The Religious Right’s Phony Wars


Empty pews

Why try to understand complicated things such as demographics for the decline of your faith when you can blame gays and liberals for waging a “war on religion?”

Among the Christian Right, and most Republican presidential candidates, it is now an article of faith that the United States is persecuting Christians and Christian-owned businesses – that religion itself is under attack.

Republican presidential candidate and Senator Ted Cruz, when questioned about President Barack Obama’s religion, said: “The president’s faith is between him and God.” This response came after a furor was created when a man at a New Hampshire political gathering described President Obama as a Muslim to GOP presidential front-runner Donald Trump, who seemed to agree with the man’s statement. Cruz might have been willing to leave Obama’s faith between the president and his Creator, but he did have something to say about the president’s policies – particularly when it comes to interfering with everyone else’s relationship with their Creator. Cruz continued, “His (Obama’s) policies and this administration’s animosity to religious liberty and, in fact, antagonism to Christians, has been one of the most troubling aspects of the Obama administration. We have seen a war on faith.”

Why has this bizarre myth (yes, myth is the correct word) that Christianity is under assault in the most religiously developed country on Earth been so successful? Because, in a way, it is true. American Christianity is in decline –not because of a “war on faith,” but because of a host of demographic and social trends. Gays and liberals are just scapegoats.

It is much easier to explain changes by referring to a single, malevolent cause than by having to understand a dozen complex demographic trends. Plus, if Christianity is declining because it is being attacked, then that decline could be reversed if the attack were successfully repelled. Unlike what is actually happening – a slow, seemingly irrevocable decline in American Christianity – the Christian Right’s argument that “religious liberty” is under assault mixes truth and fantasy to provide a simpler, and more palatable, explanation for believers.

The idea that Christians are being persecuted resonates with the church’s self-conception of Christian martyrdom that goes back almost to its beginnings. Even when the church controlled half the wealth in Europe, it styled itself as the flock of the poor and of the marginalized. Whether true or not as a matter of fact, it is absolutely true as a matter of myth. Christ himself was persecuted and even crucified, after all. So it is natural that Christianity losing ground in America would be seen by many Christians as the result of persecution.

But. Ah, there is always the “but.” But according to a Pew Research Report released last year, the percentage of the United States population that identifies itself as Christian has dropped from 78.4 percent in 2007 to 70.6 percent in 2014. Evangelical, mainline Protestant and even Roman Catholics have all declined during that period.

Meanwhile, thirty percent of Americans ages 18-29 list “none” as their religious affiliation (the figure for all ages is about twenty-three percent). Nearly forty percent of Americans who have married since 2010 report that they are in “religiously mixed” marriages, which means that many individuals who profess Christianity are in families where not everyone does.

The Pew Research Report also noted that Americans are also changing religions more than in the past, and when they do so, they are more likely to move away from Christianity than toward it.

So while changes in public morals regarding women and LGBT people (and how the law treats them) are part of the overall shift, they are only one part of an immensely complicated set of factors. But no one likes a “complicated set of factors” to explain why the world they grew up in, and the values they cherish, seem to be slipping away. Enter the culprit: the war on religion, and the persecution of Christianity.

Evidence for this persecution began with the “War on Christmas” – retail chains instructing employees that it was more inclusive to say “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.” This offense was countered with demands that we “keep Christ in Christmas” and to remember that “Jesus is the ONLY reason for the season.” (Never mind the fact that Jesus was not born in December, or that the holiday was originally about winter solstice, or a celebration of the Roman god Saturnalia. Facts are irrelevant here.)

Also never mind the thought that Jews, Buddhists, Pagans – and yes, even Atheists and Muslims – also shop during December and maybe are celebrating a different holiday. Or that they might appreciate being included in the festivities. NO. We must ALL be told Merry Christmas, gosh darn it!

According to some on the Christian Right, such as Bill O’Reilly and Donald Trump, the weird idea that there is a “War on Christmas” that is orchestrated by liberal elites with their Starbucks cups in hand, is, on its face, ridiculous, even if it widely held on the right. Shop clerks saying “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” are not causing the de-Christianization of Christmas. In reality, roughly half of Americans celebrate Christmas as a cultural, not a religious, holiday with Santa Claus, Rudolph and Christmas trees, not baby Jesus in a manger as the center of focus. And that is what businesses celebrate. It is capitalism, not a conspiracy.

It should go without saying that none of my pushback is to chase Christianity or Jesus’ birthday out of American life. Anyone who walks the streets of a city, major or small, during the month of December knows that there is no such threat. Whenever “angry atheists” seek to keep nativity scenes from being the exclusive religious display in state capitols during the holidays, they are standing up for the principle that the state does not, and should not, have the right to endorse one faith over the others. The United States was not founded as a Christian nation, no matter how many zealots wish it had been. Whenever a major chain like Macy’s opts to use “Happy Holidays” over “Merry Christmas,” it is merely making a business decision to be more inclusive, recognizing that many of its customers observe the season’s other holidays. However pointless or slight a gesture that is, any corporate decision based on the acknowledgement and acceptance of diversity in America is to my mind, objectively an admirable one.

