April 2023 Church & State Magazine - April 2023

How Do We Characterize Our Opponents? Ground Rules For Spirited — But Safe — Debate

  Rachel Laser

I recently attended a gathering of progressive leaders where we learned about how messaging is used to incite political violence. Dehumanize and create disgust about people, and it clears a path for physical violence. The obvious example is the Holocaust, where Nazis labeled Jews as vermin and snakes. 

Far from a relic of the past, this technique is rearing its ugly head today. One of many examples is the vicious labeling of drag queens as pedophiles. (There is simply no evidence to support this hurtful claim.)  

In his writings, scholar Bryn Nelson has explained that this technique of inciting political violence works because it taps into a very functional response to the emotion of disgust: “a kind of behavioral immune system that helps us avoid harm.” Human beings are averse to things that can make us physically sick. Extremists’ technique is a dangerous manipulation of a human mechanism that helps keep us safe.

Another way dehumanizing rhetoric leads to violence is by helping to justify it. Think of a fistfight where you end up punching somebody, and you have to explain it. What is the best way to justify your punch? By claiming that it was really self-defense. In this case, according to our opponents, violence is self-defense against the dangerous threat to our safety allegedly caused by [fill in the blank with whichever marginalized community you wish.]

This begs an important question that was among the first asked at this session of our gathering: How can we continue to call out our opponents in a way that is truthful and helps build our movement but simultaneously avoids inciting violence during a moment where it’s not unusual to hear people worry about civil war breaking out in America?

This is an important question, and the fact that we are asking it in and of itself is a good thing because it means we are being reflective and striving to avoid reckless violence.

By contrast, our opponents are much more inclined to favor violence. In my column last month, I described how a recent PRRI/Brookings public opinion survey revealed that 40% of Christian Nationalist adherents — as compared to just 6% of Christian Nationalist rejectors — believe that “true American patriots may have to resort to violence in order to save our country.” 

So where does this leave us in terms of how to characterize our opponents? 

We cannot shy away from calling out the truth. Christian Nationalists’ pursuit of an America that favors conservative white Christians is indeed a danger to everyone else and to our democracy, which rests on the principle of equality. 

I hope you’ve been reading our email series describing the groups that comprise the billion-dollar shadow network we are fighting. It’s critical to expose this network and explain that legislative proposals or even Super Bowl ads that might appear harmless are funded by religious extremists.

At the same time, it’s important not to use dehumanizing language. It may feel like a distinction without a difference to some or even inaccurate to others, but I will continue not to use the war language of “enemy” to describe our Christian Nationalist opponents. 

We also should avoid the urge to stereotype, though it can be very hard in this age of terse soundbites. Yes, it’s true according to the recent PRRI/Brookings poll that a majority of white evangelical Christians and Republicans are Christian Nationalists, but a third of white evangelical Christians and 44% of Republicans are skeptics or rejectors of Christian Nationalism. We have allies to collaborate with in both categories. 

Groups like ours are said to thrive on “going negative,” but we are noticing an excellent response when we go positive. AU’s recent rebrand led us to describe ourselves with positive language you may recognize: “We fight in the courts, legislatures, and the public square for freedom without favor and equality without exception.” 

Our new vision statement is also positive and explains that AU envisions “a nation where we are all free to believe or not believe as we choose, where our laws don’t allow anyone to use their religious beliefs to harm others, and where we can come together as equals to build a stronger democracy.” 

But even with our move to more positive language, we still need to be able to call out our opponents. When we do so, a good first step is to be aware of how language does incite political violence and to continue to ask ourselves if we are acting responsibly. 

Rachel K. Laser is president and CEO of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. 

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