For years, a number of us who have studied the evolution of the Christian Right have been concerned about how difficult it can be to have thoughtful conversations about the Christian Right and its various components. Simple ignorance about this large and complicated, religious, cultural and political movement is part of the problem. How can people discuss what they don’t know much about, or really understand? And of course, what this movement asserts is rightfully concerning and actually frightening to many.
Over the years, as various sectors of society have struggled to come up to speed about the Christian Right in its many manifestations, the discussion is often reduced to semantics and “messages,” in short, what to call “them?” Some forcefully assert that “they” are not “real Christians,” and therefore we should not use the term. Some think that analogies to fascists and Nazis make sense. Others think that using manufactured, focus-grouped terms like “religious political extremists” is smart politics. Still others insist that the most important thing is that we offend no one, particularly “people of faith.”
It is difficult to talk about the substance of politics, tactics, and strategy — when people are not well-informed, and cannot get past such basic issues of language.
In several essays at Talk to Action and in comments in the media, Chip Berlet has urged people to stop using “labeling” and demonization tactics that he thinks have proved ineffective and even counter productive. We will be discussing such matters in more detail when we launch the “scoop” based interactive version of Talk to Action (modeled on The Daily Kos, among others) in the next few weeks.
In 1997, I talked extensively about matters of knowledge, language, framing and strategy in Eternal Hostility: The Struggle Between Theocracy and Democracy.
Here are a few excerpts about language issues:
“Serious criticism often requires strong words. But to have a chance at prevailing, such things must be said with the person-to-person persuasiveness that comes from knowledge and conviction. Anything less leaves one open to the charge of religious bigotry. Worse, sometimes the charge may even be true.”
“While it is possible that ‘theocratic’ is not the kind of word or concept that will be widely understood, or play well in polls and focus groups, it is at least necessary for political leaders and journalists to understand this element, lest political analysis be skewed or dumbed down.”
“While it is essential to respect people’s beliefs, confidence in one’s own commitment to and knowledge of the meaning of religious freedom allows one to distinguish between religious bigotry and fair criticism and to defuse the charge — the Christian Right’s skillful exploitation of such matters not withstanding. There is no one word or phrase that will resolve these concerns.”
“…progressives and moderate have been scattered by a continuing debate over what to call their opponents… Demonization is a two-way street… sometimes it adds a B-horror movie excitement to the normalcy of politics. Whatever the outcome of the political struggles of the day, people still need to live in the same communities when it is over. This does not mean that debate and political mobilizations need to be meek and mild — only that those who would speak for democratic values need to effectively and forcefully speak for those values, in ways that demonstrate those values in action.”
I offer these excerpts by way of saying that this discussion has been going on for a long time. From where I sit, I think that progress has been made. But I also think we have a ways to go.
These matters will take on heightened importance as we contend with “Justice Sunday II” in a few weeks, and in the run up to the 2006 elections.