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Attack of the Theocrats!
How the Religious Right Harms Us All â" and What We Can Do About It
By Sean Faircloth
Pitchstone Publishing Copyright © 2012 Sean Faircloth
All rights reserved.
The Crumbled Wall between Church and State
I believe that God wants me to be president.
— George W. Bush
I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should "make no law respecting establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof," thus building a wall of separation between church and state.
— Thomas Jefferson
I was twelve, riding in the backseat of the family car on a vacation in the American West. I'd been given The Children's Bible as a gift. With time on my hands, I decided to read the Holy Scripture. The trip sure felt pretty biblical, what with dad driving us through the desert and all. I got to the part where God tells Abraham to kill his son. If Abraham was willing to kill his son, then, in God's eyes, Abraham was a moral person — a God-fearing person. I looked up at my dad in the driver's seat and wondered to myself how God fearing he might be out here in the desert.
This was the first time I remember having real questions about the Bible. Would a truly moral person obey such a command? Would a moral God issue such a command — even as a test of loyalty? Would it be moral to treat a child as something to be used as property — an object to be used as a religious sacrifice?
The story of Abraham is an ancient one. And we're living in what is often called the modern age. Surely the invocation of religion today would never place children at risk, right? Well, let's consider a true story from the twenty-first century.
Amiyah White, age two, attended a child-care center in Alabama. The center's staff lost track of Amiyah and she was left alone, trapped in a van. After two hours in that van under the Alabama sun, Amiyah's two-year-old heart gave out, and she died alone in that van. On the outside of the van were painted the words "Holy Church." Amiyah attended a religious child-care center. Now, you might say, Amiyah's death was an accident that also could have happened in a secular child- care center. True, but such an event would be less likely to happen — because under Alabama law, health and safety statutes that apply to secular child-care centers do not apply to religious child-care centers. As the head of the Alabama Christian Coalition said, "The pastors and the congregations are our quality control."
Let's consider for a moment this "quality control." Under Alabama law, (1) secular child-care centers must keep medications locked up, while religious child-care centers are exempt from medication-safety regulations; (2) secular child-care centers must follow food-safety regulations, while religious child-care centers are exempt from food- safety regulations; (3) secular child-care centers must submit to unannounced state inspections, while religious child-care centers are exempt from such inspections; (4) secular child-care centers must obey child-staff ratio laws, while religious child-care centers need not obey child-staff ratio laws; (5) secular child-care providers must participate in safety training that, for example, covers proper child tracking, while providers at religious child-care centers are exempt from such training.
Was Amiyah's death an anomaly? Perhaps. And yet a three-year-old named DeMyreon Lindley, who attended a different religious child-care center in Alabama, was left alone in his center's van for ten hours before he died.
No politician, in the context of Alabama child-care laws, has argued that it is a positive characteristic to actually consider killing a child at the behest of a deity. But Alabama law is similar to the story of Abraham in this respect: they both share the concept that religion justifies a separate moral code. Put another way, by providing an exemption to a basic code of safety simply because a business invokes religion, modern Alabama law stands united with the tribal Abrahamic code in its willingness to endanger children in the name of religion. While Alabama law is particularly extreme, there are more than ten states that provide for some form of religious exemption from laws governing child-care centers.
Now consider a religious practice of the Incas from five hundred years ago. The Incas would take children to the mountains, drug them, then kill them as a sacrifice to their gods. That was part of their Pre- Columbian religion. Primitive? Perhaps. Brutal? No doubt. But at least they tried to anesthetize the children and killed them swiftly. Contrast that with what happens in twenty-first-century America.
Jessica Crank was fifteen when a tumor began to grow on her shoulder. The tumor was treatable with modern medical science, but Jessica's mother did not believe in modern medical science. She treated her child with the Epistle of James. Had a secular parent neglected his or her child's medical needs, the law would have unequivocally authorized the government to remove the endangered child for proper medical care. Jessica's mother and her pastor could correctly point to the "faith- healing" exemption in Tennessee's child-protection law as providing their actions with wider latitude. Jessica's tumor grew and grew until it was the size of a basketball. Jessica suffered extended, agonizing pain — then she died.
In so-called faith-healing homes, children with otherwise treatable maladies have needlessly vomited fecal matter, bled from giant eye tumors, and gasped for water as a result of untreated diabetes. And, yes, children have died and continue to die in agonizing torture. It is unconscionable that, in most states, there are so-called faith-healing exemptions to basic child-protection law.
