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Commentary: Gay marriage sermon isn't surprising

The marquee outside a church in Wilmington, N.C., last week made it clear how godly folk were expected to vote on a proposed constitutional ban against same-sex marriage and civil unions: “A true marriage is male and female and God.”

Voters, as they entered the precinct polling station at the Devon Park United Methodist Church, could hardly miss the message from up high.

Sixty-one percent of those voting in North Carolina’s election Tuesday approved the ban, heeding religious and political leaders who insisted gay marriage is an affront to Christianity and, somehow, a threat to heterosexual marriage. The iconic evangelist Billy Graham took out a full-page ad in 14 of the state’s newspapers, saying, “The Bible is clear. God’s definition of marriage is between a man and a woman.”

In 2008, after another campaign framed in biblical terms, Florida voters approved a similar ban on gay marriage, the so-called Florida Marriage Protection Amendment. As one West Kendall minister told The Herald, “We’re here to defend marriage according to what the Lord and Bible described from the beginning.”

Southerners heard such stuff a generation before, in a slightly different context.

It’s jarring to modern sensitivities, but racial bigotry was once defended in religious terms (and with a hell of lot more fervor than these contemporary attacks on gay marriage) by Old South politicians, judges and preachers. They too quoted obscure passages in the Old Testament, except back then it was to justify segregated schools and public accommodations and laws against interracial marriage.

In a 1955 opinion upholding Jim Crow laws, the Florida Supreme Court cast segregation as a divine construct. “When God created man, he allotted each race to his own continent according to color.” (Native Americans might have wondered what happened to their allotment.)

In a famous 1956 address to fellow southern religious leaders, Texas preacher W.A. Criswell, pastor of the largest church in the Southern Baptist Convention, attacked the Supreme Court’s landmark school desegregation decision two years before as “idiocy” and “foolishness” and “a denial of all that we believe in.”

Another notable Baptist leader, the Rev. James F. Burks of Norfolk, similarly warned that integration (not much more than a legal theory in the 1950s South) was an abomination against the “plain truth of the word of God” and would bring on the very apocalypse. Burks warned, “Man, in overstepping the boundary lines God has drawn, has taken another step in the direction of inviting the Judgment of Almighty God. This step of racial integration is but another stepping stone toward the gross immorality and lawlessness that will be characteristic of the last days.”

A leading Miami minister, Henry Louttit, the Episcopal bishop of South Florida, warned that only “sincere but deluded folk” would use scripture to back up their belief in segregation. But the Old South had damn few like Rev. Louttit in the pulpit.

School segregation persisted for years after Brown V. Education, with the acquiescence of too many southern preachers, even as the civil rights movement evolved into the great moral question of their era. It’s plain now, looking back, that as religious leaders they flubbed it.

It was something to witness, this religious rationalization of blatant, institutional bigotry. Even after the courts finally ordered an end to this nonsense, I saw preachers still trying to salvage what they could of their blessed segregated institutions.

I was a reporter working for a little daily newspaper in Clarksdale, Miss., on the January day in 1970 when U.S. District Judge William Keady ordered Clarksdale’s city schools, and 29 other similarly obstinate Mississippi school districts, to finally unify their dual school systems. And I watched in a kind of stunned disbelief as local religious institutions stood up for racism. Clarksdale’s Oakhurst Baptist Church set up an all-white “seg academy” in the church building in just three weeks. The public school board, meanwhile, allowed the church academy to loot books and desks and supplies from the public schools.

It was bigotry. It was theft. It was, according to the local ministers, exactly what God wanted. Mississippians, in 1970, still clung to the ethos espoused by their virulently racist U.S. Sen. Theodore Bilbo in the 1940s, that “miscegenation and amalgamation are sins of man in direct defiance with the will of God.” (I remember sitting in the office of the superintendent of the Clarksdale schools in 1970 as he lectured me about how God, as part of his divine plan to keep the races separate and unequal, had effected profound, evolutionary differences between the races. It was Darwin meets Bilbo meets crazy.)

Of course, God as a racial segregationist had been an easy transition from the religious axiom espoused in the previous century that God was cool with slavery. Slave-holders got their theological approbation from the Rev. Richard Furman, a Baptist leader and educator (Furman University was named in his honor) who delivered his Exposition of the Views of the Baptists Relative to the Coloured Population of the United States in 1838. Furman said, “The right of holding slaves is clearly established by the Holy Scriptures, both by precept and example. In the Old Testament, the Israelites were directed to purchase their bond-men and bond-maids of the heathen nations.”

In 1995, the Southern Baptist Convention, a little late, issued an apology for its pro-slavery, pro-segregationist, utterly racist past.

Racism, as an article of faith, may have gone out of fashion, but God’s self-designated spokespersons are still mining odd and confounding passages the Old Testament to rationalize bigotry. They have a different target, lately, but the language sounds awfully damn familiar.