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On the Brink of ‘Theocracy’

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Progressives who think warnings about "theocracy" are an exaggeration should take a closer look at "Justice Sunday: Filibustering People of Faith," the Christian Right telethon headlined by Senate Majority Leader William Frist. Envision the carefully designed image that the far-right Family Research Council, the main organizer of the April 24 event, beamed into conservative churches across the country: a political rally from a large, comfortable mega-church in Louisville, with a middle-class audience listening with rapt attention to political operatives who self-identify as religious leaders-and at the bottom of the screen, streaming video with the photos, names and phone numbers of targeted U.S. senators. The visual message was clear: the church is dominant over the state and senators should toe the line on eliminating the filibuster and confirming Bush judges or pay the price.

There is a right way and a wrong way to engage religious voices in the public square. I believe "Justice Sunday" reflects the latter and highlights several disturbing trends. I agree with the Rev. Dr. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite, president of the Chicago Theological Seminary, who called "Justice Sunday" sacrilegious and said, "The radical religious right turned a sanctuary into a political platform." As a Baptist minister for more than 40 years with a profound respect for religious freedom and pluralism, I fear it will get worse. In fact, I think we are teetering on the brink of theocracy and the Christian Right could conceivably use the battle over the judiciary and weakening support for reproductive rights to push us over the edge. Unfortunately, although Frist has been vigorously, and appropriately, criticized for his poor judgment and political opportunism in taking part in the telethon, the greater problem of sectarian religious manipulation of public policy debates has been minimized. President George W. Bush brushed off a question about the role of faith in politics at his April 28th press conference with the innocuous response that "people in political office should not say to somebody you’re not equally American if you don’t agree with my view of religion." Rather than give a high school civics lesson, he should have had the courage to disavow the religious arrogance and extremism of "Justice Sunday."

The Christian Right’s posture in the showdown over the "nuclear option" has been a stark lesson in how religious language and imagery are inappropriately seeping into government and politics. First, of course, religion is defined as a particular religion and then defined further as a particular brand of that religion so as to exclude all other views and versions as irreligious, immoral, or wrong. Moreover, in this worldview, Christianity and Country are inseparable. One of the "Justice Sunday" speakers, Dr. Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, put it in terms as chilling to religious liberty and diversity as any I’ve ever heard. Like other fundamentalists, Mohler believes there is only one correct interpretation of the Bible-his-and he equated the inerrancy of his interpretation of the Bible with the inerrancy of the Constitution, based on his biblical beliefs. In bringing the Bible and the Constitution together, fundamentalists like Mohler are moving toward mainstreaming their biblically based interpretation of the Constitution. Judges would be held to the standard of biblical teachings, as interpreted by fundamentalists. I don’t doubt the sincerity of Mohler and other fundamentalist ministers who share this view that the Bible is literally true and they alone know what it means, but they are on dangerous ground when they then suggest that they alone also know what the Constitution means-and that anyone who thinks differently is anti-Christian. Christians have strong differences of opinion on the meaning of scriptures and most of us don’t want to see a particular brand of Christianity held up as the only real Christianity. We certainly don’t want a particular brand of Christianity enacted as the law of the land.

The theocracy envisioned by the Christian Right centers around their interpretation of "family" and "values," with the U.S. Supreme Court portrayed as the font of the anti-religious moral decay that is destroying America. James Dobson of Focus on the Family, another "Justice Sunday" speaker, railed against the Supreme Court as "arrogant and imperious and determined to redesign the culture according to their own biases and values," holding up the 1973 Supreme Court Roe v. Wade decision for special scorn. Roe v. Wade, abortion rights, and women’s rights generally are among the favored code words for the America that the Christian Right loves to attack-an America of women and families where equality is possible. Reproductive justice is an issue on which they hope to divide and conquer progressives.

In my view, the intensifying battle over the courts has brought progressives face-to-face with the need to take a firm stand on the morality of reproductive rights. Not only must we overcome the polarization generated by the Christian Right, we also must find a way to come together in compassionate concern for women and families. Speaking as a minister, I believe that the realities of women’s lives must be included in any vision of a moral society that honors individual dignity and worth. I believe that women, and men, cannot live in dignity and equality if they cannot render for themselves their most intimate family decisions. We must affirm that women’s reproductive health and decisions about bearing children and forming a family are an integral part of a just society, related to and interdependent with health, legal, economic, racial, environmental, and peace commitments. We must acknowledge that poverty, physical and sexual violence, lack of education, poor health care, lack of affordable quality child care, and other economic and social injustices affect women’s options and decisions about childbearing. Whether we are pro-choice or not on the issue of abortion, we must not ignore or further marginalize an aspect of life that is important to both women and men and essential to women’s full participation in society. If we do so, we will cause irreparable harm to our own principles of justice and equality.

"Justice Sunday" gave progressives an opportunity to watch the Christian Right at work, stoking fears about change and inciting religious divisiveness. We have also seen, in the past few weeks, other religious and social justice leaders speak out about this divisiveness, including leaders of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the National Council of Churches USA, Presbyterian Church (USA), African Methodist Episcopal Church, Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, and The Interfaith Alliance. Millions of mainstream, moderate people of faith, and people who profess no faith, are concerned about more than the filibuster and confirming a handful of judges-they are concerned about the direction of their country and the future of a vibrant, inclusive democracy. Decades of progress for minorities, women, religious freedom, the environment, workers’ rights, and other issues and groups that had been relatively powerless cannot be lost. Let "Justice Sunday" be a wake-up call; unless we are unified on all of these issues, we are vulnerable.

Reverend Veazey, a minister in the National Baptist Convention USA, has been president of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice since 1997. Founder of the Coalition’s Black Church Initiative, he is a leader in progressive social justice causes.

 

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