Obergefell, Jim Crow, & the South
Since the Obergefell decision a couple of weeks ago constitutionalizing same-sex marriage, fellow Southerners and I have heard some of the older folks around us expressing shock and dismay over the Supreme Court forcing liberal morality on us all. It was reliably reported to me that one friend’s elderly mother said that President Obama will regret lighting up the White House in the rainbow colors to celebrate the decision, because gays make up only four percent of the population.
Someone pointed out to my friend’s mama that a slight majority of Americans support same-sex marriage — and that even here in Louisiana, it’s supported by a majority of the state’s residents under the age of 50. Like it or not, this is the future. I told my own parents that they won’t live to see it, but I expect to see well before my own demise some of the churches in town performing gay weddings, because a majority of the people in the congregations will see no problem with it. That’s just the way things are now. I think a lot of conservative Christians, especially Southerners, live in a bubble, and don’t see how things have changed all around them.
When older church folks down South say that they cannot understand how Christians can approve of gay marriage, because the Bible clearly teaches against it, I get their point. But here’s the thing. Their generation of Southern Christians accepted racism, including apartheid in America, even though the Bible clearly teaches that treating people the way whites treated blacks back then is wrong. It was part of the Southern Way Of Life™, for which Christianity was the religious auxiliary providing a spiritual ideology of comfort, not challenge.
I’m not saying that gay marriage = segregation, so don’t even start with me on that. My point is simply that Christianity often serves not to shape the popular culture, but to baptize whatever the popular culture prefers to believe. This is not exactly news, I’ll grant you, but it’s fascinating to me to see it playing out among fellow Southerners on generations on either side of my own (I’m 48).
It is hard for people who weren’t raised in the South in a certain era to understand how white Christians could have believed the things they did about black people. Shoot, it’s hard for young white Southerners themselves to understand it. Born in 1967, I’m just old enough to remember the vestiges of the ideology of white supremacy, and how a lot of older people I grew up knowing and respecting as Christians were genuinely blind as bats when it came to race. The important point to keep in mind is that there was no apparent tension within themselves about it. I can’t know their minds, obviously, and most of them I knew are dead. But it seems to me that they simply ignored all the Biblical texts that challenged white supremacy, and weren’t aware of how much of the Bible they had to dismiss in order to justify what they wanted to believe about race. It simply never came up. They were aware that plenty of Christians outside the South judged their position as un-Christian, but they dismissed those Northerners as liberals who had no idea what they were talking about, and didn’t have to be taken seriously.
I mean, I can understand someone holding these views as a Christian, but having a bad conscience about it. We are all fallen, and all prone to bending our religion to fit what is easier to believe, or that suits our desires. In my observations from childhood, and in conversations I had when I was a young man, and didn’t have the sense to realize that race isn’t something you can easily discuss with anybody, anywhere (North or South), who doesn’t already agree with you, I recall a complete ease about racism among the older Christians I knew. It was just the way the world was. To them, the Biblical righteousness of their position on race relations was so plain to them that they did not see how anybody could in good conscience disagree.
I have seen the same thing playing out among Millennial Christians in the South. For many of them, the moral acceptability of gay sex and gay marriage is not even a question — and certainly not something to worry about in context of Christian thought and life. It is not even a matter of contention. Those who object are conservative bigots, period, end of story. What’s interesting to me is that the same confidence I observed in older churchgoing whites about race, despite the Bible’s clear teaching, I now observe in younger churchgoing whites about homosexuality, despite the Bible’s clear teaching.
I grew up in the South and was surrounded by cultural Christianity, but a lot of that was almost like playing Santa Claus. It was strictly a Sunday thing (if a thing at all) and it was subordinate to southern tradition. That’s one reason why Christianity didn’t power a stronger fight against racial discrimination in the region. Too much of it was status, tradition, networking, and passing time. The secondary headline in the Obergefell v. Hodges Supreme Court decision is that cultural Christianity is clearly terminal. It died in the big cities many years ago. Obergefell will help finish it off in the South. Most southerners will be just a hair slower on buying into gay marriage, but they’re modern people just the same.
That’s the gospel truth. The South may be Christ-haunted, but increasingly, we ain’t afraid of no ghosts. I wonder the extent to which we ever were. As Southern Baptist pastor Alan Cross writes in his book about racism, the South, and Evangelical Christianity, far too often in the pre-Civil Rights South, “Culture trumped Christ.” Still does.
So, when your Mammaw down South complains about all the young people in church who are all for the gays, you might remind her that her generation paved the way in teaching us all how to suspend Biblical moral teaching without worrying about it when it required something of us that we found difficult to accept.
(Again, I’m not going to post trollish comments saying, “How dare you compare gay marriage with segregation?!” I’m making a sociological and theological observation, not saying there are precisely equivalent. From an orthodox Christian point of view, both are social phenomena that are Biblically unwarranted, but nevertheless popular in their time and place, and therefore accepted uncritically by many Christians. There are, I’ll grant, Christians today and Christians of ages past who gave serious thought to these topics, and who came to their conclusions honestly, however mistaken those conclusions were. But that’s not most people, I think. Most of us decide what we want to believe, and arrange the facts to suit that preferred conclusion. Anyway, if you have a meaningful point to make on the comparison, I’ll publish it. But if you just want to huff and puff, do it offline, because I’m not going to approve those comments.)