05/09/2012 10:55 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Ron Brown and Me: How Old Time Religion Motivates a Coach's Crusade and My Campaign Against It

Maybe he's having second thoughts. Maybe my letter got some doubts going. Unlikely, but I can hope.

Whatever the reason, Ron Brown, assistant football coach of the Nebraska Cornhuskers and fiery, born-again preacher, backed out of the opportunity to make national headlines again this week. Citing a media frenzy, he declined to testify against a Fairness Ordinance up before the City Council in my adopted and beloved hometown of Lincoln, Neb.

Brown caused an uproar when he testified in Omaha in March, giving his address as the University of Nebraska's Memorial Stadium and more-or-less threatening the Council members with damnation if they passed a similar ordinance protecting LGBT minorities from housing and employment discrimination. They did.

Brown's appearance before the Omaha council was positively sedate compared with how he performs in front of his fellow fundamentalists. If you have time, check him out in this video clip, condemning "the culture" of freedom in America, calling for theocratic domination and skating close to the line of inciting violence. It's breathtaking.

But this week Brown, who rarely passes up a chance to preach, whether in classrooms, rightwing radio, cable TV or public hearings, sent a comparatively meek letter to the local paper. While I applaud the uncharacteristically tolerant sentiments Brown expresses in his letter, I was frankly disappointed that I did not get the chance to confront him before the City Council.

Just as Ron Brown believes that the Bible is an inerrant guide to life, I am convinced that he and his ilk are sadly deluded, and that their reactionary efforts to drag civilization back into the Dark Ages pose a danger to us all. But there is a particular irony in Brown's case, one that I tried to bring to his attention in my email. By choosing to interpret the Bible to suit his prejudice, Brown, an African American, is committing the same kind of bigotry that slavers and Jim Crow supporters engaged in for centuries.

A key point of my testimony to Lincoln's City Council was this: in every age and with every Scripture people interpret the messages to suit their needs, desires and fears. Indeed, it cannot be otherwise. The plain language of the commandment "Thou Shalt Not Kill," taken literally, would condemn everyone to starvation. We are not autotrophs. The cells of plants, fungi or animals must die that we may live.

Unconstrued, the words of Jesus in Matthew 16:28 would mean that every Christian after the first generation should have lost faith: "Verily I say unto you, There be some standing here, which shall not taste of death, till they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom." Interpretation makes it possible for Christianity to survive. But it also gives cover to evil.

Today, a handful of verses that refer to men "lying" with men form the basis for an anti-gay crusade. But until recently, Genesis 9 starred in Bible-based public policy debates. Genesis 9:18-27 tells the bizarre story of Noah going on a binge and waking up to find that his son Ham saw him naked while he was in a drunken stupor. Noah reacts by placing an eternal curse on his own grandson, making Ham's youngster Canaan a slave to Noah's other sons Shem and Japheth. Unless you interpret this as an allegory, it makes no sense. Yet, once you start interpreting, there's no limit. Indeed, generations of white Christians relied on the Curse of Ham to rationalize one of the great crimes of history: the enslavement of millions of Africans.

In his exhaustive study "Noah's Curse: The Biblical Justification of American Slavery," religious scholar Stephen R. Haynes writes of "the central role of Noah's curse in the antebellum proslavery argument." He quotes an 1836 tract as one of many instances:

It appears from Genesis IX, 25, 26, and 27, that when there was but one family on the face of the earth, a part of that family was doomed, by the father Noah, to become slaves to the others. That part was the posterity of Ham... (Haynes, pp. 70-71)

Such biblical justifications echoed through the halls of Congress for decades, only intensifying as the Civil War approached. Nor was the Supreme Court immune to the temptation to seek divine imprimatur for base cruelty.

Its ruling in the notorious Dred Scott case turns on the myth that proof of Noah's curse lay in the dark skin of Africans: "The unhappy black race," Chief Justice Roger Taney wrote on behalf of the court, was "separated from the white by indelible marks." Convinced that God was on his side, Taney went on to affirm that blacks were "beings of an inferior order... altogether unfit to associate with the white race ... and so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect."

Now, you may think that's ancient history. But the Curse of Ham has been invoked on the Senate floor during Ron Brown's lifetime. Again, from Haynes' study:

[I]n his contribution to a 534-hour Senate filibuster against the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia read ... Genesis 9:18-27 into the Congressional Record, remarking that "Noah apparently saw fit to discriminate against Ham's descendants in that he placed a curse upon Canaan."

Byrd later changed his mind, and all but a few bigots alive today would reject this stance. But how can we possibly say that pro-slavery Bible verses are wrong yet anti-gay verses are right? Without reference to some independent moral reasoning, we cannot.

Here is where science can help. Slavery, racism, anti-gay bigotry all spring from the same source: moral prejudice. Science has teased them apart from moral reasoning. Moral prejudices derive from our reflex responses of fear, disgust or anger.

We have a moral (and evolutionarily useful) prejudice against rats, and so we fix that label on people we believe to be sneaky and vicious. Moral prejudices also ignite xenophobia, homophobia and violence -- all qualities that might have given a survival edge to tribal peoples living in a lawless age but which lack any moral justification whatsoever in our time. Moral reasoning, on the other hand, begins with compassion and moves on to a systematic consideration of all available evidence.

Let's be honest: For many people, equal rights for gays is a brainer. But that's the point: To be a moral person, you must engage in the hard work of moral reasoning. It leads to a clear conclusion: Anti-gay bigotry is as unjust as racism. Can Scripture be helpful in the process? Sure, if it prompts reflection, displaces selfishness, and inspires humility, compassion, forgiveness and altruism.

To Mr. Brown, I say: If you stick with the path you are on, you must either accept all of the Bible's morally atrocious directives, including slavery, genocide and child-murder, or none of 'em. To do otherwise would be to act as a hypocrite. A better way remains open. You can join the millions of Christians who, remembering the words of Jesus in Matthew 7:1, unconditionally welcome their gay brothers and sisters: "Judge not, that ye be not judged."