Stephen Shoemaker, former senior minister at Myers Park Baptist Church, writes a thought-provoking piece for the Observer about the link between religion and hate speech in America. We think it should inspire all of us to examine how we choose to participate in civic discourse. What do you think? Shoemaker is now teaching at Johnson C. Smith University and Davidson College, and is Theologian in Residence at Queens University.
Special to the Observer
“Men never do evil so completely and so cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.” Pascal, Pensees, 894.
Recently, I saw a “hate map” of the U.S. based on Twitter communications. I almost shuddered when I saw it because it appeared almost identical to the “church attendance” maps I had seen over the years. So I looked up a recent U.S. church attendance map, and there it was. A terrible correspondence between hate-speech and religion.
What are we to think? Does religion create hatred? Sometimes, when hatred becomes part of the fabric of a particular religious group or sub-group. More often, I think, it reinforces the hate that is already there, an accelerant on the fires of human passions.
If you look at the hate map, it corresponds to what is sometimes called the “Bible Belt” in America: the South and the church-going Midwest, along with other hot spots of hate and religion around the country.
One of the dangers of Bible Belt Christianity is its pride in its “literal interpretation” of scripture. But the literalists often pick and choose which verses they use, often to bolster the self and to belittle others, ignoring Jesus’ words that the true purpose of religion (and its scriptures) is the increase in the love of God and neighbor. All religious people pick and choose. Jesus picked and chose. Christian denominations are often begun by innovations in how they pick and choose. The question is, to what end do we choose and by what overarching set of principles?
Moreover, literal interpretation of scripture is often devoid of any self-criticism. It does not ask: Could I the interpreter be interpreting the scripture wrongly? It goes by the bumper-sticker: “The Bible Says It, I Believe it, That Settles It.” Neither life nor religion is generally that easy. What results is a smug and all too easy application of the Bible to matters at hand.
Hate is magnified when religion is added, and further magnified when it becomes group hate and group think. Evil is done completely and cheerfully. Watch the smiles.
However, religion can also be a powerful resource for kindness, tolerance, compassion and a form of justice that applies to all people, not just the self and my kind. You can see the effect of religion, in particular African American Christianity, in leading and shaping the Civil Rights movement, one of the most astounding non-violent social revolutions in history. You see it in the culture of kindness among Buddhists. You see it in the effect of progressive forms of religions of all stripes in promoting human rights and social equality.
Yes, too often the progressive and moderate forms of religion are passive and silent in matters of great social importance. In his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King Jr. said that the greatest obstacle to racial justice was not the bigot but the “white moderate” who professed understanding but refused to speak and act. The poet Yeats captured the moral dilemma of our times: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity.”
In a time when religion at home and around the world is tempted by hate, when Jim Crow reappears in a business suit and with a Bible, when our young are sick of religion which breeds its multi-various bigotries, let us speak the truth about the intersection of hate and religion and employ the higher strains of religious faith to build the common good.
Our nation needs impassioned moral discourse that serves to knit together the social fabric, rather than tearing it. We could begin by saying true religion respects the dignity of all persons. Period.