“Bigot”

The following post is by Jason Bilbrey, Director of Pastoral Care at The Marin Foundation. You can read more from Jason at his blog, www.jasonbilbrey.com.

I was recently having lunch with a friend. Great guy. Conservative in a mainstream Evangelical way and also really bright, reasonable and charitable. I’ve known him for years. We were talking about (what else, right?) homosexuality and the LGBT community.

“I never know how to engage in this conversation,” he said. “It’s not like I don’t have strong convictions, I’m just hesitant to voice them. I don’t want to be–”

“Labeled a bigot?” I asked.

“Exactly!”

I could finish his thought not so much because we’re great friends–though we are–but because this is a sentiment I’ve heard again and again from other conservatives I talked to. This particular epithet, “Bigot,” seems to strike a nerve.

I’m sure this is good news to many LGBT folks and their allies. As public opinion shifts in favor of gay rights and marriage equality, perhaps it’s time for those holding to a traditional/conservative stance on the issue to be the recipients of stigma, rather than the perpetrators. And I can’t deny that there’s a part of me that finds this turning of the tables deliciously ironic.

And yet, sitting in my friend’s living room, I looked at him and said, “You’re not a bigot.” To me, it’s not a conservative/traditional stance on homosexuality that makes you a bigot. It’s how you act on those beliefs. In other words, bigotry is not a thought, it’s an expression.

Let me be the first to say that this is not a water-tight definition. If I make the comparison to, say, civil rights, I could easily see how someone might be deemed a racist simply for believing that black folks should be excluded from the rights and privileges that white folks enjoy. You wouldn’t have to act on that belief, necessarily, to earn the label of “racist.” I can see how a similar kind of labeling might befit someone who simply believes that LGBT folks should be excluded from the rights and privileges straight folks enjoy.

But to parse out the difference between beliefs and actions, let me offer a few counterexamples:

1. I’m a feminist. I believe that women are equally capable and deserving as men to hold positions of power. So my wife and I are pretty egalitarian and non-traditional in our marriage. She works full-time and does the finances (she’s better at them), and I’m the primary caregiver to our daughter. Now, we have many married friends who have a defined set of gender roles and expectations. For them, the husband is the head of the house. I can roll my eyes every time the wife talks about “submitting to her husband in love” (without the qualification that he should reciprocate), but at the end of the day, I have to look at how their marriage functions and whether or not they honor each other. In other words, I’m pretty hesitant to label the guy a “misogynist” or “sexist” if the expression of his beliefs about gender differences speak to his love for his wife.

2. I’m a pacifist. I believe killing people is always wrong. But I fully realize that that belief, if inappropriately expressed, could earn me any number of undesirable labels (ingrate, apostate, a**hole), especially on days like Veterans Day, which our nation celebrated just last week. I can be a pacifist and still acknowledge and voice my gratitude for those who served our country protecting freedoms that I enjoy everyday (many in my own family). I would argue it’s not my conviction about non-violence itself that warrants any of those undesirable labels, it’s how I act on it. It’s not the what. It’s the how, when, why and to whom.

Likewise, to me the term “bigot” seems best reserved for those who manifest their conservative beliefs about homosexuality in ways that seek to offend, defame or impoverish the LGBT community. It’s not that anti-gay beliefs in and of themselves are harmless, but bigotry is a strong term and it should be a designation of equally strong characteristics.

Ok, I’ve made my case for a working definition of bigot: not beliefs, but harmful expressions of those beliefs. Here’s one caveat to my definition: it’s hard to imagine someone having conservative/traditional beliefs about homosexuality going their whole life without ever giving harmful expression to those beliefs in some (perhaps unintentional) way, especially with marriage for gay and lesbian individuals showing up in more and more ballot boxes across the country. (Did I mention my definition isn’t water-tight?)

