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Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Southern Evangelicals and Interracial Marriage – Is Race the New Gay?

 ne Kjast

    Forget Same-Sex Marriage, it seems a lot of  Southern USA Evangelicals are still trying to grasp interracial marriage.  With world-wide trends towards marriage indicating that it is a social institution in general decline – no longer seen as essential for raising children or living in a committed relationship – potentially outmoded concepts of marriage might seemingly outlive marriage itself. 
    South Africa and the United States South, two of the world’s most racially controversial societies in the 20th Century, are again generating racial headlines.  It seems that certain ghosts of the past still haunt feelings of trust and acceptance between racial groups in these two regions.
    Last December (2011), despite decades of civil rights movements and legislation against racial discrimination, the Gulnare Freewill Baptist Church in Kentucky voted 9 to 6 to bar interracial  couples from becoming members or being used in worship services.  After a week of bad press, the church did reverse itself, but the damage was done.
    Huffington Post writer Melanie Coffee sums it up by asking, “So between you and me, how do you really feel about interracial couples? Are you OK with it as long as: A) It's not one of your children? B) It's not in your church C) They're not gay or D) The couple's happy?” (Coffee, see below).
    Nor is Gulnare Baptist unique.  Heavily influential in Fundamentalist circles, Bob Jones University, located in Greenville, South Carolina, did not allow interracial dating until March 2000, only dropping the rule after an embarrassing barrage of media attention criticizing then Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush’s decision to visit the campus.
    Nor are Anabaptist congregations necessarily much better.  Grace University in Omaha, an Evangelical Bible school with strong Anabaptist roots, has been criticized for a perceived preponderance of Bob Jones graduates in its staffing.  Appalachian Bible College, a Mennonite and Brethren-friendly institution, is also similarly dominated by two names – Bob Jones University and the equally conservative Dallas Theological Seminary, which has also quietly dealt with questions about its teachings and  perceived discomfort towards interracial relationships. 
     South Africa, which legalized same-sex marriage in Nov 2006, is now tackling the general social acceptance of interracial marriage – for both straights and gays.  The youth league for the Democratic Alliance, South Africa’s official opposition, has released a series of posters showing inter-racial couples and the tag-line, “In OUR future, you wouldn’t look twice.”  According to Statistics South Africa, the 2011 population estimates indicate that the post-apartheid nation is 79.5% African, 9% White and 9% Coloured or mixed ancestry.   Inter-racial marriages became legal in 1985. 
    In an open letter poster to the DA website 25 Jan 2012, Democratic Alliance Youth Federal Chairperson Mbali Ntuli explained the poster campaign, “…this poster speaks to the principle of tolerance … we live in a country full of people that have forgotten how to tolerate people that seemingly don’t see the world as they do. On the other spectrum … we are living in a country full of people that already do tolerate others [sic] views. This is the voice we should be encouraging to speak, that we should be giving a platform, that we should be reassuring that it is ok to not want to confine yourself to a socially constructed box, that it is ok because there are many of us who don’t fit neatly in those boxes either, many of us right here in the [Democratic Alliance]. That is who we need to be getting to believe in OUR vision for [South Africa],” (DA Youth website, see below).
    The campaign has not been without its critics – understandably, you have the conservatives who do not share the message's sensibilities towards inter-racial marriage (from both sides of the racial spectrum), church groups that are offended by the sexiness of the posters, and those who object to the fact that the dominant (male) figure is white and the subservient (female) is African.
Mbali Ntuli of the DA Youth
    Ntuli says of such criticism, “Let us not fall into the trap of forgetting what we were trying to do here and listening to people who saw something which may have ruffled their sensibilities a bit. As liberal democrats we must allow for everybody to have their say and have an opinion. We must also allow people the opportunity to state and argue as convincingly as they can their argument. They can have their lines and we must have ours and that is simply that. We will not feel ashamed or socially bullied by some people’s disapproval of a campaign that promotes what we believe in, which is tolerance. People may argue what they want, and we will defend that right just as we defend the rights of those who do not have to accept those arguments as valid or true. We will not defend people who try to make other people conform to their views by coercion. We will not defend people who try to force others to comply with their preferences when those preferences show intolerance, unkindness, lack of imagination, failure of sympathy, absence of understanding, ignorance of alternative interests and needs in the human experience and arrogance in believing theirs is the only acceptable way. We will not defend those who try to claim a monopoly on moral judgment and who try to decide on other’s behalf what is good for them,” (DA Youth, Ibid).
    Very quietly, Public Policy Polling (PPP) of Raleigh, NC, USA, polled probable Republican Party primary voters in Mississippi and Alabama in their attitudes towards evolution, immigration and inter-racial marriage.  Mississippi and Alabama tend to be Republican Party strongholds, the two-highest percentage states for the politically powerful Southern Baptist Evangelical denomination, and two states with difficult civil rights histories. 
    In Alabama, 68% of the respondents self-identified as Evangelical Christians.  As a state, 67% believed that Alabama’s controversial new immigration laws were a good thing, 22% thought they were a bad thing and 12% were undecided.  Regarding Evolution, 26% believed in Evolution, 73% did not or were unsure.  Interestingly, only 67% were certain that interracial marriage should be legal.
    PPP breaks down the Alabama results by those who identified as Evangelical.  Regarding the tough new anti-illegal immigration laws, 72% of Evangelicals felt they were good, versus only 53% of non-Evangelicals, and only 17% felt they were bad (versus 34 % of non-Evangelicals).
    Only 14% of Alabama Evangelicals planning to vote in the Republican primaries believed in Evolution, 86% either did not believe in it (74%) or were unsure.  Only 61% percent of Alabama’s Republican Evangelicals were certain that interracial marriage should legal, versus 80% of non-Evangelical Republican Primary voters.  Interestingly, fewer Evangelical Republicans in Alabama were unsure about Evolution than were unsure about interracial marriage.
    Mississippi’s self-identified Evangelical voters seemed to make up a similar percentage, a full 70% of probable Republican voters.  Statewide, probable Republican voters not believing in Evolution or unsure totaled 77% of the total.  Only 54% of Mississippi’s probable Republican voters felt that interracial marriage should be legal.  Wow.
(c) and provenance unattributed.
    Regarding differences between probably Republican voters who self-identify as Evangelical and those who do not, 85% did not believe in Evolution or were unsure (11%) (similar to Alabama) versus only 57% of non-Evangelical respondents.  Only 51% of Mississippi’s Evangelical Republican primary voters were certain that interracial marriage should be legal (10 points lower than in Alabama), versus 63% of non-Evangelical respondents.  So basically, up to half of the Southern Baptist-dominated Evangelical scene in Mississippi does not fully support interracial marriage.  Again, wow.
    So one could extrapolate that only 56%-or-so of the Southern Baptist-led establishment in the American South are truly comfortable with interracial relationships.  Only 2/3 of Southern Republican society overall is comfortable with the topic.  
    The same company, PPP, finds that in North Carolina, a state closely related to Mississippi and Alabama culturally, spiritually, geographically and politically, that 56% of North Carolinians supported a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage and that 36% were opposed to such limitations.  Interestingly, the differences between those who are unsure about or oppose interracial marriage and those who oppose same-sex marriage is almost within the Mississippi-Alabama poll’s margin-of-error (not including the ‘undecided’ in North Carolina).
    Also interesting is the knowledge that the United States South maintained its anti-interracial marriage laws as a bloc until 1967, roughly 100 years after the US Civil War, and only 18 years before South Africa repealed its restrictions.
   Practically speaking, as more and more traditional Anabaptists leave their home congregations for mainstream American Evangelical churches and attend schools staffed by faculty trained in Southern Baptist-oriented institutions, it will be good to be aware of how much of this culture we will accept without mentioning anything and how far we will go to bring Mennonite values of tolerance and diversity into our new spiritual homes.  That is of course, assuming that Mennonite and evangelical Mennonite churches are in fact statistically more accepting, tolerant and diverse.  The polls did not differentiate between Evangelicals and Anabaptists.
    Sociologically, one has to also wonder what the mission field impact is of this information – “Please share my Lord and Saviour, and my values, but stay away from my sons and daughters?”  If Ntuli’s campaigns catch on in South Africa – South Africa might have to start sending missionaries to Christians in the American South.  Many conservative Christians were apparently outraged when United States Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg urged Egypt to look beyond the US Constitution to something newer [and more pertinent?] such as the European Union’s Convention on Human Rights, Canada’s 1982 Charter of Rights and Freedoms or the South African Constitution.  Given the poll results from Mississippi and Alabama, she might just be leaving the obvious left unsaid.


