The Hate Crimes Bill passed the house yesterday 249-175 and so we have taken another step towards decency in our country and respect for all of our citizens. This has been seen as a threat by conservative religious and legal groups, but others of us see it as evidence of the goodness of our democracy that nobody should be singled out for abuse and violence for who they are.
It has been gratifying to see new Evengelical voices supporting this legislation. One of these is Dr. David Gushee, Professor of Christian Ethics at Mercer University who has offered crucial contributions to the Christian opposition to torture. Now he is speaking up about this current Hate Crimes legislation writing through the folks at Faith in Public Life:
“As a Christian, I believe in the immeasurable and sacred worth of every human being as made in the image of God and as the object of God’s redeeming love in Jesus Christ. In our sinful and violent world, there are tragically very many ways in which this sacredness is violated. This bill deserves Christian support because its aim is to protect the dignity and basic human rights of all Americans, and especially those Americans whose perceived “differentness” makes them vulnerable to physical attacks motivated by bias, hatred and fear. The bill simply strengthens the capacity of our nation’s governments to prosecute violent, bias-related crimes. I am persuaded that the bill poses no threat whatsoever to any free speech right for religious communities or their leaders. Its passage will make for a safer and more secure environment in which we and all of our fellow Americans can live our lives. For me, the case for this bill is settled with these words from Jesus: “As you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me” (Mt. 25:40).”
The legislation does raise the interesting question that most vexes the religious right. If a person were to commit a violent crime directed specifically against a gay person and then claim that a pastor incited the violence through repeated condemnation of gay people, describing them as agents of satan and urging battle against them (this is not at all far fetched) would the pastor be subject to prosecution for contributing to a crime?
My guess is that it would be hard, and should be hard, to make a direct link. But hate speech from the pulpit probably indirectly contributes to such crimes if only in offering an ideological framework. Dr. Gushee is persuaded that this legislation poses no threat to free speech and I believe he is right. But hopefully religious leaders will think twice about demonizing specific groups from their pulpit. A few weeks ago I wrote about the practice in South Africa of ‘corrective’ rape of lesbians. I wonder who pounded it into them that being a lesbian was wrong to begin with, and if they have some responsibility in these crimes of hate.
Ultimately I come down in favor of free speech almost always (fire in the threatre etc excepted). But this is a salient issue. Should clerics be allowed to incite viiolence, terrorism or sedition from the publpit? Clerics should not be prosectuted from what she or he says in the publpit no matter how vile, but they should be thinking about how their words may translate into action by people who are sitting in the church, synogogue, mosque or temple.