Ralph G. Neas, President, People For the American Way
With the midterm elections just days away and rock-bottom approval ratings for Congress and the Bush Administration, activists on the radical religious right are desperate to re-energize their base. In an eleventh-hour attempt to change the subject from the Iraq war and scandals surrounding Jack Abramoff, Mark Foley, and the Congressional Leadership, the ultra-right Family Research Council (FRC) is turning once again to its victim/martyr strategy of asserting that Christians’ religious liberty is under attack—this time with an ugly, anti-gay emphasis.
This weekend in Boston, FRC, which is closely aligned with the Republican Party, will host “Liberty Sunday,” a simulcast rally designed to mislead and alarm voters about how LGBT rights will affect religious families, and amplify the scapegoating of gay officials in the Congressional page scandal. Their claim is among the most egregious yet: that prohibiting discrimination against gay and lesbian Americans would somehow abridge the religious freedom of right-wing Christians. The web site for their Orwellian “Freedom Watch” program proclaims:
“The expansion of non-discrimination laws to include homosexuality inevitably constricts our right to express and act on our religious beliefs.”
What? This goes far beyond questions of same-sex marriages, civil unions, or even laws that protect against hate crimes and workplace discrimination. This is essentially an assertion that religious liberty in this country ought to include the right to discriminate against an entire class of Americans in any and all aspects of life. This is a twisted and dangerous reading of the First Amendment.
And the very premise of the bogus “War on Christians” is warped. No Christian in this country is persecuted or jailed for his or her religious beliefs, or the exercise of them—a claim few nations in history have been able to make. No church is or will ever be forced to accept GLBT members or to perform same-sex marriages. Instead, the guarantee of freedom of religion exists in our Constitution to protect every religion, and every individual, allowing the practice of religion free from government interference.
“Liberty Sunday” follows a long tradition of fanning fears of anti-Christian persecution. To support the reelection of the first President Bush, televangelist Pat Robertson predicted that electing Bill Clinton would usher in a wave of anti-Christian attacks by the government. Even earlier, the Christian Coalition distributed mailers insisting that Christians were on the verge of being imprisoned for their beliefs. Ultra-conservative, anti-gay politicians now hold power in both houses of Congress as well as the White House, and are close to controlling the federal judiciary as well. Warnings that the government is somehow aligned against Christians are ridiculous—and should be challenged.
Check out these masterpieces of inverted logic. At this year’s “War on Christians” conference, conservative activist Janet Folger claimed that the ultimate goal of the “homosexual agenda” was nothing short of the criminalization of Christianity. In a recent e-mail asking for people to send him examples of anti-Christian bias, FRC President Tony Perkins asked “Have you been forced to attend pro-homosexual ‘diversity’ training at work? Have your children been subjected to pro-homosexual books or rhetoric in school?” Apparently, any reference to gays or lesbians (other than fiery condemnation) profoundly infringes on religious liberty.
FRC’s stories of alleged anti-Christian discrimination should be challenged as well. Most are either exaggerated anecdotes with little at their core, or anomalous examples that misrepresent the legal questions involved. For example, a prominent Religious Right case centered on a Tennessee student who received a failing grade on a research paper “simply because her topic was Jesus Christ.” Conservative activists were livid when a judge upheld her failing grade, but reporters who dug deeper found that the story wasn’t about “Religious Liberty” at all. In fact, the student failed because she refused to follow directions for the assignment and changed her topic without her teacher’s permission.
Examples of such nonsense abound. Perhaps the most ludicrous was last year’s “War on Christmas” canard, when the right wing echo-chamber—Bill O’Reilly, right wing blogs, Religious Right groups, and others—whipped up a faux furor by claiming that a department store’s decision to say “Happy Holidays” in its catalog was the equivalent of spitting in the face of Christians. They claimed that any effort to be inclusive of other faiths amounted to disrespect towards Christianity. The campaign deflated in a hurry when it was revealed that the official Bush White House Christmas card said “Happy Holidays” and that Fox News sold an “O’Reilly Factor Holiday Ornament” in its online store. But fear not—the “War on Christmas” will no doubt be back this year to pump up “Christmas” giving to right-wing pressure groups.
There’s a reason that the Religious Right continues to push this particular version of the Big Lie. Americans who know the truth are much more open to equality for all: a recent study by the Center For American Values in Public Life, a program of People For the American Way Foundation, showed that 18% of voters would switch their position and support full marriage equality for same sex couples if they knew that no church would ever be required to bless a marriage it disapproved of.) This argument is a straw man that Liberty Sunday will almost certainly resurrect, and it should be dismantled.
The truth is, this strategy has nothing to do with religious freedom and everything to do with gaining and preserving political power at any cost. Leaders of the Christian Right movement are not simply preachers who happen to be interested in politics. They are major political figures personally invested in the partisan success of the Republican Party. By consistently claiming that Christianity is under attack, they mobilize voters who might otherwise abandon them for their performance on the war in Iraq, the economy, the environment, or a host of other issues that actually affect their daily lives and well-being. And while there are Christian leaders who speak out across the political spectrum, we expect that speeches at Liberty Sunday will claim, either explicitly or implicitly, that Christian voters must vote for GOP candidates.
This debate is not about Christmas trees on courthouse lawns or department store holiday greetings. This debate goes to the heart of religious liberty and separation of church and state in America, fundamental freedoms that have kept our soil free of religious bloodshed for more than 200 years, and made this land a beacon of liberty for oppressed people around the globe. It is a debate about whether one religious group can force the country to continue to discriminate against gay people. It is a debate about the political power to shape the future of the nation.
“Liberty Sunday” is a desperate attempt by radical activists to cling to power by any means necessary, including the “Big Lie” of a war on Christians and the open advocacy of discrimination against gay and lesbian Americans. FRC’s fear mongering and its attempts to claim the moral high ground should be rejected.