The Irish Times this week carried a column representing the views of fifty “evangelical” leaders who are urging a “no” vote in the marriage equality referendum. The question must be asked as to whether Jesus would have endorsed their opinions. Would Jesus have been a reactionary? Many church people have thought so.
Many Christians in the 18th and 19th Centuries thought he might have supported slavery. George Whitefield, the 18th Century cleric who is a major figure in evangelical history actually campaigned for the legalization of slavery in the state of Georgia because he believed it necessary for the economic success of the state. While the 19th Century abolitionist movement had strong evangelical roots, it also met strong opposition from Christians. Richard Furman, a Baptist leader in South Carolina in 1822 published an “Exposition of the Views of the Baptists Relative to the Coloured Population of the United States”; it was a defence of slavery that would be used up until the end of the American Civil War
Would Jesus have been a democrat? Not according to the 19th Century Methodist leader Jabez Bunting. When the question of adopting democratic procedures in church governance, Bunting was unequivocal in stating, “Methodism is as much opposed to democracy as to sin”. Bunting would have opposed even the idea that there should be a referendum in May
Would Jesus have thought racism as something his followers should accept? Many evangelical Christians in the United States actively embraced racist attitudes, seeing no incompatibility between discrimination and their faith. Bob Jones University refused to allow admission to African Americans until 1971. The Religious Right emerged through government interventions to remove charitable status from institutions that practiced segregation.
What about equality for women? Didn’t Jesus treat women as equals? Didn’t he step outside the norms of society in his interactions with women? There are conservative evangelicals who insist that whatever Jesus might have done, the whole Bible must be taken into consideration; verses from Genesis are adduced to argue woman is subordinate to man. Even Bible translations are vetted to ensure they comply with the theme of male dominance; the Southern Baptist Convention in the United States passed a resolution in June 2011 condemning a gender neutral New International Version of the Bible.
The Irish Times column this week is nothing new. Every step forward in human rights, every struggle for equality and dignity, has been opposed by many Christians. Scripture has been quoted in defence of oppression and degradation. Given that the church has supported slavery, autocracy, racism and sexism, is it surprising that it should be opposed to equality for gay and lesbian people?
In decades the attitudes of evangelicals who oppose equality will be seen as part of a tradition of discrimination, as alien to the 21st Century as the views of their predecessors in the tradition. Discussing the issue once with our medical student daughter, she responded, “what I don’t understand is why any of you think that anyone cares about what the church thinks”.
We are not just pursuing the path of discrimination; we are pursuing the path of irrelevance.