So who is a "bigot," exactly? What makes a bigot different from a person who is merely over-zealous in promoting their personal religion?
The New American Dictionary on my office shelf describes a bigot simply as: "A person of strong conviction or prejudice, especially in matters of religion, race or politics, who is intolerant of those who differ with him."
Whereas Websters-Merriam's online dictionary goes a bit farther, saying that a bigot is "one who regards or treats the members of a group (as a racial or ethnic group) with hatred and intolerance." Hatred is the operative word in the Websters definition.
But if these definitions are accurate, then bigotry can't be what Washington meant. After all, the U.S. courts have made it clear that "freedom of speech" guarantees the right to be that dictionary definition of bigoted. I.e. all of us do have the basic right to believe, and to talk about our belief publicly, no matter how stupid or idiotic or superstitious our beliefs may look to others.
The First Amendment even grants us the dictionary-defined right to hate others who don't believe as we do -- as long as we exercise self-control and keep our hatred from propelling us into hurtful or violent actions against those others.
Unfortunately, the dictionaries miss the mark. Down through the centuries of Western civilization, the biggest motive of bigots is not just personal -- it is political. It is to establish a state religion -- their own personal brand of religion, naturally.
Hate Crimes Legislation Won't Help Much
Right now, bullets of bigotry are aimed at the LGBT community. Some of us hope that the newly signed Matthew Shepard Bill, which amends previous federal legislation, would cut down on American anti-gay bigotry. It expands federal prosecution to crimes targeting gender identity and sexual orientation, and removes the old prerequisite that a victim must have been engaged in a federally protected activity, like voting or attending school.
But there is a lot of hate-and-intolerance damage that bigots can do to us without technically breaking this new law. Especially since the previous hate-crimes law contains a home-free provision: "Nothing in this Act...shall be construed to prohibit any expressive conduct protected from legal prohibition by, or any activities protected by the free speech or free exercise clauses of, the First Amendment to the Constitution."
So my proposed new definition is this:
A real bigot goes beyond expression that is protected by the First Amendment -- beyond what is protected by the above-mentioned clause in the Matthew Shepard Act. He or she even goes beyond hate speech -- which is knowingly and purposefully inflaming others to take violent action against those of whom he or she disapproves.
The real bigot openly works for the establishment of state religion -- his or her religion, naturally. Whether as a voter or lobbyist or legislator or judge or media person, he or she aims to see draconian laws passed that would deprive the disapprovees of their civil rights. In the name of state religion, the bigot wants to harass them, silence them, beat up on them, jail them, even torture them and kill them, if possible. Their mission statements make it very clear that this is what they aim to do.
In other words, the essence of bigotry is feeling entitled to rule the world. The real bigot believes that extreme violence against the "enemy" is justified, because it is done "in the name of the Lord."
Bigotry Background in Europe
Where did today's flaming Christian bigotry come from? It has its deep roots in state-supported intolerance. Indeed, in many Western countries, it has persecuted those liberal brands of Christianity that do shrink from intolerance -- the ones that preach love and tolerance of all.
Let's look at one example -- England, mother of our 13 east-coast colonies.
For three centuries, after King Henry VIII broke with Roman Catholicism in 1534 and established an independent state church headed by himself, England persecuted any citizens who wanted to continue practicing their Catholic religion. When Henry's daughter Mary became queen, she reverted the state religion to Catholicism...and was equally fierce in persecuting Protestants, to the point where she was nicknamed "Bloody Mary." Henry's other daughter Queen Elizabeth I swung the country back to Protestant/Anglican state worship...and made being Catholic an actual act of treason.
In the 1600s, when dissenting sects of Protestants began popping up in England -- Puritans, Presbyterians, Quakers, etc. -- they were persecuted by the Anglican establishment in their turn. Attendance at Anglican church services was mandatory for all, as was an Anglican marriage ceremony. Not till 1689, when King James II suspended the penal laws under which dissenters were punished, did religious persecution begin to wane in England. Yet marriage in the Anglican church was still mandatory until 1837!
