Maybe it is my association with Crystal Blanton and her copious amounts of work around racism and privilege that makes me pause when I hear certain phrases spoken. Maybe it is Coco from the grave allowing me to see glimpses of the South before I was born, back when Coco fled Jim Crow and the viciousness of Southern racism. Maybe it is because I take the spiritual leadership I have been given in trust by the gods and goddesses with all the seriousness it deserves. Maybe it is because I am a mother who hopes to have grandchildren someday, and that prospect makes me wonder what kind of world I leave as my legacy. Maybe my genetic makeup is filled with radical people who fought against the unjust throughout history: Scotsmen, suffragettes, hippies, freedom-riders, women in black, me.
I hadn’t held a banner in a long time. Not since I left Chattanooga, TN and stopped standing as a Woman in Black. It was gentle bigotry that galvanized me. The fear that what Coco fled from all those years ago could be re-legislated and rise again. The idea that spiritual belief somehow gave bad behavior a pass. A rubber stamp that said, “YES! Be a bigot. Be a womanizer. Be homophobic. As long as your reason for it is a spiritual one – a higher law than humankind has the right to intervene with.” Even when legislative actions like this do not pass, they leave an indelible stain upon our society. Bigots see the suggestion of such laws as an indication that gentle bigotry is okay, especially when backed up by strongly held spiritual beliefs. Those who face discrimination and bigotry get the message as well: society is not safe for them, and their feelings and existence will always be marginalized by those in power.
That is what Georgia’s proposed Senate Bill 337 and House Bill 1037 was.*
Georgia’s Preservation of Religious Freedom Act is the definition of gentile bigotry. It intertwines prejudice with the socially acceptable concept – freedom of religion. It is a blatant attempted to dress up hatred and discrimination in acceptable clothing. It plays on Fox News’ diminishing narrative that Christianity is under attack in the United States. The idea is that if the legislative body upholds spiritual belief as reason enough to discriminate, then the actions taken under the directives of spiritual belief are going to always be right – and the legislative body must make them legal.
In my busy life, there are few things that can make me tremble like the idea that someone can justify what they do, no matter what they do, by hiding behind the First Amendment. My skin crawls and blood tingles. I am almost completely paralyzed when I think of it. It creates in me a moment of complete stillness where I feel the warning of generations crying out to me to do something, anything to avoid this destabilizing of the very foundation of the United States of America.
Since these bills have come forward I have been going on protests (Moral Mondays) and attending interfaith activities (Faith Alliance of Metro Atlanta) in my area. I have been posting on my Facebook and Twitter accounts and generally feeling small and insubstantial, like I suspect most people do. I am no longer wide eyed and twenty, believing that one person can change the world when Bush attached Iraq and I stood with Women In Black.
As conversations in my community around HB1037 and SB377 have happened, I have begun to understand the flaw of logic that leaves the door open for such propositions. Part of the problem is the gentle bigotry we allow in our own hearts, and the other is a misunderstanding regarding what the First Amendment guarantees us.
The First Amendment does not guarantee freedom OF religion. It is a guarantee FROM religion.
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
Our first amendment sanctified the holy right of religion to exist OUTSIDE of government. This sanctification is most often upheld by the atheist movement. The American Atheists state, in part, that their mission is to take “the principled and uncompromising position that our government should give no special treatment or preference to religious belief.” Often the pagan fight with the government has been equal inclusion, which clouds the real issue: the government should get out of religion altogether. Laws shouldn’t be based upon religious doctrine or theology. The laws should be based upon what is good and right for the society – all members of society. A society that declared long ago that it is self-evident, “all men are created equal.”
Because of religious ideas and principles, we are forced to put up with a government that makes laws and restrictions upon women’s access to proper gynecological medical care while remaining unconcerned with providing Viagra or penile pumps. Because of theology, we endure a government that passes judgment on who is “created equally” based on whom they love or how or with whom they have sex. It is through the infiltration of religion into government that we are bombarded with our most heinous societal problems. The justification is that God Almighty has green lighted certain actions. Because God, surely, is the only one who can tell us when men really aren’t equal.
And although I am most assuredly not an atheist, I am beginning to understand that we need to take an atheistic view when it comes to government. Laws relating to religion should only declare a “live and let live” attitude that upholds the common sense rules needed to maintain a productive society. As long as religious observances do not cause societal strife or break reasonable and just laws, then worship as you see fit. Build your temples, circles, synagogues and churches. Minister to the people of the religion you serve as you are led. Don’t expect the government to identify the religion as special, in need of special consideration or tax break, or believe that government must yield to whatever spiritual beliefs you have.
Have an expectation that reasonable just laws spring, not from some misguided Biblical belief, but from common sense, guided by good scientific and social science studies. This isn’t a replacement of God in the hearts of America. It is a declaration that God is in your heart, not your head and not your government.
