Demonization is Different than Incivility
Frederick Clarkson printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Fri Oct 09, 2009 at 11:55:21 AM EST
David Gushee, a conservative evangelical professor of Christian Ethics, and darling of those who profess to seek common ground on abortion, recently published an op-ed in USA Today that reveals some of the serious problems with common groundism.

We'll get to those problems momentarily. But first I want to point out that Gushee ends in a way that one wishes he had begun.  

"I dare to think that it's still not too late to be the kind of nation in which differences are debated honestly, the votes are cast, the decisions are made and we move forward together as one people. I would like to see Christians contribute to that kind of society, rather than to the demonization that undermines it at its foundations."

Unfortunately, most of what precedes this encouraging conclusion, does not lead us in that productive direction. In fact, it functions as a defacto apologia for the worst elements of the Religious Right.

First Gushee waxes nostalgic for a time that never was: Halcyon days of yore when Republicans and Democrats, liberal and conservative worked together to get things done without acrimony; a time which he says is no more. But the truth is that such people have always existed and still do, the screechiness of cable news not withstanding. Good public servants have always had to muddle through turbulent times. In a large diverse society, in which some of us aspire to greater democratic norms and others work hard to oppose them, we can expect a certain amount of tumult. Indeed, there has never been a time when the nation was not dealing with issues in which people profoundly differed on a variety of important matters, and that these differences were sometimes, even often expressed with incivility or employing terms of demonization. How we achieve a more civil public dicourse and hopefully a more civil society is part of the ongoing American experiment.

And yet, Gushee would have us believe that the days of his youth in the 60s and 70s was a time when civility ruled.  I guess he forgot about the brutal repression of the Civil Rights movement and the days before people started carefully distancing themselves from "the N word." In the 1960s that I remember -- it was spoken openly and often, and by major political leaders in both parties.   I guess he does not recall the segregationist governors like George Wallace and Lester Maddox. I guess he also forgot about the vicious hate campaigns accusing JFK of "treason" in the Dallas area prior to his assassination. I guess he never heard about how Republican operatives like Chuck Colson organized working class hard hats into gangs of thugs to beat up anti-Vietnam War protesters.   I guess he forgot about of rightwing operatives like Terry Dolan of NCPAC and how they invented the contemporary political industry of character assassination  and smear mongering -- later turned into commercial  "entertainment" industry products by the likes of Rush Limbaugh.   While the liberal left has certainly engaged in its share of the politics and labeling and demonization, there is not now, nor has there ever been anything on the scale, the virulence, or the consequences of the politics of demonization engaged in by the various elements of the religious and secular right, past and present.

Which brings us to the heart of our story.  

All this blaring history not withstanding, Gushee, an anti-abortion leader going back to at least the mid-1990s, blames the recent fashions in public political incivility --  on abortion.  

"... I suspect it was the 1973 Roe v. Wade abortion decision and the ensuing religious mobilization into political combat that have made the greatest difference. This ruling -- however one might regard it -- drew the battle lines of our current culture wars. Politics of decency gave way to blood sport."

Gushee's evidence for this assertion?  None.

While it is certainly true that opposition to abortion has been a dynamic element in modern American politics, historian Randall Balmer, an evangelical Christian himself, has documented that abortion was not the issue that catalyzed what became the modern Religious Right. Rather it was challenges by the federal government to the tax-exempt status of racially segregated Christian schools, especially those that had been established to get around court ordered desegregation.  As a matter of fact, Jerry Falwell himself was the founder of one such whites only school.  Talk to Action contributor Max Blumenthal recounts this history in his new book Republican Gomorrah:  Inside the Movement that Shattered the Party:  

"Paul Weyrich, a right-wing Washington operative and anti-Vatican II Catholic had already tried to sell evangelicals such as Falwell on anti-abortion.  The issue had riveted America's Catholic community and pushed elements of it deep into conservative politics.  In his discussions with Falwell, however, Weyrich's pleas for pivoting resentment on a wedge issue other than race fell on deaf ears.  

