With Friends Like These: When Religious Compromise Compromises Religious Freedom
Tim Mitchell printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Tue Oct 02, 2007 at 09:11:30 AM EST

"Americans can always be counted on to do the right thing ... after they've tried everything else." -- Winston Churchill

The last several months have been strange ones. Not only does it feel like the next presidential race has started way too early (we still have another year of this to go), but I'm stunned at how much candidates in BOTH parties are going after the evangelical Christian vote. In previous elections, whenever a politician openly pledged his faith as a means of appealing to the Christian Right it felt like he was throwing down the figurative gauntlet to his more liberal opponent, daring him to engage in a faith-based game of chicken that the Constitution prohibits. This should not be, because such behavior inevitably it boils down not to which candidate is more spiritual or religious, but which candidate is more CHRISTIAN--a contest that our Founding Fathers clearly chose to avoid by writing a ban on religious tests for holders of public office into the Constitution. Ideally, politicians should not be talking about their own personal religious beliefs when running for office, but the current presidential race has shown that it's become an all-too-acceptable tactic to court voter support.

This reminds me of whenever mainstream news outlets feel compelled to devote time/space to the rants of right-wing hacks like Ann Coulter and Bill Donohue for fear that failing to include such error-prone extremists would be proof of a "liberal bias". Along those lines, you could say that by talking about their religious faith, Democratic candidates are trying to show tolerance and understanding of the conservative evangelical Christian mindset. My opinion, which is the foundation of this article, is that by struggling to appease conservative evangelical Christians when discussing Christian beliefs with both the press and the public, liberals are in fact compromising their own ideals. There is nothing wrong with using compromise as part of a strategy to understand and tolerate others, particularly those who are different from you. Yet when efforts of tolerance are so tightly focused on an especially intolerant group and on that group alone to the exclusion of all other groups, tolerance rapidly becomes submission. Think about it: the Christian Right frequently demonstrates its hatred of other religions, dismissing them as something between the ranges of "false" and "Satanic". Democrats have been responding to the Christian Right by talking about religion from a Christian perspective, but they repeatedly fail to adequately include non-Christian, non-monotheistic religions and detailed thoughts on the separation of church and state as part of their discussion. Essentially, this tactic ends up re-affirming the Christian Right's world view, that religion should only be discussed from an evangelical Christian perspective. Is that compromise, or are Democrats only compromising themselves?

Status Kuo

A good warm-up example of what I'm talking about can be found in a debate that was posted last month on the Slate.com Web site. On one end of the debate is Hanna Rosin, author of God's Harvard: A Christian College on a Mission To Save America, a book that profiles the arch-conservative Christian Patrick Henry College.  On the other end is David Kuo, formerly of President Bush's Faith-Based Initiative. I'm familiar with Kuo and his work, so I was chagrined by Slate.com's usage of him as a counterpoint to Rosin. True to his previous rhetoric, Kuo portrays Christian evangelism in a sympathetic light and feels that evangelical Christians' efforts to become political figures could end up victimizing CHRISTIANITY, not politics. In other words, in Kuo's worldview Christian evangelists are just idealists trying to help improve politics, a venue that is so corrupt that it itself cannot be corrupted. In Kuo's own words:

Patrick Henry seems particularly intent on teaching that Jesus dictates social policy and therefore whom, and what party, to vote for. This kind of thinking isn't just spiritually sloppy--it's intellectually sloppy. It allows its students to get by without having to learn the ins and outs of public policy. "Jesus said it, that's good enough for me," isn't the way to engage in politics. Evangelicals should be the first to recognize this, because the greatest successes Christians have had in politics have been because their faith has been matched by their knowledge ... We who call ourselves Jesus' followers need to remember once more that our hope isn't set in creating the best social policy or saving America through politics. Our hope and our job, as my friend Greg Boyd says, is "to individually and corporately imitate Jesus in sacrificially serving the world--including our enemies. This is where our time and energy should be spent. And this is where all of our hope for the world should be placed." This is the message that Patrick Henry desperately needs to teach. ... Will there always be a certain number of political warriors for Christ? Sure. But there is another story ... developing out there in evangelical circles about kids more concerned about serving others in Africa than engaging in political wars. This isn't a "run behind the gates" detachment. These kids are just acutely aware of the limits of politics. And when ... kids at Patrick Henry start crossing paths with these older, wiser guys, a lot of the youngsters will change. They won't be a "delta force" for conservative politics much longer.

Kuo uses this segment to emphasize the supposed Christian evangelical imperative to "sacrificially" serve others, and he cites evangelical Christian missionaries who serve overseas to embody that point. Yet in doing so, he ignores quite a few larger issues--particularly the fact that Christian evangelism overseas can be, and has been, just as corrupt and power-hungry as Christian evangelism here in the United States. Furthermore, Kuo evidently feels that he can use this example to bypass the very nature of evangelism, which is to recruit new followers into a particular religion; thus, if evangelists' primary objective (both domestically and overseas) is to gain new converts for the sake of expanding Christianity's social, political and economic influence, how can that be considered sacrificial? To me, it sounds more self-serving than sacrificial, regardless of what pretense under which it is done, which gets back to what Patrick Henry College is doing in the first place: preparing students to evangelize American politics in the way that missionaries have evangelized Africa, Korea, Haiti, and other locations all over the world. This crosses into another pet peeve of mine: when evangelists make their ministries appear to be some kind of selfless altruism by using of the word "sharing" when discussing the promotion of their faith (e.g., to "share" the word of Jesus with others) as if that is an act of generosity. How one can confuse altruism with self-promotion is beyond me.

