At Maundy Thursday worship in Wake Forest University’s Davis Chapel, the day after Gov. Pat McCrory signed NC House Bill 2, a transgender divinity school student washed the feet of an African Pentecostal student as the Gospel text from John 13 was read. “Mandatum novum,” Jesus said; “A new commandment I give unto you, that you love one another as I have loved you.” That Holy Week morning, many worship-participants wondered if their foot-washing colleague was actually safe in the state of North Carolina. Their university, however, readily repudiated HB2, reaffirming its own anti-discrimination policies including “protection for gender identity and sexual orientation.”
Passed rapidly by the state legislature, HB2 was introduced as a response to a local ordinance approved by the Charlotte City Council rejecting discrimination based on age, gender, religion, race and sexual orientation. The Charlotte ordinance also permitted transgender individuals to utilize restroom facilities that apply to their preferred sexual identity. State legislators viewed Charlotte’s action as creating potential danger for females accosted by sexual predators entering the facilities. Ordinance supporters responded that, statistically, the real danger was for transgender persons, harassed in bathrooms incompatible with their sexual identity.
HB2 negated the Charlotte law, as NC Public Radio reported, by prohibiting “municipalities from passing non-discrimination ordinances that cover entire communities” and reasserting that only the state “holds authority for that.” Males and females are now legally mandated to use restrooms based on the biology of their birth certificate. (Critics asked if documents would be checked at restroom doors.)
While HB2 allegedly protects North Carolinians from discrimination based on “race, religion, color, national origin, or biological sex,” it does not include safeguards centered on sexual orientation or gender identity. The bill stunningly eliminates the rights of workers to bring discrimination suits to state courts, and forbids local governments from raising the minimum wage. Religious and political conservatives have generally affirmed HB2, while liberal religionists, politicians and many business leaders have urged its repeal.
A similar opposition in Georgia may have influenced Gov. Nathan Deal’s decision to veto legislation — House Bill 757 — aimed at providing protection for those individuals — pastors, religious institutions and businesses — opposed to same-sex marriage and resisting actions that affirm it. HB757 allowed them to reject services to same-sex couples on the basis of personal religious convictions.
Noting that he would oppose any legislation that “allows discrimination in our state in order to protect people of faith,” the Republican governor, a member of First Baptist Church in Gainesville, Ga., commented: “What the New Testament teaches us is that Jesus reached out to those who were considered the outcasts, the ones that did not conform to the religious societies’ view of the world.” He cautioned the legislature to “recognize that the world is changing around us.”
Are these legislative battles yet another skirmish in the “Culture Wars” long impacting American religious and political environs? Many North Carolina evangelicals support HB2 in response to changing views of sexuality; many liberal Christians protest it, also on gospel grounds. In the Georgia case, Baptist conservatives Albert Mohler and Russell Moore criticized the governor’s veto, Moore calling it a sellout to “mammon.” Mohler linked the governor to a tattered culture war among Southern Baptists, asserting that Deal was simply the wrong kind of Baptist whose Gainesville congregation bolted from the Southern Baptist Convention for a more liberal “theological agenda.”
What if these legislative efforts, the rhetoric of certain presidential candidates, declining church attendance, and the growth of the “nones,” are contributing to the rise of a New Lost Cause religion, particularly in the South? In Baptized in Blood, the Religion of the Lost Cause, Charles Reagan Wilson described the link between Southern culture and religion post-Appomattox, noting: “Christian clergymen were the prime celebrants of the religion of the Lost Cause. … These ministers saw little difference between their religious and cultural values, and they promoted the link by constructing Lost Cause ritualistic forms that celebrated their regional mythological and theological beliefs.”
Wilson cited Anthony Wallace’s assertion that all religious movements begin with concern to revitalize culture, yet Lost Cause religion showed less interest in a utopian future than an attempt “to restore a golden age believed to have existed in the society’s past.”
In a recent doctoral dissertation on Lost Cause religion, Baylor student Christopher Moore suggests that “many Lost Cause writers brought up the issue of slavery in order not to talk about it.” When they did approach that topic they sometimes promoted “racial stereotypes and idealized past” or offered “a bitter, penetrating fear that white hegemony was being lost forever.”
LGBT persons, long present but not talked about in a mythic American golden age, have now gone public as citizens with a right to public and private safety. As that collective presence challenges certain religio-political “stereotypes and idealized past,” are legislators and “Christian clergymen” implanting a New Lost Cause religion, fearing the loss of their own values hegemony in the culture? If so, they had best explain when and where Christian conviction can turn to bigotry in the public square. Otherwise, it’s really a lost cause.