"I was trying to get those people interested in those issues, and I utterly failed, Weyrich recalled in an interview in the early 1990s. "What changed their mind was Jimmy Carter's intervention against the Christian schools, trying to deny them tax-exempt status on the basis of so-called defacto segregation."

But let's go deeper into Gushee's historical revisionism by examining his claim that Roe vs. Wade somehow destroyed "the politics of decency and gave way to political blood sport."  

"... abortion policy became viewed not just as another difficult arena where differences could be debated in good faith, but instead as a life-or-death struggle between good and evil. Nuances and shades of gray disappeared. Pro-lifers called abortion-rights supporters "pro-death." Pro-choicers called those who reviled Roe "anti-choice." You get the point."

We get the point indeed.  Gushee wants us to believe that the antiabortion and reproductive rights movements are equivalent in the demonization department. But is it true?  

Let's take a look at his example again:

"Pro-lifers called abortion-rights supporters "pro-death." Pro-choicers called those who reviled Roe "anti-choice."

Gushee defines demonization as:

"viewing those we disagree with as if they are the embodiment of evil. It involves a profound loss of perspective on the humanity of our opponents. They stop being people just like us, who happen to disagree with us on something; they instead become a kind of insidious demonic force let loose in the world."

That is a good definition and I think the term "pro-death" fits it pretty well. The "pro-death" meme resonates with a constellation of related terms, expressing essentially the same idea, that have been at the forefront of antiabortionism for decades, such as that abortion is "murder" or constitutes a "holocaust."  Indeed, these terms and the idea that they articulate has reached the highest levels of our national discourse.

One of the more spectacular examples was when megachurch pastor Rick Warren hosted a presidential candidates forum at his church in 2008. As I  wrote earlier this year:  

He was supposed to ask McCain and Obama the same questions. He questioned Obama closely on abortion, but when it was McCain's turn, Warren compared abortion to "the Holocaust" and in answer, McCain simply said "I'm prolife." Warren later called on his audience not to "demonize" people with whom they may disagree -- having just compared people who have a different view on abortion to the Nazis.

The next day, he told reporter Dan Gilgoff [of U.S. News and World Report]:  

If they (Evangelicals, among whom Warren counts himself) think that life begins at conception, then that means that there are 40 million Americans who are not here [because they were aborted] that could have voted. They would call that a holocaust, and for them it would be like if I'm Jewish and a Holocaust denier is running for office. I don't care how right he is on everything else, it's a deal breaker for me. I'm not going to vote for a Holocaust denier....

Suffice to say that there are many who have taken such views to heart, and waged massive physical assaults on clinics that provide abortion care; and many thousands of crimes have been committed against abortion providers, staff and patients, most notoriously, hundreds of bombings and arsons, and dozens of murders and attempted murders. The list is long and grim -- and there is nothing, nothing to compare on the prochoice side in terms of demonization tactics in terms of severity, frequency of the consequences of such demonization.  Whatever verbal or physical skirmishes that have taken place since Roe the abortion war has been almost exclusively a one sided war of aggression by people operating under prolife banners. Indeed, the slogan of the militant antiabortion group Operation Rescue is one of the most infamous calls to vigilantism in modern American history: "If you believe abortion is murder, then act like it."

Mob violence, bombings, arsons and assassinations are rarely the outcome of mere incivility, and are far more likely to be associated with if not a direct consequence of demonization tactics, as David Neiwert explains in his recent book The Eliminationists:  How Hate Talk Radicalized the American Right.) And if that is so, it is certainly borne out by the history of those who say "pro-death" as opposed to those who say "anti-choice."

Indeed, the term "anti-choice" is pretty far from a term of demonization. At worst, it can be used as a label, and thus pose an obstacle to some conversations, and even be spoken in an uncivil manner. It is also true that labeling is part of -- but also different than demonization.  