We know that outrage is Donald Trump’s specialty, and he is not too proud to piggyback on other people’s outrage. Recently, “The Donald” told a group in Iowa, “When they don’t want to say ‘merry Christmas’ in department stores anymore. I won’t shop at places that don’t say ‘merry Christmas.’ Guess what? I don’t too much shopping,” he said to applause. “No, no, it’s true. When I see these stores, and they have a red wall and they have nothing on it. They don’t want to say ‘merry Christmas’ anymore. I say, ‘Why don’t you say merry Christmas?’” Trump has vowed to change the department-store situation when it comes to wishing people “merry Christmas.” “If I become president, we’re all going to be saying ‘Merry Christmas’ again, that I can tell you.” Good luck with that, Donald!

Yes, under “President” Trump, you will say “Merry Christmas” and you will like it. And one place you will not say “Merry Christmas” will be at the Starbucks in Trump Tower, because it will be gone. Maybe along with all the other Starbucks, because of the Red Cup Battle of the War on Christmas leading to a devastating, Trump-led boycott bringing down the entire company. And it will serve Starbucks right for taking the reindeer off of their coffee cups so that we can no longer drink caffè lattes and simultaneously commemorate how, in the Bible, Rudolph’s nose lit up the manger where Mary was giving birth to Jesus while Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner, and Blitzen went on a special mission to fly in the three wise men!

I do not mean to sound glib here, but remember Jesus never celebrated Christmas; he celebrated Hanukkah. Boycotting an establishment because they say “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” is just plain stupid. If someone says “Happy Holidays” to you, just say “Thank you.” You do not have to be a jerk.

There is no war on Christmas. There is no war on religion in this country; however, there is a war in Syria.

Christmas is not under attack. Religious faith is not under attack. There is no war to fight. The war over Christmas is not about preserving Christmas. It is about America…or what we think America should be. It is about preserving the Irving Berlin, “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas” kind of Christmas. When was the last time any Christmas soldier took the fight to Japan or Russia to ensure that Christmas was being properly acknowledged in those Christmas loving places? Never. Because this so-called “war” is not about Christmas. It is about American culture. Japan, by the way, loves Christmas, even though it is one of the least Christian nations on earth. But we do not seem to care about that.

The fact is, we are fighting the wrong fight. Christmas has ballooned to an American consumerist monstrosity that no army could kill, even if it wanted to. And Christians have bought into all of it – lock, stock, and barrel – while Jesus languishes in the background. The real Christmas is being killed, in the hearts and homes of every Christian who picks a fight over petty and meaningless traditions. Who really cares what graphics are on a Starbuck’s cup?

Unfortunately, even if the war on religion is imaginative, the “defense” against it is very real and very harmful. This year alone, seventeen states introduced legislation to protect “religious freedom” by exempting not only churches and religious organizations (including bogus ones set up to evade the law) from civil rights laws,  domestic violence laws, even the Hippocratic Oath, but also private individuals and for-profit businesses. Already, we have seen pediatricians turn children away because their parents are gay, and wife-abusers argue that it is their religious duty to beat their spouses, and most notoriously that multimillion-dollar corporations such as Hobby Lobby can have religious beliefs that permit them to refuse to provide health insurance to their employees on that basis. Hobby Lobby chief executive, David Green, and his wife, Barbara, applauded the court’s decision for reaffirming “what our family has always believed: that America is a country founded on and sustained by religious liberty.”

The sentiment was echoed by Republican lawmakers in Washington. “Today’s Supreme Court decision makes clear that the Obama administration cannot trample on the religious freedoms that Americans hold dear,” said Senator Mitch McConnell, the then minority leader. Texas Senator Ted Cruz called the decision a “landmark victory for religious liberty,” and hopes to see similar cases brought before more American judges in the future.

However, not everyone believes the ruling will prove a boon to religious communities. Jack Jenkins writes for ThinkProgress: “While conservatives would have the American public believe that protecting Hobby Lobby is about protecting all religious people, the reality is that today’s ruling actually hurts people of faith.” He cites a number of polls that identified substantial support for the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate among practicing Christians – majorities in almost every denomination in America, and a surprising forty percent among evangelicals, whom the law supposedly benefits most.

“Today’s pro-Hobby Lobby decision isn’t about protecting ‘religious liberty,’” Jenkins insists. “Instead, it’s just a victory for one kind of religion, specifically the (usually conservative) faith of those privileged enough to own and operate massive corporations. That might be good news for the wealthy private business owners like the heads of Hobby Lobby, but for millions of religious Americans sitting in the pews – not to mention thousands working in Hobby Lobby stores – their sacred and constitutional right to religious freedom just became compromised.”

