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FIRST-PERSON: Revivalism, civil rights & same-sex ‘marriage’

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)–Forty years from now will our children celebrate Rosie O’Donnell as the Rosa Parks of the early 21st century?

After all, it is easy now to identify the heroes and villains of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. We all can agree that when Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of the bus, she was challenging a set of unjust and oppressive laws. Now the same-sex “marriage” movement is seeking to cast itself as the heirs of the civil rights movement. Ms. O’Donnell and her lesbian partner, along with scores of less famous same-sex couples, are “marrying” in San Francisco and across the country. The activists sing “We Shall Overcome” and cast their opponents as the heirs of George Wallace standing in the wedding chapel door. And, although they might never admit it, some evangelicals secretly fear they may be right. Are we on the wrong side of history?

The problem with the homosexual rights movement is not just that they don’t understand Christian Scripture. They don’t understand the civil rights movement either. As a groundbreaking recent book acknowledges, the theme song of the civil rights activists was as much “Just As I Am” as “We Shall Overcome.”

In “A Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow,” historian David Chappell argues that scholars have neglected the motivating force behind the success of the civil rights movement — evangelical Christianity. Chappell argues that activists like Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. appealed to the prophetic rhetoric of biblical revelation, not to the secularist hope for the triumph of progress. The movement energized black Americans not with liberation theology but with an orthodox revivalism that emphasized the image and impartiality of God. At the same time, Chappell argues, the civil rights movement was successful because it shamed segregationist church members with the very Gospel they claimed to believe.

As Chappell rightly notes, the Southern Baptist Convention condemned Jim Crow from the onset of the civil rights movement —- and by wide margins. Why? The arguments for racial justice were not based on any secular vision of “liberation.” The arguments were based on biblical concepts like personal regeneration and the Great Commission.

Even theological liberals like Southern Baptists Foy Valentine and Henlee Barnette used very conservative arguments as they called the churches to do the right thing on civil rights. If Jesus died for all people, they would argue, why do you discriminate on the basis of race? If you are sending Lottie Moon mission money for the evangelization of Africa, how can you deny black Christians membership in your church? These arguments changed the culture because they carried with them the sanctifying power of the oracles of God. Regenerate hearts ultimately melted before such arguments because in them they heard the voice of their Christ.

At the same time, Chappell points out how segregationist groups like the White Citizens’ Councils were not, as so often stereotyped, “fundamentalist” groups. Instead, these noxious clans were led by men who often attacked church leadership and even church attendance itself because they feared the way revivalism often led to a softening of racial hatred. In short, they were what contemporary evangelicals would call “the unchurched.”

It is this moral credibility that is missing from the same-sex marriage movement. The civil rights movement of Rosa Parks based its success on a shared memory of Christian conversionism. The homosexual rights movement of Rosie O’Donnell, by contrast, will only succeed by wiping out such memory. The homosexual liberationists not only contradict the biblical witness about the morality of “gay” sex, they ground their arguments in unbiblical concepts like biological determinism and the impossibility of sexual chastity for those tempted by same-sex attractions. Such arguments are confounded by the testimony of Scripture — and by the lyrics of every evangelical invitation hymn.

Conversionist Christianity also speaks to the current debate. But now it should inform the arguments of the traditionalists, not the liberationists. And perhaps this is what is missing from some religious right posturing on the same-sex “marriage” question so far. Our pulpits communicate well the “wrongness” of same-sex unions. But too often we sound like a “constituency” arguing for our rights to the status quo. We speak about what is at stake for “our” marriages and “our” families — and all that is true. But we should speak more about what is at stake for those tempted to follow the lie of homosexual liberation. The apostle Paul reveals to us the outcome: death (Romans 1:32). That truth should make our hands tremble and our eyes moisten.

With this the case, we should oppose same-sex “marriage” not just because we believe Romans 1, but also because we believe John 3:16. And the culture should see us as brokenhearted revivalists, not just outraged moralists. We shouldn’t see homosexuality simply as a threat to family values in the abstract. We should weep that it is also a Roman road to hell — for real people with faces, names, and church letters.

There’s a lot at stake here. We should doggedly fight the move toward redefining marriage — in our denominational meetings, in our state legislatures and in the halls of the Supreme Court. But, when all is said and done, let’s be ready for what genuine civil rights activists should always be prepared to do.

Let’s give an invitation.
Russell D. Moore is dean of the school of theology and senior vice president for academic administration at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky.

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  • Russell D. Moore