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How Christian Fundamentalism Feeds the Toxic Partisanship of US Politics

When evangelicals attack 'the gay agenda' of an anti-bullying event in schools, something is sick in America's religious culture
 
 
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Mix It Up at Lunch Day is one of those programs that just seems like a nice thing to do.

The idea is that on one day of the school year, kids are invited to have lunch with the kind of kids they don't usually hang out with: the jocks mix with the nerds, lunch tables are racially integrated, et cetera. Sponsored by the Southern Poverty Law Center as part of their Teaching Tolerance division, it arose out of a broad effort to tackle the problems of bullying in the schools and bigotry in society – and it appears to have been effective in breaking down stereotypes and reducing prejudice. Over 2,000 schools nationwide now participate in the program, which is set to take place this year on 30 October.

You can argue about how permanent its effects are, or whether other approaches might be better, but the idea of making new friends in the lunchroom seems utterly benign. Right?

Wrong, as it turns out – at least, according to the American Family Association, a radical rightwing evangelical policy group. Mix It Up at Lunch Day is, in fact, part of "a nationwide push to promote the homosexual lifestyle in public schools," according to the AFA literature. The program "is an entry-level 'diversity' program designed specifically by SPCL (sic) to establish the acceptance of homosexuality into public schools, including elementary and junior high schools," warns the AFA website. "See if your child's school is on the list."

The AFA has urged parents to keep their kids home on 30 October, and claims that at least 200 schools have responded to its charge by canceling the program.

There's a backstory here. The Southern Poverty Law Center, which has fought for civil rights causes since its founding in 1971, conceived and promoted Mix It Up at Lunch as part of their Teaching Tolerance program. The SPLC also, as it happens, named the AFA, along with a dozen other "pro-family" groups, as a "hate group" in 2010, citing, among other factors, AFA's expressed views on same-sex relationships. The "homosexual agenda" is not the only factor in the SPLC's decision to include AFA on the list. AFA's director of issues analysis, Bryan Fischer, has appeared to suggest that what is biblically deemed "sexual immorality" merits punishment by death. He evidently hates Muslims, too, having recently opined that "allowing a mosque to be built in town is fundamentally no different than granting a building permit to a KKK cultural center."

So, now it's payback time. The AFA's jihad against Mix It Up at Lunch Day is its way of saying "I'm rubber, you're glue." It has come up with its own list of boycotts and hate groups, and sure enough the SPLC, on account of its "incendiary language," is on that list.

Funny word games aside, the SPLC is right. It is, by now, well known that the AFA and the kind of interests they represent spread conspiratorial falsehoods about the LGBT community, placing blame for a wide variety of social ills on a "gay agenda." They also seem to support a certain type of bullying and bigotry in public schools – the faith-based kind – and believe there should be more of it.

One example comes from an AFA cultural ally: Gateways to Better Education, formed in 1991 by Focus on the Family in tandem with a rightwing Christian legal advocacy group that calls itself the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF). Gateways publishes a "Guide for Commemorating Religious Freedom at School." But the freedom Gateways and the ADF have in mind applies only to those who share their religion.