Apparently, it’s a lot easier to declare victory than to actually win it.
At least that’s my takeaway from a comment today from Vanderbilt University law school professor Carol Swain, who I debated, along with two others, this Tuesday at the National Religious Broadcasters (NRB) convention in Nashville, Tenn. The four of us formed a panel to discuss “Anatomy of Hate: Free Speech Implications.”
In a story at OneNewsNow, a “news” service run by the gay-bashing hate group American Family Association, Swain, a black religious conservative who claims that Christians’ speech is being stifled in America, is quoted like this: “I thought it was great to see Mark Potok make concessions and to admit that we have a right to religious freedom and to actually be in a situation where even he has to admit, whether he says it overtly or not, that there’s a problem with labeling individuals and groups as ‘hate groups’ just because they express their religious beliefs.”
Come again, professor? I “conceded” that Christians have a right to religious freedom? I “admitted” that it’s bad to list hate groups? Are you smoking something?
That is a bizarre, Swainsian construct, to say the least. Both I and the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) have always and vigorously defended religious freedom and the First Amendment, just as I said at the debate, which was recorded for future radio and Internet TV transmission (no tape or transcripts are yet available). And I in no way, not covertly or overtly or in any other way at all, suggested that there’s a problem with our hate group listings. Just the opposite: I explained repeatedly to Swain that our listings of a few religious right organizations are based on their propagation of known falsehoods, like the bogus claim that gay men molest children far more than their straight counterparts. I pointed out specifically that we did not list groups on the basis of their Christianity, their belief that homosexuality is a sin, or their opposition to same-sex marriage. We list them because they egregiously lie in a propagandistic effort to defame LGBT people.
Swain didn’t seem to get the distinction.
The professor actually sounds a little confused in her description today of the debate, or perhaps she just doesn’t remember what happened. All the panelists — NRB General Counsel Craig Parshall, Americans United for Separation of Church and State Executive Director Barry Lynn, Swain, myself and even moderator Janet Parshall, Craig’s wife and a well-known talk radio show host — agreed that religious liberty was important. All of us objected, for instance, to campus speech codes that seek to impose civility at the cost of free expression. As Janet Parshall pointed out, it was quite something to see us all agree on something.
The heat came in the second half hour of the exchange, when Swain led a nail-spitting attack on SPLC and on me personally, saying the government should “investigate” SPLC and accusing me of trying to “destroy” her reputation. (Briefly, she was angry because after she heartily endorsed a “documentary” that said the concept of racism was merely an excuse to intimidate whites, we found that the filmmaker regularly referred elsewhere to black men as “EVIL monkeys who are DESTROYING” America — and she continued to endorse it. After that, I told the Nashville Tennessean she was an “apologist” for a white supremacist.)
Swain wasn’t much for accuracy in the debate, just as she isn’t in her recounting of it. At one point in her attack on SPLC, she accused us of listing Focus on the Family as a hate group — a complete falsehood, when in fact we’ve pointed out real signs of moderation in that group’s anti-gay activities. I suppose that shouldn’t be much of a surprise. Swain was reading directly out of an issue of The Social Contract, a nasty white nationalist magazine that is both obsessed with non-white immigration and notoriously inaccurate, but a place where Swain, who was once a paid contributor to immigrant-basher Lou Dobbs’ CNN show, has many friends.
Swain ended her comments to OneNewsNow with an unexpected conclusion — that Christians should “never become offensive” and instead stick to “truth and love.” If that’s really what she got from our encounter, I suppose it wasn’t a total loss.