The September issue of Church & State (C&S) magazine published by Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU) is a treasure trove of grist for the secular mill. This is my third post that is based on articles in that issue. This one deals with the frequent complaint from the Religious Right that Christians are persecuted in this Christian-majority country. They have turned Alexis de Tocqueville’s “Tyranny of the Majority” on its head, and are accusing the secular minority of imposing its tyrannical will on them. Of course, it’s always a good political strategy to claim victimhood. Right wingers often accuse the LGBTQ community and racial and ethnic minorities of doing that. More importantly, it has proven to be effective in milking their devout followers for money.
Two articles in C&S fit together nicely to show the hypocrisy of the oppressors who claim to be oppressed. The first, titled “Persecution Complex” is authored by Rob Boston, the Director of Communications for AU.[i] His article deals with the current claims by religious leaders, and even Attorney General Jeff Sessions, that Christians are persecuted. The second article is a review of a book titled “Godless Citizens in a Godly Republic: Atheists in American Public Life.”[ii] It gives a brief history of atheism in the US from the birth of our nation up to the present time.
The United States, and the colonies that preceded its formation were never a comfortable place for non-Christians, whether they were atheists or believers in other religions. Atheists were considered a threat to American culture, and were subject to numerous legal sanctions. In the early days of our country, many states passed laws barring them from holding public office or testifying in court. Some of those laws, believe it or not, are still on the books in Arkansas, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Pennsylvania. Even if they are not enforced, they send a message that atheists are second-class citizens, and cannot be trusted.
The First Amendment to the Constitution makes no distinction between believers and nonbelievers. It protects the rights of both. But in 1810, an atheist named John Ruggles was convicted of blasphemy for public statements critical of Christianity. The Chief Justice of the New York Supreme Court, Joseph Kent, wrote in his ruling that “we are a Christian people,” and that Christianity was part of American common law. He apparently did not know about the First Amendment…or, more likely, chose to ignore it.
In those days, atheists were regularly denounced by government officials as anarchists who wanted to destroy the nation. It took a while for the religious bigots to realize that they were violating our founding document, but by the end of the nineteenth century, most states had repealed laws that restricted the rights of atheists to testify in court, but many still retained a requirement that a candidate for public office must believe in God…and they still do, to this day. Those laws cannot be enforced because they are blatantly unconstitutional, as the Supreme Court finally ruled in the 1961 case Torcaso v. Watkins. Roy Torcaso, an atheist, was appointed a notary public by the governor of Maryland. When it came time for his confirmation, he refused to declare a belief in a higher power. The state subsequently revoked his appointment. When the case made it to the Supreme Court, the judges ruled unanimously that Maryland’s requirement was unconstitutional and violated Torcaso’s right to religious freedom. In the ruling, Justice Hugo Black made it clear that states could not require a religious test for public office, and yet, as noted above, eight states have retained this requirement in their constitutions.
Rob Boston continues the story, bringing it up to the current absurd situation. He eviscerates the myth that Christians are persecuted, holding it up, dangling like a dead lizard, for all to see.
He starts his article with this:
“Evangelist Franklin Graham didn’t hold back. During a May 2017 radio interview with Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, Graham asserted that Christians in America are being “persecuted” and singled out “over and over again” for refusing to accept that LGBTQ people have rights.”
LGBTQ people have no rights according to Graham. Perkins agreed, and has made his own statements about persecution of Christians:
“In a 2015 appeal for funds, Perkins accused the administration of President Barack Obama of engaging in persecution of Christians. He vowed to stop the “administration’s persecution of Christians within our borders.” Perkins warned darkly that a “rampage of ‘political correctness’ … is coming to your state, your town, your church. Christians you know are targets … maybe Christians in your own home.”
No doubt a lot of terrified Christians mailed a check to Perkins immediately. God doesn’t like political correctness, apparently.
Pastor Robert Jeffress, a Dallas Southern Baptist minister who is close to Trump, took it one step further in his attempts to inflame Christians. He asserted during a November 2014 radio interview that “attacks on American Christians are led by Satan.”[iii] That probably got Jeffress a few million in donations. Evangelicals have even said that the Democratic Party is the party of Satan, and maybe Obama is his personal representative, or even Satan himself in disguise.[iv]
The Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, got into the act. “Let’s be frank: A dangerous movement undetected by many is challenging and eroding our great tradition of religious freedom. There can be no doubt, it’s no little matter, it must be confronted intellectually and politically and be defeated. This past election gives us a rare opportunity to arrest these trends and to confront them.”
The problem is in the interpretation of the Free Exercise Clause, which has been distorted to mean Free Ride Clause. There is an inherent conflict between the Establishment Clause, which pretty clearly prohibits special treatment for religious organizations, and the Free Exercise Clause, which does not say that religious organizations should be tax exempt nor does it say they should not be subject to IRS rules, nor does it say that Christians can oppress nonbelievers if God tells them to do that. The issue has been debated here and everywhere else ad nauseam, and for the most part, Religion has won. Instead of being persecuted, they are getting a free ride on the backs of the taxpayers.
As the author says, “To the Religious Right, it’s a given that there’s a “war on Christmas,” and, by extension, a larger “war on religion” or “war on Christianity.” The groups also tend to define “persecution” so broadly that benign acts – such as expecting the owner of a business to serve everyone equally – can become oppression in the Religious Right’s narrative.”
Yeah, they claim to be oppressed because they are not allowed to oppress others. Nobody with any common sense would define that as oppression. The Free Exercise Clause was not intended to let religious believers impose their beliefs on others, but that is exactly what a pharmacist does when he/she refuses to fill a contraceptive prescription, or what a shop owner does when he refuses to deal with a customer.
Some progressive religions leaders don’t just reject the Religious Right’s claims of persecution, they consider it offensive.
“At this point, I don’t experience mass persecution as we enter into worship on any given day,” Pastor Lydia Munoz of the Church of the Open Door, a United Methodist congregation in Kennett Square, Pa., told Church & State. “My ability to worship or to lead others in worship in a Christian church has never been thwarted or deemed illegal. What I do see that is under persecution is the gospel message of Jesus Christ – it is being co-opted by white evangelicals who equate their ability to discriminate based on sexual orientation or document status, class, or records (incarcerated or prior conviction) with religious freedom.”
Munoz finds the Religious Right’s claims of being persecuted to be especially ironic in light of the historical examples of religious groups that have suppressed people’s rights.
“There is a reason why our founders decided that this was important because we all know the history of how the church came to be the government and vice-versa,” she observed. “It wasn’t good, and those who stood outside of this, like Galileo and others, were persecuted and made into criminals. This is the slippery slope that we risk.
“We can’t be a nation that claims to have been founded on these principles of religious freedom and yet deny that right to every American citizen,” she added. “The very gift of this country has been that we are proud of our democratic way, where all voices are heard, and the notion – although we often fall short of this – but the notion is that we value everyone regardless of their social status.”
Rob Boston’s final line bears repeating:
“For anyone who wants to combat religious persecution, there’s plenty of work to be done worldwide – but you won’t find much of it on (our) own shores.”
I met Rob and heard him speak at an AU meeting. He is a very personable guy, and an articulate advocate of church-state separation.