By: Jon Nelson
Since the Religious Right all but owns the Republican party, it should come as no surprise that they have been promoting fundamentalist Christianity at every opportunity, in the process marginalizing and attacking those who do not share their radical agenda. However, their agenda does not represent the interests of most Americans who, by and large reject their ideas for creating a Christian theocracy. This article will demonstrate how their agenda poses a grave threat to our country.
The Religious Right wing is determined to force its agenda on the American people, even though their ballot initiatives tend to be rejected. Vouchers are but one example of this trend. Even though vouchers have been rejected both by voters and by the courts, right-wing theocrats continue their efforts to force them on an unwilling populace. Since honest legal procedures generally haven’t worked for them, these zealots have changed their tactics and now employ more devious, and dishonest, means to sell their agenda to the American people. One of these involves the use and misuse of language. For example, since vouchers remain unpopular with the vast majority of Americans, voucher proponents rarely refer to them by that name. Nowadays, the strategy is to introduce vouchers using far more palatable titles, titles that seem innocuous but hide their theocratic nature. To cite but two examples, the “Freedom Enhancers” and the “Religious Freedom Amendment” sound on the surface to be things nobody could possibly oppose. What American could be opposed to freedom? However, appearances can be deceiving; the problem is much deeper, because a Christian fundamentalist’s idea of what freedom entails is radically different than what it means to most Americans. It is yet another example of the perversions of honesty that mark just about every type of legislation they introduce, and virtually everything else they say and do.
The Radical Religious Right (RRR), with countless millions of dollars in assets and hundreds of well-funded attorneys across the country, has for over thirty years been waging a relentless war on the separation of church and state which they rightly see as a threat to their theocratic agenda. One of their more successful tactics has been employing the word “freedom” as a legal phrase. To attorneys of the RRR, it simply means the right for fundamentalist Christians to impose their will on everyone else. To cite one example, according to this Orwellian version of freedom, a conservative Christian student’s “freedom” is threatened if he/she is forced to study human evolution in school. Right-wing lawyers have also tried to show how the “religious freedom” of right-wing churches is somehow threatened if other churches conduct same-sex marriages.
A recent example of this nonsense was seen in the “Burwell vs. Hobby Lobby stores” case in 2014, which has proven to be a huge victory for the Religious Right. Hobby Lobby is a craft store chain owned by a fundamentalist Christian named Steve Green. Green has organized his company based on his interpretation of biblical principles, one of which is the belief that the use of contraceptives is immoral. Thus, when the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACR) was passed, Hobby Lobby lawyers went to work. The ACR provides that employment-based group health care plans are required to provide various kinds of preventative health care to their employees, including methods of contraception. Exemptions exist for non-profit groups, but not for for-profit companies such as Hobby Lobby stores. Hobby Lobby thus went to court insisting that their religious “freedom” was threatened by being forced to provide contraceptives to its employees. Under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (there’s the word freedom again!) of 1993, the plaintiffs argued that the Free Exercise Clause was being violated. The right-wing activist judges on the Supreme Court agreed, under the blatantly absurd but widely held notion that corporations are “persons” and thus protected under the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. By ruling thusly, the court is saying that employees discriminated against by their fundamentalist bosses must seek contraceptive devices by their own means. These are the people whose freedom is being denied; they are beholden to their employers to receive governmental benefits which employees of other companies enjoy. The “freedom” of the employers is obviously not threatened in any way as they are free as individuals not to seek such devices.
These Christians cannot have it both ways; if they are accepting governmental largesse to be given to their employees, they cannot discriminate as to who receives the money. If they want to deny coverage to certain employees, then they should refuse the money. More to the point, it is not they who are being discriminated against; it is the employees who are suffering as a result of their employers’ actions based on backward religious convictions.
Emboldened by this success, Steve Green has launched a campaign to indoctrinate children in public schools with a new, fundamentalist curriculum that has as its foundation the claim that the Bible is literally true from cover to cover. And, in an all-too-familiar tactic, an Oklahoma school district withheld the curriculum’s approval from the pubic in a closed-door meeting with Green and his Green Scholars Initiative team. Fortunately, this had a negative backlash and when Americans United for Separation of Church and State threatened a lawsuit, the school board backed down. As Barry Lynn, AU’s executive director noted: “he (Green) has made it crystal clear that proselytizing—not education—is his goal.” (1)
There are multitudinous other examples of the Religious Right’s hijacking of the word “Freedom.” One well-known example was a bill introduced back in 1998. The so-called “Religious Freedom Amendment” introduced by Rep. Ernest Istook (popularly known as the “Istook Amendment”) would have promoted forced prayer in the public schools as well as guaranteeing taxpayer aid to religious organizations and institutions. It would also have permitted governmental displays of religious symbols. Fortunately, the amendment fell short of the mandatory two-thirds majority vote needed to pass. This of course did not discourage the Religious Right, which has introduced many similar measures under different names in subsequent years.
