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.