August 25, 2011 - 10:54 am

Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s recent day-long prayer-and-fasting rally in Houston has led to some interesting fallout. Commentators in the media are taking an overdue look at the extreme views of the groups that sponsored “The Response.”

Unfortunately, some are reaching a strange conclusion: These groups are so out on the fringe that we don’t need to worry about them.

Many of the organizations that sponsored “The Response” are extreme, all right. They are “dominionists” – that is, they believe only Christians of their stripe have the “true” religion and they should take dominion and govern based on their (narrow) interpretation of the Bible.

Sure, it’s tempting to dismiss dominionists as a marginalized lunatic fringe. After all, many of them do tend to take positions that are, to be blunt, really out there. For example, they would not only outlaw abortion, they would execute any woman who gets the procedure or doctor who performs one. They would also execute gays, adulterers, blasphemers and those who hold to “false” religions.

Syndicated columnist Michael Gerson argues that views such as this mean we don’t have take these folks seriously. He criticizes those who are sounding the alarm and writes, “Dominionism, though possessing cosmic ambitions, is a movement that could fit in a phone booth.”

Another approach is to insist that anyone who expresses concern about dominionism is attacking all evangelicals. Washington Post columnist Lisa Miller asserted recently, “Evangelicals generally do not want to take over the world. ‘Dominionism’ is the paranoid mot du jour.”

Let’s clarify a couple of things here. No one is seriously arguing that all evangelicals are dominionists who yearn to take over the world. That is a classic straw-man argument, and it’s easy to blow down. Nor are we arguing that dominionists are going to seize power next week and send your uncle to the gulag because he’s a Unitarian.

What we’re saying is that there is a significant strain of thought in the conservative Christian community that is actively hostile to church-state separation, pluralism, secular government, modern science, women’s rights, etc. This movement has been influenced by dominionist theology. It is politically active and influential, and people need to know about it.

Consider the attacks on legal abortion and the spate of bills targeting that procedure in the states. Consider the ongoing effort to undermine the teaching of evolution in public schools. Consider the harsh attacks on gay people and the efforts to roll back the civil rights gains they have made. Consider the constant attempts to divert tax money from public schools and public services to private religious schools and “faith-based” social service agencies.

Also, remember that there was a time – not so long ago, really – when a candidate did not have to kowtow to right-wing fundamentalists to be considered a serious contender in the Republican Party.

How did all of this come about? It isn’t because dominionists took over. It’s because they laid the philosophical groundwork for Religious Right activism that energized millions of fundamentalist Christians. For a long time, these people believed politics was “worldly” and not their calling. When fundamentalist clergy decided to get political, the dominionists gave them the biblical basis for it.

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August 4, 2011 - 4:59 pm

Texas Gov. Rick Perry had big plans for his exclusionary Christian prayer rally this Saturday. He was so proud of the event that he invited all 49 other governors to attend.

The RSVPs to “The Response” have been trickling in, and it doesn’t look good. So far, the number of governors who plan to attend the event at Houston’s Reliant Stadium in person stands at exactly zero, notes the American Independent.

Gov. Sam Brownback of Kansas had planned to come, and Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana said he might swing by. But gay rights groups in Kansas made quite a stir by pointing out that the American Family Association (AFA), one of the groups organizing the event, is vociferously anti-gay. The AFA has been designated a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Suddenly Brownback says he plans to be on vacation, and Jindal isn’t talking about the event any more.

Even conservative governors like Paul LePage of Maine, Mary Fallin of Oklahoma and Scott Walker of Wisconsin have begged off. As of today, it looks like the only other governor who will put in face time is Rick Scott of Florida – and he’s sending a videotaped message. (A few other governors have issued letters or proclamations supporting the event.)

Even Perry himself seems to be stepping back a bit. He now says he’s not sure what his role at the rally will be.

So what’s going on here?

Part of the problem may be that Perry’s allies are just a little – how shall I put this? – “out there.”

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July 12, 2011 - 1:03 pm

Reporters with the mainstream media sure love to write about the presidential horse race, don’t they? And I find it interesting how certain candidates suddenly become all the rage. How many stories about Michele Bachmann have you seen recently?

But the media, so intent on polls and personalities, is missing a huge story: The Religious Right’s attempt to pick our next president.

