This one's a long one, folks, so get comfortable.
Election time is rolling around again. That means it's time for one of the South's grandest old traditions. This is something that, as traditions go, is up there with fried chicken, cornbread, collard greens, and the liberal use of the word "y'all," though I appreciate it about as much as the oppressive humidity through which Southerners suffer every summer. I refer, of course, to religious demagoguery.
Problem is, it's not just Southern anymore. Along with Cajun cooking, the blues, and rock 'n' roll, this is another Southern cultural phenomenon that is sweeping the nation. The Midwest, especially Kansas and Indiana, has become famous for politicians who are too eager to claim that God is on their side. It has even reach the Northeast, which is traditionally reticent on matters of faith - Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and Bob Smith of New Hampshire have indulged copiously. James Dobson, founder of the ill-named Focus on the Family and the foremost religious demagogue of our day, is from Colorado.
The demagogues get their fuel from a culture of fear that seems to occupy all too many Christians in our country. It is the fear that society will shun those who practice their faith openly, and it is an undercurrent latent not only in politics but in Christian artistic expression. From the Doobie Brothers ("I don't care what they may say") to DC Talk ("What will people think when they hear that I'm a Jesus freak?"), Christian music often implies that one risks social acceptance by being Christian. Society, so the fear mantra goes, doesn't like my Christianity.
This fear is easily manipulated into political gain by opportunistic politicians. How many times have you heard some political figure say that "traditional values are under attack"? Or that "they want to take God out of our schools/government/public life"? Conservative commentator David Limbaugh (no relation to Rush) wrote an entire book about liberal "persecution" of Christianity.
A perfect case study of this manipulation of latent fears is evident in 2002's battle over the Pledge of Allegiance ruling. For those of you who have been asleep the past couple of years, the federal appeals court for the Ninth Circuit ruled that Congress' 1954 inclusion of "under God" in the official Pledge of Allegiance constituted an establishment of religion and was therefore unconstitutional. And all hell broke loose. 99 Senators and 413 Congresspeople looking to earn political points back home voted for resolutions condemning the ruling. The dissenting judge in the case - someone who should know better - claimed that "'God Bless America' and 'America The Beautiful' will be gone for sure." Opinions flew about "keeping God in our country."
Keep in mind that thanks to the First Amendment, a ruling against the Pledge would not and could not prevent it from being said by students in schools. It would not infringe upon anyone's rights to affirm their belief in God publicly or privately. It could not prevent patriotic Americans from singing "God Bless America" whenever they felt like it. In short, the role of God in this country would not have been diminished one bit. Sadly, the fearmonger politicians would rather score the easy political points by stoking an already latent fear than concern themselves with the facts of the situation.
The gay marriage debate also falls victim to the politics of religious fear. Too many people unreasonably believe that government recognition of gay marriages would somehow affect the way churches define and deal with marriage. Never mind that such interference would be unconstitutional - politicians let people buy into it anyway and reap the election year rewards. As with the pledge debate, religious demagogues use the latent fear of societal attacks on Christianity for their own political gain.
The fear at the base of all this - that Christianity is somehow under attack and societally unacceptable - is unfounded to the outside observer. 70% of our nation is Christian by the lowest estimate, and 41% of Americans describe themselves as "born-again." Billboards dot our highways saying "Jesus Saves"; crosses proliferate throughout our cities; overtly Christian movies such as "The Passion of the Christ" and "The Gospel of John" can hit box offices with almost no one decrying the expression of religion in polite society. John Kerry is routinely attacked by Republicans, the press, and even many Democrats for not being open enough about his faith. An atheist's admission of faithlessness draws a disappointed grunt from most Americans. Now what was that about mainstream society shunning the overtly religious?
But it's patently ridiculous to tell a fearful person not to fear. No fear is entirely fabricated, and to call a fear "absurd" fails to confront the reasons behind the fear. Unfortunately, there are elements on the fringes of society that do ridicule those of faith. While these people - equally as cruel as the demagogues they decry - are far from the mainstream of American society, it doesn't seem that way to the people they ridicule. Enough constant ridicule, even from the most tangential of sources, and even the most reasonable of people will begin to feel cast aside by society.
The way to end religious demagoguery, then, is not to dismiss the fears of Christians but to act to assuage them. Many of those who criticize the openly religious find a home at the left side of the political spectrum - thus the traditional evangelical Christian distaste for liberalism. An evangelical Christian friend of mine attended a meeting of Howard Dean supporters wherein someone stated that "we just have to forget about" the religious Christian set.
This exclusionism is the kind of image liberalism must avoid projecting. Liberals must take great pains to explain to Christians that they have nothing to fear from liberal ideals. Prominent liberals must restrain themselves from ridiculing those who wish to express their faith. Our leaders in Congress must carefully and cogently explain why Christianity is not under attack from the left at every turn. We must carefully demonstrate that issues such as the Pledge and gay marriage can not and will not erode Christianity.
Religious demagoguery will only stop when we make evangelical Christians understand not only that they are welcome in the liberal movement but also that the liberal movement seeks to ensure their right to express their faith as openly as they see fit. When the evangelical asks: "What will people think when they see that I'm a Jesus freak?" we must be sure to respond, "We think it's great."