As a Southerner-in-exile, I’ve been watching the Human Rights Campaign’s “All God’s Children” program over the past few weeks with some interest. For those who missed the initial announcement, AGC is a manifestation of the HRC’s new focus on the Southern states under “Project One America,” an $8.5 million initiative designed to bring the LGBT progress we’ve seen in more liberal parts of the country to conservative states like Alabama, Arkansas, and, in this case, Mississippi. The specific focus of AGC, according to the campaign fact sheet, is “to strengthen the foundation of public support for LGBT Mississippians, aid in the passage of pro-equality legislation, and bolster efforts to win marriage equality for Mississippi’s LGBT couples.” All great things, right?
But what’s not great is the pandering approach the HRC has articulated in the series of TV spots, billboards, and other modes of outreach it has visited upon the state. If the title didn’t tip you off, the campaign is couched largely in religious terms, with brief diversions into cloying patriotism. The HRC says that its research has shown that faith-based messages are the only way to make headway in Dixie, and so their message amounts to this cop-out of an argument: “We are all God’s children. It is only for God to judge, not us. We need to treat everyone with respect.”
To be fair, I understand why the HRC is proceeding this way. A majority of Southerners are Christian, and many are deeply conservative evangelicals: The church is woven into the fabric of daily life in an intense way. It’s easy to see how the HRC would conclude, as it does in its campaign materials, that “it would be nearly impossible to successfully engage a large majority of Mississippians about LGBT equality without discussing it in the context of faith.” That may be, but shifting cultural approaches to difference—not mere engagement on a limited “message”—should be our ultimate goal. Coddling many Southerners’ hesitance or outright refusal to deal with the world outside of a religious context—a world that must function pluralistically—is no way forward.
It is, however, condescending. I do not believe for a moment that the people crafting this language within the HRC buy their own rhetoric (regardless of their personal religious affiliations), and the focus-grouped timbre of that “we” in “we are all God’s children” makes it sound hollow, carefully constructed to trick dumb Southerners into swallowing the message. If I were a Mississippian and fairly neutral on the gay question, the infantilizing tone would be enough to put me off. Southerners may be stubborn, but they’re not stupid, and the disingenuousness of this calculated God talk smells to high heaven.
But more important, appealing to a religious framework in order to advocate for progress for LGBT people does nothing to solve the South’s underlying problem; namely, that matters of governmental policy, civil rights, and basic social tolerance are always considered in a religious framework, when the church has absolutely no place in the discussion. No, it is not the HRC’s job to single-handedly “fix the South,” but at the very least it should try to avoid encouraging the theocratic hegemony that is at the root of so much of the region’s “backwardness.” I understand, of course, that many LGBT Southerners are also religious, but even they should recognize the danger of arguing for their equality in religious terms—as earlier civil rights leaders have taught us, it is a tricky thing to use the oppressor’s language to advocate for the oppressed person’s freedom. This is nowhere truer than in the case of governmental protections, where a particular faith tradition’s feelings, whether positive or negative, are simply irrelevant.
Of course, all this isn’t to say that a customized approach is not necessary in the South. As I have written before, a strident, confrontational pride parade style of advocacy may not be the most effective way to go (questions of visceral satisfaction aside). Appealing to community ties, good citizenship, and equal claims to Southern identity all seem like plausible parts of a tailored Southern strategy. But tweaking one’s message for a specific audience is not the same thing as treating them like fragile children whose delicate sensibilities must be guarded at all costs. Southerners need to get with the program on LGBT equality, but more than that, they need to recall from American Government 101 that limited religious perspectives simply have no place in determining legal policy or even baseline social civility. The argument for equality should have nothing to do with who does or does not have God as a parent. We are all Americans, and that’s enough. It’s a tougher tack than the HRC is currently pursuing, to be sure—but I bet my fellow Southerners can handle it.