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Why my viral video about LGBTQ rights was wrong

Five years ago today, my world was turned upside down. To my great surprise, the legendary actor and civil rights hero George Takei shared a speech I gave on LGBTQ rights and the next thing I knew, I was being contacted by representatives from the Ellen Show, the Today Show, and virtually every major media outlet in the U.S. Heck, even a book agent wanted to speak with me! My fifteen minutes of fame had begun.

 

But now, over five million views later, I realize what I said about LGBTQ rights was wrong.

 

Maybe you’ve seen the speech. It’s the one where the pastor “flips the script” and pretends he has the wrong notes while speaking to his city council about a local ordinance designed to add protections for LGBTQ persons. I thought I was really clever when I took sermons from southern preachers who supported slavery and segregation (see here and here) and substituted the words they used that referred to discrimination against people of color with words referring to discrimination against LGBTQ persons. If you haven’t seen it, here’s how it worked (the bracketed portions are the substitutions I made):

 

Any accurate reading of the Bible should make it clear that [gay rights] is an abomination against the “plain truth of the word of God.” As one Bible believing preacher warns us, “Man, in overstepping the boundary lines God has drawn [by making special rights for gays and lesbians], has taken another step in the direction of inviting the Judgment of Almighty God upon our land. This step of [gay rights] is but another stepping stone toward the gross immorality and lawlessness that will be characteristic of the last days.”

This [ordinance] represents a “denial of all that we believe in, and no one should force it on us.”

“Outside government agents are endeavoring to disturb God’s established order…This disturbing movement is not of God. It is not in line with the Bible….Do not let people lead you astray.

These religious liberals are the worst representatives of our country…They do not believe the Bible any longer; …they are leading the people astray … and they are leading [gay Christians] astray. But every good, substantial, Bible-believing, intelligent, orthodox Christian can read the Word of God and know that what is happening is not of God…

When you run into conflict with God’s established order, you have trouble. You do not produce harmony. You produce destruction and trouble, and [our city] is in the greatest danger it has ever been in in its history…The reason is that we have gotten away from the Bible of our forefathers.

 

Then my speech turned to the “big reveal”:

 

You see, “The right of segregation… [uh, hold on….the right of segregation] is clearly established by the Holy Scriptures, both by precept and example.”

Oh wait, I’m sorry, I brought the wrong notes. I borrowed my argument from the wrong century. It turns out what I’ve been reading to you are quotes from white preachers from times like the 1950s and 60s in support of things like racial segregation and interacial marriage. All I have done is taken out phrases like “racial integration” and substituted them with phrases like “gay rights.”

I guess the arguments I’ve been hearing around Springfield lately sounded so similar to these that I got them confused. I hope you won’t make the same mistake. I hope you’ll stand on the right side of history.”

 

I figured that when people realized that the exact same religious arguments once used to support segregation were now being used to support discrimination against LGBTQ persons, they would realize how morally corrupt such an approach was. It would be obvious, for all to see.

 

But here’s where I was wrong. It’s taken the ascendancy of Trump — and the 81% of white evangelicals who voted for him — to show me that the problem with discrimination in America is not related to the kinds of hypocrisies I had hoped my viral video would expose. Instead, discrimination in America is about maintaining power structures that privilege authority, domination, and control above all else. 

 

After all, the root of the problem of slavery and segregation is related to the desire for historic power structures in the United States to stay in place (i.e., for straight-cis-white-men to have the power). And the exact same thing is true regarding LGBTQ rights today.

 

That’s why my speech didn’t reveal the kind of hypocrisy I thought was at the center of the religious right. Instead, the past five years — especially the Trump era — have further revealed what has been the common denominator present in the religious right all along, then and now: the desire for straight-cis-white-men to exert power, control and dominance over every other group. This explains the continued racism that is still clearly at the heart of the religious right, as well as its continued assault on women, immigrants, Muslims, LGBTQ persons, etc.

 

I thought my viral speech would expose the hypocrisy of the religious right. But I’ve learned that their desire for power, dominance, authority and control is just as strong today as it ever was. That’s the common thread that holds the discrimination and policies of the religious right together. It turns out they haven’t been hypocritical, but perfectly consistent. I’m the one who was fooled.

