Keith Boag: In the Bible Belt, scripture trumps rights

In Mississippi, Keith Boag finds views ranging from puritanical to progressive on issues such as gay marriage and congressman Todd Akin's observations about rape and abortion.
Pastor Bryan Fischer, who reportedly has a million listeners for his daily two-hour radio program on the American Family Network, is an outspoken opponent of homosexuality and defends congressman Todd Akin for his observations about rape and abortion. (Troy Maben/AP)

This week Keith Boag is driving from Los Angeles to the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., and then on to join the CBC News bureau in Washington, D.C. Along the way he'll be reporting on U.S. election-related stories for and for The World at Six on CBC radio.

Shortly after I crossed over the state line between Arkansas and Mississippi I swept past a huge billboard that advocates the beating of children.

"Use the Rod and Save the Child" it proclaimed in the style of calligraphy that believers associate with the word of God.

I had been in the Bible Belt for a couple of hundred kilometres, but now the evidence suggested I was approaching its critical centre.

On the radio I tuned in the American Family Network and found Pastor Bryan Fischer defending congressman Todd Akin for his observations about rape and abortion.

Akin disgraced himself a few days ago when he said that women who undergo a "legitimate" rape can find that their bodies reflexively block pregnancy.

He was advancing the argument that there is no need for an exemption for rape when it comes to abortion because conception during rape is inconceivable.

Pastor Fischer's parsing of the congressman's comments about rape was a textbook illustration of why men, especially political men, should never presume to know anything about the deep feelings of women about this crime.

He reduced the entire controversy to a minor discussion about the meaning of the word "legitimate," and argued that Akin merely meant to say that a violent rape can produce such shock as to make conception impossible. 

Fischer didn't surprise me. In fact, I had plotted my route through Mississippi to ensure I had time for a chat with him at his base in Tupelo, the birthplace of Elvis Presley.

Fischer speaks with religious certainty about things he knows nothing about. I accept at face value that he is not homosexual, yet he claims to know that homosexual behaviour is "always, always, always a matter of choice."

"People go in and out of homosexual practice and the homosexual lifestyle every single day," he tells me.

Fischer reportedly has a million listeners for his daily two-hour program. He sounds thoughtful and well researched, and I find his assessment of himself as amiable and convivial to be largely true. He just talks a lot of nonsense.

Not easy being gay in the Bible Belt

Mississippi is a small state that doesn't give much room to gay people.

But Amelie Hahn and Sabrina Mays are raising their two daughters here in the very small town of Houston, just south of Tupelo.

Sabrina is quiet and talks in a matter-of-fact way about the neighbours who know her privately but won't even acknowledge her presence in public, and about the landlord who emails her Bible verses.

Amelie is a whole other thing. She spent some years bottled up in a traditional marriage before she came out and moved herself and her kids in with Sabrina.

She says her mother, who lives nearby, was once a closeted lesbian too.

Amelie is a gifted activist who speaks with a charming drawl that reminds me of Jodie Foster in Silence of the Lambs. But with Amelie, the accent is genuine — as is her passion when she talks about leaving for California one day, but not yet.

"We are not going to leave [Mississippi] until there has been some change, until we make our existence known and get our rights," she says.

There is seldom much for her to be optimistic about.

But there was that day, earlier this year, when she heard that President Barack Obama had declared his support for gay marriage. In Houston, Mississippi, two tiny voices cheered.

"I was stoked!" she says, "I was so happy!"

Imagine that moment. A black president makes a gesture in support of a civil right that he believes is denied to, among others, people such as this nice white lesbian couple in, of all places, Mississippi.

And yet some of those who stood at the very front lines of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s, the Negros (their word then) who preached non-violence while being beaten, water-hosed and set upon by dogs for the crimes of riding a bus or registering to vote, some of those courageous people are now actively opposing the struggle for equal marriage for gays and lesbians.

African-American Rev. William Owens, founder of the Coalition of African-American Pastors, recently likened President Obama to Judas Iscariot for his new support of gay marriage.

"The president is in the White House because of the Civil Rights movement," he said, "and I was a leader in that movement. And I didn't march one inch, one foot, one yard, for a man to marry a man and a woman to marry a woman."

Amelie Hahn gets the irony, but doesn't understand why it has to be the way it is.

She's solicited help from the NAACP, the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, but they're not interested in her cause. They don't know she's white when she calls, but they never call back.

"I've WALKED in their shoes!" she says. But it doesn't matter.

And it doesn't matter that she calls out Pastor Bryan Fischer as a bigot for his broadcasts — "is there any other word," she asks — because no one in Mississippi cares what she says, least of all Fischer himself.

"It doesn't bother me to be called a bigot because I know I'm right," he says. "I'm in agreement with scriptures, I'm in agreement with God."