The Gaines Brouhaha, BuzzFeed’s Gift to the Religious Right’s Martyr-Making Machinery

Chip and Joanna Gaines, courtesy HGTV, which has stated: “We don’t discriminate against members of the LGBT community in any of our shows. HGTV is proud to have a crystal clear, consistent record of including people from all walks of life in its series.”

The religious right is quick to manufacture martyrs, so it’s unfortunate when progressive journalists hand them ammunition, as Buzzfeed did on Tuesday with an article under the headline “Chip and Joanna Gaines’ Church is Firmly Against Same-Sex Marriage.”

One of the Christian right’s go-to political strategies has always been to portray Christians in America as victims of religious persecution—with religious freedom on the verge of being snuffed out. Any criticism of the political agendas, tactics or rhetoric of televangelists and political operatives is declared an attack on religious freedom and faith itself.

The right has made hay for more than two decades out of a line in a 1993 Washington Post story that should never have gotten by an editor. It called religious right activists “largely poor, uneducated and easy to command.” Under a flood of criticism, the paper ran a correction the next day, but conservative Christians have gotten a lot of media- and liberal-attacking mileage out of it.

And now there’s this week’s comment-storm in the wake of what has been named a “hit piece.”

Chip and Joanna Gaines, who have a popular show on HGTV called “Fixer Upper,” have been open about their Christian faith. But as far as I know, they’ve never spoken out publicly against marriage equality or expressed anti-gay bigotry. Which is why it is frankly mystifying that BuzzFeed thought it made sense to investigate where the couple goes to church and what the church’s pastor preaches about homosexuality. The story does not quote the Gaineses and even says it’s not known whether they share their pastor’s views.

The piece made it into a few other outlets and then got picked up by conservatives as an exemplar of religious persecution. “The Mainstream Media is waging jihad on Christians…again,” tweeted Fox News pundit Todd Starnes, who is  among those who have made a cottage industry out of manufacturing and promoting bogus or wildly exaggerated stories of religious persecution. The Family Research Council and Heritage Foundation are also sounding the alarm. Glenn Beck’s The Blaze called the couple the latest victims of “an anti-Christian witch hunt,” perhaps inevitably comparing them to Jason and David Benham, brothers whose planned HGTV show was dropped after reports from Right Wing Watch and others on the brothers’ vehemently anti-gay and anti-choice activism.

There is no real parallel here to the Benham brothers, who have become folk heroes on the Christian right speaking circuit by posturing as victims of religious intolerance. While HGTV did not announce the reasons for their show’s cancellation, it was clearly not, as the Benhams and their fans suggest, because the majority-Christian society cannot tolerate Christians. It wasn’t the Benhams’ faith, or even their belief that homosexual activity is sinful, that caused the controversy. It was their anti-gay, anti-choice, anti-Muslim rhetoric and public activism, which included explicit public calls for city officials in Charlotte, North Carolina, to refuse to give permits for gay pride celebrations. So much for posturing as champions of the First Amendment.

The BuzzFeed piece was an editorial misjudgement, in my opinion, and not only because it has given religious right pundits the opportunity for persecution posturing. Particularly in the absence of anti-equality advocacy by the subjects of the article—as far as I know, they haven’t advocated for the imposition of an anti-LGBT viewpoint through force of law—why think of this as a news story in the first place? It’s a bit reminiscent of right-wing attacks on Barack Obama over the content of Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s sermons.

Churchgoers have all kinds of reasons for choosing to worship where they do and that’s a zone of privacy that should generally be respected. Millions of American Catholics support reproductive choice and LGBT equality even though the church’s official positions are vehemently opposed to both.

Sometimes there’s a nugget of truth to the right’s persecution stories—as when a school official wrongly limits a student’s religious expression—but more often, persecution claims evaporate under the slightest examination. The BuzzFeed story about the Gainses’ pastor was, in my opinion, a mistake—but not part of an ongoing “witch hunt against Christians.”

The hubbub in response to the story may be a sign that the Christian right, so used to warning about the criminalization of Christianity, is still figuring out how to shift gears for the new triumphalist era in which they took the deal offered by Trump, throwing him their support in return for the promise of political power and the Supreme Court of their dreams.