When I was young there were still a fair number of fundamentalist Christian churches around, and by that I mean churches that were proud to be fundamentalist and often even used the term “fundamentalist” as part of the name of their church. To them, fundamentalist meant they had abandoned the accumulated centuries of man-made traditions, and gotten back to the fundamentals of the faith. They had separated the wheat from the chaff, the gold from the ore, the essentials from the distractions. And they were proud of it.
As time went on, though, these groups became famous for other things: narrow-mindedness, judgmentalism, dogmatism, and ignorance. The term “fundamentalist” started accumulating negative connotations, and being linked to stereotypical attitudes and behaviors. Believers grew reluctant to identify themselves as fundamentalists, and wanted to be known as evangelicals instead. Evangelicals, you see, were the ones who understood what was really important about the faith. They wanted to get away from all this divisiveness and denominationalism, and go back to what was truly important about the faith.
As a young believer, I was glad I was an evangelical rather than a fundamentalist. Fundamentalism was bad. Fundamentalists did bad things and had bad attitudes. But you know what? As time went on, I realized that the evangelicals were doing the same things and promoting the same attitudes. Narrow-mindedness. Judgmentalism. Dogmatism. And a really, really proud and defiant ignorance. They weren’t called fundamentalists any more, but they were still doing the same behaviors and preaching the same attitudes, and thus acquiring the same stigma.
What I learned from that experience is that, in the long term, changing the name does no good if the underlying attitudes and behaviors don’t change with it. It happened with fundamentalism and with evangelicalism, and now it’s happening with plain old bigotry.
With bigotry, there’s one difference: I don’t think bigotry has ever been viewed in a positive light. What we’re seeing a lot of these days, though, is people who want to do the things that bigotry does, and to preach the attitudes that bigotry preaches, without being tagged with the label “bigot.” Take gay rights for example. “Oh, I’m not a bigot,” people say. “I’m not a homophobe. I don’t hate gays. I just want to practice the teachings of my religion, according to my own conscience.” And of course, the teachings of their religion call for hating and mistreating anyone who falls in love differently than they do. Because yeah, that’s really terrible, right?
What these believers forget is that the only reason there’s a stigma attached to the name “bigot” is because of the hurtful attitudes and actions of bigots. Merely relabeling such behavior as “faith” does nothing to change the bigotry of the actions and attitudes. What it does do is begin to associate your religion with the same kind of stigma that makes “bigot” an insulting term. A big bucket of crap is still a big bucket of crap, no matter how often you repaint the bucket. Bigotry is as bigotry does, and when believers associate their bigoted actions and attitudes with their religion, what they’re saying is “We follow a religion of bigotry and hate.”
And by the way, please notice that bigotry does not become less bigoted just by saying, “God commands it.” According to the Bible, God commanded the Israelites to slaughter every man, woman, child, and baby of the Amalekites. And that’s genocide. It’s not any less genocide because it’s allegedly endorsed by God. It’s genocide.
Same with the Old Testament passages that endorsed kidnapping the teenaged daughters of your enemies and keeping them as sex slaves. That’s rape. It’s no less rape because God allegedly condoned it. And bigotry is no different. You can say, “I only treat gay people hatefully because God says we should treat them hatefully.” But gays are not hurting anyone, they’re only falling in love differently. There’s nothing in their behavior or actions that deserves punishment, any more than heterosexual people deserve punishment when they fall in love or get married or are intimate with each other. Hatred and mistreatment of gays is simply bigotry, and the unjust persecution of innocent men and women, no matter who endorses it. If you’re going to blame it all on God, they you’re just labeling God as the Original Bigot. Good job.
Believers complain when their religion is associated with bigotry, hatred, and persecution of the innocent, but if they truly don’t like these associations, then they should stop doing the things that create the association. The reputation that religion has, it has because of the attitudes and actions that believers attribute to it, and when those attitudes and actions are bigoted and hateful, then you should either stop giving your religion credit for inspiring them, or better yet, stop doing them so that you’re not creating the associations you’re complaining about.
It’s not the name of bigotry that makes bigotry a bad thing. It’s the attitude and actions. If you take away the name, and still practice the same attitudes and actions in the name of your religion, you’re making your religion the bad thing. And it’s nobody’s fault but your own.