05/20/2012 06:35 pm ET Updated Jul 20, 2012

Evangelicals and the Wrong Side of History

President Obama's affirmation of same sex marriage has raised evangelical ire. While polls indicate that Americans are evenly split over the issue, a multi-racial chorus of evangelicals has sang a sad song of dismay with the refrain "pro-gay marriage is anti-Christian".

What is really at stake in this recent dust up is the age old tension between religion and democracy in the United States. One way to read the history of the United States is to comprehend the way in which religion has been used to either expand or restict democracy.

There were conservative religious leaders that used the story of Ham and the Apostle Paul's admonisment for slaves to be obedient to their masters to justify chattel slavery. Harriet Tubman, Sojouner Truth, and a host of other Christians used the Bible to justify the inclusion of African Americans in the promise of American democracy.

While evangelicals used Bible verses to deny women the right to vote, a very religious Fredrick Douglass and the suffarge movement used the Bible to support the full enfranchisment of women. In solitary confinment on an Easter Weekend, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr responded to the criticism from conservative clergy who thought his voting rights campaign was ill-timed. Today, King's "Letter from a Brimingham Jail" is considered one of the greatest religious letters of the 20th century. Even though the evangelicals cast Roe v. Wade as Christian vs. anti-Christian, it has its origins in a pro-choice gathering of United Methodist Women in a Texas church basement.

hese facts reveal that the kind of religion that has served to strengthen American democracy has been the kind of religion that sought to expand democratic opprotunity for the historically 'othered' such as African Americans and women. Prophetic religion, particiularly the Christian form, has played key role in securing democracy's future by emphazing the worth and dignity of all citizens. It has done this with a liberal reading of Bible in tandem with the Constitution and Declaration of Independence.

What can be termed as "the religious precedent for democracy expansion" is the historical litmus test for the role of religion in democracy. Religion must be used to expand democracy opportunity not restrict it. The gay marriage debate is not about "religion" but about what kind of religion will prevail in the public discourse and policy. As pundits and politicians have courted if not cow-towed to conservative evangelical leaders, they have forgotten that Evangelicals tended to be on the wrong side of history.

For instance, the largest and most powerful evangelical denomination in the country, the Southern Baptist Convention, does not allow women to serve a pastors and through its lobbying arm has supported anti-choice, anti-gay marriage, and anti-immigrant agendas.

Rev. Billy Graham is another example of the evangelical tendency to lag behind in social progress. Rev. Graham, the undisputed leader of American evangelicalism for the past five decades, used a biblical argument to support the passage of North Carolina constitutional admendent banning gay marriage and any other form of consenting adult union, hetrosexual or otherwise. In the same manner, Graham refused to denouce segeration after a direct appeal from Dr. King in 1957.

According to historian Talyor Branch, Graham, "broke King's heart" by his refusal and his suggestion that King's course of action was not wise. For Graham, the quest for democratic opprotunity is trumped by his evangelical reading of scripture which is typical of American evangelicalism and has served to land the tradition consistently on the wrong side of history.

Conservative evangelical readings of scripture, if successful, would have undermined democractic expansion for black folks as it has been deteremintal to the democractic possibilites for queer folks. The thirty-one states that passed anti-gay marriage legislation did so under the cover of evangelical leadership. In these instances, the anti-gay marriage clergy have argued that gay marriage was anti-religious and that states had the right to impose restrictions, accordingly. The states rights and religious features of their position were also used to justify slavery and segregation.

As Rev. Dr. William Barber, Pastor of Greenleaf Christian Church and President of the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP has pointed out, the conservative evangelical coalition that put forth the admendment banning gay marriage in the state had a broader anti-democratic agenda.

Rev. Barber notes that the state's rights-religion formulation harkens back to the pre-civil rights era of the America. In North Carolina, the conservative evangelical coalition, vigorous, opposed the gains of the civil rights movement, women's movement, the New Deal, and the Great Society through draconian voter id bills, underfunding of public education, anti-reproductive choice initiatives, anti-union measures, anti-immigrant laws, and cuts to social programs.

Every state that has implemented anti-gay marriage legislation has also had an onslaught of similar anti-civil rights, anti-New Deal, and anti-Great Society legislative and budgetary actions. Evangelical leaders such as Rev. Tony Perkins, Gary Bauer, and Bishop Harry Jackson have voiced opposition to a woman's right to choose, birth control, and taxation on the wealthy while supporting activities that would curb voting rights. The zeitgist of the conservative evangelical movement is anti-democractic to its core. That spirit must never be allowed to prevail in public policy. The only place that religion has in public policy is that it must be used to expand democracy.