In another segment of the debate, Kuo tries to pin the evangelical Christian desire to seek political power on the Old Testament, not Jesus:

Not a single student quoted Jesus' sayings to you in justifying their politics. Their justification came from Old Testament admonitions about power. They didn't quote Jesus--at least as related in the book. ... It is because it would be impossible to quote Jesus urging young Christian men and women to tackle the political battlefield as if going unto war. It is because Jesus' commands have everything to do with sacrificially loving others and nothing to do with influencing the makeup of the U.S. Supreme Court.

This commentary completely ignores Jesus' Great Commission, his post-resurrection decree to his followers to "Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you". This commandment from Jesus (and yes, it IS a commandment, particularly if you literally believe that Jesus is capable of giving commandments from beyond the grave) serves as the primary drive for all evangelical Christian efforts, including those that involve seeking political power. No one can plausibly play dumb on this one: if you are commanded by your savior of choice to convert the world in his name--which is what evangelical Christians feel that they MUST do--what better way to get followers by the thousands than to seek official government endorsement of your faith? From another perspective, the federal endorsement of a particular sect or theism (such as monotheism over polytheism) would discourage citizens from seeking membership in other non-endorsed faiths (at least in any significant numbers), an outcome that would also fit within the evangelical Christian imperative.

Sadly, Rosin, who I'm assuming is supposed to represent the liberal half of this debate, doesn't do much to correct Kuo's equation of evangelical Christians plus heavy political involvement equals corrupted Christianity. In fact, she reinforces it:

In my book, I wrote about some of the Patrick Henry kids campaigning for Jerry Kilgore, who ran against Tim Kaine for Virginia governor. Kaine is a Democrat, but he has a very convincing Christian testimony. ... When I asked if they would ever consider voting for him, they looked at me like I was asking if they would vote for Osama Bin Laden. It just would not penetrate that someone could be a Democrat and a good Christian. ... This, you would say, is just further proof that politics is ruining them, and you're right. But I would not then draw the conclusion that they should just drop out. That whole cycle that evangelicals have followed for much of this century (Retreat. No! Storm the gates! Retreat. No! Storm the gates!) is just dysfunctional. It produces someone like James Dobson, who just about every six months barrels into Washington vowing to save it and then one month later leaves bitterly disappointed. He's done it for 30 years, and it doesn't work. It produces the worst of the home-school mentality, which teaches that you can go straight from your kitchen table to the White House and rescue America.

As Rosin puts it, evangelicals like James Dobson are not trying to undermine the First Amendment; they're just dysfunctional do-gooders whose wholesome beliefs fall apart when confronted with secular politics. Furthermore, Rosin argues that Christian Right tactics don't work--never mind the fact that the Republican Party has gone out of its way to appease the Christian Right, to the point that the Democrats are starting to do it too. Case in point: Kuo summarizes his view on how Christian evangelists should handle politics. "I am not saying that Christians shouldn't have a political voice. They should," he said. "But they should do it as citizens with opinions in public policy and not as 'Christians' presuming they have Jesus' answer to problems." Yet Kuo also says this :

A couple of weeks ago, I met with (Hillary) Clinton's head of religious outreach. This man was a Southern Baptist missionary to Hong Kong. He was steeped in scripture. He was from Mississippi. And he made a passionate case that a vote for Clinton was the moral vote. ... It seems to me there is a new evangelical world out there that will ... challenge all evangelicals to think differently.

To follow Kuo's logic, evangelical Christians should not use their faith as the justification for their opinion on public policy, but it is nevertheless acceptable for political candidates to find evangelical Christians who will use their faith to argue for the morality, and in turn the religious legitimacy, of the candidacies in question (?). Imagine a politician saying this in his campaign: "I can't say for sure that my faith in Jesus Christ has guided me in supporting certain policies, but my evangelical Christian religious outreach advisor can assure you that I believe in all the right things." Perhaps by the idea of evangelicals being challenged to "think differently", I think Kuo means that evangelical Christians need to be in BOTH political parties in order to establish a true Christian majority rule. By then, no evangelical Christians will have to identify themselves as being an evangelical Christian when discussing policy because everyone else will be evangelical Christians anyway, so Kuo will get what he wants in the long run. How that is supposed to make people who are neither evangelical nor Christian feel is another matter altogether.

The entire God's Harvard debate hinges upon what evangelical Christians should and should not do in the area of politics, and that Christians can be both Republicans and Democrats. However, not a single mention was made during this debate of ANY other faith and their roles in government, an omission that is particularly disturbing because Rosin is Jewish and not Christian. She has provided in previous writings accurate summations of how rigidly intolerant of other faiths the conservative Christian students at Patrick Henry can be, but that insight apparently evaporated in the presence of Kuo. All of the discussion was narrowly focused on the evangelical Christians and their religious devotion and no one else's, as if the evangelicals are the only religious people in existence. Nowhere is it mentioned that the influx of Christian evangelists in the government could lead to lesser representation of non-Christian religions and religious perspectives, and in turn lesser recognition of their civil rights in the halls of justice--a very real possibility, given the Department of Justice's recent focus on religious civil rights cases that put a priority on the right to evangelize by fighting against "Viewpoint Discrimination". We may not end up with a theocracy per se, but we would still find ourselves with a both a government system and an overwhelming majority of the public that are intolerant of non-monotheistic, non-Judeo-Christian religious beliefs--and that will ultimately lead to the downfall of the First Amendment. Kuo frequently says that politics will corrupt evangelical Christians, but anyone who feels that their religion and their religion alone should determine what is best for a religiously neutral democracy is already corrupt.

