Americans may finally be waking up to the Religious Right’s near stranglehold on our federal government.
For years, many Americans – even well-meaning people – dismissed the Religious Right as a “lunatic fringe” that would never gain real political power.
Americans United has for years worked to counteract that belief. We made note of the Religious Right’s attacks on public schools, its attempts to censor books in public libraries, its demands that public policy be made to conform to its narrow religious viewpoint and its attacks on science education, reproductive freedom and our private lives.
Too many people remained blissfully unaware. But now that may be changing.
The controversy over Terri Schiavo, the Florida woman in a persistent vegetative state whose husband had to fight the state of Florida, Congress and the Religious Right to remove her feeding tube, may mark a turning point.
Media coverage of the case was intense, and many Americans followed every twist and turn. They saw the Religious Right’s ham-fisted involvement in the case, and it shocked them.
Congress and President George W. Bush butted into a private family matter to appease the Religious Right. According to a CBS News poll, a staggering 82 percent of Americans disagreed with that action. Even self-identified evangelicals took issue with the intervention.
Another recent poll showed that by a 2-1 margin, 39 percent to 18 percent, Americans now say the Religious Right has too much influence over the Bush administration.
Partly as a result of this fiasco, Congress’s approval rating has dropped below 40 percent, and Bush’s is hovering in the mid 40s. Across the country, newspaper columnists, editorial writers and letter writers blasted the politicians and the Religious Right for their actions in the Schiavo matter. This time, the Religious Right has overreached.
Why has this particular issue resonated with the American people? One reason is that for many Americans it hits home. It’s all too easy to dismiss a fight over creationism five states away as someone else’s problem. It may not seem relevant to many.
But end-of-life issues are different. Most of us have known a family member or a friend who became terminally ill, through either old age or disease. Many Americans have had to make the type of decisions faced by Michael Schiavo.
And, in the back of our minds, all of us are aware that we could end up like Terri Schiavo, due to a car accident or the onset of sudden, unexpected illness.
If that happens, Americans are firm about one thing: They want to be able to make their own decisions about end-of-life matters, in consultation with their families and loved ones.
In that difficult hour, intervention by TV preachers, Religious Right zealots, vote-seeking congressmen and right-wing talk show blowhards is the last thing Americans want.
Yet that’s exactly what the Religious Right wants to give them – and not just on end-of-life issues but on a whole host of personal matters. Leaders of that movement want control over our most intimate and personal decisions.
Last month, a number of Religious Right organizations came together in Washington to talk about ways to control the judiciary. These groups are unhappy because courts continue to uphold separation of church and state, defend legal abortion and recognize gay rights. They were also furious because federal courts rejected Congress’s intervention in the Schiavo case.
During one panel, Michael Schwartz, chief of staff for U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) and a long-time Religious Right operative, attacked the Supreme Court for ruling in the 1990 case Cruzan v. Director, Missouri Dept. of Health, that mentally competent adults have the right to refuse medical treatment in cases of terminal illness. Schwartz said that legalizes suicide.
So, to the Religious Right, if you become terminally ill and lapse into a vegetative state, your wishes do not matter. It does not matter what you told your family or wrote down in an advanced directive. Your living will is irrelevant. If religious zealots decide that their interpretation of the Bible or dogma means you must be kept alive with machines and feeding tubes, then you will be kept alive by machines and feeding tubes – indefinitely.
Around the time of the conference, a number of newspapers ran stories about pharmacists refusing to fill prescriptions for birth control and “morning after” pills because they view such drugs as immoral. Some of these pharmacists were subsequently fired for refusing to do their jobs and are now in court being defended by, you guessed it, Religious Right legal groups.
These examples gave Americans an up-close look at how extreme the Religious Right has become. Americans do not like what they see. Unfazed, fundamentalist zealots now plot ways to neuter the federal courts so there will be no institution left to protect the people from their drive to convert this country into a theocracy.
The American people can no longer say they were not warned, they can no longer dismiss the threat. It has been made all too obvious.
Our task is also clear: We must keep the heat on the Religious Right and return this nation to its roots as a secular republic that respects religious and philosophical freedom for all, undergirded by the separation of church and state.