Friday, December 2, 2011

Fundamentalist Church Defends Marriage: Bans Interracial Couple

Gulnare Freewill Baptist Church in Johns Creek, Kentucky recently faced something they just never considered before. Stella Harville, 24, a member of the church brought her fiance to church and he was black! Not even a good ol' American black, but a genuine negro from darkest Africa. The fiance, Ticha Chikuni is from Zimbabwe. The couple came to the church and sang—once.

The pastor of the church, Melvin Thompson, then banned them from further performances. But Thompson resigned due to health and a new pastor said they could perform. But then Thompson proposed that the church pass a resolution condemning interracial marriage. It said "parties of such marriages will not be received as members, or will they be used in worship services" or other church activities, unless it is a funeral. A meeting was held and by a 9 to 6 vote the proposal was passed. The proposal claimed to be a measure to enhance unity.

Of course, Rev. Thompson insists he's not racist. He said he is "not prejudiced against any race of people, have never in my lifetime spoke evil about a race. That's what this being portrayed as, but it is not." Stella's father, Dean Harville, asked: "If he's not racist, what is this?"

Where have we heard this before?

When it comes to marriage equality for gay couples the fundamentalist opponents insist that inequality of rights must remain firmly entrenched. But they aren't bigoted, they insist on that. They "love the homosexual" often followed by "enough to condemn their sin."

The ban on interracial couples got a lot of media attention since most folks haven't seen something like this in some time. But, fundamentalists tend to be behind the culture, not leading it. Fundamentalist Bob Jones University only allowed blacks to enroll in 1975 and it forbade interracial dating until the year 2000. But the media attention is intense and the current pastor is trying to get the church to revote on the issue. He's hoping that most church members, who sat on the sideline and refused to vote on the issue at all, will back him. And the denomination is pushing for the church to reverse itself.

But, fifty years ago such a policy would be common. There are plenty of fundamentalist churches where interracial marriages are still taboo, even if they have no official policy on the matter. The churches I attended preached against interracial marriage. Interracial relationships were not an issue in the  Christian high school, or the seminary that I attend. But that because they were all white schools by policy. Other fundamentalists push against interracial marriage but don't want to get caught openly in a racist stand. One example of that is the Heritage Baptist Bible Church in Walnut Grove, MN.

The pastor answers how to deal with interracial marriages. He says that if an interracial couple comes to the church they should welcome them and first get them "saved." "Forget counseling until they accept Christ as their Savior and indwelt by the Holy Spirit. Trying to counsel the unsaved in spiritual things is difficult..." That seems to imply that interracial marriage is a "spiritual thing" that does need counseling but that it only works on those who are "saved." He says if they are already married they can't be rejected but that if they are not  "I would surely point out the negatives they may encounter by such a marriage." In other words, try to discourage them. Now, what if they want their church to perform the marriage. Most Americans would say that's fine. Not this fundamentalist pastor. He advises other pastors "to make the decision [to perform a marriage ceremony] based on whether you think the marriage is in the best interest of both parties." He even says, "These are not easy decisions for a pastor." Wrong—it is an easy decision for most pastors, it is only "not easy" for fundamentalists.

At Bob Jones University the sinfulness of interracial marriage, contrary to claims by the university, was actually preached in mandatory chapel. Bob Jones III, who claimed the policy was not so taught, actually did so himself in chapel in 1996. Jones told press at the time that the ban was based on the Bible. The university bookstore sold a booklet by Marshall Neal of their Bible Department outlining why interracial marriage violated Scripture. The university went as far as firing two staff members for attending Southside Baptist Church because their church admitted an interracial couple. And BJU announced the church was "off limits" to all BJU students. And evangelist John R. Rice published an editorial defending the ban on interracial marriage in his fundamentalist newspaper, The Sword of the Lord.

Rice previously had said, "most intelligent people would prefer to have Jim Crow laws than to have unrestrained intermarriage between the races. Wilderness Church tells us: "Twice in Holy Writ. A double witness. Marriage is the most fundamental covenant of all, and the Bible is double witness condemn (sic) it. God does not approve of interracial marriage, and many great fundamentalist Baptist preachers also teach/taught against it (Dr. Jack Hyles, deceased; Dr. Bob Gray, etc.)"

It is useful to note that these two "great fundamentalist Baptist preachers" ran into problems. Jack Hyles, who I knew, was revealed to be in a adulterous relationship that lasted years, with his church secretary. He even had the woman sit in the choir immediately behind him when he preached. He preached against divorce, interracial marriage and gay people. But he also preached about adultery without batting an eye. And Bob Gray was eventually exposed for having molested very young girls when they were members of his church. Jerry Falwell called the arrest "a bump in the road."

What is mind-boggling to many people is that fundamentalists are still debating amongst themselves on issues that the nation, as a whole, settled almost half a century ago. What the Supreme Court settled in Loving v. Virginia, in 1967, was only accepted in principle by Bob Jones University a third of a century later. And it is still be debated at the Gulnare Freewill Baptist Church today. Now, I suspect the negative publicity will result in this church reversing its decision. But there are plenty more such churches out there practicing the same backwoods racism.

When you understand the phenomenon of fundamentalism, of any religion, it is clear why they will be lead opponents in the fight for equality. They were against the civil rights movement, women's rights and against equality of rights for gay people. To attempt to placate them is impossible. To try to win them over with logic and reason is spitting in the wind. In the fight for equality of rights the only way to deal with these people is to ignore them. They believe what they believe, they were not reasoned into that belief, and won't be reasoned out of it.

The one useful function that they serve in the long-term battle for civil rights is that their prejudices are often so blatant and ugly that they shame their less extreme allies in deserting their cause. Perhaps, half a century of so after the rest of the nation has made peace with marriage equality, American fundamentalists might start to debate the issue.


  1. You should have a Facebook button, so I could share this on my page. I'd love to share this with more people.

  2. Anonymous, there is a Facebook button immediately above your comment. It says "Posted by Moorfield Storey Institute" and if you look immediately below M, just a little to the left you will see it. It is used often and works.