Onward Christian Soldiers: War, Religion and Ashcroft’s Passion

Onward Christian Soldiers: War, Religion and Ashcroft’s Passion

I attended the 50th anniversary Congress of the International Humanist and Ethical Union this past summer, which was held near the city of Leiden in the Netherlands. After lunch one afternoon, I was approached by an individual who is very prominent in American and international humanist circles. He wanted to share with me some disturbing thoughts that were on his mind. The gist of his concern was that with Attorney General, John Ashcroft, again unleashing the FBI to spy on domestic groups, it was very possible that humanist organizations, including the Ethical Culture movement, could be objects of FBI infiltration and surveillance. His reasoning was that the Christian Right retains a tremendous following and has again begun to bash humanism as a fomenter of all that is evil in contemporary American life. He cited such monumentally popular evangelical writers such as Tim LaHaye, who has written dozens of pulp novels about Armageddon and the End Times, and has sold tens of millions of copies to avid evangelical audiences. La Haye is a major humanism basher. But it is not just the grass roots popularity of such writing that concerned by friend. It was that these well-organized legions of conservative Christians have pipelines deeply lodged in the current administration. Not the least of their allies is John Ashcroft, himself a devout member of the ultra-conservative Assemblies of God Church, a man who has scant love for secular values, and we can only guess his true feelings about that paramount secular document he is sworn to uphold, the U.S. Constitution.

I don’t think that my colleague was being paranoid. It may come as a surprise and a shock to many of you that during the 1960s and the War in Viet-Nam, J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI infiltrated the Ethical Culture Movement, and kept the movement under surveillance. My late colleague at the New York Society, Algernon Black, was interrogated by the FBI. And my colleague in Washington, Edward Ericson, was placed under surveillance. We were clean, and this gallant effort carried out by tax-payer’s expense, resulted in little more than the feds acquiring by stealth several platform addresses given by Mr Ericson. Offending paragraphs in Ericson’s Sunday morning talks were underlined in thick black ink, and that seemed to be about the extent of the FBI’s interest in the Washington Society, as far as we know. It had baffled my colleague as to why the Bureau went to so much trouble to acquire these transcripts which they readily could have gotten by joining the mailing list of the Washington Society and paying a modest subscription fee.

All this is by way of introduction to the notion that these are very conservative times, and the sabers of war are rattling again. Humanist and liberal religionist that I am, I am especially concerned that that we live in an era when the conservative agenda is fueled by a powerful merger of government with the ultra-conservative churches.

On the margins of respectability for most of the 20th century, Christian evangelicals and fundamentalists burst onto the political scene in the late 1970s. In a little over two decades they have gained immense political power at all levels of government, and have succeeded in moving the entire American political landscape far to the right. Through a consortium of grass roots movements such as the Moral Majority, the Christian Coalition, The Eagle Forum, Focus and the Family, the American Family Association, the Concerned Women of America and dozens of others, the Christian Right has established well organized and funded battalions of Washington lobbyists, direct mail campaigns, think tanks and workers who influence and pervade all levels of government. They have attempted to take over the Republican Party in several states, and this they have accomplished at least in Texas. So great has their influence been, that issues that seemed extreme and on the fringe twenty-five years ago, have become mainstream and are the focus for debate today.

Among the more dramatic issues on the conservative political agenda that are fueled by the conservative churches are: limiting a woman’s access to abortion, undermining family planning programs at the UN, curtailing gay rights, opposing gun control, destroying the wall of separation between church and state, including; restoring prayer to the public schools, posting the Ten Commandments in schools and courtrooms, promoting government funding for “faith-based organizations”, promoting equal time for teaching “scientific creationism” in the schools along with the theory of evolution, ensuring that only conservative judges be appointed to the judiciary, who will pass laws based on the “word of God” , promoting tax cuts, while increasing military spending, and limiting welfare spending, and governmental social programs generally. There are rafts of other concerns of the Christian Right, some of which I will focus on in a few minutes.

