“Accidental Activism” and Redefining Religious Liberty

About Tope Fadiran Charlton

Scene from the American Family Association's "The Accidental Activist"

Scene from the American Family Association’s “The Accidental Activist”

The 100+ federal lawsuits filed to date against the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive coverage requirement provide highly public evidence of the Christian Right’s embrace of “religious liberty” as an argument against civil rights. As Jay Michaelson has written for PRA, these challenges are part of a broader strategy aimed at redefining religious liberty not only within official legal codes but also in the court of public opinion. Through sophisticated messaging and deliberate misinformation, those advancing the religious liberty framework appeal to moderate and liberal beliefs in the “American civic value of religious freedom” while actively stoking conservative Christian fantasies of government repression and social ostracism for their faith.

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A prime example of the latter strategy is The Accidental Activist, a film produced and distributed by the American Family Association (AFA) and given to attendees at the October 2013 Values Voters Summit, where the supposed “attack” on religious liberty was a major theme. Accidental Activist illustrates not only the considerable efforts of the Religious Right to foster paranoia about anti-Christian persecution but also the intentionality and sophistication of the narrative. Through its melding of conservative racial politics, selective history, and co-opted social justice language and rhetoric, the film paints conservative Christians as the victims of an intolerant cabal of “homosexual” activists and liberal co-conspirators.

AFA bills Accidental Activist as a story, “based on true events,” of the Murphys, an ordinary family whose “life is turned upside down” when a “small act of civic duty” causes explosive controversy in the community, “threaten[ing] not only to destroy their business but to suffocate their religious freedom as well.” The “civic duty” in question: Ted Murphy, the central character, signs a petition for “traditional marriage.”

As depicted in the film, a local “gay newspaper” publishes the names and addresses of the petition’s supporters. The Murphys endure obscene phone calls, vilification by local press, and vandalism and protests of their struggling small business. The president of “Claremont Pride,” crowing that donations are rolling in due to publicity from the protests, engineers a backroom deal with Ted’s landlord to shut down the Murphys’ business in exchange for  moving in Claremont Pride at a higher rent. (In the AFA’s world, small-town queer activists are apparently flush with cash and influence.) Ultimately, Ted and his wife Lynn are forced to close their business altogether just because, the film stresses, of one signature expressing a personal belief.

At a spiritual low, Ted asks “Miss Dorothy,” an elderly Black woman who grew up in the segregated South, how Black people “endured slavery [and] Jim Crow laws” and “maintained their faith in God” throughout. She doesn’t quite answer the question, instead complaining about comparisons between LGBTQ and Black civil rights struggles:

“I get tired of hearing about how gay is the new Black,” Miss Dorothy says. “Now, as a Black Christian, I’m also being called a bigot because of what I believe about marriage, I’m the bad guy. And after all these years, we still got to fight for our religious liberty.”

Miss Dorothy and her son “Reverend Greg” – the film’s two lone Black characters – encourage Ted to “fight back” and “[go] on the offensive.” “Black people in this country,” Rev. Greg says, “we know about bigotry”; Ted is no bigot for “believing in the Bible.” If anything, the bigots are Ted’s opponents: “You’re the one being driven out of business,” Miss Dorothy tells him, “simply for being a faithful Christian.”

The film’s climax is a defiant speech by Ted, vowing never to “let … down” the “brave men and women … [who] died to give me the right to speak my piece … to freely practice my religion.” “No matter the cost” – even though he’s been called a “bigot” and “pariah,” even though his family’s safety has been threatened and their livelihood lost – he will never “[surrender] those rights.”

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In Redefining Religious Liberty: the Covert Campaign Against Civil RightsJay Michaelson writes that the “religious liberty” argument against LGBTQ rights hinges on deliberate misrepresentation and the amplification of a few cases decided against Christian business or property owners seeking to discriminate against LGBTQ people. Accidental Activist further nurtures the Right’s persecution complex by implying that any private citizen who signs a “traditional marriage” petition risks public shaming, violence, and going out of business.

It would be easy to dismiss Accidental Activist as nothing more than a martyrdom fantasy with questionable writing and production values. But, outlandish as it is, it offers sympathetic viewers a sophisticated set of rhetorical tools to redefine not only religious liberty, but also bigotry, activism, and American history altogether.

