Religious Progressives Have No Choice But to Keep Fighting
Editors' Note: This article is part of a Public Square conversation on Political Engagement. Read other perspectives here.
I suppose it's good that figures representing religious institutions long associated with culture warfare from the Right now say it's time to dial it down a little. I can't help noting, however, that these calls for moderation from Pope Francis, Billy Graham, and the Southern Baptists' Russell Moore come at a time when their brand of absolutist discourse is widely distrusted by an increasingly young and diverse population. Their new messaging may simply amount to what in D.C. is called "optics": a superficial retreat rather than a substantive one.
And in a way it doesn't matter whether the swords of leaders like Russell Moore are slashing or sheathed or whether their rhetoric is cynical or sincere. Progressives have a lot of work to do just to move the center back to where it should be in respect to equal respect for people of all faiths and no faith and in respect to a proper drawing of the church-state line. We certainly can't avert our eyes from the damage already done by the Religious Right. Nor can we ignore the infernal machinery that our American mullahs have put in place in order to do still more damage in years to come, regardless of any irenic statements leaders might be making now.
Two examples of damage done that needs undoing: In April 2011 the U.S. Supreme Court narrowly upheld a Rube Goldberg-like scheme in Arizona whereby the state legislature authorized tax credits for gifts made to "school tuition organizations" that in turn only subsidize Christian education. (In her dissent, an outraged Justice Kagan asked whether a taxpayer who objects to taxpayer subsidies for the purchase of crucifixes would have any less cause for objection if the purchase were made by way of tax credits rather than direct "bulk purchase.") What's even worse than the Arizona decision itself, however, is that the Court's majority said no one not directly injured by such schemes will have the legal standing to challenge them from now on. As you would expect, more states have since contrived similarly nefarious arrangements for the public subsidy of sectarian education.
Second example: Congressional and state-level rollbacks on access to abortion have created a situation whereby women in 87% of U.S. counties now lack access to abortion services, and the restrictions continue to mount. The restrictions include abusive and intrusive methods of intimidating and humiliating the women who need help—mostly poor women and women of color, it goes without saying.
I mentioned the Religious Right's infernal machinery that will grind on and on and hurt the cause of pluralism within a secular democracy unless we keep resisting it. Here I refer to the powerful and well-financed but little-known litigation and advocacy centers associated with conservative religious causes: the Alliance Defense Fund (recently re-named Alliance Defending Liberty) that was created by mullahs James Dobson and D. James Kennedy; the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty; the American Center for Law and Justice (run by George W. Bush favorite Jay Sekulow); and many more of this ilk. These operations aren't going away, especially now that unreported dark money can and does flow so easily behind the scenes under an "anything goes" construal of the 501(c)4 provision in the tax code.
Here in California we've got our own creepy Pacific Justice Institute spearheading a ballot initiative next year that seeks to undo a new law that lets transgender students in public schools choose which bathrooms to use and which sports teams they want to play on. Naturally, the Institute is claiming that the new law's victims are other students whose privacy is violated by these transgender monsters invading "their" bathrooms.
The transgender issue points to the other reason progressives must fight on. It's not just because of the damage already done, and it's not just because of the destructive machinery the Religious Right already has put in place. It's also the "cusp" issues that must concern us: legal protection for transgender persons, certainly, but also the struggle that is bound to grow more intense in coming years over decriminalizing personal drug use. Liberals and conservatives can agree that addiction is a serious problem, but only conservatives think it is okay to lock nonviolent addicts behind bars for long sentences. For them addiction represents a serious moral failure deserving of punishment. Bad religion has everything to do with this kind of demonization. It's more than a little ironic that the same conservatives who these days cloak their anti-abortion and Christian schooling campaigns in the language of civil rights lose no sleep at all over the hugely disproportionate impact of harsh drug laws on people of color.
So yes: it's always nice when the leaders of conservative religious outfits make small gestures in the direction of conciliation. But religious progressives, coming from behind after a 40-year onslaught, have no reason to rest easy.
Rev. Peter Laarman is executive director of Progressive Christians Uniting, a network of congregations and individuals in Southern California. Ordained in the United Church of Christ, he previously served as senior minister at New York's Judson Memorial Church and worked in communications for the U.S. labor movement. He is a contributing editor at Religion Dispatches.