Friday, August 10, 2007

Some Are More Equal Than Others

-- by Sara

Dave writes below:
Ever notice how, for some Christian fundamentalists, freedom of religion means the freedom not only to discriminate against other religions or other beliefs, but to actively promote hatred of them, to advocate their exclusion and oppression?
Yes, I've noticed. In fact, I've been noticing this a lot lately -- and it's been worrying me. This attempt to warp our traditional notions of "discrimination" is an emerging meme with accelerating momentum within the Dominionist right. I'm glad Dave brought it up, because I've been wanting to pick at it a bit further.

A Charge To Keep Have I
Evangelical Christians of all political gradients have always considered it their first duty to convert the world to Christ. In fact, that obligation to spread word of their faith is perhaps the core definition of what it means to be "evangelical." Different sects have different thoughts on why spreading the Gospel is important; but they all think it is important -- the most important work of their lives.

However, historically -- at least, since the Revolution -- American Christians (of all stripes) have gone about their conversion efforts in fairly low-key way. Before the Revolution, too many of the original colonies had state churches that were overweening in their use of government -- via taxation, zoning, ordinances, and so on -- to hobble the activities of other faiths. These persecutions fell particularly heavily on the Baptists --who as a consequence have, for most of their history, had a visceral understanding of what's at stake when the wall of separation falls, and thus have a long and illustrious tradition of being strikingly militant in its defense. But it's fair to say that the Revolution was almost as much about liberating religion from the colonial state churches as it was about getting out from under a bad king.

For a long time after the Constitution put an end to these persecutions, proselytizing churches continued to cherish the protection of that hard-won wall of separation. For 200 years, most of them have clearly understood that their freedom to practice their faith is a reciprocal deal -- they are only free to follow their faith as long as (and to the extent that) others are free to practice theirs. This understanding has, through the years, made Evangelical ministers some of the country's most persistently loyal and passionate defenders of the wall of separation. More often than you can recount, local Evangelical ministers have usually been the first ones on the scene whenever religious freedom was being threatened. They understood, all too well, that whatever persecution they allowed in their towns could, sooner or later, be loosed on them as well.

That sense of reciprocity also informed their conversion efforts. If you don't want to be coerced, you don't coerce others. If you want the right to raise your voice in the town square, you cannot silence others when they do the same. The only authentic conversions are the ones that result from mutual respect -- God doesn't want forced souls bowing before him, and no church wants people who are there under duress. And because most American Christians understood religious freedom in these reciprocal terms, small towns like mine (6,000 people, 22 churches) found it easy to co-exist for centuries; and big cities could edge over to make room for Jews, Muslims, and many other faiths as well. This mutual respect is a deep and cherished part of the American religious landscape. It's one of the things that has made this country special.

But that consensus has been shifting over the past decade, largely due to the Dominionist movement's ability to move extremely radical anti-Constitutional memes down the transmission belt and into the center of the national consensus. They've been working on this one since the 80s (it took awhile, because it's so contrary to everything we stand for); but, over the past three or four years, it's begun to take root in places you might never have expected. The idea that our traditional reciprocity no longer applies to Evangelicals -- that their special relationship with God endows them with more rights than the rest of us -- has been gathering a serious and unmistakeable head of steam. The implications of this one idea for the country's future are many and frightening.

The Corporatized Church
Part of this casual attitude toward the wall of separation may stem from the long decades that religious fundamentalists have now spent in bed with their free-market counterparts. It's inevitably American that this impulse to sell one's religion to the masses would, in this day and age, evolve into a sophisticated and complex (and cynical, when you think about it) marketing campaign; and that the Evangelical churches who launched such campaigns would, in turn, become not so much houses of worship as vast sales organizations incorporated for the main purpose of attracting eyeballs and moving product. (The TV preachers led the way in the 60s; but the techniques they pioneered are now used in megachurches from coast to coast.) In the minds of many of these church "executives," the right to freely proselytize wherever, whenever, to whomever, is nothing short of the right to dominate their market and stay in business -- another form, if you will, of free market fundamentalism, protected by the same laws that allow secular corporations to profit as they will, unchecked by silly regulations or the demands of any other common good.