Needless to say, all these issues, and many more are given a religious sanction, and are presented as reflecting the will of God, though I am not the first person to observe that you can search the Bible from beginning to end, and you will not find a single references to tax cuts, defense spending, gun control or even abortion, though opposition to abortion is the jewel in the crown of issues trumpeted by the Christian Coalition, comprised on many people who claim to give a literal reading to the Bible. Needless to say, theological contradictions are readily swept aside by Biblical literalists when such contradictions interfere with the political interests and the acquisition of raw political power.

I find it also ironic that in the name of Christian piety, Jimmy Carter, who indeed was an authentic Bible-revering born-again Christian, was defeated for the presidency in 1980 with the help of the Christian Right, in favor of Ronald Reagan, a man who seldom went to church, had little resonance with organized religion, and whose own beliefs seem to have been a light-weight montage of California New Age laced with astrology. Bill Clinton was perhaps the man Christian Conservative most loved to hate, and whom they savaged constantly. Yet Clinton was a church-going southern Baptist, who in terms of religious pedigree, was perhaps more like those evangelicals than any president other than Carter. Again, religion is being manipulated on a grand scale for the sake of political, and partisan ends.

We now have George W. Bush in the White House. The fact that Bush won the presidency with less than half the popular vote, might lead one to think that he would be sensitive to reaching out to a wider constituency in the service of coalition building. But, as we know, this was not the case.

Writing in the New York Times on October 25th, Paul Krugman noted the following:
More generally, Mr., Bush ran as a “uniter, not a divider.” The Economist endorsed him back in 2000 because it saw him as the candidate better able to transcend partisanship; now the magazine describes him as “partisan-in-chief.”

It’s tempting to view all this merely as a question of character, but it’s more than that. There is method in this administration’s mendacity.

For the Bush administration is an extremely elitist clique trying to maintain a populist façade. Its domestic policies are designed to benefit a very small number of people – basically those who earn at least $300,000 a year, and really don’t care about either the environment or their less fortunate compatriots. True this base is augmented by some powerful special interest groups, notably the Christian Right and the gun lobby.
These are hard words, again coming from the New York Times, hardly a mouthpiece of the far-left.

It is that relationship between the Bush administration and the Christian Right that I want to focus on. Though George Bush is a practicing Methodist, and most Christian evangelicals, and especially fundamentalists, come out of Southern Baptism, they consider the president to be one of their own. Since getting beyond his problem with alcohol, George Bush has claimed to be a born-again Christian, who has accepted Jesus as his lord and savior, in the manner that replicates the experience of Christian evangelicals. As you may recall, during the campaign, Bush also claimed that Jesus was his favorite political philosopher, though someone should have pointed out to him that though Jesus was a great moral teacher, itinerant sage, reforming rabbi and maybe even the son of God, he was not by any stretch of the imagination, a political philosopher. But so what? If it makes you feel good, why bother with technicalities?

The Christian Right considers Bush very much their man, for he supports virtually their entire agenda. The only issue where there may have been and remains some disagreement was Bush’s much heralded, but questionable support for education when he was governor of Texas, and his aspiration to be the “education president.” The destruction of the cabinet post of Secretary of Education had been a mainstay of the Christian Right program in the 80s and into the 90s, but Bush does not share that view.

The largest political organization of the Religious Right remains the Christian Coalition, founded by Pat Robertson, who was succeeded, as its president, by Ralph Reed. In the 1980s and 90s with 2.3 million members, the Christian Coalition became the largest grass roots movement in American history. Although smaller now, it remains a very powerful political force. George Bush addressed its national convention held last month in Washington DC by videotape. The man who was referred to often as “our Godly president” spoke out against reproductive rights, and in favor of blurring the separation of church and state. Live speeches were made by House majority leader Dick Armey, House majority whip, Tom DeLay, numerous senators and congressmen, as well figures from within the religious right such as Robertson, Jerry Falwell, Phyllis Schlafly and Alan Keyes.

