In or Out? Week 1 of Whatever Happened to the Church?

It was the Civil Rights movement that brought the Episcopal Church into political action for social justice. Before that, many politicians had been Episcopalians and there were activist clergy, but the Civil Rights movement prompted the national Church to take a role in protests. This was not a universally popular move – some people felt that the Church should focus on spirituality and leave politics to the politicians, while others, particularly whites living in the South, thought that it was better to allow integration to happen slowly.

John Hines,  Presiding Bishop from 1965 to 1974, was a formidable leader who took the Church where it had never been before, into the interface between Christian values and racism and poverty.When rioting broke out in many cities in 1967, Hines proposed a re-ordering of the Church’s financial priorities to provide money to address the deep inequalities in society.

To learn more about this, take a look at the wonderful on-line exhibit provided by the Archives of the Episcopal Church, The Church Awakens: African-Americans and the Struggle for Justice.

The Civil Rights movement changed American society. It made it far more aware of issues of (in)equality and gave hope to other groups who were denied equal status on the basis of some aspect of their self-identity – especially to women and gays and lesbians. There had long been feminists working to improve the status of women and since the 1950s there had been groups of gay people working for legal and social reform. But the foment of the 1960s gave a new impetus to both movements. In 1969 the patrons of a gay and trans* bar in New York, the Stonewall Inn, chose to resist when the bar was raided by police. This was an iconic moment which galvanized the nascent gay liberation movement.

Soon gay rights organizations were being formed and one year later the first Gay Pride marches were held in Los Angeles, Chicago and New York.

The changes happening in society were happening inside the church too. Particularly in the big cities, Episcopalians began to realize that they could not ignore the increasingly visible gay community. As early as 1964 the Diocese of New York declared its support for decriminalizing homosexual acts between consenting adults. (Most states had anti-homosexual statutes – as late as 1986 the Supreme Court upheld Georgia’s anti-sodomy law – a decision that wasn’t overturned until 2003.)

During the early 1970s, laws banning discrimination against gays were gradually put into effect in many cities and municipalities. One of these was Dade County in Florida, where Miami is located. This dismayed religious groups because not only did it legitimize homosexual behavior, but there was no exception for religious organizations. Evangelicals and Catholics combined to overturn the ordinance through a referendum. Vowing “Before I yield to this insidious attack on God and his laws… I will lead a crusade to stop it as this country has never seen before,” beauty queen and singer Anita Bryant led the charge.

Her campaign became national news. Bryant declared it a religious war, claiming, “This is not my battle, it’s God’s battle,” and “If homosexuality were the normal way, God would have made Adam and Bruce.” Gay people were presented as a threat to children and to families. Bryant and her allies even called the campaign “Save Our Children.” It was the first high-profile anti-gay political battle and its tactics proved so successful that they were picked up by other campaigns. Conservative activists began to see gay rights as an issue with the potential to help position the Republican Party as the party of “the family’ and to draw not only Evangelicals (the country was in the middle of an evangelical revival) but also Catholic, Jewish and working-class voters.

Why was/is homosexuality such a charged subject? Why does it have the ability to rouse such strong feelings? Because it brings together purity, patriarchy and politics.

Every culture has purity codes, but these are learned so early in our lives that they seem like nothing more than common sense. To do something which contravenes the hidden purity codes makes people have a “yuck” response. During times of rapid social change, purity codes change and so some people start doing things which other people find seriously yucky. For example, “mixed” marriage – marriage between a white person and a black person was for a long considered disgusting in this country. Sexual relations between two people of the same sex is against the purity code that was taught to most people born prior to about 1980. So it seems “dirty” and “bad” and “yucky”. At the same time of course we have a fascination for what other people do in bed so the dirtiness of homosexuality is actually quite alluring and therefore alarming and disturbing.

Gay and lesbian people challenge the picture of the ideal family as being one man with a wife and two children. Homosexuality topples the power of the white male who rules his home and his family and his corporation. This picture is beginning to seem quite unfamiliar to some of us, but think of the families of 1950s sitcoms – the Cleavers of ‘Leave it to Beaver’, for example – to refresh your mind. It topples it by challenging the monoculture of the white heterosexual male being in charge of everything. The model of society which we call patriarchy is no longer the only way to do things. Of course, this was also being challenged by feminists at the same time.

For people who want(ed) to hold on to the old ways of doing social structure and the old ways of thinking about purity, homosexuality was anathema. Politicians and anti-gay pundits were able to harness this by declaring long and loud that homosexuality was everything the American family was not, and by claiming that homosexuals were out to seduce children (“Homosexuals cannot reproduce so they must recruit,” said Anita Bryant.) Homosexuals were portrayed as dirty people who lived in the shadows, purposely flouting God’s laws. It helped that most homosexuals were closeted so very few heterosexual people knew they had ever met one.

In a system with two main political parties, the way for politicians to gain power is to get people to vote, and to get them to vote for you – or at least against the other party. The best way to motivate people to vote is to give them cause for alarm. Homosexuality proved a wonderful way to mobilize people. It was possible to suggest that homosexuals were the cause of almost any discontent, or would be if they were not stopped now.

In the late 1970s, conservatives were a prime audience for a new message for empowerment. Many felt that their values and lifestyle had been lost in the social upheavals of the last twenty years. They were easily recruited into the Moral Majority, an organization which provided a way for the New Right to gain the allegiance of millions of conservative Christians who had previously been uninterested in national politics. The appeal of political action lay in its promise to restore America to an earlier, happier time – one that had disappeared because of the secular corruption of the contemporary world. That secular corruption was embodied in the presence of homosexual people who were demanding “special rights” of non-discrimination. All the resentment and frustration of those who felt that they had been left behind could be rhetorically linked to homosexuality. And so politicians and preachers scapegoated homosexuals in order to build support.

As Jerry Falwell, leader of the Moral Majority, claimed in a fund-raising letter, “Last Wednesday I was threatened by a mob of homosexuals. This convinced me that our nation has become a modern-day Sodom and Gomorrah….. Please send your $35 gift today… Please pray also that God will protect me as I serve Christ.” (20)

Thoughts for discussion:

  • When have you had an experience of scapegoating? What caused it?
  • How and why do groups of people become ‘outsiders’? What can we do about it?
  • How do you see the changing culture in society reflected in the changes in the Episcopal Church and vice versa?




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