I can’t recommend enough Mark Joseph Stern’s dismantling of Ross Douthat’s whiny, dishonest column about the collapse of the latest round of anti-gay bills in various state legislatures. So read it, and come back here, because I have a few thoughts on the broader discourse about religion, bigotry, and homophobia. As Stern points out, Douthat dismisses but doesn’t really grapple with the people who point out that laws allowing the refusal to serve people has a whiff of Jim Crow to it. (Though the two laws are not exactly analogous, since Jim Crow required many businesses and accommodations to segregate, whereas this would be a case-by-case thing. But the general principle is unavoidably similar.) Indeed, Douthat is simply resting his argument on the assumption that sexual orientation shouldn’t count as a protected class like race does. Stern: “At the core of Douthat’s argument is a tacit shrug that, well, obviously anti-gay discrimination isn’t as bad as racism: The Bible’s hostility toward gays is a good deal clearer than its distaste for blacks.” But, as he points out, the arguments in favor of racial discrimination in the 20th century were largely religious, as well. Indeed, growing up in rural West Texas in the 90s, I definitely heard people trot out breathless claims that racism had biblical origins and justifications. I hesitate to even repeat them, they are so gross and offensive, but suffice it to say, the arguments didn’t just disappear when Jim Crow did. They went underground.
(Luckily for me, this just had the effect of escalating both my distaste for racists and for religion and the way that a believer can manipulate religion to say whatever the hell they wanted to believe.)
I would argue that the crux of Douthat’s column is a deep fear that religious bigotry cannot survive being treated as bigotry. He argues:
What makes this response particularly instructive is that such bills have been seen, in the past, as a way for religious conservatives to negotiate surrender — to accept same-sex marriage’s inevitability while carving out protections for dissent. But now, apparently, the official line is that you bigots don’t get to negotiate anymore.
Which has a certain bracing logic. If your only goal is ensuring that support for traditional marriage diminishes as rapidly as possible, applying constant pressure to religious individuals and institutions will probably do the job. Already, my fellow Christians are divided over these issues, and we’ll be more divided the more pressure we face. The conjugal, male-female view of marriage is too theologically rooted to disappear, but its remaining adherents can be marginalized, set against one other, and encouraged to conform.
Yes, it’s unbelievably whiny, and despite his claims that he isn’t saying Christians are persecuted, that’s clearly what he’s saying: That gays are persecuting you by trying to hire you to do a job. And that everyone else is persecuting Christians by thinking bigotry is bigotry. Brian Beutler points out that this shows Douthat doesn’t have much confidence in the power of faith:
I agree that nobody should call this persecution, because that’s not what it is. Douthatseems to believe that it is persecution, but that the religious right brought it upon itself. And yet every act of oppression he foresees — diminished social acceptability, accountability for unlawful acts of discrimination — are only oppressive if you believe social toleration of religiously motivated actions, in all realms of life, is a necessary condition for the free practice of religion.
But that’s a simultaneously imperious and impoverished view of religious freedom. If your religious raison d’être grew murky when society became gay friendly, you should ask yourself why your faith is so vulnerable to changes in secular norms, and whether what you’re really fighting for isn’t something much more expansive than your personal religious liberty.
He’s taunting him, because this is all pretty funny, as butthurt usually is. I don’t think Beutler sincerely thinks that Douthat’s concern that religious bigotry can’t survive becoming unfashionable is factually inaccurate. Douthat is right about this much: The more unfashionable and distasteful anti-gay bigotry becomes, the more religious people will cut it out. Some will come up with theological rationalizations for their change of mind, which is probably the best solution. Some will simply recede to muttering about the gays behind closed doors as they slowly die off. Preaching homophobia from the pulpit will increasingly become taboo. It’s true that Douthat, as Beutler accuses, doesn’t have the confidence that the supposed rightness of religious bigotry will be enough to allow believers to hold fast in face of changing tides. That shows Douthat has little faith, but he does actually understand the real world in this.
I just want to point out that the reason that Douthat knows this is how it goes is because this is how it went down when it came to the end of Jim Crow and segregation. In the decades leading up to the Civil Rights Act, it was common for Christian preachers to rail from the pulpit about the evils of race-mixing. As Ian Milhiser explained, much to most of the justifications for segregation were religious in nature. The KKK, like many anti-gay groups now, held itself out primarily as a Christian organization dedicated to preserving the family. Brown v the Board of Education was largely battled out on religious grounds, with Christian groups starting private schools for the purpose of excluding black students on religious grounds. Indeed, this battle is how Jerry Falwell got his start, as Max Blumenthal explained with the old fart finally kicked off:
Falwell launched on the warpath against civil rights four years after the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision to desegregate public schools with a sermon titled “Segregation or Integration: Which?”
“If Chief Justice Warren and his associates had known God’s word and had desired to do the Lord’s will, I am quite confident that the 1954 decision would never have been made,” Falwell boomed from above his congregation in Lynchburg. “The facilities should be separate. When God has drawn a line of distinction, we should not attempt to cross that line.”
Falwell’s jeremiad continued: “The true Negro does not want integration…. He realizes his potential is far better among his own race.” Falwell went on to announce that integration “will destroy our race eventually. In one northern city,” he warned, “a pastor friend of mine tells me that a couple of opposite race live next door to his church as man and wife.”
Falwell started a Christian whites-only school in 1966. In 1971, the Supreme Court revoked the tax-exempt status of schools that claimed they needed racial segregation for religious reasons. Blumenthal again:
For Falwell and his allies, the true impetus for political action came when the Supreme Court ruled in Green v. Connally to revoke the tax-exempt status of racially discriminatory private schools in 1971. At about the same time, the Internal Revenue Service moved to revoke the tax-exempt status of Bob Jones University, which forbade interracial dating. (Blacks were denied entry until 1971.) Falwell was furious, complaining, “In some states it’s easier to open a massage parlor than to open a Christian school.”
Since then, a lot has changed. Like I said, I heard religious justifications for racism from people in the 90s, but these were things people uttered breathlessly behind closed doors, instead of bellowed from the pulpit. While there’s a lot of de facto segregation still, what used to be unthinkable in conservative Christian circles—racially mixed congregations, desegregated religious schools, acceptance of interracial marriage—have all become normal and accepted. What used to be a prime motivator for the religious right—resisting desegregation—has become a dirty secret of the past that they try to pretend never happened.
This is what Douthat clearly and openly fears will happen on the question of homophobia. He knows that churches will never be forced to marry gay couples. They aren’t forced to marry interracial couples now. But the cultural tides shifted in the wake of anti-discrimination legislation, and most churches that would have balked at marrying interracial couples 40 years ago wouldn’t bat an eye at doing it now. That’s why his hand-waving over how these situations are so different is so utterly dishonest. He knows the reason that the reason “remaining adherents” to a homophobic worldview “can be marginalized, set against one other, and encouraged to conform” is because that’s exactly what happened to the people who tried to hold fast to the notion that racism was also biblically mandated. He doesn’t even hide it, arguing, “Organizations and businesses that promoted the older definition of marriage would face constant procedural harassment, along the lines suggested by the mayors who battled with Chick-fil-A. And, eventually, religious schools and colleges would receive the same treatment as racist holdouts like Bob Jones University, losing access to public funds and seeing their tax-exempt status revoked.”
The question that he dances around and refuses to answer is why it was okay to apply cultural pressure that rewrote people’s supposedly deeply held religious beliefs then, but it’s not okay now. I suspect we’ll be waiting a long time if we ever want him to answer that.