Hate Can Be Mainstream
Bigotry is bigotry, even if the bigots are in the majority.
I’m struck by this defense the Alliance Defending Freedom published against accusations by the Southern Poverty Law Center that it is a hate organization. Struck not by the merits of the SPLC’s case (the organization does have a history of being over-broad in its application of the “hate” label), or the veracity of the ADF’s denial, but instead by one of the moves the ADF makes, namely by pointing to just how many people share its views.
Under the heading, “SPLC’s conception of ‘hate’ includes broad swaths of mainstream, conservative America,” the ADF writes,
The so-called “radical right” and “anti-LGBT organizations” SPLC has identified include many beloved, respected, and mainstream conservative and religious organizations and individuals, such as Ben Carson, Heritage Foundation, Dennis Prager, PragerU, The Federalist Society, Franklin Graham, Catholic Medical Association, Alliance Defending Freedom, Heritage Action, Focus on the Family, Family Research Council, Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, Liberty Counsel, Pacific Justice Institute, The Leadership Institute, First Liberty Institute, Ruth Institute, European Center for Law and Justice, Alaska Family Council, Florida Family Policy Council, Texas Values, and Homeschool Legal Defense Association, to name just a few.
The “lots of people believe as I do, therefore I’m not morally wrong” claim has a long history, and it’s easy to understand why. Few of us think of ourselves as bigots. Few of us want others to label us bigots. If our views are commensurate with the crowd, we’re provided both anonymity (we’re less likely to be singled out for censure) and cover (it’s easier to censure a single person than it is half the population). Beyond that, however, there’s a sense of “the majority is right” that’s baked into our democratic culture. The basic principle of a democratic system is that “the people” decide, and that “the people” just is whichever group has the most votes. This bleeds into our thinking outside of strictly setting the agenda for government, such that it’s easy to convince ourselves that the social values held by the majority are correct and good—or at least not radically incorrect and hateful.
Hence the ADF’s list. If mainstream conservatives, prominent conservative figures, major conservative organizations, and popular conservative YouTube channels are anti-LGBT, then it’s simply unreasonable to label their brand of anti-LGBT as hate or bigotry. Strength in numbers is evidence of virtuous beliefs.
And yet even the most superficial knowledge of this country’s history will recognize that it is overflowing with examples of majorities holding objectively hateful views. To take just one example, until the middle of the 1990s, the majority of Americans disapproved of interracial marriage. In 1958, which is well within the lifetimes of many still living, only 4% approved. It’s impossible to argue that disapproval of interracial marriage was motivated by anything other than bigotry.
It is equally obvious that many, if not most, anti-LGBT beliefs fall within the category of bigotry as well, and future generations will clearly look back on those beliefs with the same condemnation as our current generation looks back on anti-miscegenation. Further, this is true no matter how many Family Research Counsels, Heritage Actions, or PragerUs presently insist otherwise.
We also need to be very careful about treating wrongful beliefs and values differently, or with kid gloves, because they happen to be grounded in a given religious faith. In fact, the health of a liberal society depends up treating all beliefs equally, and being equally willing to critique and criticize them. Walling off some social values merely because they draw upon a particular category of metaphysical priors is as unjust and irrational as doing the opposite in subjecting them to special scrutiny and condemnation. Religious beliefs shouldn’t suffer unique social opprobrium, nor should they merit unique social immunity. Believers should not be punished for being believers, but they also shouldn’t be free from criticism if their harmful and hateful values and actions flow from their religious beliefs.
Majorities aren’t made right and just because they are majorities. The history of social progress is, in fact, the history of majorities being proven wrong, of widely held values getting replaced by better, but initially less widely held, ones. Just because all your neighbors are against something doesn’t mean they’re correct, and it doesn’t mean they’re not motivated by bigotry. (Though it also isn’t prima facie evidence that they are.) We should evaluate beliefs themselves, holding them to high moral standards, and not shy away from calling them out just because they’re popular, or just because they’re grounded in religious faith.
History will judge these views, but we also have an obligation, in the name of morality and justice, to judge them ourselves today.