I am still deciding what to think about the Indiana RFRA law. But one of the opponents of the law recently made a disturbing comment. He chose to use the comment “Bible-Thumpers” and talked about “thumping the Bible-Thumpers.” Regardless of the arguments the speaker was making, he lost me once he said “Bible-Thumper.” Bible-Thumper is a religious epithet on par with the term “raghead” for Muslims. It is a term that should be retired in polite company and should not be used in televised public discussions.
Some may consider my opposition to this term as whining. I wonder if those same individuals are all right with the term “raghead.” Both Bible-Thumper and raghead denote a negative image of a particular religious group. Both terms are used in derogatory manner and indeed it is hard to think of a way to use those terms that is not derogatory. Neither term is outlawed, and I would fight any effort to outlaw either term. Free speech can be dehumanizing speech, but it is still free. But one term can be used on the air with little or no consequence while the other is taboo. It is time for both terms to be taboo.
I have tried to think of a time when I have used the term raghead. I am pleased to say that I cannot think of a single time in which I have done so. I have unfortunately heard the term used and have recoiled at its use. I probably have been guilty of not confronting the user of the term. But I know today that I would not tolerate its use in my personal presence even though I am not a Muslim. Likewise, I would hope that those who are not Christians will challenge those using the term Bible-Thumper so that we can take this epithet out of our discussions.
I guess it is fair to ask how I see the term Bible-Thumper in comparison to the n-word (To respect my African-American ancestors I refuse to write this word out completely). In my opinion, the n-word has its own special awful place in our history. No other insult has been connected to as much oppression and pain in U.S. history as this word. So it is a word that should be treated qualitatively from all other insults. But I do place Bible-Thumper with other insults we have developed in our society to dehumanize others. It is no better or worse than derogatory terms other than the n-word.
One of the main problems with such derogatory terms is that they prevent us from having a productive conversation with each other. I remember sitting in a graduate school class when the instructor causally called a group of conservative Christians “Bible-Thumpers.” As a Christian, I looked around the class to see if anyone would challenge her. It was not just that no one spoke up against the insult. As I looked at the faces of my peers, it was clear that this was just a term to use with no repercussions or stigma. As a Christian it was reinforced to me that I did not have a place in that conversation, and as a student I had no institutional power to confront that reality. Insulting others does not aid our conversations, it shuts conversations down.
So beyond the fact that it is wrong to use dehumanizing terms for those who differ from us, it is simply not an acceptable way for us to communicate with each other in our multicultural society. If we want real solutions to the issues brought up by Indiana’s RFRA law (By the way if you want to use my comment section to argue about the RFRA law then have at it. I will not be participating since I am still figuring out what my stance on it should be) then we should strive for solutions that include as many groups as possible. Having spent many years dealing with issues of racial reconciliation, I know that such solutions do not come unless we treat all parties with a seriousness that does not come from the use of insults. As such, it should not be controversial to call for a stigmatization of the use of the term “Bible-Thumper” and put that term in the garbage bin of terms no longer used on air or among people who want to be seen as having some degree of class. That is one tiny step we can take to produce the useful conversations we need to resolve our differences.