Concerns About the Religious Right Are Not Overblown

Mainstream media becoming desensitized to the influence of fundamentalism

Posted Aug 23, 2011

In a Washington Post On Faith column a few days ago, Lisa Miller, a senior Newsweek religion writer, makes a rather puzzling argument, saying that concerns of secular progressives about the influence of conservative religion in presidential politics are overblown. "Here we go again," she complains. "The Republican primaries are six months away, and already news stories are raising fears on the left about 'crazy Christians.'"

Miller points to criticism of Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Rep. Michele Bachmann as evidence of these unfounded "fears on the left," implying that the critics are alarmist. This analysis, however, is demonstrably flawed, because it essentially asks us to ignore over three decades of history, to accept as "normal" the fact that major-party presidential contenders conduct themselves in ways that would have been unthinkable a generation ago. If we raise concerns that Bachmann calls church-state separation "a myth," for example, Miller's response seems to be simple: Chill out. Be not afraid of evangelicals.

As a religion reporter, Miller has become so desensitized to the Religious Right that she has apparently become oblivious to the wrecking-ball effect that it has had on American politics. To her, politics-as-usual apparently includes high-profile prayer festivals by presidential hopefuls, like Rick Perry's "Response" rally.  Rational observers (and not just those on "the left") responded to such overt religious pandering with serious concern, but vocal criticism of Perry's political religiosity only seems to cause Miller to roll her eyes and quip, "Here we go again . . ." 

The fact that Miller, responsible for religion coverage for a major national publication, doesn't seem to understand the big-picture significance of candidates exhibiting religion-based behavior and making religion-based statements that would have gotten them laughed off the political stage not very long ago, is a sign of just how far the Religious Right has dragged America from the realm of reason. We now routinely have candidates for the highest office who vocally deny evolution, resist efforts to address climate change, care about education only when the issues involve prayer or Intelligent Design, are hostile to the Environmental Protection Agency (which was created by Richard Nixon), and claim the moral high ground via a constant outward display of conservative religion.

None of this would have been remotely "mainstream" in either party before the Religious Right, but Miller nevertheless sees concerns about politically mobilized fundamentalist Christianity as an annoyance. It's easy to forget, as Miller apparently has, that entities such as the Congressional Prayer Caucus, now taken for granted as a powerful center of religious conservatism on Capitol Hill, did not even exist until just a few years ago. More and more, we see overt fundamentalist Christianity asserting itself in American public policy and, worst of all, being seen as normal. To secular citizens, this is a troubling development, made even worse by mainstream writers like Miller accusing us of overreacting.

Before the rise of the Religious Right, even the Republican Party had a significant faction that was basically libertarian on social issues, taking the position that "small government" meant a government that kept its nose out of its citizens' bedrooms and personal lives. Barry Goldwater and Nelson Rockefeller, both major GOP national leaders, were prochoice on abortion, for example, and Goldwater was so disgusted by the religious fundamentalists who took over the party in the 1980s that he called them "a bunch of kooks." 

Because that "bunch of kooks" grew in power, anti-intellectualism is now an exalted trait in American politics. George W. Bush, after all, ran on a platform of proud ignorance, scoffing at those elitist snobs who could pronounce big words. When secular progressives point this out and suggest that the extreme, politicized religion of some candidates is at least worth discussing, Miller accuses us of stereotyping, of lumping all evangelicals together or misunderstanding doctrines such as Dominionism.

Calling for "dispassionate care in the coverage of religion," Miller's advice might make sense if today's candidates sounded like John F. Kennedy, who called for "an America where the separation of church and state is absolute" and "where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials." If today's political landscape reflected such sentiments, then "dispassion" would be in order, but Miller doesn't seem to realize just how devastatingly anti-secular the environment has become. Bizarrely, she suggests that she doesn't know and doesn't care about Bachmann's and Perry's religious views, saying, "This isn't a defense of the religious views of Bachmann or Perry, whatever they are." When it comes to dispassion she certainly walks the talk, exhibiting apathy for the anti-secularity of major political candidates.

Miller is of course correct in pointing out that not all evangelicals are far-right extremists, but this does not diminish the legitimacy of concerns that certain candidates do indeed seem to promote an extremist agenda. To Miller, raising such concerns only "reignites old anxieties among liberals and evangelical Christians," and apparently it's better to avoid uncomfortable anxieties than to defend against public policy driven by mobilized religious fundamentalists. 

What Miller doesn't acknowledge is that "the left" need not prove that the danger of fundamentalist religion in politics is a potential problem, because the danger has already manifested itself by draining virtually every drop of reason from American public policy discussions and moving the entire center of gravity far to the right. The American political landscape is not just in danger, but rather it has already been decimated, a landscape barren of rational dialogue at the hands of three decades of Religious Right firebombing. And Miller tells us to relax.

Unfortunately, for secular Americans relaxing isn't so easy nowadays. I'm sorry, but I want to know if candidates think the world is only a few thousand years old, and I want to know if candidates participate in exorcisms and/or look forward to the Rapture happening in our lifetime. Maybe Miller is right. Maybe I'm just being paranoid. But, as a secular American, that doesn't mean the religious right isn't out to get me.

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