Leopard spots and sheep’s clothing



Two leaders of Southern Baptist Churches have recently justified their opposition to gay rights with misleading allusions to the struggle for racial equality. In April, Pastor J.D. Grear, speaking at the Southern Baptist Convention Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission’s Leadership Summit, said, “Preaching against homosexuality in our day is about as popular as preaching against slavery and racism in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1861.” A month later, Pastor David Price posted a commentary on the Southern Bapatist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission website which explained that anyone comparing the first openly gay NFL draftee, Michael Sam, to the first black major league baseball player, Jackie Robinson, has been deceived by Satan. Prince’s commentary goes on at length to describe how much hatred and opposition Robinson faced from the public at large.

Why these statements are so weird is because both preachers are clearly implying that Baptists are and always have been in favor of racial equality. Grear’s comments are the most explicit in that regard, but Price’s aren’t far behind. The problem is that those implications are absolute, unequivocal lies…

Southern Baptists were not preaching against slavery or racism in 1861. The Southern Baptist Convention split off from its northern branch 16 years previously over the very question of slavery and racial segregation, and the Southern Baptist Churches held onto their racist segregationist beliefs, fighting tooth and nail to keep them as official policy, for more than 100 years after.

Nor were they defending Jackie Robinson from his detractors in 1947. When Robinson became the first African-American in the majors in 1947, the Southern Baptist Convention still required member churches to be segregated. Blacks could be Southern Baptists, but they had to attend Blacks-only churches. In 1956, nine years after Jackie Robinson started playing for the majors, Pastor W.A. Criswell, pastor of Dallas First Baptist Church (who would go one to become President of the Convention years later) gave a fiery sermon at the South Caroline Baptist Evangelism Conference laying out the theological case for segregation in churches, in neighborhoods, in schools, and in all other walks of life. He said that churches which favored racial integration “are just as blasphemous and unbiblical as they can be.”

His one attempt at moderation was to admit that “In heaven we will all be together,” but he insisted that desegregation “this side of glory” was wrong.

Later that same week, Criswell addressed the South Carolina state legislature, and gave what is said to be virtually the same talk. For many years after that, Criswell often preached about the so-called Hamite Curse, an old white supremacist interpretation of Genesis 9:20-27 (that Africans and Native Americans are descendants of Noah’s son Ham, whose descendants were cursed to always be servants).

And he wasn’t alone in his denomination, by any means. By the 1960s his church, First Baptist of Dallas, Texas, was the largest Southern Baptist Church in the world, for instance. The inside of Dallas First Baptist is bigger than some professional sports arenas, and it was packed for multiple Sunday morning services every week.

Not every Southern Baptist member agreed, of course, and in 1964 there was an attempt to change the official policy on integrated churchs. The attempt failed: “Southern Baptists Shy Away from Church Integration.” The convention that year didn’t just reject an endorsement of racially integrated churches, it also voted down a statement suggesting members support laws guaranteeing “the rights of Negroes.”

In 1968 the Southern Baptist Convention finally passed a resolution calling for churches to be racially integrated, and calling on members to fight in favor of racial equality. Oddly enough, that was also the convention where Pastor Criswell, one of the church’s most famous segregationists, was elected President. Criswell gave a passionate sermon explaining his change of heart, though not actually apologizing for his previous statements.

Years later Criswell would start claiming that his racist remarks in the 50s and 60s had been distorted and taken out of context. Unfortunately for him, complete transcripts and recordings of several of the sermons prove otherwise. Not to mention a book on the topic he co-wrote and his church published in 1963 (but which they pulled from circulation in ’68).

There are reasons I know all of this. I was raised Southern Baptist, and at one point was being urged to go into the ministry. My paternal grandfather was a deacon at the little Southern Baptist Church in a small Colorado town where my parents first met. The same church, in 1968, sent my Grandfather as one of its delegates to the Southern Baptist Convention at which the racial integration resolution was finally adopted. Although grandpa never talked to me about any of the actions taken at the Convention, given how many times and how vehemently Grandpa disagreed with Dad’s racist remarks, I have a pretty good idea how Grandpa voted.

In 1980 I was part of an evangelical touring choir that performed for the “youth service” at First Baptist Church of Dallas. I met Pastor Criswell (extremely briefly), and later got to experience my second Sunday morning service in a true megachurch.

The Southern Baptist Convention was wrong to support slavery and racism from the early 1800s through the end of the Civil War. It was wrong of them to continue supporting and advocating racism and segregation for 105 years after the end of the Civil War. That they finally corrected that in 1968 doesn’t erase the years that they were in the wrong, and that they lent their support to politicians and others who opposed racial equality.

Trying, now, to claim they were in favor of racial equality previously is wrong and pathetic, but I suspect it is also a bit prophetic. They were wrong about racial equality, but they finally came around. They’re wrong about marriage equality, gay rights, and transgender rights. But I have hope that they’ll come around.

And if they do, I’ll bet you anything they’ll start insisting they were LGBT allies all along.


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About fontfolly

I've loved reading for as long as I can remember. I write fantasy, science fiction, mystery, and nonfiction. I used to publish an anthropomorphic sci-fi/space opera literary fanzine. I attend and work on the staff for several anthropormorphics, anime, and science fiction conventions. I live near Seattle with my wonderful husband, still completely amazed that he puts up with me at all.

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