Finally: A decent mainstream news article about the Southern Poverty Law Center

Well. Finally someone wrote a realistic, balanced piece about the work of the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Washington Post Magazine staff writer David Montgomery put together a (roughly) 6,700-word piece that asks whether the SPLC is what it pretends to be — the ultimate (and accurate) judges of hate in America.

It gave ample voice to several of the SPLC’s most prominent critics, including one mainstream evangelical Christian organization that narrowly missed being in a bloodbath because of being labeled a hate organization.

See that speck there?” retired Lt. Gen. William G. “Jerry” Boykin says, directing my gaze to the ceiling of the Family Research Council’s lobby in Washington. I spy a belly-button-size opening in the plaster. “That’s a bullet hole.” … Fired on August 15th, 2012, by Floyd Lee Corkins.” …

Asked by an FBI agent how he came to single out the FRC, Corkins replied: “Southern Poverty Law lists anti-gay groups.” The gunman, who was found to be mentally ill, was sentenced to 25 years in prison.

“He came in here to kill as many of us as possible because he found us listed as a hate group on the Southern Poverty Law Center website,” continues Boykin, FRC’s executive vice president, who is dressed today in a leather vest over a shirt and tie. “We and others like us who are on this ‘hate map’ believe that this is very reckless behavior. … The only thing that we have in common is that we are all conservative organizations. … You know, it would be okay if they just criticized us. … If they wrote op-eds about us and all that. But listing us as a hate group is just a step too far because they put us in the same category as the Ku Klux Klan. And who are they to have a hate-group list anyhow?”

The piece then switches venues to Montgomery, Ala., headquarters of the SPLC, which began in 1971 as a legal aid group, then expanded in the 1980s to monitor Klan groups.

Then the SPLC began widening its definition of hate and extremism.

For decades, the hate list was a golden seal of disapproval, considered nonpartisan enough to be heeded by government agencies, police departments, corporations and journalists. But in recent years, as the list has swept up an increasing number of conservative activists — mostly in the anti-LGBT, anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim categories — those conservatives have been fighting back.

(Disclosure: I’ve written about a dozen pieces for the Post magazine since 2010. And my former employer, the Washington Times, was continually pilloried by the SPLC in a 2003 piece that focused on one editor and one reporter. Several of us on staff were beyond annoyed that the organization painted us with “neo-Confederate” brush. The SPLC trashed us other times as well so after awhile, we ignored the place.)

Along the way, the SPLC undermined its own credibility with a couple of blunders. In 2015, it apologized for listing Ben Carson as an extremist (though not on the hate list), saying the characterization was inaccurate. Then, this past June, the group paid $3.4 million to Muslim activist Maajid Nawaz and his Quilliam organization to settle a threatened lawsuit. The SPLC had listed them in a “Field Guide to Anti-Muslim Extremists” (again, not on the main hate list). The SPLC apologized for misunderstanding Nawaz’s work to counter Islamist extremism.

Yes, that Nawaz affair was quite the blooper. I wish Montgomery had quoted these Muslims nor Ben Carson, nor Muslim-turned-atheist-feminist Ayaan Hirsi Ali who has also been labeled a hater by the SPLC.

The next paragraph is the key to the article.

Ironically, the assault on the SPLC comes at a time when, by other measures, it has reached a new peak of public regard. Last year the group raised a whopping $132 million through its famously relentless direct-mail appeals and other giving. … That’s a 164 percent increase over the $50 million it took in a year before. The SPLC’s endowment is up to $433 million. SPLC leaders explain the jump as a reaction to the tone unleashed by Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and continued by the Trump administration.

There’s more further down in the piece about all the money pouring into the SPLC. You’ve got major players such as Apple Inc. throwing money at it. The SPLC advises Facebook on which groups practice hate and which ones do not. For an advocacy group, the SPLC wields a lot of power.

So what does this have to do with religion? A lot of religious groups defend traditional, even ancient, doctrines on many subjects (abortion, homosexuality among others) and the people who do them. The SPLC’s hate trackers label these religious beliefs as “hate.” The group’s willingness to go after religious groups has earned it the sobriquet as “the Left’s pit bull.”

The article addresses the SPLC’s ongoing campaign against the Scottsdale, Ariz.-based Alliance Defending Freedom, a legal think tank that takes on many religious freedom cases and has won nine Supreme Court cases in the past seven years.

… a major strike against the group was its decision to file an amicus brief in the 2003 landmark Supreme Court case that struck down a Texas law criminalizing gay sex. The ADF wanted to uphold the state’s right to decide whether “it is reasonable to believe that same-sex sodomy is a distinct public health problem,” according to the ADF’s brief. “It clearly is.”

“It’s really bad that you want these people thrown in jail for consensual activity,” Beirich told me. “It’s literally barbaric in our opinion. And that was the thing that really pushed ADF over the top to us.”

Getting blacklisted by the SPLC isn’t bad in itself, its opponents claim.

What is harmful is how mainstream media echo its claims and how AmazonSmile, a fundraising mechanism for non-profits owned by Amazon.com, shut off all access to ADF after it was called a hate group.

“It’s a stranglehold on conservative and religious groups that is just hovering over us and that can continue to constrict and limit our ability to simply voice our opinion,” (ADF senior counsel Jeremy) Tedesco told me. “This hate label shuts down debate. … It creates enmity towards people that are just on the other side of an issue from you. That’s not something we need in our culture.”

The reporter realizes that the SPLC and its adversaries live in different conceptual universes. What sounds like logic to one group (i.e. saying pure Muslim doctrine ultimately leads to jihad) sounds like hate to another.

The reporter delves into a few other organizations that the SPLC has labeled hateful and notes that the majority of the groups SPLC labels as hateful belong on the right side of the ideological spectrum.

Just for fun, I clicked on the SPLC website and looked into what they had for my former stomping grounds in Fairbanks. What should be mentioned but the Asatrú Folk Assembly, which must be a small group, as none of my journalism students in my religion reporting class at the University of Alaska had ever heard of it. It’s a proudly heathen group but the SPLC labels it as “neo-völkisch” in that it prizes the spirituality of white Europeans based on Norse or Germanic gods.

Asatrú is pretty big in Iceland, too. So now it’s a hate group?

I’ve complained before in this blog that everyone loves to quote the SPLC — but when Muslims and Christians alike sue the organization, no one covers it.

Well, someone finally has, so definitely give this piece a read.

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