For Gary Bauer, it should have been just another speaking engagement. The Family Research Council president appears at more than 100 events every year defending traditional values (and, perhaps, running for president). But early on, there were signs that his speech in Livonia, Mich., on Oct. 22 would be far from normal. A week earlier, Matthew Shepard, a homosexual student at the University of Wyoming, had been brutally beaten, tortured, and strung up on a fence to die. Like almost every other Christian leader in the country, Mr. Bauer condemned the murder and called for swift justice for the perpetrators. But some homosexual activists wanted more than that. They wanted Mr. Bauer's head.
Within days of the murder, the switchboard at FRC's Washington headquarters was jammed. Angry callers shouted obscenities at operators, damning Mr. Bauer and laying the blame for the Shepard death squarely at his feet. "God hates you," raged one caller. "You will all burn in hell." Said another, "The blood of Matthew Shepard is on your dirty, disgusting, hate-filled hands."
With criticism giving way to damnation and then to threats of physical violence, tensions were high as Mr. Bauer headed to Livonia on a bright, cold afternoon. Dozens of uniformed police patrolled the streets, the parking lot, and even the roof of the Burton Manor conference center. Outside, more than 100 protesters surrounded incoming cars, screaming at the startled occupants, "God hates you!" and "Take your hate home." Various speakers, armed with a red bullhorn, lumped Gary Bauer with Adolph Hitler and compared the FRC to the KKK. The crowd roared its approval, hoisting signs that read, "Your words are killing us," and "Traditional family values suck."
Again and again, biblical values were blamed for the death of Mr. Shepard. "Hate happens ... in our pulpits," said one young man who said he had himself been seriously beaten two years earlier. (He never explained from what pulpit his attacker-the bouncer at a local bar-might have learned his hate.)
A Metropolitan Community Church minister, with a stiff white collar and silver cross around his neck, asked the crowd to join with him in praying "to whatever god you worship," then went on to ask forgiveness and enlightenment for "those who preach hatred and who fail to see that the violence of their words leads to violence of action." (Metropolitan churches are popular among homosexuals.)
As the sun sank lower in the sky, so did the level of rationality in the rhetoric. A rather large lesbian rendered the red bullhorn redundant as she screamed of the people inside the hall, "It is they who destroy family values by saying we can pray our way out. It is they who destroy this country with a sickness and a hatred that breeds intolerance. It is they whose words bring death to our young.... We come tonight to say, You have brought sin and hatred and pain to this country, and you should pray tonight for redemption. You need it."
Although Mr. Bauer escaped unscathed from the confrontation in Livonia, he still professes to be baffled by the hostility of the crowd. After all, he's never called for the stoning of homosexuals, and-unlike the in-your-face followers of Fred Phelps in Omaha, Neb.-he didn't show up at Matthew Shepard's funeral with a placard reading, "God hates fags."
What he did do, along with leaders of 14 other Christian organizations, was help to fund an ad campaign highlighting groups that minister to homosexuals who want to change, or at least control, their behaviors. Under a photo of hundreds of homosexuals who now say they are straight, the ad copy stresses, "We believe every human being is precious to God, and is entitled to respect." It goes on to tell of thousands of men and women who left the gay lifestyle "because someone cared enough to love them, despite where they were, and to confront the truth of their sexual sin. For the Christian, that love comes in the person of Jesus Christ and motivates our commitment to this issue."
Despite the measured tone of the ads and the conscious effort to avoid any personal attack on homosexuals, critics immediately raised the specter of "hate speech." Under pressure from gay-rights groups, many newspapers refused to run them. The Christian message was effectively shut out-even when framed as a paid advertisement.
Mr. Bauer says he was initially stung by the tone of the attacks against him, which he calls "much more of an incitement to violence than anything I've ever said." As the phone messages and faxes piled up, however, he realized that the hostility served a purpose: "It finally hit me that what they were trying to do was not just say, 'You're wrong.' They were trying to say, 'You are illegitimate; you cannot say what you believe about the sanctity of life and the gay agenda. To merely speak it is to incite violence.'"
Such an attempt to stifle debate through intimidation sets a dangerous precedent for any type of unpopular speech motivated by religious conviction. "They'll be satisfied with nothing other than our total silence on these things," Mr. Bauer insists. If a single advertisement that is demonstrably gentle in its tone can be accused of motivating a murder by two drunken thugs, then almost anything can be defined as hate speech-and thus regulated or censored. If a paid advertisement can lead to murder, then what about a sermon? Could a pastor who mentioned that homosexuality was a capital crime under Jewish law be treated as an accomplice to murder under American law? Given the broad parameters for hate speech that emerged in the wake of the Shepard case, such a scenario may not be as unlikely as it sounds.
With hate-crime legislation likely to get a big boost in the next Congress, 1998 may be the year that is remembered as the beginning of the end for religious free speech. Those who value truth above tolerance, it seems, will not be tolerated. Thus playwright Tony Kushner could take to the pages of The Nation following the Shepard incident to argue that Pope John Paul II "endorses murder" of homosexuals and that Orthodox rabbis are "homicidal liars." Meanwhile the entire Republican Party, by aligning itself with Christians, supposedly "endorses the ritual slaughter of homosexuals." In other words, religion is bad and its message must be suppressed. End of debate.
