One gray day in November 1940, the old Tacoma Narrows suspension bridge began to writhe and shimmy in the winds passing through the strait. Over the next hour, an oscillation pattern emerged and gathered speed, soon snapping the span entirely in one of the more catastrophic failures in engineering history. There's still film of this bridge, which was known forever after as "Galloping Gertie."
Something like that is happening to the religious right these days. Its own internal contradictions are shuddering against its external self-righteousness with increasing force, causing the whole thing to oscillate in ever-widening arcs as it continues to shake apart. The movement is a Galloping Gertie in progress: the rest of us can only stand back and watch in wonder at the sheer enormity of the collapse as it unfolds before our very eyes.
Our first Orcinus Galloping Gertie award (this could become a regular thing) goes the Southern Baptist Church. The SBC is, quite simply, the biggest Protestant church in America, with over 16 millon members. (To put that in perspective: the SBC has more members than #2 and #3 -- the Methodists and Mormons, respectively -- combined.) Its ordained ministers include Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell....and Bill Moyers.
Over the last decade, the SBC -- always a conservative church -- has become more so as moderate members were systematically driven out by Christian Reconstructionists, in a process that's been very well documented at Talk2Action. These theocrats believe that they are charged by God to replace the Constitution with Biblical law, with them as God's handpicked "regents." They believe their moral authority gives them the divine right of kings to rule over us all.
Over the past seven days, though, three separate news stories revealed just how far the mighty SBC has fallen, and how unfit its holier-than-us leaders are to serve as anybody's moral authorities.
Paging Dr. Mengele
The PR Week from Satan kicked off last Wednesday, when the AP reported that the president of the Southern Baptist Seminary was re-thinking his views on homosexuality. The good news is that he hinted that he's starting to accept that it may be biological. The bad news is that he thinks that when the day comes that we have the medical technology to "fix" these unfortunately disabled fetuses in the womb, we should.
The Rev. R. Albert Mohler Jr., one of the country's pre-eminent evangelical leaders, acknowledged that he irked many fellow conservatives with an article earlier this month saying scientific research "points to some level of biological causation" for homosexuality.Homosexuality, in Mohler's world, is a genetic disorder right in there with Down's Syndrome and autism. And this man is in charge of educating the SBC's ministers.
Proof of a biological basis would challenge the belief of many conservative Christians that homosexuality -- which they view as sinful -- is a matter of choice that can be overcome through prayer and counseling.
However, Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., was assailed even more harshly by gay-rights supporters. They were upset by his assertion that homosexuality would remain a sin even if it were biologically based, and by his support for possible medical treatment that could switch an unborn gay baby's sexual orientation to heterosexual.
"He's willing to play God," said Harry Knox, a spokesman on religious issues for the Human Rights Campaign, a national gay-rights group. "He's more than willing to let homophobia take over and be the determinant of how he responds to this issue, in spite of everything else he believes about not tinkering with the unborn."
Mohler said he was aware of the invective being directed at him on gay-rights blogs, where some participants have likened him to Josef Mengele, the Nazi doctor notorious for death-camp experimentation.
"...I realize this sounds very offensive to homosexuals, but it's the only way a Christian can look at it," Mohler said. "We should have no more problem with that than treating any medical problem."
Two days later, on Friday, an MSNBC.com report revealed that a Southern Baptist Army chaplain was being sent to jail for threatening to kill a woman he'd imported to be his sex slave in order to "spice up his marriage."
FORT DRUM, N.Y. - A 10th Mountain Division chaplain was stripped of his rank and sentenced to five months in military prison after pleading guilty to adultery and threatening to kill his mistress when she wanted to end their relationship, Fort Drum officials said Friday.Evidently, Lau didn't get the memo: Fundamentalist Baptist patriarchs only get issued one wife per lifetime. Only fundamentalist Mormon patriarchs have God's go-ahead to collect the entire set.
Capt. John Lau — a Southern Baptist minister described by the mistress as a manipulative sadist — was tried by a military judge who also ordered him dismissed from the Army with all pay and allowances forfeited.
Lau, 50, admitted he threatened to hunt down and kill Amanda Tyler, a 34-year-old British woman he met in 2004 while stationed in England, brought to the United States and "married" during a mock ceremony last year at Niagara Falls.
Lau was so cavalier about his extramarital relationship that he routinely brought both women to official Fort Drum functions and introduced Tyler as his "wife's friend," he testified during a general court-martial Thursday.
"My wife and I were in a lull in our relationship and looking for something to spice up our sexual relations," the ordained Southern Baptist minister said during the proceeding.
