If the Left succeeds in gaining and retaining more power, the well-being of future generations will be at greater peril. I fear (our children) will inherit a nation that is less free and less secure than the nation we inherited from the last generation. It is therefore our job to stop them. Not just debate them, but defeat them.” — Sean Hannity
I found these words on page 11 of your book Let Freedom Ring. This book, and similar ones from your conservative colleagues Bill O’Reilly and Michael Savage, was found in the home of a man who read those words, internalized those words, and then loaded his shotgun. He took 76 rounds of ammunition with him to a place of worship—a place where he knew he could do his job to stop and defeat some liberals. At the Unitarian Church in Knoxville, Tennessee, Jim Adkisson, a fan of yours, killed two people, wounded five others, and left an entire congregation and country shaken by his actions. Actions prompted, as he testified in his own written notes, by the ideas contained in your words.
I don’t know if you remember me, Sean, but I worked with you in Atlanta in the early 1990s, right as you got your big break with FOX News. I was an anchor and reporter (under the air name Candace Petersen) at WGST, your last low level stop before hitting the big time. I remember your last night on the air before you left for the big leagues. I approached you in your office, a cramped back room that I’m sure resembles a hovel compared to your FOX digs. I asked if you, during your last show, would tone down your rhetoric against gays and lesbians—stop demonizing our community for just one night. You refused. You explained to me, as if I were a child, that to do so would be to let your audience down. They expected you to go on the air and rant about how liberals, minorities, women and especially gays and lesbians were ruining our country. You simply had to oblige.
Even though you explained it simply, I still didn’t understand. Your Girl Friday—your most trusted assistant on your show was a young lesbian. She admired you, for some strange reason, and you two were close friends, lunching together, spending time together outside of work. You didn’t seem to have a problem with this particular lesbian. She wasn’t the one you kept blaming on the air for the downfall of democracy. No, you had two different lives then—one on the air, where you performed your outraged conservative act and one in real life, where you enjoyed your lesbian friend and seemed like a decent, sane fellow.
I don’t know if you’ve bought into your own shtick or not these days. If you truly believe half of what I could manage to read in your book (thank God the quote I found was in the early pages), I feel sorry for you. I don’t know how a person who obviously has no problem with homosexuality in their friends (or used to have no problem, anyway), can rant about how disgusting homosexuality is on pages 156 to 157. (Many thanks to your editors for the index.) I would call you a hypocrite, but if you’ve become a true believer, I guess the label no longer applies.
I hope you are not too far gone, your conscience too eaten away with greed, to understand the violent and vile object lesson that Mr. Adkisson has provided for us in Tennessee, because it’s a lesson you need to learn: Our words matter. Our words have power.
If you tell a child long enough that they are stupid and will never amount to anything, it won’t be long before they’ll believe that and live up to those words. If you tell the whole population of a country that their woes can be blamed on something called “liberals” who hold different ideas than you do, it won’t be long before those “liberals” will become the scapegoat for all social ills. Those words matter—they have power. Adkisson was a true believer.
Your book is rife with paragraphs bashing “the Left”—an enigmatic group of “liberals” painted so broadly that your label for them must be capitalized. These are the people to blame if anything goes wrong in the world. Terrorism? “The Left” didn’t hunt down the terrorists before they struck. War? “The Left” didn’t do enough to protect us from our enemies and have opposed our military readiness. Job losses? “The Left” taxed the corporations so much they moved overseas.
In your world, and the world you convinced Adkisson of, “the Left” is the bogeyman under the bed. But your book never mentions how the last eight years of Republican leadership has already left our children a nation that is less free, less secure, and as a special bonus, deeply in debt. Republicans are responsible for bankrupting our country, chipping away at our civil rights, sending our monetary and human treasure to waste away and die in the desert, leaving us paranoid and afraid of anyone who may look different, undermining social safety nets like unemployment and food stamps (which Adkisson had recently just lost), and generally making us a more selfish and divided nation. You have done this with your words, Sean—words of division, words of hate, words of war, and words of greed.
The sad irony here, Sean, is that if Mr. Adkisson had gone to that Unitarian church and told them he was out of a job and his food stamps had just ended, they would have helped him. They would have fed them from their food pantry and used their network of friends to help find him a job. Not because they’re liberal socialists, but because they understand that it’s not “us” against “them.” Instead, what made this country great is that we pull together in times of crisis—we bear one another’s burdens and put aside our differences in order to be of service to one another. They would have reached out to Mr. Adkisson without asking him if he was Democrat or a Republican or a liberal or a conservative. Labels don’t matter when someone is in need—or they shouldn’t.
But, Mr. Adkisson did not know that about the Unitarian church. You didn’t tell him liberals could help him. You only told him they’re to blame for his misfortune. His mind had already been poisoned by the words of hatred and division from you book. He saw the Unitarians down the road, not as fellow human beings who would generously help him in his time of need, but as enemies—the very reason his world had gone to hell. His job, since he had no other because of a bad economy created by Republican policies, was “to stop them. Not to debate them, but defeat them.” And so he loaded a gun.
Sean, you occupy a position of power. All words have power, but some words are more powerful than others simply because they are amplified from a larger stage. With power comes responsibility. If there is any of that old Sean left—the one before the big office, the popular TV and radio show and best selling books—I appeal to that man. Understand the power of your words. I know that words of division are profit-making words for you. We human beings apparently love to see a good fight, or feel our views justified by a good argument. But I hope this incident will give you pause and help you begin to choose your words more wisely. I hope, in choosing future words, you’ll consider not what’s best for the Hannity bank account, but what’s best for humanity.
I long for the day when profitable words are words that uplift, encourage, and inspire people. The strength of this nation has always been our unity in diversity and our unity in the face of adversity. By using your words to create a world of “us” and “them” you only perpetuate violence and discord in our society. I am asking you, Sean, to examine yourself and your words. You don’t have to agree with liberals and their views, but you can oppose liberal ideas without painting those who hold those beliefs as enemies who need to be stopped or defeated. If conservative ideas are truly superior, then a compelling case can be made for them without resorting to the politics of personal destruction.
Sean, your words have the power to heal and the power to destroy. The choice is yours.
Founder of Motley Mystic and the Jubilee! Circle interfaith spiritual community In Columbia, S.C., Candace Chellew (she/her) is the author of Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians (Jossey-Bass, 2008). Founder and Editor Emeritus of Whosoever, she earned her masters of theological studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, was ordained by Gentle Spirit Christian Church in December 2003, and trained as a spiritual director through the Omega Point program of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta. She is also a musician and animal lover.