It has become quite common since the beginning of the civil rights movement for dominant groups to claim that criticism on the part of those less privileged constitutes a form of “reverse” prejudice. The element that gets missed in this kind of semantic appropriation is the power dynamic, and the very real material disadvantages that the group against which the charge is being made faces. When the focus of the discussion moves from the sort of body a person inhabits to the ideas they hold in their head and the beliefs in their heart, it tends to get more confusing and less helpful.
The problem with religious bigotry is that it assumes a particular invariable character on the part of a person’s belief system and then further conflates this projected assessment with the person who holds that belief system. It is thus a true “double whammy” of sloppy cognition. To start with, any large religion is going to have multiple variations. Christianity, for instance, is really an umbrella term for dozens of diverse faiths with the figure of Jesus Christ at their center. Attributing anything more than a few generalities to this broad category simply ensures that you will not understand any of its constituents with any depth.
That being said, there are variants of certain religions (particularly Christianity and Islam) which contain demonstrably toxic and even sociopathic beliefs. Whatever the mainstream beliefs of Christianity in our own time, it is safe to say that these have been somewhat diluted by the Enlightenment and other movements of intellectual progress which made any literal interpretation of the Bible intellectually untenable. Why one form of Christianity was the sole religious and political power in Western Civilization, the result was unequivocally disastrous. When Voltaire enjoined his countrymen to “remember the cruelties” he was writing with less than a century between himself and what he referred to.
There may be some who feel that genocide (the Crusades) and torture (the Inquisition) are only an absolute evil from “a certain perspective,” but I would submit that such an attitude is part of the problem. The reactionary movements of the last sixty years have become expert at exploiting the idea of “tolerance” as a blanket acceptance of any pernicious notion that might enter the heads of any lunatic. What they have made some forget is that such a tolerant society not only can but must condemn intolerance if any such condition of tolerance is to have any chance of continuing.
An idea is not bad because of where it comes from. It is bad because it causes clear, obvious, and immediate harm to both the people who hold it and those against whom it is targeted. Homophobia may not be an integral part of Christianity, and even if it were, this would not be enough to condemn it. It is to be condemned because it leads to discrimination in the best case scenario and deadly violence in the worst. But it is also the case that the main justifications for homophobia are, during the period of human history in which I write, couched in Biblical terms and promoted by a vocal and politically influential minority within the Christian umbrella. Further, the homophobic message seems fairly non-denominational, as there are simply not enough Fundamentalists to carry elections in a state as large as California. The core issues of the religious right appear to have a much wider appeal.
“Bigotry” must be judged by not only category but also by intent. To criticize the religious right is precisely the same as criticizing the Ku Klux Klan. To criticize Christians in general for apparently holding beliefs (or at least not speaking out against them) which can be inflamed and directed by such groups is the equivalent of criticizing mid-twentieth century Southern culture for the analogous tendencies with regard to racism. If people are afraid to do this for fear of being labeled “bigots” they are missing the point of being against bigotry.
In the end, the phrase “social progress” must either mean something or not. If it is to mean anything, it will have to involve actively opposing bigoted ideologies and attitudes, even if they arise from something like religion. Otherwise, it will remain a late modern platitude, suitable only for the museums that will hold the relics of a dead civilization.