It’s tempting to dismiss Shelby County Commissioner Wyatt Bunker and his fundamentalist preacher friends as merely the latest incarnation of the flat earth society.

Surely, it’s hard to identify a group in recent memory that has so cavalierly dismissed scientific evidence, that has so conveniently picked and chosen selective Bible verses, that has calculatedly misstated our national history and that has so graphically missed the lessons of the civil rights movement.

What would Jesus do?

What would Dr. King do?

Standing Up For Prejudice

We imagine that they both would have stayed as far away from today’s pro-discrimination demonstration by Mr. Bunker and his colleagues outside the Shelby County Administration Building, where our community’s first anti-discrimination resolution protecting gays, lesbians and transgendered persons will be voted on in coming days.

In fact, if an unmarried man in his early 30’s who spent most of his time living and traveling with 12 other men talking about love had shown up outside the county building, he probably would have been condemned rather than worshiped by the gaggle of religious demagogues purporting to represent the essence of his gospel.

Here, we believe that when these anti-gay people arrive at the Pearly Gates, God will be there with two questions: “What were you thinking? How in my name did you get what you thought out of anything I said?”

Of course, Commissioner Bunker and the others would immediately say that we have no idea what God is thinking and that we are misrepresenting His teachings. That too is our response to them.

No Joking Matter

There’s nothing quite as disconcerting as the spectacle of Christians when they are so defiantly and proudly unChristlike. If those without sin should cast the first stone, we seem blessed in Memphis with an awful lot of people with a firm sense of their own perfection.

In Shelby County Government, there’s a popular joke punctuated with a punch line featuring a closet, Commissioner Bunker and former evangelical leader Ted Haggard. But in truth, this isn’t funny. It isn’t entertaining. It’s simply appalling, especially when members of the majority race of the majority religion should have so little regard for the foundational principles of our society – fair play, equality, brotherhood and tolerance.

In a way, however, we owe these misguided African-American ministers our thanks for their honesty about their gay bigotry (which isn’t unlike the anti-Semitic bigotry shown to Congressman Steve Cohen), because for just a few minutes listening to them all of us got a sense of why most African-American gays and lesbians live their lives deeply in the recesses of the closet.

It’s absolutely impossible to imagine a scenario where Dr. King would have stood with his fellow Baptists on this issue. We can only imagine that he would have updated one of his many statements about the cancer of prejudice to include gays, lesbians and transgendered people. “Discrimination is a hellhound that gnaws at (gays) in every waking moment of their lives to remind them that the lie of their inferiority is accepted as truth in the society dominating them. Almost always, the creative dedicated minority has made the world better.”

God Told Us Something Totally Different

Just as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson mistakenly believed that God takes sides in presidential elections, many fundamentalist ministers of both races mistakenly believe that He takes sides in the political wars. To most of us who become spectators to these kinds of events and the regular pronouncements about “family values,” we end up feeling like our faith is being stolen and it’s time to reclaim it.

As a result of the kind of behavior that took place outside the county building downtown and the anti-gay vitriol spewed by these Christian leaders, there is a misperception by the news media that somehow these views represent Christianity and that these people are typical of our faith. The truth is they are uniformly 180 degrees from what our faith means to us.

That’s the striking irony of this discussion. Commissioner Bunker says he opposes the anti-discrimination ordinance because of his religious beliefs, because of his sense of morality and because of his commitment to a life of faith.

Funny, those are the same reasons that lead us to support the ordinance.

What Gives Him The Right?

That in a nutshell sums up the danger of injecting private religious viewpoints into public policies that govern all of us. After all, why should Commissioner Bunker’s definition of sin trump ours? To him, homosexuality is a sin. To us, intolerance and sanctimony are. Why does he think his version of Christianity trumps those of us whose Christianity leads us to a totally different destination in our lives, most notably away from those who see their religion as a hammer to bludgeon anyone who is different?

As a school board member, Mr. Bunker thought that stickers should be put on biology books saying that evolution is only a theory and creationism deserves equal stature. That lack of respect for science and lack of basic understanding of scientific theory surfaces yet again in the midst of this debate as he picks up the fundamentalist refrain that homosexuality is a choice.

We won’t even dignify it with the obvious answer, but here’s the question: even if it is a choice, why does Commissioner Bunker believe that it gives him the right to discriminate against other Americans?

We’d like to think that the essence of Christianity (not to mention our common humanity) calls on us to support equal treatment and love for all of God’s children, regardless of their private lives and the legal options they choose for themselves.

Power Politics And Rules As Religion

As George Lakoff points out in his book, Moral Politics, the Religious Right is based on a “strict father” metaphor of morality, in which a wise father (whether church or political leader) sets the rules and the children (the people) do what they are told. These black-and-white moral values exist, in the father’s view, not just to help people behave morally but to maintain social order and discipline.

Adherence to these rules implies the legitimacy of the “father,” who often is treated or sees himself as speaking for God. As a result, the people who move away from that established order are doing much more than misbehaving or acting immorally. More to the point, they are threatening the rules by showing that other paths are possible and calling into question the “father’s” authority.

We don’t do the theory justice here, but clearly, Commissioner Bunker and his preacher supporters are so invested in this father-child view of the world that even an ordinance outlawing discrimination becomes a threat. It’s too bad, because in the end, anytime we strengthen the rights of every one in society, we strengthen our own. In fact, there’s no greater lesson from the civil rights movement than that.