Ringing the Firebell for Freedom of Religion

Keynote Address: "March of the Theocrats" Rally and Teach-In

Westwood United Methodist Church, Los Angeles, June 5, 2005.

"We are not alone, friends, but many who are our natural allies are asleep, and it falls to us to awaken them."


In a turn of events that stunned Vatican officials, Pope Benedict XVI has abdicated and named President George W. Bush to succeed him as the supreme pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church.

In a papal bull entitled Auf Wiedersehen, the erstwhile Cardinal Josef Ratzinger said that he had been deeply moved by the Bush campaign DVD George W. Bush: Faith in the White House. "My infallibility seemed so trivial compared to his," Benedict explained. "Abdication was the only alternative."

When informed of his appointment, President Bush expressed surprise. "I was not aware I was in the running for the popecey," he said. "I wish people would tell me these things."

"However," he added, "I would be honored and privileged to serve as Supreme Pontoon for the rest of my natural life, or until I die, whichever comes first."

Friends, the fusion of church and state hasn't gone so far that the offices of pope and president have been combined, but in a more serious vein consider a recent (May 14) New York Times editorial entitled "The Separation of Church and Air Force":

    • Pressure from "dozens of faculty" upon cadets to "adopt Christian beliefs and practices."

    • Cadets instructed by one chaplain to warn their non-born-again comrades that "the fires of hell" were waiting for them.

    • Those who decline to attend chapel forced to march in "heathen flights."

    • A football coach's "Team Jesus Christ" banner.

    • Official pressure to view Mel Gibson's film, The Passion of the Christ.

    • Non-Christian religions including Buddhism and Judaism cut from an educational videotape.

    • A Lutheran chaplain who complained about the deletion dismissed from her position.

These are not all new abuses. Some of them were identified as much as a year ago. What has become clear, according to the Times, is that the Air Force Academy's own chain of command is not about to correct the abuses. The editorial concludes: "It is time for the higher chain of command to deproselytize this institution of national defense."

Will this advice be taken? I doubt it, for further up the chain of command, what we find is a determination to go even further in the same direction. That is, they want more political activity under church auspices, not less, and more missionary activity under government auspices, not less. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay has been pushing the Houses of Worship Free Speech Restoration Act (HR 235) since last year. If passed, this bill would allow churches to maintain their nonprofit, tax-exempt status even if they participate directly in political campaigns, endorse or oppose candidates, and distribute partisan voter guides. Why has HR 235 attracted 165 co-sponsors (a number the Interfaith Alliance rightly calls "startling")? Because the Religious Right has successfully defined the opposition in its entirety as "anti-religious." The Religious Right has succeeding in defining the Religious Left—and even the Religious Center—out of religious existence. You and I, meeting here in a church, are to them a part of the "Secular Left." Since few in Congress wish to be tarred as secular leftists, opposition to the imminent power grab of a religious minority has been difficult to mount.

"The Religious Right claims to speak for every person of faith. But do they speak for you?" the Interfaith Alliance asks in this year's membership letter. A quote from Pat Robertson may clarify the question: "You say you're supposed to be nice to the Episcopalians and the Presbyterians and the Methodists and this, that, and the other thing. Nonsense. I don't have to be nice to the spirit of the Antichrist" (http://www.interfaithalliance.org/).

We meet today in a Methodist sanctuary. Do you Methodists in the audience regard yourselves as servants of the Antichrist? The Rev. Robertson so regards you, and extremist views like his enjoy state support in numbers that are now growing too large to shrug off, growing in places as quintessentially American as the Air Force Academy and the House of Representatives.

A year ago, I gave an invited lecture at a small, Christian, liberal arts college in Florida, just north of Interstate 4 (a kind of Mason-Dixon line within Florida). My host was an Evangelical Christian liberal (there are some, you know)—a U.S. Army chaplain who is also a professor in the Stetson College department of religious studies.

During my visit, I met with my friend's honors theology class, where one young man seemed particularly alert and engaged. Later, I learned that this student, though a church-going Presbyterian, was under some pressure from other students to leave his church and "become a Christian." His very willingness to discuss belief openly in class was thought a warning sign that he was not saved.

Another of my friend's students, he told me, once asked him what party he belonged to. "I am a registered independent," he answered, truthfully, "but I usually end up voting for the Democrats." The student replied, dismayed, "But, professor, I thought you were a Christian."

In the last election, Ralph Reed, former head of the Christian Coalition, was the Bush campaign's southeast regional chairman. Increasing voter turnout among Evangelical Christians was a top goal for Reed, and he succeeded brilliantly, not least along the politically crucial I-4 corridor. At a campaign rally held in a church in the I-4 town of Lakeland, Reed boasted last September that he had 73,000 Florida volunteers. These volunteers were motivated not just by conservatism but often by faith as well—or by the two fused, as they were for the Stetson College student who found "Christian Democrat" a contradiction in terms.