Many Americans, including perhaps readers of this book, protested or spoke out against the U.S government's use of waterboarding. As bad as waterboarding is, waterboarding usually does not lead to permanent injury and is rarely fatal. Compare waterboarding to what happened to — and what continues to happen to — these innocent children: Vomiting fecal matter? Bleeding from eyes? Tumors on children so festering and large that people, even at a distance, gag from the smell? All this needless and pointless suffering, often followed by death?
The fact that fanatical parents may not recognize their own actions as torture does not by one iota diminish the torture that these children experience. This torture of children, justified on religious grounds, is worse than anything that occurred in Guantanamo or Abu Ghraib. Yet, relatively speaking, there is not a peep of protest. Following his election, President Barack Obama proclaimed, "Waterboarding violates our ideals and our values. I do believe that it's torture." When will the same be said about the torture of innocent American children that is justified in the name of religion?
This legal imprimatur for "faith healing" violates the very nature of our form of government, and the separation of church and state. The statutes used to excuse these actions give the stamp of "morality" to immoral actions. This "moral" stamp results from the concerted efforts of religious extremists.
The Religio-Industrial Complex
The hideous deaths of Amiyah White, DeMyreon Lindley, and Jessica Crank represent human horror stories. But they also represent something much more insidious. Their deaths, and the deaths of all other children as a result of laws that privilege religion, are emblematic of a much broader violation of — and attack on — the secular values of our Founders and our Constitution. As John Witte of the Center for the Study of Law and Religions at Emory University states, "Separation of church and state is no longer the law of the land." This change has gone largely unnoticed by the media and the American public in general.
You will hear Rush Limbaugh complain about "special rights." Fundamentalists tell us to fear the specter of special rights for gay citizens, though of course gay Americans aren't after special rights — merely equal rights. The irony is that special rights actually do exist in this country — for religious groups. Just as the described horrors suffered by children have all occurred under some form of legal imprimatur, some statutory form of recognition, so too have countless other injustices and instances of harm been authorized by many other forms of religious bias inscribed in law. These laws aren't unenforced blue laws from the time of the Salem witch trials. They are laws that grant special rights in twenty-first-century America to religion and that are justifed by ancient texts.
There is no comparison between calls for basic equal rights among all Americans no matter one's gender, sexual orientation, race, or religion and laws that elevate one class of people over another on the basis of religion. Rush Limbaugh would likely point to affirmative action as "special rights." Yet whether one agrees or disagrees with affirmative action, one must concede that, in the case of African- Americans, centuries of slavery and many decades of violations of civil rights constitute a reasonable argument for it. What similar historical injustices or disadvantages have religious groups in the United States suffered to justify the special status they enjoy in law today? Why give people like Billy Graham, Rick Warren, and Ted Haggard affirmative action for religious affiliation?
You might be asking, surely Billy Graham's multimillion dollar organization doesn't get special rights, does it? This would be the Billy Graham who complained to Richard Nixon of "synagogues of Satan" and who, encouraging a militaristic policy during the Vietnam War, quoted Jesus as saying, "I am come to send fire on earth" (Luke 12:49) and "I am come not to send peace but a sword" (Matthew 10:34–36). Billy Graham may be retired, but yes, his multimillion dollar organization, now run by his son, Franklin Graham, gets special legal rights that average businesses do not.
Surely Rick Warren doesn't get special rights, does he? This would be the Rick Warren who preached at Obama's inauguration and who, commenting on the famous Florida legal battle over Terri Schiavo (the woman who had been in a persistent vegetative state), compared her husband to a Nazi. Preacher Rick Warren is worth something approaching $10 million. Yes, Warren and his organization benefit from special legal rights.
Surely Ted Haggard's former organization doesn't get special rights, does it? You remember Ted Haggard, the Colorado Springs megaminister who preached against gay sex while having gay sex jacked up on meth. His former organization still controls many millions. Yes, religious organizations like his old one get special rights.
What types of special rights do these individuals and groups enjoy? To begin, nonprofit organizations must apply for tax-exempt status; religious groups are tax exempt by a less rigorous assertion of religious status. Nonprofits get audited by the IRS whenever the IRS chooses; churches are not audited without a special IRS decision.
Perhaps more insidiously, religions enjoy legal privileges that corrode our most basic American values. In most states, religious groups can say in one of their child-care centers: "You're a Jew? You're fired." Similarly, in one of their charitable organizations, they can say to the administrative assistant or janitor: "You're gay? You're fired." This is true even in states that generally prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation. You're agnostic like Albert Einstein? Fired. You're atheist like Brad Pitt? Fired.
These same businesses, like the ones run by megachurches, can exempt themselves from many land-use laws other businesses must obey because federal politicians chose to exempt religious organizations from those laws in the 1990s.