George W. Bush is the most theocratic president we have had in the past one hundred years. His often-repeated refrain of compassionate conservatism, a rubric that was recommended to him by Christian evangelical and adviser, Marvin Olasky, has in practical terms meant cutting government social programs, and funding churches directly to undertake those social programs, which, at least since the New Deal had been the responsibility of government to provide.

Although this Charitable Choice initiative has been somewhat pared down by Congress, it is still very much on the move. It will make it more likely that if you want to overcome your alcoholism or your problem with drugs you’ll have to swallow a strong does of Jesus’s love, or be subject to religious missionizing as part of your cure. Such programs are rampant in George Bush’s Texas, in state prisons, in orphanages, in juvenile reform programs, and they are spreading. John Ashcroft, when he was senator from Missouri, was Congress’s leading proponent of Charitable Choice.

On October 3rd, the Washington Post reported that the Department of Health and Human Services awarded a $500,000 grant to Pat Robertson’s charity, Operation Blessing, which will now distribute the money to 120 local religious groups around the country. Pat Robertson, the founder of the Christian Coalition, the Christian Broadcasting Network and the 700 Club, is a businessman with a $300 million empire, including diamond mines in the Congo, and, more recently, gold mines in Liberia. Robertson is also a conspiracy nut, who believes that the world has been perverted by international Jewish bankers and Masons. He is one of the most outspoken purveyors of religious bigotry in America, claiming, as we know, that the attack on the World Trade Center was abetted by the presence in America of gays, lesbians, secular humanists, and the ACLU, among other people he does not like. He has attacked Islam vociferously, and has said that Methodists, Presbyterians and Episcopalians reflect “the spirit of the Anti-Christ.” The legislation enacting Charitable Choice forbids giving money to religious organizations that promote hatred, but the Bush administration seems to overlook that provision in their grant to Robertson’s operation.

This marriage of religion and the state has the feeling of a vast cultural shift in American life, as religion, propelled by faith of a very conservative kind, pervades more deeply into the corners of American life. Speakers at the Christian Coalition convention, just mentioned, referred to the separation of church and state as a “deception of Satan” and James Inhofe, senator from Oklahoma, referred to the separation of church and state “as the phoniest argument there has ever been.”

The destruction of the wall of separation between church and state is the destruction of the rampart that permits religion to flood into our political life and through the arms of government. This assault on what I believe is the wisest, most brilliant, and successful gifts the Founders of this country have bestowed on posterity and on us, has gained frightening currency in our times. It is espoused by such figures as Joseph Lieberman, Justices Rehnquist, Scalia and Thomas, John Ashcroft and George Bush. It is almost normative for conservatives these days to believe this, even though traditional conservatives, such as Barry Goldwater, were as staunch a defender of the separation of church and state as any civil libertarian coming from the Left.

In order to make this assault on church-state separation, the Christian Right, which has found allies among previous infidels such as conservative Catholics and orthodox Jews, and their friends in political high places, have had to rewrite American history, especially the religious commitments of the Founding Fathers. If you want to destroy a powerful idea, you attack it at the roots. And this is being done, as American history is rewritten before our very eyes.

If the Christian Right and their allies in government are to be believed, the authors of our Constitution were God fearing, Bible- thumping evangelicals, such as themselves. While it’s universally granted that the Founders of the American republic opposed an official church, in this revised history Madison, Jefferson, Adams and company thought it was a swell idea for government to support religious activity, and that the two were never meant to be separate.

Few things could be further from the truth. What is blithely forgotten is that the Constitutions is a thoroughly secular and godless document, whose utter neglect of religion was no oversight. Article Six, which was hotly debated at the time, clearly states, “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.”

