Church and State

GOP’s Christian Hysteria Attacks U.S. Principle of Freedom From Religion

Christian conservatives like Santorum are trampling on our right to be free of any state-sanctioned religion and its dictates, says Leslie Bennetts.

Hypocrites always love the fig leaf, and the Republican radicals crusading against women’s reproductive rights have been shrewd enough to cloak their real goal with pious claims that they’re just defending America’s freedom of religion.

But since the issues currently making headlines include the power to deny insurance coverage for birth control to non-Catholics, the rights of the religious are hardly the most worrisome issue we face, no matter how strident the disingenuous claims of the GOP’s anti-woman warriors.

To a growing segment of the American electorate, a much greater concern than the freedom of religion is the freedom from religion.

Every election year generates a new round of sanctimonious baloney from conservative Christians who purport to speak for every American in defining what the United States is all about. Whether explicit or implicit, the presumption underlying their pronouncements is the idea that America is a Judeo-Christian country whose actions and policies should be guided by the religious doctrines deriving from that tradition.

Lost in all the overheated rhetoric is a crucial principle: the freedom from a dominant or state-sanctioned religion and its dictates is far more fundamental to American history and everything this country is actually supposed to stand for than any individual church or faith has ever been.

Unfortunately, such historical facts seem lost on Rick Santorum, whose religious beliefs have defined his policy positions in the secular world.

"Contraception is a license to do things in a sexual realm that is counter to the way things are supposed to be," Santorum opined, as ungrammatical as he is serenely untroubled by any doubt about “the way things are supposed to be.”

Santorum’s vision is drastically circumscribed by his radical Catholicism, and like most ideologues, he wants to impose those strictures on the rest of us no matter how our belief systems might differ from his. As far as he’s concerned, “the way things are supposed to be” is the product of a fixed religious doctrine that represents the final word of God. Santorum’s idea of an omnipotent supernatural creator is the only one that counts, and everyone else is supposed to venerate the same deity and the same dogma.

Among other problems, Santorum’s views betray a shocking ignorance about the history of Christianity. Since he thinks education is for snobs, he probably won’t make the effort to inform himself more fully about the faith he professes to uphold, but anyone who actually wanted to learn something would do well to read Elaine Pagels’s new book, Revelations: Visions, Prophecy and Politics in the Book of Revelations, which details the suppression of some early Christian “books of revelation” and the elevation of others by bishops intent on establishing orthodoxy and eradicating dissenting views in the fourth century.

Pagels and other scholars have chronicled the inconsistent history of Christian beliefs and the stunning variability of canonical texts as well as official practices, but the resulting body of knowledge seems lost on the GOP leaders now bloviating about Christian tradition. Unfortunately, a working understanding of American history also seems to have eluded them.

“It’s the religious commitments of our nation that have made it the greatest nation in the world,” Sen. Orrin Hatch said last week.

The views of the Utah Republican were echoed by his GOP colleague from Missouri, Sen. Roy Blunt, whose Blunt amendment would have let employers opt out of providing any health-care coverage they saw as violating their moral or religious beliefs. When the Senate defeated the amendment last week, Blunt vowed that “this fight is not over. I will continue to work with my colleagues ... to protect the rights that make our nation great.”

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Democrats see such efforts as a Republican drive to restrict women’s access to health care, which seems self-evident. And yet Republicans continue to insist that what’s at stake is religious freedom, and that the Obama administration is infringing upon their religious rights by attempting to guarantee vital components of women’s health care.

Such claims seem nonsensical to those who don’t share the views of the GOP zealots and their ideological brethren in the Catholic Church and other Christian hierarchies. No one is telling Catholics they have to use birth control (even though 98 percent of them do, in defiance of the church’s official position) or forcing them to undergo abortions (even though Catholics have abortions at virtually the same rate as other Americans, and Catholic women have more abortions than Protestant women do).

But the real issue is whether Christian absolutists, be they Catholics or Protestant fundamentalists and evangelicals, should have the power to dictate the rights and privileges of the rest of the American population.

And today’s Republican religious crusaders are stunningly oblivious to the true nature of that population. Their battle cry is the demand that everyone else should defer to their faith—but what about the respect they themselves ought to show for the beliefs of those with different opinions?

Why should feminist secular humanists kowtow to sexist Catholic bishops when it comes to women’s right to reproductive-health services? The Catholic hierarchy may claim the right to tell the Catholic faithful what to do (although few of them seem to be listening), but a small coterie of misogynist men should have no right to tell the rest of the population what to think, how to live, or which gynecological services our health insurance should cover.

