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How the Republicans Stole Religion: Why the Religious Right Is Wrong about Faith and Politics and What We Can Do to Make It Right

How the Republicans Stole Religion: Why the Religious Right Is Wrong about Faith and Politics and What We Can Do to Make It Right

by Bill Press

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For decades, Press argues, conservatives have defined religion so narrowly that Democrats and liberals have been pushed outside the fold. According to their narrow gospel, God put George W. Bush in the White House to deal with gays, guns, and abortion—and those who don’t agree are on the sure road to hell. How the Republicans Stole Religion is


For decades, Press argues, conservatives have defined religion so narrowly that Democrats and liberals have been pushed outside the fold. According to their narrow gospel, God put George W. Bush in the White House to deal with gays, guns, and abortion—and those who don’t agree are on the sure road to hell. How the Republicans Stole Religion is Press’s fervent call for the left to reclaim religion and return it to its basic principles of social justice, charity, and tolerance.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“The movement toward a theocratic America has a new obstacle: Bill Press’s articulate defense of real religious freedom and condemnation of pious dogma which marginalizes the rights and values of women, gay and lesbian Americans, religious minorities, and free thinkers.”
—The Rev. Barry Lynn, Executive Director, Americans United for Separation of Church and State

“God bless Bill Press. This former seminarian and former California Democratic Party chair has the courage, theological training, and moral clarity needed to point out both the deep spiritual values of the left and the hypocrisy of some on the far right. Hallelujah, Brother Bill!”
—Paul Begala, Cohost, CNN’s The Situation Room

“Bill Press writes the way he talks: with wit, spiritual conviction and political passion.”
—Lydia Howell, Pulse of the Twin Cities

Product Details

The Doubleday Religious Publishing Group
Publication date:
Edition description:
Reprinted Edition
Product dimensions:
5.62(w) x 8.22(h) x 0.64(d)

Read an Excerpt

How the Republicans Stole Religion

Why the Religious Right is Wrong about Faith & Politics and What We Can Do to Make it Right
By Bill Press

Three Leaves

Copyright © 2006 Bill Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0385516045



Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.

Read them again.

Those sixteen words, inspired by Thomas Jefferson and written by James Madison, represent both America's greatest invention and her greatest strength. They establish the only thing really new in the United States Constitution: the separation of church and state.

Despite all its monarchial faults, Great Britain had already introduced a limited executive, a bicameral legislature, and three distinct branches of government, each operating within a system of checks and balances. What was original to the Constitution--what constituted our unique American experiment--was a ban on any official state religion: keeping the state out of the church's business and, just as important, keeping the church out of the state's business. It is our gift to the civilized world.

Sixteen words. Now read them one more time--and weep. We have never strayed so far from the noble ideals of Founding Fathers James Madison and Thomas Jefferson as we have today.

*The currentpresident of the United States told friends that God wanted him to run for president, God wanted him in the White House, and God wanted him to invade Iraq.

*Bush opened an office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives in the White House and handed out hundreds of millions of dollars in grants--known in Washington as "pork for preachers." Almost all of it has gone directly to conservative Christian churches.

*Bush signed an executive order allowing churches that receive federal funds for so-called faith-based programs to practice religious discrimination: hiring as staff members only those who belong to the same church.

*Bush proposed a school voucher program, which would give parents federal tax dollars to use to pay tuition to private, religious schools.

*The Bush administration approved a federally funded health plan for Catholics only; it excludes insurance coverage for contraceptives, abortion, sterilization, or artificial insemination.

*Bush instituted a "religious test" for judges, promising to appoint only "commonsense judges who understand that our rights were derived from God."

*Under Bush, employees in the White House, the Justice Department, and other federal agencies are under pressure to begin their workday by attending "voluntary" Bible study and prayer sessions.

*In March 2005, Senator Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) organized a course on Catholic doctrine for Republican Catholic members of Congress. Classes were taught by a priest in Santorum's capitol office.

*In a direct slap at Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, House Republicans introduced the Houses of Worship Political Speech Protection Act, which would allow churches to endorse political candidates, broadcast issue ads, and engage in political fund-raising--without losing their tax-exempt status. (So far, it has not been voted out of committee.)

*In Alabama, Roy Moore, the chief justice of the state Supreme Court, planted a 2.5 ton monument to the Ten Commandments in the rotunda of the courthouse--and refused to move it under court orders.

Nowhere, of course, was the religious right's ownership of the Republican Party more on display than in the case of Terri Schiavo. While the vast majority of Americans opposed any government intervention, hard-core fundamentalists demanded that Congress act in order to keep the brain-dead woman artificially alive (for another fifteen years?). Republicans, led by George W. Bush, Bill Frist, and Tom DeLay, dutifully obeyed and, in so doing, undermined everything the Republican Party previously stood for. Without one single legislative hearing, they enacted emergency, special-interest legislation that applied to only one person, expanded the reach and power of the federal government, and attempted to override repeated rulings by state courts. It was Big Brother, hand-in-hand with Big Religion.

Holy smoke! This is not what Thomas Jefferson and James Madison had in mind. In fact, it's just the opposite. The actions of this administration undermine and contradict everything the Founding Fathers stood for. By putting government on the side of Christianity, and Christianity uniquely and squarely on the side of President Bush, conservative political and religious leaders are, in effect, telling Jefferson and Madison: "You're history. And you're wrong. We know better than you what's good for America."


Before going any further, an important clarification: I am not, as some will no doubt charge, advocating a "naked public square"--where all religious expression is muzzled.

Religion, in fact, has influenced public decision making from the very foundation of this nation--usually, for the better. The strong faith of our Founding Fathers had a profound impact on the new system of governance they built. Their moral character helped make the American Revolution far different from the French Revolution or the Russian Revolution.

And I admit that Democratic presidents, too, have often blurred the line between religion and politics. Franklin Roosevelt shocked and angered many Protestant leaders by giving Myron C. Taylor ambassadorial status as his personal representative to the Vatican and by naming New York's Cardinal Francis J. Spellman military vicar of the U.S. Armed Forces.

Indeed, it was President Clinton, not President Bush, who first proposed handing out federal funds to faith-based institutions. The welfare bill he signed in 1996 contained a "charitable choice" provision enabling religious congregations to receive public funds for programs like job training, counseling, and day care. And, wouldn't you know it, the first governor to take advantage of the new Clinton money was Texas's own George W. Bush. As part of their presidential campaign in 2000, Al Gore and Joe Lieberman promised to expand Clinton's own "faith-based initiative." And no modern candidate used more God-talk in his speeches than Lieberman.

So religion has always been part of American politics, on both sides of the aisle. But never before has there been such pressure to merge the two--or, in effect, make politics a subset of religion, and religion a subset of politics.

In fact, tearing down the First Amendment's historic wall of separation between church and state is the express aim of religious conservatives today, and they make no bones about it. After an October 2004 meeting with President Bush, Philadelphia's Cardinal Justin Rigali issued a statement deploring "separation of church and state" as "a misinterpretation of the Constitution."

He's joined by virtually all leading evangelical ministers. Dr. James Dobson derides "the wall that never was." Televangelist D. James Kennedy urges razing the "diabolical wall of separation that has led to increasing secularization, godlessness, immorality and corruption in our country." For his part, Pat Robertson sees separation as something far more sinister, foisted on us by atheistic Communists of the Evil Empire. In 1982, he told the Senate Judiciary Committee:

We often hear of the constitutionally mandated "separation of church and state." Of course, as you know, that phrase appears nowhere in the Constitution or the Bill of Rights. . . . We do find this phrase in the constitution of another nation, however . . . that of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics--an atheistic nation sworn to the destruction of the United States of America.

As Robert Boston of Americans United for Separation of Church and State points out in his book Why the Religious Right Is Wrong, the modern Soviet constitution was written in 1947. Jefferson first used the phrase "wall of separation of church and state" in 1802. So, the idea that we got it from them is patently absurd.

Robertson's confusion notwithstanding, in the end it's left to the Reverend Jerry Falwell, as he does on most issues, to lead evangelicals in the wrong direction. By upholding separation of church and state, he says, Supreme Court justices "have raped the Constitution and raped the Christian faith and raped the churches." Of the most outstanding contribution of our Founding Fathers, Falwell writes: "The idea of separation of Church and State was invented by the devil to keep Christians from running their own country."

Close your eyes and you'd swear it was not Falwell or Robertson speaking, but Elmer Gantry. In the film based on Sinclair Lewis's classic 1927 novel, Burt Lancaster, playing the hellfire preacher, says the ultimate goal of fundamentalists is ". . . a crusade for complete morality and the domination of the Christian church through all the land." He thunders: "Dear Lord, thy work is but begun! We shall yet make these United States a moral nation!"

Not surprisingly, the unenlightened views of religious conservatives are echoed by unenlightened political conservatives. Republican senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma condemns separation as "the phoniest argument there is." And in July 2001, Representative Tom DeLay, then the House majority whip, told a luncheon audience of congressional staffers that it was important to support President Bush's "faith-based initiative" as a way of "standing up and rebuking this notion of separation of church and state that has been imposed upon us over the last forty or fifty years."

Perhaps it was also DeLay's personal intervention that persuaded Texas Republicans to vow in their 2002 party platform, "Our party pledges to do everything within its power to dispel the myth of separation of church and state."

Christian attorneys nationwide have also banded together in an organization, the Alliance Defense Fund, whose avowed aim is to dismantle what it calls "the so-called wall of separation" between church and state. Over the last decade, the A.D.F. has participated in two dozen related cases before the Supreme Court, eagerly awaiting the one case that will convince justices to turn back the clock.

