In my formative years, the struggle between the Democratic and Republican parties was in essence that between a Democratic party wishing a more active role for government (whether on issues like civil rights, in social programs or in even in the common pursuit of scientific or other goals – see NASA and Kennedy’s promise to put a man on the moon “before this decade is out”) and a Republican party that thought that any effort, to the extent that it could be, was best pursued in the private sector, that government power was too easily abused to allow it much latitude, that taxes should be kept to the lowest possible level so that each citizen could keep as much as possible of what they earned.
That led, I think, to a useful dialectic – honoring the better impulses of society while simultaneously ensuring an ongoing suspicion of a government’s ability, even if unintentional, toward despotism.
Beginning with the Moral Majority and its increasing influence through the 1980s and culminating in the current election cycle in which the Republican primary process has been almost completely subsumed by issues driven by religion, our two-party system has been hijacked by evangelical Christians. Politics in America has become a schismatic referendum on whether governance of our nation should be driven primarily by secular concerns like foreign policy, finance and economics, or whether the fate of our country hinges on pursuing the favor of the right’s image of a Christian god.
You think I’m overstating the case? I’ll respond with a biblical principal – by their fruits ye shall know them. I’m sure you can tell me the specific position of every single Republican candidate on gay marriage, on gays in the military, and on the alleged assaults by the Obama administration on religious freedom and on their designs to protect the sacrosanct bastion of “traditional family values.” But right now, without visiting a website or Googling, can you tell me which of them proposes eliminating the capital gains tax entirely? Their own model for healthcare reform (and not just “kill Obamacare)? Where they stand regarding the ongoing EU economic crisis?
Don’t be embarrassed if you can’t because that’s not what they spend their time talking about. That’s not what their base responds to. No, this crop of candidates has allowed the campaign to descend into a dick-measuring contest on their “conservative credentials,” which is short hand for pandering to the religious right on social issues – which, when you strip through the BS, means religious issues.
The recent hubbub over the very minor concessions that the Obama administration’s health plan would require from some institutions associated with the Catholic church concerning birth control (more detail here) offers the most recent example. You can’t witness the evangelical right climbing into bed with the Catholic church’s US Conference of Bishops without a sense of irony. Since the Reformation, and with a particular vehemence in America’s bible belt, protestant religions, US evangelical strains in particular, have hammered away at Rome as “the whore of Babylon,” casting Catholicism not only as not a legitimate faith, but as an idol-worshipping Satanic travesty purposely luring souls to hell. I was raised Catholic, my wife still practices. A couple years ago we went to mass at a church near Gatlinburg, down Smokey Mountain way. When we came out of mass, we found a flyer under our windshield wiper from this group. Turns out that’s common practice at pretty much every Catholic church in the region. When Kennedy ran for president, political opponents constantly charged that he would really be and agent of the Vatican; that, because he was Catholic, his allegiance was not to his country, but to the Pope.
But is any of that historical and theological antipathy keeping the religious right and the Catholic church from swapping spit now. No. Why? Because Catholicism alone among major US religions has a prohibition against birth control as an actual article of faith, and because the trivial concessions that the health plan would require therefore affect Catholicism alone, the primarily protestant Christian right suddenly can’t do enough to help a church that they previously didn’t even recognize as legitimate, much less as Christian, fight off this dastardly attack. Hell, the Catholic church, due to its tendency toward more liberal teachings on a lot of legitimate social issues used to be a Democratic power base. Now, its hierarchy back in the hands of a doctrinaire hard-liner far more concerned with religious orthodoxy than with social justice, it’s joining hands with the religious right.
You’d think both the Catholics and their new Bible-Belt friends would be paralyzed with cognitive dissonance, but no. If the faithful adherence to religion teaches one anything, it’s how to handle cognitive dissonance. When you can be a member of a religious tradition that runs a museum promulgating the religious belief that the earth and everything in it is less than 10,000 years old, even while carbon dating and other proven scientific tests show that the earth is in fact about 4.6 billion years old, you can excuse any lapse in logic through faith. If you think I’m pointing to some tiny anti-intellectual sliver of the US population just to bolster my own argument, that I’m misrepresenting the views of insignificant minority of the right as representative of those held by the religious right as a whole, consider that, according to a 2010 Gallup Poll, more than 40 percent of US adults agreed with “young earth” creationist views – that the world and everything in it was created directly by god less than 10,000 years ago, and in that long-ago Eden, contradictory to every evidence in the fossil record, man, the dinosaurs, and every other now-extinct creature walked hand-in-hand. Believe it based on what evidence? Fuck evidence, the Bible says so.
When you can live in a society rich with the technologies that science hath wrought – when you can drive your car, get an MRI from your doctor, fly on a plane, even use the internet to promote your unsupportable drivel, then it’s no surprise that you can muster up some reason that you can be at peace cuddling up with a mess of Catholics that are really the lap-dogs of Satan, so long as it will help you pursue your dream of a US theocracy where you can finally put science in its place and turn our classrooms into Christian madrasases, where the young will be drilled in homogeneous Christian orthodoxy instead of scientific fact, will be inculcated with the type of faith-blinded ignorance that makes it so easy for the Mullahs to control the population in those parts of the Islamic world where theocratic despotism is the tool that prevents young and old alike from questioning the easily disprovable medieval dogma that keep the governed in their place and the governing in positions of unquestioned power. In the words of Thomas Jefferson, “the clergy, by getting themselves established by law, and ingrafted into the machine of government, have been a very formidable engine against the civil and religious rights of man.”
Jefferson? Surely Big Tom is on the side of the religious right. After all, they are constantly wrapping their arguments in the flag, the banner of liberty, and continually trying to lend to it the alleged imprimatur of the founding fathers.
Just as they wield the clumsy club of faith to mash science into an unrecognizable pulp that they can then mold to fit their religious preconceptions, they also pummel history into a travesty from which they draw lies to present their arguments as “American” instead of just “Christian.”
But facts are a stubborn thing and, unfortunately for the religious right, which must depend on ignorance for its views to prevail, facts can no longer be easily controlled, not even in the Bible Belt. The facts of history are thus. Few of the founding fathers were members of any religion, and many (Jefferson, Franklin, Washington, Paine) were demonstrably Deists. Deism holds that God does not intervene with the functioning of the natural world in any way, allowing it to run according to the laws of nature that he configured when he created all things. For Deists, human beings can only know God via reason and the observation of nature (pretty much the definition of science) and not by revelation or supernatural manifestations or miracles (like, say, books that are the literal word of god transcribed by humans who are mysteriously able to channel his thinking with complete accuracy). Deists were not even necessarily Christians.
Jefferson himself, while he revered Jesus as a moral philosopher, believed him only to be a wise human teacher, not the divine son of god. Here are his thoughts on even the early days of Christianity. “But a short time elapsed after the death of the great reformer of the Jewish religion, before his principles were departed from by those who professed to be his special servants, and perverted into an engine for enslaving mankind, and aggrandizing their oppressors in church and state.”
How about the bible? That infallible work that the founding-father-loving religious right hold out as both their scientific and social blueprint? Jefferson rejected it as written by “ignorant, unlettered men who laid a groundwork of vulgar ignorance, of things impossible, of superstitions, fanaticisms, and fabrications.”
Looking at Jefferson’s quote above and many of the other thoughts of the founding fathers on religion, it is clear that they took pains to separate church from state as much to protect the state from the church as they did to protect the ability the citizens to worship as they choose. It is clear that what they meant by “freedom of religion” is that every citizen should have the right to worship (or not) the god of their choice in the fashion of their choice, and that neither civil authority nor any religion or its leaders should have the right to impose their beliefs on anyone else.
Yet that’s the primary agenda of this new Republican party – to use catch phrases like “traditional family values” to thinly disguise a blatantly Christian agenda. The increasing stridency of this movement reflects the desperate realization that religion of all stripes is losing its societal hold, that the tide of society has turned toward science and open inquiry and away from medieval superstition. That their only hope to stem that tide is to enforce by law what Americans now and people in free societies everywhere are rejecting by reason.
More in my next post.