The fact is that the right to choose to seek; to provide; and to receive abortion care is a matter of settled law and established judicial precedent. Gushee et al, may wish that is was a crime on the order of murder, (and he does) but in fact, it is not and is unlikely to become so. American law has recognized it as a constitutionally protected matter of medical privacy since 1973.  No one is obliged to get an abortion or to provide one.  To describe as "anti-choice" those who oppose the law, or who interfere with those who wish to exercise their constitutional rights, seems fair and accurate to me, even if it is not Gushee's preferred term. What's more, abortion is seen as a moral choice by many mainstream religious leaders and institutions.  

Thus Gushee's claim that "anti-choice" is a term of demonizing equivalent to "pro-death" is an ideologically charged false equivalence; one that also provides a revealing window on the methodology Gushee and some of his fellow common grounders employ to cast themselves as somehow more reasonable arbiters of civility than unnamed others whom he claims are engaged in "bloodsport."

Gushee's prominent exercise in false equivalence is important in its own right -- but it is also important to note that factually unsupported false equivalence has often marked the public pronouncements of Democratic Party aligned advocates of "faith outreach" and "common ground" on abortion, in recent years. These include Rev. Jim Wallis, pollster Robert P. Jones, and liberal Catholic activists John Gehring and Simone Campbell, to mention a few that I have written about in this regard.

All this said, I think that many of us who value civil discourse also believe that we need a far more honest discourse. Rev. Katherine Ragsdale, (then the executive director of Political Research Associates; currently President of Episcopal Divinity School)  said it well in her essay in Dispatches from the Religious Left:  The Future of Faith and Politics in America:

"Perhaps one of the most fundamental outrages of all is the erosion of honest public discourse.  When, instead of disagreeing honestly, the Right (or any of us) practice to deceive and to cut off debate with spurious claims ...  we are left unable to know what to believe, how to speak in order to he heard, how to struggle together to discern the truth.  By all means, let us put our values and convictions on the table, with the facts, and then lets disagree about the moral and public policy implications of that data.  Let us disagree passionately - an indicator of how seriously we take it all.  But let's disagree honestly."

In a 2006 speech David Gushee gave at the Andover-Newton Theological Seminary and elsewhere, Gushee noted with concern that narratives of cultural complaint and despair to be found currently on the American right share much in common with similar narratives that flourished in pre-fascist and pre-World War Two Germany:

It was this cultural despair -- a toxic brew of reaction against secularism, anger related to the loss of World War I, distress over cultural disorientation and confusion, fears about the future of Germany, hatred of the victorious powers and of those who supposedly stabbed Germany in the back, and of course the search for scapegoats (mainly the Jews) -- that motivated many Germans to adopt a reactionary, authoritarian, and nationalistic ethic that fueled their support for Hitler's rise to power. A broadly appealing narrative of national decline (or conspiratorial betrayal) was met by Hitler's narrative of national revenge leading to utopian unity in the Fuhrer-State.

Conservative American evangelicals in recent decades have been deeply attracted to a parallel narrative of cultural despair. Normally the story begins with the rise of secularism in the 1960s, the abandonment of prayer in schools, and the Roe decision, all leading to an apocalyptic decline of American culture that must be arrested soon, before it is too late and "God withdraws his blessing" from America. While very few conservative evangelicals come into the vicinity of Hitler in hatefulness, elements similar to that kind of conservative-reactionary-nationalist narrative can be found in some Christian right-rhetoric: anger at those who are causing American moral decline, fear about the future, hatred of the "secularists" now preeminent in American life, and the search for scapegoats. The solution on offer -- a return to a strong Christian America through determined political action -- also has its parallels with the era under consideration.

by Bruce Wilson on Fri Oct 09, 2009 at 02:18:18 PM EST

As for civility, there was little of it in the McCarthy era. The 50s were the start of the John Birch Society which certainly did little for the cause of civility.

For the last 30 years RRR attacks on GLBT people has NEVER been civil when they compare us to child molesters, thieves and murders.

We have rarely been a civil nation.

by JerrySloan on Fri Oct 09, 2009 at 02:35:48 PM EST

the anti LGTB invective is consistend with what Neiwert calls "eliminationism."  