For about two weeks, a 5-foot-2, 105-pound gay college student in Wyoming was the lone poster boy in the cause of muzzling Christian speech. But then, at the end of October-just one day after Mr. Bauer's speech in Michigan-an unidentified gunman lurking in the woods outside the home of Barnett Slepian, a New York abortionist, put a bullet through the doctor's back. Dr. Slepian's wife and teenage son watched as he crumpled to the kitchen floor.
The Slepian murder goaded a whole new wing of the cultural Left to repeat the mantra of restraining "hate speech." In Livonia, gay activists had been joined by representatives of the American Civil Liberties Union and the Anti-Defamation League. Now liberal women's groups-with their sophisticated public relations and fundraising operations-rallied to the cause.
Kate Michelman, president of the National Abortion Rights Action League, told a Washington rally, "Those in the leadership of the other side must acknowledge and admit that their words drive unrestrained factions of their own movement to commit these horrific acts.... Denials and condemnations no longer suffice. They must stop referring to abortion as murder and to doctors who perform them as murderers."
Ms. Michelman was hardly alone in calling for speech codes. "People associated with abortion have been vilified, harassed, and threatened with the most hate-filled language," charged Gloria Feldt, president of Planned Parenthood, at the same rally. "That word game has turned deadly. It is time to point the finger where the blame belongs-at the doors of people who spew hate from radio and TV talk shows, Web sites, and pulpits."
Since the most impassioned opposition to abortion comes from America's churches, the mention of pulpits was predictable enough-but chilling, nonetheless. Just as gay activists began insisting after the Shepard murder that pastors must stop calling homosexuality a sin, feminists used the Slepian shooting to demand elimination of the word "murder" from sermons on abortion. Never mind that Michelman, Feldt, and company could not point to a single minister who had encouraged his members to kill abortionists. The very fact that they dared to preach against the sin of abortion created a "climate of hate" that suggested abortionists ought to be exterminated.
Polly Rothstein of the Westchester (N.Y.) Coalition for Legal Abortion tied the two murders together and left no doubt about who was to blame for both. She said the pope, the bishops, and conservative evangelical ministers "didn't pull the trigger," but that the blood of Barnett Slepian and Matthew Shepard "is on the hands of religious leaders who have, with vitriolic language, incited zealous followers to murder abortion doctors and gays and lesbians."
Harsh, biblical terms like sin and murder must be expunged from the Christian's vocabulary, but apparently the Left can continue using whatever language it chooses. "The vitriolic rhetoric of anti-abortion leaders in and out of Congress has created an environment in which hate and violence can and do flourish," charged Illinois NOW president Linda Olson in the wake of the Slepian shooting, then added: "We must continue to stand up to the anti-abortion thugs at the clinics and in Congress, at state legislatures and city councils throughout the nation."
Anti-abortion thugs? Coming from a spokeswoman who has just decried the "vitriolic rhetoric" of the abortion debate, such a label seems more than a little vitriolic. She wasn't speaking just of the assassin, whose action certainly qualifies him as a thug. Instead, she applies the label to anyone who opposes her political agenda: every congressman who votes to limit abortion. Every state legislator. Every city council member. Perhaps wizened little Mother Teresa, who had the effrontery to chide President Clinton on his abortion policy. All thugs. All worthy of the comeuppance that every thug deserves.
Those who oppose the gay political agenda are equally reprehensible, in the view of the new thought police. After the Shepard murder, religious leaders were deemed sick, twisted, disgusting, vile. Christian organizations were called hateful, fascist, part of the "Religious Reich." One letter writer scolded Gary Bauer: "In the 1930s, in Germany, there was a man who spoke of family values. He spoke, too, of a despised and diseased people. In his wake some 6 million Jews died. Well, Matthew Shepard is dead. I suspect that you and Mr. Hitler would find much in common."
For those who profess to desire a civil debate, these are strong words indeed. If harsh words grant a license to kill, what about labels such as "fascist"? History, after all, has shed no tears over the charred, disfigured bodies of fascists such as Hitler and Mussolini.
The facts suggest that despite their claims, the would-be thought police don't desire a civil debate at all. They aim instead to limit debate, to cut off viewpoints that appear intolerant or non-affirming. At the top of the infamous ex-gay ads ran this line: "Toward a new national discussion of homosexuality." But the censors at the Human Rights Campaign, The Washington Post, and the broadcast networks have decided that such a discussion must not take place. "Dialogue" may be the Holy Grail of human understanding, but if there's a chance of someone's feelings getting hurt, the search for the grail must be called off immediately.
Even if the ex-gay ads are controversial, controversy is the reason the Founding Fathers wrote free-speech protections into the Constitution. The First Amendment is not meant to protect polite conversation around the dinner table, but rather controversial debates in the public square. As Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black once wrote, "An unconditional right to say what one pleases about public affairs is what I consider to be the minimum guarantee of the First Amendment."
For Christians, that guarantee appears in danger of being revoked. Bringing a biblical worldview to bear in the discussion of public affairs is now viewed as hateful and dangerous. In response, some would suggest a strategic retreat, a reformulation of the Christian message that will make it more palatable to the forces of political correctness. But such a strategy would be not only disobedient, but ultimately disastrous. In the words of Benjamin Franklin, "They that give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety."