Wednesday, September 24, 2003

Indians and Swedes

According to a Gallup poll measuring degrees of religious devotion around the world Indians were ranked most religious and Swedes the least. Upon reading the survey results sociologist Peter Berger reached this conclusion. "America is a nation of Indians ruled by an elite of Swedes."

This quote has been repeated so often and with such conviction by religious and not so religious conservatives that it has taken on the ring of truth. The dangerous premise of this statement is that most Americans are devoutly religious but prevented from practicing their faith by elites (liberals) in the courts, media and academia.

David Limbaugh, Rush's brother, has written a book entitled, Persecution: How Liberals are Waging War Against Christianity. If there were an award for most inflammatory and misleading title of the year Limbaugh would be the winner. If the award doesn't exist it should be created just for him.

As a Christian who is also politically liberal I am dismayed and angered by the constant assertion that religious devotion is a hallmark of those with conservative political view points. Conservatives have cast themselves as the guardians of Christian belief and liberals as the minions of atheism.

Limbaugh's book consists of a litany of stories ranging from the denial of the right to pray at graduation ceremonies to restrictions on prayer groups in the work place. Just as broken clocks are right twice a day, there is a grain of truth to what Limbaugh says. In 2002 the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission received 2,572 complaints charging religious discrimination in the workplace, but not only from Christians. Unfortunately there is bigotry against Christians and followers of other faiths, but more often there is confusion about what constitutes reasonable accommodation (scroll down), the meaning of separation of church and state, and the appropriate way to allow religious expression in the public sphere.

But these points are too nuanced for doctrinaire conservatives. It wouldn't suit their purposes of increasing right wing political power by taking on the mantle of Christian devotion. The most recent example of conservative "faith baiting" occurred in the U.S. Senate.

"It has been written that patriotism is the refuge of scoundrels. As of last week, we learned that religion is now the refuge of extremists," said Senator Richard Durbin, democrat from Illinois. Senator Durbin was referring to charges that he and other democratic members of the Judiciary Committee were "anti-Catholic" because of their opposition to the nomination of a Catholic Bush judicial nominee, Alabama judge William Pryor. Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont was leaving mass when he learned that he had been declared anti-Catholic. Andrea Sheldon Lafferty, spokesperson for the conservative Traditional Values Coalition put it even more bluntly in a C-Span interview. "Senator Leahy never met a Christian he likes."

There you have faith baiting in a nutshell. You may call yourself a Christian, you may even worship in church, but if you disagree with conservative politics any claims of Christianity are worthless. Conversely, those who agree with conservatives never have their spiritual credentials questioned. It is true that Pryor's opposition to abortion is in keeping with his Catholic faith. But it is also true that Mr. Pryor supports the death penalty, which the Catholic Church opposes. Perhaps Catholic senators Leahy and Durbin should have labeled him an anti-Catholic bigot and rejected his nomination on that basis.

Conservatives succeed at the faith baiting game in the same way they succeed in election theft, recall campaigns and rereredistricting efforts in Texas. They are unafraid to be audacious. They say whatever suits them while liberals weigh how best to be in defense mode.

It is time for liberals to point out when conservative political belief is inconsistent with Christian belief. Advocating for public prayer, whether at high school football games, classrooms or the workplace is a mainstay of conservative advocacy efforts. But what did Jesus say about praying in public?

When you pray, you are not to be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners so that they may be seen by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. But you, when you pray, go into your inner room, close your door and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees (what is done) in secret will reward you.
Matthew 6:5-6

Public prayer is not the only issue that gives conservatives spiritual amnesia. They have a very narrow focus of concern: abortion, homosexuality, and public prayer. However, they are curiously immune from other issues impacting on the lives of the American people. The Bush administration recently attempted to change federal rules governing eligibility for overtime pay. Had they succeeded, up to 8 million Americans would have been deprived of their right to overtime. Don't Christians need over time too? Conservative Christians have never spoken up on behalf of those wrongly convicted of murder and sent to death row, many of whom are incarcerated in the Bible Belt.

I am not sure if their allegiance to republicans compromises their integrity and keeps them silent on these and other issues or if they truly do not care when the government makes decisions that are harmful to millions of people. Or is it even worse, does their Christianity find good in injustice? I have long felt that conservative Christians were more concerned about "don'ts" than about "dos." There is little talk of a positive, uplifting message of Christ's love. They are so concerned about feeling thwarted by liberals at every that they seem unable to take advantage of the great religious freedoms that America has to offer.

In a landmark 2000 Supreme Court ruling, student led prayers at public high school football games were ruled unconstitutional. Of course, that liberal, secular, Christian hating ACLU brought the suit. But a closer look reveals a little reported foot note. The ACLU acted on behalf of families who were Catholic and Mormon, not atheists. Children in the Santa Fe, Texas school district who were not Southern Baptists were being discriminated against. A teacher informed a Mormon student told that she was going to hell and that her religion was a cult.

There was persecution of Christians in Santa Fe, Texas, but it didn't come from liberals. It came from other Christians who apparently skipped over Matthew 6:5-6 in bible study class. Those of us who have a different view of what our faith means must speak out. If we don't then Christianity will be synonymous with conservative.