Let’s reinvigorate the charge of religious bigotry

In the US, the term “bigot” is used interchangeably with “racist,” but its use for a long time involved religious, not racial, bigotry. At a certain point, it became more broadly used for someone who could not be persuaded out of a belief, religious or political. The OED gives the first three definitions as:

A religious hypocrite; (also) a superstitious adherent of religion; A person considered to adhere unreasonably or obstinately to a particular religious belief, practice, etc.; In extended use: a fanatical adherent or believer; a person characterized by obstinate, intolerant, or strongly partisan beliefs. (OED, Third Edition, December 2008)

The OED notes that Smollet in 1751 condemned the political discourse of his era by referring to “The crazed tory, the bigot whig.”

And that’s what’s wrong with our political discourse. It isn’t whether people are “civil” or “hostile” or even “racist.” Our problem is that our political discourse is dominated by bigoted discourse. And a lot of those bigots pretend that their views are reasonable ones related to Scripture.

Democracy works when most people are open to persuasion, and it doesn’t work when too many of us are bigots. Being open to persuasion doesn’t mean that you’ll change your mind every time someone gives you new information (the test apparently used by some studies about persuasion), but it does mean that you can imagine changing your mind, and, ideally, you can identify the conditions under which you would change your mind.

A.J. Ayer famously argued that some beliefs are falsifiable (which he described as scientific) and some aren’t (which he defined as religious). I think he was wrong in the notion that science is always falsifiable and religious never is, and there are other quibbles with his claim, but, having spent a lot time arguing with people in academic, nonacademic, fringe, and just fucking loony realms, I have come to think, while there are lots of good criticisms of the specifics of his argument, his general point–that we have beliefs we open to change and we have beliefs we will not change—is a useful and accurate description. (In fact, a lot of descriptions about whether an argument is useful or not begin with exactly that determination—are you open to changing your mind about the argument? Are you arguing with someone who is?)

A bigot is someone who cannot imagine circumstances under which she might change her mind. Or, more aptly, a bigot is someone who imagines himself as never wrong, and always able to summon evidence to support his position. What he can’t imagine (and this is what makes him irrational) is the evidence that would prove him wrong, and she condemns everyone who disagrees as so completely and obviously wrong that they should be silenced without ever having carefully listened to their argument.

I do believe that Jesus is my savior, and in a God who is omniscient and omnipotent. That belief is not open to disproof. And I am comfortable with calling that a religious belief. And, so, in that regard, I am a bigot. On the other hand, I’ve read the arguments for atheism, and various other religions, and I don’t think advocates of those beliefs should be silenced.

In addition I don’t believe that those two claims necessarily attach me to beliefs about slavery or segregation—and it’s important to remember that, for much of American history, there were entire regions in which it was insisted that being Christian necessarily meant supporting slavery and segregation. When Christian scholars of Scripture pointed out that the Scriptural based defenses of slavery and segregation were problematic, they were condemned as having a prejudiced and politicized reading of Scripture by people who insisted the Scripture endorsed US slavery practices. The notion that Scripture justified slavery as practice in the US South, especially after 1830 or so, was a bigoted reading of Scripture—not because I think it was wrong, but because its proponents refused to think carefully or critically about their own reasons and positions. They could “defend” slavery in that they could come up with (cherry-picked) proof texts, but they couldn’t (or wouldn’t) argue fairly with their critics, and they couldn’t (or wouldn’t) articulate the conditions under which they would change their minds. There were none. It isn’t what they argued, but how they argued, that earns them the title of bigot.

Furthermore, they banned criticisms of slavery, enforcing that ban with violence. So, they had both parts of the bigot definition—their views weren’t open to disproof, and they advocated refusing to listen to criticism of their views. They were bigots on steroids, in that they advocated violence against their critics.

Right now, we’re in a situation in which a lot of very powerful people are insisting you shouldn’t listen to criticisms of the current GOP political agenda, and they’re claiming that their views are grounded in Scripture, and they are implicitly and explicitly advocating violence against their critics. You should read them. (You can start with American Family Association, or Family Research Institute, or any expert cited on Fox News. Really—go read them.)

They call themselves conservative Christians. But being theologically conservative in Christianity does not necessarily involve the current GOP political agenda. For instance, there are conservative Christian arguments for gay marriage, for women working outside the home, against patriarchy, against the argument that charity should be entirely voluntary, and even the connection between conservative Christianity and abortion is fairly new. I’m not saying that true conservative Christians have this or that view–I’m saying that being conservative theologically doesn’t necessarily lead you to the GOP political agenda. After all, it was, for a long time, argued that being a conservative Christian necessarily led to endorsing slavery and segregation, and conservative Christians don’t make those connections anymore–why assume that current “necessary” connections (made with the same exegetical method as the “necessary” connections to slavery and segregation) are any better than those? And even many conservative Christians who argue for positions more or less in line with the current GOP political agenda don’t do so in a bigoted way. So, there’s nothing about being a conservative Christian that requires religious bigotry.

So, let’s stop using the term “conservative Christian” for people who insist that being a true Christian so necessarily means believing that the GOP agenda is right that everyone who disagrees should be threatened with violence till they shut up. “Conservative Christian” for what is actually authoritarian bigotry is strategic misnaming. Whether the Founders imagined a Christian nation is open to argument; whether they imagined a nation without disagreement is not. They valued disagreement; they valued reconsideration, deliberation, and pluralist argument.

People who pant for a one-party state, who tell their audience not to listen to anyone who disagrees, and who threaten (or justify threatening) their critics with violence are not only violating what the Founders said our country means may or may not be Christian (since they’re explicitly violating the “do unto others rule” I think that’s open to argument) but they are showing themselves to be anti-democratic authoritarian bigots.

And here is one last odd point about people like this (since I spend a lot of time arguing with them). They have a tendency to equate calling them authoritarian bigots with calling for silencing them, and that’s an interesting and important instance of projection. They believe that people who disagree with them should be silenced, so they really seem to hear all criticism of their views as an argument for silencing them. But that’s just projection.

We shouldn’t silence them. We should ask them to argue, not just engage in sloppy Jeremiads. I think our country is better if there are people who are participating in public discourse from the perspective of conservative Christianity. I think that’s a view that should be heard, and it can be heard without insisting all other views should be threatened into silence.

[The image at the top of the post is from a series of stained glass celebrating the massacre of Jews.]