Throughout American history, religion has played an integral role in the contentious political debates about many controversial social issues, especially when civil rights are involved: birth control, workers’ rights, slavery, abortion, women’s rights, prohibition, and others…Religion often takes center stage in the cultural battles that divide our nation. Opponents of basic fairness and equality have frequently used the Bible to justify positions on various social issues, despite the fact that Biblical scholars and theologians disagree on the proper interpretation. The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) has often played a prominent role in these battles. The SBC has 15.9 million members in 41,000 churches, making it not only the nation’s largest Baptist organization (out of ten), but also the largest Protestant denomination in the U.S.[i] Dr. Richard Land, the President of SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, commented, "[w]e know and have been taught that the Bible condemns homosexuality as sin. Many of us can't even understand the practice and, honestly, would prefer not to even think about it much less speak out about it.”[ii] This is not the first time in American history that religious leaders used the Bible to devalue minorities and oppose equality.
In the 19th century, religious leaders frequently used the Bible to justify the institution of slavery. George Armstrong, an influential protestant, wrote The Christian Doctrine of Slavery, an 1857 book that defended the practice of slavery as acceptable in Christianity.[iii] Armstrong argued that slavery was not a “sin or offense”.[iv] He presented several arguments for this position including the fact that neither Jesus Christ nor his apostles taught that slave holding was a sin. Armstrong also argued that slaveholders were commonly welcomed in the church without comment or condemnation.[v] He used portions of the New Testament to justify this position, specifically, Ephesians 6:5-9, which promotes “servants to be obedient to masters.”[vi]
George Armstrong wasn’t alone in using the Bible to justify slavery. Various slavery proponents cited verses such as 1 Corinthians 7:21, Galatians 3:28, and 1 Timothy 1:10 to not only to justify slavery but also to condemn those who spoke out against it as un-Christian.[vii] Proslavery advocates espoused Paul’s message in Timothy 6:1-5. In it, Paul commands slaves to obey even non-Christian masters, to do otherwise is ungodly. Advocates of slavery used this verse to condemn abolitionists[viii]
The Old Testament also provided fuel to justify the institution of slavery. One example, the story of Ham’s curse, can be found in Genesis 9:25-27.[ix] According to the scripture, Noah placed a curse on Ham's son, requiring the descendants of Canaan be enslaved.[x] Particularly, the verse reads, "the lowest of slaves will he be to his brothers.” It furthers reads, “blessed be the Lord, the God of Shem! May Canaan be the slave of Shem. May God extend the territory of Japheth; may Japheth live in the tents of Shem and may Canaan be his slave."[xi] Slavery proponents further argued that Africans descended from Canaan, making it justifiable to enslave them.[xii] In fact, just before the Civil War, U.S. Senator James Henry Hammond (D-SC) said, "The doom of Ham has been branded on the form and features of his African descendants. The hand of fate has united his color and destiny. Man cannot separate what God hath joined.”[xiii] Opponents of abolition also used other verses to justify their stand including those that placed rules, restrictions, or guidance on slave holdings or dealings.[xiv] For example, Exodus 20:17, which includes the Ten Commandments, requires that one does not covet his neighbor's manservant or maidservant.[xv]
The Bible Argument, written in 1860 by Baptist minister Thornton Stringfellow, criticized abolitionist ministers who condemned slavery.[xvi] Using a passage from Genesis which describes Canaan as a servant, Stringfellow argued that "God decreed slavery."[xvii] Continuing with verses from Genesis, Stringfellow noted that slavery had existed since the beginning and "the Almighty incorporated it in the law."[xviii] Stringfellow further stated that Jesus Christ did not do away with slavery in the New Testament and "introduced no new moral principle which can work [slavery’s] destruction."[xix] Stringfellow cited letters written by Peter and Paul as found in Corinthians.[xx] Also, some religious leaders used Peter’s discussion of servants and masters as evidence of the sanction of slavery.[xxi] Other writings used similar arguments regarding the Biblical references to servants.[xxii]
Some religious organizations split because many of their members defended slavery.[xxiii] For example, the SBC was created after a disagreement between southern and northern Baptists over the Home Mission Society, the predominant Baptist organization of that era.[xxiv] The spilt occurred because many in the South opposed the Society’s refusal to appoint any missionaries who owned slaves.[xxv] The Home Mission Society refused to change its policy, so the pro-slavery forces started the SBC. The SBC apologized for its position on slavery in 1995, over 130 years after slavery officially ended.[xxvi] In its statement, the SBC offered an apology for “condoning and/or perpetuating individual and systemic racism in our lifetime."[xxvii] The organization sought repentance for "racism of which we have been guilty, whether consciously or unconsciously."[xxviii]
Segregationists made similar biblical arguments to oppose integration efforts in the 20th century.[xxix] They used Genesis 9:18-29 to make the case that God approves of segregation. These verses tell the story of the separation of people after the flood through division of the sons of Noah.[xxx] Additionally, the curse of Ham in Genesis, discussed above, was offered to justify segregation.[xxxi] Segregation supporters also used the Genesis story about the confusion of tongues at Babel (Genesis 11:1-9) to argue that God believes the races should be kept separate.[xxxii] Another frequently used Bible passage was Leviticus 19:19 which forbids a mixing of certain animals, plants, or fabrics.
