The Religious Right’s much-heralded complaints of a “war on Christmas” last year attracted so much media attention that leading far-right fundamentalists have decided to milk it all year long. Claims of a “war on Christmas” have now evolved into gripes about a “war on Christians.”
A leading practitioner of this sleight of hand is the Rev. Rick Scarborough. This aspiring Texas preacher, who left his Southern Baptist pulpit in Pearland under a cloud of controversy, seems determined to out-Falwell Jerry Falwell.
Scarborough held a conference in March in Washington, D.C., to complain about alleged hostility toward Christians. Many inflammatory charges were made. (See “Fright Plan.”)
In the great tradition of extreme Religious Right leaders, Scarborough relies on shrill rhetoric and half-truths to make his case. His latest book, Liberalism Kills Kids, is typical of the genre: a slapdash compendium of wild tales and outrageous allegations that would persuade only the gullible.
Scarborough insists the war is real. But there is one slight problem: None of the soldiers fighting it have actually shown up.
A rational examination of the facts debunks Scarborough’s over-the-top claims. The American public is not interested in fighting a war on Christianity. Polling data consistently shows that about 80 percent of the population identifies with Christian denominations. About half of the population says they attend religious services regularly.
Most Americans freely profess religious beliefs. A 2004 poll by Fox News Channel found that 92 percent of Americans said they believe in God. Eighty-two percent said they believe in miracles, and 85 percent backed the existence of Heaven.
Far from being persecuted in America, religious groups enjoy a grand measure of freedom. Many of them are quite prosperous. TV preachers and evangelical mega-churches haul in millions in tax-free donations every year. Many politicians are eager to curry favor with religious leaders.
Religious groups are generally well thought of. Members of the clergy are respected and enjoy great prestige. Although religious leaders cannot legally use church resources to promote candidates for public office, they have great latitude to address political and social issues.
So what exactly is the problem? To hear Scarborough and those of his ilk tell it, an aggressive “cultural elite” is bound and determined to drive religion from the public square.
Does this movement actually exist? Hardly. It’s yet another Religious Right phantom, a conspiracy theory dredged up to separate the faithful from their cash and drive them to the polls on behalf of favored candidates.
The fact is, many Americans, religious and non-religious, support the separation of church and state. They do so because they see it as the guarantor of religious and philosophical freedom for all – and this bothers the Religious Right.
When Religious Right leaders talk about “persecution” or “a war against Christians,” what they really mean is that many Americans – plenty of whom are Christians – reject the far right’s theocratic vision for America.
Emboldened by recent electoral victories, Religious Right groups arrogantly proclaim the right to meddle in the most personal and intimate matters of our lives. They want the power to run our lives from the moment of conception until “natural death” – and they want to determine when the latter will be.
They seek to replace science with fundamentalist creationism in public schools. They want their prayers and narrow understanding of Christianity to pervade government and the education system. They want the power to determine what books we can read, and what plays and films we can enjoy. They seem obsessed with some adults’ sex lives.
Increasing numbers of Americans are rising up against this oppressive agenda. Some are religious, some are not – but they share a common vision of a society that respects religious pluralism and philosophical diversity. They seek a country that welcomes all faiths but establishes none.
This vision contrasts sharply with the goals of the Religious Right. TV preachers and their followers insist there is only one correct way to worship – theirs. They would take a narrow and cramped interpretation of the Bible and use it as a platform for modern governance. These groups deny they want a theocracy, but their agenda, if implemented, would be for all intents and purposes just that: a state that kowtows constantly to sectarian interests and bases public policy on the whims of people like Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and James Dobson.
Many advocates of church-state separation dislike the militaristic metaphors of the Religious Right. There is no “war” against Christians. What does exist is serious opposition to the vision of the Religious Right. Simply put, many people do not want to live in the type of nation craved by Falwell, Robertson, Dobson, et al. They oppose it by supporting the separation of church and state.
To be sure, there is a cultural divide in America. A significant majority of Americans take their marching orders from TV preachers and radio ranters with an unhealthy obsession over homosexuality and women’s right to control their own bodies. These folks have a burning desire to employ the power of the government to force their religion onto everyone else.
But these efforts are controversial and unpopular with most Americans; they will meet stiff resistance. Religious Right leaders can call the resistance to their crusade a “war” if they like. We prefer to think of it as a spirited effort to preserve America’s time-tested tradition of religious liberty.