I’m not out to police people’s appropriation of certain terms, and I do think there is a time to use strong and inflammatory language. (Case in point, I used the word “bigot” in the picture above, which was taken at TMF’s I’m Sorry Campaign during Chicago’s Gay Pride Parade). But I think Brent’s post last week is spot on. Strong language risks coming across as alienating, dismissive and conversation-ending.

I told my friend, the not-a-bigot one, that if we had a mutual friend who was gay, I couldn’t imagine there would be any difference between the way he and I treated that person. He agreed. And to me, that’s what it all comes down to. I don’t care what you think about same-sex relationships and intercourse. I don’t care what you believe about the LGBT community. I don’t care how you define marriage. What I care about is how you manifest those convictions.

So, I’m going to toss all this out to you, dear readers. How do you personally define the word bigot? What am I missing? What’s wrong about my definition? What’s right about it? I’ll meet you in the comments.

Much love.

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About Andrew Marin

Andrew Marin is President and Founder of The Marin Foundation (www.themarinfoundation.org). He is author of the award winning book Love Is an Orientation (2009), its interactive DVD curriculum (2011), and recently an academic ebook titled Our Last Option: How a New Approach to Civility can Save the Public Square (2013). Andrew is a regular contributor to a variety of media outlets and frequently lectures at universities around the world. Since 2010 Andrew has been asked by the United Nations to advise their various agencies on issues of bridging opposing worldviews, civic engagement, and theological aspects of reconciliation. For twelve years he lived in the LGBT Boystown neighborhood of Chicago, and is currently based St. Andrews, Scotland, where he is teaching and researching at the University of St. Andrews earning his PhD in Constructive Theology with a focus on the Theology of Culture. Andrew's research centers on the cultural, political, and religious dynamics of reconciliation. Andrew is married to Brenda, and you can find him elsewhere on Twitter (@Andrew_Marin), Facebook (AndrewMarin01), and Instagram (@andrewmarin1).

  • Jon

    I think a lot of times in my view, bigot has to do with two-facedness. (Creating my own vocab sorry). Not just simply having certain views (usually ant-something, whether conservative or liberal) but trying to impose that view on others. MEANWHILE, your own personal background doesn’t match up with what you’re saying. A couple of examples might help. These are not watertight examples as well lol. I would say that the evangelical church at large (i know, very large amorphous group) is rather bigoted in vocally, financially, and politically opposing gay marriage. Reason being, it while they do this on grounds of being pro-family, the divorce rate in their churches is higher than outside their walls.

    • Jason Bilbrey

      Right, so perhaps a component of being a bigot is imposing certain values (anti-divorce, lifelong monogamy, celibacy) onto others that the bigot himself (or herself) does not or can not live up to.

  • jontrouten

    I personally hate it when people tell they aren’t “anti-gay” when they actively work and vote and speak out against me and my family and others like us. I mean, are they trying to tell me they’re “pro-gay”? Of course not. Are they being neutral on the subject? No. Are they for disenfranchising my family? Yes. That’s anti-gay.

    And for people (and churches and groups) who actively seek to attack and disenfranchise us and our families — like a certain bishop in Illinois who wants to give the state an exorcism over passage of a same-sex marriage bill into law — why do you care if I think you’re a bigot for such harm? You don’t care about my opinion or you wouldn’t be fighting to wipe out my family.

    None of these efforts either way harms heterosexual families while one side is clearly out to legally and socially harm our families. If that’s not bigotry, what is?

    • Jason Bilbrey

      Hey Jon,

      Yeah, the political ramifications of holding to a conservative/traditional stance are pretty hard to get around. While I’m sure not everyone thinks of the effect their vote might have on families like yours, I can totally understand how you might see the definition of bigotry so closely aligned with this particular manifestation of a conservative view.

      This is obviously deserving of another post unto itself, but I do know of conservatives who voted for marriage equality in their states because they saw it primarily as a justice and human rights issue. Just food for thought :)

      Thanks for your contribution, Jon.