Segregationists used "calls for a pure Israel," as found in Deuteronomy 21, to advocate for a racially separated society.[xxxiii] One segregationist, S.E. Rogers, argued that support for segregation was rooted in Christian love.[xxxiv] Other opponents of racial equality argued that the Gospels justified segregation. Just as Jesus Christ refused to associate with certain people, they too could refuse to associate with black people and not be considered un-Christian.[xxxv] Supporters of segregation used many other Biblical arguments to justify their arguments.[xxxvi]
Baptist concern over racial relations stayed strong even after formation of the SBC in 1845. Many Southern Baptists in the nineteenth century "legitimated and celebrated the domination of white Southerns over their black neighbors" according to Nancy Tatom Ammerman, a professor of Sociology of Religion at Boston University.[xxxvii] One Baptist newspaper in Virginia stated in 1866, "as for equality, either social or political, between the races, that cannot be, must not be…Let no man try to bring together what God has set so far asunder."[xxxviii] This was common throughout the south as Baptist papers spoke out against the Civil Rights Act of 1875.[xxxix] Leaders of the SBC in the 1940s and 1950s were more open to integration and improved racial relations, but those efforts found strong opposition. One individual remarked that if SBC did "not cease its sinister maneuvers against Southern traditions; we can repeal [the SBC} at the local level."[xl] Historians say he echoed the view of many in the South.[xli]
While some in the SBC applauded the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, which ruled “separate but equal” unconstitutional, many in the SBC decried the decision.[xlii] Wallie Amos Criswell, pastor of the Dallas First Baptist Church, the nation’s largest Southern Baptist congregation at that time, bitterly denounced the ruling, calling those who supported it “infidels”.[xliii] Two churches in Georgia required their pastor, who preached at both establishments, to leave the churches after he vocally supported the ruling.[xliv] Henry L. Lyons, who was elected president of the Alabama Baptist State Convention in 1955 and 1956, used his radio address to denounce the boycott of Montgomery buses and Martin Luther King Jr.[xlv] In 1961, Dr. King was invited to speak at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky after a group of professors heard him speak at a local church.[xlvi] Knowledge of King’s speech sent a ripple of outcry throughout the SBC.[xlvii] The outcry grew so loud that the school’s trustees and president issued a statement of regret for King's visit.[xlviii] Even after King’s death, many in the SBC remained critical of the civil rights leader, according to Andrew Manis writing for Baptist History and Heritage.[xlix] The statement in 1995 apologized for positions, statements, and stances taken by those in the SBC regarding segregation as well as slavery.[l]
Gays and Lesbians
While only extremists still use the Bible to condone racial oppression, many mainstream religious leaders use the Bible to justify their public denunciations of gays and lesbians. Rev. Pat Robertson, founder of the Christian Broadcasting Network and Regent University, warned that, "the acceptance of homosexuality is the last step in the decline of Gentile civilization."[li] Rev. Jerry Falwell, a prominent Baptist minister and founder of Liberty University, compared gays and lesbians to drug users and alcoholics. He stated that acceptance of being gay and lesbian as being normal poses a threat to American society.[lii] Dr. Richard Land, President of SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, has stated that being gay or lesbian is the result of being molested as a child.[liii] Probably the most outspoken and infamous religious leader condemning gays and lesbians is Rev. Fred Phelps, pastor of Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas. He says, "not only is homosexuality a sin, but anyone who supports fags is just as guilty as they are. You are both worthy of death (Romans 1:32)."[liv]
There are six Bible passages that are commonly used to condemn gays and lesbians.[lv] Many theologians and religious leaders specifically challenge the interpretations of the Bible passages that are used to condemn gay and lesbian people.
