History Repeats Itself Yet Again

Last week, Arizona’s governor Jan Brewer vetoed the revolting right-to-discriminate bill passed by her state’s legislature. Like the similar bill that collapsed in Kansas, this one moved rapidly at first but then stalled when it gained national attention. As Brewer dithered, both Mitt Romney and the state’s Republican senators John McCain and Jeff Flake urged her to veto it. Even three Republican legislators who voted for the bill publicly changed their minds about it.

It’s possible that that we’ve found the anti-gay bill too extreme even for Republicans – that the historical parallels were too obvious for them to deny – but I think it more likely that Brewer’s veto was a political calculation in response to the onslaught of bad publicity and threats to boycott the state. But even if this is true – especially if it’s true – it’s a sign that we’re approaching a tipping point in America. Despite the anger and vituperation of their base, Republican politicians now see anti-gay bigotry as a losing proposition. This finger-to-the-wind strategizing has no doubt been bolstered by an unbroken string of recent court victories in states as conservative as Kentucky, Texas, Virginia and Oklahoma.

But the news isn’t all good for human rights. In Uganda, President Yoweri Museveni has signed the brutal anti-gay bill that was backed by American evangelicals and has been a political football for years. (The final version doesn’t include the death penalty that was in earlier drafts, but it does mandate life sentences in some cases.) In response, several nations and the World Bank cut off aid to the impoverished country. But that’s not to say Museveni has lost all his friends:

Catholic bishops have united with the Protestant, Orthodox and Pentecostal Churches’ leaders, as well as the Muslims, to say the law will promote morality in the country. Days before Mr Museveni signed the bill, Archbishop Cyprian Kitizo of Kampala Archdiocese, together with other Christian leaders under the Interreligious Council of Uganda, said the law will help end recruitment, funding and promotion of homosexuality in the country.

This story is further evidence that as the mainstream becomes more tolerant, the religious leaders who promote bigotry are hardening their positions and retreating to the remaining places where they still hold sway. Sensing that their power is slipping, they’re becoming louder and shriller in a bid to reassert the moral authority they once enjoyed. But in the developed world, they’re having the opposite effect, according to an article by the Public Religion Research Institute which found that religious intolerance is driving more and more Americans, especially the Millennial generation, away from religion:

Nearly 6-in-10 (58%) Americans agree that religious groups are alienating young people by being too judgmental on gay and lesbian issues. Seven-in-ten (70%) Millennials believe that religious groups are alienating young adults by being too judgmental on gay and lesbian issues.

…Among Americans who left their childhood religion and are now religiously unaffiliated, about one-quarter say negative teachings about or treatment of gay and lesbian people was a somewhat important (14%) or very important (10%) factor in their decision to disaffiliate. Among Millennials who no longer identify with their childhood religion, nearly one-third say that negative teachings about, or treatment of, gay and lesbian people was either a somewhat important (17%) or very important (14%) factor in their disaffiliation from religion.

It’s remarkable how we’re witnessing history repeat itself with only slight changes. The same “religious liberty” arguments being used to defend anti-gay bigotry were once used to defend racist bigotry, as pointed out by an excellent article from Think Progress:

After the Supreme Court ordered public schools integrated in Brown v. Board of Education, many segregationists cited their own faith as justification for official racism. Ross Barnett won Mississippi’s governorship in a landslide in 1960 after claiming that “the good Lord was the original segregationist.” Senator Harry Byrd of Virginia relied on passages from Genesis, Leviticus and Matthew when he spoke out against the civil rights law banning employment discrimination and whites-only lunch counters on the Senate floor.

If past experience is any guide, once we’ve broken the back of homophobia just as the civil rights movement broke the back of racism, religious fundamentalists will try to redraw history and pretend they were on the right side all along. Fortunately, the historical record is even more ample this time around – and the banner of bigotry, which is still being waved high in places like Uganda, will serve as an embarrassing testament to religion’s usefulness in sanctifying the worst parts of human nature.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Jason Wexler

    The other significant difference between the gay rights movement and the civil rights movement, as far as fundamentalists rewriting history is concerned, is that the civil rights movement while apparently much more secular than usually recognized had several very prominent leaders which where ministers. There is no similar phenomenon in the LGBT movement right now… there are no prominent leaders of religious affiliation and that will make it harder to say, “of course it was religion that led the charge for change, I mean hello Martin Luther King Jr.”

  • Plutosdad

    And funny enough because there were so many ministers at the head of the Civil Rights Movement, many women who were local leaders were pushed aside or told to stop agitating. After all they were women!

  • pianoman

    Regarding Uganda, other than “concern” from a representative of Pope Francis over the anti-gay bill that passed there, we haven’t really heard much from his holiness.
    If his bishops there supported this law and Francis stays silent about it, this will be a very unfortunate situation.