 

trump falwell

 

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On Patriotism and Protest

What does it mean to truly love America? To be a patriot? To honor our country?

In both basic and profound forms, it must include giving one’s heart to the ideals that are evoked in the promise of America: ideals of democracy and dignity, freedom and equality, liberty and justice. It includes tirelessly striving for these ideals, with the audacity to believe that the promise of America extends not just to some of its citizens, but to all of its citizens.

Loving America includes honoring America. And the best way to honor America — to love the promise of America — is by honoring the ideals for which America stands — ideals which people have lived and died for — which includes doing all one can to honor the memory of those who died by making sure what they died for — the ideals that truly make America great — are put into practice (to make sure they’re concrete realities and not just ideological concepts).

Anytime our country falls short of the ideals for which it stands, patriots have the responsibility to tirelessly strive so that the promise of America (liberty and justice for all, as the pledge teaches) matches the reality of America. If one doesn’t strive for the realization of democracy and dignity, freedom and equality, liberty and justice, then one just pays lip service to the promise of America. When this is the case, sayings like the pledge become nothing more than empty words, devoid of meaning.

William Sloane Coffin once said there are three kinds of patriots: two bad, one good. “The bad are the uncritical lovers and the loveless critics. Good patriots carry on a lover’s quarrel with their country, a reflection of God’s lover’s quarrel with all the world.”

As such, those who love and care about their country have the responsibility to call attention to the ways it falls short of its promise. Not because they don’t honor or love the ideals of democracy and dignity, freedom and equality, or liberty and justice, but precisely because they honor and love them so much that they won’t rest until they’re realized. This idea of patriotism is nicely summarized in “America the Beautiful,” penned by Katherine Lee Bates in 1893:

“America, America! God mend thine every flaw, confirm thy soul in self-control, thy liberty in law.”

The dream of America has always been a dream in process. Langston Hughes, one of Missouri’s most famous writers (he was born in Joplin in 1902), reflected on the experiences of being black in America, and how the America described in popular folklore as the land of freedom and opportunity was never the America of his experiences. But he still dreamed of the America that could be, the America rooted in the ideals of democracy and dignity, freedom and equality, liberty and justice. In “Let America Be America Again,” he writes:

“O, yes,

I say it plain,

America never was America to me,

And yet I swear this oath–

America will be!”

More than fifty years ago, Martin Luther King Jr. stood in front of the Lincoln Memorial, because he too believed in the promise of America:

“When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the ‘unalienable Rights’ of ‘Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness’ . . . Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’ But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt.”

It was precisely because King loved and cared for the ideals of America that he held America accountable for falling short of its ideals. This is part of the cost — and demand — of true patriotism (as opposed to cheap sentiment).

Contrary to popular belief (and let’s recall that in 1966, only 15% of whites thought “demonstrations by Negroes” were appropriate), NFL players who take a knee to protest racism are working out of a patriotic tradition that holds America accountable for its actions, even and especially when it falls short of its ideals. They’re not protesting the flag or the troops, as they’ve stated time and again, but instead are honoring the ideals to which the flag points (it’s not just a piece of cloth), and for which many have died.

As soon as any of the protesting players say they’re taking a knee in protest of those in the military or in protest of the promise of America, then I will no longer support their reasons for taking a knee.

Relatedly, as soon as President Trump apologizes for calling a POW war hero a loser and for belittling a Gold Star family, whose son died in service to our country, then I will consider that President Trump’s desire for players to stand truly is about honoring the military — because his actions show exceptionally low regard for the military. And when Roger Goodell stops requiring the military to pay millions of dollars to the NFL for “military appreciation events,” then I’ll believe his interest in having players stand is to honor the military as well. Otherwise it’s just a cheap symbolic gesture.

If a person is naive enough to think (along with Mike Ditka) that oppression hasn’t existed in America for the last 100 years, or that slavery wasn’t the central reason the Civil War was waged, or that unarmed black men in America aren’t killed by the police at a disproportionately high rate, then there’s nothing this article can do to convince them otherwise. 