If I Become an Evangelist Tonight, Will You Respect Me in the Morning?

Moving on to the candidates for the 2008 Presidential election, I can't help but to be disappointed at what I'm seeing, particularly from the Democrats. For example, Rob Boston's AlterNet.org article, "Inquisition 2008: Candidates Get Grilled by the Media's Holy Standards", gives a grim overview of what the Democrats have been doing to court the evangelical Christian vote for the 2008 election:

Oval Office aspirants like Clinton, Obama, Edwards and others are taking the advice to boost talk about religion as well. As the (Time) newsweekly noted, "Clinton has hired Burns Strider, a congressional staffer (and evangelical Baptist from Mississippi) who is assembling a faith steering group from major denominations and sends out a weekly wrap-up, Faith, Family and Values. Edwards has been organizing conference calls with progressive religious leaders and is about to embark on a 12-city poverty tour. In the past month alone, Obama's campaign has run six faith forums in New Hampshire, where local clergy and laypeople discuss religious engagement in politics." ... As party strategist Mike McCurry told Time, "What we're seeing is a 'Great Awakening' in the Democratic Party," invoking a period in early American history when evangelical forms of religion became popular.

Note how the word "Christianity" is avoided in this quote, even though the religious activity mentioned is actually Christian in nature; the words "religion" and "religious" are used instead, implying that somehow this kind of evangelical Christian outreach activity will somehow benefit ALL religions (?). In particular, the "Great Awakening" term used by McCurry is, according to Wikipedia, "a term which originates and is embraced often and primarily by evangelical Christians." Politicians clamoring over each other to assure the public how Christian they are reminds me of the current state of South Korea. Even though this region was once overwhelmingly Buddhist, aggressive Christian evangelism after the Korean War converted South Korea into a region where politicians have to be Christian to get elected. This conversion was not without violence: during the 1990s, Buddhist temples were burned and Buddha statues were beheaded as the then-president, a Christian, openly equated Buddhist images with Satanism.

Boston also states:

Democrats are being advised by moderate evangelicals like Jim Wallis to talk more openly about faith and God. ... In the 2006 elections, some Democrats won seats after raising religious themes. Some advisors want the party to exploit this trend. Time magazine reported July 12 on the efforts of one of those strategists, Mara Vanderslice, who worked on John Kerry's presidential campaign in 2004 and advised various Democratic campaigns in 2006. Last year, it was reported that Vanderslice, who was raised Unitarian but converted to evangelical Christianity as an adult, advised candidates not to use the term "separation of church and state," arguing it alienates some voters. Vanderslice has more advice for the Democrats in 2008. "It has to be authentic," she told CNN.com recently. "This is not about 'Jesus-ing' up the party, so to speak ... It just won't work if it's seen as a cynical ploy."

How can I trust liberal presidential candidates to protect my religious freedoms when they are essentially being trained to become Christian evangelists as part of their campaigns--hence paying no regard AT ALL to the Constitutional ban on religious tests for public office? How can I trust Democratic candidates to protect the separation of church and state when they won't discuss this very topic because it "alienates some voters"? Vanderslice claims that this isn't about "'Jesus-ing' up the party", but let's face it: IT IS. Even more depressing is that by eagerly hopping on the evangelical bandwagon, Democrats are playing into the Christian Right's larger strategy. By insisting that Democrats reach out to evangelicals to win the "religious" vote, the Republicans and their allies are framing how the issue of religion will be discussed among politicians. As political common wisdom goes, he who frames the issue WINS the debate. Consider this: what is the real difference between Republicans saying that Democrats are "soft on terrorism" and the Christian Right saying that the Christian Left isn't "Christian" enough? The "soft on terrorism" rhetoric was successful in goading Democrats into supporting the Iraq War and the Patriot Act (regardless of how morally questionable such efforts were); from all outward appearances, the Democratic presidential candidates have caved in to the long-standing conservative rhetoric that Democrats are not Christian enough and are thus seeking to change this so-called problem by reaching out to evangelicals, First Amendment be damned. How can we expect Democrats to protect us from others who want to tell us what and how to believe when they can't even protect themselves?

In particular, the two leading Democratic candidates, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, bother me the most. In the case of Obama, I noticed a recent quote from him that indicates how politicians' concentrated appeasement of evangelical Christians will only undermine the protection of religious freedom and pluralism in the United States.
Last July, Obama sent an e-mail response to David Brody to answer questions he submitted to the candidate. Brody is the "Senior National Correspondent" for the "Christian News" division of Pat Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN). In response to Brody's question about how Obama plans to bring the "religious left" and "religious right" together, Obama wrote (with emphasis added):

For my friends on the right, I think it would be helpful to remember the critical role that the separation of church and state has played in preserving not only our democracy but also our religious practice. Folks tend to forget that during our founding, it wasn't the atheists or the civil libertarians who were the most effective champions of the First Amendment. It was the persecuted minorities, it was Baptists like John Leland who didn't want the established churches to impose their views on folks who were getting happy out in the fields and teaching the scripture to slaves.

