The Coming Religious Wars

Jeff Alworth

"As the liberal, anti-Christian dogma of the left has been repudiated in almost every recent election, the courts have become the last great bastion for liberalism."

It's not possible to broach this topic delicately: we're on the brink of a religious war in America.  Tomorrow, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist will appear with James Dobson and others in a Louisville Baptist Church to promote "Justice Sunday" (a televised event, it should be needless to say).  It is designed to rouse the already inflamed ire of the Evangelical base over "judicial activism" so that nervous GOP senators have the cover to join Frist in ending the use of filibusters to stop judicial nominees in the Senate. 

"The Senate Majority Leader, Bill Frist of Tennessee, is committed to returning Constitutional order to the Senate by requiring an up-or-down vote on these nominees. To do this, he urgently needs the help of every 'values voter....'  We must stop this unprecedented filibuster of people of faith....  For more information on how your church can participate or how you can find a venue to participate in this critically important simulcast, click the links below."

Tony Perkins, President of the Family Research Council

When he takes the stage tomorrow, Frist makes a dramatic political move: he asks members of one religion to take political action to turn their beliefs into policy for the nation.  In a direct and unambiguous way, Frist demands that the governing document in the country be set aside; arbiters of law will now look to the text of Leviticus, not the Constitution.  It is dramatic for a few reasons.  Among the many known intentions of the over-eager, second-term Senator is the desire to solidify his cred among Bush's Evangelical core in anticipation of a Presidential run.  Using Evangelical Christians in a power play to overturn the filibuster rule is akin to watching a skater try a triple axel.  For political wonks, this is going to be facinating.

But it is dramatic for another, disheartening reason.  If Evangelicals rise to Frist's call, he will have precipitated a religious war.  It is a war that is as likely to tear apart Christian Churches as the straining thread joining red and blue Americas.

Secular vs. Religious
According to Frist's dreary rhetoric, liberals are "against people of faith."  This would come as a surprise the long line of Evangelical liberals going back to William Jennings Bryan, who, in addressing the Democratic National Convention, excoriated the wealthy with his famous "cross of gold" speech: "You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns, you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold."  He won their nomination because of it.  The ideals of Christian charity have long been the foundation of traditional liberalism; 80 years after Bryans' speech, Jimmy Carter had no difficulty invoking it to win the White House.  (Here's Carter on the GOP's version of Christianity.)

But that's old-school Christian politics.  New-school politics, at least as it's practiced by Frist and Co., arises from two phased outrages.  The initial impetus for the rightward swing came from judicial decisions in the 60s and 70s--Engel v. Vitale, where justices ruled against school-sponsored prayer, and, of course, Roe v. Wade, legalizing abortion.  Christians, particularly following Roe, felt that their religious practice was being challenged; that fetuses--human beings--were being killed added special urgency to their cause.  As Christians began to take political power, this fear of losing their religious rights shifted to a sense of entitlement.  As the majority, they feel the right to stamp out secularism and install a version of Christianity into public institutions. 

It's a little odd that Christians would target secularism as the bane of American values.  Polling done in recent years shows a large majority of Americans describe themselves as Christian (roughly 75%, according to recent polls).  The number holding Christian religious views about God, heaven, and hell are even larger.  It's even odder that Republicans are so outraged by the "activist judges"--after all, they're Republican appointees (60%, and that doesn't count a four year, filibuster-free Bush run).

But then again, if you're a politician, it makes good sense to pit religion against the athiests--Frist did the math, and he likes the numbers.  (Okay, not all of them are atheists.  Some, like me, come from those miniscule minority religions.  Political nonentities.)

Religious vs. Religious
The calculation Frist makes apparently doesn't take into account Christians themselves.  What if they don't want to play his zero-sum game?  Evangelicals voted (depending on the polls) by a margin of 4 to 1 for Bush--again, odds Frist is counting on.  But half of mainline Protestants voted for Kerry.  Those are the politics.

Now, lets talk religion.  Do Christians really want to take their faith into the well of the Senate?  Do they want Tom DeLay and Bill Frist preaching scripture and policy from Washington (and do they trust Frist and DeLay, of all people to do the preaching)?  Even Bush-voting Evangelicals may balk at the idea that doctrine should become law.  Matters of faith, many Christians believe, are matters between God and his believers.  Should they become matters between believers and Bill Frist?