Meanwhile, a few of the North American colonies went as bloodthirsty as the mother country. In 1620 Puritans went to Massachusetts to escape Anglican persecution. Yet there, they established their own little bigoted dictatorship and persecuted anybody who was non-Puritan -- notably the liberal-thinking pastor Roger Williams, who had to run for his life. Williams eventually founded his own colony (Rhode Island) where all beliefs were tolerated.
In Spain, the nation that colonized some of our southern and western regions, official Catholic intolerance started running state policy in 1492. This was the year that King Ferdinand and Queen Isabel united Spain and went to persecuting Muslims and Jews in captured territory. With the exception of two brief republics, Spain spent the next four centuries sunk in extreme Catholic bigotry. Not till the fascist dictator Francisco Franco died in 1975 did Spain finally move towards democracy and freedom of religion.
Bigotry of ruling authorities usually trickled down through society and poisoned the hearts of many ordinary citizens. People were compelled by law to take sides against the "enemy," so they had to demonstrate their loyalty to the ruling faith. As a result, many citizens were ever ready to form into mobs, to assist the government in policing dissenters -- even to show up at public executions and jeer the suffering victims.
Rise of Bigotry in the U.S.
Perhaps because of that ugly history in our mother countries, the habit of bigotry got deeply rooted in the United States -- even with the First Amendment passed as a safeguard. Even slavery and racial discrimination were justified by bigots, who saw the Bible as granting a license for white supremacy.
With our first 13 states being heavily Protestant in their cultural character, the United States of America was pretty rough on Catholic and Jewish immigrants till well into the 1800s.
Other imported religions suffered harassment as well. During the Gold Rush, when Asian immigrants flooded into California, they started building their Buddhist temples -- many of which have been burned down by Christian bigots. (Most recent temple arson: the Buddhist Church in Gardena, CA in 1981.) Muslim immigrants have run into even fiercer opposition. Even before 9/11 stirred up a national firestorm of anti-Muslim feeling, city zoning laws were frequently used by bigots to prevent mosques from being built.
As new U.S.-based minority religions came along -- Latter Day Saints, Christian Science, Santeria, Scientology, Wicca, to name just a few -- each found itself facing public hostility. Wicca, for instance, has been targeted by local bigots who use zoning laws to prevent covens from having their ceremonies in private homes. In 1985, two bigots in Congress, namely Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina and Representative Robert Walker of Pennsylvania, introduced measures that would have denied IRS tax-exempt status to Wiccan and other and Neo-pagan groups. Fortunately Congress had the good sense to reject these bills.
In Los Angeles County, which is supposedly such a "liberal" region, I watched the bigot brigade hard at work in Calabasas, near where I lived in the early '90s. Local fundamentalists had invoked zoning laws when the L.A. Hindu community decided to build a traditional Hindu temple on a wooded property they'd purchased there. The bigot objection was to "pagan rituals" that would be open to the public. But the Hindus were well monied and politically savvy, and they were supported by local liberals who knew bigotry when they saw it. So the fundamentalists had to stand back and watch those magnificent deity-sculptured towers rise above the live oaks. Today the temple is thriving and well-attended.
Though atheism doesn't describe itself as a religion, Christian bigots reserve a special kind of religious hatred for it. President George Bush took American intolerance to a new low when he said, "I don't know that atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered patriots."
Meanwhile, starting in the late 1800s, conquered Native American tribes were denied any religious freedom at all until recent decades, when they were finally allowed to do the forbidden traditional ceremonies and healings openly.
Today the United States pretends to be a country where all religions are treated equally. Yet conservative Christian practices and policies are becoming deeply entrenched in government and public life.
The latest wave of organized bigotry is the Teabagger movement. Teabaggers even rush to defame our new President by calling him a Muslim and an anti-Christ. They have no problem with the fact that their violent rhetoric might spark harm to the President -- not to mention inciting people to kill abortion doctors, to bully gay kids at school, and to burn books that they believe are "evil." These people are true bigots because they lobby for laws that will put ultraconservative Christian religion in civil control all over the country.
Bigotry is even getting a bipartisan free ride. Some prominent members of both the Republican and Democrat parties are turning a blind eye to it.
