A Strange Evolution: When Fundagelicals Loved the ACLU (LSP #48)

A Strange Evolution: When Fundagelicals Loved the ACLU (LSP #48) June 25, 2018

Long, long ago, when I was a wee bright-eyed Pentecostal lass, I had a run-in with an anti-theist college professor. I wrote about it a few years ago, but I always intended to come back to that story because there was a part I hadn’t mentioned at the time. You see, my evangelical peers had an instant–and unanimous–response to the situation when I told them about it. They wanted me to go talk to the ACLU. Does that shock you? Surprise you? It should. I’ll tell you about it today. Today, Lord Snow Presides over another strange evolution in fundagelicalism.

the ACLU at pridefest 4, 2003
(Scott Granneman, CC-SA.)

Set The Wayback Machine.

As I said in that earlier post, it must have been 1988 or 1989. I was a freshman or sophomore, taking a class required for my major.

And wow, the professor of this class did. Not. Like. Christians. At. ALL.

I was Pentecostal, of course. Back then that made me a fundamentalist. I had a lot of friends in college, almost all of them evangelical. And we brooked no muddying of the terms! They’d have been offended at the mere suggestion that they were fundamentalists. To them, that term meant dangerous extremism. By contrast and in similar fashion, I’d have been offended at being called evangelical. To me, it indicated dangerous laxity.

But we shared a deep passion for all things Christian. We got together often to pray, to talk about Christian stuff, and to argue about our different interpretations of this or that Bible verse. I lived in the dorms then, so often these get-togethers occurred in my dorm room or in the lounge downstairs. My memories of those evenings now seem golden-yellow with nostalgia, from the color of the lights and walls there.

We shared our daily struggles and triumphs with each other. At the same time, we all tried not to fret whenever the others didn’t agree with our arguments or interpretations.

Always Be Ready.

Naturally, when this professor got totally out of hand, I shared this concern with my group. The exact conversation is lost to my memory, but my complaint probably went like this:

“In every class, this guy insults Christians. He looks right at me when he does it, so he knows what he’s doing. I can’t even concentrate–I’m always just waiting for the next snide jab. Ugh! He thinks he’s just so clever, but I feel attacked and singled out. Nobody likes it when he does this, but I don’t know what to say to make him stop.”

I had no idea what to do. My stress was getting bad enough that I was considering just dropping the class. But I needed it for my major.

What I’m describing is, in essence, the plot of the first God’s Not Dead movie, right?

But my friends didn’t suggest a debate about Creationism.

They had something else entirely in mind.

You’re Now Entering the Twilight Zone.

Every one of them, including my then-boyfriend Biff, suggested I contact the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

Yes.

You heard me.

This group is now one of the most-demonized groups in the entire country. Once fundamentalists merged with evangelicals, creating the foul, lumbering, drooling behemoth that is fundagelicalism, one of the first groups they set up as their tribal enemy was this group of lawyers who are dedicated to protecting people’s rights and liberties.

It wasn’t always like that though.

In the late 1980s, the ACLU was considered a friend to Christians. By 2006, Christianity Today was running pleading op-eds trying to defend it. By 2015, someone was whining at the misleadingly-named Reason.com about how the ACLU was being totally meeeeeeeeeeean to bigoted Christians. Today, fundagelicals take it as a point of doctrine that the ACLU has it out for them specifically, and specifically that this crusade against them is happening jus’ fer bein’ Christian.

The Culture-War Model of Christianity.

Back in my college days, Christians enjoyed a position of uncontested dominance in popular culture. Nobody could even imagine a future in which Christians were anything but an effortless majority, much less no longer the arbiters of cultural mores. We had a great respect for higher education, though we still thought that the inspiration of the Holy Ghost could make up for it. We saw ourselves as the future leaders of our country. Even I–a woman–could imagine a future as a professional in the sciences.

And we certainly didn’t see watchdog groups as anything but helpers to us. We were doing nothing wrong, and so we had nothing to fear from any such groups.

Wow, a lot can happen in a few decades, right?

Somewhere in those intervening decades, Christians began subscribing to a totally different narrative about the ACLU. Their stunning about-face didn’t happen in a vacuum, of course. Those were also the years in which they began engaging in their cruelest, most extremist culture wars. The ACLU stood against their constant, nonstop attempts to hijack American law and culture, and so the ACLU became their most dreaded enemies.

But fundagelicals don’t think they changed at all. To them, the ACLU changed.

I’ve no doubt that their elders can’t even remember a time when Christians thought anything on the topic but what they think now.

But I do.

Back When I Was Young.

When my friends suggested this course of action, I felt unnerved. I wasn’t hesitating because I dreaded the help of a tribal enemy. No, I was simply nervous about tangling with lawyers and court cases. It felt like a lot of trouble over something that might be able to be resolved in some other way.

But even the older guys at my church thought it was a great idea. One of them, a genial deacon, was ready to make some phone calls.

No, Brother Flowers, I told him. Please, not yet.

Though the idea made me want to throw up from dread, I decided to talk to the professor first.

And that proved to be all that was necessary.

Unlike Dr. Radisson in the dumb Christian movie, this real instructor toned down his sniping, and I was able to continue taking the class with no further stress. I got a good grade in it, even.

Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if he hadn’t decided to play nice. Thankfully, I never had to find out.

