How many Evangelical Christians in the US feel that they are in danger of persecution—or even actively subject to it? It’s hard to have any certainty, but politicians on the Right are convinced that they are numerous and constitute a gold mine of votes. The victories of Donald Trump in the Republican presidential primaries seem to bear this theory out. Though he has little else to recommend him to Evangelical voters, he has beaten out more eligible candidates by projecting himself as a strong political figure who will protect them from persecution by gays, lesbians, and transgendered people. The same anxiety has also prompted a raft of recent legislation in heavily Evangelical states claiming to protect religious freedom. Apparently state politicians have keyed into this fear, too.
For an outsider, the fear is difficult to fathom. Evangelical florists or caterers are alarmed that they might be providing services to the weddings of same-sex couples. There is some suggestion that they would seem to be endorsing such a marriage. But one doesn’t hear of any of them claiming the right to pass judgement on, say, the remarriage of divorced persons. Clearly, something more than doctrinal consistency is at stake.
The nearest analogy I can think of comes from the early years of my life, when many states had laws forbidding marriage between people of different races. I grew up in a state that was partly Southern in culture, and there was little doubt that marriages between Euro-Americans and African Americans elicited strong negative emotions in the white community. My guess is that many business owners would have refused to provide services for them. (Because of the particular history of Oklahoma, marriage between Native Americans and Euro-Americans generally elicited less hostility.)
The public reasoning against such marriages was often framed in terms of eugenics, but it was more deeply based, I think, in religion—like its kindred practice of apartheid in South Africa. And, even more fundamentally, it was a purity issue. Whites in Oklahoma (and many other places) were anxious about being “contaminated” by blacks. For that is how purity codes work.
If “contamination” sounds like an outrageous term, that is exactly the point. There is an analogy between purity codes and basic sanitary considerations, but the purity code expands to categorize wide reaches of one’s world as clean or unclean, pure or impure. White business people were not just concerned to avoid “endorsing” interracial marriage. They were afraid that they would be, both in their own estimation and in the public eye, contaminated by it. The same, I think, is true of Evangelical business folk today in relation to same-sex marriage.
Purity codes are pervasive among human beings, though some groups lay more stress on them than others. They also vary a great deal in content from one community to another, but each group holds to its own peculiar code with a fervor undiminished by the fact that their neighbors may subscribe to other and different codes. The whole complex, psycho-social process is superbly illuminated in Rachel Herz’s interesting study, That’s Disgusting: Unraveling the Mysteries of Repulsion (Norton).
As a way of organizing life, the sense of purity may be indispensable. But, like all things human, it is not innocent. Purity codes can become divisive and destructive when they are used to categorize some persons or communities as dirty or unclean. Such people will inevitably tend to be pushed aside from the common life. Indeed, the accusation that they are unclean is a necessary part of the process of exclusion, for it defines them as a public menace. It wasn’t just interracial marriage that made whites anxious in my childhood. It was the sharing of water fountains, restaurants, swimming pools, schools, churches.
Purity, after all, is always, by definition, vulnerable and under attack. “Dirt” contaminates and must therefore be avoided if it cannot be eradicated. “Dirt” evokes fear and anger and hostility.
A recent article in the New York Times (An Ayatollah’s Daughter Prompts a Debate on Religious Persecution in Iran, by Thomas Erdbrink, 5/18/2016) is relevant. The offense, described by an “official with Iran’s conservative judiciary” as “obscene and despicable,” was a visit by the daughter of a prominent religious official (and former president of Iran) to another woman who is a leader of the much persecuted Bahai religion in Iran. The two had tea together. Physical proximity, the sharing of food—both occasions of contamination. It is easier to persecute people whom one has defined as impure; it becomes harder when some bold person sits down with them and treats them like human beings as Ms. Faezeh Hashemi did with Ms. Farima Kamalabadi. Hence the need the authorities felt to categorize Ms. Hashemi as unclean alongside Ms. Kamalabadi. The Bahai must be kept at a distance from decent folk or decent folk might question why the Bahai are being persecuted.
Evangelicals in the US may believe that their purity is under threat from gay and lesbian and transgendered people; they may even feel that as persecution. But the greater problem may be that Evangelicals, where they enjoy cultural power (as in many parts of the US), may wield their purity as an offensive weapon against those they categorize as unclean.
This is particularly clear in the case of public officials who want the freedom to refuse marriage licenses or other civic rights to those who offend their own religious sensibilities. This would allow them to make the equal protection of law a dead letter for those of whom they disapprove. In short, the real goal of the campaign to “protect” Evangelicals from what they see as persecution is to limit the freedom of others whom they have categorized as unclean. If they feel the need to protect their personal purity, Evangelicals should find other ways to do it. Better yet, they might heed the Apostle Paul’s admonition, uttered precisely in the context of concerns about purity: “Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall. And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand.” (Romans 14:4 NRSV)
More on Paul and the problems of purity in a future post. . . .