to power.   Even the staunchly a-political Max Lucado has expressed his grave concern over the Trump phenomenon.  In addition, a rising new generation of unpredictable and sometimes progressive young evangelicals is now making decisions based a multitude of complex political, economic, and societal priorities.  However, the damage to the brand has been done and the devil, like the syndicated loan shark who has run out of patience, is now demanding his due and with exorbitantly escalating interest.

 

Once upon a time in America, influential and sensible mainstream evangelical Protestant voices warned of the danger of breaking down the wall of separation between church and state.  In my particular Baptist tradition many like James Dunn, Paul Simmons, and a host of other theologians/ethicists built upon the seminal ideals  of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and the proto-Baptist Roger Williams .   They argued that to breach the wall would not only corrupt and cause irreparable damage to both the church and the state. To do so, they warned,  would inevitably endanger this democracy by undermining basic human freedoms and rights that can only be maintained in a free state not dominated by or beholden to the church.

 

When conservative white evangelicals agreed in the last century to be wedded to the Republican Party they were promised that they would be taught how take complete control of their religious institutions by using conservative political methods that need give no thought to ethical standards or behaviors. Those evangelicals were also promised that the resources of the state would be employed to legislate the moral agenda of the evangelical church (in matters such as abortion, homosexuality, and school sponsored prayer).  What evangelicals brought to the union was a promise to help Republicans get elected as God’s rightfully chosen representatives and a promise to legitimize Republican economic, social, and political agendas by proclaiming them to be blessed by the church and, by implication, God.

 

What many thought to be a marriage made in heaven was really a bargain with the devil. These promises fulfilled, have come at a high price.

 

And just what is the price that is now due?  Both the evangelical church and Republican Party have been hopelessly radicalized and have succumbed to an inquisitional mentality that is obsessed with the rooting out the enemies that they perceive are within and without. Even more disastrous, neither the Republican Party nor American evangelicalism will be ever be able to shake the impression about them that is now being seared into our minds – that these Evangelicals/Republicans are determined to eradicate every vestige of fairness, equality, and diversity in this society and that they are motivated by a ruthless white supremacist quest for power that aims to establish their absolute dominance over all aspects of every citizen’s life.  The Republican Party and the evangelical church will now be hard-pressed to prove that Trump, with all of his racist, sexist, and xenophobic rhetoric, is not the true face of their Party and their church.

 

To be fair, hard-right evangelicalism and the radicalized Republican Party may not be the only forces that forward a destructively regressive agenda in 21st Century America.  However, evangelicalism and the Republican party, even in their most progressive forms, will henceforth be associated with those most ignominious and embarrassing so-called “American values” that the Republican presidential candidates are now espousing.  Both the Republican Party and the evangelical church are reaping the whirlwinds they have sown, and because of their intentionally intimate association, they have both contributed to and enabled the other’s dysfunctional descent into the quagmire of a radically destructive and anti-democratic paleoconservativism.

 

The Southern Baptist leader Russell Moore says that he plans to forego any personal or public association with the word evangelical until after the Presidential election, but any redemption of that moniker now seems impossible.  The evangelical church will from now on be hopelessly connected to the quest for raw political power. No doubt many of our fellow citizens will continue to leave the church and to eschew political party affiliation out of disgust. The devil has come calling and demands his due and the price is high indeed.

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ISIL and the Radicalized GOP: Allies in the War Against Reason and Human Rights

On Sunday President Obama gave a primetime national address that was obviously intended to counteract the now deeply rooted and divisive Republican narrative that portrays the President as incompetent and as doing nothing to protect us from ISIL.   The danger ISIL presents to America, as Lindsey Graham describes it, is apocalyptic in scale.  Without immediate, decisive, and massive  military action in the Levant, ISIL  will, he warns,  “open the gates of hell to spill out on the world”.  Graham urges us to be terrified over the prospect that soon ISIL will be “coming here” to kill us all.

Fortunately for America, Republicans comfort us, a phalanx of super-hero GOP presidential candidates stands ready to be our saviors.  Jeb Bush and Lindsey Graham propose to wage an all-out, no-holds-barred conventional war against ISIL in the Levant.  Donald Trump promises that he will “bomb the shit out of them” and that he will show no mercy as he calmly “takes out their families.”  Ted Cruz guarantees that he will obliterate ISIL by “making the [Arabian] sand glow.”  We can only hope that this was not a reference to the use of nuclear weapons.