I'm not sure which angers me more: that a Democratic candidate feels compelled to explain his religious faith in a media outlet with an openly conservative Christian bias, or that a BLACK candidate would be using the instance of evangelical white slave masters teaching Christian scripture to black slaves as an example of religious freedom. White Christians used their slave master status to keep their slaves from practicing any religion other than Christianity (frequently resorting to extreme violence to do so), and yet Obama describes white Baptists as a "persecuted minority" and "effective champions of the First Amendment" in this example. Sure, the Baptists weren't a majority back then, but they weren't subjected to slavery either; yes, John Leland was opposed to slavery, but many other Baptists weren't. To rephrase Obama's own words, the most effective champions of the First Amendment who didn't want the established churches to impose their views were a persecuted minority of folks who were "getting happy" to impose their views by teaching the scripture to a persecuted minority, slaves. He then goes on:

It was the forbearers of Evangelicals who were the most adamant about not mingling government with religious, because they didn't want state-sponsored religion hindering their ability to practice their faith as they understood it. Given this fact, I think that the right might worry a bit more about the dangers of sectarianism.

To put the second paragraph in the context of the first, what Obama is saying is that even though the "forbearers of Evangelicals" didn't want state-sponsored religion hindering their freedom of religion, they were all too willing to use the state-sanctioned slave trade to hinder the religious freedoms of the enslaved black population. Did I happen to mention that Obama is the Democratic Party's BLACK candidate for the 2008 Presidential election? (Oddly enough, even though Obama gives white Christian bigotry a free pass in his comments, Pat Robertson still doesn't like him.)

Personally, I am at a loss for words to describe my feelings about Obama's comments, other than resorting to a paragraph-long series of offensive expletives (many of them compounded with each other) pondering the fathomless depth of Obama's misunderstanding of religious freedom. In fact, his misunderstanding is so profound that it makes me wonder why he didn't include the Indian Boarding Schools as another shining example of American religious freedom at work. To be fair, Obama later states something more inclusive about religious freedom in America. "Whatever we once were, we're no longer just a Christian nation; we are also a Jewish nation, a Muslim nation, a Buddhist nation, a Hindu nation, and a nation of non-believers," he writes. "We should acknowledge this and realize that when we're formulating policies from the state house to the Senate floor to the White House, we've got to work to translate our reasoning into values that are accessible to every one of our citizens, not just members of our own faith community." However, he does not specify how he plans to reconcile his notion that white Christian slave masters were among the most "effective champions of the First Amendment" with his vision of a nation that supports religious pluralism. The disparity between these two polarities is so vast that I would argue that Obama would not even attempt to include them as complementary components within a single argument if he truly believed in religious freedom and plurality. Furthermore, his statement of inclusion may sound like an appreciation of religious diversity, but the original speech from which that phrase is taken is awash in references to and praise of the Christian faith, making his statements about plurality sound more like afterthoughts than expressions of genuine conviction. Referring back to Rob Boston's article, it appears that Obama and other Democratic candidates are working harder to find ways to talk about their Christian faith, not how to recognize and accommodate religious pluralism.

To make sure I was getting the complete picture, I did some searching on the Internet to find that he used the exact same text (same verbiage, same sequence of ideas) over a year ago in his keynote address for the Call to Renewal's Pentecost 2006 event. After I read the entire contradiction-laden speech, I realized that there's a lot that Obama gets wrong about religious freedom and plurality. (Other criticisms of Obama's 2006 speech can be read at Talk to Action, although even that overlooks the "teaching the scriptures to slaves" example.) Nevertheless, his strategy to appeal to conservative evangelicals though making a blithe reference to slavery still blows my mind. Obama even included that particular speech excerpt in a series of handouts that explain his position on various issues, including that of "Reconciling Faith and Politics".  The reactions to Obama's speech are no more reassuring, particularly since he feels that he can reuse this incoherent quote as a sound byte both for his campaign and for submission to a conservative Christian media outlet. As listed on the "Reconciling Faith and Politics" handout, Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne felt that "(Obama's speech on faith) may be the most important pronouncement by a Democrat on faith and politics since John F. Kennedy's Houston speech in 1960 declaring his independence from the Vatican ... Obama offers the first faith testimony I have heard from any politician that speaks honestly about the uncertainties of belief."

Then there is Hillary Clinton. In a recent Mother Jones article, "Hillary's Prayer: Hillary Clinton's Religion and Politics", Kathryn Jones and Jeff Sharlet discuss the conservative nature of Hillary's Christian faith and how that has translated to unexpected alliances with Republican politicians on certain issues. While bi-partisan cooperation is essential for our democracy, forming such partnerships through sectarian loyalty and not the public interest (as the article demonstrates) is anything but reassuring. From the article:

When (Hillary) Clinton first came to Washington in 1993, one of her first steps was to join a Bible study group. For the next eight years, she regularly met with a Christian "cell" whose members included Susan Baker, wife of Bush consigliere James Baker; Joanne Kemp, wife of conservative icon Jack Kemp; Eileen Bakke, wife of Dennis Bakke, a leader in the anti-union Christian management movement; and Grace Nelson, the wife of Senator Bill Nelson, a conservative Florida Democrat. Clinton's prayer group was part of the Fellowship (or "the Family"), a network of sex-segregated cells of political, business, and military leaders dedicated to "spiritual war" on behalf of Christ, many of them recruited at the Fellowship's only public event, the annual National Prayer Breakfast. (Aside from the breakfast, the group has "made a fetish of being invisible," former Republican Senator William Armstrong has said.) The Fellowship believes that the elite win power by the will of God, who uses them for his purposes. Its mission is to help the powerful understand their role in God's plan. ... Clinton declined our requests for an interview about her faith, but in Living History, she describes her first encounter with Fellowship leader Doug Coe at a 1993 lunch with her prayer cell at the Cedars, the Fellowship's majestic estate on the Potomac. Coe, she writes, "is a unique presence in Washington: a genuinely loving spiritual mentor and guide to anyone, regardless of party or faith, who wants to deepen his or her relationship with God."

