05/21/2013 05:24 pm ET Updated Jul 21, 2013

Denying Church Rights to Women and Gays Is Just Like Race-Based Discrimination, Right?

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In the six months since the publication of "The Last Segregated Hour: The Memphis Kneel-Ins and the Campaign for Southern Church Desegregation" (Oxford, 2012), I have had the pleasure of discussing the book in a number of venues, including schools, churches and book clubs. People are genuinely fascinated by the episodes of nonviolent direct action popularly known as "kneel-ins," which between 1960 and 1965 were employed by young people seeking to integrate white churches in the South. A major claim of "The Last Segregated Hour" is that, despite the many creative explanations for excluding African-Americans and their white accomplices, spokespersons for segregated churches were engaged in a racist exercise of white power designed to prevent "race mixing" in one of the last places white people could confidently call their own.

Increasingly, my presentation of the kneel-in phenomenon has led readers of "The Last Segregated Hour" to consider contemporary analogies. Some have drawn parallels between excluded blacks in the 1960s and women and homosexuals who seek recognition as full members of their churches today. Naturally, those who have left congregations that neither ordain women nor allow them to exercise authority over men view kneel-in participants through the lens of their own experience of exclusion. Likewise, those engaged in the struggle to get mainline denominations to welcome gays and acknowledge their calls to ordained ministry relate to the stories of outsiders whom conservative Christians once fought to keep out of their pews.

Recently, as I prepared to discuss "The Last Segregated Hour" with a group of adults at my church, I decided I would address the analogy question when it arose, as I knew it would. What did I think, someone wanted to know: Aren't women and gays victims of exclusive interpretations of Christianity in the same way some blacks were in the 1960s? Aren't these really just three versions of the same story, with sexism or homophobia replacing racism as exemplar of the closed mind?

The question was asked, as it turned out, by someone who had every right to ask it -- a former member of the congregation at the center of "The Last Segregated Hour." Not only does this woman see her own exclusion from church leadership mirrored in the experiences of students who were banned from worship at the church in 1964, some of her unpleasant encounters around gender have been with churchmen who were on the wrong side of the kneel-in crisis 50 years ago. She expressed the parallels with eloquence, and I offered my own view, although I'm afraid it may have disappointed her.

For honesty compelled me to point out a fundamental dissymmetry between white Christians' refusal to admit African Americans to their churches in the 1960s and the practices of contemporary denominations that deny ordination to women and gays. The dissymmetry is to be found in the role played by the Bible in each case. Put simply, although white Christians tried desperately to find a solid biblical basis for segregation -- in the church or society generally -- they could not. With a single notable exception (the story of Jesus clearing the Temple of those who would defile sacred space with impious motives), Christians in mainline churches whose racial exclusivity was challenged by kneel-ins searched in vain for a biblical warrant for segregation of the races. This fact is particularly notable given how assiduously white Christians had applied the Bible in pro-slavery arguments during the middle decades of the 19th century.

Due to their failure to find a pro-segregation equivalent of the "curse of Ham," white Christians in the 1950s and '60s who wished to keep blacks out of their congregations adopted arguments that were neither biblical nor theological. Rather, they relied upon the desire to maintain tradition, the presence of long-established "Negro churches," and the purportedly un-spiritual motives of black visitors. In hindsight, it is easy to see that these arguments were poor veils for the racism that lay just beneath their surface. Had they contained any serious biblical component, in fact, this racism might have been harder to detect and white Christians' resistance to integration may have endured much longer.

Things are significantly different in churches today that deny full rights, as it were, to women and homosexuals. Undoubtedly, these positions are tied up to some extent with the sexism and homophobia that characterize the wider culture. But they are also supported by biblical texts that, on the surface at least, appear to teach that women should submit to men and that homosexual practices, if not homosexuals themselves, are fundamentally sinful. The biblical passages to which conservative Christians appeal on these issues can be -- and are -- interpreted differently in churches that do not limit leadership on the basis of gender or sexual orientation. But even those convinced that conservatives do not interpret the Bible correctly in these cases must concede that they do so consistently. Most of them, that is, apply to these passages the same principles of interpretation that guide their reading of other parts of the Bible.

Personally, I am convinced by those biblical interpreters who argue that the proof-texts for female submission and homosexual sinfulness are descriptive rather than prescriptive -- that is, they tell us more about the culture from which they emerged than about the eternal will of God. But the biblical dimensions of the arguments that underlie traditional positions on women and gays suggest that conservatives' minds will be changed -- if they can be changed -- not by charges that they are intolerant sexists and homophobes hiding behind scriptural proof texts, but that they have failed in their self-proclaimed mission of applying biblical truth to contemporary culture.