Reflections In The Media Mirror: Are Evangelicals Distorted?

Whether at the Family Research Council's "Justice Sunday" or in conservative news outlets, far-right evangelicals are complaining about attacks on them from the "liberal media." They complain that it is unfair to accuse them of wanting "theocracy" for America or to criticize their positions as extreme.

John McCandlish Phillips, a former reporter for The New York Times, took to The Washington Post's opinion page with this critique. He complains that what he reads about evangelicals like himself in the press distorts reality like a "ghastly arcade mirror." He takes umbrage at the accusation that he wants a theocracy for America. Instead, he argues, he is simply a member of a godly majority who is struggling to protect what they hold dear.

Phillips also makes a few other arguments about the views of the founders that are suspect, but his main contention is that evangelicals are just normal people who want to protect America the way it has always been.

But what America is Phillips talking about? Phillips is undoubtedly right that many evangelicals do not share the goals of the Religious Right. But when prominent Religious Right forces hold disproportionate sway over Congress and the White House, columnists and pundits are right to worry. TV preacher Pat Robertson, for example, recently remarked that Muslims and Hindus are unfit for government office, and a range of Religious Right activists have questioned the religiosity of politicians who take certain positions on the Senate filibuster of controversial Bush judgeship nominees.

Religious Right leaders from Robertson to Jerry Falwell to James Dobson often talk about America as a Christian nation. They are right insofar as America is largely populated by self-identified Christians, but it's clear to many of us that they mean something far more insidious than simple demographics.

When Religious Right leaders talk about our "Christian heritage," they are fashioning American history into a platform for their radical policies for today. As D. James Kennedy declared in 1997, "This is our land. This is our world. This is our heritage, and with God's help, we shall reclaim this nation for Jesus Christ."

House Majority Leader Tom DeLay has often spoken about imposing his "biblical worldview" through his work in Congress. He and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist have attended closed-door meetings with leaders of conservative Christian groups to create government policies, and the White House "faith-based" office has gone out of its way to reward churches for political loyalty. If this doesn't smack of theocracy, what does?

Perhaps evangelicals like Phillips who don't like being associated with these extreme perspectives should take positive action. Denounce Falwell, Robertson, Dobson, Kennedy and the rest of their gang and deny these Religious Right zealots the authority they get from viewers and supporters. Until moderate evangelicals convincingly repudiate the theocratic agenda, these extremists will continue to threaten American democracy and will continue to deserve criticism from Americans of all political and religious persuasions.

The history of Americans United for Separation of Church and State shows that persons of many religious and philosophical perspectives can work toward a common goal. Evangelicals, Jews, Catholics, Buddhists and atheists who understand that America is best when governed according to the principles enshrined in the First Amendment agree that what the Religious Right wants for America contradicts this legacy. To say so is not to insult to evangelicals, it is the truth.