Although it won’t come off this way, this is me at my least self-righteous.
I grew up in the South. Specifically in Jacksonville, FL, which, in my youth, featured one of the largest Baptist Churches in the nation (It was the nineteenth most influential as of July 2006 and, according to Wikipedia, claims 28,000 congregants). I’ll be honest. I hate these people.
Being the biggest Baptist church in the very conservative, very Baptist city of Jacksonville gives you great influence. I don’t have any recollection of First Baptist ever sponsoring cult weeks, but all the other smaller Baptist churches of which I was aware had them and, I assumed, that if First Baptist made some decree it would have stopped. Not that the Baptists were the only offenders in the “considering-me-a-cultic-freak” sweepstakes. I was looked on as a child of hell by Methodists, Adventists, Assemblies of God, and Pentacostals, too. I had a friend who was a member of the Church of the Nazarene who thought I was a cultist. Consider that, being looked down on religiously by a member of the Nazarenes.
My wife and my family don’t understand why I am so suspicious of the political right. In part, it is because I grew up in the shadow of First Baptist. It never occurred to me to think of it as a church. I’ve only ever thought of it as a business venture (and a profitable one, too). First Baptist had a complex of buildings in Downtown Jacksonville and every Sunday (the only day most of its congregants would be caught dead in that part of town, which was prodominantly black) they would go down there and snarl traffic. They had impressive musicals and, it was rumored, a bowling alley and a skating ring in the bowels of their church. While I was on my mission, they put a lighthouse atop their parking garage and turned it on. The metaphor learned by the locals actually living in the area was that the light of Christ will keep you up all night and the lighthouse, after some legal wrangling, was turned off. If there was ever a symbol for me of the great and abominable church, it was First Baptist.
The pastors hobnobbed with the leaders of the city. They clearly enjoyed their political influence. While Jimmy Swaggert and Jim Bakker were in the midst of having their scandals, I used to wonder what evils took place in the depths of that building. What silence the influence of their petitioners had bought. I held a special place of suspicion and ire in my heart for First Baptist, for being more successful than our church, for its members being honored while our members were considered dupes at best and demons at worst, for its being lauded when I believed that our church was at least as good and certainly much, much better. It was at this time that Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson were tying the religious right and the political right together. My hate for the religious right in my city being infinite, I could not abide the politics they endorsed either.
While I don’t see First Baptist as a force for evil anymore, I remain suspicious of Evangelical Christianity. Too many skirmishes in my youth occurred to convince me that they are interested in my welfare or, more pointedly, the welfare of my faith. The more President Bush spoke of God and Jesus, to my mind, the worse he got. The God and Jesus who loved him and helped him overcome in his life were, according to commonly held Evangelical belief, the God and Jesus who were going to thrust sinners down to hell and the worst sin was not believing in God in the manner prescribed by Evangelical belief. Bush, when he interacted with President Hinckley, shaking his hand and giving his a Presidential medal, very likely thought that the man in front of him was going to hell.
Of course, I can’t know that. I only know the climate in which I was raised and the way I was treated. Bush might have been that rare Evangelical who is more interested in living their own life as best as they can than attempting to force everyone else to live that life out of misplaced love or spite. I can’t say, but I continue to distrust the lot of them. It is a regret.
Which is why, one morning, when I was getting ready for Church, I was stunned to hear Focus on the Family on KSL Radio. Focus on the Family, as I am sure you all know, is a political action group, much like the moral majority, that attempts to influence lawmakers and laws. Specifically, it is a conservative think tank that focuses on social issues from an Evangelical Christian perspective. The founder of Focus on the Family is Dr. James Dobson, who believes that all Mormons are going to hell. The group his wife heads, the National Prayer of Prayer Task Force, will not allow Mormons to pray or direct prayers at activities sponsored by their events. Focus on the Family itself has sells books that call Mormonism unchristian. They don’t like us. Why are we giving them airtime on our flagship station?
Of course, they are buying the airtime; we aren’t giving it. Also, in some political ways, they are natural allies. Both the LDS Church and Focus on the Family are financial supporters of the World Alliance of Families. Further, both were on the same side of Prop 8. In some ways, the enemy of my enemy, while still my enemy, has similar goals, I guess. Nonetheless, I am troubled by our giving a louder voice to an organization that holds that the eradication of our way of life would be a good thing.
Which leads me to Prop 8 and Scott Eckern. Mr. Eckern was the artistic director at the California Musical Theater in Sacramento and he recently resigned over a $1000 donation he made to get Prop 8 passed. There has been a bit of backlash regarding that donation, including prominent gay writers refusing to allow their plays to be shown at his organization. When I first learned of the outrage regarding Mr. Eckern’s donation, I thought it was an overreaction. Mormons are, ultimately, harmless and guileless. Spend any time with a good number of them and you will realize it. But, then I began to think about the religious circumstances of my upbringing.
My deep suspicion of Evangelicals comes from a deep conviction, rightly or wrongly acquired, that they would rather I not exist. Or, if I must exist, that I would quietly convert to their viewpoint and get with the program. For gay folk, despite our assurances to the contrary, does it not appear to be the same? How do you separate the sinner and the sin, when the sinner uses the sin to define themselves? We don’t want you to disappear; we want you to give up the one thing in your life that you had to embrace in order to feel like a real person. I can see why that would be a source of anger.
It may well be that the Baptists of my youth had only my best interests at heart, but that didn’t lessen my impression of their hostility, nor did it mellow the intensity of my dislike. No-one enjoys being told something unpleasant or unwanted is for their own good. My anger, in my youth, made it hard for me to trust or relate to those I perceived as persecuting (or, at least, condescending to) me. So my friends tended to come from those skeptical of religion in general (probably another reason I am suspicious of the conservative movement). I kept my religion (to the best of my ability), but I kept my anger too.
I wish I knew the answer. I am deeply skeptical of the usefulness of anger. I wish talking to each other would provide understanding and compromise. But some of the positions we have drawn up are not adaptable to compromise at present and there is a world of hurt feeling and suspicion to be overcome. I don’t understand the decisions of the First Presidency, the Quorum of the Twelve, or the Lord regarding Prop 8, but I still trust them and their decisions. Nonetheless, I can’t say that the anger we are faced with in California and elsewhere is entirely unjustified.
I’ve had good Baptist friends, who have called me out for my irrational hatred of Baptists. I have a feeling that much of the ill will I encountered (and encounter) from the religious right comes from deep suspicion on both sides. In retrospect, I don’t know that there was any one thing that I can point to that justifies my early anger. I don’t even know why I came to dislike the First Baptist Church in particular (other, closer churches were a more frequent source of pointed questions and religiously motivated public snubbings). I guess that I just have to accept that I am crap as a judge of human character. The shorthands I use to distinguish and discriminate are too limited to provide me a map of the human heart or, at minimum, a good insight into my fellow Christians. I have a lot to repent for.
While I understand the occasional why of anger, I remain suspicious of its use. We too easily justify ourselves and our anger; we too slowly listen to the real grievances of others, especially those we have harmed in apparent justice. If God is our judge, if He is our advocate, if He is our avenger, I suppose His wrath might be just. Mine, I fear, never is.