Luckily, Brian T. Kaylor is on the case. Kaylor, a professor of communication studies at James Madison University and an editor at Ethics Daily, a site run by moderate Baptists, has penned some interesting stories about top Religious Right leaders who have been plotting in the hopes of finding a candidate to beat President Barack Obama next year.

The collection, led by a Texas TV preacher named James Robison, takes its inspiration from a similar effort in 1980. Back then, Robison and other far-right fundamentalists had soured on President Jimmy Carter and were looking for a new champion. They found one in the person of a former actor and ex-California governor named Ronald W. Reagan.

Robison calls the current round of meetings “Leadership Summits.” The backers are a diverse lot; some are national names and some are not. They include Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention, David Barton of WallBuilders, Maggie Gallagher of the National Organization for Marriage, Vonette Bright of Campus Crusade for Christ, TV preacher Kenneth Copeland and Bishop Harry Jackson, a Maryland minster known for anti-gay activism. (Robison has a full list of participants on his blog.)

What type of candidate do these Religious Right activists want? Someone who will restrict abortion, oppose full civil rights for gays and generally reflect a fundamentalist Christian perspective on both domestic and foreign affairs.

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July 5, 2011 - 10:10 am

American politicians love to invoke religion, and a generic form of an alleged “one-size-fits-all” piety is so common that scholars have even give it a fancy name: ceremonial deism.

Ceremonial deism is what explains “In God We Trust” on our money, “under God” in our Pledge of Allegiance and the tendency of presidents and governors to attend interfaith prayer services whenever there’s a natural disaster.

Despite its short-comings – ceremonial deism doesn’t offer much to non-believers, for example, and many devoutly religious people find it sterile and bland – the practice at least recognizes that religious beliefs come in many forms. Thus, God is appealed to but not Jesus. Prayers are “non-sectarian.”

What’s planned for Texas in August is not ceremonial deism. It’s something else entirely. And it’s a big problem.

Gov. Rick Perry’s call for a day-long event of prayer and fasting Aug. 6 at a sports stadium in Houston is a dramatic escalation of government meddling in religion. Called “The Response,” the event is being coordinated by the American Family Association (AFA), an extreme Religious Right group, as well as other far-right religious groups and figures with controversial theological and political ideas. The rally is exclusively Christian in nature; in fact, it reflects a certain type of Christianity – the fringes of fundamentalism.

What brought this about? Perry’s theological allies claim that America is being punished by God for its wicked ways. They see a national day of repentance as the solution.

On The Response’s website, Perry writes, “Right now, America is in crisis: we have been besieged by financial debt, terrorism, and a multitude of natural disasters. As a nation, we must come together and call upon Jesus to guide us through unprecedented struggles, and thank Him for the blessings of freedom we so richly enjoy.”

Of course, this could be just a sheer political ploy. Perry has been openly flirting with a presidential run, and this event could be little more than an effort to curry favor with the Religious Right in advance of that.

Regardless, word is spreading quickly among the religio-political right. Potential attendees to The Response are told to bring a Bible and encouraged to fast – although there will be a few food vendors on site for those who can’t or won’t. The groups behind this effort tend to come from the fringes of Christianity that are obsessed with things like prophecy, direct messages from God, faith healing and so on. These charismatic Christians emphasize a highly charged form of worship that stresses emotional outbursts and a theology of judgment. They seem to be convinced that God has it in for America, mainly because we permit legal abortion, tolerate gays and have a secular government.

Many churches in America preach this theology, and Americans are free to attend these houses of worship and hear it whenever they like. But government endorsement of this sectarian message goes too far – and that’s why more and more people are speaking out over Perry’s prayer confab.

Mainline Christian, non-Christian and secularist groups have protested the Perry event – and rightly so. Perry and his supporters don’t try to downplay the proselytizing nature of the event; in fact, they brag about it. They say non-Christians are welcome to attend to hear a message about redemption through Christ.

Perry defended the event, telling The New York Times, “It is Christian-centered, yes, but I have invited and welcome people of all faiths to attend.” He also brushed off charges that the AFA is extreme, calling it “a group that promotes faith and strong families, and this event is about bringing Americans together in prayer.”

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June 17, 2011 - 1:04 pm

Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli has been a thorn in Americans United’s side for the past few years. A staunch ally of the Religious Right, Cuccinelli seems to have no problem using government to promote right-wing theology.

