The First Amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees religious freedom to all citizens; and the first clause of that amendment prohibits Congress from passing a law “respecting an establishment of religion.” Known as the Establishment Clause, this passage has been interpreted generally to prevent Congress from establishing a national religion or the federal government from showing preference for one religion over another. Jews and other minority religious communities have prospered under this system of law that separates church and state.
However, in the run-up to the 2012 elections, we are witnessing a disturbing trend of injecting religion — specifically, evangelical Christianity — into national politics. Two of the leading candidates for the Republican presidential endorsement, Rep. Michele Bachmann from Minnesota and Texas Gov. Rick Perry, promote an agenda that would destroy the wall of separation between church and state. Further, both politicians are consorting with some of the most extreme personalities on the Christian right, including some who call for supplanting constitutional law with their version of biblical strictures — essentially turning our country into a fascist Christian state.
I don’t think this dystopian vision of America will become reality in 2013; but Jews, and all Americans, should be deeply concerned about the theocratic drift of Republican politics. Bachmann and Perry are vying for the support of evangelical Christians (not Mormons), who comprise the base of Republican primary voters. As these two politicians have emerged into the spotlight of national politics, their ideology and influences are coming under increasing scrutiny.
In the print edition of this week’s Jewish World, JTA’s Ron Kampeas profiles Perry, who declared his presidential candidacy on Saturday. The Texas governor recently endorsed an event called The Response, an explicitly Christian prayer rally organized by the American Family Association, whose spokesman, Bryan Fischer, has asserted that the First Amendment applies only to Christians.
Fischer has written: “Islam has no fundamental First Amendment claims, for the simple reason that it was not written to protect the religion of Islam. Islam is entitled only to the religious liberty we extend to it out of courtesy.” In his demeaning of Muslim citizens of this country, Fischer added that “the Founders were not writing a suicide pact when they wrote the First Amendment.”
The Response was intended as a call for Jesus to help America solve its problems. The Christian fundamentalist speakers at the massive Aug. 6 rally also reportedly spoke out against homosexuality and same-sex marriage.
The New York Times reported: “In many ways, the rally was unprecedented, even in Texas, where faith and politics have long intersected without much controversy — the governor, as both a private citizen and an elected leader, delivering a message to the Lord at a Christian prayer rally he created, while using his office’s prestige, letterhead, Web site and other resources to promote it. Mr. Perry said he wanted people of all faiths to attend, but Christianity dominated the service and the religious affiliations of the crowd. The prayers were given in Jesus Christ’s name, and the many musical performers sang of Christian themes of repentance and salvation.”
Knowledgeable observers of the Christian right have noted that Perry’s associates are part of something called the New Apostolic Reformation, which advocates a doctrine called Seven Mountains Dominionism, which holds that Christians have the right to take control of government and all aspects of power in society.
As the JTA story noted, 16 rabbis were among 50 Houston clergy members “who urged Perry not to host [The Response]. National groups like the Anti-Defamation League also opposed it.”
If Perry is willing to use his position as Texas governor to promote his sectarian Christian beliefs, it does not take much imagination to extrapolate about how he would use the Oval Office to promulgate a regressive social agenda tied to his religious ideology.
In the case of Rep. Bachmann, Ryan Lizza wrote a lengthy article, “Leap of Faith,” in the recent issue of The New Yorker, which analyzes the Republican front-runner’s intellectual influences.
“Bachmann belongs to a generation of Christian conservatives whose views have been shaped by institutions, tracts, and leaders not commonly known to secular Americans, or even to most Christians,” writes Lizza. “Her campaign is going to be a conversation about a set of beliefs more extreme than those of any American politician of her stature, including Sarah Palin, to whom she is inevitably compared.”