Meanwhile, the “war on religion” narrative appears to be gaining ground. According to data from the Public Religion Research Institute, sixty-one percent of white evangelicals believe that religious liberty is being threatened today. (Only thirty-seven percent of non-white Christians believe this, suggesting that what is really happening is an erosion of white Christian domination and power; the “browning of America” goes hand in hand with the de-Christianizing of America.) The Religious Right believes that they have lost the culture war, and with their martyr complex, that even LGBY people should now pity them!

In other words, “religious liberty” is not merely a tactic: it is a sincerely held belief among the Religious Right, which, not coincidentally, feeds into the belief that we are living in the End Times (some call it The Rapture) – something an astonishing seventy-seven percent of American Evangelicals believe, including several of the Republican candidates seeking the Presidency.

We should not think of such people as being motivated by hate. Actually, they are motivated by something else – fear. It is a fear that is based in reality but expressed in fantasy. Christianity is, in a very real sense, losing the war – but the fighters on the other side are not gay activists or American Civil Liberties Union liberals, but rather the faceless social forces of secularization, urbanization, and diversification.



Dealing with Dangerous Theocratic Extremists

norman rockwell

The Four Freedoms: Freedom of Worship by Norman Rockwell, 1943

For almost a decade, the evangelical Protestant Christian Right and the American Roman Catholic bishops have forged a lasting alliance to carve out vast arenas of American life where religious institutions, individuals, and even businesses are free to discriminate, evade labor laws, and otherwise evade federal civil rights laws, all in the name of religious liberty.  Together these conservative forces seek to challenge not only a century or more of social advances, but also many of the premises of the Enlightenment that lie behind the very definition of religious liberty the Founders of this nation had in mind.

The goal of these forces is to impose a conservative Christian social order inspired by religious law.  When Christian Right leaders talk about religious liberty, they often really mean theocratic supremacism of their own religious beliefs inscribed in government. For me, that sounds like someone is flirting with theocratic ideas.

A key aspect of the religious right’s long-term strategy is to take the time-honored principle of religious exemption, intended to protect the individual right of conscience, and expanding it to apply to whole institutions, even for-profit businesses – as seen in the Supreme Court’s 2014 Hobby Lobby decision. This strategy is designed to fragment the common public sphere and to carve out vast segments of American life where civil rights, labor law and other core protections simply do not apply.

To achieve this goal, the Christian Right seeks to remove religious freedom as an integral part of religious pluralism and constitutional democracy, and redefine it in such a fashion as to justify discrimination by an ever wider array of “religified” (yes, that is a word) institutions and businesses. The Christian Right has sought to undermine and evade labor law by carefully building on the 2012 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.  The court ruled in that case that the religious duties of a teacher fired in a discriminatory way insulated the mainline church school from anti-discrimination laws under the longstanding exemption of clergy under the Civil Rights Act and opened the door to expanding the definition of “ministry,” so that many more employees can be exempted from the protections of the law.

The Christian Right is already actively engaged in doing this – via a tactic termed “religification” by which an organization rewrites mission statements, contracts, and job descriptions in an attempt to exempt institutions from the law in as many ways as possible.  All this will undoubtedly face further court tests, but “religification” is already happening. For instance, the Southern Baptist manual suggests assigning employees duties that involve ministerial, teaching, or other spiritual qualifications – duties that directly further the religious mission. In this regard, if a church receptionist answers the phone, the job description might detail how the receptionist is required to answer basic questions about the church’s faith, provide religious resources, or pray with callers. While the courts may not buy the idea that a receptionist can be reasonably construed as a minister in the legal sense, this is the kind of thinking that is permeating the conservative Christian world in the wake of Hosanna-Tabor.

What I see going on here is particularly perverse. The receptionist’s job ordinarily has nothing ministerial about it, and being protected by labor laws, for example, in no way constitutes a real dangerous anti-religious attack. But by seeking to “religify” itself, the church is effectively trying to roll back the rights of others – both secular employment law protections and their own religious freedom. After all, one could even be a good, believing Southern Baptist receptionist and still feel religiously oppressed by being forced to follow someone else’s bureaucratic religious script.

But a transformational moment in the contemporary Christian Right’s approach to religious freedom has pretty much flown under the radar. I am referring to the 2009 publication of the Manhattan Declaration:  A Call to Christian Conscience – a manifesto linking three interrelated themes: (1) freedom of religion, (2) sanctity of life, and (3) dignity of marriage.  The Declaration is the culmination of decades of theological and political development, in which conservative Roman Catholic and evangelical Protestant strategists (joined by the Mormon Church and Orthodox Christianity) has resulted in finding sufficient common theological and political ground to wage not only the short term battles of the culture wars, but also to envision a twenty-first century notion of Christian cultural conservatism – and a way to get there.  These actors in various combinations, and sometimes in alliance with elements of Orthodox Judaism, have been tactical partners over time.  This coalition is nonetheless a real achievement that crystallized a strategic direction deploying “religious freedom” to roll back advances in LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Questioning) rights and reproductive justice.