For example, Black characters in Accidental Activist are not incidentally Black. Their Blackness is instrumental in various ways. There is the familiar wedge politics of presenting Black and LGBTQ communities and interests as mutually exclusive. Further, Miss Dorothy and Rev. Greg exist to deflect criticisms of white conservative racism. Miss Dorothy’s relationship with Ted is pointedly established in the opening act, evidence that he has a close Black friend and that he’s appropriately horrified by her family’s (past) suffering under violent white supremacy.

Given how much white conservative racial ideology downplays the significance of slavery and Jim Crow in American history, the film’s repeated invocation of Jim Crow is striking. Accidental Activist appears to tackle this history head on, but, in fact, it appropriates and reframes the historical narrative to make white religious homophobes the mantle bearers of Black struggle. Black characters are set up as arbiters of “real” bigotry so they can be used to attack the notion that there may be any parallels (much less intersections!) between racism and homophobia.

Miss Dorothy and Rev. Greg imply Ted would be doing them – and, by extension, all Black people – a service by “fight[ing] for our religious liberty.” In reality, their characters exist only because their Blackness makes them useful to the white conservative ideology Ted represents. These characters require neither Ted nor the viewer to engage in a real reflection on racism in America, nor do they call for action against racial injustice. Instead, their Blackness is used to validate what white conservative Christian ideology already espouses on both race and sexuality (racism is over, equality is oppressive) and to legitimize that ideology as a form of activism.

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This is one example of how “activism” is redefined more broadly in the film. Holding homophobic beliefs is not a privileged position with a broad base of religious, political, and cultural support.  Rather, Ted is “taking a stand,” bravely risking total ruin. It is Christians who are poor, powerless, and oppressed. LGBTQ advocates have money and influence, which they abuse to swiftly and severely punish all dissent.

The fictional Pride leader in the film, Vincente Ramos (the only other explicitly non-Anglo character in the film), screams at Ted: “We determine what is acceptable in our community, not a bigot like you. What you need to do is publicly apologize for your outdated views and embrace the change, or lose your business.” When Ted protests that this is hurting his family, Vincente snaps, “I don’t give a flip about your litter!”

Ramos is contrasted with Ron, a longtime friend of Ted’s who is gay. Their disagreement on marriage equality threatens their friendship, but ultimately, Ron concludes that Ted and his family are good people and tries to help them.  Like Miss Dorothy and Rev. Greg, Ron’s character serves as “proof” of Ted’s lack of bigotry. Ron also represents an “ordinary” gay character who stands in stark contrast to the chanting LGBTQ activists hellbent not on equality, but rather on hounding Ted and other Christians out of business.

Film writer Ed Vitigliano explains why Ron and Ted’s relationship is a major thread in the film:

On the other side, I’d like for those in the homosexual rights movement to see that just because we Christians see marriage in a way that excludes homosexuals, that doesn’t mean we are motivated by hate. I want them to see that in the culture war, Christians are victims as much as they see themselves as victims.

For many liberals and progressives, the counterfactual and histrionic narrative of Accidental Activist may seem crude and hamfisted, and, in many ways, it is. But as an exercise in confirmation bias—creating the illusion of “true events” through manipulation and repetition—it can be quite effective. And it illustrates the ways in which some on the Religious Right are adapting to a changing cultural climate.  They are actively working to deflect criticisms of racism and white supremacy through the strategic deployment of Black conservatives (see my previous column on the racist revisionism at play in the Religious Right), and they are moving away from increasingly frowned-upon arguments that cast queer people as “perverts,” by sanitizing religious homophobia with public policy implications as “personal opinion.” Recognizing these shifts and new strategies is key to challenging the Right as it seeks to redefine liberties for all.

Tope Fadiran Charlton is an associate fellow, working on issues of religious liberty and racial, gender, and LGBTQ justice. She is the founder and editor of Are Women Human?, a space for queer feminist and critical race analysis of religion and media. As a freelance writer she has contributed to The Guardian, Salon, Religion Dispatches, R.H. Reality Check, Ebony.com, and other outlets. Charlton was a Ph.D. candidate in the History of Science Department at Harvard.