      • jontrouten

        The thing is, I don’t think most gay people would care what Christians think of us if they weren’t leading the charge to disenfranchise us and our families. Or if Christians themselves weren’t defining themselves by how anti-gay they are (think of the new anti-gay alternative to Boy Scouts as an example).

        Using your family as an example, others might think less of your family for not adhering to certain gender roles, but nobody is trying to abolish your family for not adhering to those gender roles. I can’t say the same about the majority of conservative Christianity.

        • Jason Bilbrey

          Right. I agree. Again, it’s how those beliefs are manifested that determines whether or not they disenfranchise. The egalitarianism which my family exhibits has rarely earned more than a disapproving scowl. But if any person or group was out to disband or impoverish my family for this, I would be using much stronger words to talk about them.

  • MumbleMumble

    Just to make sure, do I understand your definition correctly? If your actions cause harm to a group of people, then you are a bigot? If you do not cause harm (regardless of your thoughts or beliefs) then you are in the clear?

    I think it’s interesting that you focus on actions as opposed to beliefs. One thing I’ve noticed is that religious folks will argue that they are acting out of love – that they don’t hate anybody, they just disagree with a homosexual lifestyle. In other words, they’re not bigots because they aren’t hating on a group of people. To me, your definition makes them seem much more like bigots than I think you were intending.

    I would say that voting against marriage equality causes harm to the homosexual community. I would say that anyone voting against marriage equality is a bigot. I don’t really say a polite way around that. Am I missing something?

    • Jason Bilbrey

      Hi MumbleMumble,

      I’m not necessarily trying to implicate or exonerate anyone, just wrestling with my own framework for understanding bigotry and tossing out my working definition to you all, the online community, for feedback.

      Like I said to Jon above, I understand and appreciate the argument that voting against marriage equality is bigotry, because it’s a harmful expression of conservative beliefs. I think it’s a solid argument and one that falls within the parameters of my working definition. Not that it has to, of course. I just say that because I don’t think we’re misunderstanding each other or essentially disagreeing. Unless I’m missing something. Haha :)

      • MumbleMumble

        Hello,

        I think the main thing I was confused about was your caveat. It seemed kind of like you were saying there were actions that were exceptions to your rule – that might have been my misinterpretation.

        Aside from that, I’m not entirely sure I’m on board with your definition of bigotry. But I like it because it focuses on practical things. So if somebody thought black people were inferior, I would still say that they were a racist (or a bigot). But if they never did anything that resulted in harm to African-Americans, does it really matter what their beliefs are? If their racism never manifests itself, is it really racism? I like that question.

        The biggest problem I could see arising is the definition of harm. What constitutes causing harm? If someone spreads a message of intolerance to others who, in turn, cause harm, is the original person still culpable as a bigot? I would say yes, but I recognize that this becomes a very sticky area.

        • Jason Bilbrey

          You’re right, it is sticky. Your point about what constitutes harm is well taken. I think conservative beliefs that stigmatize the LGBT community can be very insidious in fostering internalized homophobia among those closeted members of the church, for example.

  • Heidi Weaver

    Jason,
    Thanks for sharing this! A good word indeed. I’ve been doing a lot of research this semester on racism, prejudice, discrimination, and bigotry. Some of the foundation work in this field was done by social psychologist Gordon Allport back in the 50′s and 60′s. I find his definition particularly helpful – that prejudice is rooted in both belief and affect. There is a level of dislike (not just disagreement) involved in the process of bigotry. More on this in my 30 page article I’m writing, and we could have a conversation on it if you like, but I think you might enjoy reading some of his work on the nature and development of prejudice.

    • Jason Bilbrey

      Hey Heidi,

      I’d love to read it when you get finished :) Sounds like really good stuff. I’ll have to check out Allport.

      I guess I had not considered whether the term “bigot” requires the component of dislike or affect, since so much of the offending, defaming and impoverishing is done in the name of “love,” and “speaking the truth in love.” I don’t quite see that same element in racial prejudice. But it’s a really interesting perspective. I’ll have to mull it over for a bit.