In spite of its authors’ hyperventilating claims to be staking out new historical ground, the 4,700 word Declaration essentially rehashes anti-gay and anti-abortion messages that have been heard from Religious Right leaders for decades. The document insists that opposing legal abortion and marriage equality for gay couples are the two most important moral issues facing the country and that advocates for choice and gay equality are out to destroy religious liberty in America.

This basic message, was written by Princeton University law professor Robert George, evangelical leader and admitted Watergate co-conspirator Charles “Chuck” Colson, and  Beeson Divinity School dean Timothy George, echoes speeches that have been heard again and again by the likes of James Dobson, Tony Perkins, and many of the other familiar Religious Right leaders who were among the original signers.

The Declaration seeks to unify, rally, and mobilize the Christian Right: “We are Christians who have joined together across historic lines of ecclesial differences to affirm our right – and, more importantly, to embrace our obligation – to speak and act in defense of these truths.  We pledge to each other, and to our fellow believers, that no power on earth, be it cultural or political, will intimidate us into silence or acquiescence.” [Emphasis is in the original.]

The document essentially defines religious freedom and declares in part: “Christians confess that God alone is Lord of the conscience.  Immunity from religious coercion is the cornerstone of an unconstrained conscience.  What is true for individuals applies to religious communities as well.”

This foundational idea expresses the rationale for religious exemptions from the law.  Although published in 2009, the Declaration anticipated having to respect the equality of LGBTQ people in, among other things, marriage and employment, and the broad development of anti-discrimination laws generally. The Declaration also foresaw further wrangling over the question of complicity in abortion via efforts to weaken or eliminate conscience clauses, and therefore to compel pro-life institutions (including religiously affiliated hospitals and clinics), and pro-life physicians, surgeons, nurses, and other health care professionals, to refer for abortions and, in certain cases, even to perform or participate in abortions.  We see it in the use of anti-discrimination statutes to force religious institutions, businesses, and service providers to comply with activities they judge to be deeply immoral or go out of business.

Albert Mohler, President of Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, explained that although he abhors Roman Catholic doctrine, “we are facing an inevitable and culture-determining decision on the three issues centrally identified in this statement.  I also believe that we will experience a significant loss of Christian churches, denominations, and institutions in this process.  There is every good reason to believe that the freedom to conduct Christian ministry according to Christian conviction is being subverted and denied before our eyes.”

One key message of the Declaration is that when conservative Christians are required to honor federal civil rights laws, profound opposition may be required. Invoking Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” the Declaration calls for resistance to the point of civil disobedience against any legislation that might implicate their churches or charities in abortion, embryo-destructive research or same-sex marriage. This promise of resistance has since been reiterated many times by top Christian Right leaders, such as Rick Warren, Pastor of Saddleback Church; Tony Perkins, President, Family Research Council; and Robert P. George, McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University.

George, a prominent Roman Catholic neo-conservative, originated the Declaration.  A key movement strategist, George played a key role in creating the “theoconservative” movement and integrating it into mainstream Republicanism. (Theoconservatives believe that America is rooted in an idea – and that idea is Christianity.) George is also the founder and guiding light of a number of related institutions that have adopted the Declaration’s themes, including the National Organization for Marriage, the Witherspoon Institute, the American Principles Project, and American Principles Action.

The three themes of the Declaration now frame the agendas of the major organizations of the Christian Right from the legal group Alliance Defending Freedom and CitizenLink (the political arm of James Dobson’s Focus on the Family) with its three dozen state affiliates, to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.  The formula promises to define their common platform for the foreseeable future.

Republican control is creating opportunities for its Christian Right base.  Seventy percent of state legislatures, more than sixty percent of governors, fifty-five percent of attorneys general and secretaries of state are in Republican hands. And, of course, Republicans control both chambers of the United States Congress. It is a trend that appears likely to increase.  The Christian Right’s electoral plans for 2016 have long been in evidence. Here is just one brief example.  David Lane of the American Renewal Project has been seeking to run 1,000 conservative Christian clergy for office at all levels in the next few years.  He claims to have held training conferences for clergy in how and why to mobilize their congregations for electoral impact. Such campaigns seek not just to win elections, but to engage conservative Christians as a self-identified electoral force of lasting consequence.

And it could lead to worse. The editors of the Los Angeles Times wrote these words concerning the Manhattan Declaration:Strong words, but also irresponsible and dangerous ones. The strange land described in this statement is one in which a sinister secularist government is determined to force Christians to betray their principles about abortion or the belief that ‘holy matrimony’ is ‘an institution ordained by God.’ The idea that same-sex civil marriage will undermine religious marriage is a canard Californians will remember from the campaign for Proposition 8, as is the declaration’s complaint that Christian leaders are being prevented from expressing their ‘religious and moral commitments to the sanctity of life and to the dignity of marriage as the conjugal union of husband and wife.’

