Theocracy vs. Democracy in America
You can't listen to Christian Right leaders, and more than a few GOP elected officials these days without hearing the phrase "America was founded as a Christian Nation." What about separation of church and state, you may ask? What about the establishment clause of the First Amendment? Well, the Christian Right has it's own version of history, it's own historians, colleges, universities and even law schools. So what about `em? There is a war on for control of America, its institutions and its history. This essay is about one element of the struggle.
A crucial part of the war for the future of America is the battle to define the past. It is in this past that we find key understandings of the Constitution. It is also in this past that modern politicians, judges, and conservative evangelical religious leaders justify their contemporary actions and public policy views. The mythology of America as the once and future Christian Nation, is a powerfully animating factor for the Christian Right. The myth of Christian America is highly debatable. Well, let the debates begin.
Here in the age of "framing the message," the Christian Right has done a good job with Christian Nationalism -- so much so, for example, David Barton, one of the leading figures in the Christian Nationalist movement, works full time spreading the message of Christian historical revisionism. (The Republican National Committee put him to work this year touring churches. He is also the vice- chair of the Texas GOP.) There is no analogous figure fighting for a non-revisionist version of history (although Rob Boston of Americans United for Separation of Church and State has done a terrific job of debunking Barton over the years.) The idea that America was founded as a Christian Nation is prevalent and widely broadcast, by Christian Rightists like Rev. D. James Kennedy, and is largely unrefuted in public life.
Christian Rightists are able to compile a lot of information to support their thesis. They can quote from the Mayflower Compact, from the preambles of constitutions of state legislatures, to various religious statements by various "Founding Fathers." Absent a grounding in American history and the development of the constitution, this stuff can be hard to refute. Do you have to be a constitutional lawyer or have an advanced degree in history to refute Christian Nationalism? Hopefully not. The political battles in our schools and in electoral contests are not usually going to be waged by folks like that. Somehow, the rest of us need to have useable renderings of our history, so we can go toe-to- toe at the school board, on the op-ed page, and in candidate debates.
I found a helpful place to begin, where the information and the implications are unambiguous. And that's in Article Six of the Constitution.
For over 150 years of the colonial era, there were established churches, just as there had been in Europe for centuries before. In different colonies, there were different established churches. In Massachusetts it was the Congregational Church. In Virginia, it was the Anglican Church. As a general rule during this period, you had to be a member in good standing of the established church to vote and hold public office. What's more, one had to swear a Christian oath, of one sort or another. Details varied and changed over time. But the framers of the Constitution had some knotty problems to resolve. They were well aware of the history of religious warfare in Europe, and indeed, of the religious persecution and bigotry in the colonies. One of the formative experiences of the young James Madison was witnessing the beating and jailing of a Baptist minister who dared preach the gospel as he understood it in violation of Virginia law at the time. In the previous century not only witches, but Quakers were executed in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Jesuit missionaries, if any had shown up, would also have been executed.
How could the Framers of the Constitution stitch together a nation out of 13 separate colonies, each with its own established churches? How could they inoculate the new nation against the ugliness of religious bigotry and persecution, and the risk of religious warfare? They started to answer these questions in Article Six.
Article Six, Clause 3 states: "The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States."
What this meant was that for the first time in the history of the world, religious orientation would not be a consideration as to one's qualifications for office. This clause, effectively disestablished the churches, by making religious equality the law of the land. It was a radical idea, and it passed overwhelmingly and with little debate. The Christian Right of the 18th Century didn't like article six and unsuccessfully fought ratification in the state legislatures. The Christian Right spent much of the 19th Century unsuccessfully trying to amend the Constitution to acknowledge God or Christianity in some way. In the latter part of the 20th Century (through the present) the Christian right has tried to revise history to say that the U.S. really was a Christian Nation after all.
But its hard to get around the simple fact that there is no mention of God or Christianity anywhere in the Constitution. This was not because the Framers were irreligious. It was because they believed in religious freedom and did not want the government to interfere in religious affairs. Nor did they want the abuses of power that come from commingling state power with the power of the clergy. Its true that the words "separation of church and state" do not appear in the Constitution or any of the amendments. But the meaning has been unambiguously there from the beginning.
The Christian Nationalists have a tremendous problem in Article Six, so they either ignore it, or attempt bizarre interpretations. Still, growing numbers of people are getting steeped in the mythology, in Christian Schools, home schools, and events with the likes of David Barton.
But one prolific theocratic writer, Gary North, a longtime Christian right strategic thinker, is honest about Article Six. North, who holds a legitimate Phd in colonial history, writes that Article Six erected an explicit "legal barrier to Christian theocracy" and that the ratification of the Constitution was a "break with Christian America."
Indeed, the colonies had been little Christian nations. But they were overthrown by the ratification of the Constitution by the 13 state legislatures. Each state in turn, gradually brought their state constitutions into conformity with the national charter. Acheiving religious equality did not happen overnight. Arguably, we could say that we have not acheived it yet. But we have come a vast distance in the past 200 years. And I believe that being able to describe that difference in a clear, factual and persuasive manner is one of the great tasks and challenges for all who are concerned about the Christian Right's vision for America.
