One of the core tenets of the United States established by the Founding Fathers was the separation of Church and State — but an expanding Christian Right wants to turn the U.S. into a religious state, where ideology trumps law — and they just succeeded in Michigan.
As Politicus USA reports:
“Despite protections in the U.S. Constitution and federal and state laws, the past six years have seen an increase in religious fundamentalists claim they have theocratic authority to punish women, gays, and any American unwilling to comply with their theocratic edicts. It is apparent that Americans have no more constitutional protections from religious tyranny than unarmed African Americans have from racist cops shooting them with impunity. It is astonishing, but the extremist Christian fundamentalists are basing their punitive power on the religious freedom guarantee in the First Amendment; with Supreme Court approval.”
And this week, religious tyranny came to Michigan, with House Bill 5958, The Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). This bill legalizes a Christian extremist’s religious freedom to discriminate, and commit other breaches in law and social mores. The law makes it legal to refuse service, deny employment, housing, and violate other citizens’ rights, any rights, if a theocrat claims it violates their religious freedom and objects on religious grounds.
As if this were not terrifying enough, our worst fears should be reserved for the Orwellian-titled “conscience clause.” This clause allows any Christian Fundamentalist working in the healthcare industry to cease a patient’s medical care if they claim their objection is founded on religious beliefs, and the Healthcare provider would be obliged to send a patient away. This would give legal cover to religious pharmacists to refuse to fill prescriptions if they “think” a person is gay, a woman is a single mother, or the patient is the “wrong religion.” It would also mean a first responder, whether law enforcement, fire protection, or ambulance personnel can use “religious objections” to refuse to provide service to a person or group they feel violates their religious beliefs.
This move to theocracy was entirely foreseeable, it’s not like we haven’t had due warning. In his 2005 book American Theocracy: The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century American political writer Kevin Phillips provides a harsh critique of the past forty years of the Republican coalition in U.S. politics. He “presents a nightmarish vision of ideological extremism, catastrophic fiscal irresponsibility, rampant greed, and dangerous shortsightedness.”
Phillips points to three unifying themes holding this coalition together. First, its tie to oil and the role oil plays in American and world events. Second, to the coalition of social conservatives, Evangelicals and Pentecostals in this Republican coalition. Finally, he points to the “debt culture” of this coalition, and to a coming “debt bubble” related to the debt of the U.S. Government and U.S. consumers. In short, he argues, the U.S. has become the very thing it existed to escape — a theocratic colonial juggernaut in the shape of former world powers such as the Roman Empire and the British Empire as they declined from their peaks and fell into disarray.
One only has to take a glimpse at the nation today to see that Phillips was onto something — just look at what happened to the Pledge of Allegiance. Written in August, 1892, by the socialist minister Francis Bellamy, the original Pledge read:
“I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
But in 1954, President Eisenhower encouraged Congress to insert God into the Pledge. He claimed this would mark out the U.S. as a Christian nation in contrast to Cold War Russia as a Communist nation — as if the two were mutually exclusive, and morally opposed. Bellamy’s daughter objected to this alteration, which remains intact, and reads:
“I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
Over the years since, the Christian Right has continued to insert itself into the democratic institutions and processes of the state. Since the 1980’s, groups like the Moral Majority, the Christian Coalition, Focus on the Family and the Family Research Council have sought to turn their religious ideologies into law, with some success. The installation of born-again Christian George W. Bush in the White House saw the U.S. launch a Holy War against half the Muslim world, stalled U.S. progress in Stem Cell research, while the toxic combination of oil and debt crashed not only the U.S., but the global economy in the Financial Crisis of 2007/8.
Since then, we have seen the Christian Right launch a war against women through the Republican Party — limiting access to abortion and birth control, and lobbying against legislation to outlaw spousal rape.
And now, this concerted effort to enshrine the right to avoid anti-discrimination legislation by turning the U.S. into a theocracy, one state at a time.
There is a compelling reason that religious ideology should not trump law, and before he became one of the Christian Right’s favorite Supreme Court justices, Justice Antonin Scalia saw it too. In fact, writing for the majority in Employment Division v. Smith, Scalia said that the First Amendment freedom of religion does not allow individuals to break the law. He said:
“We have never held that an individual’s beliefs excuse him from compliance with an otherwise valid law prohibiting conduct that the state is free to regulate.”
Scalia said it would be “courting anarchy” to create exceptions every time a religious group claims that a law infringes on its religious freedom.
But Scalia and the rest of the Christian Right have squared that circle; they would rather live in religious theocracy than a secular democracy — whatever the consequences. The battle for America is on. Those citizens who want to live in a democracy will have to fight for it.