It’s an observation that’s been made to me many times over the years I’ve been writing this often sarcastic, sometimes caustic, column. It usually goes something like this: “You know, you might get further with our enemies if you tried to understand what their fears are and let them know you want to have a civil discourse with them. Must you be so cutting and dismissive of their concerns?”
I once found myself in a buffet line next to former U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), one our community’s chief nemesis on Captiol Hill. This took place while covering the Republican National Convention, so I thought it was worth it to try and engage him in a civil discussion on gay rights issues.
He smiled. He was gracious. He was courtly. And let loose in the warmest fashion some of the most hateful stereotypes about lesbians and gay men, all while trying to convince me that he felt bad that he had to hate me so much. It wasn’t his choice. Jesus made him do it.
And that was my first lesson in why meeting religious fundamentalists “halfway” does not work. How can you possibly argue with people who think they have a divine being to back them up?
Yes, I know: half of what they say (or think) is in their holy book is contradictory to the other half, and if they simply read the Bible (or Koran, etc.) with a critical eye they’d realize this. But they don’t get their worldview from actually reading those books cover-to-cover. It’s all so much received folk wisdom from their clergy, other members of their congregations cum social clubs, and various right-wing media outlets and non-profits.
It’s not about making sense. It’s about belonging to a group with shared social values.
Not only that, but their leaders — every money-grubbing televangelist preaching the “prosperity Gospel,” and the leaders of the Family Research Council and National Organization for Marriage come to mind — spread outright lies with such ease, that to deal with them as rational beings would put us at an immediate tactical disadvantage. This is because they peddle the worst sorts of lies in front of their followers, and then ramp down their hateful rhetoric so as to seem reasonable when they are on a mainstream media news program or in front of a mainstream audience.
This is why efforts such as the upcoming one by sex advice columnist Dan Savage to engage Brian Brown in a public debate are doomed to failure and serve the purposes of our enemies more than our own. Brown and Savage will appear on-stage and Brown will tamp down his usually extreme rhetoric, as he always does in front of a general audience.
I have no doubt that Savage, an accomplished public speaker, will get in a few good hits on Brown solely by countering Brown with rational arguments and hoisting Brown on his past hateful statements. But mostly it will be a stalemate because Brown will lessen his outright hatred of us just enough to seem like a nice, if misguided, true believer.
Wingnuts know something about liberals/progressives that they use to their advantage: they know that many of us, steeped in liberal traditions of rational debate, are susceptible to right-wing charges that liberals are just as close-minded as the worst wingnut.
This is an argument that conservatives used to cow much of the mainstream press into what it is today: stenographers who treat conservatives talking points based on dogma, no matter how unreasonable those talking points might be on their face, as equal to progressive position papers and studies based on reliable data.
And now conservatives are masterfully doing the same thing with debates around religion, turning our desire to prevent them from imposing their religious values on everyone else into a form of discrimination against them.
Our wish to not be seen as bombastic or emotional will be our downfall. The only way we will win this battle is to show the world what foolish bags of hate are the Maggie Gallaghers or Tony Perkins of the world. And that includes showing how preposterous their religion is — if one just turns their beliefs back on them to show that they are based on fallible writings based on so much magic they might just as well be about unicorns and flying carpets.
And that means, when the setting and occasion call for it, being just as nasty to them as they are to us. They (and we) deserve nothing less than a full-throated response to their efforts to make all of us second class citizens.
If polls of the millennial generation are any indication, it’s a battle we are wining as more and more young people turn away from organized religion, hopefully for good because religion and freedom have never mixed well.