The Party of Leopards Eating People’s Faces.

Even more than that, though, I wonder who the first right-wing Christian was who went from HOORAY, the ACLU is helping to stop others from infringing on our rights! to Whoa, why is the ACLU now stopping us from doing what we want to do?

I think there must have been a first Christian to make that observation, back then. But they weren’t quite self-aware enough to make that vital connection: that the ACLU that had once helped them and now opposed them was doing so because they were now the oppressors, not the ones in need of help against oppression.

See, back then my tribe seemed like they had a faint understanding of why we needed the ACLU. America was a secular country, yes. But sometimes a legislative group might make a law that pushed against religious people’s rights. And sometimes someone in authority might get out of hand, like my professor had, and maybe that person wouldn’t be reasonable when asked to stop.

That’s why it was so vitally important that we had a legal watchdog group that was willing to step in between oppressed citizens and those figures of authority who had crossed boundaries.

None of us specifically talked about it like that, but it’s how I sure as heck thought of the situation. The ACLU was our friend–not our enemy. It was part of that very necessary system of checks and balances upon power–where rubber met the roadwhere the buck stopped.

No wonder right-wing Christians today hate this group. They’re focused single-mindedly on power, and consequently aren’t real fans of obstacles to their overreach that they can’t simply steamroll, trample, or ignore.

Nor have they ever been fans of abiding by rules that everybody has to follow. When a group of people enjoy unwarranted perks and privileges for decades and centuries, losing even a little of them can feel an awful lot like persecution.

“Satan’s Army.”

Instead of seeing the ACLU’s firm opposition to fundagelicals’ culture warring as maybe a sign that they’re overstepping boundaries, fundagelicals are instead seeing that opposition as a sign that Satan’s gotten into this onetime friend’s heart.

One absolutely hysterical Catholic forum outright calls the ACLU “Satan’s Army.” The poster breathlessly talks about his suspicions that the leader of the ACLU is–GASP!!! OMG!!!–a “militant gay,” which appears to mean someone who absolutely won’t put up with his bigotry. The poster’s main issue with the ACLU appears to be their campaigns against bigotry, in fact.

Though he did get some pushback from some of the posters, most of them were totally on board with his shrill denunciation. They were so outraged about the ACLU that they couldn’t think of a more serious accusation to fling at them than simply stating that they were directly affiliated with their religion’s worst boogeyman. (They were Catholic, not Protestant, but there isn’t any difference between their respective ultra-conservative members anymore, really; they’ve been merging ever since they teamed up for their cynically-manufactured culture war against abortion.)

This bizarre hate hard-on for the ACLU is about par for the course for Christians since I left the religion and it went full-throttle extremist.

If anything, Christians have only grown more extreme in their hatred and vitriol year by year.

And as with everything in that end of the religion, there’s a reason why this is happening.

Another Example of Extremism in Far-Right Christianity.

Often these Christians don’t even have any idea what the ACLU is or what it does–like this pastor, who thinks the ACLU is “Marxist.” He doesn’t appear to have the faintest idea why the lawsuits he names happened, but bless his little cotton socks, that isn’t stopping him from making some wild speculations.

But he does dimly sense–as do his bunkmates in their tent of wackadoodlery–that the ACLU stands between him and his tribe’s goal of domination.

That opposition is what makes the ACLU evil, to extremist Christians.

Of course, when we remember that they define evil as, largely, anybody who opposes them in their grab for power, the picture comes into sharper focus. Their leaders egg them on in this hatred, and neither they nor their followers actually look for themselves to see that why yes, the ACLU has steadfastly and constantly defended Christians’ religious rights.

And I could have been one of the Christians they defended, in the late 1980s, back when I was a bright-eyed, true-blue little Pentecostal lass. Oh, but that was back before fundagelicals saw the ACLU as the enemy, and back before they’d made themselves the enemy of rights and liberties.

Now, years after leaving the religion, I look at a Christian’s opinion about the ACLU as a barometer that tells me what kind of person they are. If they’re aware of the ACLU’s function and necessity in a secular country with robust protections for individuals’ liberties and are completely on board with that idea, then they’re probably all right. Probably. If they freak out about demons and get frothy-mouthed about their weirdly-defined, self-serving version of religious liberty, then I know to avoid that person. So I suppose their war against the ACLU has accomplished something–for us at least.

Today, Lord Snow Presides over yet another odd evolution in fundagelicals’ hearts and minds.

NEXT UP: We’re going to look at a meme going around lately on social media, and then we’re off to consider the No True Scotsman fallacy that is so-beloved of Christian amateur apologists everywhere. See you soon!


Endnotes.

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Lord Snow Presides… is our weekly off-topic chat series. I’ve started us off with a topic, but feel free to chime in with whatever’s on your mind! Lord Snow is my sweet, elderly white cat, who spends his days by the window, gazing outside between naps and brooding on what he’s never had.

About Captain Cassidy
Captain Cassidy grew up fervently Catholic, converted to the SBC in her teens, and became a Pentecostal shortly afterward. She even married an aspiring preacher! But then--record scratch!--she brought everything to a screeching halt when she deconverted in her mid-20s. That was 25 years ago. Now a comfortable None, she blogs on Roll to Disbelieve about psychology, pop culture, politics, relationships, cats, gaming, and more--and where they all intersect with religion. You can read more about the author here.
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