Jumping on the “freedom” bandwagon, the Alliance Defense Fund, formed in 1993 by a coalition of television and radio ministers, has since re-named itself the “Alliance Defending Freedom.” This extremely powerful and well-funded group, which has a number of Christian evangelical attorneys ever waiting and vigilant to take up the “cause” of freedom, took on a case in 2012 involving a student at Michigan University named Julea Ward. Ward, a fundamentalist Christian, was enrolled in a program to become a counselor, but claimed her “rights” were violated by the school’s policy which had the audacity to insist that its students be non-discriminatory. Ward, like most in the Christian Right, is homophobic and has stated that she will not counsel gays or lesbians. This is typical of the cases the RRR is clogging the courts with. Their aim is obvious: they want preferential treatment for right-wing fundamentalist causes—and they are hijacking the word “freedom” to impose their agenda on the rest of us.
Another example of the bastardization of the word “freedom” was seen in February 2013 when House bill 13-1089, known as the “Academic Freedom Act,” would have required (not allowed, mind you, but required) teachers at public schools and colleges to help students to examine the “scientific strengths and weaknesses of existing scientific theories.” As anyone remotely familiar with the Religious Right knows, this means yet another attack on evolution, the bedrock of modern biology. Even though the United States is now actively recruiting scientists from other countries due to the lack of qualified scientific Ph.D’s in this country, the Religious Right continues their assault against not only science, but common sense. And in the name of academic and religious freedom!
The RRR is also intent on Christianizing our armed forces, again under the guise of “religious freedom.” A 2014 bill (NDAA) passed the House of Representatives. This bill would allow chaplains to give sectarian prayers at military sponsored events in which attendance was mandatory. The bill also would give a certain parcel of land to the government near San Diego. This is controversial due to the Mt. Soledad Cross which sits on this land. When dedicated in 1954, it was claimed to be a “gleaming white symbol of Christianity.” The past twenty years have seen numerous lawsuits questioning the legality of this cross’s placement and, in yet another example of religious hypocrisy, defenders now claim that it is not a religious symbol at all (!) but instead a “war memorial.” One would think that a Christian would be offended by those calling the main symbol of their faith a “war memorial.” Yet they have no problem calling it this if it keeps the cross up.
Yet another example of the Right’s hijacking of the word freedom is seen in their ongoing attack against same-sex marriage. A 2014 bill was introduced designed to protect the “right” of individuals to discriminate against gays. The bill was entitled the Marriage and Religious Freedom Act. Although it failed to pass, the new Republican majority in Congress will surely be more receptive should it come up again.
The arguments the Right employs to defend its agenda are specious at best. The Hobby Lobby case is but one example of the spurious claim that businesses and owners have a “conscience” right that allows them to deny their workers access to birth control through the company insurance plans. To cite another example, Anthony Picarello, who is the general counsel for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, stated in 2012 that if he were the owner of a Taco Bell, he should be allowed to deny his employees access to contraceptives (2). Barry Lynn, of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, pointed out that, if this “conscience” notion were to succeed, “Americans will find their medical rights defined by what their bosses believe about religion (3).” Should the RRR succeed in their efforts, a Pentecostal minister who believes in faith healing would have the “freedom” to deny all medical coverage to his employees. And he would still be receiving governmental largesse to support his bigotry. In other words, what the RRR really wants is to be able to exercise as much control over everyone else as possible. While loudly proclaiming “religious freedom,” no one on the right has explained how an employee’s decision to use birth control affects the employer’s ability to worship and practice his religion. It is not simply a question of birth control; Gregory Lippus of Americans United notes that: “corporations with owners who object to blood transfusions, psychiatric treatment or even gelatin-covered pills would be able to micro-manage their employees’ medical care. Decades-old laws that protect employees, consumers, and tenants from religious-based discrimination would also be on thin ice if the plaintiffs prevail here (4).”
It should come as no surprise that many in the RRR have become quite wealthy because of this legalistic nonsense, for which taxpayers are forced to pay. For example, Jay Sekulow, who runs television evangelist Pat Robertson’s American Center for Law and Justice (yet another innocuously-named Religious right entity), has accumulated a huge fortune which nets him over half a million dollars annually. Sekulow, as an attorney, has found a way around the fact that non-profit executives are not supposed to receive huge salaries, by working as an “independent” contractor, so that his salary does not have to appear on financial disclosure forms. In addition, the ACLJ has bought him, tax free, three expensive homes. Clearly, there is quite a lot of money to be made in this business of turning the United States into a Christian theocracy.
