Republican and Christian Leaders Are Asking Which Way Their Followers Went

Republican and Christian Leaders Are Asking Which Way Their Followers Went December 23, 2015

Someone needs to remind Republican voters and evangelical Christians alike that their leaders are trying to appeal to women, young people, LGBTQ folks and allies, and non-white folks, not insult and drive them away.

Which way did they go? (Credit: Dean Hochman, CC license.)
Which way did they go? (Credit: Dean Hochman, CC license.)

This morning I was reading some news on my phone about how Senator Lindsey Graham recently exited the Republican nomination clown car and I realized anew that a party that has built itself on exclusion, dangerously-politicized religiosity, delusions, self-pity, hatred, racism, xenophobia, and class warfare now must contend with the inevitable fallout of that tireless campaign: a fanbase that largely consists of exclusionary, delusional, dangerously-politicized fanatics who suffer from self-pity, hatred, racism, xenophobia, and a desire to commit class warfare. This voting bloc is one that they have cultivated for decades, with such tactics as the Southern Strategy, McCarthyism, open pandering to well-indoctrinated evangelicals, and the party’s cynical, shameless manipulation of those religious voters by pretending that its “pro-life” platform has anything to do with a desire to save or improve lives.

Those efforts have now ripened and matured into their fullest flowering of fruit, unfortunately for the Republican party itself.

I don’t think many people were surprised by Senator Graham’s announcement; he never really polled very well, and about the only real way he stood out from the pack was in his hypocrisy (in this case his about-face regarding federal disaster relief for his own state after voting against it for another state), his weird sexist-sounding humor, and his obsession with going to war with Muslims. So I guess he actually didn’t stand out much after all from the pack of liars, demagogues, and sociopaths that are–or rather were–his competition for the nomination.

Nonetheless, something about stories about Republican politicians draws out their fanbase, slavering and ready to do battle against anybody who criticizes the Grand Ole Party–and ready to show the world exactly what the Republican Party has wrought by pursuing its various short-sighted strategies to corner the voting market’s supply of racist, sexist, bigoted, xenophobic, theocracy-craving Christians.

In the responses to someone with a Hispanic-sounding name on that USA Today article’s comment page declaring that it isn’t really any Republican’s time to be President, one racist threatened him with deportation and later accused him of mowing lawns for a living. Another person told him to leave the discussion so he could go get himself some tacos. A female commenter criticizing Republicans was informed that she was “a little girl” who should “grow up.” A few comments further on, someone says that liberals kiss the President’s “black (ok half black) ass,” while another accuses Senator Graham of being a “girlyman” and Hillary Clinton of being “an old hag.” A number of others openly speculated about the senator’s sexual orientation.

How are actual gay people, women, and people of color supposed to take these comments? Are they supposed to rush right into a tent full of people who use that kind of language about them?

That’s just one news article’s comments, but they’re completely representative of what one can see out of Republicans now. Any discussion of politics devolves into the same racism, sexism, anti-gay bigotry, classism, and xenophobia that Donald Trump himself has manipulated to drive himself into prominence in the nomination race. In an article on ABC’s page about the same story, I didn’t have to go down the comments very far at all before I began seeing the same awful attitudes. “Who is she?” asked one commenter about Lindsey Graham; another speculated that the politician had gone to Iraq and Afghanistan so many times because “his lover must live over there.” Another asserted that he liked high school boys. We apparently missed the racist comment that got deleted, but don’t worry, there is more where that came from.

I don’t know about you, but I sure wouldn’t be in a hurry to join a group with a culture like that.

On an article I saw last night about the necessity of getting more Hispanic young people registered to vote, one commenter mentioned that indeed, young people are going to be voting in greater and greater numbers as time goes on–to which someone replied, “Why? Is Scooby-Doo going to be running?” Nobody took him to task for it. If any young people were reading that comment, how do you suppose they’d be feeling about voting for a party full of people who insult their intelligence like that?

It’s not like one can’t see offensive comments from liberals and Democrats from time to time, but it’s simply overwhelming to see how many more come from self-identified conservative Republicans. When they’re not waving shockingly racist signs, they’re attacking Hillary Clinton with sexist slurs.

This behavior goes hand-in-hand with the constant string of racist and sexist comments from politicians themselves–like their strings of words and deeds slamming women’s intelligence, appearance, honesty, and sanity, or the racism endemic to the party that is so bad that one politician, Charlie Crist, switched parties specifically to escape it.