None of these Republicans seem to have learned the lessons of Iraq and none are prepared to answer the obvious question, “And then what?”  Will we once again work our magic as we “stabilize” the region just like we did after the Iraq War? Neither are they ready to address the blatantly obvious reasons why carpet bombing ISIL controlled regions in the Levant is not an option. The President is right. We must all disabuse ourselves of the idea that there are simple solutions and immediate remedies to the complex problems that now confront us as a human race.

The President also reminded us on Sunday that, although ISIL is a cancerous and perverted ideology that has spread in some Muslim countries and that although ISIL is a very real and evolving international threat, we cannot allow this fight to be defined as a war between America and Islam.

So exactly what will this seemingly now inevitable war truly be about?  We must be crystal clear about the driving ideological forces that will fuel this war.  We must disabuse ourselves of the illusion that this new global conflict will ever be resolved solely on the battlefields of the Levant.  At its core, this will be a much larger war to determine whether a rational, humane, and egalitarian progressivism or an unreasonable, radicalized, violent, and inhumane form of devolutional regressivism will characterize and shape this post-modern century. This war will not be won by the use of military force alone. It will be, and has always been, a battle for the hearts and minds of people all across this globe.

Before America goes marching off to war in the Levant again it had better make up its mind about on which side of this conflict it stands.  Either we stand unequivocally united for human rights, personal freedom, equality, and dignity everywhere or we, along with ISIL, stand against these values everywhere and forever. Our historically schizophrenic and chaotic approach to the Middle East must be abandoned. We must determine to never again be a self-serving supporter of despotic regimes in the region.  We must repent that we failed miserably when, in the interest of a false sense of regional stability, we declined to support the human rights revolution that is now referred to as the Arab Spring.  From that failure ISIS was born.

The 2016 Presidential campaign has laid the soul of the GOP  bare for all the world to see.  The inconvenient and unsettling truth is that America’s radicalized, corporatized and evangelized national Republican coalition is actually now best understood as  a strange bedfellow with ISIS in a global war to ensure that a reasonable and progressive egalitarianism does not thrive in any significant part of the postmodern world.

The greatest threat to America is not ISIL.  The greatest threat to our way of life is the threat of a fanatical and militant regressivism.  In this country, today’s radicalized, evangelized, and corporatized  GOP has not only deftly rallied all those who are intent on demolishing every hard-won guarantee for reproductive autonomy, sexual autonomy, workers’ rights, and equal access to healthcare.  These religious, political, and economic extremists have effectively carpet-bombed every major achievement of the various human rights movements empowered in the 1960’s, which were in every case inspired by the powerful visionary ideals of the Age of Reason.  Donald Trump’s slogan “Make America Great Again” not only appeals to the anger some harbor over a sense of lost privilege. His slogan is just another slick way of saying that the devolutionary goal of the ultraconservative right that now dominates the GOP is to return this culture to some mythical era when reason and human rights were irrelevant.

There is another twisted way in which ISIS and a radicalized GOP may serve each other’s purposes. If the goal of ISIL is to lure America into abandoning her proclaimed devotion to the basic human values of freedom, dignity, courage, and equality, a radicalized GOP in search of power may find in the agenda and actions of ISIL a perverted justification for doing just that.

If ISIS is an existential threat to America, its greatest weapon is fear.  We must not, out of fear, abandon our absolute devotion to the universal human right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  Let us hope that wisdom and patience prevail and that America refuses to oblige ISIL, to fall a victim to fear, to fully embrace the ideology of regressivism, and to play the game by ISIL’s rules.

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An Open Appeal to the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship

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Twenty-five years ago many of us who were once upon a time a Southern Baptist had high hopes that the formation of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship would herald the birth of a new community where inclusive Baptist progressivism in America would flourish. In some ways that dream still inspires and influences that movement. For me, that grand vision immediately hit a wall in the 2001 decision to formally exclude faithful and loving Baptist gays from full inclusion in this new experiment in Baptist identity.

I understand all of the reasoning and politics behind that decision. I was there in Atlanta in 2001. I also believe that decision set the CBF on a wrongful course that has come with a high price. I knew that there would never be a home for me there as long as there could not be a home there for LGBTQ Baptists.

Today we who are no longer self-identify with that movement are aware of how fragile and vulnerable this experiment still is. We know how powerful and overwhelming Texas Baptists’ influence still is. We know how much good has been accomplished. We know that there is some wisdom in the argument that individual churches have to set the example and lead the way.

We also know that the CBF, as a corporate community, stumbled and got it all wrong when it failed to act prophetically and graciously in the face of the most pressing civil and human rights issue of this new century.

