How "Legal to Discriminate" Became "Freedom and Liberty"
Enough press attention has been given to the "religious freedom" laws in Indiana and Arkansas that there was initially little incentive to write more. That is, until conservatives reacted to opposition to the laws with an excess that is astonishing even for Fox News. The wing-nuts have come loose, to the extent that the entire coordinated media effort to attack liberals has taken on the distinct odor of desperation. But even that is not the real story. Before we reveal the plot, however, let's put this issue in context.
As expected, and right on cue, Bill O'Reilly entered stage right to pound his chest against the war on Christians, an extension of his false war on Christmas. Here is O'Reilly's thought when contemplating that not everybody would support the Indiana law: "In the U.S. and in Western Europe you have a civil war between the secular progressives and traditional religious people. In both cases, Christians are targets."
What reverberates in our skulls is the obvious disconnect between reality and this tired conservative storyline. A bully calling his victim a bully is hard to digest. According to a 2008 survey from Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, more than 78 percent of Americans identify themselves as Christian. Others more recently put that figure at 83 percent. Only 4 percent are self-proclaimed non-believers (broken into the survey categories of atheists at 1.6 percent and agnostics at 2.4 percent). Only about 3 percent of the population is in the LGBT community.
O'Reilly has plenty of fellow passengers on this derailing train of delusion. Tucker Carlson radio guest Tammy Bruce said liberals have turned into bullies and that conservatives have the obligation to "stop that kind of behavior." Tammy went on to note that critics of the Indiana law were "a fascist wolf pack." Tom Cotton (R-AK) said gays should be thankful they are not being hanged, as they are in the Iran. Mark Levin, a conservative radio host, draws a broader sweep of conclusions about any opposition to the Indian law: "The people who oppose these laws hate liberty; they hate the Constitution," he said on his show earlier this week. "I'll go even further: they hate America." Mike Huckabee believes that opposition to the laws means that liberals won't stop "until there are no more churches, until there are no more people who are spreading the Gospel [...] and I'm talking now about the unabridged, unapologetic Gospel that is really God's truth."
So in spite of vast, huge, massive, overwhelming, deeply embedded supermajorities, the conservative Christians that dominate our airwaves continue to speak in the dialect of victimhood. For the rest of us, the idea of Christians as modern victims while enjoying a dominating, crushing majority is difficult to swallow. A Christian complaining that Christianity is under attack when we are all submerged in that religion's ubiquitous presence is like a fish in the Pacific Ocean complaining that there is not enough water to swim in. From the perspective of a tiny single-digit minority, any claim by a group representing 80 percent of the population that the views of a few are a threat to the many is simply surreal. Nobody would take seriously a big brute of a bully who beat the daylights out of an innocent bystander, and then claimed he was victimized because he scraped his knuckles on his victim's forehead. Yet that is what we are witnessing in Fox News lamenting and complaining about their sore knuckles.
Still, as radical as these views are, none is surprising. Even as we recoil in horror, we have come to expect nothing less from Fox News or from the excesses of blind religious zeal wrapped in the flag of a false patriotism. This is all just colorful background for the real story.
What is shocking about Indiana (or Arkansas) law is not that religious zealots will trample our constitution in the name of their god; no, the real story is the complete acquiescence of the mainstream press to the Orwellian twisting of our language to suit the conservative agenda. I have not come across a single instance in which a major newspaper or TV reporter has challenged the term "religious freedom" and called the statute for what it is: the "Legal to Discriminate" law or "Christians Only" law or "Jews Need Not Enter" law or the "We Hate Gays" law. Do you think the law would have as much support if we used the proper moniker? Language matters. As George Carlin noted, in one of his many famous rifts on the oddities of word usage, you can say "prick your finger" in polite company but not "finger your prick." How we characterize something impacts how we react; and yet here we are all blindly talking about "religious freedom" or equally egregious "religious liberty" when what we actually face is the loss of one of our most basic rights. The contrast between the words and the reality could not be starker, and with few exceptions (like George Takai) I hear little from mainstream media challenging the description. We have come to a sad state when "religious liberty" means the precise opposite, such that such "liberty" denies me the right to practice my religion without fear of discrimination or denial of services readily available to my neighbor. Let's be clear: while gays were the initial target of these pro-discrimination laws, nothing would stop a shop-owner from denying service to anybody offensive to his or her religious ideal.
Words matter; words impact our perception. We talk of "freedom" and "liberty" and how Christians are bullied and victims. We should instead be calling these laws exactly what they are: an attempt by a supermajority to crush anybody and anything that does not comply with their narrow set of intolerant beliefs. The right to discriminate is an ugly pig, no matter how much lipstick we apply. Let's get it right when we talk about it. But we'd better hurry, otherwise there will "be no more churches."
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