But if we’re at least willing to acknowledge that the long history of racism in America is a problem yet to be solved, and that the promise of liberty and justice for all is a goal yet to be achieved, then perhaps you’ll understand — if not appreciate — why some players take a knee in protest against racism. I for one admire their courage and their conviction. Not because they disrespect the ideals of America and those willing to give their life for it, but because they believe in them so much.

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Colin Kaepernick, Donald Trump, and the true meaning of patriotism

Over the years I’ve written a lot about symbolic gestures. These are activities or rituals we take part in that make us feel good by providing the illusion that we care about the things we say we care about, when in fact our everyday actions suggest otherwise. These are all around us all of the time. A classic example is a business that pays super low wages to its employees and denies them benefits at every turn (thus trapping them in poverty), yet publicly donates $10K to charity and frames that check on the wall of the business, as if that represents their true values and interests. Or think about the “Please Gamble Responsibly” sticker on the slot machines at the casino. The machines are programmed to addict you to slots, but the sticker makes it sound like the casino doesn’t want you to be irresponsible with the very machines designed to make you irresponsible in the first place (HT to my fav show “Adam Ruins Everything” for the latter example).

This is now on full display with Trump et al.’s criticism of Colin Kaepernick, calling him (as well as other NFL players who kneel during the anthem) “sons of bitches.” To be sure, Trump (et al.) would say they stand for the national anthem because they believe in all of the values that the flag symbolizes. It makes them feel patriotic for standing and expressing their commitment to the principles of this nation. They would say they are standing for democracy, for the idea that “all men are created equal,” for the pledge’s love of “liberty and justice for all,” etc.

Yet at the very same time, Trump’s administration works to actively undermine all of these things. While he stands in patriotic support of these principles — which provides him with the feel good illusion that he’s patriotic — he actively undermines the pursuit of these principles and values. As such, it’s a classically hollow and vacuous symbolic gesture. 

What’s more, his “sons of bitches” rhetoric — which is disturbing on many levels — serves to dehumanize the very people who are actively displaying a true commitment to the principles and values that are supposed to be at the heart of the country but frequently are not: the idea of liberty and justice for all and that all people in the U.S. should be treated fairly and equally, including especially black and brown bodies that (because of America’s original sin of racism) have frequently and disproportionately been subjected to police brutality (which is what originally started the anthem protests), which undercuts democracy and liberty and justice for all in an institutionalized and violent form. As such, these commitments by Kap et al. are made not out of a disdain for democracy or for what the country should be, but precisely the opposite: because of an abiding love and commitment for all that is promised in the name of democracy and what the country should be. They’re protesting not because they disrespect the values that are supposed to be at the heart of our country and our democracy (or the troops, as they’ve publicly stated time and again), but because they believe in democracy and justice and equality so much, including the idea that police should not disproportionately shoot and kill black and brown persons, much less with such glaring impunity. 

Here we see that Kaepernick et al. are actually the ones expressing a much deeper form of patriotism than are those who simply cheapen the moment of standing for the anthem as a symbolic gesture that provides the illusion that they stand for patriotic principles of equality and justice when in fact their everyday actions and policies undercut these values and suggest they prefer white supremacy and police brutality to equality and justice.

Our civic commitments should be to the best of the values enshrined in our democracy, not to symbolic gestures that make us think we care about these things when in fact we do not. That’s why I will stand (or kneel) with Kap. 

#MoralClarity

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Guest post: Why Repealing the ACA lacks moral leadership

The following post is adapted from the Rev. Dr. Micki Pulleyking’s reflections shared at Faith Voices of Southwest Missouri’s “Standing with Our Neighbors” event. 