One more excellent example of the essential dishonesty of the false equivalence engaged in by the common grounders.

by Frederick Clarkson on Fri Oct 09, 2009 at 03:08:50 PM EST

The concerted efforts by  extremely well funded right-wing think tanks, pollsters, and PR experts melding with the well funded anti-abortion cult leaders only came about in the mid-seventies.

The growth of hate-radio beginning with Druggie Limbaugh added further fuel to the fire. So called 'Christian" radio adding political talk to their line-up tapped an entirely new audience. Toss in the racist reaction to a moderate (frame as socialist, fascist, etc) Black president and the bonfire is blazing.

by PlacitasRoy on Sat Oct 10, 2009 at 10:39:17 AM EST

I remember sermons in the churches before the think tanks and so on- hate speech against "communists and socialists" (the terms they used to refer to liberals/progressives) and publicly spoken racist rhetoric that most people would avoid today (so they wouldn't be branded a racist bigot, even though they may still say the same things privately).  The things they said about GLBT would be considered libel/slander today.  I remember when I first started going to an AoG church ('79 or so), a "page torn from a Gay magazine" being passed around the church DURING a service- supposedly an article advocating forcing non-GLBT people to accept their sexual advances (on the theory that rejecting such advances would constitute anti-GLBT bigotry).  Based upon the things I've learned about those churches, I'd bet that it was all made up to scare people away from supporting hate crimes legislation or gay rights.

From the things I've overheard over the last few years or so, most of these same people are sick and tired of having to throttle back their hate speech.  They want to persecute the people they've been taught to dislike and get away with it.  Some of them even want to see slavery return and watch LGBT people be murdered- I've heard it said outright (from "Good Church-Going Christians").

Limbaugh, if anything, acts as a spokesperson for the bigots.  Even what he says, however, is tame to the things I've heard from "Good Church-Going Christians"- long before I'd ever heard of "Rush Limbaugh" or right-wing talk radio!

by ArchaeoBob on Sat Oct 10, 2009 at 01:33:13 PM EST

This is starting to sound like whining children who are mad because the "cool kids" didn't invite them to the party.  And, the new "Religious Left" is still allowing the Religious Right to set the agenda: abortion and homosexuality.  Geez.

I know David very well.  We are working together on eliminating and investigating US-sponsored torture and a number of other key issues.  At no time have I ever heard him express the belief that abortion should be a crime (normally you do a good job of citing articles where statements are made- where's your citation of Gushee on this?).  Nor do I think it's accurate to label him as a "conservative evangelical." Read his article in the Christian Century entitled, "Church-Based Hate."  The NAE would probably not support him in his statements there.

The Left is going to have to find allies somewhere.  

I'm alarmed that in an article about incivility, you would resort to your own style of ad-hominem attacks.  This is beneath you.  You can do better.  And you must.

by Steven D. Martin on Thu Oct 15, 2009 at 04:45:15 PM EST

Sorry to be the bearer of surprising news, but just because you have never heard Gushee say abortion should be criminalized, does not mean he has not thought that way for many years. Here is the documentation.  

While we have written about it on this blog, here is my article from earlier this year that exposed Gushee's involvement in a 1996 antiabortion manifesto published in the neo-conservative journal, First Things, that calls for, among other things, criminalization. Journalist Sarah Posner, asked Gushee about it for an article in The American Prospect, and he confirmed that he had not changed his mind.  She summarized the matter in an article in The Nation this past summer.

Gushee was the principal author of a 1996 manifesto, The America We Seek: A Statement of Pro-Life Principle and Concern, signed by forty-five religious-right leaders as well as advisory council member Wallis. It posited that it was unlikely Roe v. Wade would be overruled, and called instead for criminalizing doctors who perform abortions (but not "women in crisis"), opening more "crisis pregnancy centers" and passing a constitutional amendment overturning Roe and giving fetuses personhood status. Gushee said recently, "The principles articulated in this statement still reflect my own views."

I have engaged in no ad hominem attacks, Steve. I have criticized Gushee's argument, not his person, and done so in a civil fashion.

