Bad Religion

by Michael I. Niman, ArtVoice, March 28th, 2002

We’re developing a historical pattern in this country of waging wars, defeating enemies, and then in one way or another, emulating those who we defeat.  We defeated the Soviet Union in the Cold War, then trashed our anti-trust laws and developed a corporate dominated command economy just as the Russians were developing a free market.  We defeated the Nazis, then continued their war against communism, going as far as to recruit their former intelligence officers to help organize our CIA. Now we’ve defeated the Taliban – the world’s most oppressive theocratic state, only to begin blurring our own cherished separation of church and state.

The Bush regime (I use the word “regime” since the term “government” usually refers to an elected body), through its “faith based” initiative, is diverting billions of taxpayer dollars to religious organizations who are replacing elected governments as social services providers.  As we are funding these groups, however, we are also exempting them from federal, state and local antidiscrimination laws.  Currently, a federal contractor providing hot meals for seniors, for example, can refuse to hire Catholics, Muslims or Jews as cooks or janitors.  Likewise, they can bar gays, single mothers, musicians and a host of others from employment.  A Republican sponsored bill passed last year by the House of Representatives on a largely party-line vote, in fact, specifically protects the “rights” of church-based government contractors to continue such discrimination, even as they receive increasing amounts of our tax dollars.

Federally Funded Gay-Bashing

The best known of these organizations, The Salvation Army, earned national notoriety last year when it fired a social worker at a domestic violence center on the grounds that she was a lesbian.  The Salvation Army was so adamant about protecting their “right” to discriminate against gays and others, that following the controversy over the incident, they began boosting $110,000 per month from their charity kettles to hire a bank of lobbyists to promote Bush’s “faith based” initiative – under agreement with the White House that organizations such as theirs would continue to be exempted from anti-discrimination laws while sucking off the public teat. Currently, according to Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the Salvation Army receives approximately $300 million per year from the federal government while barring gays from working in their programs.

The Salvation Army is far from the worst of the homophobic hate groups and individuals using God’s name to justify the oppression of gays.  Chief Justice Roy Moore of the Alabama Supreme Court recently weighed in on a custody case involving a lesbian mother, writing that homosexuality was a “crime” and a “violation” of the laws of [his] God, “upon which,” he writes, “this nation and our laws are predicated.”  Most frightening, however, was the Judge’s expression of sentiments more fitting to a Taliban Mullah, as he asserted that the state had the obligation to combat homosexuality, using, as he put it, “the power of the sword, that is, the power to prohibit conduct with physical penalties, such as confinement and even execution.”   Moore was last in the news in 2001 when he erected, in the Alabama Supreme Court building, a 5,000 pound tablet with the ten commandments inscribed upon it – two or three of which he now proposes violating with his violent denunciation of gays 

Bible Study at the Justice Department

Just because Moore and others of his ilk have taken Talib-like stands against homosexuality, does not mean that they have any warmth or even toleration for Islam, either in its secular or fundamentalist form.  The most frightening anti-Islamic barb came from the nation’s highest-ranking law enforcement officer, the Bush regime’s Attorney General, John Ashcroft, who remarked, “Islam is a religion in which God requires you to send your son to die for him - Christianity is a faith in which God sends his son to die for you.”  The remark would have been offensive, even coming from a fundamentalist preacher in his own church, since it is based on an ignorance borne out of intolerance – mainstream Islam, like Christianity, allows neither suicide nor murder.  Coming from the supposed Attorney General of the United States, the person whose job it is to protect the religious rights of all Americans, the remark is repugnant and indicative of a looming constitutional crisis.

