Thursday, December 02, 2010

Missionary Creep

The anti-gay groups are complaining loudly about being categorized as hate groups. Yesterday's LA Times did a good job of looking at the question, focusing in particular on the Family Research Council and why the Southern Poverty Law Center decided to add them to the list.

This is not just a national news story, it has meaning for us who live in Montgomery County, Maryland. Our local school district retains anti-gay activist Peter Sprigg, a Family Research Council Senior Policy Analyst, on the citizens advisory committee to recommend changes to the school district's health curriculum, in particular sex ed classes. Sprigg believes that "homosexual behavior" should be a crime. He has been meeting with the Superintendent of Schools' administrators, advising the school district, for five years now.

The LA Times:
The Southern Poverty Law Center is an organization with deep roots in the civil rights movement. Its ingenious lawsuits helped break the back of the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist factions, and in recent years, it has joined the Anti-Defamation League as a reliable monitor of hate groups.

The Family Research Council is an influential Washington-based advocacy group with deep roots in the religious right. Its annual political forum, the Values Voter Summit, has become a nearly obligatory stop for ambitious Republican office-seekers hoping to win the support of so-called values voters. In recent years, the council has given an increasing share of its attention to opposing marriage equality and open military service by gays and lesbians.

Now, the two groups are locked in a sharp confrontation that raises crucial questions about where the expression of religiously based views on social issues ends and hate speech begins.

Last week, the law center added the Family Research Council to its list of more than 930 active hate groups, citing the anti-gay rhetoric of its leaders and researchers, which have included calls to re-criminalize consensual sex between individuals of the same gender. The Southern Poverty Law Center defines a hate group as one with "beliefs or practices that attack or malign an entire class of people, typically for their immutable characteristics."

The council's president, former Louisiana lawmaker Tony Perkins, reacted angrily to the designation, calling it "slanderous" and demanding an apology. "The left is losing the debate over ideas and the direction of public policy, so all that is left for them is character assassination," Perkins said, insisting that his group "will continue to champion marriage and family as the foundation of our society and will not acquiesce to those seeking to silence the Judeo-Christian views held by millions of Americans."Hate under cloak of religion

There is a bit of controversy around the idea of adapting civil-rights language to gay-rights issues. I think an important objection comes from the so-called "black preachers," (I say so-called because there are many black preachers who don't agree with them) such as Bishop Harry Jackson, who support equal rights for African-Americans but see sexual orientation as a moral choice. This makes it a sticky problem; while plenty of African-Americans support gay rights, it is not a powerful movement within the black community, and there is some resentment when concepts and terms that successfully shifted the balance of power in the 1960s struggle against racial discrimination are applied to this new campaign.

On the other hand, the issues are parallel. Nobody asked to be black, and nobody asked to be gay. Both groups have faced prejudice and discrimination, both groups fought back against powerful opposition. African-Americans got there sooner and tipped the scales fifty years ago, while the revolution among LGBT citizens is largely considered to have begun for real after the Stonewall Riots in 1969. While the fight for racial justice is not finished, with racism having learned to disguise itself, principles countering racism are now embedded in our legal system and in the nation's belief structures -- everybody knows what is not acceptable. Gays and lesbians lag far behind, "that's so gay" is still common playground talk, and homophobia is still evident and open, requiring very little in the way of apology or justification in the public eye.

The SPLC may have made its name in the fight for racial equality, but the fight against prejudice and discrimination extends beyond any particular feature that distinguishes groups.
Other conservative commentators also have assailed listing the council as a hate group, calling it an affront to protected speech. That is a superficially compelling argument, but it won't withstand scrutiny. It is perfectly possible for a church or an organization associated with a denomination or religious tendency — as the Family Research Council is with evangelical Protestantism — to oppose, say, marriage equality as a departure from tradition and traditional notions of civic virtue without defaming gays and lesbians as a group.

But the council goes well beyond that. Over the years, it has published statistical compendiums purporting to quantify the "evils" of homosexuality. One of its pamphlets is entitled, "Dark Obsession: The Tragedy and Threat of the Homosexual Lifestyle." At various times, its spokesmen have spuriously alleged that the gay rights movement's goal "is to go after children" and that child molestation is more likely to occur in households with gay parents. Last week, one of its senior fellows, Peter Sprigg, told reporters on a conference call concerning repeal of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy that "homosexuals in the military are three times more likely to commit sexual assaults than heterosexuals are relative to their numbers."

Such rhetoric is eerily reminiscent of that with which religiously affiliated opponents of African American equality once defended segregation. It wasn't all that long ago that some of them argued against school integration because, they alleged, black adolescents were uniquely unable to control sexual impulses and, therefore, would assault white schoolgirls. Exhortations against "race mixing" were commonplace pulpit messages short decades ago, though we now recognize them as hate speech. It's past time to do the same with rhetoric that denigrates gays and lesbians.

It is fine and necessary to distinguish good people from bad ones, to be able to form conclusions about others, to predict whether they will help us or hurt us and whether we want to associate with them or not. I honestly don't know what to make of people who spend their entire day thinking of bad things to say about gay and lesbian people, I can't imagine what motivates them or how they think they are making the world a better place in any way. Sexual orientation is not a factor that distinguishes good people from bad, or people who can help us from people who will hurt us. Nobody chooses to be gay, and there are no known correlates, no special characteristics that separate gay and lesbian people from others, except their attraction to someone of their own sex, and how does that make them evil?
So long as even the most objectionable religious dogma stays under the church roof, it's a constitutionally protected view. People's religious beliefs — even when noxious — are a private matter. Our churches are free to order their internal affairs as they will — to set the terms of sacramental marriage as they see fit, to discriminate in the selection of their clergy, to racially segregate their membership or to separate the sexes in their schools or places of worship.

However, when a group sets out to impose its views on the rest of society by lobbying for public policies or laws, it can no longer claim special protections or an exemption from the norms of civil discourse simply because its views are formed by religious beliefs. This is precisely the dodge the Family Research Council has been running.

Excellent point. We understand that some religious groups have strange beliefs. Like, did you see where Family Radio Inc., a nationwide Christian network, has started putting up billboards saying that the rapture will be May 21, 2011? May 22nd is going to be kind of embarrassing for those of them whose cars have not become unmanned. Some religions have food taboos or prohibitions on certain kinds of behaviors, including sexual behaviors, there may be little things you are supposed to do during the day as part of your religious tradition. If you're a member of that religion you follow their rules, and if you're not you don't have to -- this is what we mean by "religious freedom" in the United States.

This LA Times piece describes something like "mission creep," the expansion of a project or mission beyond its original goals, where evangelical Christians are taking religious beliefs that they apply to themselves and trying to get others to conform to them, as well. Maybe we can call this missionary creep. It does have a ring to it! A church congregation may hold strong beliefs and adhere to their practices, but after services they pour out onto the sidewalks and streets, where they mix with individuals who do not necessarily share their beliefs. And in public the congregation has no right to force nonbelievers to adhere to their traditions. Yet in the US, conservative Christians have long felt that they should be able to force the rest of us to respect their thin-skinned abhorrence of temptation: missionary creep.


Anonymous Obie Holmen said...

Thanks for your voice. I quoted from your post extensively today in my own post on Spirit of a Liberal blog. Click on my name to check it out.

December 03, 2010 10:05 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

no thanks


a loyal TTFer

December 03, 2010 1:32 PM  
Blogger JimK said...

Thank you, Obie, I'm glad you appreciated this. (Don't pay any attention to the idiots.)


December 03, 2010 2:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

yeah, man

we tolerate a lot a idiots 'round here

December 03, 2010 3:52 PM  

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