Saturday, April 19, 2008

The Churches and Counter-Cultural Witness? Florida's Anti-Gay Marriage Debate

As this week ends, I’m gathering some loose end of thought. One thread that particularly fascinates me is the attempt of Christian thinkers who are essentially apologists for neo-conservative political positions to co-opt the term “counter-cultural” for their theological and political viewpoint.

I critiqued the essay of United Methodist Bishop Timothy W. Whitaker entitled “The Church and Homosexuality” earlier in the week, precisely on this ground. In my view, Bishop Whitaker’s attempt to present the Methodist church’s stance on homosexuality as counter-cultural is not plausible.

To the contrary, in maintaining that the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian faith, and in upholding structures of discrimination against (openly) gay persons in the church and its institutions, the United Methodist Church is applying cultural norms, rather than bringing the gospel critically to bear on cultural practices. The United Methodist Church and other churches do not pay a price for standing with culture when it legitimates discrimination against LGBT people.

The truth is that the churches pay a price when they do stand against this vicious form of social oppression. They do so by losing donations and support, by incurring the wrath of right-wing think tanks with deep pockets and strong influence in the controlling sectors of American economic and political life.

I argued earlier this week, and continue to argue, that in standing with discriminatory cultural practices regarding gay human beings, the churches are standing on the wrong side of a movement of liberation as significant in human history as the previous movements to set slaves free, to end segregation and apartheid, and to accord women full human status. The moral arc of the universe bends to justice, and if the churches expect to earn the title “counter-cultural,” they must follow that arc towards justice for every group of people in the world, for all of those shoved away from the table and dehumanized due to innate characteristics such as race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and so on.

Having offered this analysis of Bishop Whitaker’s essay “The Church and Homosexuality,” I find it fascinating to read that the group attempting to use gay human beings and gay marriage as political footballs to bring right-wing voters to the polls in Florida in the coming elections have just rolled out a new website to support their effort. To be specific, I find it fascinating that the new website and press announcements about it show an extremely close connection between this campaign to use and vilify a group of human beings and churches in Florida.

In an article entitled “Florida Amendment Sponsors Roll Out New Campaign of Hate” on the Bilerico Project blog yesterday ( Waymon Hudson Notes the strong connections between churches in Florida and this campaign of hate:

The group behind the Florida ‘Marriage Amendment’ has launched a new website and media blitz. Not surprising, all of the press conferences announcing the effort took place at churches around the state. It seems they aren't even trying to hide the purely religious basis for the amendment that would not only ban gay marriage and enshrine discrimination in the state constitution, but also take away domestic partnerships and other important rights and benefits.

As Hudson notes, “With links to ‘sample sermons for preachers’, ‘church action plans’, and ‘God's design’, it [the website] reads like a church bulletin instead of a substantive effort to pass legislation . . . . This is religious-based bigotry, pure and simple.”

I find it astonishing to read that, in announcing the new website, Rev. Hayes Wicker, a Southern Baptist minister, stated to the press, “This is a tremendous social crisis, greater even than the issue of slavery.”

This is a tremendous social crisis, greater even than the issue of slavery: opposing gay marriage is a social crisis equal to that faced by the churches when they upheld slavery!?

The mainstream white churches of the South defended slavery, though Rev. Wicker's comment seems to imply that they gave countercultural witness against slavery. Rev. Wicker seems to have forgotten that his own church, the Southern Baptist Church, was founded precisely because Baptists in the South wished to continue holding slaves.

Rev. Wicker seems not to remember that almost all white churches of the antebellum South defended slavery. How can opposing gay marriage be considered countercultural today, when the churches mounting that opposition are the same churches that once defended slavery?

There is something extremely dishonest in the way some Christians today are attempting to paint themselves as counter-cultural, in opposing gay rights and gay human beings. If Bishop Whitaker wants his United Methodist Church in Florida to fulfill John Wesley’s vision for the church—namely, that the church be an agent of healing for social wounds, of lifting up the downtrodden—it seems to me that United Methodists have much work to do in the state of Florida today, where gay human beings can be fired at the whim of employers simply because they are gay, where gay teens are being shot on the streets, and where many Christians are urging further social violence against gay people.

It would be refreshingly counter-cultural if the United Methodist Church in Florida used its Social Principles to counter this ugly form of social violence. It would be refreshing to see United Methodist institutions in Florida defying such indefensible prejudice by hiring and promoting openly gay employees skilled at addressing these issues and helping the church bring healing and redemption where there is such pain and violence.

For further reading about the co-opting of the term “counter-cultural” by churchmen today who essentially defend neo-conservative (and culturally entrenched) political and ethical norms, see “Politics of Methodist Appointment System” on the Deep Something blog at As the author of this posting, a Florida Methodist named John Masters, demonstrates, it is entirely possible for church authorities to use people of color or women in appointments that purport to be cross-cultural, but to use these appointments (and these minority groups) to uphold positions that are anything but counter-cultural.

And since this posting is continuing previous reflections about the United Methodist Church’s stance regarding gay and lesbian human beings, I would also like to recommend a posting by John Aravosis this week on America Blog, entitled “Would Hilary Quit an Anti-Gay Church? How About a Pro-Life Church?” Aravosis is commenting on the critique of Barack Obama that asks why he did not leave his church when Rev. Wright inveighed against racism in terms some critics regard as excessive.

As he notes, it is curious that no one has asked Hilary Clinton what she would do if a minister in her United Methodist Church upheld an anti-gay position—such as the position of the UMC Book of Discipline that the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian Faith. The article is at

Finally, I found Maura J. Casey’s op-ed piece entitled “Of Witches and the Wait for Justice” in the 13 April New York Times fascinating ( The article looks back on a period of American history in which many churches not merely opposed witchcraft, but supported the execution of witches (almost all of whom were women).

In particular, this essay focuses on the attempt of a mother and daughter, Debra and Addie Avery, to have their ancestor Mary Sanford, who was executed for witchcraft in 1662 in Connecticut (she had drunk wine and danced around a bonfire), exonerated. To their surprise, their attempt to defend their ancestor, who was hanged at age 39, leaving a husband and five small children, has “taught them something, perhaps more than they wanted to know, about the mob mentality.”

After their move to exonerate their ancestor began to be discussed on the internet, the Averys found that commentators on various blogs fiercely opposed the attempt to examine the churches’ role in the witch-hunts of New England, and that they themselves were vilified for defending Mary Sanford. They learned, in short, that the mob mentality that justified the hanging of women for witchcraft remains alive and well in the 21st century in other forms.

The Averys are undeterred. As Addie Avery, who is fourteen, concludes, “There are worse things than mockery. Now, I’m not afraid to stand up when I see something wrong.” Though the attempt to exonerate Mary Sanford of witchcraft comes some 340 years after her execution, “finally someone is speaking up for Mary Sanford.”

And this gives me courage to keep speaking, even if no one today listens. Down the road, I believe, people will look back at this point in human history and ask how the Christian churches and Christian people could ever have demonstrated such savagery to LBGT people, and have believed that in hating and oppressing, they were doing the will of Christ.

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