His 2010 memo on government-sponsored holiday displays was less than helpful. Americans United had to issue a statement warning that towns that took his advice without additional legal counsel might get sued.

Yesterday, Cuccinelli appeared at a Virginia Christian Alliance (VCA) breakfast in Fredericksburg to brief pastors on the law relating to political activity. He correctly reminded his audience that churches can’t endorse candidates, for example, and he distributed a handout reprinting some information made available by the Internal Revenue Service.

But Cuccinelli also blithely told the pastors that their churches can distribute voter guides – without warning them that most guides are produced by partisan operations intended to steer congregants toward certain candidates. Handing out biased guides is a clear violation of federal tax law.

Regardless of the specifics of his remarks, however, I had to wonder what Cuccinelli was doing there in the first place. Turns out he wanted to help the VCA, a hardball Religious Right outfit, prod churches to get more involved in political issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage.

“You have a lot of freedom of action, and I would encourage you to use it,” Cuccinelli said.

Since when is it the attorney general’s job to urge churches to dive into politics?

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June 15, 2011 - 1:37 pm

I know that Religious Right activists don’t like marriage equality for same-sex couples, but some of the arguments they are making lately are just – pardon my bluntness – dumb.

Yesterday a federal court upheld a previous decision striking down California’s ban on same-sex marriage. The latest legal twist over the Golden State’s Proposition 8 – which was narrowly approved by voters in 2008 after the Mormon Church and conservative religious allies poured millions of dollars into an anti-gay propaganda campaign – came about because the judge who handed down the original ruling has disclosed that he is gay. Furthermore, U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker has been living in a committed relationship with another man for 10 years.

According to the Religious Right’s lawyers, this means Walker, who has since retired from the bench, was obviously biased and unable to rule fairly on the issue of same-sex marriage. They marched back into court and demanded that his ruling be voided.

U.S. District Judge James Ware put a stop to the nonsense. Ruling in Perry v. Schwarzenegger, Ware said opponents of same-sex marriage mistakenly assume that “all people in same-sex relationships think alike.”

Added Ware, “The presumption that Judge Walker, by virtue of being in a same-sex relationship, had a desire to be married that rendered him incapable of making an impartial decision, is as warrantless as the presumption that a female judge is incapable of being impartial in a case in which women seek legal relief. On the contrary: it is reasonable to presume that a female judge or a judge in a same-sex relationship is capable of rising above any personal predisposition and deciding such a case on the merits.”

Bingo. Under the Religious Right’s theory, a black judge wouldn’t be able to rule on an affirmative action case and a woman could not adjudicate sex-discrimination cases. I suppose Christian judges would have to recuse themselves from any cases involving their co-religionists.

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June 10, 2011 - 10:05 am

Louisiana is a perfectly nice state with a lot of good people in it – but some of the state’s legislators and public officials don’t seem to get it when it comes to separation of church and state.

The Pelican State has repeatedly passed laws that mix religion and government. Over the years, several laws have been passed designed to promote creationism – the most recent effort being a so-called “science education act” that attempts to bring anti-evolutionism in through schoolhouse backdoors.

Certain towns and parishes are known for injecting Christianity into school events. In Bastrop, a high school student who protested school-sponsored graduation prayers last month literally had to leave town. In addition, Gov. Bobby Jindal is infamous for using a taxpayer-funded helicopter to visit churches.

And now the state is considering posting the Ten Commandments on the grounds of the capitol in Baton Rouge.

The Louisiana House of Representatives has already approved the bill (unanimously). Its sponsor, state Rep. Patrick Williams (D-Shreveport) insists his measure has no religious intent.

“The significance is historical,” Williams told Reuters. “Our laws are based on the Ten Commandments. In fact, without them, a lot of our laws would not exist.”

Come on. The Ten Commandments, according to the Old Testament, were delivered to Moses personally by God on Mount Sinai. God had inscribed the two stone tablets with his own finger. He then handed the tablets to Moses and warned him that if the people did not obey this code, there would be consequences.

Several of the commandments regulate religious behavior.  They warn against worshiping false gods and ban graven images. They caution against taking God’s name in vain. They admonish people to keep the Sabbath.