If the United States is to arrest its accelerating slide toward one-party government, the Democrats must find a way to make that thought not just thinkable but inspiring. And then, turning inspiration into political hardball, they have got to muster the nerve to attack the Republican agenda of rampant self-interest and deference to wealth as a disgrace to Christianity.

This won't come easily to the minority party, but the truth is that George W. Bush talks a better Christian game than he plays. To begin with, the president does not regularly attend church. As Amy Sullivan put it in the New Republic last October, "The emperor has no church." The president's church-going profile is liberal-Democrat rather than conservative-Republican. Jimmy Carter, a liberal who taught Sunday school all four years that he was in the White House, puts Bush to shame.

Shaming the opponent on religious grounds is scarcely the Democratic style, but that style must change, or one-party rule is here to stay. Shame worked in the civil rights era. It can work again. Read the Gospels. No one knew better than Jesus just how to shame. Here's how Jim Wallis, another liberal Evangelical and the editor of The Sojourner (http://www.sojo.net/) put it:

" . . . [O]ur vision—a progressive and prophetic vision of faith and politics—was not running in this election. John Kerry was, and he lost. Kerry did not strongly champion the poor as a religious issue and ‘moral value,' or make the war in Iraq a clearly religious matter. In his debates with George Bush, Kerry should have challenged the war in Iraq as an unjust war, as many religious leaders did—including Evangelicals and Catholics. And John Kerry certainly did not advocate a consistent ethic of human life as we do—opposing all the ways that life is threatened in our violent world."

The deeper challenge, however, is not how to reclaim political Christianity but how to breathe life back into the Founding Fathers' vision of a religiously neutral state in a religiously diverse society. That vision brilliantly accommodated the several forms of Protestantism competing for leadership in late-eighteenth-century America, but its core commitment derived from the Enlightenment. Enlightenment tolerance has enabled the United States to enrich itself by the assimilation of Roman Catholics and Jews and, since the mid-sixties, of Hindus and Muslims in numbers large enough to matter. The question before us is whether the United States will go forward in the same spirit in which it has proceeded for two centuries or whether, instead, it will regress to the pre-Enlightenment culture of religious warfare.

William Martin's indispensable With God on Our Side: The Rise of the Religious Right in America, just revised for a new paperback release and with a post-election afterword, poses the question before us with vivid clarity. Let me take the liberty to quote at some length from Martin's afterword:

Though concern about terrorism, the war in Iraq, and the economy loomed largest in most voters' minds, some of Bush's strongest support came from evangelical Christians for whom abortion and homosexuality still trump other issues, a fact fully exploited by Bush's campaign manager Karl Rove. They cherish his support of abstinence-only sex education and his calls for a "culture of life" that restricts not only abortions but stem-cell research as well. They applaud his call for a Defense of Marriage Amendment to the Constitution to override decisions by state legislatures or courts to permit same-sex marriage. They cheer his determination to support "faith-based" social services with state and federal funds. They also place great hope in the likelihood that he will have the opportunity to appoint several justices to the Supreme Court, justices who might shift the balance in the Court sufficiently to overturn Roe v. Wade and remove what many on the Religious Right increasingly regard as an illegitimate wall of separation between church and state. Tearing down that wall, they believe, would preserve "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance, permit the display of the Bible and the Ten Commandments in courthouses and other public buildings, return the practice of prayer and Bible reading to public schools, and allow churches to become more overtly involved in partisan political organization. Some even hope for official designation of America as a Christian Nation.

Whether and which such dreams will be fulfilled remains to be seen. Congressional Democrats may still be able to block the appointment of some judges whose views they regard as unacceptable. But soon after his party's gains in the November 2004 elections, Bush announced his intention to resubmit to Congress the nominations of a slate of judicial candidates whose confirmation had been rejected or held up during the previous session. Assuming he will serve a full second term, it appears likely that Bush will, by the end of that term, have appointed more federal judges than any president in American history. This will have wide-ranging and long-lasting effects.

Critics of President Bush and his close ties to the conservative Christian segment of his party may hope that his successor, even if a Republican, will espouse more moderate views. [The Southern Baptist Convention's] Richard Land warned that they will be disappointed. "Let me bring some really bad news to some of your listeners," he said to Fresh Air host Terry Gross. "The next Republican nominee for president will look an awful lot like George W. Bush, because George W. Bush is the product of long-term cultural and historic forces. . . . This debate is over in the Republican Party, state by state. . . . If a social moderate, [even though an] economic and foreign policy conservative, wants to run for president in 2008, fine, let them. They won't win a primary west of the Hudson."