My parents are Bryan/Carter Christians.  It causes them some suffering to think that the polarization and sleaze of politics may be brought into their church.  They  love their fellow churchgoers, and quite reasonably don't want politics to damage friendships or fellowship.  (Holler if I got it wrong, Mom.)  When Bill Frist takes religion into the public square, he takes politics into the sanctuary.  But is that any kind of sanctuary?

It's a high stakes game that Frist wants to play.  The United States has something on the order of 200 million self-identified Christians.  When Frist steps up to that pulpit tomorrow, they need to ask whether they're willing to see their faith put up as stakes.

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    And while you're thinking about this, be sure to pop on over to hear this...

    Jim Wallis, New York Times bestselling author of God's Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get It, will be at the First Congregational Church, 1125 SW Park Ave., Sunday, April 17, at 7:30 p.m. His talk, "Common Ground Through Higher Ground," is sponsored by the PSU Covenant Five Campus Ministry. Cost for the lecture is $15. Wallis, a preacher, activist, and founder of Sojourners Community, based in Washington, D.C., offers a new vision for faith and politics in American that challenges commonly held assumptions.

    See ya there.

  • Daniel (unverified)

    "It's a little odd that Christians would target secularism as the bane of American values. Polling done in recent years shows a large majority of Americans describe themselves as Christian (roughly 75%, according to recent polls)."

    It's "odd?" Have you turned on your television lately? Have you looked at recent court cases? Do you have kids in public schools? We are not exactly swimming in a bastion of Christian values. A very vocal minority (who have the support of most major media outlets) are pushing a secular agenda very hard. Don't act suprised that Christians are now going to push back.

    Daniel's Political Musings

  • ben (unverified)

    Well, judges are pretty well-educated, as a rule. Given the, er, traditional liberal hold on academia (discussion of which is out of scope for this comment, I'd figure) it stands to reason that even the conservative ones might be actually more moderate.

    More to the point, I thought that the job of the federal courts was to interpret the Constitution, a role spelt out in every RL discussion of the federal judiciary I remember.

    ...Meanwhile, the Constitution is clear on the idea that IT is the source of the law of the land, NOT the Torah or the Pauline Letters.

    You mean, federal judges actually do their jobs? Omigosh, somebody call the papers, we have a story here.

    Fercryinoutloud, it's McCarthyism all over again. And Christians are going to push back?!

    Gah. The conservatives spent a generation making political hay out of the fact that the liberals wanted to legislate physical well-being.

    Now the conservatives are trying to legislate spiritual well-being in their own image, because in so doing they can tap a pool of easily-manipulated voters.

    And I am officially digusted.

  • afs (unverified)

    James Wolcott posted an appropriate reminder last Sunday...

    "I do not believe in the creed professed by the Jewish church, by the Roman church, by the Greek church, by the Turkish church, by the Protestant church, nor by any church that I know of. My own mind is my own church.

    "All national institutions of churches, whether Jewish, Christian, or Turkish, appear to me no other than human inventions set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit.

    "I do not mean by this declaration to condemn those who believe otherwise. They have the same right to their belief as I have to mine. But it is necessary to the happiness of man, that he be mentally faithful to himself. Infidelity does not consist in believing, or in disbelieving: it consists in professing to believe what he does not believe."

    --Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason

    And another reminder from Thom Hartmann (you guys will love him!) that Thomas Jefferson was also a vehement defender of a secular America...

    "...Thomas Jefferson was perhaps the most outspoken of the Founders who saw religious leaders seizing political power by claiming religion as the basis of American law to be a naked threat to American democracy.

    One of his most well known quotes is carved into the stone of the awe-inspiring Jefferson Memorial in Washington, DC: "I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny imposed upon the mind of man."

    Modern religious leaders who aspire to political power often cite it as proof that Jefferson was a Bible-thumping Christian.

    What's missing from the Jefferson memorial (and almost all who cite the quote), however, is the context of that statement, the letter and circumstance from which it came.