If you don't think he is a "conservative"  evangelical, well fine. I will be glad to take your word and concede the point, if you will concede that my analysis is correct and that Gushee's views on the criminalization of abortion are documented and undenied, and give great weight to my argument about the nature of the way he uses false equivalence in  his claims about demonization.

by Frederick Clarkson on Fri Oct 16, 2009 at 11:41:42 AM EST

I did, in fact, link to my article that exposes Gushee's advocacy of criminalization earlier in the story, where I describe him as an antiabortion leader, which was my main point.

Which brings us to the heart of our story.  

All this blaring history not withstanding, Gushee, an anti-abortion leader going back to at least the mid-1990s, blames the recent fashions in public political incivility --  on abortion.

by Frederick Clarkson on Fri Oct 16, 2009 at 12:09:15 PM EST
And as long as I am in the mode of documenting my assertion in the face of a factual challenge, here is the complete context of Sarah Posner's reporting from her column in The American Prospect, online:

4. Failing to find true "common ground" on "abortion reduction."

In the Christianity Today piece (as well as in other coverage of the religious right, center, and left labeling debate), Jim Wallis, the president of the evangelical group Sojourners who is best known for his rhetoric against poverty, is portrayed as a progressive. ("[Wallis] is not progressive on issues of sexuality, whether LGBTQ or procreative justice," said Hunt. "When Jim Wallis is seen as progressive, the so-called religious left is off the planet somehow.")

In an interview last week, Wallis insisted that he's for comprehensive sex education as a means of "reducing abortion." He also emphasized economic support for women --insofar as promoting women's economic well-being through policy could prevent abortions. But when I pressed him on whether he agreed with Obama's reversal of the global gag rule -- widely seen as essential for women's health worldwide -- Wallis said he could offer no opinion on the issue, not being "an expert on the actual rule." The critical question, he said, is "does something like this reduce abortion or not?" He added that activists believe the Supreme Court is not likely to overturn Roe. Instead, they're aiming for the "common ground" to "change cultural things, like young male sexual behavior [and] how do you support women in terms of their self esteem and protecting them from abuse by older men?"

Wallis also told me that he's "never supported criminalizing abortion," but the recent discovery and dissection of a 1996 pro-life statement, "The America We Seek: A Statement of Pro-Life Principle and Concern," by the journalist Frederick Clarkson, suggests otherwise.

Clarkson traces the connection between the statement, signed by Wallis, among others, aimed at making abortions more difficult to procure and current "common ground" strategies for "abortion reduction." The statement, signed by major religious-right figures like James Dobson, was also signed by proponents of the Come Let Us Reason Together abortion-reduction strategy, including Wallis and Mercer University Christian ethics professor David Gushee. In it, they proposed a program of action, which called for the criminalization of doctors who perform abortions (but not of "women in crisis"), an increase in "crisis pregnancy centers," and a constitutional amendment overruling Roe v. Wade and identifying the fetus as a person. The manifesto laid out virtually every anti-choice method of restricting abortion short of changing the composition of the Supreme Court to reverse Roe, the legal strategy Wallis and others see as unlikely.

Gushee said this week, "I still stand behind this statement. Strategically, abortion-reduction strategies that do not require an overturn of Roe stand the best chance of actually moving this issue ahead in constructive ways. But the principles articulated in this statement still reflect my own views."

by Frederick Clarkson on Fri Oct 16, 2009 at 12:32:39 PM EST

Because if you can't control your body, it is in the hands of another against your will, that is the very definition of slavery. And it has the positive "pro" prefix in it too and accurate. I doubt if anyone can use it in any discussion on corporate media. Through the use of attrition along with the Catholic church buying up hospitals, restrictive laws, and the occasional terrorist attacks on the few remaining clinics and especially their doctors they are winning even though the laws are fundamentally the same. That is bad for women as a whole and our culture in general. A sad state of affairs for women in this benighted country on the road to theocracy by slow death of the secular republic. Sad indeed.

by Nightgaunt on Tue Oct 27, 2009 at 02:43:54 PM EST

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