To be sure it is harder for one person to create change on such a national level. We vote with our dollars, our time and our public declarations, and as I have already observed, for those of us who bother to vote, give or volunteer, it often seems that we are a drop in an already raging sea. Something no one will notice unless you land on top of them.
Start with You
“Words are the most sacred tool we make magic with. That is why it is called ‘spelling,’” a meme I read recently declared. Our words are the most powerful tool available to practitioners. However, the epicenter of our words is not our mouths, it is our minds and hearts. Seek out the gentle bigotry in your own mind.
Do you think, “Black people always turn so you can see their big booty!”
Maybe you are upset that you don’t have a great booty? Any self-talk that generalizes an entire population or segment of the population – black people always… – may be considered gentle bigotry.
Do you harbor, “He is a nice enough guy, too bad he is gay.”
Maybe he is hot and you wish he preferred your sex; however, saying too bad he is gay implies that he might chose to not be gay. When complimenting, it becomes back-handed when you add a stipulation. Next time leave off everything after too. Let people be who they are without qualification.
Do you justify, “But he is Hindu, so he has a right to only hire Hindus.”
The only just laws are the ones that allow freedoms to everyone. This thought process could be, “He is Hindu, he should hire Christians to work the holy days, so he can take off and his business will be taken care of. He should hire some Hindus because they are his people. He should hire some Muslims to counteract the tensions between Muslims and Hindus. He should hire some Jews because he would better understand their need to have certain times off, and he should hire pagans for the same reason. Wouldn’t it just be better if he employed a person because of qualifications? Isn’t it a better rule to follow that a person’s qualifications lead to employment?
Do you uncharitably think, “Mexicans are horrible workers who won’t learn our language”?
Remember what we said about generalizations above? Then think outside the box. Those who do not learn English may not do so because they are afraid. They are trying to hold on to what they know in a strange culture that views anyone who speaks Spanish hostilely. If you’re a boss, are workers responding to an unspoken expectation you have of them? Meaning, that you expect them to be horrible workers and so they are?
Is there an undercurrent in your life that if a news story or legislative offering doesn’t immediately impact you, then it is not your concern?
I am not a woman, who cares what the Affordable Health Care Act covers? I am not black, who cares if the incidence of incarceration doesn’t represent the population of the US accurately? I have never grown up in a bad home, so who cares if children are exploited? That news story makes me feel bad, so I am going to change the channel, not read the paper and think about something else.
The words in our head set the magical intent of our working, which supersedes what comes out of our mouth.
Start with The Words In Your Head
Start with the words in your head. Watch out for gentle bigotry. Most of us have matured beyond the blatant bigotry of burning crosses and refusing to serve people and grown complacent. We haven’t tackled the hard work of what is in our minds. My husband priest gets seriously frustrated with me sometimes when I question his thinking regarding the Civil War. Being a white Southern man raised in the South, he has always held a certain amount of pride where the Civil War is concerned. He used to repeat the narrative that the Civil War was about states’ rights. Thanks to John Stewart, he can finish that sentence. The Civil War was about the states’ right to OWN SLAVES. No matter how wonderful the marketing regarding the Civil War and southern plantations, that marketing simply obscures the horrible truth of chattel slavery.
Speak in Uplifting and Uncomfortable Ways
After you have gotten right with yourself, learn to speak in uplifting and uncomfortable ways. When your friends whisper racist or homophobic thoughts out loud, perhaps you start by pointing out that if they have to whisper the thought, it should have been left unsaid. Maybe you confront your children directly. Challenge the talk coming out of their mouth, then go on and challenge the thinking behind it.
My boy recently said some off the cuff comment to Nathaniel. I turned to my son and said, “Dude, that was really racism disguised there.”
He scoffed, “Come on Nate, you’re my bro! That wasn’t racist.”
“Yeah, Bro!” Nate said. “It kind of really was racist.”
This led into a discussion about gentle racism, that racism that we think is acceptable because it has been wrapped up in our affection for the person we are speaking to, or has been accepted because it doesn’t involve cross burnings or other blatant bigotry. (By the way, I remember a cross burning happening in the neighborhood I lived in under twenty years ago.)
When Speaking, Check Your Motives
Check your motives. Be sure that your self-talk isn’t a way to uplift what you think or magnify yourself. When you speak, make sure your motive is to bring awareness and growth, not to hurt or shame.
When the motivation behind what you say is clear, then you can move forward. The energy of your soul will be aligned with the energy coming from your mouth, and the effects will be magnified beyond your imagination.
* Both bills failed to get the go ahead for an open vote because they didn’t get out of committee in time for this session. These bills are reminiscent of the bill proposed, passed and rejected by the Governor in Arizona. A bill similar to this has been proposed in Kentucky.