One evening in Texas, I spat milk when, during a vox pop segment of a local evening news broadcast about making English the national language, a yokel held up his Bible to the camera and proclaimed self-righteously: "Well, if English was good enough for Our Lord, it's good enough for me."

How you deal with language becomes very important when faced with this kind of issue-illiteracy.

In 1996 the Human Rights Campaign commissioned a study from Washington, D.C.-based Lake Research on the language that should be used in their publications, aimed at voters undecided on issues vital to the gay rights movement. In six focus groups and a nationwide poll, the research revealed the following semantic orientations about the two most common terms for right wing religious groups.

  • Radical Right: This term was viewed negatively, but was associated with fringe militia groups like neo-Nazis rather than large-scale, organized religious groups like Focus on the Family.
  • Religious Right: This most common term was actually perceived as a positive thing. One Milwaukee respondent presumed it meant "the right to choose or follow your own religion," which could hardly be farther from the actual machinations of these groups. In this light, these groups benefit from the use of this term.

The study also tested the reactions to alternate terms. The one that was received the desired response was:

This term conjured negative and accurate responses. A Milwaukee man (the same one?) was quoted as saying, "Those words together in my mind, it conjures up a person that is going to try to push his religion on you somehow through the politics," which, while it could be more grammatical, could hardly be more apt.

HRC included these findings in their annual publication (HRC Quarterly) later that same year. Despite the thorough research and clear justification for a shift in language, the new phrase never caught on in common use. A quick Google search at the time of this writing lists "about 1,040,000" results for "religious right" and only a paltry 1,270 for "religious political extremists." (There were a barely-worth-mentioning 66 for "political religious extremists.")

Why did it never catch on? Was it too many syllables or too awkward to speak? HRC's circulation too small or too unread? Whatever the reason, I have an editor reflex every time I see the term "religious right," thinking about how that particular bit of English is still good enough for Their Lord.

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