(The fact that these religious marketing organizations are now run like secular corporate businesses also leads them to completely ignore the IRS restrictions on political speech. Tell a corporation that it can't support candidates and lobby for its own interests? What kind of Commie are you? A 501(c)3 religious tax exemption is a just another nice loophole offered by the government -- and if you use it well enough, you can afford enough lawyers to keep that same government off your back, and buy you a political voice, too.)

This bottom-line business perspective also transforms these churches' view of other religions. No longer are other churches seen as sharing the broad shade of that almighty Constitutional wall; no longer are you bound to them by the common duty of maintaining it. If a church is a business, then those other churches are nothing more than competitors horning in on your territory. They're obstacles to be destroyed in your quest for total market domination, a task these leaders approach with the same ruthlessness Borders brings to shutting down the local bookstore. As such, they have no rights worth respecting.

In this straight business perspective, the wall of separation is just another restrictive government regulation. And if pulling that wall down on top of your competition is what it takes to wipe them off the map -- well, then, let's go get the ball and tackle and bring 'er on down.

9/11: The Wrath of God
Given that we're talking about religious communities, it's natural that the justification for this kind of marketplace Darwinism would be expressed in theological terms. But, since 9/11, there've been some new twists in fundamentalist theology that have turned up the level of group hysteria to the point where the emotions are much harder to contain -- and have, in turn, added an urgent sense of pressure behind this new and expanded assertion of rights.

The Christian right (as Falwell and Robertson told us the very day after 9/11) believes that America has a unique covenant with God, who founded the nation with a special mission. To wit: we were to be the paragon of Christian nations on earth. They also believe that 9/11 is God's indictment on America -- the direct result of the Evangelical movement's own failure to fulfill that covenant. They sincerely believe it was all their fault: they had 200 years to win the entire nation to their beliefs -- and now God's tired of waiting. If they'd only worked harder and saved more souls, he wouldn't have had to send that wake-up call.

Now, the only way to atone for this catastrophic lapse is to stop messing around with ecumenical cheek-kissing, and get serious about stepping up their efforts to establish theocracy. Their God doesn't require sacrificial virgins or kings; what he does require is that we sacrifice the Constitution on the altar of national religious purity. There is no room for reciprocal niceties and walls of separation and mutual tolerance any more, not when God is visibly pissed and the whole world is about to be lost to Satan. In the meantime, those other churches are blasphemers and heretics, sowing deadly confusion, questioning our divine intentions, and distracting us from doing what only we know must be done to truly safeguard the nation.

About 15% of your fellow American believe, to at least some degree, that they will be at personal physical risk -- from Muslims, from the Devil, and from God himself -- until the theocrats finally and firmly take in charge of everything. If the rights of non-believers get trampled in the process, that's too damned bad. Rights are a luxury we can no longer afford. Those people had their chance at salvation, and they made the wrong choice. In doing so, they forfeited their place at the table of the Elect, and affirmed their status among the subhumans that neither God nor Christian is bound to care for. Now, they'll have to live with the consequences -- which, if we have our way, will mean living at our meager mercy until they finally relent and submit to conversion.

And so our Air Force Academy cadets are (per Mikey Weinstein) treated to brown-bag lunch lectures with titles like "Why We Cannot Let You Have Your God While We Have Ours" -- which are officially sponsored by our tax dollars. Roy Moore still tours the country with his rock, crying discrimination wherever the laws limit religious speech in public venues like streets, parks, schools, courthouses, and legislatures. The Southern Baptist Church -- the second-largest Christian denomination in America after the Catholics -- has strayed far from its illustrious Baptist history to mobilize against hate-crimes laws, claiming -- with a straight face -- that such laws would unduly restrict their "freedom of religious expression." (Translation: they believe that God wants them to commit hate crimes.) And Christian fundamentalists everywhere have picked up the trope, screaming that they're being persecuted by hateful secularists whenever they are "forced" to associate with gays, treat non-believers as equals, subsidize public schools that teach real science and history, or view media that don't conform to their narrow "values."

