The Cambridge Academic Content Dictionary defines the word “microcosm” as “a small place, society, or situation that has the same characteristics as something much larger.” The Greek words, mikros cosmos, or “little world,” were used by various medieval writers to suggest that a human being was a little replica of the larger cosmos. These days, in our deeply divided nation and churches, events and issues that appear to impact only a portion of American society may instead be microcosms that disclose larger implications for who we are and what shapes us as a people.
Recent sexual abuse scandals and their coverups in Catholic and Protestant communities raise larger concerns about the claims of moral leadership asserted by those communions and their clergy. The proposed removal of Special Olympics from the federal budget quickly became a microcosm of the nation’s response to “the care of the born,” or lack thereof. The now infamous “cheating scandal” in University admissions, illustrated by the postmodern buying and selling of academic indulgences, has become a microcosm of the role of money, privilege and class in prestigious universities.
“Like all theories of biblical inspiration, even inerrancy requires interpretation, and its introduction into the political mix raises multiple questions.”
Other lesser known actions have their own microcosmic implications. As a native Texan, I keep an eye on various socio-religious happenings in the Lone Star State, but I’d have missed news of Texas Senate Bill 17 except for Bob Allen’s Baptist News Global news story, “Religious Refusal Bill Advances in Texas Senate.” It begins: “A Southern Baptist lawmaker’s bill to allow professionals licensed by the state of Texas to deny services based on their religious beliefs has passed a committee vote and is headed toward the full state senate.”
The action thus becomes a microcosm of broader issues related to law, politics, culture, religious liberty, theology and Bible.
If passed, the bill would forbid state agencies from adopting any regulation that “limits an applicant’s ability to obtain, maintain, or renew a license based on a sincerely held religious belief of the applicant; or burdens an applicant’s or a license holder’s: free exercise of religion, regardless of whether the burden is the result of a rule generally applicable to all applicants or license holders; freedom of speech regarding a sincerely held religious belief or membership in any religious organization.”
These exemptions do not apply to “peace officers”; neither do they permit license holders to refuse to provide proper medical service “necessary to prevent death or imminent serious bodily injury.” Although not referenced in the bill, the target group for this law is thought to be LGBTQ persons who may seek the services of licensed legal, medical or business professionals who, for religious reasons, may refuse to provide them.
On the day that the Senate State Affairs Committee approved the legislation by a 7-1 vote, the online Texas Senate Streaming Video Player recorded an exchange between the bill’s author, Senator Charles Perry, and Dallas clergyman Neil G. Cazaras-Thomas that carried the political battle into theology. Perry asserted, “I truly believe the Bible is inerrant and doesn’t need any interpretation. It pretty well stands on its own, but that is in direct conflict to our society we face today for lots of different reasons.” Cazaras-Thomas pushed back, insisting that persons who hold Perry’s view of scripture would also have to refuse professional engagement to individuals such as those who are divorced and remarried, since the Bible is very specific about that. Perry parried that there are many “interpretations” of those passages.
The senator’s response illustrates why Senate bill 17 is indeed a microcosm of political and theological divisions that have long separated Christians. Can the Bible be interpreted or not? Is the Bible inerrant, except where it isn’t? Like all theories of biblical inspiration, even inerrancy requires interpretation, and its introduction into the political mix raises multiple questions.
In The Doctrine of the Bible (1991) Evangelical scholar David Dockery cites six approaches to biblical inerrancy that include:
Naïve inerrancy: God dictated texts directly to authors.
Absolute inerrancy: Scripture is without error in all it discusses.
Balanced inerrancy: Scripture is true in its affirmations with the precision intended by the authors.
Limited inerrancy: Scripture is without error in matters of faith, dogma, practice and ethics.
Functional inerrancy: The Spirit uses Scripture to accomplish salvation.
If biblical inerrancy is at the heart of the bill, which theory of inerrancy will be normative for Texas legislators as this bill moves to the full Senate?
“The target group for this law is thought to be LGBTQ persons who may seek the services of licensed legal, medical or business professionals who, for religious reasons, may refuse to provide them.”
While this legislation seems focused on LGBT persons, its approval may raise additional questions. Might inerrantist professionals refuse to treat or serve women who seek or have secured ordination as ministers? What about divorced and remarried individuals as adulterers (Matt. 5:32)? Would such professionals hesitate to provide services for the children of same-sex parents? In order to save time, should licensed professionals provide potential clients a list of issues that trouble their consciences?
Advocates of such legislation are surely gambling that their convictions prevail long-term and remain intact for the future. Historically, perhaps, that is a big chance to take. This year’s Bible-impacted legislation is intended to protect people of faith from the LGBTQ “agenda.” Fifty years ago, the debate involved a similar “biblical” and “legal” response to civil rights for African Americans.
In a 1967 article entitled “Martin Luther King,” Noel Smith, biblical inerrantist and editor of the Baptist Bible Tribune, wrote: “No citizen has constitutional or moral right to dictate to property owners as to what deposition they shall make of their property, to whom they shall sell it or not sell it, to whom they shall rent it or not rent it. I would never give the Negro that right.” For Smith, racial integration was an infringement on an individual’s constitutional rights.
In the book Southern Landscapes (1996), Mark Newman wrote that “most [Southern] Baptists justified racial segregation as biblical and cited ‘proof-texts,’ mostly drawn from the Old Testament, as their support.” One involved the curse on Ham, Noah’s son, that “supposedly condemned Ham and his descendants to eternal negritude and segregation.” These biblical interpretations undergirded Jim Crow mandates that allowed believers to refuse service to African Americans when they wandered into white environs.
Texas legislators and the rest of us might consider those earlier inerrantist claims and the apologies that subsequently followed them. It might be a microcosm of things to come.