​It is an honor to be here with others who care about moral leadership; those who desire to “act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God”, as the prophet Micah implores. Jesus proclaimed “good news to the poor” and “liberty” to the oppressed; Jesus gave “healing”–free health care. Think about it, almost all of Jesus’ miracles are related to medical needs–the blind man, the hemorrhaging woman, the sick girl, the man who could not walk: Jesus treats each one with dignity (no matter how poor), and he heals them, without a word about money; without a word about political agendas. May we do all we can to stop the repeal of the Affordable Care Act.
​There are many compassionate humans in our state who respond to suffering; many good people traveled to Texas and to Florida after the recent hurricanes. We grieve suffering caused by that which we cannot control: floods and other acts of nature. But how much more suffering is caused by human choices? This is suffering we can control.
​The book of Amos was written around 750 BCE. Yet, could not this have been written last night? Listen to the words of Amos 6: “Alas for those who lounge on their couches, and eat beef; sing idle songs; drink wine and anoint themselves with fine perfumes…BUT are NOT grieved over the suffering of others…”
​Affordable health care is not about being a Democrat or a Republican–it’s about grieving over the suffering of others and desiring to be good humans. Humans need affordable health care.
Let us urge lawmakers to reject the Graham-Cassidy bill which will take away health care from millions of Americans. Oppose any budget that guts life-saving Medicaid for 74 million working families, privatizes Medicaid for seniors, or strips state budgets of critical funding–in order to pay for billions of dollars in tax breaks for the wealthy and big corporations!
Medicaid provides coverage to 30 million children. It pays for half the births in the United States, 75% of all family planning services, 64% of nursing home care, and 30% of all care for people with disabilities. Nearly 2 million veterans get health care through Medicaid. And…Medicaid also costs far less per beneficiary than private health insurance. And…the cost for Medicaid have been rising more slowly than private insurance.
The Republican budget cuts nearly $2 trillion from health care, especially Medicaid. I think that’s immoral–not moral leadership.
Let us stand for leadership committed to a politics of compassion. Call, email and text your senators and representatives and those whose votes can keep this disaster from happening. Ask them to choose dignity, to choose to diminish suffering, in those places where the moral choice is ours.

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On the eve of President Trump’s visit to my hometown of Springfield 

Here are my remarks at the “Standing With Our Neighbors” Faith Voices/NAACP event on the day before President Trump came to Springfield. 

We gather on the eve of President Trump’s visit to Springfield in order to hold President Trump and his administration in prayer, as well as to hold them accountable to the ethical demands at the heart of the world’s enduring religious traditions. Within religious practice, prayer opens us up to the heart of the sacred, and is intended to help lead us to act as God would desire. This is what we hope for President Trump, as we have hoped for all presidents. 

We are not here in order to be politically correct, but to be biblically correct. The heart of our faith traditions includes the call to be in solidarity with our neighbors, standing together for love, dignity, justice, and compassion. 

The Golden Rule is expressed in all of the enduring religious traditions of the world. This doesn’t mean more gold for those who already have a whole lot of it (and more than they will ever need); rather, the Golden Rule simply commands us to treat others as we wish to be treated. This applies to our whole lives: in our families and our friendships, as well as in our society and our politics. And it includes how the rich should treat the poor, and vice versa. We believe it applies to all people, Republican or Democrat, religious or not. 

We don’t know much about the tax policies that President Trump will unveil tomorrow, but we do know a lot about what our faith traditions say about economic dignity. The Bible has over 2,000 verses about economic dignity and fairness, and it consistently tells leaders of nations that they have a mandate to care for the poor and the forgotten (“the orphan and the widow,” as it’s often described). This is a pillar of faith. Within my tradition, according to Jesus in Matthew 25, leaders and nations will be judged based on how they treat the poor and the vulnerable. This is therefore not just about standing on the right side of history; it’s about standing on the right side of God. We are here to pray for President Trump so he will have the wisdom to make policy decisions that are consistent with the love, compassion and justice at the heart of God, and to reflect on what policies close to the heart of God should look like. 

We also pray for — and stand with — our neighbors near and far. Our hearts are especially close to those in Texas; we commit to sending them not just our thoughts and prayers but also our resources and money, and we ask President Trump to respond with the leadership and resources the people of Texas need. We are hopeful his visit to Texas today helps inform his decisions. 

As people of faith, we also gather to acknowledge the continued sin of racism and discrimination in our society. Our faith calls us to stand together: those with black skin or brown skin or white skin or any color of skin, we stand together. Men and women, we stand together. Gay and straight, we stand together. Cisgender and transgender, we stand together. Rich and poor, we stand together. We stand together because we believe all human beings are created in the image of God and should be treated with the dignity that affords. We unequivocally renounce the evil sins of white supremacy and gender inequality, and call on all leaders — including President Trump — to refuse to support white supremacy and discrimination at every level, in both word and deed, whether within his administration or outside of it. 