      But thanks for sharing this with us, Heidi! I like it :)

  • http://www.fordswords.net/ Ford1968

    Hi Jason,

    I wrestled with this too. I think you’re onto something with your definition. I would agree that the word “bigot” is freighted and not helpful (unless you’re trying to shut down conversation). I would also agree that holding to conservative theology does not necessarily make one act like a bigot. I’ve expressed that thought here: http://fordswords.net/2013/07/31/on-hateful-bigots/

    HOWEVER, it’s important to acknowledge that much of the anti-gay bigotry is firmly grounded in conservative religious moral objection. It’s unsurprising that traditionalist theology (that pathologizes gay people and says gay relationships are immoral and inferior) sometimes engenders undue intolerance.

    • Jason Bilbrey

      Right. Agreed.

  • Ilan

    I think a strict adherence to an exclusive set of truth claims is sufficient for one to be labelled a bigot.

    I feel that adherence to the strict message of Christianity requires one to be a “bigot”. We must necessarily reject the worldviews that are opposed to God’s message (as revealed). Now there are of course varying interpretations of what exactly is being set out in the NT, but ultimately all strands agree, or at least should agree, that Christ is the only way to God. This would require labelling as false all other religious creeds which do not affirm this.
    But there really shouldn’t be anything wrong with this approach. It is necessary for assertions of truth to carry any significance. If all views are true – or rather, if no view is true, then there is little use following one as opposed to another.
    Now with regard to same-sex attraction, it is true that a Christian who condemns such an action is a bigot. But then again, God is a bigot, and so was (is) Christ, and the apostles. I really don’t see anything insulting in such an assertion; I see rather a commitment to a set of truth claims.
    Even truth expressed in love can be bigotry, as a commitment to an exclusive truth claim, even in love, could have the effect of excluding people’s views.
    It is generally uninteresting to converse with an individual who refuses to claim that others are wrong.

    • Jason Bilbrey

      I can’t say that I’ve heard that one before. And I can’t say that I agree. I do not think Jesus, nor God the Father, nor the apostles, were/are bigots. I’ll speak for myself. Following Christ means, for me, following the example of one who ignored opposing worldviews in his prioritization of people. Jesus didn’t deny the truth about who he was/is in order to be radically inclusive. In fact, his very nature is what invites people into community no matter who they are. Obviously, there’s a lot to unpack here, but it suffices to say that I learn from Jesus how NOT to be a bigot. I wrote a bit more about this recently here: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/loveisanorientation/2013/11/why-you-should-attend-your-gay-loved-ones-wedding/.

      • Ilan

        Hi Jason,

        I can appreciate what you are saying. The term “Bigot” has such a negative connotation that it seems almost sacrilegious to label God as being one.

        However, I would disagree with you that Christ ignored opposing worldviews. In Matthew 12:30, Christ is attributed to having said, “He who is not with Me is against Me, and he who does not gather with Me scatters abroad.” I interpret that as meaning that adherence to the truth that He brings is of primary importance. Either we believe in Him, or we don’t. Either we accept who He is and what He has to say, or we don’t. There is no “in-between”: “So then, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will vomit you out of My mouth” (Revelation 3:16).

        I would also want to qualify your assertion to the effect that Christ invites people into community no matter who they are. To be sure, Christ did eat with the tax collectors, the prostitutes, etc. He came for the sick, not the righteous. But He came to call us to repentence. Whereas Christ is willing to reach out to all, we need to respond with repentence and adherence to His truth; otherwise we are not with Him, and He is not with us.
        Do you agree with this?

        • Jason Bilbrey

          Hi Ilan,

          Thanks for your thoughts. Like I said in my last reply, the question of how Jesus engaged with the various individuals and demographics he encountered is a huge and important topic. But it’s also beyond the scope of what I’ve written in this blog post and I couldn’t possibly do it justice here in the comment section. (By the way, a lot of Andrew’s book, Love is an Orientation, explores this territory of how Jesus engaged with those around him and modeled the kind of bridge-building that we’re all about here at The Marin Foundation.)