I believe that grace and forgiveness is yet available for the entire CBF family, though it is never wise to count on being able to appeal for grace on some distant, more convenient, future day. Some individual CBF member churches are today seeking and receiving these precious gifts of grace and forgiveness from the very one’s they once excluded. I encourage many others to follow.

In 2001 the opportunity to lead and be prophetic was lost. Now is a time repentance and an appeal for grace from the LGBTQ community. You may yet see the achievement of the dream and the vision many Baptists craved and hoped would be the lasting heritage of the CBF. This is now not something you can accomplish on your own. It is a gift you must be willing to ask for and receive from the very ones you once marginalized. In this we are all reminded that grace is something we all desperately need as well as something we all desperately need to give.

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Southern Baptists’ New Lost Cause

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I grew up in the sunlight of Baptist progressivism. I was raised in Southern Baptist mission churches in Dayton, Ohio. I was educated at a progressive Southern Baptist college and a liberal Southern Baptist Seminary. This particular liberal was appointed and endorsed to spend six years in Palestine as a Southern Baptist Representative (1978-1985). Yes, there once were, not so long ago, such realities.

The recent racially motivated massacre at Mother Emanuel, and the renewed battle over the Confederate flag, bring back a lot of painful memories. During the 1990s this Yankee pastored a Southern Baptist church that was within view of the South Carolina Capitol complex. In 1996, in that era’s uptick in black church burnings and racially motivated violence, I was among a group of ministers who publically supported then Governor David Beasley in his call to remove the Confederate battle flag from atop the Capitol dome in Columbia. Sadly, by that time most Southern Baptists were falling prey to a new hyper-conservativism that would put them on a collision course with progressive mainstream American values.

In the 1980’s and 1990’s Southern Baptists were overrun by a militant group of white male supremacists who, 35 years ago this coming August, formally joined the political right’s war on all of the human rights movements that blossomed in the 1960s. This was their new lost cause.

We may soon look back and recognize that SCOTUS’ decision on gay marriage was akin to the events that took place at Appomattox Courthouse 150 years ago. Some continuing battles with Confederate holdouts followed Lee’s surrender there, but the cause was lost, and all knew it.

Now that they are recognizing that they have lost this latest war, Southern Baptists’ leaders are intent on rewriting the historical narrative, just as much of the South was permitted to do, in the interests of “national unity,” after Appomattox. False and misleading Confederate themes of the desecration of state’s rights, Southern heritage, heroic stands against godlessness, and of being wrongfully persecuted and oppressed still warp our collective national memory, not to mention all of our social institutions. These days Southern Baptists are intent on establishing a new false narrative about having their religious freedoms violated. To allow them to do so would be a grave mistake.

Here is why we cannot allow the religious right to write the narrative that could torment us as a nation for our forseeable future. Yes, we progressives must remain gracious and magnanimous in this and other coming victories for basic civil and human rights. But we as a nation must not make the mistake that we did when we allowed the South to write our history books, to fly the Confederate flag over Southern capitols, to enact Jim Crowe laws with impunity, and to establish Confederate monuments across this nation for the purpose of glorifying that lost cause.

We cannot permit the religious right to circumvent the continuing enactment of laws guaranteeing LGBTQ rights that must include much more than the right for them to marry whomever they choose. We, as a nation, cannot be cowed by the religious right’s twisted claims that we who advocate for justice and equality for all of our citizens are the perpetrators of intolerance and bigotry.

Just as Southern Baptists were forced to take that first baby step toward racial justice by admitting that they were wrong, dead wrong, about slavery, segregation, and their racist heritage, they must be pressed to admit that they were wrong, dead wrong, about their relentless persecution of women and the LGBTQ community. Although we should be gracious and civil in the wake of this victory for gay rights, we cannot permit their continued bigotry to go unquestioned. There will be nothing benign or quaint about the religious right’s continuing demands for the denial of full civil and human rights to the LGBTQ community. We cannot and must not buy their contorted argument for a specious definition of religious freedom that serves as a justification for the denial of any human or civil right in America or across this globe.

Just as we should never have countenanced the idea that the Confederate battle flag represents state’s rights we should not countenance the suggestion that those who are waving their supremacist interpretation of the Bible is all about religious liberty. Yes, they are free to believe and teach whatever they want in the confines of their shrinking free-standing institutions. No one is going to force them to perform marriages for gays in their churches. They cannot be allowed, however, to continue to discriminate against gays in their remaining social service and educational institutions that are dependent on taxpayer funds. If they are allowed to do so, we will be repeating our tragic national mistake that permitted the imposition of the infamous Black Codes and the subsequent Jim Crowe laws that were designed to perpetuate the agenda of that mother of all lost causes.

