What if, in place of “racist,” we used the word “racist”?

I went to a Bible college. This surprises some people. Well, time passes and things happen. Anyway, although I think my world-view was bound to evolve eventually, I became a skeptic all the more quickly because of a very incurious education in my undergraduate years. This was represented best by a particular sort of Bible professor. He would be a teacher of, say, a New Testament survey course, or a class in apologetics, invariably one of the most popular personalities on campus, often good-looking, sometimes with a spouse ten years his junior. This man was a master storyteller, a clown, a judge, a dad figure—and he’d invariably have students shaking their heads in wonder at his intelligence, without once challenging any of their basic presuppositions. It was a real knack. He (it was, of course, always a he—I do not remember one female professor of Biblical studies on the faculty) always thought of himself as a provocateur. He always wanted to “get young people thinking.” And for all that, actual thought never had anything to do with what he said.

I thought of this kind of professor last week when I came across a panel discussion at Biola University, my alma mater, called “Sexuality Matters.” The panel was a Q&A about the school’s position on LGBT sexuality. I think the fact that the term “LGBT” was even on the agenda at Biola is a sign of progress. But the progress, I’m afraid, pretty much stopped there. There were three discussants, all from the university—a psychology professor, someone called a “Vice President of Student Affairs” (some kind of dean?), and a Bible professor named Erik Thoennes. Unless I’m misunderstanding the v.p. position, there were no students. And there were no representatives of the LGBT community. Some people probably thought of this forum as a conversation. It was really, though, a presentation. Without two points of view, nobody was really discussing anything, they were just making plain what was already pretty plain, which is that Biola believes gays and lesbians and transgendered people are all perverts. God loves them as much as he loves people who aren’t perverts, and people who aren’t perverts are still sinners, but LGBT is still just a synonym for PRVRT. This isn’t surprising and it isn’t even disappointing, because to be disappointed a person would have to actually expect something different at a conservative Christian school. It was like this 33 years ago when I graduated, and it is still like this.

Actually, maybe it was a little disappointing. For one thing, the panel actually came together in the first place in large part, if I understand it right, because of the efforts of a student group that would have been unthinkable in my day—the Biola Queer Underground. And one student actually had the temerity to ask why there wasn’t any representative from the BQU on the panel. That question could have led to a very interesting discussion. But instead it led to repetition, and elaboration, and some incredible rhetoric. Which you can listen to here. It was a real tour de force.

Professor Thoennes said the panel didn’t include a gay perspective because homosexuality was a sin, and asking someone to a panel at Biola to represent the sinful side was plainly ludicrous. You wouldn’t invite a liar to represent liars’ point of view, would you? You wouldn’t bring a racist to a discussion on racism to defend the “racist perspective.”

And then he showed his quality. To demonstrate the silliness of the idea, he took text directly from the BQU website, and everywhere the word “gay” was used, he inserted “racist.”

“Our racist identities, which are integral to who we are, are being questioned in terms of their morality. The University’s upcoming decision will affect our daily lives . . .

“Biola claims toward dialogue. However racist students who don’t view racism as sinful aren’t allowed to speak openly without threat . . .”

You really do need to listen to the recording. With the laughter, you can hear how solidly he got the crowd. His church (yes, of course he’s also a pastor) must love him.

But of the many “sins” a Biola professor could have chosen to compare homosexuality to, racism is a particularly troubling one, given fundamentalist Christians’ fraught association with it. Bob Jones University, the alma mater of my Biola advisor in the 70s, still did not allow interracial dating at that time. There were students in my year who agreed with that stance. I’d say in fact that the freedom many fundamentalists feel to condemn racism is a relatively recent phenomenon. To compare the LGBT movement to an odious world-view many fundamentalists (to be frank about it) still hold, shows a very finely tuned cluelessness.

So I suggest we turn Pastor Thoennes’ rhetoric back on itself. What if, when he said this:

“There are some sins I think because our culture sees them as sins we feel a lot of freedom to condemn, and others, because our culture doesn’t see them as sins, we don’t.” 

he were not talking about gay sex, but interracial marriage? What does the following sound like, put in the mouth of Bob Jones III:

“And so what I don’t want us to do in the midst of being kind and . . . loving, is to lack a Biblical backbone because our culture will consider us bigots—to stand up for something that’s consistently being a line drawn in the sand for what Christians will tolerate and what we won’t.” 

What if Erik Thoennes were talking about integration when he said:

“This is a fascinating sin in our culture. There is no other sin I know of that has parades celebrating it, and days at Disneyland!”

It wouldn’t sound too strange at all, actually. It would sound like a lot of fundamentalists 70 or 50 or 30 years ago. It still sounds like a tiny slice of them today. As opposed to Erik Thoennes’ very funny and bizarre exercise, it’s a historically accurate comparison. I can imagine no person in favor of gay marriage being against interracial marriage. I can remember fundamentalists being against it.

It’s interesting how what’s outrageous changes through history, and particularly Christian evangelical history. When Biola was founded, women weren’t allowed to vote. A woman’s place at home seemed quite explicit in the Bible our great grandparents were reading. There are so many things the Bible seems to be clear about to one generation or cultural group that it doesn’t later on or somewhere else. Things are never as plain as they seem. This is one of the first things a young person is supposed to learn when she goes off to college. It’s the opposite of what one is taught at Biola. I’m mystified why a thinking young person would want to waste her time there. As long as she is, though, I hope she’s asking tough questions. God knows somebody needs to.