  • Jason Wexler

    Sure respond with a comment that makes me regret my decision to leave off a brief clause about the relationship of religious historical revisionism regarding women’s rights as well :)

    Actually you make very good point that is distinct from the issue of historical revisionism, about how religion even when it’s trying to do one good thing can often still be doing damage. This ties in nicely with something over on the Year Without God blog http://www.patheos.com/blogs/yearwithoutgod/2014/02/28/the-good-news-of-slavery/ about the movie “Contradiction” in which it is hypothesized that a specific type of Christian religion (the prosperity gospel) is contributing adversely to the promulgation of poverty in black communities.

    Ultimately, I believe this dove-tails nicely with the realization, that while it is easy to hammer religion for the obvious moral failings of supporting misogyny, xenophobia, jingoism, violence, capriciousness etc… the true root at the problem of religion is that it encourages ignorance and complacency. People abandon religion because the more religion gives in order to not be out of touch with the world, the more it becomes obvious that religion doesn’t offer anything good or of value, because everything can be gotten from humanism and science.

  • 92JazzQueen .

    I think gay marriage will be more comparable to the issue of Roe vs Wade.

  • David Andrew Kearney

    Really? I think a better comparison is Loving v Virginia. I just can’t see how people in favor of same-sex marriage would change their mind.

    There’s been plenty of pushback against the civil rights movement lately, but I don’t see *anyone* advocating overturning Loving (although they’re probably out there), whereas overturning Roe may be picking up steam.

  • 92JazzQueen .

    I know now that people are advocating for polygamy to be legal again.

  • Jason Wexler

    There is a rumor floating around that Justice Ginsburg feels the same way. Of course there is also speculation that Chief Justice Roberts thinks it has the potential to be more like Plessy vs. Ferguson, if they don’t rule in favor of marriage, eventually, but that he personally doesn’t want to. Which is why there was such an unusual coalition in the Prop 8 case last year.

  • skyblue

    The Republican party was more than happy to keep bringing up gay marriage at election time back when public opinion polls were still in their favor. Now all the folks at the GOP who played to the fundamentalists for votes have to try and stop them from driving the party off a cliff, but that’s what they get.

  • lawrence090469

    Actually, most of the people who approve of the message in the first photo still approve of the message in the second photo.

  • Science Avenger

    You know how exactly? And what does this have to do with gay marriage anyway? Polygamy would change the number of people allowed to be married, which is completely different than gay marriage, which eliminates one of the many restrictions on the types of people that may marry.

  • Science Avenger

    Hell, they still approve of the message in the first photo. We don’t win these battles by converting current bigots, we win them by preventing the creation of new ones.

  • Donalbain

    In Roe vs Wade, they are able to drum up support on the basis of protecting what they class as people. That simply wont be (hell, it ISNT) an issue in gay marriage. There won’t be the equivalent of posters of foetuses for the anti gay marriage people to wave.

  • Azkyroth
  • http://eternalbookshelf.wordpress.com/ Ani J. Sharmin

    Human being seems to need to learn the same lessons over and over again. Maybe it’s just a failing of our species. Incidentally, I was actually thinking about interracial relationships and and marriage the other day. And it always strikes me that the similarities between the disapproval of both interracial and same-sex marriage is an attachment to some false history, some false sense of “purity” that has to be preserved. It’s a defense of something made up to make one group feel superior to another. And even though humans made it up, they’ll claim it’s just the way things are.

  • http://eternalbookshelf.wordpress.com/ Ani J. Sharmin

    Never underestimate the power of religious apologetics. :) See Damon Linker’s article “How Christianity gave us gay marriage” in The Week (19 February 2014). (credit to PZ Myers/Pharyngula) Even without a figure like MLK Jr., religious apologists can still turn to the argument that [insert religion here] invented equality (because god loves everybody), and is therefore responsible for all equal rights in general.

    I do wonder sometimes, when history is being written about what’s going on right now, if religious leaders/supporters will be selectively chosen to be put in the history books. I remember reading/hearing about more secular feminists being left out, while those who were religious were considered more appropriate as spokespeople. Even though they weren’t religious leaders, their religious beliefs made their views seem more acceptable or possible for consideration. (e.g. those who thought the Bible is compatible with women’s rights being considered less threatening, compared with those who condemned the Bible for being sexist)

  • GCT


    He even has a link in his article to an article he wrote about a week before that where he whines about traditionalist views (which he admits are well supported by the Bible) may be denigrated and marginalized, and that’s a terrible thing!

    So, he wants to claim that Xianity is the driving force for marriage equality while still claiming religious freedom to oppose it and admitting that the Bible is against it. What a maroon.


    (Oh, and Xianity is so totes not OK with slavery because it never says in the Bible to take black people as slaves…really, you can’t make this shit up.)

  • J_JamesM

    It gets harder when the people who learned those lessons are dead.