God forbid. In a chilling indication of what could still happen to separation of church and state in today's Supreme Court, both Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Justice Antonin Scalia have already publicly expressed their skepticism about Jefferson's legacy. In the Supreme Court's 1985 Wallace v. Jaffree decision, which declared unconstitutional an Alabama law requiring that the school day begin with a moment of "silent meditation or voluntary prayer," then Associate Justice Rehnquist issued a blistering dissent: "The wall of separation between church and state is a metaphor based on bad history, a metaphor that has proved useless as a guide to judging. It should be frankly and explicitly abandoned."


Despite the sneers of Falwell and others, religious conservatives would rather not talk about "tearing down the wall separating church and state." They prefer to put a positive spin on it, casting their goal as "restoring religion to its rightful place in the public square"--from which, they imply, it has been chased out by liberals, secularists, atheists, Democrats, and activist judges.

The intellectual, and most quoted, leader of the antiseparation movement is David Barton, founder of an organization called Wallbuilders (which should really be called "Walldestroyers") and author of the 1989 book The Myth of Separation. Barton also served as vice-chair of the Texas Republican party and was hired by President Bush's 2004 reelection campaign as an advisor on religious issues.

Is the United States a Christian nation? "I would say if 88 percent call themselves Christians," Barton told one interviewer, "I would say, yeah, you probably have a fairly good basis to call it a Christian nation."

Getting back to our religious roots, Barton argues, can only begin once everybody accepts certain historical "facts":

1.Our Founding Fathers were a group of devout Christians.

2.America was founded as a Christian nation (sometimes, in an attempt to appear ecumenical, he calls it "Judeo-Christian nation").

3.Not even Thomas Jefferson meant to build a wall separating church and state.

4.American law is based on the Ten Commandments.

And, to buttress his argument, Barton rolls out the pantheon of great Americans, from George Washington to Abraham Lincoln. At various times, in various publications, Barton has offered the following powerful quotations, among many others, to question and undermine the separation of church and state.

It is impossible to rightly govern the world without God and the Bible.

It cannot be emphasized too strongly or too often that this great nation was founded, not by religionists, but by Christians; not on religions, but on the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

We have staked the whole future of American civilization, not upon the power of government, far from it. We have staked the future of all of our political institutions upon the capacity of each and all of us to govern ourselves . . . according to the Ten Commandments of God.

Whosoever shall introduce into the public affairs the principles of primitive Christianity will change the face of the world.

I have always said and will always say that the studious perusal of the Sacred Volume will make us better citizens.

The only assurance of our nation's safety is to lay our foundation in morality and religion.

Pretty impressive, no? You hear those Founding Fathers speak and you're convinced: We are a Christian nation. Jesus rules. I believe. Sign me up. End of story.

There's only one problem: Barton has subsequently admitted that the Madison and Jefferson quotes are false (even though they still pop up all over the Internet) and the other quotes are all questionable, because he can find no original sources for them.

But the phony quotes are the least of Barton's problems. History also proves that every one of his basic assertions is phony.


Listening to many evangelicals today, you get the impression that Washington, Jefferson, and Madison founded American Christianity before they founded the American nation. They and other prominent historical Americans are painted as a group of devout believers who read the Bible, worshipped regularly, accepted Jesus Christ as the Son of God and based their political decisions on their religion in general, and the Bible in particular. The Christian organization No Apathy even brags, with zero evidence, that fifty-two out of the fifty-five people who worked on writing the Constitution were evangelical Christians.

Without taking anything away from our national heroes, that's not who they were, nor who they pretended to be. They did believe in God, but most of them only in the Enlightenment or deist sense of God as "watchmaker"--a Supreme Being who created us, then wound us up and let us run on our own. They did honor Jesus, but only as a paragon of morality, not as the Son of God. They did value religion as a means of teaching public morality, without which republican government could not succeed. But to protect both religion and the state, they also strove to keep them separate and distinct.

From the Hardcover edition.


Excerpted from How the Republicans Stole Religion by Bill Press Copyright © 2006 by Bill Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Bill Press has been a political commentator for MSNBC and a cohost of CNN’s Crossfire and The Spin Room with Tucker Carlson. The Bill Press Show is heard daily on Sirius Satellite Radio. He has enjoyed a high-profile career in government, politics, and broadcasting for three decades and served as chairman of the California Democratic Party from 1993 to 1996. He was named Best Commentator of the Year by the Associated Press and has received numerous other awards for his work, including four Emmys and a Golden Mike Award. He is the author of Spin This! and Bush Must Go and writes a syndicated newspaper column distributed by Tribune Media Services. A native of Delaware, Press now lives in Washington, D.C., and maintains a home in northern California.

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