19 August 2011

Am I a bigot?

Cal Thomas would probably think so. His latest column denounces an alleged new wave of politically motivated anti-evangelical bigotry directed at two of the leading contenders for the Republican presidential nomination, Rep. Bachmann and Gov. Perry. His exhibit A is a Rolling Stone hatchet-job on Bachmann written by Matt Taibbi and illustrated by Victor Juhasz. Thomas finds the illustration objectionable because it portrays Bachmann as a Joan-of-Arc style holy warrior presiding over the burning of heretics. The Taibbi article is a more sensationalist and on some points more detailed version of the ideological biography presented by Ryan Lizza in The New Yorker last week. Compared to Lizza, Taibbi is an easy target because he indulges in exaggerated rhetoric and deems Bachmann delusional. This is the second time, the first being the Newsweek cover-photo controversy, that Bachmann's sympathizers have avoided engaging with Lizza's more substantive and alarming story by attacking something more superficially outrageous. But the difference between Lizza and Taibbi determines whether all questioning of Bachmann's (or Perry's) religious commitments is as bigoted as Thomas charges.

Thomas cites the Collins English Dictionary to clarify his charge. According to Collins, a bigot is "intolerant of any ideas other than his or her own, especially on religion, politics, or race." My own office copy of Webster's opts for a different emphasis, calling a bigot a "narrow-minded, intolerant person" or one who holds intolerantly to certain set ideas. The Collins definition seems to help Thomas's case, since it doesn't make the common distinction between "who you are" and "what you do." To my mind, a bigot is a person who hates you for who you are before he has any idea of what you do or what you think -- he often assumes those details on the basis of who you are. Anti-semitism, for instance, is no in-depth critique of Judaism, but evolved into a hatred based on assumed innate racial characteristics. Thomas would like us to think of anti-evangelism as equivalent to anti-semitism or the anti-Catholicism of Know Nothing days. He might be closer to the mark in the latter case. Know Nothingism was founded on an ultimately-unfounded assumption about Catholics: that their political behavior would be dictated by their priests, and that their first loyalty in all cases was to the Pope. Thomas certainly has a right to argue that anti-evangelicals are making unfounded assumptions about all born-agains. But that would require him to tell us what those assumptions are, and to prove that they're unfounded.

Instead, Thomas tries to alter the terms of the dispute without providing the original context. He sees the attacks on Bachmann and Perry's religion as a tactic in a "God vs. government battle." In this scenario, the Republicans' enemies "attack people who believe the Supreme Being does not sit in the Oval Office." That phrase itself should shame Thomas into silence on the question of bigotry. He accuses the "secular left" of worshipping the state, if not the current President. They supposedly worship the state as their god by asserting or reinforcing mass dependence on the state. Their policies, Thomas charges, have left "growing numbers of people...addicted to government." Somehow, he suggests, Bachmann and Perry can combat anti-evangelical bigotry through a joint project that would introduce "people who want to escape poverty...to local churches and synagogues, or secular organizations that operate on similar principles." The more people are inspired to emulate those who "liberated themselves from government," the more anti-evangelical bigots will be "shamed into silence." This all fits together if you accept Thomas's premise that anti-evangelical bigotry is a cynical attempt to repudiate conservative social and economic ideas through ad hominem attacks on conservatives' religious beliefs.

What has any of this to do with Dominion Theology? If Bachmann's beliefs, in particular, are being subjected to intense scrutiny and alarmist criticism, it's not simply because she's an open evangelical, but because reporters like Ryan Lizza have exposed her acknowledged intellectual debts to thinkers who have advanced a theocratic agenda for the United States. An analysis of Dominionism and its various exponents is not bigotry, even if the conclusions prove negative. But because Thomas avoids the subject of Dominionism entirely, and ignores any provocative positions or statements Bachmann has taken or made, he might convince superficial readers that the "secular left" is persecuting Bachmann solely because she's an evangelical Christian. His approach leaves one big question hanging: does Thomas think it bigoted of anyone to question Dominionism? As someone who walked away from the Moral Majority because he'd decided that society couldn't be redeemed through political action, Thomas ought to be the first Christian columnist to denounce Dominionism, and he should not think it bigoted of anyone to ask Bachmann to do the same. Does he think the charges against Dominionism are exaggerated, or baseless? If so, he should have said so. But you cannot defend a person suspected of a Dominionist agenda on the ground that the suspicion is motivated by bigotry while completely ignoring the charge. Bachmann's campaign and her history have forced a discussion of Dominionism on us, and to demand Dominionists to explain themselves, or suspected Dominionists to clear themselves, is, to repeat myself, not bigotry. It's no more bigoted than would be suspicion of a Muslim politician whose mentors had called for sharia law to rule the country. To deny the real issue and dismiss critics of Bachmann's religion as bigots, however, is bigoted.


Anonymous said...

Well, considering the amount of bigotry Mr. Thomas throws at we who are atheists, or that those from the right generally throw at we who believe in democratic socialism, whether his accusations are correct or not, one must consider whether they are hypocritical.

I am glad to say I am bigoted against evangelical "thinking". I was raised in an evangelical religion. I know what their beliefs and goals are and I don't like them one bit. As a person who prefers freedom to slavery, I will fight, with any means necessary, to protect my RIGHT to remain atheist in outlook, no matter who gets into office.

Samuel Wilson said...

Don't take this the wrong way, but I doubt whether socialism can be subject to bigotry, at least as I understand the word. At the same time, I wouldn't consider your attitude toward evangelical religion to be bigoted, to the extent that it's based on the sort of experience bigots usually lack.