Review of Michael Cobb, God Hates Fags: The Rhetorics of Religious Violence (New York University Press, 2006)
Steven Hammer, North Dakota State University
(Published August 10, 2010)
Michael Cobb writes a compelling and informed commentary, illuminating the ways the queer community can use homophobic hate speech, revealing the nature of modern fundamentalist Christian rhetoric as a continued and ongoing jeremiad in need of a scapegoat, and proposing that a “like race” rhetorical strategy be employed to combat the religious right. That is, Cobb advocates queer adoption of the argument that queerness constitutes an identity similar to racial identity despite its pitfalls.
Cobb first introduces the familiar character, Fred Phelps, to illustrate the extreme example of intolerance of homosexuality and argues that realities of mainstream America reflect the “God hates fags” slogan, politically and socially. Here, Cobb introduces his argument that the fundamental religious right is merely reproducing a larger and ongoing jeremiad and that “queer hate speech doesn’t only harm, but creates opportunities . . .” (9). Cobb also introduces what becomes a larger thesis of the text: that, although certainly problematic, using the “like race” simile is a strategy that is both effective and, as he explains near the end of the book, appropriate in the modern American context.
Cobb uses chapter one to establish a theory of religious rhetoric on which to conduct his analysis. The perceived infallibility of the Bible (Word of God) allows a biblical condemnation of homosexuality. This view of the Bible precludes viewing queers as people and convinces followers that they must oppose perceived social ills. Cobb describes the latter of these outcomes as a classic example of the jeremiad, which according to Cobb, requires an “other,” someone who does not belong, to be expelled for the believers to be led by the sovereign God.
Cobb contextualizes these observations when he describes religious language as nation- and state-building. Issues of terrorism and queer civil rights seem to parallel each other, especially in a post-9/11 America. Cobb writes that this America, characterized by the Bush Doctrine and the Patriot Act, which utilized sovereignty to identify and name enemies of the state, positioned queers as the homo sacer:
In ancient texts, the homo sacer is a sacred being that is nevertheless banned from the profane world. It is at once an object of religious fascination, and an object that is reviled by the community; it is blessed and cursed simultaneously. More miraculously, however, this figure must be banned from the community, “phrased out,” if you will . . . the murder of this sacred figure does not count as sacrifice. (33-34)
Queer politics have relied on racial politics, partially to avoid homo sacer identity and experience sacrifice on a political level. Cobb introduces the well-known account of Matthew Shepard as a crucifixion-esque sacrifice, and he emphasizes the way Shepard’s father used references to Nazi Germany and lynching in the South to describe his son’s fate.
Although Cobb ultimately promotes the use of the “like race” strategy, he acknowledges its limitations and pitfalls, including the problems of biological determinism (genes, defects, cures), universalization, as well as the problems of analogy itself. The analogy obscures differences between groups and ignores intersecting identities. Here Cobb summons the suggestion of Spillers, suggesting that queers refashion inherited languages, thus creating themselves as a valuable minority (versus the dispensable homo sacer). Cobb argues that the benefits of alignment with race outweigh its risks.
Cobb spends the next two chapters discussing how literary examples of religious hate speech function to articulate queerness while likening it to race. Cobb first analyzes James Baldwin’s "Go Tell it on the Mountain" as a document that reveals how religious rhetoric equips queers with sovereign authority without assimilating to dominant culture. Cobb describes the protagonist, John, as a character upon whom hate speech is figuratively inscribed. The theory of chapter one is expanded here, as Cobb explains that although religious rhetoric seeks sovereign, unquestioned power, it also attempts to claim some kind of inner, subjective experience within its user.
Religious rhetoric may use non-specific language (as it is apparently above historical and lexical evolution), and this is a language readily accessible to Baldwin. Baldwin uses this vague language to discuss the queer identity and struggle without making statements that are overtly specific and therefore indicting. This analysis reveals racism’s link to homophobia in a biblical sense and reinforces the notion of conversion as the movement from queer to heterosexual, from black to white. These observations reinforce the history of literary and political usage of the “like race” simile by aligning (but not making equal) identities of black and queer.
Chapter three first describes Jean Toomer’s Cane, a book in which the character Kabnis needs to describe himself but cannot do so properly. Instead, he uses “ugly” language, or hate language, to describe himself and his situation. Cobb posits that the identity of the unnamable has a history, sociologically and historically. For instance, literatures of minorities are frequently classified as such and are often characterized as somehow more authentic. In fact, most minority literature is viewed only as realism. Cobb describes the Mattochine in the 1930s, an organization which, “through its ‘like race’ articulation, has helped queers escape some of the realistic traps of other protest politics and literatures” (86).
Cobb describes how Stephen Crane (as well as Toomer and Baldwin) used race as a cover for writing about sexuality, thus illustrating a strong historical linkage between race and queerness in literature and further justification for the “like race” strategy. This is often accomplished through “bad rhymes, bad poems,” that is, non-dominant methods of writing queer and black. Suddenly Last Summer, a Tennessee Williams work, serves as an illustration of silencing queer language, this time via “babbling,” or incoherent nonsense spoken in the play. It also references religious ideas and symbolism such as atonement, the last supper, and cannibalism.
Chapter four considers the “like race” issue from a different perspective: the debate surrounding Colorado’s Amendment 2, which prevented recognition of homosexual citizens as a protected class. In fact, the “like race” idea directly contributed to the success of Amendment 2, but was also the reason why the U.S. Supreme Court would not let the amendment alter Colorado’s constitution (due to a creation of class). Cobb argues that if homosexuals would be considered a group (i.e., if the “like race” simile is utilized), the religious right would lose their current jeremiadistic scapegoat.
Because he believes that race has become the fundamental category of difference in America, Cobb argues, “race is a necessary category that queers must evoke when they respond to their sacrilization out of citizenship rights and values” (130). The “like race” simile resists jeremiadic legibility, and the queer population should lie to become more complex and subversive in order to shield themselves from the “dominant radar,” lest they become the worthless homo sacer (148).
In his final chapter, Cobb acknowledges that the religious right has become aware of the effectiveness of the “like race” simile. Therefore, alternative rhetorical strategies used by the religious right include the assumed link between homosexuality and incest and pedophilia. These fallacious links have become justification for hate crimes, as queer begins to become synonymous with pedophile. Queer rights, then, become a risk to “our” children. These strategies, however, contain an ironic opportunity: queers again become the “like race” minority precisely because they are unjustly linked with incest and pedophilia.
Cobb’s book confronts a difficult and increasingly relevant issue and creatively subverts a dominant culture—one that embraces “God hates fags” ideology—with rhetorical and historical research. He has contributed to and extended several fields of study, including rhetoric, gender studies, critical studies, and sociology. Finally, and perhaps most usefully, he equips the reader with tangible rhetorical strategies and rationale for their effectiveness and relevance.
Cobb, Michael. God Hates Fags: The Rhetorics of Religious Violence. New York and London: New York University Press, 2006. Print.