Evangelical Christians, like many religious and political groups, depend on "human rights" for their very existence, and yet they forget that when they find themselves holding a majority opinion. American Baptists, who were once very much in the minority, wrote to Thomas Jefferson begging him to assure them of their 1st Amendment right against established religion. Today, the Southern Baptist Convention and other like-minded organizations, have few qualms about pushing prayer in schools, banning evolutionary biology from classrooms, and making Christianity the official religion of Missouri. Once a minority becomes a majority, civil rights are no longer necessary.
Unfortunately, this tendency to neglect the rights of individuals can have disastrous consequences. When respect for civil rights breaks down, we see Muslims killing Christians in the Niger State town of Izom in northern Nigeria, and we see Christians killing Muslims in the name of Christ. And recently, we see majoritarian religious factions call for legislation that would levy prison sentences for those who voice a minority religious opinion.
The Church of Nigeria (Anglican Communion) offers an interesting test case for the shifting importance of civil rights. In some cases, the Church is in the minority and it is all too willing to look to the government for protection. Its Episcopal Synod, held in Abuja, Nigeria, released a communiqué, dated June 28, 2006, and signed by Primate Akinola, with the following statement regarding violence against Christians by Muslims [emphasis mine]:
Synod is worried that months after the mayhem unleashed on the nation in February 2006 by criminals, murderers and arsonists hiding under the cloak of religion, no one has been brought to book neither any compensation paid for the properties especially churches destroyed and lives lost in the riots. It therefore, calls on the Governments of the land to take urgent steps to prosecute these enemies of mankind and pay necessary compensations in order to restore the confidence that every Nigerian is protected any where in this nation.In other words, the Church of Nigeria (Anglican Communion) wishes to assert its rights before the government in its quest for justice. They go on [emphasis mine]:
While noting the spread of Islam in hitherto predominantly Christian cities, especially in Europe and America, and their insistence on minority rights, Synod is worried that this same Muslims have refused to allow people of other faiths into their (Muslim dominated) areas to enjoy such rights. It therefore calls on our Muslim brothers in the spirit of reciprocity to have a change of attitude and put an end to intolerance and hostilities to Christians all over the world.Yet, in another communiqué, released two days later, they say this about Nigerian "gay marriage":
On marriage, the conference agreed that marriage between man and woman is the official position of the Anglican Communion, and confirmed by its laws, and condemned in its entirety homosexuality and same sex marriage.This is a restatement of their endorsement of the "Same-Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Act 2006" (pdf), legislation that would put Nigerians in prison for 5 years if they even witness a same-sex marriage. It's important to recall that no Nigerian municipality recognizes gay marriage nor does any provide gay or lesbian couples the rights of straight married couples. Furthermore, there is already a ban on "sodomy", and the degree of prejudice against homosexuals is among the greatest in the world. So why such severe penalties for gay marriage?
As I've written about extensively in an earlier post, the legislation is clearly aimed less at stopping gay marriage than at impeding the growth of groups like the gay and lesbian Anglican organization Changing Attitude. The bill appeared just weeks after Changing Attitude, and its leader Davis Mac-Iyalla, made a New York Times story by Lydia Polgreen. The story, as well as local Nigerian press, began to rattle the nerves of Archbishop Akinola and his communications director Rev. Canon Akintunde Popoola. Indeed, the stated mission of Changing Attitude is to gain full acceptance for gay and lesbian Nigerians in the Church of Nigeria -- a crusade, if you will.
By now, dear reader, the inconsistency of the Church of Nigeria's stand on "civil rights" should be clear. They want protection from the government and tolerance from Muslims as they extend their missionary focus into northern Nigeria, where Christians are in a clear minority. At the same time, they want to place a minority in jail for calling for tolerance within the Church of Nigeria.
Bishop Robert Duncan, the moderator of the conservative Anglican Communion Network in the United States, said the following of efforts by liberal Episcopalians to get Archbishop Akinola to withdraw his endorsement of the more abhorrent sections of the legislation (especially sections 6, 7, and 8):
It is jarring, to say the least, to see church leaders, who claim to champion the primacy of local understanding and culture, demanding that foreign sister churches give up their own local understanding and culture and be judged by an American understanding of individual rights. There is a word for the one-way imposition of values -- colonialism.Blinded by the Network's agenda just months before this Summer's General Convention, Bishop Duncan got it exactly wrong. Church leaders, foreign or otherwise, cannot claim rights for themselves that they deny to others. Duncan said it himself in his own words: "A majority opinion does not make it right." So, following on his promising endorsement of Archbishop Rowan Williams "reflection", I hope he'll come around sometime soon.
I am in touch with human rights workers in Nigeria who say that stopping the bill's passage will be difficult (that is, gay marriage will be made illegal in Nigeria) -- but they say that there may yet be time to get the legislators to change the bill so that the basic civil freedoms it bans (such as speech, assembly, the press, and free exercise of religion for gay and lesbian Nigerians) are still allowed.
Bishop Duncan, and other prominent American Anglicans like the Rev. Martyn Minns, now elected a Bishop in Nigeria, still have time to do the right thing. May God forgive them if they don't.
I know I won't.