What should Christians do about the Southern Poverty Law Center's hate list?
Last week, the Southern Poverty Law Center posted a revision of their hate groups list, including the Family Research Council and the American Family Association, among other Christian organizations, on their anti-gay list of groups to watch. The SPLC insists that the groups placed on the list knowingly spread misleading information and harmful stereotypes about gay people that incite prejudice and harassment. Viewing homosexuality as unbiblical was not one of the criteria for inclusion.
Since then, representatives of these groups as well as some defenders have criticized the SPLC, suggesting that the list is really an effort to stifle differences of opinion and/or to persecute Christians for their beliefs. For the most part, the reaction of defenders of the newly labeled hate groups is to avoid addressing the issues the SPLC raised, instead preferring to attack the credibility of the SPLC.
Reviewing the charges leveled against the Christian groups, I think their responses are mostly unfortunate and unhelpful. The SPLC has identified some issues which are legitimate and have damaged the credibility of the groups on the list. Going forward, I hope Christians don't rally around these groups but rather call them to accountability.
In their recent report, the SPLC identifies ten myths that the listed groups promote (the statements that are also links lead to blog posts where I address the issues). They are:
1. Homosexuals molest children at far higher rates than heterosexuals.
2. Same-sex parents harm children.
4. Homosexuals don't live nearly as long as heterosexuals. (see also here and here)
5. Homosexuals controlled the Nazi Party and helped to orchestrate the Holocaust. (see also comments from historian Lothar Machtan)
7. Allowing homosexuals to serve openly would damage the armed forces.
(Note: the links above are not in the original SPLC article. They link to relevant articles or refer to work I have done to address these claims in past posts. I have done very little work on claims 2 and 7, however, I believe the groups on the SPLC hate list have distorted research to support their views on these issues (e.g., Bryan Fischer's claim that gays in the military brought on the Holocaust as a talking point against repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell).
The SPLC offers valid criticisms of each one of these assertions. In fairness, the SPLC did not completely debunk each of these statements in their brief article, but they did raise legitimate factual concerns about how these assertions are communicated to the public.
I have spent much time addressing claims 1, 3-6 and 8-10 (click the links above for posts on these topics). The more I have researched these claims, the more disillusioned I have become with the credibility of the groups recently placed on the list. Even though I agree with some positions held by some of the groups on some issues (e.g., pro-life), I now investigate any factual claims for myself and accept nothing at face value.
Ultimately, this is a real problem for American Christianity. One should be able to trust Christian groups to provide accurate information and nuanced analysis. However, on issues relating to sexual orientation, I cannot trust them. For me, this lack of trust spills over to other domains as well, creating a significant problem with credibility. I hope my fellow believers will not defend these claims simply because those making them are Christians.
There are many negative consequences which derive from the myths, overgeneralizations and stereotypes. For instance, I know of a handful of situations where men were kept from their grandchildren or children by other family members because they disclosed same-sex attraction. Even though the men involved had no attraction for children, their families feared them because they experienced homosexual attractions. I know of more than one man who had to defend his right to have custody of his children because he divulged his homosexual attractions to a Christian leader. The families and Christian leaders were driven to fear because of rhetoric from one or more of the groups now on the SPLC list.
Surveys demonstrate that younger people are more moderate regarding homosexuality. They are more likely to view groups such as now occupy the SPLC list as being strident and harsh. Many such young people know GLBT people. They perhaps know some gays who could fit the stereotypes, but often they know more such persons who do not match up with the picture painted by the organizations in question. They also know straight people who have the same problems that are supposed to be more typical of gays. The effect of the hyperbole and stereotyping is to turn them off, sometimes toward the church in general.
To repeat, I hope Christians don't circle the wagons and view the SPLC episode as a persecution of Christians for "righteousness sake" (Mt. 5:10). In my view, those who criticize the motives of the SPLC for making the designations miss the point. Even if the SPLC targeted Christian groups because those involved don't like Christians, the substantial issues raised by the SPLC still remain. The SPLC did not bring up doctrinal issues, but rather issues of fact unrelated to any central tenets of Christianity.
Worries over free speech (e.g., Wendy Kaminer) are also distractions. The SPLC cannot stop these groups from misusing data or proclaiming their views. However, the SPLC can exercise free speech to criticize misleading assertions.
Instead, I hope Christians consider the words of Al Mohler, which could have been written about this very issue (in italics):
When gay activists accuse conservative Christians of homophobia, they are wrong. Our concern about the sinfulness of homosexuality is not rooted in fear, but in faithfulness to the Bible — and faithfulness means telling the truth.
Yet, when gay activists accuse conservative Christians of homophobia, they are also right. Much of our response to homosexuality is rooted in ignorance and fear. We speak of homosexuals as a particular class of especially depraved sinners and we lie about how homosexuals experience their own struggle. Far too many evangelical pastors talk about sexual orientation with a crude dismissal or with glib assurances that gay persons simply choose to be gay. While most evangelicals know that the Bible condemns homosexuality, far too many find comfort in their own moralism, consigning homosexuals to a theological or moral category all their own.
Having examined the ten myths identified by the SPLC, I have to agree with Mohler - much of what is said by Christians about homosexuals is provably false and rooted in ignorance and fear. On point, leaders of the organizations targeted by the SPLC can defend themselves or they can use this crisis as a wake up call for reflection and change. My hope is that individual Christians and church leaders will not enable the defensiveness but instead demand the reflection and change.