Second Thought: Wednesday, June 08, 2005
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
RightSpeak

Religious radicals are trying to twist “free speech” to mean “no opposition.”

By JIMMY FOWLER

In a recent Washington Post editorial, Family Research Council president Tony Perkins wrote about the fractious debate over the U.S. Senate vote on the president’s hard-right judicial nominees. He took the opportunity to portray Democratic opposition not just as religious intolerance but as a veritable moratorium on government participation by conservative believers. “Left unchecked, the climate of intimidation against religious voices will empty the public square of many of its most-needed voices,” Perkins wrote. “Our children, and our children’s children, must never be asked to choose between publicly acknowledging their faith by teaching a Sunday school or catechism class and serving in high office.”
My question is: Since when did disagreeing with a politician’s religious beliefs equal creating a “climate of intimidation against religious voices”?
The policy debates between right-wing Christians and those who oppose them have effectively been rigged in a mainstream media that is demonstrably fearful of appearing hostile to religious conservatives. The terms have been stacked this way: Challenging the political stands made by the religious right has become synonymous with challenging their right to free religious exercise. Phrased from their point of view, it reads: Blocking our political views from becoming law means infringing on our Constitutional religious rights. Focus on the Family’s James Dobson, also discussing the Senate fight over Bush’s federal judicial appointments, put it with great Manichean fervor when he declared that if the Democrats win, “the things that we believe in are gone.”
This is pure mob-inciting bullshit —if Priscilla Owen had been denied a federal bench, or in the unlikely event that Janice Rogers Brown isn’t confirmed, the religious right would survive to fight more battles in the country’s culture war. And yet it’s become apparent that Christian conservative leaders hold the same deep paranoia and sense of entitlement that they attempt to cultivate with their public statements. Ever since the press declared fundamentalists as the vital swing vote last November (a bit of conventional wisdom still as debatable as the definition of the phrase “values voters”), Dobson and Perkins and their ilk have behaved like spoiled trust-fund babies who believe they are entitled to the whole of U.S. domestic policy — unchallenged. They’ve repeatedly threatened moderate Republican members of Congress (RINOs, or “Republicans In Name Only,” as religious conservatives call them) with defeat in 2006 unless they toe the line on anti-abortion judges, Congressional intrusions into family disputes over powers of medical attorney, and an anti-gay Constitutional amendment. Democrats in particular and progressives in general are portrayed as stampeding secularists who effectively want to outlaw the practice of Christianity, when in fact they are fairly objecting to the enshrinement of Christian conservative values as public laws for the entire land.
A recent Harper’s piece on Colorado Springs, the American capital of right-wing Christian activism, used a helpful though hardly new label for the movement: dominionism. Dominionists don’t just reserve the right to believe and live as though the Bible was the inerrant word of God in their own lives — a right the Constitution protects and no critic has challenged. They take it as a holy mission to create their own version of God’s kingdom in America, primarily through grassroots activism in the Republican Party. The problem isn’t so much that they want to collapse the wall that separates church and state; rather, such a wall to them is an artificial construct that the founders never intended as the legacy for “a Christian nation.” This is not just a question of the left-right pendulum being nudged one way or another. Rather, the issue is two dramatically conflicting versions of what America was designed to become. Realizing this, it’s not surprising that dominionists have no concept of politics as “the art of the possible” or the messy, inherently frustrating business of compromise. For them, defeat in the legislature, the judiciary, and at the ballot equals refutation of their very religious identities.
Liberals and concerned moderates should not be cowed into a bogus deference, as if working to defeat the dominionists is somehow trampling on the Bill of Rights. Contrary to their public image as contemptuous humanists, Democratic politicians tend to be queasy about aggressive criticism of religious beliefs, perhaps because of those Protestant suspicions about whether JFK would obey the pope or the American electorate back in 1960. Sadly, respecting an individual’s personal spiritual beliefs has become a luxury in an era of righteous right-wing rhetoric when “personal” no longer means “private.” It’s time that lefties, especially progressive Christians, stopped confusing freedom of religion with freedom from challenge — the spurious “right” that religious conservatives are demanding, on confused Constitutional grounds.
(And in fact, their religious dogma may be as mixed up as their Constitutional theory. John Shelby Spong, the former Episcopal bishop who’s been a glorious thorn in the sides of dominionists for years, has a hot new book out called Sins of the Scriptures that explains the archaic and absurd biblical sources that right-wing Catholics and Southern Baptists, among other groups, cite for their social politics.)
The religious right is correct when it points out, as an argument for mixing politics and religion, that certain liberal stands — say, against the death penalty and for government programs that ameliorate poverty — have historically been infused with the fiery support of churches and religious leaders. Yet rarely, if at all, have spiritual lefties whined that their religious rights were impeded when conservative opposition popped up. The rule for everyone is: Policies that are alleged to be divinely inspired should enjoy no special protection or consideration during debate in the public arena. When my God disagrees with your God, let’s call the whole God thing off and determine the public merits of the issue.
John Kerry declared a version of this in the 2004 campaign when he said that, as a practicing Catholic, he had no right to legislate Catholic beliefs on a nation full of non-Catholics. In a predictable bit of spin, the religious right labeled him a hypocrite. That kind of “hypocrisy” is something we desperately need more of today.
Jimmy Fowler is a Dallas freelance writer.


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