We are concerned about the crumbling moral infrastructure that manifests itself in the dangerous game of scapegoating, wherein others are unfairly blamed — whether it be immigrants, gay or transgender persons, Muslims, Jews, or whomever — for problems that run much, much deeper, and for which they are not responsible. Scapegoating others may score easy political points in today’s day and age, but it appeals to our worst instincts rather than our best, and it fails to move our country forward on both moral and economic grounds. Scapegoating does nothing but sell an empty bill of goods to people who are desperate for hope and on the verge of despair — yet we need courageous leadership that truly helps them, not leadership that just riles people up in order to exploit people for the sake of political gain, selling an empty promise that in the end does nothing for them and for everyday hardworking Americans, but just continues a system where the poor and vulnerable are exploited time and again, no matter their political affiliation, as pawns in a devastating political game. 

That is why we are praying for President Trump, and all of our elected leaders.

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Standing with Our Neighbor: Charlottesville 

Here’s the text from the Call to Action I was asked to give at today’s “Standing with Our Neighbor: Charlottesville” event sponsored by Faith Voices of SW MO.

As people of faith we are called to put our beliefs into action, to practice what we preach. And in the face of the violence perpetrated by white supremacists, white nationalists, white nativists and neo-nazis, we must act. 
And our actions must extend beyond mere condemnations. We must work toward building communities that value fairness, dignity, equality and justice.
We are not simply asking for all Americans to come together and listen to one another. No, we are asking Americans — particularly those that adhere to (or benefit from) white supremacy to do the hard work of repentance. There is no right and left on this issue, there is only right and wrong. Until white supremacists — and those who benefit from white supremacy — acknowledge this and confess this will true healing and reconciliation be possible.
Secondly, we are calling on all who believe in the values of fairness, dignity, equality and justice — whether you identify as religious or not — to recognize that in times like this, silence is nothing less than betrayal. We must not allow racism to go unchecked. Demeaning rhetoric — whether at work or at church or wherever — has no good value in our society, especially when it’s casually used to reinforce a problematic status quo that manifests itself not just in words but in death-dealing societal structures. When it comes to the violence of racism, it’s not solely located in white nationalist terrorism. It is far too easy for white Americans, who are not impacted by the daily realities of racism — of what it means to live daily life as a black or brown person in a country not only birthed in slavery but long supported by structures of white supremacy through Jim Crow and beyond — it is far too easy not to recognize the urgency of working toward race equity and justice here and now. But we must stand together and raise our voices so these principles are not just ideas, but lived realities. The violence and hate in Charlottesville was horrific, but so are the daily injustices of discrimination in the structures of society, whether it be through the prison industrial complex that disproportionately affects black and brown persons, or public school systems across the country that may not technically be segregated but are segregated in terms of funding and resourcing. This list goes on, and we must demand that our societal structures reflect the fairness, dignity, equality and justice which we say we value, even if it comes at a cost. Otherwise we will fail to move forward and will be weighed down by the sins of our past, and all of our best rhetoric will mean nothing. 
We are also called to hold our officials accountable, and this extends to every level, from Springfield to Washington. 
We applaud the city’s condemnation of the violence and racism in Charlottesville and ask that city officials do everything possible to build a fair and just Springfield. 
We also applaud the unequivocal condemnation of white supremacy by politicians like Marco Rubio, John McCain and Paul Ryan, who have called it out for the evil that it is, and we further demand that they — along with all of our elected leaders including Sen. McCaskill, Sen. Blunt, and Representative Long — ensure that white supremacy and the alt-right have no place in the administration of a country that aspires for liberty and justice for all. 
With this in mind, we demand that extremist presidential advisors like Steve Bannon and Sebastian Gorka be fired immediately because of their ties to an alt-right white neo-Nazi nationalism that is not representative of the wishes and desires of a country known as the land of the free and the home of the brave.
Lastly, we hold the president of the United States accountable for his reckless rhetoric that has only served to embolden and strengthen white supremacists since he first announced his run for office. Obviously it would be absurd to say that the problem of white supremacy and nationalism began with President Trump — of course not, for America’s original sin of racism has been around ever since this nation was built on the backs of slaves. But it is naive to think that a posture of perpetual bullying — in which the president consistently demeans and dehumanizes the dignity of others — serves to reduce, rather than embolden, white nationalists whose violence is predicated on demeaning and dehumanizing the dignity of others.

