Why do so many young adults paint absurd caricatures of Christians who request government protection of their religious freedoms, arguing their true goal is to ban gay men from sitting at the local lunch counter? Why do they spread falsehoods about legislation, insisting that bills like the one recently signed by Indiana Gov. Mike Pence will unleash a Republican-led Jim Crow revival aimed at the LGBT community? Why do so many people, Gen Xers and younger, invent a monster of anti-gay bigotry and keep screaming the monster is real despite a mountain of contrary facts standing before them?
The answer is “social studies.” My generation engages in straw men, misinformation, and lies because, in every year of social studies class, we studied the civil-rights movement not as history, but as hagiography. We didn’t just learn what events happened on American soil, we were encouraged to mimic the segregation-defeating holy ones and merit for ourselves a place alongside them in glory. Combining that admonition with our general aversion to hard work, we concluded that the only thing necessary to be as righteous as the saints who fought racial injustice was to decry an injustice that no one else was. And we became so desperate to find that injustice, we lost our minds in the process.
Once upon a time, my generation learned in first-grade social studies, everyone thought it was good to hate African-Americans. But then a group of saintly figures arose who were better human beings than the rednecks from the South, and they changed the world for the better. This story captivated us, and we wanted to change the world, too.
Once, black Americans weren’t allowed to use the same bathrooms as white Americans, we learned the next year, but the holy warriors of progress came along and saved the day. As just as much as we wanted to rescue damsels in distress, Superman style, we wanted to have our own victims to rescue from the forces of bigotry.
The saintly song of the civil-rights movement grew even more rapturous as we grew old enough for our American history teachers to pop a tape in the VCR and show us the gruesome images of the era. Look, children! Look at this sneering face of Southern hatred! Look at these enemies of progress holding the firehoses! These were not human beings corrupted by their circumstances and giving in to the vilest impulses that lurk in the hearts of all men. No, these were demons, evil embodied in human flesh. Look again, children! Look at the faces of these saints who used non-violent protests to fight for equality and change legislation. These are the faces of the morally superior, the holy ones who marched on Selma, those who were more enlightened, more compassionate, more loving than anyone else who had ever lived because they defended the mistreated and defeated discrimination when no one else would.
More than we wanted to find the perfect prom date, we wanted to find our own bigotry to eradicate. After years of hearing those saints sing “We Shall Overcome,” we were overcome with jealousy. We coveted Selma. We envied that march. We looked at that footage and hungered for our own cause to devour.
Just Give Me a Hashtag Campaign
Cruelly, the Lord of Social Justice wouldn’t grant us a cause, at least not an easy one. Sure, we could march against Roe v. Wade and defend the unborn. But opposing abortion would have required us to adopt sex lives consistent with that position. No more hookup culture, no more consequence-free sex, no more placing our own desires over the needs of children. Opposing Planned Parenthood would never be our cause. It would have cost us too much fun.
Likewise, fighting poverty couldn’t possibly be our Selma. The annoying thing about defending the poor is that the poor need money, and we had student loans to pay. And sex trafficking wasn’t any more attractive. To be holy, you need a cause no one else supports, least of all those wretched white Southern fundamentalists. While forcing women into prostitution is certainly bad, what’s the point of speaking against it if Jerry Falwell agrees with you?
Then, one day, manna descended from heaven in the form of gay marriage. Here it was! The cause we’d longed for all these years had finally arrived! Here was an injustice no one had ever opposed before. Here was a group of marginalized people no one had ever defended. So by embracing this cause, we would instantly be more compassionate, more accepting, more saintly than every human being who had ever lived.
What did it cost us to embrace this cause? Absolutely nothing! It required no moral consistency, no financial sacrifice, no effort. We could sleep with as many people as we wanted, divorce as many people as we wanted, father and then abandon as many children as our hearts desired, and lose no credibility. We could spend our entire adult lives defecating on the institution of marriage and this could not sully our gay marriage halos.
On top of that, these oppressed souls were so gainfully employed that they paid for their own lawyers and lobbyists, so we didn’t need to give them a cent. All we had to do was change our profile pictures on Facebook and beatification was ours. Our prayers were answered. The bright, shiny diamond of righteousness no other generation could claim had been placed into our hands.
Don’t Let Facts Sully Our Self-Righteousness
But after all those years of waiting for that diamond to arrive, we weren’t going to let anyone to tell us what we held in our hands was really a cubic zirconia. This cause made us righteous. We were certain of it, so no opposition was allowed. No debate on the issue could be tolerated. No damn, dirty facts would take our saintly status away.
So when you argued that disapproving of gay marriage didn’t deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as oppression of black Americans, we knew you were right. Of course we know that politely telling a customer you’ve served for nine years that you can’t, in good conscience, provide flowers for his wedding isn’t in the same moral universe as murdering a black teenager for talking to a white woman. Of course saying “you don’t get to vote because your skin has a different amount of melanin than mine” is logically indefensible, while saying “I don’t think a union that’s biologically incapable of procreation fits the definition of marriage” is an argument that needs to be fairly considered, even if we don’t agree with it. But we wouldn’t consider it, wouldn’t even let your words embed in our ears because we would not risk having to surrender our halos in the offhand chance that you maybe, sort of, kind of had a little bit of a point.