If the religious right in America is wise they will sue for peace. They will repent and ask for a negotiated settlement. None of us want to see those socially beneficial institutions that were birthed by progressive 20th century Christian idealists dismantled. If those Baptists who were conceived in a Southern commitment to that first lost cause persist in their demands that all civil and human rights be suspended at the doors of their publically supported institutions, then the consequences will be their responsibility.

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Prominent Southern Baptist Leader Signs on to Promote “Secular” Campaign

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Southern Baptist Leader Signs on to Promote “Secular” Campaign

Danny Akin, President of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina, recently went on the record as endorsing Richard Dawkins’ Openly Secular Campaign. Akins seems to believe that he has found an ally in a group that is as equally “oppressed” as his is? As expected, Akin’s endorsement was not without flak from fellow Baptists.

At first glance it may appear that this Southern Baptist may be tossing an olive branch to this post-modern society. Is Akin hinting at a willingness to embrace the foundational tenants of the Enlightenment? Is he ready to acknowledge his denomination’s dismal record on human and civil rights in this society? Is he ready to affirm the contributions of liberals and progressives to American society?  I doubt it.  Here is why I am skeptical.

I begin with an awareness that this is not the first time a prominent Southern Baptist leader has entered into a formal relationship with a secular movement. Thirty-five years ago Southern Baptists’ leadership gleefully hitched their wagon to Ronald Reagan’s conservative coalition of secular neoconservatives and paleoconservatives. That resulting religious and secular coalition has since focused its collective resources on obstructing, nullifying, or subverting the achievements of every progressive rights movement birthed in the cultural crucible of the 1960s.

I suspect that this is what Akin is really concerned about. Southern Baptists are extremely anxious these days, and deservedly so. Their greatest fear, as they adjust to the mindset of being a minority, is that they will be treated just like they have historically treated many of the marginalized and disenfranchised in this society (blacks, women, gays, and others). What Southern Baptists now want is a protected status that will allow them, in the name of religious freedom, to continue to discriminate, not just in their churches, but also in their educational, social service, and charitable organizations and institutions that are dependent on federal and state licensing and funding.

Akin says in his video, “No one should be coerced when it comes to their particular religious beliefs, whether they are religious or not religious. They should have the freedom to express what they believe and they should be able to do so without hatred, without discrimination.”  I have a suspicion that what Akin is referencing here is the now-familiar Southern Baptist assertion that they are becoming a persecuted, disenfranchised, and discriminated against minority themselves.

I would be more inclined to entertain the possibility that Akin’s motives were not self-serving if he began with an apology and a request for forgiveness from all of those marginalized communities he and his denomination have discriminated against. I would be more inclined to give Akin the benefit of the doubt if he also offered to join a coalition that was focused on forwarding the civil and religious rights of all of those who are marginalized and disenfranchised in this society, including those of the LGBTQ community.

I have some reservations about Dawkins as well. One has to do with semantics. Although I can agree with some of Dawkins complaints about the reality of discrimination against atheists in this society, I do have to wonder about the choice of his movement’s moniker. It appears to me that the movement would be better served to be titled either the “Openly Nontheist Rights Campaign” or the “Openly Atheist Rights Campaign.” The term secular should not be so blithely limited to an association with words like atheist, agnostic, scientific, or freethinking.  This enlightened Baptist can be openly theistic and openly secular at the same time. We are, after all, citizens of a great secular democracy and we are all beneficiaries of the scientific revolution.  We are all secularists in this sense.  The idea that one has to be one or the other, secular or religious, is a false presumption.

In addition, there is a part of me that wonders if Dawkins is not in some ways as illiberal as the Southern Baptists Akin represents.  He and Akin have this much in common.  They are both fundamentalists.  They both start with the assumption that faith and science are irreconcilable enemies.  John Gray in his New Republic article says that Dawkins campaign is really one against religion and that Dawkin’s brand of atheism is its own kind of narrow religion. If Gray is right, Dawkins and Akin may have more in common than most suspect.

I am well aware that the atheist rights movement in America is seeking to find its footing and to settle on a productive strategy. As a student of rights movements in America I will be watching to see if the “Openly Secular Campaign” truly embraces the liberal values that proceed from the Enlightenment. I will be watching to see how this movement squares with the well-documented illiberality of the Southern Baptist Convention.

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