To summarize, Clinton is involved with a conservative Christian group that segregates on the basis of gender; terms their efforts as a "spiritual war" (as opposed to Islamic jihad?) on behalf of Jesus Christ; believes that the Christian god grants power to the American elite (an updated version of the divine right of monarchs); and prefers to be "invisible" from the public. Then there's the Fellowship's leader, Doug Coe. Clinton thinks Coe is "loving" to anyone "regardless of party or faith"--although the faith in question MUST include Jesus and the Christian god. Likewise, Jones and Sharlet's description of Coe provides a grim view of this "loving" individual:

When Time put together a list of the nation's 25 most powerful evangelicals in 2005, the heading for Coe's entry was "The Stealth Persuader." "You know what I think of when I think of Doug Coe?" the Reverend Schenck (a Coe admirer) asked us. "I think literally of the guy in the smoky back room that you can't even see his face. He sits in the corner, and you see the cigar, and you see the flame, and you hear his voice--but you never see his face. He's that shadowy figure." ... Coe has been an intimate of every president since Ford, but he rarely imposes on chief executives, who see him as a slightly mystical but apolitical figure. Rather, Coe uses his access to the Oval Office as currency with lesser leaders. "If Doug Coe can get you some face time with the President of the United States," one official told the author of a Princeton study of the National Prayer Breakfast last year, "then you will take his call and seek his friendship. That's power." ... "If you're going to do religion in public life," concurs (Reverend Rob) Schenck, a Jewish convert to fundamentalist Christianity who's retained his sense of irony, Coe's friendship is a kind of "kosher...seal of approval."... Coe's friends include former Attorney General John Ashcroft, Reaganite Edwin Meese III, and ultraconservative Rep. Joe Pitts (R-Pa.). Under Coe's guidance, Meese has hosted weekly prayer breakfasts for politicians, businesspeople, and diplomats, and Pitts rose from obscurity to head the House Values Action Team, an off-the-record network of religious right groups and members of Congress created by Tom DeLay. The corresponding Senate Values Action Team is guided by another Coe protégé, Brownback, who also claims to have recruited King Abdullah of Jordan into a regular study of Jesus' teachings.

If you want proof that the First Amendment is actually a sham and its defenders are actually in denial, Coe is it on the basis of these observations. Here's a "shadowy figure", a "back room" man who sounds like someone out of a John Gotti-like crime family, who uses his Christian influence to grant "friendship" to people who desire access to the White House. (One could only wonder what happens to people of faith who don't win Coe's "friendship".) Coe's associates are involved in another "off-the-record network of religious right groups and members of Congress". Furthermore, on the basis of Schenck's remark, in order for a politician to do something religious-based through the government, he would have to get approval from Coe, a conservative Christian evangelist--NOT the Constitution.

For those of you who are wondering, here is a description of what Coe's Fellowship wants to accomplish and the range of its reach:

The Fellowship's long-term goal is "a leadership led by God--leaders of all levels of society who direct projects as they are led by the spirit." According to the Fellowship's archives, the spirit has in the past led its members in Congress to increase U.S. support for the Duvalier regime in Haiti and the Park dictatorship in South Korea. The Fellowship's God-led men have also included General Suharto of Indonesia; Honduran general and death squad organizer Gustavo Alvarez Martinez; a Deutsche Bank official disgraced by financial ties to Hitler; and dictator Siad Barre of Somalia, plus a list of other generals and dictators. Clinton, says Schenck, has become a regular visitor to Coe's Arlington, Virginia, headquarters, a former convent where Coe provides members of Congress with sex-segregated housing and spiritual guidance. ... We contacted all of Clinton's Fellowship cell mates, but only one agreed to speak--though she stressed that there's much she's not "at liberty" to reveal. Grace Nelson used to be the organizer of the Florida Governor's Prayer Breakfast, which makes her a piety broker in Florida politics--she would decide who could share the head table with Jeb Bush. Clinton's prayer cell was tight-knit, according to Nelson ... Cells like these, Nelson added, exist in "parliaments all over the world," with all welcome so long as they submit to "the person of Jesus" as the source of their power.

While I think we are long overdue for a female president in the United States, the kind of company that Clinton keeps is unacceptable if religious freedom is to be maintained. This is clearly a Christian dominionist organization that prefers to operate outside of the public eye and yet is determined to groom leaders all over the world who will submit to Jesus Christ as their religious leader.

