A few weeks ago, I got one of those viral emails from a guy who shares my interest in Lutheran hymnody — but, most emphatically, not my politics. It linked to a video called “Liberals With Guns!” that claims the shooters at Fort Hood, Columbine High School, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook and the movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, were all “liberals” and/or “registered Democrats.” It featured “Wild Bill” Finlay, a self-proclaimed “Judeo-Christian values” type of guy wearing a self-satisfied expression and a cowboy hat.
Before hawking a “Wild Bill for America” coffee cup for $14.39 (plus shipping) at the end of the video, Finlay proposes that “every registered liberal Democrat be placed on the mentally ill list, and because mental illness is akin to incompetence, we should consider removing them from certain positions of responsibility. … The liberals of America try so hard to strip others of their rights, perhaps we should give them a taste of their own medicine.”
Ha-ha. Funny guy.
So I fired back an email to my friend.
“Man,” I said, “this one goes way beyond offensive! Even though I live in a blue state, it's disturbing to see this kind of hate speech directed against people like me.
“I'll link you below,” I added, “to a fact-check article in the Jacksonville (Fla.) Times-Union that investigates these allegations about ‘liberals’ and ‘registered Democrats,’ etc., etc., and finds they’re twisted out of context and/or, in fact, outright lies. I’m sure you won't be surprised to learn he’s lying throughout the video.
“But there's more to it than that ...”
There sure is. Lying, as I learned when I joined a Lutheran church and read Martin Luther’s Small Catechism rather late in life, isn’t just a matter of making false statements — saying, for example, a mass murderer is a registered Democrat when in fact he isn’t.
“You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor,” Luther explains. “What does this mean? Answer –
“We should fear and love God so that we do not lie about, betray or slander our neighbor, or hurt his reputation, but defend him, speak well of him, and put the most charitable construction on everything.”
In a column posted in 2011 to the Chicago Tribune’s website, theologian and retired University of Chicago professor Martin Marty cites this passage and says he finds false witness in much of our political discourse — including in some with which he agrees.
“Ow!,” Marty says, “and again I say unto you, Ow! ... Ask: Do we think that those who prepared the commercials and wrote the speeches and competed on the talk shows did not tell lies, betray, slander or seek to destroy ... reputations?”
Ow! I re-read Marty’s column, and again, Ow! I do that, too.
When I worked for a Democratic officeholder 20 years ago, my press releases were mostly happy talk about things like affordable housing and crop loans. But I repeated plenty of partisan talking points on my own time, and I don’t think all of them would pass the speak-well-of-your-neighbor test — then or now.
And I don’t think I was putting the most charitable construction on Wild Bill’s comedy shtick when I accused him of hate speech.
I don’t think he really wants to put the Democrats in mental institutions. Basically, he’s a comedian. I think at best he’s bearing false witness, but he’s clearly got them yukking it up on the tea party circuit, and I'll bet he sells a lot of coffee cups.
I guess I’m happy for him.
Peter Ellertsen is a retired English and journalism teacher at Benedictine University, Springfield, Illinois, and a former assistant to then-state Treasurer Patrick Quinn (D-Ill.) He researches Scandinavian immigration and traditional American music.