Modern historians tend to couch the Civil War in terms of economic factors. However, I think they overlook the deeply felt religious war that preceded the fighting. The unifying “body of Christ” that could have held different geographic regions together was no longer united.
Between 1838 and 1944 the Presbyterian, Baptist, and Methodist churches all split over the issue of slavery. Both proponents and opponents of slavery used scripture and interpretation of the core of Christianity as the basis for their position. This issue was the greatest threat to protestant Christianity in the history of the country.
Although it is tempting to claim that the supporters of slavery were justifying their position, they actually had a stronger case. They argued that slavery was mentioned but not condemned in the Bible. There was even New Testament scripture admonishing slaves to obey their masters and to do so cheerfully. They had a God-given charge to protect the institutions established by God.
All that the opponents of slavery could claim was that slavery was abhorrent to anyone understanding the principles of Christianity. They claimed that an understanding of how God instructs us to treat each other has to trump textual references. They had a God-given charge to stand up for the oppressed.
This was not a debate over interpretation of certain passages, but rather over the nature of God and Christianity. After the abolishment of slavery and the gradual societal disapproval of attitudes of racial superiority, the division of the church over slavery became moot. But the base difference over the understanding of God did not go away. It simply didn’t have a “cause” to highlight it.
Now it does.
Again the church finds itself in debate over the nature of God and Christianity. And not incidentally, it is the same players taking the same sides.
On one hand, there is the camp of Christianity that claims that literal interpretation of scripture requires that they condemn homosexuality and fight against it. They have a God-given charge to protect the institutions set up by God and oppose evil. This is the same camp that championed slavery led, to some extent, by the Southern Baptist Church.
On the other hand, there is the camp of Christianity that claims that an understanding of Christ demands that you protect the oppressed and show God’s unconditional love. They have a God-given charge to champion justice and equality. These are the same folk who led the religious opposition to slavery, the Unitarians, Quakers, United Church of Christ, and Episcopalians.
A few years ago I took a look at the situation and realized that the mainline protestant denominations (Methodist, Episcopal, Presbyterian, Lutheran, and Congregational) all had one single issue that was dividing them internally, how the homosexual person fit into the church and society. I started making a rash prediction that within 10 years they would all split.
In the past few years this prediction has began to play out. The United Church of Christ (Congregational, Disciples of Christ, and a few other smaller components) has taken a strongly pro-gay stance, going so far as to endorse gay marriage and to pledge to work for equality. Consequently they lost a few member churches. However, it doesn’t look like a schism is likely.
The Episcopal Church voted to confirm the election of a gay man as Bishop of New Hampshire. Some churches have left the American fellowship and placed themselves under control of other foreign branches of the Anglican Church. Also within the Episcopal Church a group of dissident churches has established itself and a split is almost inevitable. This issue may actually go further than the Episcopal Church and result in a split of the 72 million member Anglican fellowship.
The Methodist, Lutheran, and Presbyterian churches are all trying their hardest to avoid conflict and trying to appease everyone. The result sounds something like “Homosexuality is sin, but maybe it isn’t. And gay people are both welcome and opposed in our pulpits.” Perhaps they’ll find a way to work things out, or maybe they can hold together until homosexuality as an issue cools. But the underlying difference in how God is understood is not going away.
But the first official split caught me completely by surprise. In a news story, the LA Times reported that the Pacific Southwest region of the American Baptist Church has announced that it is splitting from the denomination because it had failed to declare homosexual practice incompatible with Christian Scripture. The West Virginia region may soon follow.
The leader of the region stressed that the move “is not a gay-bashing issue. This is an authority-of-Scripture issue.” As I stated above, it goes to a separate understanding of the nature of God and Christianity.
This, in my opinion, is but the first of several splits or reorganizations over the understanding of homosexuality and Christianity. And I anticipate that the claims of the Ex-gay movement will play loudly in the rending. Although the tiny American Baptist Church with only 1.5 million members will probably not get a lot of attention, when this complete reorganization of protestant Christianity is over the impact on the country will be huge, going far beyond this one issue and resulting in a clash over the nature of religion and its place in society.
Because the repression or liberation of gay people does not have a significant regional economic impact in the way that slavery did, I don’t anticipate any repeat of civil hostilities specifically over issues relating to homosexuality. But if the religious bodies again become fractioned, which I believe is inevitable, much of the glue that holds the nation together will be gone.
Some other conflict could again leave this country with divided camps, each viewing the other as the enemy.