It’s rather amusing to me to listen to the wingnuts spew invective about “secular progressives” as if we actually had some huge influence over legislators. We could only dream of the kind of power and influence they think we have. Rick Perlstein has an article in Rolling Stone about the right’s phony war on secularism, or secular humanism. It begins with this anecdote:
Once upon a time, in early 2004, I attended one of hundreds of “Parties for the President” organized nationwide for grassroots volunteers who wanted to help reelected George W. Bush, at a modest middle class home in Portland, Oregon. At one point, a nice old lady politely pressed into my hand a grubby little self-published pamphlet she had come upon, purporting to prove that Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry had faked the heroics that had won him three purple hearts in Vietnam. I added it to my mental store of the night’s absurdities that I expected to hear rattling across the wingnutosphere the entire fall: “I still believe there are weapons of mass destruction”; “There is an agenda—to get rid of God in this country”; “John Kerry attended a party in which there was bad language!” What I didn’t expect was to see Kerry’s war-hero cred earnestly debated night after night on CNN. Then came August and “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth” — and that little old lady’s fever dream began dominating the media discussion of the campaign, and the rest, as they say, is history.
That’s the way, in my experience, the ecology of right-wing smears works: Insane horror stories – Clinton is running cocaine out of an Arkansas airport! Barack Obama had gay sex in the back of a limo! – bubble up from the collective conservative Id at the outset of an election year; professional conservatives in Washington identify the ones that seem most promising and launder them through the suckers in the “balance”-hungry mainstream media; and presto, before you know it, it’s death-panel-palooza, 24/7.
Responsible political reporting, of course, would seek to penetrate this process while it’s going on. But we don’t have responsible political reporting – or reporters who understand enough about the historical matrix from which these predictable discourses emerge to recognize the contending lies for what they are before they nose across the finish line.
One could list lots and lots of examples of that dynamic, the most obvious being birtherism. Perlstein is particularly interested in a current meme, exemplified by Mitt Romney’s recent statement that folks like us are trying to “establish a religion called secularism.” This is little more than a rhetorical trick, of course — “they say we’re trying to enforce our religious views on them, but stopping us from imposing our religious views means we’re establishing their religious views instead.” But it’s being taken seriously. And there’s a long history here, as Perlstein documents:
Here’s some background those befuddled Democrats need to know: One of the most robust and effective conspiracy theories on the right, the notion that “secularism” – or, just as often, “Secular Humanism” – is a religion is meant to be taken entirely literally: right wingers genuinely believe it refers to an actually existing religious practice. How do conservatives know? Because, they say, the Supreme Court said so. It was, as religious historian and Lutheran minister Martin E. Marty has written, “an instance where one can date precisely the birth of a religion: June 19, 1961.” That was the day the Court ruled in the case of Torcaso v. Watkins striking down the Maryland Constitution’s requirement of “a declaration of belief in the existence of God” to hold “any office of profit or trust in this state” — specifically, in atheist Roy Torcaso’s case, the office of notary public. In his decision, Justice Hugo Black, writing for a unanimous court, further asserted that states and the federal government could not favor religions “based on a belief in the existence of God as against those religions founded on different beliefs” – and, in a fateful, ill-considered, and entirely offhand footnote explained: “Among religions in this country which do not teach what would be generally be considered a belief in the existence of God are Buddhism, Taoism, Ethical Culture, Secular Humanism and others.”
From here, things get wacky. As unearthed by the outstanding scholar Carol Mason in her masterpiece Reading Appalachia from Left to Right, in 1974 a Jesuit priest and Fordham University law professor named Edward Berbasse argued that “since humanism is now considered by the court to be a religion , it must be prevented from being established by the government.” An activist asked him if that meant they could win their fight to ban the satanic textbooks being forced down their children’s throats in Kanawha County, West Virginia by taking the matter to the Supreme Court. “I think you may have the material if you can get a crackerjack lawyer,” Father Berbasse responded. A Supreme Court case was never actually attempted – not least because, as Chip Berlet and Matthew Lyons have pointed out, “While historically there has been an organized humanist movement in the United States since at least the 1800s, the idea of a large-scale quasireligion called secular humanism is a conspiracist myth.” In Kanawha County, the textbook fight was fought out with dynamite instead. Nationwide, however, the conspiracist myth took on a life of its own – even unto the halls of Congress.
For Secular Humanism was not just an imaginary religion. It was, as the subtitle to a 1984 book still revered by religious conservatives, put it, The Most Dangerous Religion in America. How so? Because it held that man, not God, determines human affairs. From that, as Martin Marty explained, the ascendant religious right developed the claim that “when a textbook does not mention the God of the Bible … it necessarily leads to a void which it must fill with the religion of Secular Humanism.” (It’s a religion. Thus the Capital Letters.) And that any textbook which does not mention the guiding hand of God is rock-solid proof that the “secular humanist” conspiracists had written it; the absence was the presence…
The professional right had found its substitute for the Red Menace. In many ways “secular humanism” was Communism’s superior as an organizing tool, because it so handily took the fight directly to the bloodiest crossroads in our political culture: the space between the public school and the home. There is no more effective way to organize against liberalism than to argue that liberals are invading the sacred precinct of the nuclear family – the basic unit of government under God’s covenant, as the “Christian Reconstructionist” Rousas J. Rushdoony, father of the home-schooling movement, argued in his 1972 book The Messianic Character of American Education. The power-grabbing would-be-messiah government must be defeated, argued Connie Marshner, a Heritage Foundation staffer influenced by Rushdoony, if Christians were to “reverse the coming of the secular humanist state.”
As the Catholic Church cranks up the propaganda machine over the contraception mandate, you can certainly look for Mitt Romney to try to tap into the rich vein of the Christian right persecution complex over the next few months as a means of convincing the righteous that he is one of them — or at least isn’t one of Them, as Obama is.