The Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy likes to say that he was born in Paris. That would be Paris, Tenn. The president of the National Interfaith Alliance hardly shows any indication of his 73 years (he just celebrated a birthday on Oct. 10, but insists that he'll be slowing down at the end of this year when he retires as one of the nation's most celebrated, and controversial, freedom fighters.
The far-right NewsBusters website calls Gaddy a "pious fraud" for his adamant arguments for gun-control and against undeclared wars. More often, Gaddy is recognized as a champion of hate-crimes legislation and efforts to keep religion out of public classrooms. He's an author of more than 20 books addressing religion in American life and served in numerous leadership roles in the Southern Baptist Convention before its takeover by fundamentalists in the 1980s.
Boise Weekly sat down with Gaddy during a rare visit to Idaho to talk about his advocacy; his memories of the late Pam Baldwin, past executive director of Interfaith Alliance of Idaho; and his focus on LGBT rights, which he considers the civil rights fight of our times.
Tell me about Paris, Tenn.
It was a typical Southern town, with Southern values and Southern merits but Southern prejudices.
And your family?
My sister died early so I was an only child. We went to a fundamentalist Christian Southern Baptist church. My mother's education was very limited; my father had some education but no college.
Were they insistent on you going to college?
There was trust among the three of us that allowed me to ask questions even when they couldn't fully answer. As I got older and went to university, I had a lot more questions and we found ourselves in different places in regards to race. But it never stopped us from having those tough discussions; they were embraced by love and respect.
Did you grow up in and around segregation?
We lived in the wrong part of town—the lower-income part of town. At the back of where we lived were black families and I played with those kids as my friends.
Did you go to school with them?
No. There was never a black person in any of my classes even though I was in high school. I remember asking my dad what was different about black schools; and he insisted that black schools were just like white schools. It wasn't true. They never had the same books, classrooms or resources. I have a very specific memory of Brown v. Board of Education [the landmark 1954 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, which ruled separate public schools for black and white students to be unconstitutional]. I remember hearing adults around me say, "If our government forces this upon us, we're going to see blood in the streets of the South."
Do you remember the events that led you to the truth about what unites us versus what divides us?
It's when I got to college. Honestly, what started my own dramatic change was my study of the Bible. I know that sounds pious, but I had amazing professors who helped us interpret the New Testament to learn that there was no question whatsoever that racism was evil and inconsistent with Christianity.
How did you reconcile all of that when you returned home?
When I was in university, there were reinforcements for me. But my parents had no reinforcements when they tried to consider change. Their church was racist. Their friends and families were racist. And if my parents ever said anything to indicate that they might be pro-integration, they were shut down.
Pardon my naivete, but help me out with how a church can be racist at its core.
The same thing was true with slavery and it appears that the same thing is true with LGBT rights: People go to the Bible with minds already made up about what it supposedly says. They see just enough in the text to support their point of view and say, "This is the word of God."
Aren't some faith leaders maintaining that ignorance?
Fundamentalist conservatives are so hard on the historical, critical method of interpreting the Bible, and they're routinely against the education of ministers.
Let's talk a bit about Idaho's struggle to codify protections for its LGBT community.
My first message to the LGBT community is an apology for a church that has been part of such hatred. For one reason or another, none of them valid, churches have told them that they're less in dignity or worth. I know scores of people who have been so hurt that I wouldn't blame them if they never set foot in a church again. The second part of my message is that historically, we have to change the law before we can change the heart. That was also true in the civil rights movement.
To those of us who witnessed the civil rights era, this feels very familiar.
That's why homophobic activists don't want you to align the civil rights movement with the struggle for LGBT rights. If you remember, civil rights laws didn't get rid of racism but people needed to obey the law and caused people to take their racism to beneath the surface of social credibility.
I know you were good friends with Pam Baldwin [the Idaho human rights leader and executive director of the Interfaith Alliance for Idaho died at the age of 66 due to complications from pneumonia in October 2013].
She was tireless... a terrific organizer and activist. She was a person of conviction and courage and a model that we may never be able to duplicate. Her absence is tangible. I came here to Idaho to tell her board, "You're not going to replace Pam. You have to find different people with different specialites. Pam had a lot of those specialties. But now, you have to have board members that have each of them. The worst thing in the world would be if you said you can't do things without her." Pam Baldwin was a heroine to me.
And how about you? At 73, I must say that you appear to be fresh as a daisy.
You caught me on a good day. I spend my weeks at the Interfaith Alliance headquarters in Washington, D.C. I travel to Monroe, La., on Fridays to do a full worship service each weekend at Northminster Baptist Church, and then I'm back in D.C. on Monday. I've been doing that schedule for 16 years. I'm retiring at the end of this year to spend more time with the kids and grandkids. They haven't seen a lot of me up until now, but they will soon.