Christian Nationalism is an ideology that ought to be easy to demolish, from a powerful factual and moral high ground. Christian Nationalism presumes second-class citizenship at best for the religiously incorrect. The nostalgia for more theocratic times by the likes of Rev. D. James Kennedy and David Barton is offensive. The early colonies were hotbeds of legalized religious bigotry and persecution. That's one of the reasons why the churches were disestablished. We don't want to go back to that era. Teasing effective "messages" out of the facts and the history is not that hard, but our knowledge and our arguments are sorely in need of being updated.
We have allowed the Christian Right to own the phrase "religious freedom." Its time to take it back. On the matter of religious equality and religious freedom, we are the political descendants of James Madison, Thomas Jefferson and the Framers of the Constitution. Let's act like it.
[This essay is partly adapted from my book Eternal Hostility. I recently posted an earlier version at The Daily Kos, where an interesting discussion ensued. -- FC]
How to Beat the Christian Right, Part I
What can we do about the Christian Right? (I have been asked this, in response to various diaries on The Daily Kos.) This essay is the beginning of an answer. I suppose its directed to everyone, and no one in particular -- except you, the reader. There is, as you might imagine, no one short answer to the question. But farther down, I am going to offer one anyway. I am convinced that it is the place to begin; the lens through which to view all other elements of the struggle. It is the foundation. Without it, everything else is unconnected dots.
The good news is that it is simpler than you may think, and you may already be doing it.
But no scrolling ahead! There are reasons why I save the answer 'til the end.
I was inspired, as I often am, to write this essay in response to the Christian Right itself. It happens that there is a small, but significant Christian Right conference in Atlanta next month. It will not get the national attention that D. James Kennedy's recent "Reclaiming America" conference received. And it will probably not be as large, or draw very many people from beyond Atlanta. But it is important for other reasons. The conference sponsor, American Vision, is one of the leading hubs of theocratic education and activism in the United States. And I think a look at the conference agenda, tells us much about the theocratic movement, and how it seeks to take power. And because this is so, or at least thats how it appears to me, it offers us some insight into what we must do in response.
The conference, titled Restore America Rally, looks from this distance like an ideological indoctrination seminar in Christian nationalism, and a pep rally for the political movement that emanates from it. Let's take a quick look at the featured speakers.
Gary DeMar, is the head of American Vision, which publishes books for the Christian school and Christian home school market. DeMar's own books tend to be works of Christian historical revisionism, which among other things, seek to persuade young people that the U.S. was founded as a "Christian nation." His first presentation at the conference, intended for young people, is on "America's Christian Heritage." This is one way of framing the basic premise of Christian nationalism. And it is important because it is a central underlying premise of all of the Christian Right, and is arguably a necessary ingredient to their success. But it is also a major weakness, because it is a premise that is more than faulty, it is just plain wrong. I have written about this before, and there is plenty of good source material to support this, so I will not dwell on it here. But its a subject we all need to get very good at. I think it is part of the key to turning the tide.
DeMar's vision for America, and his widening influence in the Christian Right in Georgia, and nationally, is disturbing. DeMar is a leader of the Christian Reconstructionist movement, which believes that the U.S. should be governed by a harsh theocracy and impose what they call "Biblical law." I happen to have written a great deal about DeMar and his fellow theocrats in my book Eternal Hostility: The Struggle Between Theocracy and Democracy. Here is a sample: "Gary DeMar in his book Ruler of the Nations wrote that "The law that requires the death penalty for homosexual acts effectually drives the perversion of homosexuality underground, back into the closet...". The longterm goal, he adds, "should also be the execution of abortionists and the parents who hire them. If we say that abortion is murder, then we must call for the death penalty.' DeMar claims that Christians 'are not to impose a top-down tyranny to ram the Bible down people's throats.' However, he insists "we must elect public officials who say they will vote for Biblical laws." (page 82)
Of course, DeMar probably won't be talking about the more gruesome and totalitarian aspects of the theocratic agenda for America when he addresses young people at the Restore America Rally. The darker side of the Christian Nation will remain deep in the shadows until they are able to take power; and when they do, they will say they are only doing what God requires, even if it is unpleasant. Smart, if disingenuous politics.
During the evening rally, DeMar will answer a rhetorical question: "Is Reclaiming America a Futile Exercise?" And when he is done, young and old will learn just what they can do to restore America's Christian heritage -- the true intentions of the Founding Fathers that, sadly, have been so twisted and thwarted by secular humanism and the runaway federal judiciary.
They will hear a "challenge" from Sadie Fields, president of the Christian Coalition of Georgia. She will tell the rally goers, assembled in the pews of Trinity Chapel, that they can reclaim America by becoming active Christian citizens; by lobbying, and most importantly, engaging in electoral politics, and learning how to do it well -- as has been key to the success of the Christian Coalition, and its historic role in transforming politics in the Republican Party, and in the country.