“This apocalyptic argument for lawbreaking is disingenuous, but it is also dangerous. Did the Roman Catholic bishops who signed the manifesto consider how their endorsement of lawbreaking in a higher cause might embolden the antiabortion terrorists they claim to condemn? Did they stop to think that, by reserving the right to resist laws they don’t like, they forfeit the authority to intervene in the enactment of those laws, as they have done in the congressional debate over healthcare reform? They need to be reminded that this is a nation of laws, not of men – even holy men.”

Sadly, I fear that we are nearing a point where Christian extremists of all stripes will need to be confronted and forced to respect the civil laws, and the civil authorities must reject these efforts to destroy the separation of church and state. These people are lunatic extremists with whom no one can reason.

A Necessary Wall Worth Keeping


“Have you ever delved into the mysteries of Eastern religion?” one California weirdo asks another in the Gary Brookins and Susie MacNelly comic strip, Shoe. “Yes,” comes the reply. “I was once a Methodist in Philadelphia.”

For a long time that was about the extent of Americans’ exposure to the varieties of religious experience. As the scholar Diana Eck reminds us, for most of our history our religious discourse was dominated by a culturally conservative European heritage. Alternative visions of faith rarely reached the mainstream. That has changed markedly as we steam deeper into the twenty-first century. Almost eighty percent of Americans still identify themselves as Christians, but they are a far more motley lot than the mainstream media either understands or reports. Other faiths are now making their presence felt, and our religious landscape is being re-created right before our eyes.

In the eighteenth century, a rather novel idea was born. Being a product of the Enlightenment, the Bill of Rights – those ten amendments attached to our Constitution – provided that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”(First Amendment). And Article VI of the United States Constitution specifies that “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.”

The modern concept of a wholly secular government is sometimes credited to the writings of English philosopher John Locke, but the phrase “separation of church and state” in this context is generally traced to Thomas Jefferson’s reply on 1 January 1802, to the Danbury Baptist Association in Connecticut, who had congratulated Jefferson upon his election as president. In Jefferson’s reply is a phrase that is as familiar in today’s political and judicial circles as the lyrics of a hit song: “. . .I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.” (underlining mine for emphasis)

Throughout much of human history such an idea was all but unimaginable. Historically, religion has always been in the service of the state. In the Bible, Moses the political and tribal leader of Israel, appointed Aaron, his brother, to be the High Priest and second in command. To think of a separation of tribe from religion was not conceivable. The same was true in the history of the nation states of Europe. Almost without exception, there was in each nation an “established church.” A citizen was a Presbyterian in Scotland, an Anglican in England, a Roman Catholic in Southern Europe and Ireland, a Lutheran in northern Germany and Scandinavia and a member of Eastern Orthodoxy in Russia, Eastern Europe and Greece. Public money supported the ecclesiastical organizations and they did the will of the state. This close connection was symbolized by the fact that a cross was emblazoned on most of their flags. Look at the flags of Australia, Denmark, Finland, Greece, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom, to name just a few to see what I mean.

This connection does not suggest that the citizens of those lands were unified in either their religious convictions or in their political practices, but it does mean that their battles were fought inside the structure of a state-supported religious system. We see the remnants of this system still at work in the political structures of the United States today.

In our current presidential nominating process, for example, the candidates regularly appeal to the religious sensibilities of the people. “God bless America” ends almost every presidential speech these days. “God bless America” and its derivatives did not regularly enter the presidential lexicon until 30 April 1973, when President Richard Nixon used it in the midst of the Watergate scandal. While that was the beginning, it was not until President Ronald Reagan regularly began using it that the term really caught on. Ever since, it has been a standard remark made in the conclusion of many official presidential speeches. “God bless America,” I believe, has lost its meaning over the years and has been treated by presidents as a way to satisfy the appetites of those in the public and press corps who want assurance that this person, this president, is a real, God-fearing American.

Further, Republican front-runner and billionaire business mogul, Donald Trump, in trying to show his familiarity with religious symbols, described his participation in the service of Holy Communion this way: “I eat the little cracker and I sip the wine.” It was a good try, but it revealed just how foreign the Eucharist really is to “the Donald.” Lately, Trump has been appearing at rallies brandishing a Bible, calling the Bible his favorite book and superior to his own book, The Art of the Deal. Others on the campaign trail quote the Bible frequently, though not always intelligently. For instance, another presidential candidate, Dr. Ben Carson, recently suggested, to the amazement of Egyptologists that the Egyptian pyramids were not built as burial places for the Pharaohs, but as huge granaries that the patriarch Joseph used to store the grain gathered during the seven years of plenty so that he could feed the people during the seven years of famine, referring to a story in the book of Genesis (Genesis 42). In any Bible examination, Dr. Carson would receive a big fat “F.”

