Before Colorado Springs megachurch pastor Ted Haggard was ruined in 2006 by revelations of his involvement with a male hustler, he was interviewed for Oren Jacoby’s documentary film, Constantine’s Sword, which follows former Catholic priest James Carroll’s exploration of religious intolerance.
”No religion?” Haggard says. ”That’s anti-American. We are not an atheistic society.” Haggard has been back in the news lately, giving interviews with his long-suffering wife still beside him amid revelations by his former church that they made payments to a young male church member with whom he had sexual contact.
The demonization of atheism, which is part and parcel of the right wing’s claim that America is a Christian nation, was nicely repudiated by President Obama in his Inaugural address when he said that ”Our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and nonbelievers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this earth.”
Turning this sentiment to practical ends, Obama reached out to Muslims, calling for ”a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect.”
Conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer slammed the suggestion that respect for Muslims might be new, accusing Obama of ”gratuitous disparagement” of America. He cited President Bush’s call for tolerance of Muslims after 9/11 and America’s interventions on behalf of Muslims from the Balkans to eastern Africa, though his reference to the ”liberation” of Iraq showed a certain obtuseness to Muslim perspectives. Krauthammer gleefully noted Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s sourness toward Obama’s overtures, missing the fact that Obama challenged despots like Ahmadinejad and reached past them to speak directly to Muslim populations with whom he is more popular than their rulers.
In Constantine’s Sword, Carroll examines (among other things) recent American mixing of religious and military power, exemplified by religious coercion of cadets at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs by evangelical Christians who see themselves as preparing for the biblical Apocalypse. We see the same toxic blend in Gov. Sarah Palin’s statement that the men and women in our military are ”on a task that is from God. That’s what we have to make sure that we’re praying for, that there is a plan and that that plan is God’s plan.” As Carroll says, ”Every religious person has to take responsibility for the way in which their tradition encourages intolerance, suspicion, [and] hatred of the other.”
In another blow to interfaith relations, Pope Benedict XVI recently provoked Israel’s chief rabbinate to cut ties with the Vatican when he lifted the excommunication of Holocaust-denying Bishop Richard Williamson, who has said, ”I believe there were no gas chambers.” Benedict distanced himself from Williamson’s comments, but his own contempt for empiricism is a short hop from Williamson’s blithe denial of massive evidence.
It is unwise to ignore these religious obscurantists. The rejection of the radical right by voters last November is a result that should not be taken for granted. Obama’s victory has opened a window for change that we must use before it closes. The assault on the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause within our military must be turned back, and our commander in chief should not expect non-governmental organizations like the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF) and Americans United for Separation of Church and State to do it alone.
As MRFF (whose founder, Michael L. Weinstein, appears in Constantine’s Sword) states, ”At a time when the United States is encouraging greater religious freedom in Muslim nations, it is imperative upon America to show by example that religious pluralism is a viable and preferred option.”
The holy warriors who insist that America is on a mission from God are the same people who support ”Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and oppose legal protections for GLBT Americans. They like to call gay military service a dangerous experiment, as if gay people have not been defending America since Baron von Steuben drafted our first rules of military conduct. On the contrary, it is the transformation of military units into vanguards of ”Last Days” lunacy that is dangerous.
In this fight, treating all religion as the enemy is a fatal mistake. Now is the time to stand up for one soldier’s freedom to believe differently than the next, and to point out that the religious right would take that fundamental freedom away.