I recently stated in an interview that pastor Robert Jeffress’ statements “Islam is a false religion” and “Islam is inspired by Satan” was hate speech. In subsequent TV interviews I defended this statement by pointing out that if you said things that caused people to feel you hated them then that was hate speech.
Some letter writers, some respectfully and others with varying degrees of vigor, grammatical correctness, and an ability to take off the caps lock key have made the following argument: “It isn’t hate speech to tell the truth. Robert Jeffress was telling the truth, therefore however unpleasant that truth might be it can’t be regarded as hateful.”
This is problematic for a couple of reasons.
- Jesus taught us to “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” So I note that recently large numbers of Christians, including Pastor Jeffress, have taken great offense at the failure of corporations to use the term “Merry Christmas.” Indeed this has been termed a “war on Christmas.” So we know that these Christians do not want people to denigrate their faith, even by an act of omission. Thus we should ask, would Robert Jeffress and the people of First Baptist Church Dallas want to be told that their religion was false and inspired by Satan? Would they regard such words as mere stating of facts? Or would they believe them to be hateful? The evidence of their reactions to much smaller perceived offenses suggests that they would not want their religion referred to as false and Satanic. So based on Jesus’ teaching they shouldn’t do to non-Christians what they wouldn’t want non-Christians to do to them.
- Jeffress’ statement is not a fact. A fact in the realm of public discourse is something that can be tested by publicly accepted criteria. There is no publicly accepted criteria for determining whether Islam, or indeed any religion is false (or true) or inspired by Satan (or by God.) The Bible is not a publicly accepted criteria for determining whether statements are true or false, even assuming you could get agreement on how it is interpreted. Jeffress made his statement in public, and publicized it through the internet. We can thus conclude that Jeffress has stated his opinion, not a fact, and thus calling it a fact is no defense against the charge that it is hate speech.
- Statements about religion are not opinions about something incidental to the identity of a group or individual. They are statements about the core of who that person is. All opinions have the potential to wound the feelings of another. You can hurt my feelings just by telling me that I’m fat, or bald and these things don’t even touch my core identity. But what if you insult something that is essential to my identity like my ethnicity. That would be racism wouldn’t it? That would be hateful. The same would be true if you insulted my nation, or my mother. Saying negative things about a person’s religion are in the same category as disparaging his or her race, or parentage, or nationality. They are hateful, and are perceived as hateful, and cannot be defended against the charge of hate speech.
- Finally we need to consider the more formal definition of hate speech, which is speech associated with or intended to lead to actual harm of an individual or group. I do not imagine that Pastor Jeffress intended to inspire actual attacks on American Muslims. Certainly he would deny it. But we must consider the context of his words, both proximate and more broadly. The immediate context is his subsequent call to “bomb the you know what out of ISIS,” which is certainly intended to incite violence against a group he identifies as radical Muslims. More broadly his words were uttered in an American social context in which individual Muslims and Muslim religious centers are being attacked daily, sometimes with deadly results. At the very least his words might be misinterpreted as a justification to carry out such attacks, and thus are not judicious.
There cannot exist a civil society without civil dialogue among people of different religions. And there can be no civil dialogue when people of any religion denigrate the most closely held personal beliefs and values of their neighbors. Call Jeffress’ words what you want, they undermine the social fabric of the city of Dallas and more broadly our state and nation. As do, I note, the words of numerous politicians both in office and aspiring to office. Hate speech is rapidly becoming the coin of the realm, and it is daily undermining the currency of reason, respect, and love.