Among Bachmann’s influences, when she attended the O.W. Coburn School of Law, at Oral Roberts University, in Tulsa, Okla., was Prof. John Eidsmoe. She worked as Eidsmoe’s research assistant on his book Christianity and the Constitution, published in 1987. Eidsmoe told Lizza that the Coburn School of Law “wove Christianity into the legal curriculum.”
“Christianity and the Constitution is ostensibly a scholarly work about the religious beliefs of the Founders, but it is really a brief for political activism,” Lizza writes. “Eidsmoe writes that America ‘was and to a large extent still is a Christian nation,’ and that ‘our culture should be permeated with distinctively Christian flavoring.’”
Lizza notes that Eidsmoe’s 2005 talk to the national convention of the Council of Conservative Citizens, “a defiantly pro-white, and anti-black, organization,” stirred controversy. He was disinvited from a Tea Party rally in April 2010, in Wausau, Wisc., because of his track record of racist statements and appearances before racist groups.
Eidsmoe, who also influenced Bachmann’s interest in the homeschool movement, told Lizza that Bachmann’s views were consistent with the Christian legal curriculum at Oral Roberts University. “I do not know of any way in which they are not,” he said.
For her part, according to Lizza’s story, Bachmann recently told a church audience in Iowa, “I went down to Oral Roberts University, and one of the professors that had a great influence over me was an Iowan named John Eidsmoe. He’s from Iowa, and he’s a wonderful man. He has theology degrees, he has law degrees, he’s absolutely brilliant. He taught me about so many aspects of our godly heritage.”
Of course, Lizza points out a number of the Minnesota congresswoman’s notorious factual gaffes (on Tuesday, she called on a South Carolina audience to wish Elvis Presley a happy birthday; however, Aug. 16 actually is the anniversary of his death). Apart from Bachmann’s confusion about historical events, her divisive, extreme right-wing social agenda coupled with regressive economic policy positions designed to hobble what she terms “gangster government” are of greater concern.
Delving into the fantastic conspiracy theories and wacky beliefs of the constellation of Christian fundamentalists supporting Bachmann and Perry makes one’s head swim. The theories are part of a movement called Christian Reconstructionism; Dominionism, the belief that God has ordained Christians to lead all of society, is the creed.
Frank Schaeffer, the son of Francis Schaeffer, an influential evangelical Christian leader who influenced Bachmann’s anti-abortion activism many years ago, is the author of Crazy for God: How I Grew Up As One Of The Elect, Helped Found The Religious Right, And Lived To Take All (Or Almost All) Of It Back.
In a recent essay, Frank Schaeffer wrote: “The Reconstructionists have been like a drop of radicalizing flavoring added to a bottle of water: They’ve subtly changed the water’s flavor. And even though most evangelicals, let alone the general public, don’t know the names of the leading Reconstructionist thinkers, the world we live in — where a radicalized, angry government-hating religious right has changed the face of American politics and spun off into movements such as the Tea Party — is a direct result of that ‘flavoring.’
“Anyone who wants to understand American politics, not to mention North American religion, had better get acquainted with the Reconstructionists. For instance these folks just held America hostage in the debt crisis, an attempt to — literally — destroy the government’s ability to function at all, a manufactured ‘crisis’ in which Bachmann was a leading proponent of scorched-earth, destroy the system ‘politics.’”
Finally, Michelle Goldberg, author of Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism, notes, in a blog post on The Daily Beast this week, that fundamentalist Christian ideology has never has been so prominent “at the highest levels of the Republican Party.”
She recalls that a George W. Bush adviser, Marvin Olasky, caused alarm because he was associated with Christian Reconstructionism. “It seemed unthinkable, at the time, that an American president was taking advice from even a single person whose ideas were so inimical to democracy,” Goldberg writes. “Few of us imagined that someone who actually championed such ideas would have a shot at the White House. It turns out we weren’t paranoid enough. If Bush eroded the separation of church and state, the GOP is now poised to nominate someone who will mount an all-out assault on it. We need to take their beliefs seriously, because they certainly do.”