And the hilarious thing is, Republicans need the exact people they and their supporters are working so hard to offend and drive away.

It’s no secret that women, young people, and people of color handed Barack Obama his presidency. Nor is it a secret that the Republican party is well aware that it really needs to win voters from those blocs and that it especially needs to woo the surging numbers of Hispanic voters to its ranks. We’ve been hearing for years that Republicans are frantic to win a more diverse pool of voters. Just a few years ago, Lindsey Graham himself said that America isn’t “generating enough angry white guys [for Republicans] to stay in business for the long term.”

So I’m just saying that maybe, just maybe, someone needs to tell Republican voters that if they can’t figure out some way to at least pretend they’re not a bunch of exclusionary, delusional, dangerously-politicized fanatics who suffer from self-pity, hatred, racism, xenophobia, and a desire to commit class warfare, then they’re going to keep losing on the national stage.

The thing we need to remember is that the Republican party itself–much like the religion it has co-opted–needs the rest of us way more than we need it.

I can see the same thing going on in movements like evangelical Christianity that are, themselves, slowly becoming aware of the need for greater diversity. Their power is waning, which has resulted in their main group becoming too weak to push its way through at other people’s expense. They are losing their privilege.

To have any hope of retaining or regaining some part of what they are losing and have lost, they need to win a very different kind of person to their banner than they’re used to seeing there. But the same people they need to persuade are the people they have been told over and over again are sub-humans worth only their contempt–people they have long felt entitled to control and abuse.

It’s clearly very difficult to swing around from contempt, control, and abuse to persuading and wooing. Republican and Christian leaders alike have built their entire culture around delusions about their own superiority and other people’s inferiority. It’s going to take some time for their rank-and-file to come around to the idea of being nice to the people they been abusing for years. The mere suggestion that they should is a complete turnaround from how their group dynamics have operated since well before most of them were even born.

It has got to be frustrating for these groups’ leaders to see their rank-and-file adherents busily abusing the exact people that they need to stop their group from waning into total irrelevance.

Not long ago, an evangelical Christian named Preston Sprinkle wrote several blog posts counseling his tribe to be nicer to the gay folks they’ve been gleefully abusing, dehumanizing, smearing, vilifying, and bullying for decades. (Here is one of those posts.) He comes from a well-intentioned place that seems sincere, like a lot of evangelicals going the same route he is.

But you can guess that it didn’t take long for the tribe to show up and show their “Christian love” to him and the few gay commenters who showed up to talk about his posts.

Now, bear in mind that, as loving as Preston Sprinkle would like to seem, he still thinks that homosexuality is morally wrong and sinful. He still thinks that gay people should not have relationships. He still clearly buys into his culture’s “complementarian” gender-normative patterns, though his are less restrictive and stereotypical than those of his peers. He still uses catchphrases like “same-sex attraction” to denigrate, degrade, and belittle gay people and to turn what is one of the most integral and beautiful parts of humanity, our capacity to feel, receive, and send love, into a pathology that must be cured, resisted, denied, and at all costs defeated.

Worst of all, he still doesn’t really bring anything new to the table in terms of what joining Christianity would mean for gay people and their allies. According to one reviewer of his recent book on the subject, his options for gay folks appear to be the same exact options that his tribemates have presented for decades as their god’s only acceptable life paths for gay people: harmful and dangerous “reparative therapy,” marrying opposite-sex partners and hoping for the best, and lifelong celibacy. The endgame he gets from his apologetics is the exact same endgame that his more hateful peers come to–they just come at it from a much more direct route. As another reviewer of his book succinctly put it, “Conservative Traditional Position, but with Love… (I haven’t seen that before).” Mr. Sprinkle* may sound more loving, but he’s not actually very different from his peers. And even the cosmetic changes he recommends are taken as a full-scale declaration of war by some of the folks in his tribe.

I don’t think many gay or straight people will be fooled by this new brand of kinder, gentle homophobia, any more than non-Republican voters are fooled by the GOP’s “outreach efforts.” When Hemant Mehta wrote about a recent poll showing that Christians are now more “accepting” of homosexuality, he very correctly pointed out that “acceptance” isn’t much of a metric to judge actual homophobia by:

What we really need to know is whether Christians believe homosexuality is inherently a sin, whether they believe LGBT people deserve civil rights, and whether they support marriage equality in the eyes of the government. . . But for now, congratulations, gay people. More Christians “accept” you. I’m sure you’re all thrilled.