Today’s religious conservatives in tearing down the wall of separation, argue that it is the role of government to support and honor religion in order to help promote morals, and stem the tide of moral decay, which we have allegedly been experiencing since prayer was removed from the public schools. But this is not what the Founding Fathers believed was the role of government. While many believed that people needed morality in order to keep democracy strong, and while many believed that it was the role of religion to help foster morality, they were equally adamant in believing that the role of government was neither to foster salvation nor to teach, strengthen and promote moral values. Government was strictly a secular instrument to protect, life, liberty, and property, to adjudicate disputes, but not promote the moral fiber of society. Religion and religion’s moral teaching was something that went on between a person and his God and government had nothing to do with it. Religion was a private affair, and not something for government to promote or inhibit. Hence Jefferson had said, “It does not matter to me whether a man believes in a hundred Gods, or in no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” And though religious conservatives want to turn the Founding Fathers into pious Christians such as themselves, and want to read our founding documents as Christian-inspired documents, they blithely overlook the fact that the Founders, as children of the Enlightenment and its rationalism, were guided far more by the political and moral ideas of such pagan thinkers as Cicero and Seneca, than they ever were by the Christian Bible. And how they overlook that glorious Jeffersonian motto, emblazoned on his memorial in Washington DC, “ I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.” Or else they do know, or care to know that the purveyors of tyranny against whom Jefferson swore eternal hostility, were none other than Christian ministers, whom he hated and who hated him. As demagogues through the ages have known well, if you want to change the future, you change the past. Tragically, lamentably, it is this historical revisionism with regard to our Founders that we are witnessing before our very eyes, undertaken by those ultra-conservative forces who are uncomfortable with a liberal environment, diversity and the secular state.

All this serves as prelude to the war that our administration is planning to launch on Iraq. It is conceivably possible that UN resolutions demanding rigorous inspection of Saddam Hussein’s arsenal will provide an exit strategy at the last moment. And I hope it does. But if we go to war with Iraq it will certainly be with the strong support of the Christian Right. For polls indicate that 69% of conservative Christians favor a military assault on Iraq, which is at least 10 percentage points more than the US population as a whole.

Our administration has given confused rationales as to why we need to make a preemptive strike on Iraq. At times the justification has been “regime change” in Baghdad. At other times it is to destroy Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, and the two are not necessarily the same. The third rationale has been as part of the war on terrorism, though scant evidence has been provided that there is a linkage between the Al Qaeda network and Saddam Hussein. It this last rationale that especially captures the imagination of the Christian Right.

In an overall sense, the Christian Right sees an attack on Iraq as part of an ongoing struggle between Christendom and the Muslim world. Contemptuous statements about Islam and Mohamed uttered by Falwell and Robertson are illustrative of the fact that this struggle has theological overtones. But there is a subplot to this cosmic drama which is one of the weirdest dynamics driving American foreign policy.

Last June, President Bush made a speech in which he subsumed Palestinian terror directed at Israel under the war on terrorism that has been primarily targeted at Al Qaeda. With that speech, the Oslo peace accords died their final death, Arafat was thoroughly marginalized, and virtually all American restraint was taken off Ariel Sharon to do whatever he felt he needed and wanted to do with regard to the Palestinians.

Enter the Christian Right. They, and their allies in Congress, applauded and loved that speech. In one of the most extreme examples of the adage that “politics makes strange bedfellows”, Christian evangelicals have become Israel’s strongest American allies, after the American Jewish community itself. In fact, next to destroying a women’s right to choose, love for Israel is the issue of that most captures the allegiance of the Religious Right. It is right up there at the top of their agenda. But their love for Israel is extremely suspect. It is clearly rooted in the theological belief that before Jesus returns a second time and fights the final battle at Armageddon , defeating the legions of the anti-Christ, all the Jews must first be regrouped in Israel. Some will then be converted to Christianity and the rest will be killed. Clearly one can ask what is the true nature of such friendship, when the ones who declare to love you, wants to see you converted and dead, and used as instrumentalities to make their own way to heaven at your expense. Yet major elements of the Israeli government allied themselves with these fundamentalists for the short range political and economic payoff it brings, as well as an increasing number of American Jews, especially in the orthodox community.

