Here's a proactive journalistic question: Does expressing one's faith and beliefs always and without exception equal hate?
Maybe that's too broad. Let's try a variation on that question: Does expressing ancient and/or traditional forms of religious beliefs always and without exception equal hate?
I ask because of an important news story that's gotten some traction in evangelical and conservative media and may soon cross over into the mainstream press. I'm hoping -- and not against hope, I pray -- that journalists will pause and ask some serious factual questions if and when that coverage takes place.
To be sure, it's tough being a conservative Christian or interfaith public policy group these days. Just ask Christianity Today, reporting on something new that's taking place at the influential charity watchdog website GuideStar.org:
Several Christian organizations known for their advocacy on behalf of traditional marriage and families were recently labeled hate groups on one of America’s top charity research sites, 1
In response to “hateful rhetoric” during a “highly politicized moment” in American history, the portal began incorporating designations from the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) this month. Profiles for Christian nonprofits like the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), Liberty Counsel, the Family Research Council (FRC), and the American Family Association featured a banner saying they had been flagged as a hate group.
The SPLC’s “hate group” label, though often-cited, is controversial, particularly among conservatives. The Alabama-based watchdog charity applies the term to organizations that oppose same-sex marriage and certain LGBT rights as well as to violent and extremist groups like the Ku Klux Klan, Aryan Nation, and Nation of Islam.
As your GetReligionistas say from time to time: "Got news?"
Christianity Today picked up on a report at The Daily Signal website, a news publication of the conservative Heritage Foundation. (Heritage, as the Signal article points out, has not as of yet received a "hate group" tag from either the SPLC or GuideStar.)
From The Daily Signal, whose report centers on a protest letter sent to GuideStar from 41 groups and individuals:
Signers of the letter sound their concern that GuideStar, which calls itself a neutral public charity, is using the Southern Poverty Law Center’s much-contested language to flag “hate groups,” organizations that SPLC disagrees with.
“I think that what GuideStar is doing is another attack on conservative Christian organizations and individuals,” William G. “Jerry” Boykin, a retired Army general who is executive vice president of the Family Research Council, told The Daily Signal in an interview, adding:
"We have seen the same thing from other places to include certain media outlets. GuideStar says that they are neutral, but they are anything but neutral. In fact, they are, I would say at this point, they are becoming an arm of the ultra-left."
In response, GuideStar told The Daily Signal they're taking a second look at things:
A GuideStar spokesperson told The Daily Signal in an email Wednesday that the website will change some of the language:
"GuideStar draws information from thousands of distinct sources, each of them imperfect. In aggregate, those sources help us offer a multidimensional view of nonprofits. However, we recognize that the SPLC data is especially controversial. We are changing the text description of this data and reconsidering where and how we present it on our website."
The changes will appear within a few days, the spokesperson said.
One may or may not like the legal advocacy of the Alliance Defending Freedom, but they're not a bunch of hooded-sheet Klanners burning crosses.
The Family Research Council doesn't shirk from proclaiming its views about marriage, but rather than fomenting violence, the council was in 2012 the target of a violent shooter who said he was inspired by an online Southern Poverty Law Center designation, according to a 2013 news article in the Washington Examiner:
The Family Research Council shooter, who pleaded guilty ... to a terrorism charge, picked his target off a "hate map" on the website of the ultra-liberal Southern Poverty Law Center which is upset with the conservative group's opposition to gay rights.
Floyd Lee Corkins II pleaded guilty to three charges including a charge of committing an act of terrorism related to the August 15, 2012 injuring of FRC's guard. He told the FBI that he wanted to kill anti-gay targets and went to the law center's website for ideas.
The Corkins-SPLC connection was widely discussed at the time, and both Christianity Today and The Daily Signal make mention of it in their reporting. But will other media outlets do so, or will they defer to the view of the Southern Poverty Law Center described in a rather direct takedown by conservatives at The Federalist:
Why do so many folks treat the SPLC with undeserved reverence, the way too many high school kids treat a self-appointed nasty queen bee? Why do they accept the Southern Poverty Law Center as the nation’s Grand Inquisitor dictating who may speak and who must shut up? And why are its smears and caricatures so often blindly accepted at face value? What qualifies the SPLC to act as judge, jury, and social executioner of any human being who is not their blind supporter?
I believe it's possible to raise some questions about this liberal advocacy group without setting one's hair on fire. For example, look at this October 2016 piece from The Atlantic, which no one would describe as a far-right media outlet:
When ... the Southern Poverty Law Center and three other groups released a list of 15 “anti-Muslim extremists,” many of the names came as no surprise. ...
But one name in particular stuck out: Maajid Nawaz, a British activist who runs the Quilliam Foundation, which calls itself “the world’s first counter-extremism think tank.” (It’s named for Abdullah (né William) Quilliam, a British convert who opened the U.K.’s first mosque in 1889.)
Nawaz is a star in certain anti-terror circles, thanks to a compelling personal narrative: A self-described former extremist who spent four years in an Egyptian prison, he has changed approaches and now argues for a pluralistic and peaceful vision of Islam.
This is just one of several questions that could be asked, at this point.
I have been following this issue closely for years now. In 2013, The Weekly Standard published what I believe is a rather definitive look at the group by Charlotte Allen, a reporter whose integrity is, in my opinion, beyond reproach.
Allen raised valid questions about the amount of actual legal work undertaken by the Southern Poverty Law Center as opposed to less-partisan groups such as the Southern Center for Human Rights, based in Atlanta, which deals with death penalty and warrantless search cases among other issues. She also noted the direct-mail fundraising background of SPLC co-founder Morris Dees, who at the time was the group's highest-paid staffer.
Memo to editors and reporters: If you step into coverage of the dispute between the Southern Poverty Law Center and ecumenical and even interfaith groups to which it attaches a "hate group" label, please, please examine and report on the backgrounds of everyone pointing fingers, even (or especially) if they claim to speak from a moral high ground.