    When Jefferson was Vice President, just two months before the election of 1800 in which he would become President, he wrote to his good friend, the physician Benjamin Rush, who started out as an orthodox Christian and ended up, later in his life, a Deist and Unitarian. Here, in a most surprising context, we find the true basis of one of Jefferson's most famous quotes:

    "DEAR SIR, - ... I promised you a letter on Christianity, which I have not forgotten," Jefferson wrote, noting that he knew to discuss the topic would add fuel to the fires of electoral politics swirling all around him. "I do not know that it would reconcile the genus irritabile vatum [the angry poets] who are all in arms against me. Their hostility is on too interesting ground to be softened.
    "The delusion ...on the [First Amendment] clause of the Constitution, which, while it secured the freedom of the press, covered also the freedom of religion, had given to the clergy a very favorite hope of obtaining an establishment of a particular form of Christianity through the United States; and as every sect believes its own form the true one, every one perhaps hoped for his own, but especially the Episcopalians and Congregationalists.
    "The returning good sense of our country threatens abortion to their hopes, and they [the preachers] believe that any portion of power confided to me [such as being elected President], will be exerted in opposition to their schemes. And they believe rightly: for I have sworn upon the altar of God, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man. But this is all they have to fear from me: and enough too in their opinion."..."

  • LT (unverified)

    Do not forget that former Sen. Danforth, who is also an ordained clergyman, had an OP ED in the NY Times not too long ago. This would be the former Republican Senator who gave the homily at Reagan's funeral--not exactly a secular leftist!

    Here is part of what he said:

    The problem is not with people or churches that are politically active. It is with a party that has gone so far in adopting a sectarian agenda that it has become the political extension of a religious movement.

    When government becomes the means of carrying out a religious program, it raises obvious questions under the First Amendment. But even in the absence of constitutional issues, a political party should resist identification with a religious movement.

  • Action Northwest (unverified)

    The idea that the Bible will now be bastardized to not only promote the views of the Evangelical Right but also to dictate public policy and national law is a terrifying idea for me. For so many people, this would mean the deterioration and roll back of the rights and civil liberties that so many fought to gain. We are already seeing the affects of the "Evangelical Revolution" in such legislation as the "partial-birth" abortion ban and the proposed amendment outlawing equal marriage rights, among others.
    The Bible is not a weapon. As a practicing Catholic I am ashamed by the actions of these people. It is abominable to use the Scripture as an excuse to hate and to marginalize others. I too am truely disgusted.

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    The "coming religious war"? Where have you been for the last 25 years?

    I think your rhetoric comes awfully close to the sort of overheated, anti-religious rhetoric that has harmed liberals so much within evangelical movement.

    There is nothing in Frist's visit that merits the charge that he he asks members of one religion to take political action to turn their beliefs into policy for the nation. Dobson's radio program is listened to by millions a week, and he influences a wide swath of evangelical and fundamentalist denomiations. The only way that comment is accurate is if by "one religion" you mean "Evangelical Protestantism."

    Second, Frist isn't asking people to turn their religion into policy or throw aside the Constitution. When you can find the filibuster in the Constitution (or in Leviticus for that matter), let's talk.

    I don't get the whole post. You say there is an oncoming "religious war," but what Bill Frist is doing has been S.O.P. for at least a quarter century. Perhaps mainstream Protestants are going to rebel, but I see little indication of it, either in 1980s, or the 1990s, and I don't expect it now.

    Why? Because Democrats and the left show little tolerance for religious beliefs, and characterize anyone who appeals to religious values in the political sphere as right wing and extremist. Yet, as your own post points out, nearly 75% of Americans identify as Christian. Unless we can somehow figure out how to appeal to these voters, we're doomed to minority status.

  • davidpdx (unverified)

    I think that it is not the fact that the left is showing "little or no tolerance for religous beliefs" but more to the fact that they are getting sick of people like Frist and DeLay pushing their religous beliefs on others.

    The fact that you practice a religion of choice in this nation is a right you have. Pushing your religion on other's is not. If it was, then we would start to outlaw religions based on what was popular.

    It goes back to the core belief that our constitution was written in a way that ensured a seperation between government and religion.

    In particular, the words of DeLay during the whole ordeal whether or not to let Teri Schavio die was disheartening. Whether he likes it or not, words have implications. You are free to say what you want, until you insight violence. That is where the fine line is drawn in terms of freedom of speech.

    Also DeLay's comments about "activist judges" in which he had a fit because none of the judges involved in the case would agree to an injunction. This is an argument that could be made just as well in terms of judges that lean conservative.

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    I'm surprised you're the only one to accuse me of "overheated, anti-religious rhetoric that has harmed liberals so much within evangelical movement." I've been blogging about the influence of activist Evangelicals on the GOP for a couple of years. Generally all I heard was that it was overheated rhetoric.

