By David Tulis
About 70 residents attended a public forum Thursday focusing on a plan before city council to give benefits to lovers of homosexual employees. Two council members — Larry Grohn and Ken Smith — attended, each having voted “No” in council chambers.
It was supposed that approval on first reading will be ratified a week after in a second reading, with Jerry Mitchell seen as the best prospect for a changed mind but not likely to be swayed to voting against. A group led by Mark West, president of the local tea party and a Christian, plans to gather 4,500 signatures for a referendum. It will have a two-week window roughly from Nov. 19 to Dec. 3.
Christianity is fighting the poofter political agenda because it takes one side in a clash of worldviews. Chris Anderson, the gay council member, seeks consolidation of political and cultural gains of the gay and egalitarian perspective. Mr. West represents the grace and law implied in holy writ.
Christianity has great sway in the Chattanooga area and in the South. On the other hand, the noisomeness of the counterattack is less than one would hope; the vigor of the children of God in resisting beaky gay goodies is less impressive than it ought to be.
Let’s sketch out both sides of my proposition, the strength of the gospel in the Chattanooga area, and the weakness. The South is held by descendants of people who were persecuted in Europe for their Christian beliefs in the 16th and 17th centuries. These include the Scots-Irish and French Huguenots. The blacks in the South are descendants of slaves, most of whom came under the blessings of Christianity, the influence of which sustains many members of that race even today, though other cultural influences such as the welfare state have reduced many families to matriarchies.
Expansive, integrated in Southern culture
Reconstruction, the nationalization of the South’s politics, the rise of the Sunbelt South in the 1970s and the asphalting-over of many cultural mores haven’t effaced all the South’s distinctions. Those in religion set it well apart from the country’s other sections.
An Anglo-Saxon protestant hegemony is characterized by conservatism, emotionalism, high visibility, cultural integration, revivalism and “religious fundamentalism,” according to scholars. “In its heart of hearts, southern religion puts its faith in the personal piety of converted individuals whose lives reflect biblical righteousness in daily behavior,” says Samuel S. Hill (quoted in Dewey Grantham). So powerful has Protestantism been that its churches might be described as part of “cultural religion,” where the line between the church and surrounding culture is hard to draw “and this unofficial alliance tends to make the religious body ever stronger and more inclusive,” says another student of religion in the South.
A normative Southern religious perspective holds, soundly, several points: That the Bible is the sole reference point of belief and practice; God grants His children direct and dynamic access; morality is individualistic and in personal terms; heaven and hell are real places; conversion takes place in a given moment in one’s life; human perfectibility is an illusion and earthly programs for the improvement of society should be viewed skeptically; God cares about social evils such as prayerlessness and evolutionary theory in schools, alcoholism, pornography, rock concerts and feminism.‡
These distinctions are recognized in a recent book describing the 11 countries that reside in the United States, including the Deep South and Greater Appalachia. The distinctions drawn by Colin Woodard make an effort to account for religious perspectives and influences from 500 years back.
Subjective vs. objective Christianity
Mark West is a Christian who worships at Woodland Park Baptist, where council member Larry Grohn also is a member. In his efforts to block gay partners on the public dole Mr. West is joined by two gospel ministers, Shad Smith of Temple Baptist church on Rossville Boulevard and Gary Jared of Stuart Heights Baptist in Hixson, and by others vocal in defense of marriage, that holy ordinance of creation that preceded church and state.
Pastors such as Mike Chapman of City Church spoke before the city council, and Christian housewives and commoners alternated with homosexuals and allies in the public comment hearing.
It’s good to have allies. But Mr. West wonders if Christians have done too little to oppose homosexualism in Chattanooga over the past three weeks as the ordinance was unveiled and debated. Just after the ordinance was announced Mr. Grohn pleaded for Christian involvement because he saw the leanness in its ranks.
Mr. West is pleased that 70 people attended the gay benefits forum he organized.
But why were there not 250? Why are not the streets outside city hall thronged a block deep on Tuesday nights as the ordinance is debated starting at 6 p.m.? Why, when I attended the only “public hearing” granted in council chambers was there plenty of standing room in the lobby for partisans and observers? Yes, fire marshals prevented more people from entering the city council meeting, which suggests an impressive turnout. But was it really?
The voice of Christianity has been loud, but perhaps not deep. If you stand before 20 rows of people in the stadium and they all shout “No!” it can seem thunderous; but 20 sections would be more reverberative. But these sections in a city of 600 churches are empty. A chief reason is explained theologically.
Interiority, piety with short range
Southerners are privately and subjectively oriented in their Christianity, not objectively oriented. Strong interiority, weak exteriority. The godly virtues they live out in their personal lives do not strongly translate into an interest in cultural virtue, governmental virtue, to seeing the government of God through the Son of God Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit as affecting, saying, banking or trade policy. They are not disposed and inclined to project God’s character and peculiarities upon the world’s structures — to improve them, to redeem them, to buy them back for the Savior.
God’s children consider city council and its doings as ho-hum, not very interesting, not involved in anything of Christian interest because its commission does not touch salvation, the way to Christ, the turning of a man from sin to God. Since the council doesn’t deal with these questions directly, its dealing with gay rights arguments is procedural and administrative, not VITAL.
Influence by ideas of ancient standing — those of Pelagius in the fifth century and Jacob Arminius in the 17th — account for this blocking out of spheres of public life from the interest of the average evangelical. Fundamentalism built a wall around Christianity and ghetto-ized it. The evangelicals’ WMBW and WDYN talk shows and sermon selections often reflect what one book refers to in its title, The Failure of American Baptist Culture. That is the long-term result of subjectivism, the individualization of the covenant of grace.
In Southern evangelicalism, the conquests for God’s glory are virtually all internal to one’s daily life, one’s thought and prayer life, one’s personal relationships. There is little glory to be given to God in declaring God’s truth to culture — to the arts, the medical profession, the field of journalism, entrepreneurialism, to city hall. It’s as if declaring the truth marriage, even in a Christian context, misses the mark. Such arguments don’t save anyone, this view suggests; they don’t bring anybody to salvation, to the sinner’s prayer, if you will. And so, no words are offered by many, many professing, church going children of Israel.
If you ask a professing Christian about the points I make here, listen to his defense of the Arminian position. His vigor goes mostly toward a defense of man and his integrity, not toward God and His claims. His strength of argument goes to carve out a sphere of action for man, rather than to amplifying God’s total claims upon man, His total beauty, His total perfection, His total holiness — and man’s terrible plight before a holy God, man the victim of his ancestry in Adam, who passed along the sin problem. Biblical religion, indeed, argues an external principle. Salvation comes from God, who is external to man. The objective emphasis, from Augustine through John Calvin, extends the claim of Christian ethics and God’s law into all the issues such as taxpayer benefits for gays.
A Christian concerned about the state of the church must be prayerful. He must recognize the Holy Spirit alone, which is the power of Christ upon a culture, changes that culture, that aggregate of thousands and millions of souls and their general outlook. Despite setbacks, Christianity has expanded and enlarged its claims upon man in the course of history, as even secular histories show.
Here are details on how to contact city council members for Chattanooga.
Sources: Ray Sutton, “The Baptist Failure” in The Failure of American Baptist Culture, (Tyler, Texas: Geneva Divinity School: Christianity & Civilization series No. 1, ed James Jordan, 1982),
See “The Persistence of Southern Distinctiveness” in Dewey Grantham, The South in Modern America (New York, HarperCollins, 1994), 359 pp. See also Paul Johnson’s imperfect but spectacular History of Christianity, 1976.