By Mike Appleton, Weekend Contributor
“All governments are theocracies. We now live in a secular humanist theocracy. I want to change that to a government with God at its head.”
-Gary DeMar (quoted in John Sugg, “A Nation Under God,” Mother Jones (December, 2005)
When I started first grade in 1951, each school day began with the Pledge of Allegiance. We recited “one nation, indivisible,” because people understood that fidelity to one’s country is not a religious virtue. The National Prayer Breakfast was not on anyone’s calendar because it didn’t exist. Politicians felt no compulsion to invoke God’s blessings on the United States at the conclusion of every speech. Protestants opposed every effort to secure public funding of Catholic parochial schools in order to preserve the “wall of separation” between church and state. The corner grocer didn’t care whether a customer was gay or had been born again. Textbooks were not reviewed by religious committees for conformity with the King James Version. No serious person had yet suggested that insentient, artificial commercial entities could magically channel the religious beliefs of their shareholders. And no one complained that a war was being waged against religion.
But following some of the events at this year’s Values Voter Summit, I have become nostalgic for 1951.
The Summit is the premiere annual political event for conservative Christian evangelicals, and making an appearance has become almost a required pilgrimage for Republican presidential candidates who desire the support of the religious right base of the party. Those in attendance this year heard many of the usual rants against same-sex marriage, abortion and the contraception mandate in the Affordable Care Act. However, those concerns did not top the priority list. Instead, a 39% plurality of those polled at the conference believe that the most important issue facing the country today is religious liberty.
So how is this possible? The past 30 years have seen an explosion in government support of religion. Millions of dollars in public funds are provided to a variety of so-called “faith-based” programs. Taxpayers support charter schools with decidedly sectarian curricula all across the country. A number of states provide tax credits to enable parents to send their children to religious schools. Religious institutions and, after Hobby Lobby, for-profit businesses as well, have been granted exemptions from compliance with portions of the ACA. This is in addition to the exemptions from anti-discrimination legislation which religious institutions already enjoy in their hiring and firing practices. Religious groups distribute bibles in public schools and operate after-school programs on school property to proselytize grammar school children. The Town of Greece decision now permits governments to schedule ceremonial prayer in accordance with local majoritarian religious preferences. Most rational people would agree that freedom of religion and religious expression are hardly at risk.
The comments of several of the event speakers may furnish us a clue. Kelly Shackelford of the Liberty Institute repeated the false story of the child disciplined for saying grace before eating her lunch. Michele Bachmann reminded the audience that the battle against Islamic terrorism is “spiritual warfare.” Gary Bauer accused President Obama of protecting Muslims while ignoring the persecution of Christians in the Middle East. Jason and David Benham, whose proposed television program on HGTV was cancelled after revelations of their virulently anti-gay activities, compared themselves to victims of ISIS, silenced for their Christian beliefs. And Sen. Ted Cruz, who for the second year in a row won the presidential straw poll, intoned “We need a president who will speak out for people of faith, for prisoners of conscience.” So for the attendees at the Values Voter Summit, there is indeed a war on Christianity. It is being waged by Muslims and by those who object to intolerance.
But the whole story is really darker. When members of the Christian right speak of freedom of religion, what they mean is freedom for a particular brand of conservative Christianity. Tony Perkins is the president of the Family Research Council, the principal sponsor of the annual Summit. He is neither a legal scholar nor a theologian, but that does not matter. In Mr. Perkins’ view, religious freedom does not apply to Islam. It also does not apply to Christians who support gay rights. In fact, religious liberty is reserved solely for those holding “orthodox religious viewpoints. It has to have a track record, it has to come forth from religious orthodoxy.” Mr. Perkins’ First Amendment does not compel government neutrality toward religion; it requires preferential treatment for those Christian sects whose doctrines adhere to Mr, Perkins’ notion of orthodoxy. He is a theocratic dominionist in religious liberty’s clothing.
And that, in a nutshell, is what the war on religion in America is all about. It is a war declared by Christian fundamentalists on all religious traditions deemed non-conforming. The goal is a society in which separation of church and state is eliminated and religious pluralism rejected as unbiblical. Ted Cruz is merely the latest last hope for the hapless.