    But I think you miss the point. First off, it's not anti-religious, unless you regard folks like Jimmy Carter as anti-religious. What I oppose is not the religious beliefs of politically active Christians (It's wrong to characterize the bloc simply as Evangelicals--Catholics and Mormons, among others, are part of that political movement.) I oppose their political action.

    I find it especially dangerous because religion is so potent emotionally. While lefties might inspire some energy around the idea of economic justice by telling poignant tales of exploitation, it pales as a motivater in comparison to one's faith.

    And is it really overheated? When I argued 30 months ago that I was seeing dangerous signs that the GOP was using religion to consolidate power, people accused me of being overheated. But didn't we just witness that exact bloc win an election for Bush? And haven't we seen the actions of this government since that election take a particularly sharp turn toward the issues of that bloc?

    When the Senate Majority Leader, one of a handful of the most powerful elected officials in the country, takes to the pulpit to achieve a political end--to remove power from the opposition party in order to take over power of a wing of the government--isn't it about time to admit that something shocking and heated is taking place?

    If this isn't the point to sound the alarm bells, is there ever a point, or is religion always off limits for Democrats to discuss? That failure to join the debate, not overheated rhetoric, is why Democrats have ceded power to the GOP.

  • TrĂ©s Fou (unverified)

    Just to clarify something that was stated about Mormons and Catholics being part of the "new American Taliban". Mormons are very socially conservative and I have no doubt generally are on board with the social gospel according to Firth & DeLay, but polls show consistently that American Catholics are politically split despite the Church's official, conservative dogma. There are Christians who tolerate a secular society and then there are those who would impose their particular sectarian beliefs on others.

    Anyhoo, the founders were acutely aware of the problems of religious intolerance as offical policy. The filibuster is not in the Constitution, but only antedates it by less than a decade. Thus, it quickly became apparent to them that a majority could be tyrannical.

  • Peter Noordijk (unverified)

    They irony I see in the conservative's well-organized attack against "liberals" based on religion, is that we liberals are the actual defenders of freedom of religion. If you are jewish or mainline protestant and don't believe tha life begins at concpetion- we aren't trying to mandate that everyone share our beliefs. We aren't trying to mandate that children be forced to make pledges to images in schools. We aren't trying to force children to pray to a false god. We are trying to allow people to practice their religion without shoving it down the throats of all Americans. What happens when someone asks the president if Jews are going to hell? Or when legislation is proposed to outlaw divorce?

    There is a long tradition of minority groups (evangelical protestant christians in this case) using democratic processes to undermine the very minority protections that are tenets of democracy. Just think, when Hitler rose to power he only gained less than 20% of the vote, but was able to use the power of the state to consolidate power. Iran's theocrats took power under the guise of elections. Plus, those who claim special authority derived from a higher law, have no need for democracy and do have a special particularistic motivation for action. So no, I'm not hostile to religion, but I am hostile to people who trademark "Christian" and attach a anti-democratic agenda to it. As a Christian and as an American, I have an obligation to be alert to threats to both.

  • Greg Zaparyniuk (unverified)

    There is an axiom for victory in every conflict, "Divide and conquer." For progressives to make any headway in the religious wars we have to assert with confidence, "Not all Christians are alike!" Frankly, the Mormons refer to themselves as Christians but a third of their Bible is not accepted by the rest of Christianity. The various denomination that have a liturgical life, or believe in apostolic succession do not recognize the non-demonational congregations. And those non-denominations, for all their proud declarations of not being of any denomination would more accurately be referred to an anti-denomination.

    Finally, and this is the MOST important thing for everyone to remember. The right did not take half the country, just half the voters. The silent citizens cannot be counted for us or against us. Let's stop referring to this country be evenly divided. Only the vote was split evenly.

  • David English (unverified)

    Peter said:

    "So no, I'm not hostile to religion, but I am hostile to people who trademark "Christian" and attach a anti-democratic agenda to it. As a Christian and as an American, I have an obligation to be alert to threats to both."

    Peter, I couldn't agree with you more. It doesn't matter to me what religion you are (or if your religous at all), but more to the point you can equate religion as pro or anti democratic.

    The same type of ridiculous argument was being made in terms of the war in Iraq. "If you were opposed to the war, then you were not supportive of the troops."

    While people are permitted their own opinions, I do believe you have to call them on the carpet for making such an argument

    <h2>Ps-For clarification, I previously posted as davidpdx in this thread. I'll try to post under my name. Sorry for the confusion.</h2>

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