Hate, An American Voter Value

God hates fags. Burn the Qur’an. The president is a Muslim socialist. Jews control the media. Immigrants are invading America…

Hate is as American as apple pie. A sentiment stitched into the fabric of national life from the early stirrings of Revolution in the colonies (they hated the old rulers across the Atlantic) to contemporary feelings about the government (we hate the rulers in Congress). What’s most striking about this embedded and endemic force circulating through the body politic for all these years is just how valuable hatred can be for some segments of our culture; so valuable that hatred can be sacred for some.

Perhaps religion itself, at some early evolutionary point in human history, emerged not as an outgrowth of altruism or loving bonds between community members, but rather as a result of hateful differences between groups. Religion has a rich history of promoting hate and gaining rewards from this hatred: more faithful adherents for sure, but also at times material wealth, political power, and social authority. The notion that religion contributes to the social emphasis on hate and plays a role in the effervescent energies devoted to stirring up hateful sentiment is elementary to many students and observers on the subject. In the U.S., hate is a driver constantly shaping and reshaping the religious landscape.

Case in point: Just look at how hate brought the religious margins directly into the mainstream, as was recently evident with the planned Qur’an burning in North Florida. While the church itself came from the fringe, it certainly resonated throughout American culture due, most likely, to a much larger and more widespread fear and hatred of Muslims. Hate can also bring the religious mainstream out into the convoluted lives of marginal characters who can inflict awful harm on those singled out as objects of hatred; as is the case in the recent brutal attacks on gays. The culture of hate emanating from many in the mainstream religious right—hatred of “Obamacare,” of government, Muslims, abortion, or gays—will continue to spur individuals to action bent on destroying the enemy in the name of… some higher principle, a sacred law, God?

Politics thrives on hate as well, though politicians get value-added, religious-tinged benefits from naming an enemy who is not simply one who disagrees with a point of view, but is identified as the most vital threat to public order, the moral good, and national life. What are the values added? Fear, a tried and true ingredient for consolidating social power and sharpening the line between insiders and outsiders; a scapegoat—if not for the sins of the community, then at least as a useful distraction from community failures and sins; and retaliatory possibilities—every crowd worked into a frenzy over whom to hate wants to be simultaneously protective and aggressive, while our gun-crazy, militarized culture points the way (in the name of God, blow ’em up!).

Hasn’t it always been this way? Pick any decade from American history and you can find political leaders encouraging hate—both to protect American values and interests and to strengthen the civil religious ties that are supposed to bind us all together. Hate the English, hate the French, hate the Spanish, hate the Japanese, hate the Germans, hate the Koreans, hate the Vietnamese, hate the Russians, hate the Iraqis, and so on for the so-called “foreign” enemies to fear. On the domestic side, the list comes too easily: hate Indians, hate blacks, hate Jews, hate anarchists, hate war protestors, hate government, hate the North, hate the South, hate the gays….

Aside from the raw political value of hate, think of the potential for media exposure when you are a religious hater. When the Dalai Lama comes to town (to start with a counter-example) with monks, cultural activities, and lectures, the fundamental core of his teaching—compassion—is a media buzzkill. Even with Richard Gere in tow, his visits are mostly ignored by journalists, bloggers, and news celebrities, as well as their audiences. Love for your fellow man and kindness to your neighbor just isn’t as appealing as calling your opponent Hitler or burning the sacred text from a different faith. Why is that? Maybe we should take a survey.

The media, of course, is not the only culprit in promoting a culture that values hate; though its unofficial motto, if it bleeds it leads, does suggest some degree of culpability. A brief glance across news shows and sites suggests that hate stories—not just hate crimes, a relatively new legal designation, but also stories that focus on conflict and hostility based on passionate dislike for the other—are staples in news media. Additionally and beyond the news, so much of popular culture is fueled by depictions of hate and difference overcome by cruel violence. Whether it’s the cowboys killing the savage Indians, the space hero destroying the ruthless aliens, or the soldier slicing the enemy’s throat, hate is elemental in the entertainment industry. Do we even need to bring up shooter video games like Bioshock, Resistance: Fall of Man, and Crysis in a discussion of the value of hate in media?

Though all this talk of hate and what seems like constant fighting and warfare has left me at a loss for words, these Clash lyrics seem to capture the essence quite nicely:

Hate and War, the only things we got today
And if I close my eyes
They will not go away
You have to deal with it
It is the currency
Hate, hate, hate, hate, hate, hate, hate…

gladerm@emory.edu'

Gary Laderman is Professor and Chairperson of the Department of Religion at Emory University. His most recent book is Sacred Matters