Civil Liberties The National Newsletter of the ACLU #380, Spring 1994 (c) 1994 American Ci
Civil Liberties The National Newsletter of the ACLU
#380, Spring 1994 (c) 1994 American Civil Liberties Union
THE RELIGIOUS RIGHT WANTS AMERICA
By John M. Swomley
Pat Robertson and his "Christian Coalition" have declared war on a
large array of organizations deemed by them to be "irreligious" or
"liberal." The list of the embattled, which the ACLU heads, includes the
American Jewish Congress, People for the American Way, the National
Organization for Women and several churches.
Many people, noting the Coalition's agenda against homosexuality,
abortion, separation of church and state, and women's rights, regard
Robertson-and-company as a disruptive element on the American political
scene, but one that is temporary and ultimately bound to fail. That
interpretation is simplistic.
The Christian Coalition is the largest of many right wing religious
groups whose members want to reorder United States political affairs
under the authority of a "Christian" government. Their overarching
philosophy, alternately called "Christian Reconstruction" and "Dominion
Theology," was first articulated in 1973 by Rousas John Rushdoony in
Institutes of Biblical Law. That philosophy is nurtured by the Coalition
on Revival (COR), a secretive inner circle whose steering committee
includes most of the nation's right wing Christian leaders. This hard
core, which promotes the unifying ideology of the Christian right, is led
by Dr. Jay Grimstead.
Strongly influenced by COR and its credo, Pat Robertson renamed his
CBN (for Christian Broadcasting Network) University, Regent University,
explaining that "a regent is one who governs in the absence of a
sovereign." Someday, he said, "we will rule and reign along with our
sovereign, Jesus Christ." Toward that day, Regent is training graduate
students in education, religion, law and communications to build
theological and political alliances of ready-to-rule folk. Robertson's
more immediate goal, control of the Republican Party, is seen as a
necessary step in pursuit of the ultimate prize: a "Christian" United
States -- meaning his brand of Christianity.
Robertson's writings and speeches reflect essentially theocratic
models. In his 1991 book, The New World Order, he writes:
"The founders of America at Plymouth Rock and in the Massachusetts
Colony felt that they were organizing a society based on the Ten
Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount .... They tried their best to
model their institutions of governmental order after the Bible."
Of course, the former clergyman romanticizes here. The early American
leaders to whom he refers were people who burned "witches," hanged
Quakers, slaughtered Native Americans, held Africans in bondage and taxed
the populace to support religion.
Summarizing the colonial period, Robertson writes,
"... for almost two hundred years prior to our Constitution, all of
the leadership of this nation had been steeped with biblical principles of
the Old and New Testaments. Their new order was a nation founded squarely
on concepts of the nature of God, the nature of man, the role of the
family and the moral order as established by the God of Jacob."
What Robertson is extolling, among other things, is clerical control
of politics. In colonial Massachusetts and Connecticut, reports William
Warren Sweet in The Story of Religions in America, preachers' political
influence was such that no one could be admitted to church membership
without their consent, and voting in those colonies "was limited to
church members." Sweet also describes a morals squad: "The tithing man ...
was a township official who assisted the constable in watching over the
morals of the community. There was one such official for every ten
families, who ... was on the lookout for Sabbath breaking, tippling,
gaming, and idleness."
Pat Robertson claims that "...the Supreme Court of the supposedly
Christian United States guaranteed the moral collapse of this nation when
it forbade children in the public schools to pray to the god of Jacob, to
learn of His moral law or even to view in their classrooms the heart of
the law, the Ten Commandments." Actually, the Supreme Court has never
banned private prayer if performed silently in class or in the cafeteria
over lunch. In 1962, in Engle v. Vitale, the court banned
school-sponsored prayer; and in 1963, in the Pennsylvania case Abington
Township v. Schempp, it banned Bible reading as worship. The Court has
permitted objectively taught courses on the Bible as literature, on the
philosophy or sociology of religion, and on comparative religion. It has
also allowed religious clubs to meet after instructional hours if other
extra-curricular clubs are permitted to meet. Moreover, many states did
not even have school-sponsored prayers or Bible readings prior to 1962.
The Christian Coalition has become a force in American politics,
providing the margin for Jesse Helms' re-election. Its Christian
Broadcasting Network has 1,485 radio stations and 336 television stations
(numbers as of 1989), with Robertson's "700 Club" -- annual income, about
$140 million -- airing daily on TV. In close touch with Robertson are
other groups like James Dobson's Focus on the Family, which employs about
1,000 people, publishes eight periodicals and broadcasts on more than
1,500 radio stations.
Although the bulk of Robertson's support comes from fundamentalist
Protestants and Catholics, not all fundamentalists and evangelicals
support his politics or his theology. Thus, the ACLU, in coalition with
both religious and secular organizations, should strive to reach as many
people as possible with its message of church-state separation and other
civil liberties values.
John M. Swomley is secretary of the ACLU's national board and also chairs
the board's Church-State Committee.
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