In the ugly controversy over Indiana’s RFRA law, we have once again heard some proponents of gay rights present their movement as an heir to the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s–and also poisonously comparing their political opponents to the racists and segregationists of that time. The comparison is inapt, for the following four reasons.
First, there is the obvious difference in the tactics used by the defenders of the old order. Blacks and their white supporters who demonstrated against segregation were often beaten, hosed down, and attacked by police dogs. None of this has been done to the contemporary proponents of further expanded anti-discrimination laws.
Second, there is the obvious difference in the tactics used by the proponents of the proposed new order. Those involved in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s were, as is well known, scrupulously non-violent. In addition to that, however, they were also careful not to hurl hatred or anger of any kind at those on the other side. They probably did this in part because they were sincere Christians who earnestly wanted to follow Jesus in loving their enemies. This was the explicit teaching of Reverend King, and since the civil rights movement he led was overwhelmingly Christian, his followers listened to him. Recall that his organization was the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. In contrast, the proponents of the new, expanded order of non-discrimination have promiscuously hurled anger and hatred at their opponents. The examples are too depressing to cite and too numerous to require citation.
Third, there is an obvious difference in the political lay of the land. We can see this by thinking further about why the old civil rights movement was so polite and loving, and why the people who today claim to be their successors are not. The followers of Reverend King were sincere Christians and so committed to loving engagement with their opponents, as I have said. But there was probably also an element of political prudence in their conduct. They knew they were part of a small and unpopular minority in the country, and so they knew they could only harm their cause by resorting to abusive language. In contrast, today’s left readily resorts to hateful and abusive rhetoric because it knows that it can get away with it because conservative Christians are in fact today’s unpopular minority.
These are all important differences, but they mainly have to do with tactics and the political environment. What about substance? There is in fact an important substantive difference that should be noted.
Fourth, the kinds of discrimination about which the left is now complaining are not at all analogous to what was practiced in the 1950s and 1960s. I mean that the motivation is clearly not the same. The motivation in the past was raw racial animus. The motivation here is clearly religious or moral conscience. I would ask those insisting on the analogy to scour the records of racially segregationist America and see if they can find an example of a racist business owner who said: “I would be happy to serve blacks in my restaurant. I just don’t want to have to cater at their weddings.” I, personally, have never heard of such a thing and I doubt we will find any evidence that anybody maintained that view. Why? Because the segregationists of the 1950s and 1960s were animated by racial animus. They wanted to keep blacks away from them and in an inferior position, period.
This is clearly not what conservative Christians are attempting who do not want to be conscripted by law into serving at gay wedding ceremonies. They make a distinction the old time racists would never make. They say explicitly that they have no objection to serving gay customers, but they just don’t want to be asked to show up at a gay wedding. And why not? Because it is a ceremony celebrating something they don’t believe in.
Even if the left disagrees with conservative Christians on this, they shouldn’t compare it to the racism of the past.