1. The Story of Sodom (Genesis 19:1-14)
Many religious leaders argue that God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah because of rampant and prideful homosexuality.[lvi] Rev. Mel White, a former key lieutenant for Jerry Falwell and founder of SoulForce (an organization that seeks to educate and promote tolerance, particularly in the religious community, on gay and lesbian issues) says that Ezekiel 16:48-49 enumerates the real sins of Sodom: pride, excess, and arrogance.[lvii] Rt. Rev. Peter Paul Jesep, auxiliary Bishop in the Eastern Orthodox Church, argues that the passage speaks to violence, not homosexuality, and the destruction came because the Sodomites attempted violence-notably against the angels.[lviii]
2. The Mosaic Codes (Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13)
The Mosaic Code found in Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 is commonly used to criticize gay and lesbian people.[lix] It states that if a man lies with another man as with a woman, it is an “abomination.”[lx] Regarding both scriptures used from Leviticus, Rev. White notes that these are holiness codes, which are a list of offensive items for people of a certain place and time.[lxi] He states that these codes were primarily written for the priests of Israel to set them over and above priests of other cultures.[lxii] Additionally, he adds use of the word “abomination,” when translated properly, describes something that might be tasteless or offensive, but not illegal or evil.[lxiii]
3. Paul’s Letter to the Romans (Romans 1:26-27)
In the New Testament, Romans 1:26-27 is often cited, primarily because it is thought to label acts by gays and lesbians as being against nature.[lxiv] Rev. Dr. Louis B. Smedes, former professor at the evangelical, non-denominational Fuller Theological Seminary, argues that Romans 1:26-27 is addressing priests and priestesses who had abandoned God and built temples honoring Aphrodite and similar ancient idols.[lxv] He says the purpose of these passages is to condemn these actors for turning away from God, not for having same-sex relations.[lxvi]
4. Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 6:9)
This verse is also used by those who condemn gays and lesbians because it is translated to include gays on a laundry list of individuals who cannot get into Heaven.[lxvii] See below as Rev. White discusses the problem with this interpretation along with that of Timothy 1:9-10.
5. Paul’s Letter to Timothy (1 Timothy: 9-10)
This verse states that the law is made for the lawless and includes gays among the lawless.[lxviii] Rev. Mel White says the reference to gays and lesbians in Timothy and Corinthians is due to a misinterpretation of the initial Greek words (malokois and arsenokoitai) used in those verses.[lxix] Noting the great disagreement among theologians regarding the meaning of these words, he argues the most accurate interpretation of malokois would be closer to boy prostitutes (common to that time).[lxx] Arsenokoitai is still highly debated and Rev. White notes that some scholars believe it refers to the male customers of the boy prostitutes.[lxxi] In fact, he notes, it wasn't until 1958 that arsenokoitai was translated to mean homosexual.[lxxii]
6. The Creation Story (Genesis 2:24-25)
Some religious leaders say the creation story ordains God’s intended natural order between men and women. They argue the creation story precludes gay marriage because God created the institution of marriage during creation of the world. They say this is reinforced in the New Testament by Jesus Christ in Mark 10:6-9.[lxxiii] Opponents of gay marriage say these verses also prove the purpose of marriage is produce children, thus gays and lesbians should not be allowed to marry.[lxxiv] Rev. White suggests that this story is more about the power of God and creation than it is about condemning homosexuality.[lxxv] The story shows God as the Creator who shaped humans.[lxxvi] He further notes that using this story to label gays and lesbians as “unnatural” ignores other relationships that do not lead to children such as couples who are unable to bear children or are too old.[lxxvii] He concludes that ultimately this is a story about “God’s power and presence in the universe and nothing about homosexuality as we understand it today.”[lxxviii]
A growing number of religious leaders are speaking out for love and understanding of gays and lesbians.
