Googling for Meaning, Part 1
Since vaulting to a virtual tie with Mitt Romney in the Iowa caucuses, Rick Santorum has become headline news in short order. And so, too, has his so-called “Google problem.”
For the uninitiated, Santorum’s name was dragged through the virtual mud after a series of controversial statements regarding homosexuality drew the ire of sex columnist and gay activist Dan Savage. In an effort to retaliate against Rick Santorum for linking homosexuality with polygamy, bestiality, and moral relativism, Savage polled his readers to find the most offensive definition possible with which to associate with the word “santorum,” settling on a byproduct of anal sex. He then launched an Internet campaign, complete with its own website, designed to point search engines to this definition when users searched for the name Santorum.
(Relax, people. The link was to Wikipedia.)
Because this happened awhile back, few people knew about this outside of Santorum’s campaign staff, his small-but-loyal following, and liberal bloggers who intentionally linked to Dan Savage’s website in order to embarrass the then-U.S.-senator. But since his Iowa resurgence, in an effort to play catch-up, political reporters and pundits have been delicately referring to this as Santorum’s “Google problem.”
But the problem has very little to do with Google. And in the big picture, it has little to do with Rick Santorum directly, although his feud with Savage vaulted his name into the internet spotlight. See, Google’s search algorithms direct users to what they’re looking for based on a complex set of criteria, which includes how many and how often people link to a particular website. The way that Dan Savage and his supporters were able to defame Rick Santorum is by intentionally manipulating that process, a term sometimes referred to as “Google bombing.”
But Rick Santorum’s problem is really not with Google, which is why his attempt to get Google to remove the offending search result, rather than proving his fighting mettle, mostly showed his ignorance regarding how the search engine, and by extension the Internet in general, works.
Instead of a Google problem, what Rick Santorum has is a meaning problem. And unfortunately, so do many other Christians in politics.
Words have meanings
See, the crux of the clash between conservative and liberal activists is often in the meanings or connotations of words. For Santorum and other Christians who believe that God’s standard for marriage and sexuality is for one man and one woman, the word “homosexual” or “gay” is shorthand for “deviant.” As in, “if you deviate from our standard, then you’re wrong.”
For Dan Savage and many of his ilk, I think that what’s so offensive is not simply the idea that the Bible teaches that homosexuality is a sin, but that this sin in particular is so vile and morally objectionable that people who engage in it deserve whatever dehumanizing rhetoric is flung in their direction. That’s what they get, I’m sure they imagine Christians saying, for choosing that lifestyle.
Unfortunately, because of the decades-long conflation in American churches of Christian doctrine with Republican politics, many left-leaning, non-religious Americans have adopted distorted definition of Christianity. For them, the word “Christian” is an adjective akin to “hypocritical” or “judgmental.”
Many postmodern, Gen-X and/or Millennial Americans have similar cultural leanings, even if they grew up in Christian households. I have a friend who is a Christian, the child of a Presbyterian pastor. In his household, growing up, the term “conservative” was usually a slur, and to this day any reference to The 700 Club brings up a slight wave of nausea.
By itself, this barely qualifies as news, as it’s been covered ad nauseam by younger, hipper Christians trying to ditch the stench of stuffy cultural superiority.
But in this situation, it does explain a lot.
The gay civil rights movement
For starters, it explains why so many gay activists have borrowed the tactics, imagery, and rhetoric of the civil rights movement.
A galvanizing force in the Black community, the African American church has been, for decades and even centuries, the focal point of political activism for Blacks in America. And it’s easy to forget this now, but there were plenty of White people in the late ’60s who denounced Dr. King and the civil rights movement as rabble-rousing nonsense. So entrenched were these Whites in their typical Christian Baby Boomer upbringing, with an idea of Christianity as American as baseball and apple pie, that they failed to see the civil rights struggle as a biblical issue. It was countercultural, so for them it was wrong.
By contrast, many liberal White people voluntarily joined the struggle — especially those whose parents grew up in that time and for whom it became de rigeur to adopt many of the cultural artifacts of the Black church experience without actually believing in God, Jesus, or salvation. It’s like they got swept up in the passion of the struggle and came along for the ride, sort of.
(For a pop culture example, imagine Steven and Elyse Keaton from Family Ties in their twenties, singing “Kum Ba Ya” during a protest.)
So when these liberal White folks (or others close to them) struggle with their own sexuality, then later come out of the closet and choose to adopt publicly gay identities, it makes sense that they would generalize the Christian response to homosexuality as just another example of people in the church rejecting anything countercultural. It’s logical. They did it to the Blacks, now they’re doing it to us.
Understandably, many socially conservative Blacks are uncomfortable and even resentful when queer activists link their struggle to the civil rights struggles for African Americans, if for no other reason than because Black folks hardly ever had the luxury of staying in the closet for political or business reasons. But despite being socially conservative, most churchgoing Blacks are still an overwhelmingly Democrat voting bloc, which means that popular African American politicians usually have to work a delicate balance between having a positive voting record on gay rights but not being too outspoken on the issue.
(This is one of the reasons why President Obama, regarding gay rights, tends to let his subordinates do the talking.)
So the questions abound: How can we accurately represent Christ and the church for those who don’t believe? Is there or should there be a theologically orthodox, African American Christian response to the civil rights movement? And what does any of this have to do with Rick Santorum?
For these and other answers … stay tuned for Part 2.