Finally, they will hear a stem winder from keynoter Roy Moore, who in the program, is referred to as "Chief Justice." Moore will tell his revisionist and self-serving account of how he violated the order of a federal judge to remove the monument to the Ten Commandments that he had installed in the Alabama state courthouse; and how he was fired for it by a panel of retired judges and how the courts turned down his appeals. Then he will tell his audience how the problem is "judicial tyranny," and how he is standing tall, remaining righteous, and true to his understanding of his Oath of Office and the will of God. People will see him as a hero of the faith, a Christian patriot, and a role model. He will also seek to persuade his audience that they, and the true intentions of the Founding Fathers have been betrayed, and that they must restore America's Christian heritage and reclaim America.
Or something pretty close to that.
An aside: That Moore and his fans continue to use the title "Chief Justice," tells us much about the culture and worldview of the theocrats. Moore was ousted from his post for his crackpot theatrics and his defiance of a federal court order. But notice in the bio on Moore's web site, almost every sentence begins with "Chief Justice," as if he were to the title born.
"Chief Justice Moore served our Country as a Captain in the Military Police Corps of the United States Army. He also served as Battalion Staff Officer at Ft. Riley, Kansas, and Illesheim, Germany, and as a Company Commander in Vietnam. During his professional career, Chief Justice Moore became the first full-time Deputy District Attorney in Etowah County and served in this position from 1977 until 1982. In 1984, Chief Justice Moore undertook private practice of law in Gadsden, until he became Circuit Judge, Sixteenth Judicial Circuit in 1992. Chief Justice Moore served in this capacity until his election as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Alabama in November, 2000."
It is a similar sense of entitlement that animates the Christian theocrats; they believe that God has anointed them, as Christian Right leader D. James Kennedy has put it, as "God's vice-regents" The resentment they feel when they don't get their way, often manifests itself in their political behavior.
There is a tendency, especially among those who are just learning about the Christian Right, to get very worked up about "the dominionists," "the theocrats" and "the Reconstructionists," and so on. And this is understandable. (If it wasn't, I wouldn't have spent so many years learning and writing about these things.) But once you do know, once you do understand, what then? What do we do with what we have learned? How much information do we need to take action? Don't get me wrong. I am not saying that learning about the Christian Right is something we should not do, or ever stop doing. What I am saying is that one does not need to be an expert to begin to take action, and the knowledge that we gain should inform our activism.
Here is the good news. The answer lies in what the what the theocrats themselves are doing to gain power. Electoral politics. Yup. Electoral politics.
The Christian Right spent years systematically raising their constituency's consciousness about politics and public policy; building a culture that includes, rather than excludes electoral politics, a culture that actually sees electoral politics as a natural outgrowth of their religious and home life. We need to find ways to do this in ways appropriate to our own communities, and our own institutions. I am not talking about big opinions about what the Democratic Party should do; or what the mainstream churches, or organized labor should do. I am talking about what I should do, and what you should do, in our own lives, in our own communities, and in the institutions we relate to. These will be different for most of us. I have been trying to do this in my own life, and this is part of why I write this piece. (My main involvement is Progressive Democrats of Massachusetts.)
So the next time someone starts breathlessly talking or writing about what "the dominionists" (or some other powerful opponents) are up to: Don't panic. And don't let that person panic. We know they're bad. We know they have some considerable political strength and momentum. Take a deep breath. Do what so many of us are doing, or are learning to do. Electoral politics. Collectively, we have great power.
I repeat. The answer to the power of the Christian Right is electoral power of our own. No excuses. Many of us have tended to abandon this cornerstone of citizenship in favor of other things. It is time to get our priorities straight. Less talk, more action. Less entertainment, more citizen involvement. Less TV and sports. More electoral politics. Do we want the theocrats to win? More electoral politics.
Yeah, yeah, framing. Yeah, yeah, message. Yeah, yeah, netroots. Yeah, yeah, statements of principles. These, and more are important, and I am not minimizing them. They are all elements of electoral politics, elements of citizenship. It is the path to power in the United States. Each of us, as citizens has the right and the obligation to learn to do it well, just as the Christian Coalition and their allies have learned to do it well. If we believe that democracy is a good thing, we need to learn to get very good at it. We need to be better at it than those who would destroy it.
I don't mean to be simplistic or glib. While the foundational idea is simple, I know the rest may be complicated and hard. But once we accept that orienting ourselves to electoral politics is the necessary foundation, everything else falls into place. Electoral politics is integral to citizenship in a constitutional democracy. How could it be otherwise? Voting alone is not enough. The survival of constitutional democracy depends on the active participation of the citizens. Did you know that the typical turnout for special elections for the state legislature in Massachusetts is 25%? Here in the bluest of the blue states? This kind of statistic is typical around the country, and the problem of citizen disengagement and lack of particiaption needs to change. It's possible; and it's necessary.
And yes, we have some reclaiming to do ourselves. We need to reclaim American history and develop a better, accurate, competing narrative. And part of that narrative must also be our own stories of reclaiming the knowledge and skills it will take to also reclaim the power of citizenship.
Learning political and electoral skills, developing a good political culture in our communities and in our institutions; establishing networks of political relationships; building for power -- all takes time. But it will be time well spent. Let's get to work.