Though not a juggernaut that can level all opposition, the Religious Right is clearly a formidable movement with a powerful set of resources. Enmeshed in webs of churches and clergy, reinforced by the intense personal networks common in congregations, and exposed repeatedly to a clear theological and political message in sermons, religious publications, direct mail, television, and talk radio, its members tend to have a missionary zeal seldom matced by those on the left and almost never by the more moderate middle. Even more important, they are determined not to give up the fight, especially since they seem to be winning more and more rounds. Speaking for the movement while still with the Christian Coalition, Ralph Reed said, "We want to be a permanent fixture on the American political landscape. We are going to stay and stay and stay. If it takes three presidents and six Congresses to pass these items, we're going to be there in the morning, we're going to be there in the evening when they turn the lights out. We will be there as long as it takes to see that these issues are addressed."

Against this kind of fervor, what does the liberal side offer? Tolerance engenders nonchalance rather than obsession, measured engagement rather than the 80-hour workweeks that Reed describes. Tolerance does not aim to inflame passions but to quiet them. The assault on tolerance that confronts us cannot be met without passion, but it must be the controlled passion that inspired our Founding Fathers.

James Madison, for one, fully expected that the resolve of the federal government to remain religiously neutral would be severely tested. It was his view that any attempt against it should be taken with complete seriousness and met with vigorous, early mobilization:

"It is proper to take alarm at the first experiment on our liberties," wrote Madison, for "who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity in exclusion of all other religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other sects; ...that the same authority which can force a citizen to contribute three pence only of his property for the support of any one establishment, may force him to conform to any other establishment in all cases whatsoever." *

At the time when the Constitution was ratified, none of the original states any longer had a single, established, tax-supported religion. However, several extended tax support to a number of Protestant denominations simultaneously. In Virginia's debate about religious freedom, which preceded and significantly influenced the Constitutional debate, multiple establishments of religion rather than disestablishment was the form of toleration favored by Patrick Henry. Rather than supporting just one religion, the state would support all—or at least all within some generally acceptable range.

Henry's view was defeated in Virginia, and comparable views were defeated as well in the Constitutional debate. However, these views enjoyed considerable support at the time, and they have never lacked for support in some quarters. The form they currently take is that of the Bush Administration's support for "faith-based initiatives"—that is, a form of support for religion that does not single out any one religion for state establishment but rather provides tax support under certain circumstances for all religions within a range that is tacitly left to the Administration to determine. (As you may know, far from extending tax support to Muslim institutions, the Administration has declined to tell Muslims which of their own faith-based institutions they may safely support with their own funds without being charged with supporting terrorism.)

Scholars refer to this religiopolitical philosophy as accommodationist by contrast with the hitherto dominant separationist philosophy. In my judgment, accommodationism has been gaining ground on separationism because our contemporaries cannot quite believe that the religious warfare that characterized our cultural past could again characterize our cultural present. Our day is at a much greater remove than that of Madison and Jefferson from the horrendous religious wars of the seventeenth century. The two of them did not need to be reminded that one third of the population of Germany had died in the Thirty Years War or that, closer to their ancestral home, one third of the population of Ireland, not to speak of English casualties at all, had been slaughtered during the Puritan Commonwealth of Oliver Cromwell. All the combatants in these wars were Christian. All sought with implacable religious passion that their form of Christianity should prevail over all others. The memory of the horrors that religious passion of this sort can inflict on a population echoes again and again in Madison and Jefferson. In the passage I just quoted, Madison notes that the same authority that can today exact taxes in favor of Christianity in general may tomorrow do the same in favor of some chosen sect within Christianity. And where would that lead? Clearly, the Founders believed that it could lead to war, a war that would well threaten the very survival of the United States unless Americans collectively took strong counter-measures in advance and then astutely defended them against all attempts to undermine them. Astute defense, Madison reminds us, means ringing the firebell at the first whiff of smoke.

Religious freedom is the first freedom, and religious bondage is the worst bondage. "As I would not be a slave," Abraham Lincoln said in lines that still thrill, "so I would not be a master. This, for me, is the essence of democracy. Whatever departs from this, to the extent of the departure, is no democracy." As we mobilize the Religious Left and the Religious Center to meet the assault that the Religious Right is mounting on the first freedom, let us adapt Lincoln's words and say, "As I would not have a religion forced upon me, so I would not force my religion upon another. This, for me, is the essence of religious freedom. Whatever departs from this, to the extent of the departure, is religious bondage."

We are not alone, friends, but many who are our natural allies are asleep, and it falls to us to awaken them. As I speak, afternoon is lengthening toward early evening, the hour of compline when monks traditionally have sung lines from the First Letter of Peter:

Be sober. Be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour. Whom resist, steadfast in the faith, knowing that the same afflictions are accomplished in your brethren that are throughout the world. (1 Peter 5:8-9)

What lies ahead is no brief or casual struggle. Our adversary, though no devil, is definitely on the prowl. But all round the world, we see that freedom of religion is secured only by a combination of courage and patient determination. I have every confidence that in our own great country, the constituency ready to fight for our traditional freedoms will be irresistible once we have aroused it. But the time to begin doing that is today.

* James Madison, Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments. Quoted from William Martin, With God on Our Side: The Rise of the Religious Right in America (New York: Broadway Books, 2005), p. 373.