If we understand rules to be moral norms and customs for civil discourse then there certainly ought to be rules for labeling hate groups. We do not, however, need special legal rules to determine the status of various institutions akin to what has been done to classify "hate crimes." This does not mean that we do not need some element of consensus for what passes as legitimate and illegitimate activism and speech. Many have criticized the Southern Poverty Law Center for putting the Family Research Council on a list with groups like the Ku Klux Klan, and indeed, there is much that is worth criticizing in this particular case. But what we don't need is some legal authority to act as a "Good Housekeeping" seal of approval on what and what does meet the criteria for legitimacy. When the SPLC makes up a list, its own institutional integrity (or lack thereof) determines the effectiveness of its labeling this or that group as hateful. If groups that have taken it upon themselves to make such determinations cannot tell the difference between activism on behalf of the biblical definition of marriage and the incitement of hatred and violence towards others, then their own institutional credibility suffers.
Any time authority is exercised over something it is worth asking the ancient question, "Who watches the watchmen?" In this case, we might ask who evaluates the evaluators of hate groups. The answer, in the end, must rest with each one of us. We cannot simply rely on groups like SPLC, the ACLU, GLAAD, or any other group or agency for determining the rules for what passes for responsible civil discourse. My colleague Joe Carter has written that once Christians have "accepted the premise that FRC and others are hateful bigots, they have to accept the logical conclusions that all Christians who hold the biblical view about homosexual conduct are also bigots." This is why it is so important for everyone, and Christians in particular, to exercise great prudence in evaluating the claims of advocacy groups. The failure to do this is one of the reasons the great nineteenth-century social observer Alexis de Tocqueville warned that, "In the United States, the majority undertakes to supply a multitude of ready-made opinions for the use of individuals, who are thus relieved from the necessity of forming opinions of their own."
The freedom of speech and association are among the hallmarks of American democracy, and these liberties are essential for social flourishing. This goes for speech that is unpopular or challenging of the status quo as well as for that which reinforces mainstream cultural mores. This reality is going to become more significant for the church, as questions of religious liberty and free speech coalesce around social issues like abortion and same-sex unions. Tocqueville also noted a trend in American society to allow for contentious speech as long as the majority remained in doubt on the issue. "As long as the majority is still undecided, discussion is carried on," wrote Tocqueville, "but as soon as its decision is irrevocably pronounced, a submissive silence is observed, and the friends, as well as the opponents, of the measure unite in assenting to its propriety." This is a form of tyranny that we must be wary of, because it tyrannizes not merely material property but also thought and opinion.