Leave it to the Southern Baptists to transform a wimpy little mouse with a squeaky voice into a mighty hero.
In voting to boycott the vast Disney empire because of company policy providing benefits to homosexual employees, the Baptists have once again taken a stand which many of us regard as the wrong side of a human rights issue.
The Southern Baptists got their start on the wrong side of the most serious civil rights issue in American history. On May 8, 1845, sixteen years before open warfare began among the states over the issue of slavery, the Baptists in eight slave-holding sta tes split off to form the Southern Baptist Convention in defense of that most repugnant and inhumane institution.
The Baptists were the first denomination to split over this issue. The Methodists, Lutherans and Presbyterians, also split, but, in recent years, they got back together. The Baptists are the only ones who — 132 years after the bloodiest war in our history was fought to resolve the question — have failed to reunite and strive for redemption.
Certain historians would have you believe "the separation of the Southern from the Northern Baptists in 1845, occurred because of differences over the method of distributing missionary money, and not over slavery questions..." This is not true. In their h ighly regarded histories of religion in America, both William Warren Sweet and Sydney Ahlstrom point out that the Southerners broke off as they proclaimed: "We can never be a party to any arrangement which would imply approbation of slavery."
Many historians have pointed out that — led by the Baptists — the preachers in the South were a major force in keeping the passions stirred up that led to and sustained the Civil War. James W. Silver concluded his book, Confederate Morale and Church Propaganda, writing: "The church in the South constituted the major resource of the Confederacy in the building maintenance of civilian morale. Southern clergymen were responsible for a state of mind which made secession possible, and as no other group they sustained the people in their long, costly and futile War for Southern independence."
Almost as devastating to the South as the war — in spiritual terms — was that period of legally sanctioned Jim Crow segregation which began in 1901 and which was actively supported by Southern Baptists, whose churches are almost exclusively white to this day.
So boycotting Mickey Mouse is not the first time the Southern Baptists have been involved in futile causes against human rights. In the 1960s, ministers like Billy Graham and Jerry Falwell, both ordained as Southern Baptists, were quick to deride preacher s in politics when it came to the crusades of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., but didn't hesitate to involve themselves with the likes of Joseph McCarthy, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan in promoting their own right wing agenda. The Southern Baptist s were a major force trying to block civil rights for blacks and, more recently, for women (by opposing the Equal Rights Amendment, for example) and now for homosexuals.
To be sure, there were some Baptist ministers, even in the South, who actively opposed slavery before the Civil War and fought for civil rights for all people throughout this century.
There were even two or three voices of dissent at this latest convention. The Rev. Mel Williams, of Watts Street Baptist Church in Durham, North Carolina, said the boycott was "unfortunate and tacky. Most of the people I have talked with are chagrined and puzzled by this boycott. Baptists need to be attending to real social needs around us like poverty, violence and injustice." But with the right wing takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention, the voices for tolerance have been effectively silenced, and many ministers have been drummed out of the corps.
In spite of all the rhetoric, I insist there is a positive side, a reason for hope, in the Baptists' assault on Mickey Mouse and human rights for homosexuals. For one thing, it shows the world that homophobia in America is a very real threat to people's l ives and livelihoods. For another, it elevates Disney to a level of heroism few corporations ever achieve. It's not a case of the mouse that roared, it's a case of an elephant-sized megabucks corporation standing firm with quiet dignity for what is right. The bottom line, of course, in American business is the bottom line. The most heartening news in that the Baptist assault on Disney which began more than a year ago has had absolutely no effect. In fact, the controversial Disney-owned "Ellen" show set al l-time records with 42 million viewers watching her moving confession that she is a lesbian.
Never again will I think of Mickey as trivial. He has faced the largest Protestant denomination in America. Hooray for Mickey, the mighty mouse! Minnie could have told us that a long time ago.
Till now, I have never been to Disneyland or Walt Disney World — never even wanted to visit those places. But, now, I can't wait to go. What a blessing it is to know that somewhere even the South there is a magical kingdom where all kinds of people are we lcome and respected, and where you are blessedly free of the intolerance that pervades so much of America. God doth truly move in strange and mysterious ways.
Perry Deane Young is author of God's Bullies: Power Politics and Religious Tyranny. He lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.