Make no mistake about it; a theocracy is exactly what these extremists want. Some of the legislation they have introduced is so blatantly ridiculous (and downright scary) that it defies belief. For example, North Carolina in early 2013 introduced a House Joint Resolution 494 which proclaims that their legislators could make any laws they chose regarding religion, without regard to federal laws and the United States Constitution. It brazenly declares that “the North Carolina General Assembly does not recognize federal court rulings which prohibit and otherwise regulate the state of North Carolina.” In other words, they want to be able to nullify federal law and do what they want. What is this if not religious totalitarianism? It is obvious that certain people in North Carolina have still not learned the lessons of the Civil War.
“Taking back our country” has become another favorite rallying cry of the far right; rarely do liberals say anything like this. Perhaps they should. When people say they want to “take our country back,” there are numerous red flags that should go up. First of all, when someone says this, what they are assuming is that America was once a better place before certain changes came about. The RRR always looks back to the 1950s as a sort of “golden age” in America, before Vietnam, before women’s rights and gay rights, before the equal rights act, and so on. So what kind of country do these people want back? The one where blacks were forced to sit at the back of a bus and where lynchings against them were socially and morally acceptable? An America where gays and lesbians dared not disclose their sexual orientation due to fear of losing their jobs and perhaps their lives? A country where women did not work outside the home where they were beholden to the whims of their husbands?
Clearly, what the RRR wants is the right to discriminate against anyone they don’t like. There really isn’t any more to it than that. And they are succeeding at an alarming rate, as more and more right-wing judges and lawyers attempt to put their bigoted agendas on the law books. At this writing, there are twenty states that allow not only individuals but businesses to legally discriminate against anyone they choose. All these bigots need to do is to claim that treating others fairly “substantially burdens” their exercise of religion. In other words, twenty US states now have granted legal immunity to bigotry. If you belong to a religion they don’t like (meaning any but their own), you may legally be discriminated against. If you are gay, lesbian, transgender, or perceived to be one of these, you also may legally be discriminated against. The same applies to immigrants, blacks, hispanics, women, or anyone else the bigot chooses to dislike. Legally, the word freedom has come to mean something very different than it did in earlier times. The Supreme Court’s rulings have all but destroyed the Voting Rights Act. It has also made ludicrous anti-American rulings in cases such as Citizens United and Hobby Lobby. The word freedom, hijacked by the RRR, now only applies to bigots and corporations owned by bigots, and the only criteria necessary is that freedom is only to be granted to those practicing what is perceived to be the “correct” version of Christianity. Their “freedom” thus consists of depriving other people of theirs.
So when the RRR recites the Pledge of Allegiance, they might say “with liberty and justice for all,” but they certainly don’t mean it. What they should be saying is “with liberty and justice for all fundamentalist Christians.” That would be more honest, but honesty obviously has very little to do with the RRR; subterfuge and dishonesty are the orders of the day.
Where and when will all this end?
Despite what the Religious Right claims, religious freedom includes the right to be free from religious discrimination, and bosses must not have the “liberty” (meaning they must not discriminate) to deny their employees their rights. The totalitarian ideology of the RRR is a threat to every thinking American. The activities of the Religious Right are not merely rude, but downright un-American.
For atheists, real freedom is to be free from ignorance and superstition. We are free to think about anything with an open mind, free of preconceived dogmas handed down by our less-educated ancestors. To be intellectually free is a wonderful thing: it means being able to analyze and create. It means not being a slave to mindlessly evil dogmas that degrade human dignity and destroy lives. It means being able to enjoy one’s life in all its multifaceted complexities, without fear of endlessly wondering whether one’s thoughts and actions conform to the standards of people who wrote anti-rational belief systems thousands of years ago, all the while imagining themselves to be the “chosen” of the god they, in their hatred of life, so desperately want to believe in. True freedom is to not be an intellectual slave to backward thinking, but to enjoy the wonders of life and to grow as a person. Thus, real freedom is positive and exhilarating, something the devoutly religious will never experience. And that is truly sad.
Atheists are the real “pro-lifers.”
- Out of Gas in Mustang by Simon Brown. Church and State, January, 2015
- Conscience: Contraception and the Courts by Rob Boston. Church and State, February 2013, pg. 6
- Ibid, pg. 8
- People and Events. Church and State, May 2013, pg. 19