Tyler lived at his home as his "second wife," Lau said, and took vacations with the family to Cyprus, the Caribbean and the Florida Keys. He said Tyler wanted to live with the couple indefinitely in an "exclusive relationship."
Tyler, however, told The Watertown Daily Times that Lau was a sexual sadist and expert manipulator who lured her into a relationship with promises of emotional stability and a life in the United States.
"It wasn't like I just fell in love with them and decided to be 'the second wife,'" Tyler said. "What I thought they were doing was putting me on the straight and narrow, restoring my confidence."
Lau said the three had sexual relations, which he described as consensual but which Tyler described as occurring "under duress."
"The price for objections is severe. If you object, you pay because he's 'The Master,'" she told the newspaper.
At one point, Tyler said, Lau said she should become a prostitute to help pay her tuition.
Asked why she didn't report her situation to military or civilian authorities, Tyler said she was "petrified."
In September, while Lau was deployed in Iraq, Tyler informed the family that she planned to move out.
Lau responded by sending three e-mails threatening to kill Tyler.
Lau was sentenced to 14 months in military prison. But under the terms of his plea agreement he will serve only five months.
Jesus Suffered Torture, So It Must Be OK
After a weekend at rest, those SBC mischief-makers were right back on the job Monday, this time putting one of the denomination's ethics experts forward to publicly defend America's right to torture. From EthicsDaily.com:
A Southern Baptist ethicist accused the National Association of Evangelicals of using tortured logic in a recent statement denouncing cruelty toward detainees in the U.S.-led war on terror.Proof that those repeated church-sponsored viewings of The Passion of the Christ have made their impact on Southern Baptists everywhere.
Daniel Heimbach, professor of Christian ethics at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, last week in Baptist Press termed an NAE-endorsed anti-torture statement "a moral travesty managing not only to confuse but to harm genuine evangelical witness in the culture."
Heimbach, who has supported the use of torture in certain cases in an online dialogue, faulted the 18-page NAE statement for moralizing against torture without specifying particular acts to which it objects.
The danger of the NAE's "diatribe," Heimbach said, is "that it threatens to undermine Christian moral witness in contemporary culture by dividing evangelicals into renouncers and justifiers of nebulous torture--when no one disagrees with rejecting immorality or defends mistreating fellow human beings made in the image of God."
Heimbach has long argued against an outright ban on torture, saying the United States should instead base interrogation of prisoners on "just war" principles guiding use of force in military conflict.
"Heimbach misuses the rules of just war to support a pro-torture position," said Robert Parham, executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics. "Just war rules are intended to restrain the rush to war and violence. Just war rules are misused when they become a pretext for moral cover that allows death and denigration. Given the nature of this guerrilla war, the principle of non-combatant immunity by itself is enough to rule out torture as a morally acceptable step."
"He and other Southern Baptist fundamentalists are again isolating themselves from the larger evangelical community for high-partisan reasons," Parham continued. "They are so hardwired to violence that they have abandoned the core Christian conviction that all human beings are made in God’s image and deserve human rights.”
"Torture is morally wrong," said Parham. "Southern Baptists are becoming the pro-torture denomination."
This what passes for moral leadership in 21st century America. These are the kind of leaders the Christian theocrats intend to set over us. Over six short days in the past week (two of them weekend days!), the leadership of the SBC, which represents five percent of all of Americans, stood tall for eugenic responses to homosexuality, sexual subjugation and violence, and torture. That's got to be a new record, even for them.
Large as it is, the SBC can no longer be treated as a "mainstream" religious organization in America. It's time for Americans to recognize this, and shun it as the radical extremist group it it -- because any group with leaders like this is as dangerous to traditional American values as any racist group Dave's ever covered here. More to the point: they need to be closely watched, because when a group like this starts publicly endorsing eugenics and torture and harboring sexual sadists, it's already made all the psychological justifications and ethical leaps needed to carry out larger-scale acts of authoritarian violence. Sixteen million pre-programmed proto-brownshirts, already organized in every village and town, is not a prospect that should make any of us sleep well.
Many of us have friends and relatives who are SBC members, or work alongside people who belong. We need to query them, sincerely and honestly, about how far they support these leaders, these ideas, and this organization. They deserve to know what is being done in their name by people who purport to be their authorities, and who aspire to exercise their authority over the rest of us as well.
Because when the bridge that connects them to consensus reality finally snaps, they're either going to fall apart spectacularly (the more likely scenario, to be sure) -- or else see their moment, and seize the chance to make their own New World Order out of the chaos.