In an increasingly pluralistic society, the importance of this fundamental principle becomes more critical every day. Although the GOP consistently assumes that establishment Christian traditions and doctrines should and do define America, the actual numbers tell a very different story about the changing realities of the contemporary world.

As Pagels has documented, early Christian history was characterized by a tremendous ferment of competing ideas and extreme volatility in religious identification. Here’s a news flash for Rick Santorum: the same holds true today.

Ten percent fewer Americans identify as Christian now than did 20 years ago, and no religious group in America is growing as fast as those who adhere to no religion at all. The number of nonreligious Americans has nearly doubled since 1990, and the number of people who identify themselves as atheists or agnostics has more than tripled. In the seven years between 2001 and 2008, the number of adults calling themselves atheists or agnostics rose to 3.6 million from under 2 million.

But even those figures don’t tell the whole story. More than 18 percent of Americans say they don’t believe in God or a higher power, which means there are as many as 40 million nonbelievers in the United States. Since more than 16 percent of Americans say they’re not part of any organized faith, the unaffiliated actually constitute the fourth-largest “religious group” in the nation.

This rejection of organized religion is increasingly reflected in the life choices people make; nearly a third of Americans weren’t married in religious ceremonies, and 27 percent don’t expect to have religious funerals, according to the American Religious Identification Survey published by Trinity College in 2009.

Even among the devout, beliefs and affiliations are startlingly changeable. According to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, 28 percent of Americans have left the faith of their childhood for another religion or for no religion. If you include those who moved from one Protestant denomination to another, the number jumps to 44 percent. “Nothing is static,” said Greg Smith, one of the researchers for Pew’s U.S. Religious Landscape Survey.

Catholics are generally considered to represent a quarter of the U.S. population, but the consistency of that number conceals a far more ominous trend for Roman Catholicism. A third of all Americans raised Catholic have left the church, which means that roughly one out of every 10 people in America is a former Catholic. The only reason that Catholics have continued to represent a stable percentage of the U.S. population is the large influx of Catholic immigrants, mostly from Latin America. Of all religions in the United States, the Roman Catholic Church “has experienced the greatest net loss as a result of affiliation changes,” according to the Pew report.

Protestantism used to dominate American society, but it too has experienced a dramatic decline that now challenges its formerly undisputed status as the majority religion. Less than 40 years ago, Protestants made up about two thirds of the American population, but these days they account for only half.

And such trends are just accelerating. In 1988, only 15 percent of American couples were of mixed faiths, but by 2006, mixed marriages had risen to 25 percent. Researchers now estimate that between one third and one half of all marriages in the United States are between people of different religions, with Jews intermarrying faster than other groups.

Moreover, in a telling harbinger of things to come, the young feel far less allegiance to the traditions of the past than their elders. Less than a quarter of 18- to 23-year-olds think that it’s important to marry a member of the same faith.

Such statistics expose the current policies of GOP Christians as a shamefully unrepresentative travesty, one that completely fails to recognize, let alone respect, the diversity of the American population and the volatility of its belief systems.

The GOP’s increasingly hysterical campaign to impose old-fashioned Christian values on the whole country also ignores the extent to which those values are anti-woman, anti-gay, and anti-modernity, starting with its position on birth control.

If Orrin Hatch and Rick Santorum think they speak for secular humanists, Buddhists, Muslims, Jews, wiccans, Hindus, atheists, agnostics, the apathetic citizens who don’t even bother to think about religion, and everyone else who makes up the mosaic of the American electorate, they’re as clueless as the misogynist Catholic bishops who think women shouldn’t have the right to help lead the church but celibate men should have a right to deny insurance coverage for birth control to non-Catholic working mothers who can’t afford any more children.

The aging white male Christians now claiming the privilege of defining American religious values for everybody else need to take a much closer look at the people they purport to represent. The policies that those dinosaurs want to impose on the rest of the population are hopelessly out of touch with the social and economic realities of most people’s lives.

Christians have every right to believe whatever they want to believe, but they have no right to impose their religion on the millions of Americans who do not share their convictions. And as even the most cursory understanding of American history reveals, they never did have that right.

But since they keep trying to control the way the rest of us live our lives, it’s time for everyone else to stand up and say: your views are not my views, and you don’t speak for me.