 
It was appropriate for the justice department to label Saturday’s murder of Heather Heyer, a counterprotestor killed when the car of a white nationalist was turned into a murderous weapon, an act of domestic terrorism. The administration now needs to condemn the white nationalism in the president’s inner circle and work to build trust with the American people so President Trump is not simply viewed as a puppet of the alt-right. His personal and unequivocal denouncements of white nationalistic terrorism would be a step in the right direction, and we are still waiting for him to personally address this.
As faith voices, we further ask that religious leaders refuse to lend their support to policies and leaders that perpetuate racism, rather than stand against racism. The church has a very checkered past in this regard, and we must do better. We will be judged by our actions, by history, and by God. 
Thank you.

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On Christian tolerance 


One last post on the topic of the Religious Right, just to set the record straight. When I post something that calls out the Religious Right for championing racism, patriarchy, and anti-LGBTQ equality (as I did on Facebook earlier today), it’s not uncommon for someone to come along and say that I’m being intolerant of others (and thus hypocritical since I’m supposed to represent a religion that “accepts all views”). It’s their “gotcha” move. But I just want to go on the record to clarify how erroneous this is, in every way. As an example, I received a message earlier today from someone who essentially said that posting such things flies in the face of being part of (as my denomination describes) “a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world.” I’m not sure why this accusation is so frequently made, but to set the record straight, here’s a paraphrased version of my response to him:

 
The genealogy of the Religious Right is in the preservation of segregation and patriarchy, just as a matter of historical fact. These are very sinful things. Christian teaching tells us that sin separates us from God and from one another, the wages of which are death. From a theological and ecclesial standpoint, “a movement for wholeness” begins not with acceptance but with confession of sin. Wholeness is about reconciliation and redemption, and as Bonhoeffer said it’s no cheap grace. So if we seek to be “a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world,” we acknowledge that wholeness begins not via acceptance of all views as equally valid, but in the confession of sin (such as racism and patriarchy) that steals, kills, and destroys. “A movement for wholeness in a fragmented world” is only possible via justice and righteousness, as St. Paul describes. So that’s what I’m after as a pastor and preacher. Transformed lives in the way of Christ, in which justice is never sacrificed on the altar of unity, because true unity (and wholeness) demands justice and righteousness, not the other way around.
P.S. The Religious Right is not synonymous with evangelicalism. To be sure, many evangelicals identify with the Religious Right, but many do not. Again, for the record.

 

P.S.S. I don’t always use religious language to express my ideas, but in this particular post I’m drawing on religious language that is familiar to those associated with the Religious Right (kind of like meeting them on their own rhetorical turf). Whether this is wise or not is another question entirely.

 
P.S.S.S. If the climate in the U.S. wasn’t charged with so many politicians using racism, patriarchy, and anti-LGBTQ equality to rally their base, I wouldn’t feel the need to speak out against the Religious Right so much (I don’t like doing so; but it goes with the territory of being a pastor and being a Christian).

 
P.S.S.S.S. I’m tired of prominent leaders in the Religious Right (Jerry Falwell Jr., Franklin Graham, etc.) championing terribly sinful, problematic, and pro-death positions. They try to make us think they’re ethically sound Christian positions when they’re anything but what is found in the actual life and teachings of Christ. I refuse to cede the ethical Christian high ground to them.

 

P.S.S.S.S.S. After posting this to Facebook, Susan Russell offered a great comment that I don’t want to lose track of: “My stock response: ‘There is an ontological difference between being discriminated against because of who you are and feeling discriminated against because you’re disagreed with.'”

 

P.S.S.S.S.S.S. Going for the record of post-scripting with this one.

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