The United States was founded not as a Christian nation, as many in Bush’s cabinet now argue, but as a pluralistic nation whose strengths lie in its diversity.  The Attorney General’s job is to protect our sacred separation of church and state - a separation that guarantees all Americans the right to practice the religious beliefs of their choice, not those dictated or encouraged by any particular state or political party.  Ashcroft is not only unsuited for this responsibility, he makes a mockery of it, using Justice Department facilities to lead daily fundamentalist Christian bible study classes, which he conducts for his subordinates on Justice department time.  For those employees of the Justice Department who don’t share Ashcroft’s religion, the environment is oppressive. The prognosis of such a Justice Department, under siege from those who abhor our historic American values, protecting our rights to remain a pluralistic nation, looks dim.

Most frightening are the new federal judges appointed by Reagan, Bush Daddy and now, by Junior Bush.  Bush’s latest nominee for a position as Federal Circuit Judge, is Charles Pickering, the former President of the Baptist Convention of Mississippi.  Prior to his incarnation as a Bush appointee to the bench, Pickering had supported convening a Constitutional Convention to use amendments to rewrite the U.S, Constitution to reverse laws protecting church-state separation and banning segregation. 

The Real American Taliban

Pickering is not an aberration in the Republican Party – he is the norm.  Tom Delay, the third highest ranking Republican in the House of representatives, recently told guests at a luncheon sponsored by the Center for Christian Statesmanship, that we have to support Bush’s “faith based” initiative in order to stand up and “rebuke this notion of separation of church and state.”  He went on to clarify his position, explaining, “I don’t believe there is a separation of church and state.” With the “War on Terrorism” and ersatz “patriotism” monopolizing news coverage, Delay’s remarks challenging fundamental American beliefs and values flew unnoticed under the national radar.

Tom Delay, however, is not simply a wacko preaching intolerance in a backyard tent – he’s one of the most powerful lawmakers in the country.  Hence, it should be of no surprise that two bills are pending in congress to change IRS codes to allow chartered not-for-profit tax-exempt religious organizations to raise money for political lobbying and political candidates.  Currently, the bill is being cosponsored by no less than 110 members of congress – each one of them presumably an opponent of church-state separation.  

The bill, termed “The Houses of  Worship Political Speech Protection Act,” (H.R. 2357) was drafted by Pat Robertson’s American Center for Law and Justice.  Robertson is probably the most frightening of all of the theocrats campaigning to turn the US into a Fundamentalist Christian state. Robertson, a Republican party activist, former Presidential candidate, and founder of the inappropriately named Christian Coalition, doesn’t just want to see a theocratic state run by Christians – he’s rather particular about which Christians he wants to see run it.  Speaking on his 700 Club television program, Robertson rebuked non-Baptist Christian denominations, arguing, “You say you’re supposed to be nice to the Episcopalians and the Presbyterians and the Methodists and this, that and the other thing, nonsense!  I don’t have to be nice to the spirit of the Antichrist.”  Robertson’s handpicked director of the Christian Coalition, Ralph Reed, in 1996, praised an anti-Catholic book put out by the former editor of the Coalition’s newspaper, John Wheeler.  Wheeler wrote of a “Satanically empowered” Vatican and warned of a coming Satanic Pope.  Reed called the book “compelling.”

Enron: A Higher Calling

Reed has since left the religion racket to answer to a higher calling, going on to work for Enron as a Washington lobbyist.  According to a memo Reed penned, which was later obtained by The Washington Post, Reed promised to use his ties to right-wing religious figures to push Enron’s divinely anointed political agenda for energy deregulation.  Reed proudly pointed out to Enron officials that his consulting firm had a track record for mobilizing what he called the “minority community” and the “faith community” in order to achieve his clients’ political goals. 

Robertson also departed from the Christian Coalition, but not before amassing a personal fortune estimated at over $150 million.  Seemingly ignoring the old biblical adage about the difficulties a rich man would face trying to get into heaven, Robertson recently entered into some very un-Godlike business ventures, investing in racehorses and attempting to reopen a Los Angeles area oil refinery.  The horses are still running, but the refinery deal fell through after citizens’ groups won a court injunction against the Robertson on environmental grounds.  Robertson had also entered into a gold mining venture in partnership with Liberian dictator Charles Taylor, who, according to The Washington Post, is well known in Africa for ordering the brutal and barbaric torture of political opponents.  Robertson is also negotiating with the Chinese government for rights to start an Internet company in that country.