          The only other thing I’ll say about this (here in the comments at least–you’re always welcome to email me: jason [at] themarinfoundation.org) is that yes, you’re right that Jesus was not afraid to be divisive and have high standards. But he saved his greatest criticism for those in stations of spiritual authority who excluded certain people groups from community and worship.

      • Fallulah

        Unfortunately God of the bible is an incredible bigot…firstly he is a tribal god who punishes those who don’t blindly follow him. That’s the very definition of a bigot. I am not trying to stir the pot, but you really cannot ignore that, it comes through clear when you read the book.
        The Character of Jesus however, although not perfect as some claim, did demonstrate inclusion and acceptance of all different people, which is a great message.

    • Steve

      I have a strict adherence to the facts that 2+2=4, the world is round, and helium atoms have 2 protons. Am I a bigot?

      • Ilan

        Hi Steve,
        I wouldn’t say so. The term would not apply to objective, empirically ascertainable truths, as there is really little contention as to what the answer is. There needs to be a valid debate at hand in order for one to be intolerant of the other’s view.

  • Fallulah

    bigot: a person who is obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices; especially : one who regards or treats the members of a group (as a racial or ethnic group) with hatred and intolerance .
    The definition says NOTHING about actions. Bigotry IS a mindset. Also, you can’t really extricate your actions from your beliefs. How do you think this “imaginary” gay friend would feel knowing you think he is going to hell to burn for all eternity. hahahaha Probably wouldn’t matter much if you say, “but I won’t do anything against you. GOD WILL! and plus I think that you are doing is evil…even though it doesn’t hurt me or anyone else.”

    • Jason Bilbrey

      Hi Fallulah,

      I’m not really trying to redefine bigot in a way that invalidates Merriem-Webster’s or any other definition. I’m offering some framework that informs my own use of this word, one which certainly has it’s problems (that’s why I said, twice, it’s not water-tight). I think your point about actions and belief being inextricable bound is a valid critique of my arguments (one that I acknowledged in the post), but I still respectfully disagree. I think people can choose how and whether to act on their beliefs.

      Also, I’m not sure who you’re talking to in that last part of your comment, but I would never say something like that.

      • Fallulah

        I was referring to this section: “I told my friend, the not-a-bigot one, that if we had a mutual friend who was gay, I couldn’t imagine there would be any difference between the way he and I treated that person.”
        Firstly, I am wondering why you don’t have any REAL gay friends, might help you both become more educated on their lot and understand what they go through.
        Secondly, do you REALLY think they wouldn’t be bothered about your religious views of their orientation?
        In regards to this sentence: “To me, it’s not a conservative/traditional stance on homosexuality that makes you a bigot.” I guess I should seek clarification of what you and your “non”-bigot friend consider the conservative/traditional stance because it differs from sect to sect. I made the assumption it is the “love the sinner, hate the sin…I’M not sending you to hell, GOD is..” BS. Please clarify if you will.

        • Jason Bilbrey

          What I meant by that sentence was that my friend and I don’t have any gay friends in common. I, myself, know more LGBT folks than I can count. My wife is bi (I wrote about that here: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/loveisanorientation/2013/10/whenmywifecameout/). I have colleagues here at The Marin Foundation who are gay. They’re the one’s who proofread my crazy posts :) But my friend doesn’t run in these circles. He’s an old college buddy of mine. He might know gay folks (not sure), but we don’t have any gay friends in common. That’s all I meant.

          I agree with you that different people, both inside and outside of Evangelical circles, have differing ideas about what a conservative/traditional stance is. I don’t consider myself conservative personally (although I come from that background), and I’ve been pretty critical of some of these same mentalities you’re addressing. (Here’s what I wrote about “love the sin, hate the sinner” a little while back: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/loveisanorientation/2013/10/love-the-sin-hate-the-sinner-or-something-like-that/).

          Anyway, thanks for your thoughts.


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