Where's the investigative journalism on the scandals I've described above? Pat Robertson said that he believes Jesus is currently the Lord of government, business, and education and wants his version of Jesus to be the "Lord of the press." Robertson needn't be concerned, because religious ideologies and bias are too often treated with kid gloves in the media.
Although I like to think this is not the case, there is a tendency in journalistic writing to treat religion with timid deference, even when the situations or public conduct would otherwise set off alarm bells for reporters in any nonreligious context. This timidity is so pervasive it is sometimes hard to notice. In a February 2, 2011, New York Times article, for example, a Muslim religious leader in Afghanistan was depicted rather like a moderate because he favored stoning with small stones rather than big stones as punishment for sexual activity. In any other context, the big-stone versus small-stone barbarism would be unequivocally labeled as such, but, when it comes to religion, reporters back gingerly away, swaddling even the most extreme statements in words like "faith."
But fundamentalist Muslims have no real political clout in America. No, the real political power is held by fundamentalist Christians. Give Christian fundamentalists their due. They organize. They meet. Their supporters give money to the cause. And they have been hugely effective in electing their own. Indeed, at no prior time in American history have so many politicians with such expressly theocratic views held high public office.
Here's a sampling: Congressman Tim Walberg, who chairs the workforce protection committee, which oversees labor laws, embodies much of what America has become in the twenty-first century. Congressman Walberg is the one who objected to a law prohibiting discrimination based on religion within Head Start programs because of his concerns about the threat posed by Wiccans and Muslims. Senator Marco Rubio embodies our times too. He has dismissed Jefferson's "wall of separation of church and state" and supports teaching creationism in school. Then there's Congressman Ralph Hall, chair of the science and technology committee, who has worked to undermine science. These and other like-minded politicians are not on the fringe. They are at the center of power in America today, and they do not represent the judicious views of Jefferson or Madison.
The Strategy, the Plan, the Vision
In mid-twentieth-century America, rationalism and separation of church and state were ascendant. The playwrights who penned Inherit the Wind expressed the clear majority view. John Kennedy, the strongest advocate of separation of church and state since Madison, was highly popular. What happened?
Churches have always been powerful and influential in this country, but in this century many individual churches are major business enterprises, boasting child-care centers, ice cream parlors, addiction treatment centers, fitness clubs, broadcasting facilities, and powerful lobbying enterprises, often with a proselytizing mission. Special rights for religion create a largely unregulated, separate business universe that leads only to more special rights for these increasingly powerful organizations. As a result, religious groups experience very little oversight of their statutorily created special rights.
This book is meant to create awareness about the damage that is being done to our country and to our Constitution in the name of religion, and to offer a plan to do something about it. This book calls upon Secular Americans and all Americans of good will to participate in returning America to its true secular heritage, to the ideals of Madison and of Jefferson. In chapters 2 and 3, it provides an overview of the most basic principles of our Founders — the heritage that we must reinvigorate. The book will not only show how theocratic laws are destroying our country's secular heritage, but also discuss the myriad ways in which our present descent toward theocracy and the privileging of religion in law unjustly harms us all in multiple ways.
Chapter 4 examines how a bizarre, unhealthy, and theocratic attitude toward sex has undermined the rights of women and sexual minorities, and has made sexual trivia an insidiously central focus in American life and politics. Chapter 5 juxtaposes the great dueling American traditions of religious hucksterism and scientific innovation and entrepreneurship. These two traditions offer a defining choice regarding the future of our Republic.
Chapters 6 and 7 contrast the unprecedented number of theocratic politicians in high elective office today and their worldviews with those who speak for the traditions of people like Jefferson, Madison, and Darrow. Chapter 8 describes the dramatic growth of the secular demographic despite the still pervasive power of theocrats in America.
Chapter 9 presents my plan for returning America to its secular heritage, and chapter 10 presents a vision of what a secular America will look like once we return to the heritage of our founding. It's a vision of a patriotic, secular government informed by strong moral values.
As will be made clear in this book, I believe in flag and country. I believe in the values of our nation's founders. That is why I am a Secular American. It is the patriotic duty of all Americans to stop fundamentalist extremists from controlling our laws. Sadly, they have been effective at doing just that. The intent of this book is to demonstrate that the theocratic attack on America is real, to expose theocratic injustices that should be of concern to all Americans, and to offer a strategy for rejuvenating America's patriotic secular heritage.
Excerpted from Attack of the Theocrats! by Sean Faircloth. Copyright © 2012 Sean Faircloth. Excerpted by permission of Pitchstone Publishing.
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