Unfortunately, like Rosin in her debate with Kuo, Jones and Sharlet also back down from emphasizing the larger repercussions of such a dominionist presence in our government to the point of making contradictory statements. For example, at one point they write, "The Fellowship isn't out to turn liberals into conservatives; rather, it convinces politicians they can transcend left and right with an ecumenical faith that rises above politics." But the very next sentences read, "Only the faith is always evangelical, and the politics always move rightward. This is in line with the Christian right's long-term strategy. ... In this application, conservatives sit pretty and wait for liberals looking for common ground to come to them." A cause CANNOT "transcend" politics while at the same time move politics in a conservative direction, and yet Jones and Sharlet do not spend any time analyzing how this contradiction will inevitably capsize both religious freedom and liberal, progressive political activity. Jones and Sharlet close their article with a paragraph that suggests that Clinton's loyalty to a sizable, influential Christian dominionist group is a sign of political savvy, not a threat to the First Amendment. As they put it:

But the senator's project isn't the conversion of her adversaries; it's tempering their opposition so she can court a new generation of Clinton Republicans, values voters who have grown estranged from the Christian right. And while such crossover conservatives may never agree with her on the old litmus-test issues, there is an important, and broader, common ground--the kind of faith-based politics that, under the right circumstances, will permit majority morality to trump individual rights. The libertarian Cato Institute recently observed that Clinton is "adding the paternalistic agenda of the religious right to her old-fashioned liberal paternalism." Clinton suggests as much herself in her 1996 book, It Takes a Village, where she writes approvingly of religious groups' access to schools, lessons in Scripture, and "virtue" making a return to the classroom. ... Clinton speaks instead the language of nondenominationalism--a sober, eloquent appreciation of "values," the importance of prayer, and "heart" convictions--which liberals, unfamiliar with the history of evangelical coalition building, mistake for a tidy, apolitical accommodation, a personal separation of church and state.

By emphasizing Clinton's desire to appeal to "Clinton Republicans" (i.e., conservative Democrats), Jones and Sharlet are saying that Clinton is deliberately seeking conservative approval that would turn our two-party political system into the Republican Party and the Republican-Lite Party. Yet they write about this as an attempt to find "common ground", not a submission to conservative ideology. In spite of the explicitly dominionist agenda of the Fellowship, Jones and Sharlet nevertheless say that Clinton's religious appeal is nondenominational and that liberals "mistake" it for accommodation of Christian Right interests (which it is).

As a side note, this contest of who-can-be-the-most-Christian-Democrat had gone on during the summer when the movie Evan Almighty was released. Evan Almighty is the sequel to the 2003 comedy hit Bruce Almighty. Evan Almighty is basically a "comic" retelling of the Biblical story of Noah's Ark set in the present day. While it's hard to imagine a movie full of animal fart and poop jokes to be a tool for Christian evangelism, a few things need to be recognized. First, this is a very literal re-telling of the Noah's Ark story, so literal that the film's budget ballooned to approximately $200 million in part to allow for the usage of real animals (as opposed to CGI animals), making it the most expensive movie comedy to date. Such literalism is something that conservative Christians relish, particularly when seeking alternatives to Darwin's theory of evolution; in fact, this movie was released within weeks of the opening of Kentucky's $27 million Creation Museum, which uses a literal reading of Noah's Ark as a refutation of evolution. The film also centers on a God-fearing politician who not only puts his Christian faith on display while serving in public office but also requires the power of the Christian god to do the greater good--thus not-to-subtly inferring that secular politics is ultimately ineffective. Grace Hill Media, a marketing firm that targets religious Americans and was also used for marketing The Da Vinci Code and The Passion of the Christ, held exclusive screenings of Evan Almighty in fifty cities in the United States to reach religious moviegoers. Nevertheless, true to the pattern of evangelism denial, Evan Almighty's star Steve Carell told Newsweek that he didn't see his film as "a religious movie" (!).

Military Missionaries and Evangelical Embassies

To understand why evangelical politicians are a bad thing when they appear in BOTH parties (let alone just one) is that granting these Bible-thumpers such open access to the halls of government is not without repercussions. For example, many American news outlets picked up a story several months ago about a controversial video circulating that featured military officers in uniform endorsing a particular sectarian organization. The video was produced by an organization called Christian Embassy (which is not to be confused with the OTHER American Christian embassy, the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See). The Christian Embassy was formed by Bill Bright, who also created the pervasive evangelical Campus Crusade for Christ organization. The point of controversy was that the military officers were endorsing a particular religious viewpoint both while in uniform and in a military setting; this would normally be in violation of regular military protocol, since officers must request special permission to appear in uniform for any public event and no such procedures were followed by the officers in the Christian Embassy video. This has even led to a lawsuit filed by the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF), which has been closely monitoring the rise of aggressive Christian evangelism within the military branches and the damaging results it has had on the religious freedom of the enlisted.

Unfortunately, I've noticed that most news articles and blogs that have analyzed and commented on the Christian Embassy video have ignored its most troubling aspect: the video not only featured military officers, but also U.S. politicians and foreign ambassadors who lavishly praised the Christian Embassy organization for providing them with Christian fellowship and religious guidance while working for the government. These politicians approve the funding of military operations and oversee military conduct, and they are also using their political clout to contribute to a video that's designed to raise money for an explicitly sectarian organization. The politicians include (as listed in the video) Congressman J.D. Hayworth (Arizona), Honorable Pete Green (Presidential Appointee), Honorable Dan Cooper (Presidential Appointee), and Honorable Steven Johnson (Presidential Appointee); each express their appreciation of Christian Embassy staff for taking the time to provide Bible studies during their busy schedules, as if Christian Embassy is providing an essential service for government leadership that no local church, temple, mosque, synagogue or Congressional chaplain can accommodate (?). Foreign endorsers of Christian Embassy include Mrs. Carmen Ducaru, the Romanian Ambassador's wife; Mrs. Veronica Ferrero, the Peruvian Ambassador's wife; Ambassador Cyrille Oguin from Benin; and Ambassador Kassahum Ayele from Ethiopia. The video's emphasis on evangelizing to both domestic and foreign political leaders bears an eerie resemblance to Doug Coe's Fellowship organization. It also makes uncomfortable insinuations that "learning how to read the Bible" is more important to international relations than inter-religious tolerance and understanding.

