Tyranny: At The Values Voter Summit, A Heavy Word Is So Lightly Thrown

To supporters of the Religious Right, any attempt to stop them from running the lives of others is tyranny.

Yesterday my colleague Simon Brown offered some thoughts on the Religious Right's  Values Voter Summit, which he attended this weekend.

I was there for part of it as well. One thing that struck me was the constant use of the word “tyranny.” To supporters of the Religious Right, any attempt to stop them from running the lives of others or expecting them to obey the same laws that the rest of us must follow is tyranny.

The word was frequently pressed into service during a Saturday afternoon session I attended titled “Where Do We go From Here?: Challenging Tyranny.”

One of the speakers, Dean Clancy of FreedomWorks, discussed tyranny extensively. Clancy told the crowd, “FreedomWorks is very much concerned about tyranny. It is a very real thing.”

Clancy blasted the “judicial tryranny” of Supreme Court rulings that legalized abortion, decriminalized homosexual acts between consenting adults and struck down key portions of the Defense of Marriage Act..

“These are all tyrannical decisions,” he fumed. A moment later Clancy blasted “fiscal tyranny” and “monetary tyranny” that, he said, are so bad that “eventually our country will be ruined financially.”

(Clancy’s answer to all of this tyranny is, not surprisingly, highly partisan. He told the crowd to elect the right kind of Republicans, remarking, “One Ted Cruz or Mike Lee is worth 10 Bob Corkers.”)

Terry Jeffrey, editor of the far-right CNSNews, spoke just before Clancy. He also ranted about the “tyranny” of Obamacare and the requirement that most secular employers permit their workers to access health-care plans that include contraceptives.

“That’s a pretty powerful word – tyranny,” Jeffrey said. “But I think it’s an appropriate one.”

A third speaker, Luther Strange, attorney general of Alabama, talked about how state officials can block tyranny by gumming up federal laws and mandates.

Much of the outrage at the Summit, which was sponsored primarily by the Family Research Council, the American Family Association and the Heritage Foundation,  was aimed at the new health-care law. I realize that Americans have different opinions about the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Americans United doesn’t take a stand on it, except to say that the birth control mandate promulgated by the Department of Health and Human Services reflects common sense and good public-health policy; someone’s decision to use birth control in no way impedes another’s religious liberty.

The American people may disagree on the ACA., but I would hope we could debate these issues with civility and employ some modicum of reason. Claims that the United States is on the verge of becoming a police state because of law that aims to help poor people get access to health care aren’t helpful.  

Similar hyperbolic claims were made at another session I attended. The session ostensibly aimed to arm attendees with answers to “tough questions” about marriage equality and the HHS mandate. The answers given were familiar and tiresome Religious Right bromides wrapped in – you guessed it – claims of tyranny.

According to the Religious Right, it is “tyranny” to expect a businessperson who claims to serve the public to actually serve all of the public. These folks want a legal right to discriminate against LGBT Americans, and they scream “tyranny” when they are told that won’t fly. I suspect the innkeepers, restaurant owners, etc.  in the Jim Crow South said the same thing when the federal government told them that their days of discriminating against African Americans were over.

I am a fan of the 1980s British pop band the Smiths. The Smiths’ singer and front man, who often went by his last name of Morrissey, is known for his ability to turn a clever phrase. In the song “What Difference Does It Make?” Morrissey warns of the dangers of “heavy words…so lightly thrown.”

Indeed there is a danger: In the case of the Values Voter Summit, a false definition of “tyranny” drains that word of its power. There are people in the world suffering under regimes that are really tyrannical. These people can be imprisoned, tortured and even killed for their religious or political beliefs.

In light of this, a Religious Right activist’s claims that our country has embraced “tyranny” because someone else is able to buy health care or get birth control sounds rather silly. It threatens to dull our senses to real tyranny and not speak up when we see it. In a world where every perceived slight is tyranny, it becomes too easy to overlook real instances of human-rights violations.

Morrissey was right. Tyranny is indeed a heavy word. Yet it was lightly thrown about at the Values Voter Summit.

For that – and for many other things – the Religious Right has so much to answer for.