Don’t get me wrong. Considering the huge percentage of people who abandon and reject church and Christian culture because of its anti-gay behavior and rhetoric, I can totally see why Christian leaders are frantic to look more loving toward everyone in the quiltbag.** America simply isn’t generating enough anti-gay bigots to keep evangelicals in business, to borrow Lindsey Graham’s phrasing.

But like the Republican party itself wanting to seem less racist, theocratic, and sexist without actually changing a thing about how it views race, Christianity, and gender, evangelicals are going through these halfhearted, half-assed pretenses at change without really wanting to change anything about themselves or their culture.

Saying something hateful in a nicer way doesn’t make it less hateful, only less honest.

“Be nice while you reject same-sex relationships, try hard to stop gay people from accessing their civil rights, and in every way possible make sure they know that their relationships both morally wrong and inferior to opposite-sex relationships. Don’t change anything, just say and do it with a big Jesus smile on your face.” That’s what they’re saying. And that’s what people outside the right-wing Christian bubble are hearing, loud and clear.

Those in the bubble, meanwhile, are hearing  something else: “You want us to water down our TOTALLY TRUE AND MORALLY PURE TEACHINGS, commit sin by ACCEPTING GAY PEOPLE and make Baby Jesus cry by NOT LOUDLY CONDEMNING SINNERS.”

What groups like these need is a wholesale overhauling of their entire approach and attitude. The root of how these followers behave is toxic at its core. That core cannot be restrained, reasoned with, made constructive, or tamed. That core is a sickness that pulses and throbs, feeding hatred and exclusion into the group itself. It is, at its center, not loving or nice. This simple reality is one that right-wing politicians and religious leaders can’t accept, understand, or come to grips with, and that’s why their efforts to win others to their banner will fail. Their tactics depend on their targets thinking that these nice platitudes are signs of a genuinely nicer core and not merely a mask covering the same old hateful core.

Until that toxic core is excised and destroyed, cosmetic makeovers won’t fool anyone except some of those already in the tribe–and in fact will only enrage many of those in the tribe, who will see even those cosmetic changes as betrayals of the indoctrination they received and internalized years ago. The backlash that one sees in Republicans now–their savage racism and sexism, their open contempt toward non-Christians and lower-income people, their over-the-top bigotry, and all the rest–is the same backlash that one can see in any post written by Christians advising that maybe, just maybe Christians should be nicer to gay people.

When we look at whether a group has really changed, those are the people we need to be looking at: not the leaders of the groups struggling to cope with demographic shifts, but the group as a whole. How well do the people at the top contain, condemn, and retrain their group’s hateful elements? How often do the people advocating a more “loving” approach call out hateful behavior? How does their “nice” rhetoric translate into real-world behaviors and platforms? Where do their arguments lead in terms of policy recommendations and support? How safe would a gay person, a woman, a poor person, a person of color, or a non-Christian feel among these people? How secure are the rights of such people in this group?

This new strategy, being “nicer” about stripping people of their rights and considering them second-class citizens, is simply the latest attempt by evangelical Christians and Republicans alike to win back some of the people and power they have lost. If making a pretense of love or inclusiveness works to win back adherents, then great, they don’t really need to make larger-scale changes and disrupt and upset their tribe even further. It’s a conciliatory gesture meant to placate those who agree with the group’s general attitude and trick those who don’t agree with it into thinking it’s not as hateful as it really is. But I don’t think that these gestures will work to regain either group’s onetime power.

Such gestures are like prayer; they’ll certainly make some parts of the tribe feel like they’re making some grand effort toward change, but don’t really accomplish anything material and certainly won’t have any positive impact on the real world or the group’s actual behavior. The groups’ adherents themselves are seeing to that.

So maybe someone needs to go tell evangelicals and Republicans that their leaders want them to at least pretend to be on board with the new strategy. This “I’m their leader–which way did they go?” attitude is wearing thin very quickly, and they don’t have a whole lot of time to figure this problem out before their next generation of young people move out of their parents’ houses and make their own choices about how they’ll be voting and what they’ll be doing with their childhood indoctrination.

We’re going to talk next time about the reason for the season. It’s time for our annual Christmas post! See you Thursday.


* Don’t be mean about his name, please 🙂

** “Quiltbag” is an informal term referring to the entire LGBTQ acronym, often used affectionately.

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