It is true that that there has long been a “Christian Zionist” movement that goes back to the 19th century, but it has been up until very recently a fringe movement. Historically anti-Semitism was not uncommon in evangelical Christian circles, issuing from the status of Jews as unrepentant Christ-killers. It is with all the excitement generated by the millennium and the reentry of fundamentalists into the political arena that this newfound philo-Semitism, and the loopy theology behind it have moved center stage in evangelical circles.

Saddam Hussein is certainly an enemy of Israel. Hence a war against Iraq, indeed a war against all of Israel’s enemies, including the Palestinians, is seen as hastening the Second Coming of Christ and the Apocalypse that the Christian Right so luridly anticipates and longs for. In short, the evangelical Right sees the restoration of Israel’s sovereignty throughout the Middle East as the fulfillment of Biblical prophecy.

I am by no means saying that these theologically interests are what drive our war policy in Washington, But they are a part of it and not an insignificant part. Such support then allies itself with members of Congress and neo-conservatives heavyweights around the Defense Department such as Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz and Dick Cheney to create a very hawkish policy.

I wish to close by making clear that the concerns that I have posed in this talk are not a matter of liberals versus conservatives. My pique is not with classic conservatism. It is not a matter of more government spending rather than less. Nor is the guiding concern that I present even a matter of religion versus secularism. For in the eyes of the Religious Right, mainline Methodists, Presbyterians and Episcopalians are as much of an enemy as are humanists, secularists and members of the American Civil Liberties Union.

My concerns extend far beyond these issues. I sense that over the past twenty years there has been a massive change in the cultural ground upon which our political lives are lived out. We are confronted by massive popular movements that are viscerally uncomfortable with the values of tolerance, liberality diversity, free inquiry, sexual freedom and the empowerment of women. And they have become politically very powerful, with political allies in very high places. They see the secular state, and secular government, which is assuredly the guarantor of your freedom and mine, as the purveyor of licentious values and behavior. They would seek to replace it with a theocratic government, or one close to it, that would root itself in a Bible-based authoritarianism, if they could. It would not be a world that you are I would like to inhabit.

Though I hesitate to draw such a conclusion, it is becoming increasingly apparent to me that we in America are involved in a culture war that pits against each other two very different ways of life. I would like to believe that the way of life that you and I represent can politically accommodate the other. But from what the other side says about humanism and secularism and liberalism in general, I am not confident that there is room in their political world to accommodate us.

It is the reality of this struggle that leads me to believe that Ethical Culture is more relevant than it perhaps has ever been. By our very existence we stand as a necessary bulwark against the forces of religious authoritarianism, and in favor of the enlightened values of reason, diversity, the open mind and the secular state. Our message and our mission could not be more important in a world and society increasingly engulfed by the forces of irrationalism, obscurantism, xenophobia and intolerance. Our goal in the time ahead is to proclaim our message with confidence and clarity — and to make it militant.

Dr. Joseph Chuman
3 November 2002

One Comment

  1. or did that I didn’t disagree with? He once said that Americans were unerlstandabdy sick of being interrupted by telemarketers. Ditto, George. And when running for president, he said hate crimes should not be given a special designation, because all violent crime is hateful. I agree. Everything else and this includes the period after Sept 11 when I was one of the few still refusing to stand with our commander in chief (and getting beat up pretty bad for it) because just because we were attacked didn’t make lies true I got nothing. Can you think of something he said or did that you agreed with?I’m not a hateful person. I’ve truly studied the man, 7 years now, trying to find something about his presidency that has not been reprehensible, and I can’t come up with anything.He did salvage his father’s legacy. George the Smarter governed poorly, but his son has been such a catastrophe that GHWB looks like the proverbial philosopher king by comparison. That was a nice thing to do for his dad, albeit inadvertently.

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