Peeling Off the Labels
Frederick Clarkson printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Sat May 31, 2008 at 02:09:55 PM EST
Talk to Action has been called many things; many of them very kind (thank you!). Others, much less so. But more than the (sometimes entertaining) "much-less-so"  episodes, I am interested in the surprising misunderstandings a lot of people have had about the purpose and nature of this site. We don't often go out of our way to explain ourselves, but it is probably good to do a refresher once in awhile.

Here are a few points about what we are, what we are not -- and what this has to do with how we approach thinking about the religious right and what to do about it.

On a number of ocasions in recent months, I have come across the view that we are too secular. Others think we are not secular enough. Some think we are broadly about religion and public life. Nope. There are lots of sites devoted to that. This blog is about the religious right and what to do about it.

Some have said we are anti-evangelical -- when in fact we have evangelicals as featured writers suchas Mainstream Baptist, Don Byrd, and Don Wilky. Some say we are anti-Christian, although we have had from the beginning, Christian ministers posting, such as John Dorhauer, Andrew Weaver, and Steve Martin, as well as prominent guest front pagers such as Susan Thistlethwaite, president of Chicago Theological Seminary. We have clearly non-religious writers like Rob Boston (an advisor to the Secular Coalition for America) and science blogger Ed Brayton.  

The lists could go on.  

But we are clear in everything that we say up front about this site. There is no religious or non-religious test for participation. We have, and have always had as featured writers people who are religious and non-religious; Christian and non-Christian.  We do try to keep a mix of viewpoints; of people who are engaged in different aspects of understanding or engaged in political struggles with the Religious Right. We are diverse and respectful of our differences; and in that sense, we try to model the best of how to defend the values of democracy and pluralism in what is, in fact, a democratic, pluralist society.  We are mostly decidedly progressive; although some of us are more libertarian. The relative absence of public disagreement does not mean we agree on everything. Indeed, although one of our few  editorial policies is that we are pro-choice and pro-gay and lesbian civil rights, including marriage equality, people who share other of our concerns about the religious right are welcome to participate, as long as they don't engage in arguing over these points. There is so much that we all otherwise agree on.

That said, there are some things we do insist the featured writers and anyone who registers must agree on, and that is the site's statement of purpose and the site guidelines:

It is not possible to register for the site without checking the little box to indicate that one has read the terms of use and the site's statement of purpose; agree with our purpose and agree to abide by the site guidelines. Sometimes people lie in checking off the box (or are not paying sufficient attention) because they feel they absolutely must rebut something or to proseletize us. But this site is not about proseltizing and it is not for people who disagree with our general mission.  For those who whine that this is not fair, its a big blogosphere and millions of places to post.  As a matter of fact, we have been denounced in some places far larger than Talk to Action, including web sites that don't allow for comments of any kind (such as the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD) ). That is what the First Amendment is all about.  No one has an inherent right to publish here, any more than they have an inherent right to publish in The New York Times or on anyone's else's blog. Some places are free-for-alls (or at least like us to think that they are). This is not one of them.

That said, it is important for readers and participants to know that we are an all volunteer site. Writers, even regulars, come and go -- as do topics. But these changes can sometimes lead to misperceptions about who we are. For example, recently we had a flurry of posts related to the United Methodist General Convention and IRD. Lately, none at all.  I have more than once seen Talk to Action referred to as a liberal Protestant blog.  But if you were to have read only the last two weeks, you might think that this blog was mostly about Christian Zionism.

Things change. But our statement of purpose and site guidelines have not.

Of course, the same issue of how mislabeling a group or a movement can lead to misuderstandings applies to just about anything, including the religious right. Way back at the beginning, we decided that Talk to Action would be a place where we try to use fair and accurate terms to describe the Religious Right, and would not resort to terms of denominization, which we saw as preventing rather than advancing our own understanding of the Religious Right and its constituent parts and even our ability to have coherent conversations among one another.  We had good reason to believe that such terms also tended to be politically counterproductive.

Back in the 90s, for example, the DC PR shops told us that all we had to do was call everyone we didn't like "religious political extremists." They had focus-grouped this and other such phrases, had power point presentations and contracts with major interest groups and the Democratic Party. Problem solved! No one actually had to do (or pay for) the hard work of learning enough about the religious right to be able to make sound, fact-based judgements about what was important; what was not; how to make an effective argument; or develop effective means of communicating it.

I think recent history has born us out, as the Democratic Party has had to scramble to recover from the widely held perception that the party was unfriendly, if not actually hostile to people of faith. This perception was partly due to many years of pounding unfair characterizations of the party by the Religious Right and their allies in the GOP. But it was also created by this particularly counter-productive response from the party and related interest groups.

Knowing the difference between bigotry and fair criticism is an integral part of the task of contending with the religious right. Anyone who comes off as bigoted, is going to be of limited effectiveness. Maybe even counter productive.  People who know what they are talking about, and use appropriate language, even strong language, are far more likely to be more effective than those who have only manufactured slogans and cheap name calling in their quiver.

I suspect when people claim this site is anti-religious or anti-whatever, they want a site that they agree with.

by khughes1963 on Sat May 31, 2008 at 10:16:12 PM EST
I think you got it exactly right.

There are people who would prefer that the concept of religion only include the portion with which they are personally comfortable/familiar.

Beware of the everyday brutality of the averted gaze.
by mataliandy on Sun Jun 01, 2008 at 12:15:57 PM EST

As viewership goes up, it becomes harder and harder to maintain a totally open comments policy on controversial subjects. Sites that allow too many trolls to take over soon get dumped as conversation spots by people who don't wish to deal with trash comments.

by NancyP on Sun Jun 01, 2008 at 10:10:04 PM EST

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