It sure sounds like a religious document to me.

As for the claim that the Commandments are the source of our laws, that allegation is handily debunked by even a cursory look at history. Laws against murder, theft, lying, etc. have existed since people began living together in an organized fashion. Societies can’t function if these laws aren’t enforced. That’s why they’re common in all religious and ethical systems.

We often hear the claim that the Founding Fathers based American law on the Ten Commandments. Religious Right activists say it a lot – but no historical evidence backs up the claim. It’s time to put this myth to rest.

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May 27, 2011 - 2:47 pm

Let’s say you had a relative who fought and died in World War II and who was an atheist (or a Jew or a Hindu). Let’s say the government told you it was going to honor your relative’s sacrifice to our nation with a 43-foot cross atop a mountain in San Diego. Is this acceptable to you – a cross honoring your deceased, non-Christian veteran?

It’s not to a lot of people. Yet that’s exactly what’s going on at Mt. Soledad in California.

The Mt. Soledad cross was first erected in 1913. Back then, no one tried to pretend that it was a war memorial. It was displayed for clear religious purposes.

Bad weather knocked down two crosses, so in 1954 a concrete replacement (reinforced with steel) was erected. Again, no one tried to claim that the symbol was a war memorial. Backers of the cross said they wanted “to create a park worthy of this magnificent view, and worthy to be a setting for the symbol of Christianity.”

Only after the symbol became the subject of litigation in 1989 did people suddenly start insisting that the cross was intended to be a war memorial.

Since then, this case has had more twists than a spy novel. Cross defenders have desperately tried to latch on to any argument they can, even insisting that the cross – the preeminent symbol of the Christian faith – isn’t really religious. It’s just a secular marker for war dead.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected that argument in a January ruling. Writing for the court, Judge M. Margaret McKeown observed, “The use of such a distinctively Christian symbol to honor all veterans sends a strong message of endorsement and exclusion. It suggests that the government is so connected to a particular religion that it treats that religion’s symbolism as its own, as universal.”

Rather than accept the logic of the ruling in Trunk and Jewish War Veterans of the United States of America v. City of San Diego, politicians keep interfering. U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) has over the years introduced several pieces of legislation designed to keep the cross up. Courts keep striking them down, but Hunter won’t stop.

Hunter’s most recent gambit is a bill that he says will allow the cross to stay by declaring that religious symbols are suitable elements for a war memorial.

The bill faced a markup today in the House Committee on Natural Resources and sailed through. Hunter’s proposed legislation, known as the War Memorial Protection Act (H.R. 290), purports to legalize the inclusion of sectarian symbols on war memorials

This is a waste of Congress’ time. Courts, not Congress, will decide the fate of this religious symbol. Hunter’s stunt may please the cultural warriors of the Religious Right, but it doesn’t actually achieve anything.

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May 24, 2011 - 3:28 pm

Officials with the Juvenile Justice Department in Cameron County, Texas, appear to be confused about the proper relationship between religion and government.

A new youth outreach center has opened in Harlingen, and for some reason, officials saw fit to decorate it with slogans from a book penned by L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of the Church of Scientology. Worse yet, the department’s director is under the impression that these slogans will help turn troubled young people into good Christians.

The Scientology slogans are raising eyebrows in Harlingen, reported the Brownsville Herald. The phrases come from a 1980 booklet by Hubbard titled The Way to Happiness, and Scientology backers describe them as non-sectarian and commonsense guidelines. But given that religion’s controversial image, others are not so sure.

Juvenile Justice Department Executive Director Tommy Ramirez Jr. insisted that the slogans are not meant to promote Scientology. Ramirez told the Herald, “There are no religions being taught, advocated, or preached by the Cameron County Juvenile Justice Department nor anyone associated with the department.”

He added, “There are universal morals, values, good character traits being provided to the youth we are trying to rehabilitate. We have been using these tools for eight years as a means of changing the lives of the youth we serve and molding them to become good Christian citizens in our community.”

So, the department isn’t teaching any religion – yet its goal it to helping young people become “good Christian citizens.” And it’s using a Scientology book to achieve this goal.

It sounds like quite a mess to me.

There are a couple of problems here. Number one, while the slogans may seem innocuous, the people who use them and read Scientology books usually have one goal in mind: creating more Scientologists. No arm of the government should be helping out with that.