Likewise, when you insisted that not all opposition to homosexuality is created equal, we knew this was true. We knew the vast majority of you would never have assaulted a gay classmate or kicked your lesbian daughter out on the street. We knew that you have gay friends, gay siblings, gay uncles that you love, cherish, laugh with, and have over for Thanksgiving Dinner while still not approving of that one particular aspect of their lives. We knew that you look at your gay children with the same ratio of love and disapproval as a devout Catholic mother who would give her life for her atheist son yet weeps that his children aren’t baptized. We objectively know you’re not hateful bigots. But we called you that anyway because, in order to keep our righteousness shiny, someone had to play the role of Bull Connor, and you were the best fit we could find.
Lies and Coverups Against Religious Liberty
On the issue of religious liberty, we were just as recalcitrant. Of course we support the overarching protections of conscience offered in the Indiana Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and in similar laws or constitutional interpretations found in 30 other states. Of course we understood that this bill would provide a day in court to every citizen, gay, straight, Methodist or Muslim, if he believed that the state government or a private party was infringing upon his right to live according to the dictates of his conscience. Of course we support religious groups like the UDV appealing to laws of this nature to keep sacramentally smoking their hallucinogenic tea.
But we still misrepresented the bill, lied about it, shared articles on social media that labeled the legislation as intentionally, undeniably anti-gay, and dismissingly enclosed the phrase “religious liberty” in scare quotes. Just as we did with such success in Arizona, we screamed that this bill would unlock the gates of hell and allow a horde of bigoted devils to deny Hoosier homosexuals a chicken salad sandwich, all while knowing that, because sexual orientation isn’t a protected class in Indiana, these beasts have already been free to do so this entire time and yet, annoyingly, chose not to. But we had already laced up our boots for the march on New Selma and we’re weren’t going to take them off just because the modern-day segregationists wouldn’t do us the courtesy of existing.
Just as our desire to believe that we really were as holy as the civil-rights saints was so strong that we willingly slandered the opposition and lied about the legislation, so we made ourselves impervious to shame and irony in defense of our newfound righteousness. We looked to the icon of racial equality, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a man whose greatest accomplishments included spearheading nationwide non-violent protests, preaching peace, giving speeches, and writing letters that will live forever in the annals of American history, and we felt not an ounce of humiliation when the best prophet we could place beside him was George Takei, a man whose greatest accomplishments include pretending to fly a spaceship on TV and sharing funny pictures of cats on the Internet.
And what form of protest did Takei threaten as Pence prepared to sign the accursed bill into law? Sit-ins? Bus boycotts? No, he threatened that a gaming convention would move out of Indianapolis. Our leader didn’t say, “I have a dream,” he said, “If you sign this bill that we’re all pretending says something it doesn’t, a bunch of grown men who pretend to be fictional characters will pretend to be fictional characters in another state that we’re pretending won’t almost certainly have an identical law already on the books.” How can any self-respecting person not explode in a ball of humiliation when comparing Selma with Gen Con, you ask? We don’t need self-respect anymore. We sacrificed it to keep the cause and our moral superiority.
Give Us Self-Righteousness Or Else
Once upon a time in social studies class, my generation learned that moral righteousness was found in opposing an injustice that nobody else opposed. And when we found that injustice, nobody was going to take away our long-desired holiness. So as we march on, don’t expect things to change. We will continue misleading, lying, and slandering. We will continue calling people bigots and klansmen, not because we’re actually debating them, but because those are the words of the spiritual songs we sing as we press toward glory and polish our LGBT halos.
Likewise, we will continue linking the civil-rights movement with the push for gay acceptance without pausing for a second to consider the comparison. We will continue diminishing the bravery of Rosa Parks by claiming a seat beside her as our reward for the one time we boycotted Chick-Fil-A for a month. We will trivialize the death of Medgar Evers by praising his blood for freeing gay couples to financially ruin a florist who hurt their feelings instead of walking one more block to find another purveyor of petunias who was happy to take their money.
In the Kingdom of Heaven, countless children of God will embrace the older saints who gave them lives of far greater dignity on earth by following Christ’s example and enduring insults, beatings, imprisonments, and even death for them. We know this and yet we will insist that we’re owed an equal measure of honor because we tweeted our support for every gay kiss on “Glee.”
From the days of our youth, my generation hungered for a cause that would make us as righteous as the saints who marched on Selma. We have found that cause. We have sunk our teeth into that righteousness and, at this point, we couldn’t care less if it’s real. The Lord of Social Justice has finally answered our prayers. And Lord help the bigot who comes between us and our cause.