Eleven years ago, a 21-year-old college student in Wyoming was robbed, severely beaten, tied to fence and left to die.
The vicious murder of Matthew Shepard shocked the nation. The slightly built, soft-spoken young man was gay, and it soon came to light that his killers, Aaron J. McKinney and Russell A. Henderson, had targeted Shepard because of his sexual orientation.
Bill Clinton, president at the time, called for federal hate-crimes legislation to make it possible for the federal government to respond in cases like the Shepard murder. Although many in Congress agreed, the measure couldn’t make it through the House of Representatives and Senate. It was periodically reintroduced during the presidency of George W. Bush but failed every time.
The political situation changed dramatically after the election of Barack Obama. Democrats in Congress championed the bill, and on Oct. 28, Obama signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009 into law. (Byrd, an African American, was chained to a pickup truck and dragged to death in June of 1998.)
Gay-rights activists, families of violent crime victims and many other Americans celebrated the action. But there was one segment of the population that was definitely not pleased: the Religious Right.
In the weeks and months leading up to the vote, Religious Right groups unleashed a torrent of hysterical and misleading claims. They stated repeatedly that the measure would penalize “thought crimes” and make it illegal for conservative pastors and their flocks to criticize homosexuality.
Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, called the measure “a slap in the face of our servicemen and women” because it was attached to a Defense Department appropriations bill.
“This hate crimes provision is part of a radical social agenda that could ultimately silence Christians and use the force of government to marginalize anyone whose faith is at odds with homosexuality,” Perkins fumed.
The Rev. Donald Wildmon’s American Family Association (AFA) released a string of outraged e-mail messages attacking the measure. One of them called the bill “one of the most dangerous laws in the history of the United States.”
The AFA quoted a Pennsylvania pastor named Michael Marcavage who said, “What this bill does is [seek] to shut down those who dare to speak against the sin of homosexuality with the hope and freedom that is found in Jesus Christ.”
Shuttered churches and jailed pastors? Would the Shepard bill really do that – and could it somehow trump the First Amendment?
Not at all, say critics of the Religious Right, In fact, no provisions in the bill criminalize any form of speech. Two separate sections in the legislation plainly state that nothing in it is designed to inhibit free speech, freedom of religion or other constitutionally protected rights.
The new law focuses on violent acts, not speech, giving the federal government new tools to assist state and local law enforcement in cracking down on crimes motivated by bias. It also offers relief to cash-strapped communities facing the high costs associated with prosecuting these crimes.
In many ways, the bill promotes “tough on crime” policies that conservatives claim to champion. Permitting the federal government to step in can ensure that perpetrators of assault, murder and other crimes receive stiff sentences if state or local officials fail to pursue cases vigorously.
In May of 2007, a 20-year-old South Carolina man was attacked outside a Greenville bar by an assailant who made anti-gay slurs. Sean Kennedy fell to the ground after being struck, hit his head and was pronounced brain dead the next day.
Kennedy’s assailant, Stephen Andrew Moller, then 18, was charged with murder, but local authorities reduced the charge to manslaughter. Moller served less than two years behind bars.
Kennedy’s mother, Elke, told CNN.com that if a hate-crimes law had been in effect, the FBI could have investigated the matter. She believes Moller would still be in prison.
The Shepard bill also explicitly protects religious people. Three of its provisions make it clear that hate crimes aren’t limited to gays. They include violent acts motivated by the victim’s “actual or perceived religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability.”
TV preacher Pat Robertson, who apparently never took the time to actually read the legislation, lit into it on his “700 Club” on Oct. 28 and 29.
“What about a law that says it’s a federal crime to attack somebody because of his religious beliefs? Not a chance!” Robertson opined.
Robertson continued, “What’s going to happen if someone preaches a sermon – ‘homosexuality is a sin. Here’s what the Bible says. Here’s chapter and verse.’ All of sudden, somebody leaves that congregation and goes out beats up on someone who is homosexual. Does that kick back on the pastor? Is he now guilty of hate crime?... This will be a law to muzzle speech and create a climate of fear on those who would speak out against this issue in terms of what the Bible says.”
Labeling Shepard “the cause célèbre for all of the hate against gays,” Robertson said he does not believe there is much hostility toward gay people and added, “To have the big stick of the government coming after you is not a pleasant experience.”
The next day, Robertson was carping on the subject again.
“The noose has tightened around the necks of Christians to keep them from speaking out on certain moral issues,” he said.
A subsequent “700 Club” segment on the new law asserted that the measure could end up putting Christians in jail.
The Religious Right’s feeding frenzy over the hate-crimes bill is only one example of the lurid rhetoric that has been stock and trade in fundamentalist circles since Obama took office.
During a September conference sponsored by the Family Research Council (FRC), speaker after speaker reached for the most lurid rhetoric possible as they portrayed a nation that is literally being stolen away. Obama and his supporters were caricatured as un-American, as socialists and as relentless activists hell-bent on tearing down the very foundations of the nation. (See “Of Piety and Partisanship,” October 2009 Church & State.)
Much of the discussion at the FRC’s so-called “Values Voter Summit” centered on health-care reform. Discredited claims of “death panels,” rationing and government takeovers of the health-care system were rampant.
To hear the Religious Right tell it, the very survival of the nation is at stake.
James C. Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, told the secretive Council for National Policy recently that things are so bad the country faces the possibility of disunion.
“I don’t believe there is a single policy decision that Barack Obama has made that I agree with, and many of them are terrifying in their implications,” Dobson remarked. “We are in greater danger right now, I think, than at any time since the Civil War. We have to use all of our resources…to fight for the things we believe.”
What sparks this type of talk?
Frederick S. Lane, who has authored books about the Religious Right’s attempts to dominate law and government, believes a number of factors are responsible.
“There’s a part of me that thinks this is the logical progression of what the Religious Right has been doing for a long time,” Lane said. “It’s the Web and media-driven age we live in. If you don’t ratchet up the language, a lot of groups think they won’t get heard.”
At the same time, Lane points out, extreme rhetoric fills an emotional need for some people. The 2008 election, he argues, was in many ways a repudiation of George W. Bush, and many in the Religious Right took that personally.
The Religious Right’s response has been to assail Obama and congressional Democrats. That’s to be expected, but what complicates matters, Lane observed, is that media figures like Rush Limbaugh and Fox News Channel’s Glenn Beck have become de facto spokesmen for the GOP. Since their goal is to spike ratings, they have no problem parroting the most lurid rhetoric imaginable. Other individuals and groups race to keep pace, and a feedback loop is created.
“If you are an observer of public discourse, this is a time to be wary,” said Lane, author of the recent book The Court and the Cross: The Religious Right’s Crusade to Reshape the Supreme Court.
At the farthest fringes of the far right lie groups and individuals that have gone around the bend: “birthers” who insist that Obama wasn’t born in America and paranoid factions convinced the president is secretly constructing camps to contain his political foes – an allegation promoted by Beck and the right-wing site WorldNetDaily.
Most Religious Right groups try to keep the truly crazy stuff at arm’s length. But their rhetoric often flirts with an extremism that’s only slightly softer. In the Religious Right’s view, Obama isn’t just pursuing a more liberal direction after eight years of Bush, he’s determined to tear down the country and replace it with something new and nefarious.
In late October, Wildmon’s AFA circulated a piece by far-right columnist Thomas Sowell headlined “Dismantling America.” In the column, Sowell dredged up false claims of “death panels” and asserted that Obama seeks to be all but worshipped in public schools and schemes to unleash a legion of “czars” to remake America.
“How far the President will go depends of course on how much resistance he meets,” Sowell wrote. “But the direction in which he is trying to go tells us more than all his rhetoric or media spin. Barack Obama has not only said that he is out to ‘change the United States of America,’ the people he has been associated with for years have expressed in words and deeds their hostility to the values, the principles, and the people of this country.”
In a follow-up column also distributed by the AFA, Sowell asserted, “When a president of the United States has begun the process of dismantling America from within, and exposing us to dangerous enemies outside, the time is long past for being concerned about his public image. Internationally, Barack Obama has made every mistake that was made by the Western democracies in the 1930s, mistakes that put Hitler in a position to start World War II – and come dangerously close to winning it.”
Other Religious Right activists are confident that Obama’s actions will bring divine vengeance upon the nation – a prospect they seem to relish.
Brannon Howse, a Religious Right leader who runs a group called Worldview Weekend, which purports to teach Christians on how to have a proper biblical “worldview,” opined in a recent column that Obama has brought America to a dangerous pass by turning his back on Israel and embracing homosexuals.
“On June 1, Obama signed a proclamation that declared June as ‘Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, And Transgender Pride Month, 2009,’” wrote Howse. “Combine America throwing Israel under the bus and our nation plotting evil against the Lord, and I think we may be at, or near, that tipping point.
“The next few months will reveal whether this is true or not,” he continued. “But it has become very clear that America is not on the side of God when our nation has murdered nearly 50 million unborn children, states are rushing toward homosexual marriage, God is outlawed in our nation’s public schools, the criminalization of Christianity is greatly increasing, only 1% of adults have a Christian worldview and false-teaching and pagan spirituality has become mainstream.”
Others have tarred Obama with perhaps the ultimate insult – accusing him of promoting Nazi ideology.
Richard Land, the top lobbyist for the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), accused Obama and congressional Democrats of seeking to implement a Final Solution through health-care reform.
“I want to put it to you bluntly: What they are attempting to do in health care, particularly in treating the elderly, is not something like what the Nazis did. It is precisely what the Nazis did,” said Land, speaking to the Christian Coalition of Florida during a Sept. 26 banquet. “Let’s remember, the first 10,000 victims of the Holocaust were not Jews, they were mentally handicapped German children who were gassed and burned in ovens because they were considered to have…lives unworthy of life.”
Land, who represents the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, went on to compare Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, the president’s chief health-care advisor, to Josef Mengele, a Nazi doctor and SS officer notorious for his vile experiments on human subjects during the Holocaust.
Criticized for his over-the-top rhetoric by Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League, Land claimed he was stepping back from the comments. But Land’s backers in the SBC were apparently alarmed that he might drop the Nazi analogies, and he quickly began back-pedaling.
Baptist Press, the SBC’s news service, soon reported that Land “has no plans to stop pointing out where the reasoning behind health care reform proposals intersect the ideologies held by those in history who failed to appreciate the preciousness of all human life.”
The Baptist Press went on to say that Land “still believes there are connections to be made between some underlying philosophies held by the Germans and others in the first half of the 20th century, and certain elements under discussion in the health care reform debate today.”
Land’s critics were not pleased. Richard V. Pierard, a former Indiana State University history professor and an expert on modern German history, blasted Land in a column on the moderate Baptist Web site EthicsDaily.com.
“To evoke images of Hitler or the Holocaust to thwart health-care reform is a brutal insult both to the victims and survivors of that Holocaust,” Pierard wrote. “The current effort to rebuild a badly broken health-care system has absolutely nothing to do with Nazism or the Holocaust that consumed a third of the world’s Jews. As a Baptist, I apologize to our Jewish readers for Land’s outrageous comments.”
In response, Land accused Pierard of attempting to censor his speech and set himself up as a “speech czar.”
Pierard fired back in another column, patiently attempting to explain to Land the difference between criticism and censorship.
“The right to run at the mouth and say whatever one pleases about any given matter is, of course, guaranteed by the First Amendment,” observed Pierard, “but it does not protect the person from the consequences of those utterances.”
In an interview with Church & State, Pierard, himself an evangelical Christian, said he is discouraged over the level of discourse that frequently occurs in his faith community these days.
“I’m just fed up with American evangelicals,” Pierard said. “Maybe they really believe this stuff, but it always amazes me of the ability of the human mind to convince itself over some of these things.
“There is also some gullibility,” added Pierard. “I’ve come to the conclusion that’s the only way to explain some of these Southern Baptists.”
Pierard recalled the attacks on President Clinton in the 1990s, many of which were launched by TV preachers and large Religious Right outfits. The current situation, he opined, is actually worse. More offensive to Pierard is the tendency of these groups to wrap their hateful salvos in religious language and claim to be speaking in the name of Jesus Christ.
“I think it’s rank hypocrisy,” Pierard remarked. “It’s just downright hypocritical for them to talk that way about Jesus.”
What’s the danger in all of this talk about Nazis, losing America and creeping socialism?
Author Lane points out that while most people can shrug off extreme rhetoric, there are segments of the population who may react to it in unexpected ways.
“There are always unstable people,” he said. “There’s a real risk someone will be driven to do something dramatic. We’ve seen that in the abortion debate. I think that’s the real corollary here.”
Will the Religious Right’s radical rhetoric let up any time soon?
Don’t bet on it. Congress is working to pass legislation to ban employment discrimination against gays and lesbians in most settings, and Obama has promised to overturn the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on gay service members.
“The Religious Right is alive and well and continuing to fan the flames of the culture wars,” said Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “Overheated rhetoric and outrageous claims are a huge part of the Religious Right arsenal.
“I’d like to see the level of public discourse come down to a more reasonable level,” Lynn continued, “but I don’t expect that anytime soon.”