3 comments:

  1. Sometimes when a post receives a number of International hits, one tries to reread the post with an eye towards alternative understandings... in this case, I should clarify three things: 1. I was not intending to link interracial marriage with same sex marriage. While many churches have opposed both definitions of marriage, many critics of same-sex marriage have had no problem with interracial marriage. 2. Mention of Grace University did not intend to say that the school opposes interracial marriage -- rather merely to indicate that Bob Jones, a school that has opposed interracial marriage, has an apparently strong theological influence at other schools such as Grace. 3. To the best of my knowledge, most Mennonite congregations and communities have welcomed interracial marriage and couples -- Mennonites have often had difficulty approving marriages between church members and non-church members, but have generally welcomed interracial marriages wherein both persons are members of the same church. This tolerance of interracial marriage extends to the international church bodies and on the mission field as well.

    ReplyDelete
  2. This is a popular post -- the image campaign from South Africa is apparently a powerful graphic -- it is not clear that DASO intended the campaign to go beyond the heterosexual image to the left, but other images have retained the DASO seal and Ntuli embraces the spirit of those images in her blogs... mentioning several other variants on the theme as well. Given the political situation and status of civil rights in both Sub-Saharan Africa and the United States' South, and the increasingly apparent similarities between the struggle for race-blind equality and non-gendered civil rights, I am following Ntuli's lead and retaining the dual-imaged graphic showing inter-racial couples of both sexual orientations. Sociologically-speaking, increasing numbers of scholars are linking the two civil rights movements together, attempting to learn from their similarities and dissimilarities.

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