However, lest you accuse Christian Embassy of using politicians and political offices to proselytize, Congressman John Carter from Texas will tell you otherwise. Carter looks straight at the camera during the video and says, "We are Congressmen going over to represent the Lord, and our message is very simple: we are here to tell you about Jesus of Nazareth and what he teaches. We are not here to talk about religion; we are here to talk about the love and demonstrate the love of Jesus Christ and that's it." According to Carter, the Christian Embassy Congressmen are actually representatives of the Christian god and would love to talk to anyone about Jesus Christ, BUT THIS HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH RELIGION (?!?). If our government is being run by politicians who cannot, or will not, identify religious proselytization even when they openly engage in it, then it is a bleak time for religious freedom and understanding, both within America and in countries that are host to evangelical Christian efforts that receive U.S. federal funding. To add insult to injury, one of the Army generals who appeared in the video defended his appearance in it by arguing that "Christian Embassy had become a 'quasi-Federal entity', since the DOD (Department of Defense) had endorsed the organization to General Officers for over 25 years." Between Christian Embassy, the Fellowship, the House Values Action Team, and Senate Values Action Team, one can only wonder how many other secretive conservative Christian evangelist groups are thought of as "quasi-Federal" entities.

In an ideal world, the military would take more proactive disciplinary action when dealing with overzealous, rule-breaking evangelists within their ranks. But as the Christian Embassy video demonstrates, if our lawyers, politicians and judges either a) don't care about the First Amendment or b) only care about it to the extent that it benefits one religious group at the expense of others, then there's no reason for the armed forces to do otherwise. Even if the current group of militant military evangelists is discharged, there's ample evidence to suggest that another set of sectarians will be ready to take their place. (It would be fantastic if our military supported a secular government in the way that, say, the Turkish military does, but unfortunately that isn't so.) Indeed, if both our future political and military leaders believe that America and Christianity are synonymous and all the opposition can do is meekly appease them by showing how Christian they are too, then I fail to see how they can be entrusted to preserve the very same religious freedom our Founding Fathers established in our Bill of Rights. Then again, if the Christian Right fails to take over the military, they're certainly ready to build a military of their own at places such as the Christian Military Academy.

Religious Freedom - Religious Pluralism = Failure of Faith and Civil Liberties

I'm at a loss as to how and why the Christian Right has become so powerful if religious freedom is a virtue in our country. Perhaps the problem lies with our failures in the past recognize when the Christian Right went too far in promoting themselves and demeaning others, which happened all too often. The Christian Right went too far when they used slavery to forcibly convert slaves from Africa to Christianity. The Christian Right went too far when our government declared the practice of traditional American Indian religions illegal while at the same time paying Christian evangelists to "Christianize" the American Indian tribes. The Christian Right went too far when they replaced our national motto "E Pluribus Unum" ("Out of many, one"), a statement of diversity and inclusion, with "In God We Trust", a statement of sectarian, monotheistic loyalty. The Christian Right went too far when they put "under God" in our national pledge, a pledge our children say in public schools every morning no matter which god or gods their parents look to for spiritual guidance and sustenance. Slavery might be gone and traditional American Indian religions may now be legal again, but the scars of what these acts left behind can be seen in the vast number of pre-Christian religions and religious practices that are gone, some forever, from the American landscape.

Compounding this problem is that there doesn't seem to be much of a penalty for when a religious group uses public resources to promote itself. For example, if the Ten Commandments is posted on public land and a court case results from it, the worst that could happen is that whatever Christian group put it there would have to take it down and pay legal fees--that's hardly a deterrent for putting the Ten Commandments up somewhere else. Another example would be the "under God" controversy: even if those two words would successfully be taken out of the Pledge of Allegiance, no one is going to be held accountable for that long-standing breach of the First Amendment. The Knights of Columbus was the key religious organization that supported the insertion of those words back in the 1950s; if "under God" were to be taken out, the Knights of Columbus should at least have to pay a hefty fine for putting it in the pledge--namely, for exploiting the national fear of communism for sectarian gain--but no such penalty exists. Hence, politicians can openly and repeatedly endorse sectarian legislation and use their office to promote sectarian groups, but they can't be penalized for it even though they should be upholding the First Amendment. (According to Salon.com, the Texas Republican party even required candidates to take Christian fealty oaths; that alone should bar their candidates from running for public office at all, since their willingness to take the oath clearly shows a complete disregard for the First Amendment.)

 

On the other hand, any penalties against proselytization would viewed by the Christian Right as "persecution" of their faith, no matter how, when, where and to what extent they violate the First Amendment. The most likely outcome is that the Christian Right would be even more incensed to proselytize with each obstacle they encounter; the idea of punishment for violating the First Amendment as a reminder to respect other religions (particularly non-evangelical, non-Christian religions) would be completely lost on them. So with what appears to be a no-win situation, what are liberal defenders of the First Amendment to do?

