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Has Tony Perkins Seen The Light On Hate Speech?

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Published originally on USAToday.com, Aug. 24.

Thank you, Family Research Council, for now conceding what conservative groups have been loath to acknowledge in recent years: the truth that incendiary rhetoric indeed does contribute to a climate conducive to politically motivated violence.

Never has the moment seemed more opportune to forge consensus around an overdue new rule in the culture wars. Starting now, can we all please watch our words?

Most likely, you're aware of the incident that ignited this renewed debate about rhetoric and violence. Last week, a volunteer from a Washington, D.C., community center for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people walked into the headquarters of the Family Research Council, an influential conservative Christian organization, with a gun, a box of ammunition and a burning grudge against the group and its anti-gay politics and rhetoric, authorities said. The suspect, according to court documents, shot a security guard in the arm before he was subdued by that same guard and taken into custody.

Thank goodness no one was killed and that the security guard acted so heroically to prevent the incident from getting far worse. The group's fiercest opponents in the ongoing national arguments -- organizations representing ardent secularists and gay-rights advocates -- were quick to condemn the shooting, and rightly so. Conservatives have likewise been clear, for the most part, in their denunciations of violence committed against liberal figures over the years.

Here's where the plot gets thicker.

Since the shooting, Family Research Council President Tony Perkins has been implicating the "reckless rhetoric" that gay-rights groups have been leveling against his organization in recent years, especially the charge that FRC is a hate group. The Southern Poverty Law Center, a widely respected civil rights group, made waves in 2010 when it issued a new list of gay-rights opponents that the center deemed "hate groups"-- a list that includes FRC.

Perkins contends that the man charged in the shooting, Floyd Lee Corkins, "was given a license by ... the Southern Poverty Law Center who ... labeled us a hate group because we defend the family and we stand for traditional orthodox Christianity."

Perkins' charge is irritating for misstating the reason for FRC's inclusion on the hate-group list. As the Southern Poverty Law Center stressed when it released the list and in the days after last week's shooting, spreading false propaganda about LGBT people is the reason for the hate-group label, not FRC's stand against gay marriage or its defense of traditionalist views on families and faith. If you doubt the truth of that, consider the fact that the SPLC has notably left Focus on the Family off its hate group list and credited the Colorado-based evangelical organization for moderating its tone even while continuing its strong stand for traditional marriage and Christianity.

Yet there's something promising about Perkins' statement: his overdue acknowledgment, unintended though it might be, of the role of rhetoric in political violence. This is something many conservative groups like his have disclaimed in the aftermath of shootings against liberal targets in recent years, from abortion provider George Tiller (fatal) to ex-congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords (not fatal but career-ending).

In a revealing episode in 2009, when many liberals were implicating right-wing rhetoric in Tiller's murder, Perkins rejected any relationship between language and violence. The FRC chief rushed to the defense of Fox News television hostBill O'Reilly, who was being widely accused of stoking the shooter's rage by referring to Tiller as "Tiller the Baby Killer" and likening late-term abortions to the sinister practices of the Nazis.

O'Reilly, Perkins said at the time, was an "easy target for the liberal media who tried to pin some of the blame on O'Reilly, saying he incited the violence by decrying these unnecessary procedures on his show. "Despite the unfair allegations, O'Reilly spoke the truth, bringing new light to a gruesome procedure. On behalf of ... millions of values voters, we want to express our gratitude to a culture warrior who uses his national platform to promote life."

Given his statements since the FRC shooting, we can only assume that Perkins has now seen the light.

Is it fair and responsible to label FRC a hate group? Whichever side of the debate you take, realize the distinction the SPLC is making between the organizations on its anti-gay hate-groups list -- groups shown to repeatedly scapegoat and slander homosexuals with malicious misinformation -- and groups like Focus on the Family that have gotten out of the demonization game, and are nowhere to be found on the hate list.

Not all FRC critics, alas, are equally careful. Some gay-advocacy groups and secular-progressive culture warriors have been fast and loose with that "hate" label, indiscriminately attaching it to any traditionalist who has the temerity to voice the opinion that gay marriage is a bad idea. I disagree with that position, but I reject the notion that holding to it automatically constitutes hate.

Enough with pinning "hate group" on all conservative Christian organizations. Enough with likening abortion-providers to Nazis and death merchants. Enough with campaign rhetoric such as Vice President Biden's warning to an audience with a large black presence that the Republicans are bent on putting "y'all back in chains." This "reckless rhetoric," to use Perkins' term, is not the cause of violence, but it certainly throws fuel on the fire.

Both sides in the culture war now have blood on their hands, and blood on their doorsteps. Take it from Tony Perkins and the Family Research Council -- hostile rhetoric does bear a share of the blame.

It's time to check ourselves and start taking better care of the words we use for our political opponents.

Tom Krattenmaker is a Portland-based writer specializing in religion in public life and member of USA TODAY's Board of Contributors. He is the author of the forthcoming book The Evangelicals You Don't Know.