A much more abhorrent use of the Bible was employed recently in Iowa at something misnamed as “The National Religious Liberties Conference,” hosted by fundamentalist preacher, Kevin Swanson. Swanson has long promoted the idea that government should impose biblical law in order to get on the right side of God but, like his fellow Christian Reconstructionists, he also believes that conservatives like himself must change the culture first before the government can begin imposing Old Testament laws such as the death penalty for homosexuality. Three presidential candidates were on the program: Governor Mike Huckabee, Governor Bobby Jindal and Senator Ted Cruz. (What in the world were they doing there?) The host quoted the Bible to prove that God wanted this nation to “arrest and put to death all homosexual persons.” He qualified this call for murder only by saying that these homosexual persons should be given a chance to repent of their sins as a possible reprieve from execution. His text was Leviticus 20:13 – If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death, their blood is upon them.” The boundary between religion and politics, between church and state has always been fuzzy. The fact is, this boundary has regularly been violated.

The people appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate to serve on the Supreme Court, whose task it is to interpret the Constitution, have historically been people of faith and religious convictions. In time, there grew up a tradition, not a law, that one seat on the Court was designated as “the Jewish seat” to which only a Jew could be appointed. There was also an earlier tradition that one seat was thought of as “the Catholic seat.” When Justice Francis “Frank” Murphy, a Roman Catholic, retired in 1949, President Harry S. Truman declined to accept the claim of a “Catholic seat” on the Court, and the period 1949-1956 marked the only time since 1894 that no Roman Catholic served on the country’s highest court. Truman named Tom C. Clark, a Presbyterian whose chief importance lies in the fact that in the 1960s he redefined religion in the broadest possible way: “a sincere and meaningful belief which occupies in the life of its possessor a place parallel to that filled by God in the lives of others.” Although some people thought religion had to emanate “from a superior source,” Clark held that such was not a tenable principle under the Constitution. But in 1956 President Dwight D. Eisenhower was persuaded that a Roman Catholic should be appointed, and a search produced the name of William J. Brennan, a justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court. Cardinal Francis Spellman of New York was consulted and confirmed that Brennan was indeed a practicing Roman Catholic. But an acquaintance said of Brennan, “Those who knew him realized that, although he was a decent person and God-fearing, he was not a zealously religious man. He was Catholic with a small ‘c.’” Eisenhower’s wish to please Roman Catholics by naming one of their own to the Court led, ironically, to the appointment of a man who would use his power to undermine Roman Catholic interests at every point.

It is interesting to note that the current Supreme Court is made up of six Roman Catholics and three Jews. For the first time in American history, no Protestant Christian sits on that bench. How times have changed. Three of the Roman Catholics – Justices Scalia, Thomas and Alito – are identified with the most conservative aspects of Roman Catholicism. Two others, Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Kennedy, are identified as more moderate Roman Catholics, while the sixth, Justice Sotomayor, is clearly in the liberal wing of her church. Does the religious affiliation of the justices affect their vote? Can church and state ever be completely separated?

We have many 5-4 conservative victory decisions from the Court. The conservative majority is made up of five of the Roman Catholic justices. The liberal block of four includes the three Jewish Justices – Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan – and the one liberal Roman Catholic, Justice Sonia Sotomayor. On some votes, however, there is a defection from the conservative Roman Catholic side to the liberal side. Chief Justice Roberts, for example, joined the four liberals to uphold the crucial key provision of the Affordable Health Care Act. Justice Anthony Kennedy joined the liberal foursome to make marriage equality a human right for all citizens. So there does appear to be some religious influences in politics for all sides, which means that the lines separating church and state are not always clear. It also means that the partnership between organized religion and political power has from time to time been used to violate the rights of American citizens, making the constitutional requirement for separation of church and state a necessity.

The issues between church and state are always fuzzy, always subject to the tides of one’s conscience. Separation of the two will always be a struggle, but that struggle must always be engaged. If we do not engage in the struggle, I fear we stand a good chance that a theocracy will be established, especially if some of the Republican candidates such as Ted Cruz and Rick Santorum have their way. So this radical enlightenment-born concept of the separation of church and state will always require constant attention. That is why those of us who see the necessity of the separation of church and state must always stay strong, vigilant and alert. Call me an alarmist, but our freedom, perhaps even the survival of some of our fellow citizens, especially those who are not Christian, will be at risk if the separation is not both firm and effective. This is a necessary wall worth keeping.

Undeserved Privilege

trump and carson

It is said that rank has its privileges. Well, in this election cycle, it seems that religion has its privileges as well. And, as a religious person myself, I do not like it.

What I mean by religious privilege is the presumption that being a member of a Judeo-Christian faith is seen as better than having no religion or as being a non-believer. The results of this presumption are predictable: Non-believers cannot run for office as openly secular, which skews public policy on issues such as women’s reproductive rights or whether evolution is taught in school. It seems to me that politicians are competing with one another to broadcast their pious, hypocritical righteousness and their unwarranted attitude of moral or social superiority and when I hear some of the things that come out of the mouths of the current crop of presidential candidates – particularly Republican candidates – I simply want to gag.

Many of the GOP presidential candidates have made explicit or implicit claims that their Christian faith makes them better people and more qualified to be president. So, right from their own mouths, here are some of the things I have recently heard.

