Instead of a predictable debate on gun control, this week's shooting at the Family Research Council has prompted a thought-provoking discussion on the politically loaded labels of "hate group" and "war on religion."
The head of the FRC said opponents that call his organization a hate group share some blame for 28-year-old Floyd Lee Corkins II allegedly shooting a guard at the FRC's Washington, D.C., headquarters, after reportedly saying, "I don't like your politics."
At the news conference the day after the shooting, FRC President Tony Perkins singled out the Southern Poverty Law Center for putting his organization on a list of hate groups, saying that gave the gunman "a license to shoot an unarmed man," and he urged that the law center be "held accountable for their reckless use of terminology."
The Family Research Council's website says it deals in issues of faith, family and freedom; opposes abortion and euthanasia; and considers homosexuality a sin. The organization is also a leader in opposing the legalization of same-sex marriage.
Other groups opposing same-sex marriage backed up Perkin's claim, including the American Family Association, which SPLC also identifies as a hate group. "According to SPLC’s own standards, it is the SPLC that is to blame for yesterday’s shooting," wrote the AFA's Bryan Fischer.
"Today's attack is the clearest sign we've seen that labeling pro-marriage groups as 'hateful' must end," added National Organization for Marriage President Brian Brown.
SPLC senior fellow Mark Potok responded by calling Perkins' accusation "outrageous. The SPLC has listed the FRC as a hate group since 2010 because it has knowingly spread false and denigrating propaganda about LGBT people — not, as some claim, because it opposes same-sex marriage."
Dana Millbank weighed in for the Washington Post saying both sides are wrong in their labeling and blaming.
"Yes, Perkins should stop doing that," Millbank wrote. "But even if he doesn’t, the Southern Poverty Law Center should stop listing a mainstream Christian advocacy group alongside neo-Nazis and Klansmen."
The Daily Beast's David Sessions also questioned the SPLC's criteria for qualifying organizations as hate groups. "Ignorance and bigotry, as well as sincere religious belief, can lead to bad science. But do bad facts equal hate?" he asked. He then concluded with some skepticism about the motives of the FRC's claim. "On the culture-war battlefield, calling someone a 'hate group' is a political move — and so is whining about it."
Sessions had earlier examined the social media traffic in the wake of the FRC shooting and revealed a pattern of overreaction and misinformation by both sides of the culture war immediately following a tragedy.
"The pouncing tweets, blogs and press releases had the unmistakable tone of vengeance, and it’s not difficult to see why," Sessions wrote. "The Family Research Council shooting was the latest in a string of violent crimes that sparked instant political clashes on Twitter, fights that often have left conservatives seething as liberals, sometimes falsely, attributed violence to right-wing radicalism."
The responses to the FRC shooting went beyond the label of hate, however. CNN religion editor Dan Gilgoff pointed out how conservative Christians were casting the shooting as another battle in the war on religion.
"For many conservative Christians, this week's Family Research Council shooting that wounded a security guard and that the FBI is investigating as a possible act of domestic terrorism was hardly a one-off attack," read Gilgoff's lead. "Rather, they say the incident is the latest evidence in what they allege is a growing war on religion from the left, an offensive they say extends from the Obama White House down to the liberal grass roots and even foreign governments."
Among the several statements cited in the story was this one from the AFA: "This near-tragic incident marks an alarming turn in our cultural battle over values," the group said in a statement Thursday. "The left’s war on religion and Christianity has now gone from symbolic to literal."
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