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Have you heard about the latest shouting match on the right? Talk show hosts who spend their days attacking the left are now frothing at one of their own. They’re angry at Bill O’Reilly, the Fox News boor, for complaining that opponents of same-sex marriage “thump the Bible” too much. They say he’s insulting religion. He says there’s no real quarrel. The whole ruckus, he claims, is a “phony feud” cooked up by the left.
O’Reilly is wrong. So are his critics. In his clumsy way, he has exposed a serious weakness on the right: too much reliance on authority and too little effort to reason or connect with people. That weakness is crippling the ability of conservatives not just to persuade, but to learn.
The fight started a week ago, when the Supreme Court heard oral arguments about gay marriage. Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly went on The O’Reilly Factor to talk about the issue. Here’s part of the exchange:
"Kelly: Take the religion piece out of it for this, because there is no arguing that. The Christian religion teaches what it teaches. The Bible says what it says, I mean about marriage.
O’Reilly: But our policy shouldn't be made by that.
Kelly: I know. So take that out of it. What I'm saying is that when you ask—for example, I had an interview with Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council. [I asked] ‘What is it about … calling a gay union a marriage that offends you? How does it hurt a traditional or a heterosexual marriage?’ And I didn't hear anything articulated that was particularly persuasive. …
O’Reilly: I agree with you 100 percent. The compelling argument is on the side of homosexuals: … ‘We're Americans. We just want to be treated like everybody else.' That’s a compelling argument. And to deny that, you’ve got to have a very strong argument on the other side. And the other side hasn’t been able to do anything but thump the Bible."
The next day, Rush Limbaugh pounced on O’Reilly. “How many of you who watch Fox are Bible thumpers?” Limbaugh asked his listeners. “Last night you were sort of marginalized on The Factor as not having a compelling argument and just being a bunch of Bible thumpers.” In a follow-up hit, Limbaugh repeated that O’Reilly “said the people that oppose [gay marriage] are just a bunch of Bible thumpers.”
Limbaugh distorted O’Reilly’s words in two ways. First, O’Reilly didn’t use the phrase “Bible thumpers.” He didn’t target a person. He targeted a practice: thumping the Bible. The difference is more than semantic. Thumping the Bible can be understood as a tactic separate from one’s religious beliefs. It’s analogous to saying that people shouldn’t immigrate illegally, rather than calling someone an “illegal immigrant.” Second, O’Reilly never said opponents of gay marriage didn’t have a compelling argument. He said they hadn’t made a compelling argument. His criticism could be taken as a challenge, not a verdict.
Another radio barker, Mark Levin, soon joined the fray. He played a clip of Kelly asking her question: “How does it hurt a traditional or a heterosexual marriage?” At this, Levin erupted. “Every major religion on the face of the Earth … they all reject same-sex marriage,” he asserted. “What do you mean, ‘What tradition does it hurt?’ ” Levin went on: “In an hour and a half today, have I thumped the Bible once?” He chided O’Reilly: “You’re a practicing Catholic! Have you heard what your priests have had to say, and all the way up to the pope?” Levin accused O’Reilly of “trashing” and “mischaracterizing” opponents of gay marriage.
But the mischaracterization and trashing were Levin’s, not O’Reilly’s. Kelly never said gay marriage didn’t defy anyone’s religion. She said it didn’t hurt anyone’s marriage. And Levin missed O’Reilly’s point: Invoking the bottom-line positions of world religions—especially when you get them wrong, as Levin did (Buddhism? Really?)—doesn’t cut it as a persuasive argument in a pluralistic society. Demanding that O’Reilly obey the pope is no better than thumping the Bible. It’s an appeal to authority, not to reason.
Steve Deace, another ideologue with a microphone, piled on as well. First he misrepresented Kelly: “Megyn Kelly says, ‘If you take out the Bible, you don’t have a good argument.’ ” Then he misrepresented O’Reilly: “Word of God? We shouldn’t consult that in anything we do, says Bill O’Reilly.” Deace, like Levin, couldn’t see the distinction between consulting Scripture and treating its text as inerrant authority. He couldn’t even imagine a rational argument outside the text. “If you take out the word of God,” he asked, “what do you have left?”
The sniping and smearing finally got to O’Reilly. Last night, he invited fellow talker Laura Ingraham onto his show to hash it out. “When you say you can't cite the Bible,” she told him, “that's disrespectful to people who really try to live their lives according to the Bible.” O’Reilly replied that it’s fine to live your life that way—you just can’t cite Scripture to settle policy disputes. Ingraham asked O’Reilly why he had used the word “thump.” He answered that he classifies people as Bible thumpers when “all they do is say, ‘I object to gay marriage because God objects to it.’ ”
That’s a pretty clear explanation of what O’Reilly meant. And he’s right. Reliance on sheer textual authority—not just the Bible, but the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence—is a common problem on the right. The moral power of the Bible, the Constitution, and the Declaration arises not from their proclaimed divinity but from the cogency, integrity, and resonance of their principles. When parts of the text can’t be squared with those principles—the three-fifths clause, for instance, or the instruction to kill gay men—sensible people, including believers and constitutionalists, choose the principle over the text.
What conservatism needs today is less fundamentalism about guns, drones, taxes, and gay marriage and more emphasis on the underlying objectives: freedom, order, security, family formation, fiscal responsibility, and growth. It needs fewer Limbaughs, Levins, and Deaces, and more Millmans, Douthats, and Ponnurus. It needs to stop whining about marginalization and start reclaiming the mainstream. More thinking, please. And less thumping.
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