Billy James Hargis and the “Bible Made Me Gay” Defense

At this point, the conservative closet is large enough to contain entire genres of alibis for reactionary antigay figures exposed as harboring desires or practices at odds with the missionary-position-to-make-babies sexual politics of the modern (well…) Right. There’s the “three weeks of counseling cured me of that pesky meth-and-rent-boys habit” that left the Reverend Ted Haggard “completely heterosexual.”

There’s the ex post facto trajectory of rightwing activists who do terrible things for the  antigay movement, come out, and try to make up/and or disregard the past (see: David Brock, Ken Mehlman). There’s sheer denial, from Larry Craig’s foot-taps to Ray Cohn as written by Tony Kushner. Then there’s always the sporadic freakshow, like the Florida story of Republican state legislator Bob Allen, left somewhat in the shadows of the bigger state scandals such as Mark Foley and the Charlie Crist “rumors.” Allen, as far as I know, pioneered the race-panic defense for his restroom cruising in 2007, claiming he offered to pay $20 to perform oral sex on a Black man because . . . he was afraid of him. Perfectly logical.

I’m only scratching the surface here, but here’s one alibi I don’t think I’ve ever seen elsewhere: The Bible Made Me Gay.

hargis PS

Genes get the headline, but Hargis “justified his homosexual acts by citing the Old Testament friendship between David and Jonathan.” The bride and groom realized what was going on because they’d both slept with him–something that otherwise happened only at David Bowie concerts, I believe.

This is perhaps the single most radically relativist reading of the Good Book I have ever seen a fundamentalist offer. History would not suggest it as a winning strategy; the Bible seems uniquely immune to against-the-grain readings. A Kansas freethinker in 1894 thought he could beat obscenity charges because the graphic sexual quotes he had included on postcards came directly from the Bible; nope, he was convicted anyway, apparently holding the Bible legally obscene. Then there’s the sad fate of Christian socialism, which isn’t even against the damn grain. So blaming the Bible here was something of a long shot.

billy_james_hargis

Billy James Hargis was a far-right preacher who capitalized on Cold War anxieties to promote the speeches, books, sermons, and other merchandise of his Christian Crusade. Representing one of the more vigorously anti-intellectual strains of midcentury conservative Christianity, he hated communism, he hated sex education, and he hated queers (he wasn’t much fond of Black civil rights either, shockingly). His organization published a notorious 1968 pamphlet with one of the best titles in all of reactionary literature, Is the Schoolhouse the Proper Place to Teach Raw Sex? Its title, suffice it to say, was not a nod toward prophylactics and safer sex (all sex is raw sex when it ain’t the married type).

RawSexPamph 

In any case, Hargis founded the American Christian College in Tulsa in the early 70s, and this scandal broke a few years later. I came across this clipping in the Press-Scimitar morgue at the University of Memphis and did a double take: wait, did he really just suggest that the story of David and Jonathan led him to pursue coercive sexual encounters with his male undergraduates? The implications are rather staggering.

A day later, he changed his tune to denial:

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The college wound up closing a few years later, after banishing Hargis. But what I wonder about is how this episode registered to various audiences in the mid-1970s, particularly the evangelical rightwing Christians who had kept Hargis afloat for decades at that point. There’s probably no way to really reconstruct the immediate affective response, but surely someone took pause and thought, “wait, what?” Hargis and his colleagues hardly cultivated engaged critical reading practices in their texts, but this . . . this is a doozy. Were there letters to editors? Personal correspondence? Other venues for grappling with the meaning of Hargis’s initial excuse?

There are some very good studies of Hargis in such recent works as Daniel Williams’s God’s Own Party: The Making of the Christian Right and Heather Hendershott’s What’s Fair on the Air? Cold War Rightwing Broadcasting and the Public Interest, but the sex scandal receives only glancing attention (Lee Roy Chapman also has a nicely done piece on Hargis here). Given its uniqueness—I’m not aware of any other public figure utilizing this argument, ever (probably for good reason)—I’d be curious whether the evangelical press grappled with Hargis’s faltering, secondhand, quickly retracted explanation, or just ignored it.

File it under topics for further investigation, I suppose—but it deserves to be highlighted as a reminder of the sheer, utter perversity of antigay discourse, then, now, and always.

 

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