For what’s seemed like an eternity, Bill O’Reilly has amassed a fortune by anointing himself a “culture warrior” while waging what he’s called “the culture wars” — an ongoing battle between white Christian conservatives, commanded by narcissist-in-chief O’Reilly, against everyone else. As part of this so-called war, O’Reilly has routinely lashed out at one of his favorite villains: anyone who rightly agrees that America is a nation of secular laws, and he’d lump all of these people into the broad category of “secular progressives.”
Then, last week, like one of those cinematic moments when an entire battlefield drops into slow-motion and the sound becomes low, eery and muffled, the culture war stopped and the tide appeared to turn. On the March 26 edition of his show, O’Reilly seemed to be evolving on same-sex marriage when he admitted that marriage equality activists have a more “compelling argument” than conservative opponents who “thump the Bible.” Shocker! He went on to endorse the notion that individual states should be tasked with legalizing same-sex marriage — a de facto confession that he’d support it if it were to happen at the state level.
Now, let’s be clear about what’s at stake with regards to the Defense of Marriage Act. The federal government isn’t determining whether same-sex marriage is legal or illegal, nor is it telling the states what to do about marriages that take place within each state. Rather, by declaring DOMA unconstitutional in the Supreme Court or passing a repeal in Congress, the federal government would merely recognize same-sex marriages for the purposes of tax filing status, government employee benefits and interstate recognition of marriages. As of right now, with DOMA as the (awful) law of the land, it doesn’t. Each state will continue to individually determine whether same-sex marriage is accepted as legitimate, but as long as DOMA is in place, the federal government doesn’t acknowledge those marriages at the federal level for the previously stated purposes.
Okay, so back to O’Reilly. As soon as he said “thump the Bible” to Megyn Kelly last week, you could almost hear the booming sound of a gazillion white septuagenarians across the nation angrily shouting “FA**OT!” and hurling bottles of Gold Bond Medicated Powder at their tiny black and white televisions (for some reason I imagine O’Reilly viewers not owning color TV sets). The fallout was amazing to behold. Rush Limbaugh, whose respect for the sanctity of marriage is evident in his four marriages and three divorces, accused O’Reilly of “marginalizing” his audience. The feud between these leviathans of the conservative entertainment complex was like watching Godzilla fight Mecha-Godzilla — though O’Reilly’s and Limbaugh’s heads are slightly larger. Elsewhere, a mid-level conservative radio host said that O’Reilly should be “hanged” for his remarks. Yesterday, Christian evangelist Bryan Fischer called O’Reilly a “pompous arrogant windbag” for the now infamous “thump the Bible” line.
Everything reached a dramatic climax the other night — that cinematic slow-motion battle scene I mentioned earlier — when Bill O’Reilly spoke the following words:
“If you’re going to stand up for heterosexual marriage, and exclude gay marriage, if you’re going to do that, you’ve got to do it outside the Bible. You can’t cite the Bible because you’ll lose if you do. [...] We’re talking a policy deal here. Don’t you understand the difference between private beliefs and public policy?”
At first glance, he didn’t appear to outright support same-sex marriage but, instead, he outlined a what he believed to be an effective strategy against it. However, he obviously undercut one of the chief tenets of far-right conservatism: the mandatory foisting of Christianity onto public policy. He defined what can only be considered a “wall of separation” between public policy and private beliefs. In other words: secularism. Private beliefs are ineffective and therefore unwelcome in debates about public policy. As defined by Merriam-Webster:
1a : of or relating to the worldly or temporal
b : not overtly or specifically religious
c : not ecclesiastical or clerical
2: not bound by monastic vows or rules; specifically : of, relating to, or forming clergy not belonging to a religious order or congregation
I can’t tell you how profoundly groundbreaking this was. Bill O’Reilly — the Culture Warrior — rejected the use of religious dogma in debating the laws and policies of the United States. This is precisely what the framers had in mind when they created the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment and flatly rejected the notion of Christianity informing public policy as it had in England for too many years. They recognized that if religion were capable of interfering with government, so too could government interfere with religious liberty. The door could swing both ways and undermine both liberty and, yes, the secular nation they were attempting to forge.
And then, last night, O’Reilly continued to milk the controversy by delivering yet another of his “talking points memo” monologues about the fracas. Oddly, he began by attacking “secular progressives,” a term which, at this point in the O’Reilly universe, has been rendered meaningless since he now supports secularism, and continued to make his earlier point about not using religion to define a public policy argument — in other words, he criticized secularism while also making a solid case in favor of it. This time he pandered to conservatives by praising the anti-choice movement’s alleged abandonment of religious arguments against abortion. (Weird, since they haven’t.) He went on to repeat his view that the states, not the federal government, ought to determine marital legitimacy. He also said that the federal government has no constitutional right to be involved. I’m not sure he meant to do it, but O’Reilly basically implied that DOMA, which defines marriage at the federal level, is unconstitutional. So… whoops.
Whatever ends up happening with O’Reilly and his apparent enlightenment on secular policy-making, it’s critical that those of us on the secular side of the debate keep handy his quote about private beliefs versus public policy. One of the most effective debate maneuvers is to use the other side’s own people and sources against them, and this is O’Reilly quote is a big one. He’s rendered irrelevant any mention of the Bible in the policy debate. Beyond effective debating, O’Reilly has unwittingly stumbled onto one of those Gestalt moments when the bigger picture has been revealed to someone who’s otherwise closed-minded, simplistic and exclusionary. This is all it takes to begin a gradual awakening to a more tolerant, rational, reasonable and, in so many cases, a more liberal worldview. It remains to be seen whether O’Reilly will be the next conservative in line to be hectored out of the movement and end up slowly lurching toward the center-left like we’ve seen with players such as Charles Johnson, David Frum and Joe Scarborough (see gun control). But stranger things have happened.