Joan Frawley Desmond, is the Register’s senior editor. She is an award-winning journalist widely published in Catholic, ecumenical and secular media. A graduate of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies of Marriage and Family, she lives with her family in California..
This week, as the public outcry over the violent racist protests in Charlottesville continued, George Clooney and his wife, Amal, announced that their foundation would give $1 million to the Southern Poverty Law Center for a joint initiative to prevent violent extremism in the U.S.
“There are no two sides to bigotry and hate," said the couple, in a statement.
“What happened in Charlottesville, and what is happening in communities across our country, demands our collective engagement.”
The gift was one of several large donations to the SPLC following the events in Charlottesville. But while the donors’ intentions may be laudable, it’s also regrettable that they didn’t conduct a more thorough review of the organization’s controversial work before funding its anti-hate initiatives.
Truth be told, the SPLC has forged an unsavory record of smearing as “hate groups” Christian organizations that affirm the orthodox teaching on marriage and defend the religious freedom of churches and believers, though the Center has insisted that it only targets groups that denigrate members of the LGBT community.
The Center says that hate groups are organizations with "beliefs or practices that attack or malign an entire class of people, typically for their immutable characteristics."
The SPLC’s 2017 “hate map,” which singles out a variety of “extremist” groups, also includes Christian and secular “anti-LGBT” organizations, like the Alliance Defending Freedom, a legal group that represents Christians in court, defending their free exercise and free speech rights.
“When an organization like the Southern Poverty Law Center labels a mainstream religious liberty advocate like the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) as a ‘hate group’ it’s simply betraying its own bitter contempt for the people and convictions the ADF defends,” said Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, in a column released Thursday that sought to tamp down the heightened political rhetoric and name-calling that make reasoned debate almost impossible.
“Hate has a home here alright: not just among white nationalists, immigrant-haters and neo-Nazis, as loathsome as their ideas are,” said Chaput, “but also among the ‘progressive’ and educated elites who have the power to insulate themselves from the consequences of their own delusions and bigotries.”
The Alliance Defending Freedom isn’t the only organization smeared by SPLC as an “anti-LGBT” extremist group.
The Ruth Institute, a California-based nonprofit that works to end family breakdown by counteracting the practices and values of the sexual revolution, is also on the list.
So are Focus on the Family, the Family Research Council, and the American College of Pediatricians, a professional group criticized opposing adoption rights for same-sex couples.
Some groups targeted by the SPLC are fighting back.
The Ruth Institute has posted a web page entitled “Where’s the Hate?” and explains to readers that SPLC never contacted the nonprofit to review its allegations. A list of Ruth Institute posts that reportedly prompted the extremist label are included for review, letting readers make up their own minds about what constitutes extremist language and arguments.
Meanwhile, another SPLC target — D. James Kennedy Ministries, based at Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale — has filed a lawsuit in an Alabama federal court against the Center for calling the ministry a hate group.
The lawsuit alleges that the hate group designation “libels the ministry's reputation and subjects the ministry to disgrace, ridicule, odium, and contempt in the estimation of the public,” according to an Aug. 23 statement posted by the ministry on its website.
The Family Research Council applauded the ministry's lawsuit.
Indeed, as CNN noted in its report on the Center's "hate map" that lists 917 hate groups operating across the country, advocacy organizations like the FRC contend that "the list compromises their safety, citing an attack by a gunman at the Family Research Council five years ago. The gunman had chosen the organization as his target after finding it listed as an anti-gay group on the website of the Southern Poverty Law Center, according to court documents."
On Thursday, the SPLC’s anti-hate campaign was attacked on the opinion pages of the New York Times. “Why Is the Southern Poverty Law Center Targeting Liberals?” asked Ayaan Hirsi Ali (@ayaan), an author and a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, and a leading and controversial critic of Islamic extremism.
Hirsi Ali, who must travel with a security team for her own protection, noted that the SPLC labeled her an anti-Muslim extremist, in a “Field Guide to Anti-Muslim Extremists” published in 2016.
In contrast, she stated, the Center has not singled out Islamic extremist organizations that seek to “impose a caliphate and Sharia law by violent means.”
She concluded that the “SPLC is an organization that has lost its way, smearing people who are fighting for liberty and turning a blind eye to an ideology and political movement that has much in common with Nazism.”
Earlier this year, the Center’s sloppy research was criticized by a Middlebury College professor Allison Stanger, in another Times opinion column. Stanger said that the Center’s designation of Charles Murray, an influential, controversial social researcher, as a “white nationalist,” sparked violence during his public discussion with Stanger on the Middlebury campus.
“Intelligent members of the Middlebury community — including some of my own students and advisees — concluded that Charles Murray was an anti-gay white nationalist from what they were hearing from one another, and what they read on the Southern Poverty Law Center website. Never mind that Dr. Murray supports same-sex marriage and is a member of the courageous “never Trump” wing of the Republican Party,” charged Stanger, who was physically attacked, as she attempted to leave the campus with Murray, and had to be treated for a concussion.
“We must all be more rigorous in evaluating and investigating anger, or this pattern of miscommunication will continue on other college campuses.”
Individuals and businesses that seek to oppose the threat of white supremacist organizations clearly should reconsider a donation to the Center. Stanger’s comments underscore the danger of endorsing an organization that promises to combat “hate,” only to galvanize more hate.
Why would the Center risk inciting violance against Murray, and other individuals it targets as a threat to society?
Many critics have argued that the Center exaggerates the threat posed by extremist groups to stir up liberal donors. Others charge that the attacks on conservative advocacy organizations, like the Family Research Council, are designed to isolate them politically, and thus damage their ability to raise funds. Politico recently investigated these charges in an in-depth look at the Center's operations and tactics here.
These allegations point to another key issue posed by a hate map that effectively delegitimizes those who uphold biblical teaching on marriage.
“Who gets to be part of civil society, and whose views belong on the fringe?” asked one New York Times story, which did not address the Center's work, but charted rising opposition to racism in America, and then equated that trend with the more recent and growing support for gay rights and same-sex marriage.
“The shifts around race and gender similarly reflect not just widening acceptance of equality, but also the rising condemnation of anyone who vocally opposes it,” the Times story explains.
In the immediate aftermath of the lethal violence unleashed in Charlottesville, many Americans were rightly disturbed by President Trump’s belated repudiation of white supremacists. We must condemn racism, and related extremist ideologies by word and deed.
However, any attempt to conflate Christian support for marriage as a union of one man and one woman with white extremists who revere Hitler, must be called out with equal vigor. Not only will it unjustly smear committed religious believers, it may prompt skepticism or even resistance, rather than support for the important fight against white supremacist organizations that recruit alienated young men.
George and Amal Clooney, please reconsider your donation to SPLC. It may well do more harm than good.