Gay Debate Mirrors Church Split on Slavery

Article excerpt

One group of Christians confidently proclaims that a plain reading of the Bible is a slam-dunk in their favor. The other side appeals to scripture's grand narrative to ward freedom and inclusive love. The argument boils over and ripples through the wider culture. The search for middle ground proves futile. Denominations break apart.

Sound familiar? It could be 2010--or the mid 19th century.

As U.S. churches and denominations slog through divisive and long-running arguments over homosexuality, many Protestant progressives have sought to claim the historical and moral high ground by aligning their cause with abolitionism.

"I think almost everybody who makes the liberal argument about homosexuality makes the connection with abolition and slavery," said the Rev. Jeffrey Krehbiel, a Washington, D.C., pastor in the Presbyterian Church (USA) who supports gay rights.

Abolitionists, he said, "were the first to make the argument that the plain reading of the text maybe isn't the most fruitful way to read the Bible."

But while there are striking parallels between the slavery and homosexuality debates, historians caution that important differences emerge upon close examination.

In both eras, cultural trends forced Christians to question practices that had long been taken for granted, said Mark Noll, a professor of American religious history at the University of Notre Dame and author of The Civil War as a Theological Crisis.

Likewise, the Bible, and how to interpret it, has played a central role both then and now, Noll said.

In the 19th century, even some Northern abolitionists admitted that the Bible clearly condones slavery. Many, therefore, sought other sources of morality and methods of biblical interpretation; conservatives countered that such appeals undermine the power of the sacred text.

As conflict heated up, Noll writes in his book, slavery's defenders increasingly saw "doubts about biblical defense of slavery as doubts about the authority of the Bible itself."

At the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) earlier this month, James Joseph, a youth advisory delegate from Allentown, Pa., argued against allowing sexually active gay clergy. "We cannot defend the lowering of our ordination standards in contradiction to so many explicit passages in the Bible," he said.

The resolution to allow gay clergy passed by a slim margin, but the contentious debate will continue as 173 regional presbyteries decide whether to ratify it.

As with slavery, few Christians are neutral on homosexuality. "Like the situation in the 1830s and '40s, once a certain kind of heat is generated it becomes really hard to talk through these various kinds of debating strategies and implications," Noll said.

Methodists, Presbyterians and Baptists (and, to some extent, Episcopalians) all split over slavery, mainly along the Mason-Dixon Line. …