State Sen. Jake Chapman was in a tight spot. The Iowa legislature was debating a hate-crime bill that would protect transgender people. An anti-terrorism bill, in other words — one that would add penalties for the crimes of violence when that violence was intended to intimidate and terrorize an entire class of people.
That bill being considered would add gender identity and gender expression to the list of protected classes covered by the state’s hate crimes law. …
The bill protecting transgender people is backed by a long list of church, civic and law enforcement groups. It took on added symbolic urgency because the previous week, Kedarie Johnson, a 16-year-old Burlington High School junior described as female-to-male transgender, was shot to death in an alleyway, and was buried Wednesday.
And Chapman was against this bill. He was on the pro-terrorism side of it. That’s an uncomfortable place to be, because defending violent intimidation doesn’t just make others think you’re mistaken, it makes them think you’re immoral and morally incompetent. They start to look at you not just with moral disapproval, but with that look of appalled consternation that suggests they’re all thinking, “What the f–k is wrong with this guy?”
So Chapman was losing the argument. He was going down not just in defeat, but in disgrace. He had surrendered the moral high ground and was flailing in an indefensible position.
Fortunately for Chapman, there’s a playbook for this situation.
Back in the 1970s, white evangelicalism was mired in the disgrace of having been epically, utterly, spectacularly wrong about the Civil Rights movement. They hadn’t just picked the wrong side in a political battle. It was far worse than that. By defending injustice, they had disgraced themselves, surrendered all claims of moral competence, and become disgraced pariahs.
This was unsettling. These were people who thought of themselves as the standard-bearers of morality and rectitude. They read their Bibles and held forth on what those Bibles mean and how others should read them too. They didn’t drink or dance or cuss or go to the movies. They expected other people to honor them as the arbiters and exemplars of morality and “godly” living. But now those others were looking down on them — appalled by their utter lack of morality and decency because they had failed the biggest, clearest and most obvious moral test of their time. They had no excuse, no answer, no recourse.
For several years, they flailed about, bewildered. White evangelicals had grown so accustomed to assuming their role as the spokespeople for morality that they weren’t quite able to understand how thoroughly they had surrendered any claim to that role. So they chose to keep fighting. They rallied behind private Christian schools as an alternative to the now-desegregated public schools, attempting to relitigate the political battles they had lost. They doubled-down on the shameful defense of injustice, taking to the courts to defend their “religious liberty” to practice segregation. This only made things worse — not just because they were losing the legal battle, too, but because this religious liberty argument loudly proclaimed that the odious, immoral defense of injustice was something they regarded as integral to their faith and their identity.
That legal battle lasted from 1971 until it was lost, conclusively, in 1983, with the Supreme Court’s ruling in Bob Jones University v. United States.
But by then it didn’t matter, because by 1983, white evangelicals had found a new strategy to reclaim their rightful place as the standard-bearers of morality. That strategy was simply this: Change the subject.
Failing the clearest moral test of your time and culture is only a problem so long as that moral test is what people are talking about and thinking about. So talk about something else.
If you’ve made yourself a moral pariah because you’ve spent the past three decades fighting a rear-guard battle in defense of systemic, violent, oppressive injustice, then you need to find some other subject on which you can cast yourself as the Good Guy — as the heroic champion of morality. If your position has been exposed as morally indefensible, then don’t even bother trying to defend it. Just go on the offensive instead.
And that’s what white evangelicals did in the late 1970s and into the 1980s. They didn’t change their minds about the Civil Rights movement, but they enthusiastically changed the subject. They started talking about abortion.
This is what abortion politics is for. This is what it was designed to do. This is its function and its purpose. It is — above all — a weapon for reasserting a claim to the moral high ground, and for putting the moral upstarts of the Civil Rights movement back in their proper place as moral subordinates who should have no say in determining right and wrong unless they first consult the rightful arbiters of such things, i.e., us.
Those people, you see, are depraved baby-killers. But how does that change the utter failure of –?
But how do you justify defending brutality, inequality, segregation, oppressi–?
They kill babies.
And it worked. It worked so remarkably well that within another decade or so, the disgraced moral pariahs who had so thoroughly shamed themselves by failing the great moral test of the Civil Rights movement had been rebranded as “values voters” — the repository and safeguard of our national morality.
The fantastic thing about this trick is that it worked even though everyone knows that abortion is not the same thing as “killing babies.” That’s part of why it worked. Others might respond by talking about the actual status and personhood of a zygote relative to that of …
See? The rest of that sentence is irrelevant because the subject has already been changed. We’re talking about abortion now, not justice. And this new conversation about this new subject will only be allowed to be discussed in terms of the polarizing caricature of baby-killing. This may be a wholly disingenuous and misleading framework for that conversation, but misleading was the goal here in the first place. This conversation was designed and intended to lead us away. It’s purpose was to change the subject.
And it worked. It still works. Which brings us back to Jake Chapman, defender of violence and intimidation against transgender people. Chapman has read the playbook:
Much of the Senate debate of the bill was taken up by Chapman’s attempt to classify the unborn … to the list of Iowans protected by hate crime laws.
Chapman provided lengthy and detailed descriptions of abortion procedures over the objections of other lawmakers. … Chapman insisted his graphic descriptions of abortion were relevant, and he said the Senate had “failed in its most basic responsibility” to protect “a right to life.”
Kedarie Johnson, 16, was shot to death in an alleyway–
Shut up, baby-killers.
That’s what this is for.