Our Humanity, Naturally

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The Religious Right's Disingenuous Interest in History

Interest in "history" is just a way around the law.

Almost inexplicably, there is a sudden fascination with history on the Religious Right. From the evangelical churches of the Bible belt to the Catholic halls of the Knights of Columbus, religious activists of all types have become history buffs.

Take, for example, Jay Sekulow, a lawyer by profession, counsel for Pat Robertson's legal arm, the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ). Although his organization declares on its web site that "Freedom and Liberty are God-Given Rights," and although he represents religious groups and appears on religious television channels regularly, Sekulow is interested in talking about little but history nowadays.

In fact, to him the religious significance of the Christian cross is, well, insignificant, as the cross should instead be understood as a "historic symbol." In arguing that atheists are unreasonable for objecting to the placement of a large Christian cross at Camp Pendleton military base in California, Sekulow dismissed concerns of nonbelievers that the presence of a 13-foot cross might be construed as an endorsement of Christianity. The fact that he is not a historian, but a devout Religious Right activist with tight relationships with conservative Christian organizations, should not make us skeptical of his claims.

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A similar fascination with history overtook school officials in Giles County, Virginia, recently when they were asked to explain the posting of the Ten Commandments in their schools. The commandments were not intended as a promotion of religion, the officials insisted, but instead should be understood as a "historical document."

What is perhaps most puzzling is that we never see any legitimate historians urging that crosses and Ten Commandments postings be placed on government property. Instead, by sheer coincidence, these religious items are always promoted by individuals who happen to be religious, but have a quirky interest in history.

Now, a cynic could conclude that the claimed interest in history is a lie, that the "historical" claim is just a way of satisfying legal scrutiny. After all, the placement of a religious symbol on governent property would normally be unconstitutional if the symbol has the effect of promoting religion. Therefore a secular purpose, such as "acknowledging history" or "acknowledging heritage," must be found if one wishes to attempt such a posting. Though the symbol might be seen by many as favoring one religion over another, if the promoters can claim a secular intent such as acknowledging history (hopefully without blushing) they just might get away with it. 

Is it possible that Sekulow and the Giles Country officials are being disingenuous when they claim to be so interested in promoting history? No, I don't think so, and I'll tell you why: These are religious people! They wouldn't lie, would they? Sekulow and the Giles County officials must be defending the posting of religious material not because the material is religious, but because they have a sincere interest in history.

There is one little problem with that conclusion, however. When we look at other statements made by the defenders of the Giles County Ten Commandments, it appears possible that history might not be the only motivating factor. Despite the claimed historical intent behind the postings, one Giles County elementary school principal, Jared Rader, was quoted in the Washington Post explaining why he wanted the Ten Commandments in his school:

"The commandments have been a compass for our lives," he said.

Yes, indeed. Historical.

It is especially ironic that the Sekulow cross defense comes in a military context, because the problem of military Christian favoritism has been ongoing for many years. The scandal at the Air Force Academy a few years ago caused quite a fuss, and there are numerous other documented incidents as well. Somehow, despite the obvious problem of overzealous Christians in the military, we are asked to believe that reasonable observers should understand a 13-foot cross towering over military property as being something other than a pro-Christian endorsement.

Indeed, ordinary people are supposed to understand that this huge cross is not a pro-Christian statement by the government but merely, to use Sekulow's words, "a universal symbol of remembrance." The soldiers who erected the cross may have had the noble and benign intentions of honoring fallen comrades when they did so, but surely there are other ways to pay such respects. If all parties agreed that honoring soldiers is the end goal, a satisfactory means of doing so, one that doesn't involve enormous Christian symbolism hovering over the military base, could certainly be found. There are innumberable ways of honoring military service and sacrifice, so that's not the problem here.

Rather than even consider such options, however, Sekulow demands that we see the cross as something other than a religious symbol. Sure, Jay. It's not about religion.

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Dave Niose is an attorney, activist, and writer. He is president of the Washington-based American Humanist Association.

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