Speaking in Iowa at the Caucus Candidate Forum Series, former technology executive and CEO of Hewlett-Packard, Carly Fiorina, discussed the importance of her faith while insulting atheists, agnostics, and other freethinkers. Fiorina said: “I think people of genuine faith, whatever their faith is – I’m a Christian – but people of genuine faith, I believe, make better leaders. And I don’t say that with disrespect to anyone, but I’ll tell you specifically what I think faith gives a leader. I believe faith gives us empathy. A person of faith knows that no one of us is any better than any other one of us. Each of us are [sic] created by God. And that empathy permits us to see in someone’s circumstance possibilities. Faith gives us humility. Humility is really important in a leader, because it is humility that causes a leader to say, ‘Sometimes I must be restrained. Sometimes this is not something I should do. Sometimes this is something I don’t know. Sometimes I need to seek wisdom and counsel of others, perhaps, for example, the citizens of this great nation…’And finally, I of others,” perhaps, for example, the citizens of this great nation…And finally, I think faith gives us optimism. And you cannot lead effectively think faith gives us optimism. And you cannot lead effectively – which, in the end, leadership is about unlocking potential in others – you cannot lead unless you know that people will rise to the occasion. That there is a brighter future in front of us if we do the right things.”

When Fiorina says “I don’t say that with disrespect to anyone,” she is being dishonest. It is, of course, disrespectful to people without religious faith to claim that people with religious faith make better leaders.

Fiorina’s statement implies that people without religious faith are inferior to people with faith, and goes on to imply that people without faith lack empathy, humility and optimism. Such claims are obnoxious, and without substance. I wonder if she thinks atheists do not have those qualities or as much of them? Moreover, there are countless examples of deeply religious people doing horrendous things in the name of their faith. Their religion did not give them humility or empathy or optimism – maybe just the opposite. Indeed, one could easily make an argument claiming that religious faith makes one less empathetic, less humble, and less optimistic. In fact, religious faith can be a dangerous deception, and human history is replete with examples of people doing monstrous things, all in the name of some god that does not exist.

Senator Ted Cruz, appearing at the National Religious Liberties Conference in Iowa, predictably asserted that fear of God is absolutely vital, declaring that “any president who doesn’t begin every day on his knees isn’t fit to be commander-in-chief of this nation.” Really? On what does he base that statement? I can think of several of our presidents who would not agree.

A variation on that theme came from  “The Donald” himself, who showed up at last year’s annual Values Voter Summit waving a Bible (his favorite book, so he claims) that he said his grandmother gave him as a boy, pointing to his name and childhood address written inside.

The real estate tycoon and reality TV star told the conservative Christian audience that he was concerned about the erosion of religious liberty in American life. “The word Christmas, I love Christmas,” Trump said. “You go to stores; you don’t see the word ‘Christmas.’ It says ‘happy holidays’ all over. I say, where’s Christmas? I tell my wife, don’t go to those stores,” he continued, as the crowd began cheering. “I want to see Christmas. You know, other people can have their holidays, but Christmas is Christmas. I want to see ‘Merry Christmas.’ Remember the expression, ‘Merry Christmas?’ You don’t see it anymore. You’re going to see it if I get elected, I can tell you that right now.” Trump did not explain how he would, as president, compel business owners to promote Christian expressions, but in his alternate universe such things will happen just because he says so.

Of course, when it comes to the holiday season, Donald Trump is duplicitous and wants to have all of his bases covered. For instance, the Christmas card the 2016 front-runner mailed to supporters used the exact “politically correct” language he has consistently railed against on the campaign trail. The bombastic billionaire’s garland-tinged card reads, “Merry Christmas & Happy Holidays. We are, together, going to make America Great Again! I Love You All, Donald J. Trump.”

Republican presidential hopeful, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee urged Christian conservatives to vote so that those who “refuse to hear God’s heart” can be replaced by the faithful. Speaking at the 2014 Values Voter Summit, Huckabee said: “Some of you are frustrated and even upset and angry about America, and I get it. And I say to you, the answer is as simple as it is that the answer to the phones in our hearts that God is ringing. When we register people to vote, when we get them to the polls to vote, when we hire the people that will take our values to this city, and when we fire the ones who refuse to hear not only our hearts, but God’s heart.”

The suggestion that federal employees who “refuse to hear God’s heart” should be replaced by those that do “hear God’s heart” is deeply disturbing to me, and contrary to the secular values upon which this nation was founded. Indeed, the United States Constitution stipulates that no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust. And Huckabee knows that! Angry about marriage equality for gays and lesbians, Huckabee said that the Supreme Court and judicial system do not have any more authority and power than the legislative and the executive branches of government: “This nonsense that has happened where individual judges around the country have decided that they can upend the duly passed laws and constitutional limits in states that affirm natural marriage – we need to say no: judges don’t get to legislate.” Huckabee concluded his speech by saying: “That’s how we change America, my friend. Let’s make this a nation once again that unapologetically bows its knee before a holy God.” Huckabee’s “good ol’ boy” manner masks a dangerous yearning for an America that never was, and hopefully never will be – a Christian theocracy built on ignorance and religious superstition.