And as long as there's a single doctor left performing abortions -- the health of the mother be damned -- we're all just asking for God to smite us again. He's done it once. He could easily do it again, just as suddenly and even more horrifically. These people are gripped with the existential terror known only to five-year-olds: Daddy's mad, stuff got broken, and somebody's gonna get a spanking for it.

An Ominous Direction
The fundamentalists among us have, simply, jumped the track -- and are now heading off in a radically new direction that is, very pointedly, re-defining our historic understanding of the First Amendment. Suddenly, in their minds, "justice" is no longer defined as merely having exactly the same rights everybody else does. They are claiming that their religious doctrines absolutely require them to harass other people about their beliefs, take over the government, co-opt the military for religious ends, bomb clinics and kill doctors, demonize gays, oppress women, and dismantle the Constitution. It's not hard for the more paranoid among us to imagine a day when they will assert a "religious freedom" right to commit genocide for God as well. That is, after all, where the heinous logic of all this leads.

Anyone who objects to that agenda and seeks to limit it via public speech, the press, the law, or the courts is now immediately denounced as being un-American. How dare we infringe on their sacred, inviolate, legally-guaranteed freedom of religion? God requires this of us. It's what we believe. You cannot argue with that, let alone take action to stop us. The Constitution says we have this right -- and any liberal who says we don't is just revealing his or her true hypocrisy and intolerance. Yet when we invoke that same Constitution in defense of our own rights, we are -- by their definition -- committing yet another act of Nazi-like persecution against them. In their minds, the Constitution is valid only as long as it empowers them, and silences the rest of us.

Ironic, isn't it -- they way they defend their radical intentions by scurrying right back to the shelter of the very wall they're so intent on tearing down? Unfortunately, though -- that, too, will serve their agenda in the end. After all, there's more than one way to nullify a law you don't like. One is to make rational and emotional arguments against it (even if it involves rewriting history, which, of couse, they are), eventually persuading your fellow citizens to change it. The other is to simply misuse the law in ways that mangle it beyond recognition, ultimately rendering it ineffective and unenforceable. And that's what's happening here. Dominionist Christians are deliberately and willfully warping and bending the entire First Amendment -- with its guarantees of free speech, free press, and freedom of religion -- around their own bizarre arguments in ways that will weaken it, re-cast and distort our understanding of its guarantees, and eventually destroy it.

This is a new and ugly phase in the history of Christian America. Whenever one group begins to assert a legitimate, God-given, government-approved right to dominate and deny rights to others, it's also another ominous sign of creeping proto-fascism. We are now sharing this country with a substantial class of people who not only harbor the fierce belief that they are superior to the rest of us -- yes, a master race, and their rhetoric is starting to work that meme as well -- they also believe that the future of the country is at immediate risk unless the non-believers are restrained and subdued, placed under total control of their betters. Further: they believe that they are justified by God to do this by any means necessary -- within or without the Constitution.

That's what's going on in the minds of people like Congressman Sail when he tries to exclude Muslims from Congress. Sail, no doubt, believes that the Christian God requires this of him; and that he's failing his duty to the nation if he doesn't do what it takes to silence heathen voices and keep them out of government. But he's far from the only one: this belief is now everywhere on the dominionist right. We need to start being aware of it, and calling it out whenever it raises its voice to assert that some of us are more equal than others. Because that voice is very much what fascism sounds like.

Update: Talk2Action discusses an article from Christian commentator Stephen Mansfield that appeared in USA Today last week. Mansfield's one of the promoters of the above argument: in a recent Focus on the Family interview, he said that it'll be a "much, much better country" when Congress and the judiciary get off their duffs and start legislating his way. And why will it be better? Because "It's less open to the cults. It's less open to the non-Christian religions."

And this guy is being taken seriously by the editors of the nation's largest paper.

Just go read it. This is exactly the kind of stuff I'm talking about.

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