First Principles

No one has ever asked me what my favorite Constitutional Amendment is, but if pressed, I'd have to say it's good old Numero Uno. The First Amendment offers a great many things I value, including protection of my rights to speak my mind, publish what I think, and assemble with like-minded individuals, but at its core, I think the most important guarantees it makes are those involving freedom of religion. I am not alone in this; it's arguable that the Founders put  religion in the first two clauses of the First Amendment because they too considered it the most important topic the Bill of Rights had to address, and there are certainly millions of Americans whose lives, liberties, and various pursuits of happiness depend on the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause.

One such group of people is the self-identified Religious Right. Obviously, if the first adjective you choose to describe yourself is "religious," then you'd better be pretty darned aware of what the Constitution says about the way that adjective works. Sadly, however, I see all too many cases where the "Religious" part seems subservient to the "Right" part--and this "Right" refers to a political wing, not to something protected by Amendment I.

This article by Damon Linker, appearing in The Week, discusses something called the "Benedict Option," a proposed withdrawal of the Religious Right from the political sphere. Speaking as an individual whose disputes with the RR have been legion, ranging everywhere from the science classroom to the movie theater to the boudoir to the justice of the peace's office, I can't say I'd be sorry to see this withdrawal take place, but I find myself fascinated by Linker's points about it. He begins with a history of the Moral Majority, a group whose very name makes two bold (and unsupported) assertions about America: first, that only those supporting Jerry Falwell's ideology are moral, and second, that said group makes up a majority of Americans. Linker rolls with it, noting that the evangelical Protestants were able to form a coalition with conservative Catholics, Mormons, Jews, and others to advance their shared agenda, overcoming the opposition of various elite powers (Hollywood, bureaucrats, universities, etc.) through sheer numbers.

Now, however, the numbers have shifted. Positions that the Religious Right has held fiercely--especially its opposition to gay marriage--have left them in a minority position. Attempts by state legislatures to permit anti-gay discrimination, most carefully couched as bills protecting religious freedom, have drawn intense and high-profile criticism from Democrats and business-minded Republicans alike. As Linker puts it:

Suddenly social conservatives began to think the unthinkable: Is it possible that we're now in the minority, with our freedoms subject to the whims of a hostile majority that will use the power of the modern liberal state (especially anti-discrimination laws) to enforce public conformity to secular, anti-Christian norms?

This is the fascinating thing: that in a nation where 70-75% of the people identify themselves as Christians (according to the 2010 census), the Religious Right is beginning to see itself as outnumbered by the roughly 23% who identify as irreligious.

Of course, it's correct, but not in the way it likes to think. The RR remains a part of a hugely dominant religious majority, one so ingrained into our culture that we don't find it even remotely surprising that our government shuts down to observe the birthday of Christ. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia was famously surprised that a cross might not be the universal marker for every dead American, and every cent of U.S. currency proclaims the nation's trust in the Abrahamic deity. If the RR believes our modern nation is anti-Christian, all I can say is that our modern nation isn't doing a very effective job.

But while their religion is very much in the majority, the RR is increasingly outnumbered in a political sense; while millions of Christians worship in the same churches, using the same texts, singing the same hymns, and celebrating the same holidays, only a minority of them are engaged in trying to enshrine their beliefs in law. These people are certainly Religious, and they may even be politically on the Right side of the spectrum, but they also understand the First Amendment: that their Christian beliefs get government protection precisely because they give up government promotion.

The problem is, too many members of the RR see their politics and their religion as interchangeable. If they cannot use the power of the government to promote their own faith's teachings, they consider the government opposed to them. That's why, when a judge points out that a law violates the Constitution, I am so amused by cries of "Judicial activism!" from the RR; if a judge allows unconstitutional laws to stand, how can the RR's churches be protected?

But the most interesting thing about this article, in my opinion, is its anti-democratic (small D) philosophy. It's one I've observed in other areas of right-wing thought over the last twenty-odd years, to the point where I'm beginning to think it's a fundamental tenet of American conservatism: if victory can't be guaranteed, don't play.

We see this in the various GOP attempts to limit voting, whether by ID requirements, elimination of electronic registration, or even (while we're on the subject of Constitutional ignorance) the recent attempt by Ohio Republicans to reinstate a poll tax. We see it in the relentless gerrymandering of state and Congressional districts--an activity which is, I hasten to point out, enormously popular among Democrats as well--and in the Supreme Court decision that cut off the recount in Florida in 2000, a decision that basically said it's more important to declare a victor than to enforce the rules of the game. We even see it in the various attempts to deny President Obama's eligibility for office, the idea being that if he can't be beaten in an actual election, some authority will just have to vacate the win.

When Linker says this:

Then again, this may be the first time in American history that devout Christians have been forced by events to accept without doubt that they are a minority in a majority secular nation.

he reveals a number of misunderstandings. America is and always has been a secular nation--by design; the vast majority of the citizens aren't secular, but the nation itself is. Nor are "devout Christians" necessarily conservative Christians. For Linker to proclaim the Benedict Option as a necessary response to recent developments simply proves that he doesn't understand the Constitution, or Christianity, or politics, or even basic math.

If Linker and his cohorts withdraw from politics because they believe themselves too good for the rest of us, I can't say I'll shed a tear on their behalf. But if they can accept that they are a minority in the political sense, rather than the religious sense, then perhaps they can start figuring out what they need to do to attract more voters. Because that's ultimately what this is about.

The Religious Right wants God (or some similar authority) to give them the America they want by fiat; unfortunately, the gods of democracy help those who help themselves.

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This page contains a single entry by Peter Cashwell published on May 26, 2015 1:52 PM.

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