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An Abuse Committed by Left and Right Ideologues

Both the political and religious left and the political and religious right do it.

It’s become the strategy of choice for ideologues who want to manipulate public opinion for a cause. It’s a sure sign of demagoguery and ought to be called out.

Unfortunately, it’s become so common we take it for granted and are swayed by it even as we try to resist it.

It’s powerful, even as it’s so obviously wrong. That others are doing it tempts us to do it also. Even good, reasonable people are doing it.

What is “it?”

Here, by “it” I mean the abuse of the word “hate” to score political points against political opponents. I call it “playing the hate card.”

It is the practice of labeling people with differing social and political opinions as “haters” when there’s no clear evidence of hate in their hearts. They just hold a different opinion about a controversial social issue or political issue.

I recently read an editorial by a seemingly reasonable newspaper editor who accused conservative Christians (and others) of hating gay people because they want the freedom not to provide services and products to their weddings.

There was no consciousness that people of faith might actually believe they are sinning by doing that (see 1 Timothy 5:22).

I also recently read a letter to the editor condemning virtually all critics of President Obama as racists and accusing them of hating him because he’s black.

I know from seeing certain bumper stickers that some people hate President Obama because he’s black, but not all critics who hate the president are racists.

Our society has fallen into a habit of using superlatives excessively. I wrote previously about the abuses of the word “love” in business advertising (for example, “We love our customers”).

This reflects the human tendency to rush to the most extreme expressions imaginable to make our point.

In conservative religious circles, one reads and hears the labels “heresy” and “heretic” misused in that way.

In secular circles, one frequently hears all Christians labeled haters because of their perceived intolerance when, in fact, in most cases, there’s no hatred of persons but only belief in absolute morality.

I see this habit as part of a larger language trend in American culture. When did “awesome” become an appropriate description of a pizza or hamburger? When did “absolutely” become an appropriate response to a simple request for a favor?

A favorite example is “one of a kind.” Apparently, this is an abbreviated version of “the only one of its kind” – too long to fit on a billboard so shortened to “one of a kind,” which really means the opposite of what the product’s advertisers mean.

Language is being abused all over the place; words are being abused by atrocious misuses. OK, now I’m doing it. But this habit is so commonplace as to be almost unrecognizable and unremarkable.

In most cases, it’s innocuous. In political and social policy discourse, however, it can and often does signal demagoguery. The same is true in religious and theological discourse.

So what’s the remedy for this? There might not be any. I’m not optimistic about turning the habit around or even taming it.

But people who favor reasonable discourse can avoid misusing superlatives and their negative opposites (for example, “hate” and “hater”).

And we can occasionally call out those who misuse words in these ways, especially to marginalize and demean people who hold opposing political, social and religious views.

Roger Olson is the Foy Valentine professor of Christian theology and ethics at George W. Truett Theological Seminary in Waco, Texas. He is the author of numerous books, including “Against Calvinism” and “The Story of Christian Theology.” This article is edited from a version that first appeared on his blog. It is used with permission.