Republican presidential candidate Senator Marco Rubio said in an interview that “God’s rules” always win when in conflict with decisions handed down by the Supreme Court. Speaking about Obergefell v. Hodges, the Supreme Court’s same-sex marriage ruling handed down last year, Rubio told Christian Broadcasting Network host David Brody that the decision is merely “current law” as opposed to “settled law.” “No law is settled,” Rubio said. “Roe v. Wade is current law, but it doesn’t mean that we don’t continue to aspire to fix it, because we think it’s wrong.” Those who are faithful to their religion should do “everything within the law” to “fix” the laws that do not align with their religious conscience. Rubio further said: “If you live in a society where the government creates an avenue and a way for you to peacefully change the law, then you’re called to participate in that process to try to change it. But when following God’s rules comes into conflict with following the laws of the nation, God’s rules always win. In essence, if we are ever ordered by a government authority to personally violate and sin – violate God’s law and sin – if we’re ordered to stop preaching the Gospel, if we’re ordered to perform a same-sex marriage as someone presiding over it, we are called to ignore that,” Rubio declared. “We cannot abide by that because government is compelling us to sin.”

Rubio, went on to tell Brody that he continues to dissent against the Obergefell decision. “I continue to believe that marriage law should be between one man and one woman.” Rubio concluded, “And that the proper place for that to be defined is at the state level, where marriage has always been regulated – not by the Supreme Court and not by the federal government.”

And Seventh Day Adventist and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson subscribes to a literal six-day creation of Earth and suggests Darwin’s theory of evolution was inspired by Satan “to make people believe there was no God,” questioned the motivation behind Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, and likened the big bang theory to “fairy tales.” Carson talks about his religious beliefs regularly on the campaign trail.

I could go on, but frankly, I am one of those religious people who does not like all this God talk and find it less than helpful in our political discourse of the issues.

I suspect that there are people such as atheists and others who either do not believe in the supernatural or who simply do not subscribe to any religious dogma who feel the same way. The presumption that being religious translates into good, moral character or makes one a better leader or more presidential has an insidious subtext: Those who think otherwise are less American.

This is borne out in opinion polls. Forty percent of Americans say they would not vote for an otherwise qualified candidate for president if he were an atheist. Only socialists poll worse. (Bernie Sanders must be the exception and I suspect that atheism and socialism are unfairly conflated as a holdover from those good old “godless, Communist” days of the former Soviet Union.)

Think about what this means. People who say the Earth is six thousand years old can be elected president, while those who say they reject the supernatural and subscribe to an evidence-based view of the natural world cannot.

Openly secular people are precluded from the public policy table for no valid reason and to the detriment of rational debate on issues such as sex education, access to birth control, abortion, gay rights, faith-based initiatives, private school vouchers, whether creationism should be taught in science classrooms, climate change, and appropriate science funding.

Not a single member of Congress will call himself an atheist. Not a single one. Here again is religious privilege at play – when politicians shorthand their way to being perceived as good, trustworthy and moral by wrapping themselves in religion and piety. If the media simply pushed back, just a little, this undeserved privilege could be dispelled.

According to a recent Pew Research Report, the percentage of the United States population that identifies itself as Christian has dropped from 78.4 percent in 2007 to 70.6 percent in 2014. Evangelical, Roman Catholic, and mainline Protestant affiliations have all declined.

Meanwhile, 30 percent of Americans, ranging in ages 18-29, list “none” as their religious affiliation (the figure for all ages is about 23 percent). Nearly 40 percent of Americans who have married since 2010 report that they are in “religiously mixed” marriages, which means that many individuals who profess Christianity are in families where not everyone does.

These changes are taking place for a multiplicity of reasons: greater secular education (college degrees), multiculturalism, shifting social mores, celebrity culture, the sexual revolution (including feminism and LGBT equality), legal and constitutional changes (such as the banning of prayer in public school, and the finding of a constitutional right to same-sex marriage), the breakdown of the nuclear family, the decline of certain forms of family and group identification, and the association of religion in general with nonsensical and outdated dogmas. The Pew Report also noted that Americans are also changing religions more than in the past, and when they do so, they are more likely to move away from Christianity than toward it.

So while changes in public morals regarding women and LGBT people (and how the law treats them) are part of the overall shift, they are only one part of an immensely complicated set of factors – and I am quite certain that I have left out some of the most important ones.

The nonreligious are the fastest growing group in America, representing 22 percent of American adults and fully a third of millennials. A significant subset of that group will tell pollsters that they are either atheist or agnostic. And yet politicians – particularly Republicans – have no problem relegating them to “the other” status.

When sanctimonious piety is praised as an encompassing term to suggest positive humanist values and characteristics, it is a false equivalency and a damaging one for the millions and millions of Americans who are good without God – Fiorina, Cruz, Huckabee, Rubio, Carson, and company notwithstanding.