Originally, ‘States Rights’ was a dry Constitutional premise explaining the shape of our federal system. After long misuse as a political subterfuge it has been redefined as a byword for racial discrimination.
‘Patriot’ was once among the highest complements we might pay to a distinguished citizen who had sacrificed deeply for our nation. Like ‘hero,’ it was a term one would seldom dare apply to oneself. Increasingly, in common usage, a ‘patriot’ is a paranoid gun fetishist with a stockpile of preserved food in his trailer who probably won’t blow up a federal building, but you can’t be too sure.
‘States’ rights’ is an arcane legal principle whose importance is largely technical. Patriot was a great word, but perhaps we can coin new terms to take its place. Religious freedom is a concept so central to the meaning of the Republic that it was enshrined in the first sentence of the first amendment to our Constitution. Some of us, particularly in the Republican Party, are determined to make religious freedom an excuse for imposing miserable oppression and harassment on a group of people they choose not to understand. Perhaps the only way to destroy religious freedom in America is to convert the term into a dog-whistle used to rally bigots. Please, please do not do this.
Our country is slowly emerging from a bitter, 60-year fight to grant equal treatment under the law to all Americans regardless of the conditions of their birth. Christians played a critical role in that movement for freedom. Unfortunately, other Christians played an equally critical and passionate role in opposing that movement at every stage. They haven’t quit.
Today’s Christian fundamentalists have inherited a political infrastructure that was originally constructed to protect white supremacy. In the 1950’s, as a Christian minister named Martin Luther King, Jr was organizing a movement for civil rights, other Christian ministers mobilized to stop him.
Jerry Falwell expressed the sentiment of religious conservatives with a bitter sermon in 1958. Regarding the Supreme Court’s decision striking down school segregation, Falwell explained: “If Chief Justice Warren and his associates had known God’s word and had desired to do the Lord’s will, I am quite confident that the 1954 decision would never have been made…The facilities should be separate. When God has drawn a line of distinction, we should not attempt to cross that line…The true Negro does not want integration…. He realizes his potential is far better among his own race.”
The same institutions that found themselves on the wrong side of Jim Crow, women’s rights, school desegregation, and just about every major liberty interest of the last century are trying to redefine religious liberty for our time. We cannot let them do this.
Religious fundamentalists fail to recognize that the same underlying attitudes that put them on the wrong side of the civil rights debate continue to skew their positions on everything else. At the heart of religious fundamentalism, whether the believer is Christian, Muslim, Jew, Buddhist or Jedi, are these two ideas:
1) The culture I have inherited comes from sacred, revealed truth and is the only way to live righteously.
2) Nothing I discover, learn or observe about the world must be allowed to modify the assumptions of that culture in any manner.
Those are the beliefs that leave fundamentalists in constant tension with scientists and in persistence denial of the natural world. Those are the two beliefs that put Southern Baptists, for example, so consistently on the wrong side of the movement to free African Americans first from slavery and then from Jim Crow.
Long after those battles were decisively lost, the denomination apologized for their positions, but they refuse to re-examine the assumptions that gave rise to those positions. Today’s policy positions are tomorrow’s embarrassing public relations challenges. An ounce of humility might avoid this cycle.
You won’t find Jerry Falwell’s 1958 sermon on white supremacy in the extensive archives at Liberty University. Almost all of his materials from earlier than the mid-60’s were recalled from the collection. Falwell’s statements on white supremacy were so glaringly wrong that merely acknowledging them today would be ruinous to the school’s already tenuous brand.
Why don’t we just decide to stop embarrassing ourselves?
To my readers who insist that their ability to humiliate homosexuals is an irreplaceable tenet of faithful Christian observance I make this appeal. Sit down this weekend and read the words of Jesus. Take time to read all four Gospels. Pay special attention to the “red-lettered’ texts. Please right down every word the Gospel writers claim Jesus spoke regarding homosexuality.
At the end of the exercise, let that empty page remind you that you are hauntingly alone in your pursuit of this phony issue. That’s how much divine backing you bring to an effort to smear Christianity with your cultural baggage.
We often remark that the separation of church and state is as much a protection of religion as a protection from religion. Damage inflicted on Christianity by fundamentalists’ long, losing battle for political control is further evidence for this conviction.
Now, in the late stages of the fight for basic civil rights in America, we have a waning opportunity to define for history what Christianity meant to the movement. Religious fundamentalists are determined to define Christian faith and practice in a manner that sets it irrevocably at odds with basic human liberty. They are campaigning to define “religious freedom” as “state-enforced Christian cultural supremacy.”
Republicans should not help fundamentalists strip the gravity from the term “religious freedom.” We need not become the subject of our grand-children’s’ apologies.