For starters, the Democratic candidates should stop wanting to be like evangelical Christians. If the candidates are Christian and want to talk about their faith, that's fine, but they should stop emulating the evangelists. Like their usage of Republican talking points to talk about the Iraq War, Democrats can't possibly expect to promote religious freedom and pluralism by adopting the conservative evangelical Christian approach to religion no matter how many votes they think they'll get by doing so. Yes, Bible-thumping proselytizers get excited when politicians talk about Jesus and the Christian Bible, because evangelicals see it as their purpose in life to blabber on and on and on about Jesus and the Christian Bible in the first place (duh). To put it in evangelical-friendly terms, they WANT to see politicians "witness to ... the awesome power of Jesus Christ", the more the better. How placating the interests of evangelical Christians--Christians who predicate their faith on increasing their membership and in turn draining the membership away from other faiths--can be considered progress doesn't make an ounce of sense in a government that was originally intended to promote religious neutrality.

The Democrats should instead be working harder to create talking points, images and themes that focus on making a fair government that is open to ALL religions and religious viewpoints. If our republic is going to remain faithful to the principles upon which it was founded, our leaders need to SUPPORT them by TALKING about them; if the exact phrase of "separation of church and state" sounds too negative, open up a dictionary and craft a new phrase that isn't. Come to think of it, if the Democratic candidates are really serious about religious freedom and diversity, they would stop telling reporters which Bible verse is their favorite and instead find a way to work Wiccan practitioner Roberta Stewart into their campaigns. Stewart's husband, Sgt. Patrick Stewart, was killed in combat in Afghanistan; not only did Mrs. Stewart have to sue the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to allow a Wiccan symbol to be placed on her husband's government-issue grave marker, but she was later snubbed by President Bush when he failed to invite her to his meeting in Reno with northern Nevada family members of soldiers who have perished in combat. This is a blatant example of religious intolerance on the federal level and the Democrats should embrace it if they want to assure us that they can protect all of our religious believes and practices, not just those of the majority. Of course, such political support of a Wiccan would inevitably raise outrageous and groundless accusations from the Christian Right that the Democrats are endorsing evil and Satan worship; yet if we let such hysterical and deceitful discourse rule the discussion of religious pluralism, true religious freedom will never exist.

Yet the promotion of religious pluralism in the public sphere cannot, and should not, be left up to the Democrats alone. The fact that the Christian Right has gotten this far in influencing politics just goes to show what kind of wimps we liberals can be and that has to stop. What frustrates me to no end is that the Christian Right makes no secret out of wanting to convert the masses all over the world to follow its vision of Jesus Christ, and the Christian Left seems to approve of this--as long as the evangelists keep their proselytization activities limited to other countries. The Christian Left only responds when these avid evangelists start showing up in American schools, businesses, political offices, and even its own churches (also known as "steeplejacking"); by that time the Christian Right is usually several steps ahead (financially, if not strategically). The only way to protect our own religious beliefs is to stand up for the religious beliefs of others with the same passion and devotion that the Christian Right gives to itself, not to wait for the Christian Right to appear directly in our lives. This may mean that liberals have to find a way to value human spirituality in a manner that is non-sectarian and deity-neutral; after all, it is in innate human trait that has been exhibited in cultures all over the world since the dawn of the human race. To devise such a system of value, members of the Christian Left may need to relax the boundaries of their monotheistic view of religion in order to appreciate others who are very different in their recognition of the divine. For as frightening as that may sound, such a sacrifice is necessary to make gains against an opponent who is driven by faith-based narcissism and membership gluttony.

This will not be easy. As recent poll findings show, most Americans believe that the nation's founders incorporated Christianity into the Constitution, and that the freedom to worship does not cover religious groups they consider to be "extreme". However, I ran across a quote not too long ago that I think summarizes this issue well. It was in an article on the OpenLeft.com Web site by Jenifer Fernandez Ancona that reviews a recent study by Robert Putnam on the effect of racial diversity on civic engagement. Ancona's summary of Putnam's work says it best: "My take: Putnam's research shows that just throwing people from different races together, with structural racism still very much intact, and without a stronger national anti-racist movement to counteract it, doesn't lead to automatic racial harmony." In the case of religious freedom, it is the Christian Right that supports the structural intolerance of non-Christian religions; thus, to assume that using the rhetoric of the Christian Right to promote religious harmony and spiritual liberty (as Democratic candidates appear to have done) is a serious mistake. If we truly wish to live in a society that encourages religious freedom, we must be the pro-religious pluralism effort that makes religious freedom possible. We must adopt rhetorical strategies, patterns of thinking, and goal-oriented worldviews that nurture this possibility. We must swallow our own self-centered religious convictions to risk standing up for others who do not have the support of the majority and to share with them opportunities of representation that the majority takes for granted. Anything less than this is surrender to the Christian Right.





Display:
It strikes me that we in the USA are more and more emulating the post-Julius Caesar Roman Empire, to our eventual and likely inevitable demise. I fear that evangelical Christianity is becoming the god of our country and will be used as the ultimate determining factor of power and authority more and more perniciously in the future. We need only look to the way that the Octavian tradition of Emperor-as-god eventually became the basis of Jewish and early Church persecution in the Roman Empire to see how this plays out.

The open question for us is what survives to take over the nation when the end comes, not with a bang but a whimper.

by RevRuthUCC on Tue Oct 09, 2007 at 11:50:19 PM EST


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