Despite his departure from the Christian Coalition, Robertson is still one of the main proponents for a theocratic American state.  In January, claiming to speak for God, he told his followers that the day of judgment will soon fall upon America, that God was angry with us, for, among other things, having non-Christian religious beliefs, described by Robertson as “Sorcery” and “Idolatry.”  God’s wrath in 2002, according to Robertson, will likely strike Detroit or San Francisco.  The warning echo’s Moral Majority founder Jerry Falwell’s diatribe, which he delivered on Robertson’s September 13th TV show, blaming the 9-11 attacks not on terrorists, but on God, as retribution against homosexuals, civil libertarians and others on his enemies list.  Both men have the right to preach hate, but when they arrogantly attribute their own hateful speech to God, they are on shaky theocratic ground, violating the one of the same ten commandments that they’re supposedly fighting so hard to have posted in public schools and courts (#3 Thou shall Not Take the Name of Thy Lord Your God in Vain).

Banishing Lucifer

The theocratic onslaught against America runs the gambit from scary to downright weird.  There’s the Florida mayor who barred “Satan, ruler of darkness, giver of evil, destroyer of what is good and just,” from entering her city – at least by road, as the city’s public work’s department installed anti-Satan poles containing a rolled up version of the mayor’s proclamation, at the four roads leading into the city.  There’s South Carolina’s anti-terrorism bill, which, in the interest of protecting the citizenry from terrorist attacks, mandates that public schools post the phrase, “In God We Trust.”  Then there’s John Ashcroft’s Justice Department, always good for a joke these days, which just spent $8,000 to drape a blue curtain over the Department’s bare breasted statue of Justice, which otherwise has stood without controversy for 66 years.  Ashcroft never made clear his need to hide the nation’s symbol of Justice from view, but his move bears a strange resemblance to the Taliban habit of cutting the faces out of all the murals in Afghanistan.

It gets stranger and scarier.  One can’t just declare the US a theocratic state, since we don’t have a majority religious denomination.  Two Florida lawmakers, however, think they’ve found an answer to this little problem, proposing a bill to allow school prayer at special events along with the election of a prayer leader who, following the winner take all model of American elections, would then get to chose to which god all the students would pray.  But this isn’t the way religion works.  Belief comes from the heart, not the ballot box.

Religion has been taking a beating these days.  The concept is noble, with almost every religion in the world preaching some variation of the “peace on earth and goodwill to all people” theme.  Many of the most active movements for labor rights, global justice and environmental sanity have traditionally been based in ecumenical communities.  From the movement against environmentally unsustainable conspicuous consumption, right on through to the TV turnoff movement, liberation theologists have played critical roles.  Religion builds community in an alienating society.  It’s not bad stuff. 

But the flip side is dark.  Real dark.  It involves people truly believing that their way is the only way.  Most of the forty-odd wars waging in the world today have religious conflict as their catalyst.  We all love God, but slaughter each other in his or her name.  Theocratic states and the attempts to create them have always led to repression.  The name “God” has been used “in vain” by genocidal movements the world over.  The Pilgrims thanked God for the smallpox epidemics that wiped out their native neighbors, opening their cleared land for colonial development.  The Puritans prayed to God before slaughtering their Narragansett neighbors.  The Jesuits blessed the Spanish genocide against natives in the Caribbean, often with a Priest reading El Requerimiento to the natives as soldiers took their land and their lives. Our nation’s roots lie with a religious justification for a hemispheric holocaust, but in creating the constitution we re-wrote the rules and supposedly rose above medieval barbarism.  Let’s not let the current regime occupying the White House drag us back to the dark ages. 

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Copyright 2002 - Michael I. Niman