Slavery Was Once for Many a “Sincerely Held Belief”

A slave trader business in Georgia, 1964 (Photo via Library of Congress)

When the editor of this publication reached out to inquire if she could publish a version of my letter to the editor of my local paper concerning a resolution passed in my county, I had reservations. Indeed, my progressive Christian beliefs differ from those of many Humanist readers and contributors. I was curious what my voice would add to the conversation in these pages. She responded that my perspective would offer a fresh reminder that not all Christians want Christianity to be prioritized in civil matters, that many progressive Christians are secularists who value church-state separation as much as their nonreligious counterparts. So, here goes.

The County Commission of Fayette County, Georgia, a suburban Atlanta county where I reside, recently passed a “Protecting Religious Freedom” resolution. The county grew tenfold in the last fifty years from a small, rural “Dixiecrat” region to a largely white, conservative Republican/Libertarian bedroom community with many airline workers and excellent schools. The schools and businesses brought new neighbors, including African-American, Hispanic, South-Asian and East-Asian populations. Still, the largest voting block is comprised of white Republicans, with strong support from evangelicals.

The county resolution echoes one that failed to pass in the state legislature. It reads:

Fayette County shall not infringe upon the ability of individuals to act in accordance with their sincerely held beliefs. Fayette County condemns any behavior by any other government that limits the ability of individuals to express their religious beliefs.

I recognized the audience for this resolution because I grew up in that demographic, though I no longer vote Republican 
nor claim the evangelical label. I spoke up because I am one of many followers of Jesus who are not comforted by this resolution and in fact believe it’s an affront to those who take seriously the teachings and actions of Christ. My original letter appeared in the Citizen on January 2, 2019.

In it, I stated that the passage of the “Protecting Religious Freedom” resolution by the Fayette County Commission reveals a misguided understanding of the role of the commission and is overreaching and reactionary. I am astounded that a governmental body would grant unqualified permission to any individual to “act in accordance with their sincerely held beliefs.” My Southern roots go back further than genealogical records, which means my ancestors acted on their “sincerely held beliefs” justifying slavery. Bible-believing theologians, preachers, and church members employed plenty of Old Testament and New Testament passages to define the moral underpinnings of slavery. Granted, abolitionists were led by preachers using the Bible to support the opposite position, but my ancestors and their neighbors went to war to defend their right to act on their sincerely held beliefs.

Is the commission using this as a catcall or shibboleth, identifying themselves to a “we” with whom they want to ally?

A century later the Baptist church I grew up in used scriptural justification to vehemently assert the sincerely held belief that the races were meant to be separated in worship, education, and housing. I was taught this by Sunday school teachers referencing the sons of Noah. The deacons at that church refused to admit a black seminary student to membership and denied a seminary professor’s daughter admission to their Christian day school simply because allowing black folk to worship and learn with them went against their sincerely held understanding of biblical teaching. I believe that Jesus upended deeply held prejudices like these by preaching and modeling a rule of love, the “great and first commandment.” The primary work of the church and followers of Jesus is to unpack what it means to live that out.

But the Fayette County Board of Commissioners, as all government bodies, has a far different task, that of upholding the rule of law. Does the commission assert that sincerely held beliefs trump the rule of law? Are all sincerely held beliefs equal? What specific incidents of Fayette County citizens being coerced to act against their sincerely held beliefs prompted the need for government intervention? Is the commission using this as a catcall or shibboleth, identifying themselves to a “we” with whom they want to ally? I can’t fathom the ultimate motivations of the commissioners (perhaps they can’t either), but it does seems to me that they are motivated by fear and the need to define and reassure “our” tribe.

These and the questions that follow are the ones I put to the commission in my letter to the editor calling for them to rescind their overreaching and misguided resolution. While some worry about economic development and Pinewood Studios, a major movie studio in our town that could move due to anti-gay legislation, I said the issue went deeper than economics—that I was concerned about our goodness as a community. Will we let defensiveness, tribalism, and fear of the other define us? Is the commission willing to accept the anarchy of each person doing what’s right in their own eyes?

The church must wrestle with the texts to see what Jesus requires of his followers today as they did in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, when they slowly overturned the deeply held beliefs of Bible-believing Christians. The County Commission has a different task: assuring an orderly, efficient, and fair government for all its citizens. This resolution functions to provide comfort to certain constituencies by implying some beliefs deserve special protection and that their local government will provide cover. Following one’s beliefs may require sacrifice and may lead an individual to break the law and bear the consequences, but the role of government is to protect all individuals equally, not shield some from the consequences of their choices. This resolution takes a short view when a longer perspective is needed. We must do better than this.