Secondly, it’s not the job of the Cameron County Juvenile Justice Department to turn youngsters into “good Christians” or “good Scientologists,” “good Muslims,” “good Buddhists,” “good Zoroastrians,” etc. Teaching these kids some life skills and values so they’ll stay out of trouble is a laudable goal. The county needs to find a way to meet that goal that doesn’t involve government promotion of religion.

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May 16, 2011 - 12:01 pm

Religious Right groups and their frequent allies in the Tea Party talk a good line about respecting American values, but much would change if they had their way. They seek not to restore our country to some Golden Age (that never existed anyway) but to recreate it – in their own fundamentalist image.

An America rebuilt along Religious Right lines would be a very different place. And to get there, the theocrats among us first have to tear down some features of American life – some of which are longstanding. Here are ten things about the United States that drive Religious Right groups crazy:

1. Our history debunks Religious Right mythology: American history stands as a rebuke to the Religious Right. America’s founders established a secular government with freedom of religion and its necessary corollary, separation of church and state, built into the First Amendment. A “Christian nation” was not what the founders sought. How do we know this? They said so. Think about it: If an officially Christian nation had been the intent of the founders, the Constitution would prominently include that concept. It doesn’t.

And those Religious Right claims that separation of church and state is a myth? They’re a crock. As James Madison put it, “Strongly guarded…is the separation between Religion and Government in the Constitution of the United States.” Madison ought to know. He’s considered the Father of the Constitution and was one of the primary drafters of the First Amendment.

2. We support science: While polls show some confusion over issues like evolution, most Americans are big fans of science and are quick to rally around the latest medical breakthroughs and cutting-edge technology. Many religious people in America long ago reconciled their faith with modern science. But the Religious Right remains stubbornly insistent that any science that conflicts with its literalist interpretation of the Bible must go.

Religious Right activists hate science because it casts doubt on their narrow worldview – a worldview that teaches that all answers are found in a rigidly fundamentalist interpretation of an ancient religious text. To the Religious Right, evolution and the Bible can’t co-exist. They refuse to read the scriptures in a metaphorical or symbolic context. Since, to the Religious Right, evolution undercuts the Bible, evolution should not be taught in public schools.

3. America has a tradition of tolerance: Yes, we’ve fallen short of complete tolerance from time to time, but at the end of the day, most Americans believe in treating their fellow citizens decently, even if they have different religious or philosophical beliefs. But to the Religious Right, tolerance is entrance ramp on the highway to hell.

The idea that religions should strive to get along is dangerously close to the idea that all religions are on equal footing. This is bad, so says the Religious Right, because it leads people into “error” – that is, an embrace of any religion that’s not fundamentalist Christianity. Tolerance is ridiculed because it dares to suggest that a Unitarian, Buddhist, Jew, Hindu, Pagan or atheist might have an equal claim on truth alongside a fundamentalist.

4. We have a secular government: To the theocrats of the right, secular government, secularism and secular anything is the bogeyman of the moment. If you doubt it, just listen to some of our leading politicians (assuming you have the stomach for it). To most people, it just makes sense for government to remain neutral on theological disputes – remember the Middle Ages? To the Religious Right, such neutrality equals hostility toward religion and a “war” against Christianity.

Ironically, there is one place where the Religious Right backs secular government: Muslim nations. Those should be secular, of course – but only as a prelude to adopting fundamentalist Christianity.

5. The U.S. Constitution has endured: The Religious Right and the Tea Party claim to revere our basic governing document, the Constitution. So why do they treat it like a first draft? Just consider the list of amendments they’d like to add: pro-school prayer, anti-abortion, “parental rights,” fetal personhood, “traditional marriage,” the list goes on.

Why does the Religious Right distrust our founders? Maybe because the founders weren’t fundamentalists, and they dared to believe that the Bible could speak metaphorically yet still contain wisdom and insight. Consider this quote by Thomas Jefferson (from a letter to Benjamin Rush, May 21, 1803): “To the corruptions of Christianity I am indeed opposed; but not to the genuine precepts of Jesus himself. I am a Christian, in the only sense he wished any one to be; sincerely attached to his doctrines, in preference to all others; ascribing to himself every human excellence; & believing he never claimed any other.”

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