Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Dan Savage on Using the Bible to Justify Bigotry: The Case of Segregation

I sometimes think people imagine I'm making things up, when I point out that not so long ago in American culture the bible was used to keep people of color "in their place" and to justify the subordination of black people to white people.  And so I'm intrigued (and encouraged) to see Dan Savage's splendid article at his blog site today, pointing out that using the bible to justify bigotry is nothing new in American culture.

Savage focuses specifically on the Civil Rights struggle of the 1950s and 1960s.  He notes that, in contrast to how Catholic leaders today deal with the civil rights struggle of LGBT persons, Catholic leaders at that point in American history fought for and not against (as today, in their approach to their gay brothers and sisters) the rights of an oppressed minority.  Archbishop Rummel, the archbishop of a leading Southern diocese, New Orleans, excommunicated a number of prominent Catholic opponents of integration.  

And, as Savage suggests, this produced a reaction among some Catholics of the New Orleans diocese who were adamantly certain that the bible mandates white supremacy, black subordination, and racial segregation.  Savage notes that a Time magazine article of April 1962 highlights the activities of Una Gaillot, whom Rummel eventually excommunicated when she refused to stop opposing his support for integration.  

As the Time article states, Gaillot based her opposition to integration on the bible.  Gaillot used the Genesis story of Abraham's wives Sarah and Hagar to argue that God opposes the mixing of white and black children in school, and that those promoting integration were doing the work of the devil.  Sarah offered her Egyptian slave Hagar to Abraham as a wife when Sarah was advanced in years and doubted that she could produce a son for Abraham.

But when Hagar proved fertile, Sarah turned against her and sent her packing: and don't you see, this is a parable of black-white relationships, and of the divinely ordained punishment uppity black folks who try to get out of their places inevitably receive in a holy society?  Plus, it establishes segregation, since Hagar and her son of color Ishmael were informed (in the truncated and highly selective bit of this story on which Gaillot bases her segregationist philosophy) that Ishmael could not be an heir on an equal footing with the "white" son Sarah eventually produced for Abraham, Isaac.

It all sounds far away and quaint, doesn't it?  But as Dan Savage points out, this far-fetched, dangerous exegesis was creating serious waves in a major American city with a Catholic majority in the 1960s, a mere half-century ago.  I myself remember these events as if they were yesterday, since, as I've noted on this blog, it was precisely the commitment of the Catholic church to racial healing (in contrast to the way almost all "white" churches in the South handled the Civil Rights struggle) that drew me to the Catholic church in that same decade.  

And I chose to go to college in New Orleans, where there was still a bitter aftermath of this struggle when I arrived at Loyola in the late 1960s.  The Una Gaillots of the Catholic culture of south Louisiana were still alive and kicking when I came to school there, still doing everything in their power to turn local Catholic churches into mean machines that kept black people in their place.

Dan Savage's interesting conclusion, as he compares then and now, the Catholic church in the American South in the 1960s with the Catholic church and its leaders today, vis-a-vis the LGBT struggle for justice and rights: 

In the 1960s the leaders of the Catholic church in the United States were out in front of the Catholic laity on the leading social justice issue of the day. Today the reverse is true: the Catholic hierarchy, led by a German-born priest, opposes civil equality for LGBT people while a broad and growing majority of the laity supports civil equality for LGBT people.

Savage is right.  And as a result, today the Catholic church does not attract young people inspired by the commitment of the church at an official level to human rights and to the struggle for justice for oppressed people everywhere in the world.  To the contrary: the younger Catholics of the John Paul II generation whom the current hierarchy are grooming to take over the church in the future are, to a great extent, actively opposed to gay and lesbian persons in their struggle for justice, and determined to keep women in the subordinate place that John Paul II's theology of the body mandates for them, in their connection to males, who are ordained to lead.  (I'm speaking here of the cadre of young true believers who identify themselves as JPII Catholics, and not the many younger Catholics who do support LGBT rights, but who do not receive the same welcome by the hierarchy that JPII Catholics receive.)

It's not a pretty picture.  And certainly not a heartening one.  And it's driven, deliberately and cynically, by Benedict and the bishops he and John Paul have appointed.  It's all about preserving their (male, pretend-heterosexist) clerical power and privilege and equating these with God's will for the entire church.  And the consequences for millions of Catholics who find this approach theologically dubious and morally outrageous be damned.

The graphic is Rudolf von Ems's illustration of the Sarah-Hagar-Isaac-Ishmael chronicle from his Weltchronik (1254) (the original is now at the New York Public Library).

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