During the Bush years, bigotry made a major breakthrough when the U.S. military started allowing the blatant right-wing proselytizing of our troops by evangelical clergy. The brass also tolerate the bullying of non-Christian soldiers because they don't attend Christian services. A terrible example was set by Republican presidential candidate John McCain when he teamed up with Sarah Palin -- she is provably connected with a radical bigot fringe called the New Apostolic Reformation that aims to create an American state "ruled by King Jesus."
But some Democrats play the same game as they court votes from the right. President Clinton made the religious right happy when he signed onto Internet censorship with the 1996 Communications Decency Act (later declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court). Today the Obama administration is playing footsie with some of these same bigoted elements. Sad to say, Obama has done nothing (so far) to stop the proselytizing and bullying among our troops, according to a recent Harper's report.
Individual bigots like Lou Engle and Rick Warren, and organizations like The Family, The Call and the New Apostolic Reformation, are now cozily accepted in the Republican Party, and are working to embed themselves in the Democratic party as well. According to political reporter Jeff Sharlet in his recent exposé The Family, even Secretary of State Hillary Clinton can be seen hobnobbing at the National Prayer Breakfast sponsored by these people. Sharlet's book bristles with disturbing documentation on how the Democratic party is forgetting what it supposedly stands for.
Bigots Try to Turn the Tables
Naturally the bigots always hurl accusations of bigotry at anyone who dares to call them a bigot. This is where the definition question really gets interesting.
Going by the dictionaries, there IS routine hatred and intolerance between various religions. No love is lost between some Protestants and Catholics. After all, their ancestors spent hundreds of years burning each other at the stake all across Europe. Right in the Montana small town where I grew up, they were still jeering at each others beliefs, with Protestants calling Catholics "mackerel snappers" and the Catholics calling the Protestants "bible thumpers." Some members of both religions joined in sneering at the town's Christian Scientists and the splinter group of Reformed Latter Day Saints who had a tiny temple there. None of them had kind words for Jews, who were noticeably scarce in Montana's population, though a few Jewish families could be found in the bigger cities.
The definition gets even more interesting with LGBT people. The Christian bigots rush to call us bigots whenever we criticize them or oppose them. There's no doubt that many of us harbor feelings of fierce hatred and intolerance towards conservative church-ism, and it comes out in some of our activism. This anti-religious streak also fuels the anti-marriage faction among LGBT activists.
But we LGBT people don't fit the expanded definition of bigotry. We don't aim to take over governments, and rule the world, and kill and torture everybody we don't like. That's the difference between our political aims and the aims of the real bigots. And that difference is why the American people should put a stop to what the Christian bigots are doing.
The only LGBTs who will have any luck ruling the world are the closet cases on the other side.
How Do We Put an End to Bigotry?
Yes, George Washington would be horrified if he could see what is going on. Our first President may have attended church now and then, but he was also a Freemason. He had to be acutely conscious of how the Masonic Order was fiercely persecuted in Europe by both Catholics and Protestants.
How do we turn things around? More laws? More investigations? More court fights? There's a saying, that you can't legislate enlightenment. So I'm not sure that more laws and legal opinions will do the job.
But we can start by exposing these crimes in the media, so the American public gets educated about what the real bigots are up to. We must put that label on the politicians and the lobbyists and the celebrities and the corporate figureheads who deserve it. We have to hold them up to public censure -- prevent them from hiding behind the user-friendly labels that they stick on themselves, like "patriot" and "good Christian." The extreme right launched its Teabagger movement -- we have to launch our Teabigot movement.
Little by little, more Americans have to get deeply shocked and embarrassed about bigotry. Being a bigot, as I define it, needs to become socially unacceptable. The bigoted high-school student, who mouths his parents' attitudes as he beats up on some transgendered kid in the boys' bathroom, has to find himself shunned by other students. The bigots in the media who pretend to be political reporters, like Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity, have to see the bottom fall out of their ratings. Bigots on the U.S. Supreme Court won't be replaced. The High Court has made some bigoted decisions in the past, as it did when it found in favor of slavery, but sooner or later the Justices reflect deep shifts in American viewpoint and they get it right.
Once the majority of Americans get embarrassed and disgusted with bigotry, and recognize it when they see it, the bigots who run for office will start losing elections.
Only then will we match George Washington's definition of the U.S.A. as a country "which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance."