Given the poll-driven pieties of so many politicians, it is hard to imagine a public figure quoting Christ’s admonition in Matthew Chapter 6 against making a public show of prayer. Yet it is just such a rebuke of hypocrisy that is sorely needed to curb the public misuse of religion by the intolerant right. Unfortunately, many advocates of tolerance are ill-equipped to wage this fight. Permit me to suggest some angles of attack.
The religious right’s crusade against gay citizens is at base an assault on religious liberty. It is part of a drive for big-government conservatism at odds with American values and tradition. With selective use of biblical verses, anti-gay Protestant fundamentalists talk as if passages such as Leviticus 20:13 create an exception to the First Amendment for gay citizens. In fact, one of the greatest gaps in our public discourse is the failure of mainstream voices to be more assertive in pointing out that our civil government is based on the Constitution and not Leviticus. But even Leviticus (Chapter 25) offers more suitable guidance for public policy – indeed, it was carved into the Liberty Bell: “Proclaim liberty throughout the land, unto all the inhabitants thereof….”
Opponents of gay marriage claim that it will lead to the silencing of anti-gay religious views. But anti-gay conservatives are not really worried about a repeal of First Amendment freedoms. After all, they are the ones who are trying to amend the Constitution. What upsets them is something outside the realm of government, something already well advanced: the pro-gay shift in social mores. Without this shift, the advent of legal gay marriage would be impossible.
The radical right is trying to reverse this trend by scaring people with dire warnings of impending social collapse. The political fringe from which these voices come is clear when you consider that they are the same voices seeking to reverse equality for women; see the Southern Baptist Convention and Concerned Women for America.
The warriors of the Christian right seize on anything they can as evidence that the tide is turning in their favor. The recent crowing by the American Family Association over NBC’s cancellation of The Book of Daniel is revealing of the right’s mindset: they are holy warriors, not evangelists. The power of the market is a strange standard for proponents of biblical authority to invoke. These Christian soldiers have so little faith in the power of divine revelation that they must help it along with threats and coercion.
Although the cultural warriors like to frame the battle as between Christians and secularists, their chosen adversaries prominently include other Christians who do not share their authoritarian and anti-intellectual bent.
The theocrats do not merely envision a Christian nation. It is their particular brand of Christianity that they seek to impose on all Americans. Instead of the loving and liberating God of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., they offer the angry and vengeful God of Judge Roy Moore. Instead of using religion as a personal challenge, they use it as a bludgeon to beat others. To accept the right-wing characterization of the battle as “Religion vs. Secularism” is to debase religion by ceding it to fanatics.
The concept of “biblical inerrancy” is based on a view of the Bible not as a proper subject of scholarly investigation but as an icon to be held aloft to ward off enemies. For the inerrantists, the Bible has a single, absolute point of view – the inconsistencies among the four gospels, and the numerous hands evident in the books of the Old Testament, be damned. The Bible’s wealth of wordplay, from puns to folk etymologies, is blasted away by an obtuse insistence on literalism. Historical and cultural context are similarly ignored. And forget about the subtleties and challenges of translation: one would think that the Bible had originally been written in King James English.
That this know-nothingism holds such sway over our public discourse should embarrass our nation; but of course embarrassment is an elitist reaction. Few are willing to dispute the preposterous assertions that America was founded by God and that the Constitution was modeled on the Ten Commandments. Speaking of the Decalogue, the theocrats are frequent, flagrant violators of the commandment against bearing false witness.
The reason to defend the secular nature of the public sphere is not to banish religion but to protect the faith of the individual from the tyranny of the group. The strategy of the radical right is to portray this very protection as itself a form of tyranny. Their logic is that of Alice Through the Looking Glass. They make a mockery of both politics and religion. Their true enemy is not homosexuals but a pluralistic society in which their fellow citizens are free to think for themselves and go their own way.
For the sake of our country, and not only its gay citizens, these religious bullies need to be defeated at the polls. But while the GOP is much more influenced by theocrats, there are few Democratic profiles in courage on display. When gay people themselves excuse Democrats who echo the “sanctity of marriage” rhetoric – as if a Clintonian triangulation strategy justifies throwing us to the wolves – then the battle is not even being joined.
The religious fanatics cannot be defeated as long as we allow them to frame the public debate without serious challenge. It is past time for us to insist that those who claim to be our allies start proving it by speaking up against religious obscurantism.