- Rev. Dennis Wiley, pastor at the Covenant Baptist Church in Washington D.C., states, “Jesus says nothing about the question of sexual orientation, but he does say a lot [about] loving one’s neighbor and how we should treat one’s neighbor.”[lxxix]
- Rev. Jerry Falter, a Presbyterian minister from West Virginia, says gay and lesbian Christians, "deserve full equality in the church and in society, for they are my brothers and sisters, people for whom Christ died.”[lxxx]
- United Methodist Minister and retired theology professor Rev. John B. Cobb Jr. captures the belief by many theologians supportive of gays and lesbians by saying, "there are more scriptural reasons to oppose homophobia than to oppose homosexuality.”[lxxxi]
- David Myers, a professor at Hope College, is co-author of “What God Has Joined Together? A Christian Case for Gay Marriage.“ He says Christians should support same-sex marriage, “[f]irst, because most Christians are eager to see families strengthened and marriage supported. Second, because we're followers of Jesus, who said a great deal about loving our neighbor, avoiding judgmentalism, and supporting those who are hurting and regarded as outcasts.”[lxxxii]
- Rev. Jimmy Creech, a former United Methodist minister, most aptly describes the evolution of theologians supporting gays and lesbians; "No longer can it be claimed that Judeo-Christian traditions and teachings clearly, consistently and irrefutably condemn ‘homosexuality’ as sinful and unnatural.[lxxxiii]
The SBC’s Record on Gay Rights
The SBC actively opposes basic fairness for gay and lesbian people. In fact, the organization has passed 13 resolutions aimed at marginalizing gays and lesbians from society and the church.[lxxxiv] It publishes many reports and documents that claim to tell stories of gays and lesbians who “changed” their sexual orientation.[lxxxv] In 1996, the SBC started a boycott of Walt Disney citing that it was “increasingly promoting immoral ideologies such as homosexuality”[lxxxvi] At its June 2005 meeting, SBC delegates voted to drop the boycott.[lxxxvii] Financial analysts report that the boycott had little impact on Disney’s finances. Critics of ending the boycott argue that Disney has not changed its stance on gay and lesbian issues; however, the SBC maintains that it “communicated effectively our displeasure.”[lxxxviii]
The issue of faith and sexual orientation caused conflict among churches in the SBC in 2001.[lxxxix] It began when two churches in the Atlanta Baptist Association accepted gay ministers and deacons.[xc] The Georgia Baptist Convention removed the churches from its rolls in 1999.[xci] The final showdown occurred in 2001 when the Atlanta Baptist Association, after refusing to remove the churches in prior votes, told the churches to change their policies towards gay and lesbians or lose their membership.[xcii] This occurred while the SBC had cut off funding to the churches.[xciii] Despite this pressure, the two churches maintained their policies and left the organizations.[xciv] SBC has also been a leading proponent of an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would ban civil marriage equality.[xcv]
Dr. Richard Land, President of SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission and the current president of SBC, effectively sums up the convention’s position on this issue, "[t]he homosexual activists are out to normalize and affirm their lifestyle and to marginalize those of us who believe it's unnatural and unholy. When we get attacked, we fight back. They want a war for the high ground of this culture, they got it, and we intend to win it."[xcvi] Charles Warford, a retired Southern Baptist pastor says, "I think it's very unfortunate that homophobia is still very much promoted in the Southern Baptist Convention through publications and other means.[xcvii]
This report is not intended to hold the religious leaders of today accountable for their church’s history. However, we think it is important to see how the Bible has been historically misused by some extremist religious leaders to discriminate and isolate certain segments of American society. Too many religious institutions such as the SBC have used the Bible as a vehicle for trying to marginalize minorities and derail efforts to provide equality and basic fairness. No mainstream theologian or religious leader today would use the Bible to justify slavery or segregation, but unfortunately many still use it to condemn gays and lesbians and deny them equal rights. One day, most people will look back, as they did with slavery and segregation, to see how the Bible was misused to isolate one segment of society. They will understand that the Christian message is one of love and acceptance for all people, including gays and lesbians, who have been created in God’s image. Maybe one day in the future, the SBC will even pass a resolution apologizing for its efforts to marginalize gay and lesbian people. After all, history has a way of repeating itself.
[vii] J. Albert Harrill. “The Use of the New Testament in the American Slave Controversy: A Case History in the Hermeneutical Tension between Biblical Criticism and Christian Moral Debate.” Religion and American Culture. Vol. 10 No. 2. Summer 2000. 170.
[xxiii] Robert A. Baker. “Southern Baptist Beginnings.” Baptist History & Heritage Website. Available from http://www.baptisthistory.org/sbaptistbeginnings.htm.
[xlii] Andrew M. Manis. "Dying from the neck up: Southern Baptist resistance to the civil rights movement." Baptist History and Heritage. Available from http://www.findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0NXG/is_1_34/ai_94160905. Winter 1999.
[lxxix] Katharine Volin. “With Open Arms.” Washington Blade.com. Available from http://www.washblade.com/2005/7-29/locallife/cover/. July 29 2005.
[lxxxv] SBC. “Homosexuality: Your Questions Answered.” Available from http://www.sbc.net/redirect.asp?url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww%2Efaithandfamily%2Ecom%2Fpartner%2FArticle%5FDisplay%5FPage%2F0%2C%2CPTID313086%7CCHID590694%7CCIID2036152%2C00%2Ehtml&key=Homosexuality&title=Homosexuality%3A+Your+Questions+Answered+%2D+For+Faith+%26+Family+%2D+Home&ndx=SBC%2C+IMB%2C+NAMB%2C+ANNUITY%2C+LIFEWAY%2C+WMU%2C+ERLC%2C+SEMINARIES. 2005.
[lxxxvi] Dwayne Hastings. “SBC homosexuality stance unchanged; media reports wrong.” Available from http://www.bpnews.net/bpnews.asp?ID=21100. June 28 2005.