Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Names and perception

A few weeks ago, I read a news story about the USA’s Southern Baptist Convention looking at possibly changing its name. Church leaders apparently thought that the name is “too regional” and is holding the church back.

I instantly read between the lines and thought that in the minds of Northerners—or anyone not in the South of the US—it conjured images of backward, intolerant hicks. That perception was reinforced in an unattributed and un-sourced line in the article published by the Associated Press: “Others outside of church leadership say the name has become a liability because it is too often associated with divisive, partisan politics.”

Yes, exactly. My own perception is of an intolerant, rigidly orthodox fundamentalist (they prefer “evangelical”) church that has often been my adversary. Like many Northerners, I also perceive it as inherently racist owing to the fact it was created by Southerners before the Civil War because they were unhappy with the Baptist church of the day being “neutral” on slavery.

It turns out, in 1995 the church adopted a resolution condemning its own racist past and apologising for having supported slavery. As a result, perhaps, membership among minorities, including African Americans, increased. However, total church membership in recent years has been declining, and that’s clearly the reason for the move to rebrand the church.

The church’s racist roots are not the only reason I didn’t like it: Their theology—and the political positions they took based on it—are diametrically opposed to my own. They are, of course, opposed to marriage equality and, further, believe that gay people can never be accepted. This is to be expected in a fundamentalist church. But they also reserve all leadership positions requiring ordination—especially minsters and deacons—for men only.

So, to me, they’re racist, sexist and homophobic. If all of that were contained within their church, I wouldn’t care very much; sure, I’d still think they were wrong, that their theology was deeply flawed and even stupid, but it would be none of my concern. However, their political activism changes the equation entirely.

Once any church crosses into the public sphere, they surrender their right to remain above criticism. If they’re free to state that their theology leads them to oppose marriage equality, for example, I’m equally entitled to say I think they’re wrong and that their theology is deeply flawed. If a church goes farther and argues for the revocation of all civil and human rights recognition for GLBT people, I will oppose them and call them what they are: Bigots.

Many rightwing Christians are now branding themselves as self-described victims, not because they are—they most emphatically are not—but because someone has dared to challenge them in the public square. To these people, any pushback, any criticism and any use of plain descriptive language is automatically an attack not on their political activism, but on their religious beliefs. They really need to get over themselves.

There’s a profound difference between holding/preaching a particular religious belief and trying to force obedience to that religious belief onto everyone else. They don’t get a free pass to try and suppress human and civil rights just because they say doing so represents their religious beliefs.

What this all boils down to is names and perception. The Southern Baptists believe—rightly—that what one is called helps to shape how one is viewed. That perception, in turn, then helps determine the success of one’s agenda, religious or political. Re-branding alone isn’t enough, nor is claiming victimhood where it doesn’t exist. Names may start perception but, ultimately, actions flesh them out. And that’s where the debate ought to be centred.

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