31 October 2016
Hate preachers and courteous Christians:a critique of the BBC's America's Hate Preachers
What do we mean by hate? Recently the BBC produced a documentary entitled 'America's Hate Preachers'. It portrays Faithful Word Baptist Church in Phoenix, Arizona, and a group of street preachers in California.
These tiny groups are supposed to be a sign of how changing social attitudes in the US are, to quote the producer, "driving some evangelical Christians to more extreme levels of intolerance".
Despite misgivings, I tuned in. And the abusive words of these supposedly Christian leaders really did shock me. The programme begins with a warning for foul language, and not just because of the hecklers.
The conduct of these leaders would lead to disciplinary action in any evangelical church I know. Why? Because evangelicals believe the Bible to be the word of God. And God is not silent about how we should speak and treat others.
Unfortunately, we don't really hear a biblical critique of these 'hate preachers' in the programme. Instead, nearly all of the opponents who are interviewed appear to be supporters of same-sex marriage.
In other words, they aren't simply opponents of abusive speech, but of conservative beliefs about marriage, however expressed.
What about Christians who object to abusive speech on biblical grounds, but have not been persuaded to change their mind about marriage? This perspective is not set out in any depth.
It's not as if people who could do this would have been hard to find. Several prominent evangelical leaders have condemned the abusive language used at the Arizona church, including one based in the same city. It would have been easy to include the views of such a leader, perhaps for the price of a cab fare across Phoenix.
So the problem here is not that the journalists producing the documentary have exposed some abusive behaviour by a tiny minority. Nor is it that they disagree with the far larger group of evangelical Christians who believe that marriage is between one man and one woman. The problem is that the documentary doesn't make enough of an effort to distinguish these two groups.
Despite the odd reference to Christian opposition to the 'hate preachers', one could be forgiven for concluding that these tiny groups are much more representative of evangelical Christians than they actually are.
There are three problems with this 'broad brush' approach.
First, it is courteous conservatives who are most likely to persuade the abusive preachers to change their ways. When the documentary's presenter criticises her interviewees, her liberal pleas fall on deaf ears.
One protester against the 'hate preachers' has a Bible in his hand, but his 'conversation' with their target is short and acrimonious, barely touching on the Bible. There are evangelical leaders who have offered a much more coherent response to these groups. The documentary misses an opportunity to give this response a wider hearing.
Secondly, screening out courteous evangelical voices fosters the toxic climate in which an increasing number of LGBT people live.
Time and again, it is the abusive voices who are given all the air-time they want to insult and demean people. This is despite the strong – and underreported – criticism that such language attracts from within evangelicalism itself. It is surely no help to the LGBT community if the abusive voices are portrayed as attracting less criticism than they do.
Thirdly, this 'broad brush' approach is used to justify strong state restrictions on what we can say. The tagline for the documentary on Facebook was: "Why is this still legal?" When society begin to associate minority beliefs – however unfairly – with abusive behaviour, it is only a short step from that to proscribing both behaviour and belief.
The laws that come in to halt 'hateful' speech will always begin with unlikeable people. Where they will end, though, is anyone's guess.
We aren't headed for universal religious and political agreement any time soon. Our ability to deal with our differences properly will therefore remain vital. This is especially true if we want to avoid fuelling the zero-sum game of the 'culture war'.
We are still a long way off good disagreement on moral issues. But focusing on the best of each side rather than the worst would surely be a step in the right direction.