The wordsmithing Brits behind the Oxford Dictionary define "hate" as "hostile actions motivated by intense dislike or prejudice." But words take on new meanings as people speak them, often deriving more from the context of their usage than from their actual definitions.
The word "hate" has become one of many such grammatical casualties as some now use it to describe the positions of any who vary from emerging cultural norms. Among offenders are gay activists who increasingly define anyone who believes that marriage should be applied only in the context of monogamous, heterosexual union as anti-gay and hateful. But is a belief in traditional marriage an inherently hateful posture?
Blogs erupted last month with news that Blake Mycoksie, founder of TOMS Shoes, apologized for speaking at an event hosted by Focus on the Family. The Christian non-profit is "dedicated to helping families thrive," but has long opposed same sex marriage. Bloggers at Change.org lamented Mycoskie's association with what they termed an "anti-gay hate-group." He responded with a public apology:
"Had I known the full extent of Focus on the Family's beliefs, I would not have accepted the invitation to speak at their event. It was an oversight on my part and the company's part and one we regret."
The move against Focus incited other activists to apply pressure to companies like Apple, Microsoft and Delta Airlines to cease their involvement with the Charity Give Back Group (CGBG). CGBG encourages consumers to give to more than 200,000 charities, including socially conservative groups like Family Research Council, when they purchase items from over 600 brand retailers.
Ben Crowther, a student at Western Washington University, collected more than 20,000 signatures on a petition to Apple, prompting the removal of iTunes from CGBG.
"I knew that once this issue was brought to Apple's attention, they would not want to be a part of CVN because it funds anti-gay hate groups," Crowther said. Microsoft and Delta caved to the pressure as well.
The third hammer fell last Wednesday, this time on Chicago pastor Bill Hybels and his Willow Creek Church. Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz announced he would withdraw from Hybels' Leadership Summit, an annual conference at Willow Creek that simulcasts to more than 168,000 people worldwide. Schultz's decision immediately followed a petition from Asher Huey on Change.org.
The ultimate coup, however, may lie just around the corner. Change.org has issued yet another petition soliciting PBS to have Bert and Ernie marry. Big Bird and Snuffleupagus, you're next.
This recent shelling of Christian groups by those who support same sex marriage is not unique. The rhythm of crossfire over marital law has become a staple in America's culture wars. But it does raise questions about the prudence of applying emotional labels to those who disagree with one's position.
Are organizations that oppose same sex marriage, and people who associate with them, hate-mongers? Should we assume those who support the traditional definition of marriage are "motivated by intense dislike or prejudice"?
American Christians must surely wrestle with a sordid history on same sex issues. In years past, some believers opposed funding for HIV research and aid because they viewed the illness as God's judgment on sexual immorality. Worse still, the faithful have often employed angry, reactive and, yes, even hateful rhetoric when speaking about the LGBT community.
But today's Christian leaders seek common ground solutions to same sex problems, even as many still hold to a traditional definition of marriage. Willow Creek Church, for example, disassociated with the controversial ex-gay Christian group Exodus International in 2009. And none can deny the softer, less partisan posture taken by Focus on the Family since it's former President James Dobson retired and Jim Daly took the reins.
When gay activists wield the label of hate against such organizations, their efforts turn counter-productive. They simply reinforce the conservative talking point that gay activists cannot be satisfied shy of full capitulation to their positions. Turning up the rhetorical heat serves no purpose other than retrenching your opposition and inflaming an already contentious issue.
We live in a world that glorifies tolerance. It's ironic that those who often champion this characteristic are quick to abandon it when they encounter people who disagree with their perspectives. Tolerance is a two-way street. Advocates on both sides of contentious issues should avoid extreme rhetoric and name-calling in attempts to marginalize political opponents.
As Jim Daly rightly responded, "'Hate' is too big a word to be thrown around with so little discretion. It is a damaging and dangerous thing to hang such an emotional epithet on a person or group because they think differently about some issues than you do."
These labeling efforts are also inappropriate. The word "hate" is too potent and carries too much baggage to be thoughtlessly tossed around. Those engaged in public discourse must display better judgment in the words they choose.The importance of the marriage debate demands our commitment to intelligent, winsome and precise language.
It's time to stop applying hurtful and emotional labels to people who disagree with us. This tactic is more than poor form; it's bad grammar. And that's something that these two writers absolutely hate.
Tim Willard is an Atlanta-based writer and co-author of 'Veneer: Living Deeply in a Surface Society' (Zondervan, 2011).
Jonathan Merritt is a prominent religion writer and author of two books: 'Green Like God' and the forthcoming 'A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars' (Faithwords, 2012).