Listen for the right alarm

Even in the best of journalism, where the story is at once true and fair, not inflammatory or emotionally manipulative, you still want to catch the attention of the reader/listener/viewer/clicker so that they will read/hear/see your story (and be enriched by the experience).  So don’t think you know all there is to know when the headline on a Pew Research Center poll blares “45% of Americans Say U.S. Should Be a ‘Christian Nation’” because the truth is less alarming than that.

In the past couple of years I’ve written a few times about the concept of Christian nationalism, and not in an approving way.  By definition,

Christian nationalism is the belief that the American nation is defined by Christianity, and that the government should take active steps to keep it that way. Popularly, Christian nationalists assert that America is and must remain a “Christian nation”—not merely as an observation about American history, but as a prescriptive program for what America must continue to be in the future. Scholars like Samuel Huntington have made a similar argument: that America is defined by its “Anglo-Protestant” past and that we will lose our identity and our freedom if we do not preserve our cultural inheritance.

Christian nationalists do not reject the First Amendment and do not advocate for theocracy, but they do believe that Christianity should enjoy a privileged position in the public square. The term “Christian nationalism,” is relatively new, and its advocates generally do not use it of themselves, but it accurately describes American nationalists who believe American identity is inextricable from Christianity.

Most of the Founding Fathers did profess a belief in a Supreme Being. If they believed that the success of their new creation was inextricably linked to Christianity as it was understood in their day – even IF  that is true – that’s not what it says in the structure for government they wrote.  Historical scholarship has lauded the American experiment that protects the rights of citizens to worship freely while disconnecting the religions from having any governmental authority.  It’s been one step on the still-being-paved path to a free society willing to give everyone a chance to contribute and to reap the rewards of their work.

So the headline roaring that nearly half of us think we should be a “Christian nation” is concerning, but it turns out there’s not so much worry there as one might imagine since the survey also finds that we don’t agree what that phrase even means:

For instance, many supporters of Christian nationhood define the concept in broad terms, as the idea that the country is guided by Christian values. Those who say the United States should not be a Christian nation, on the other hand, are much more inclined to define a Christian nation as one where the laws explicitly enshrine religious teachings.

Overall, six-in-ten U.S. adults – including nearly seven-in-ten Christians – say they believe the founders “originally intended” for the U.S. to be a Christian nation. And 45% of U.S. adults – including about six-in-ten Christians – say they think the country “should be” a Christian nation. A third say the U.S. “is now” a Christian nation.

At the same time, a large majority of the public expresses some reservations about intermingling religion and government. For example, about three-quarters of U.S. adults (77%) say that churches and other houses of worship should not endorse candidates for political offices. Two-thirds (67%) say that religious institutions should keep out of political matters rather than expressing their views on day-to-day social or political questions. And the new survey – along with other recent Center research – makes clear that there is far more support for the idea of separation of church and state than opposition to it among Americans overall.

A Washington Post analysis makes clear that this poll hasn’t found a burbling caldron of restive theocrats across the country; in fact, “comfortable majorities want daylight between politics and faith.”

Sixty-seven percent of all adults, for instance, say churches should stay out of politics, while 77% say they should not endorse candidates for elected office.

Among the 45% who want the United States to be a “Christian nation”:

  • 28% want the federal government to declare the country a Christian nation, while 52% say the government should never declare an official religion
  • 24% say the federal government should promote Christian values, while 52% say it should promote moral values shared by many faiths
  • 39% say the federal government should enforce separation of church and state, while 31% say it should stop enforcing it.

Among all United States adults, 15% want the federal government to declare the country a Christian nation (69% do not), 13% say the federal government should promote Christian values (63% favor values shared by many faiths), 54% say the government should enforce separation of church and state (19% say it should stop).

So, the percentage of Americans who don’t believe in the separation of their Christian church from state authority is small…but the success of Christian evangelicals in winning political office is undeniable: give them credit for playing the game on its own terms and taking control of the levers of power at a rate beyond their real numbers in the population.  Those people are the ones fighting to make secular society look more like their preferred variety of Christianity.  Here in Texas they are hard-charging to use public tax dollars to fund private religious education for their children and leave the rest of “the little skoolchirrun of Texas” to languish in an underfunded and second-rate (at best) public education system.

“Texas, a friend used to say, is hard on women and little things” is how Christopher Hooks started a May article in Texas Monthly that let Texas’ Republican leaders have it (no Democrat has won statewide office in Texas since 1994!) over their treatment of children and the public education system:

It is a grotesque and cruel irony that the Republican primary this year, like several years of political activity before it, was dominated by an all-consuming and comically misdirected argument about the protection of children and by a multifront war against long-neglected public schools. There were essentially no contested policy proposals in the GOP primary that would affect the practical and economic circumstances of all Texans. (There rarely are.) There was, however, ceaseless discussion about the well-being of children, their morals, their internal lives.

The most acute panic was over transgender children. In February, [Attorney General Ken] Paxton’s office issued a formal opinion holding that gender-affirming care, such as the prescription of puberty blockers to trans kids, constituted child abuse. Shortly after, [Governor Greg] Abbott tasked the Department of Family and Protective Services, an overworked and underfunded agency he had overseen for close to eight years, with investigating the families of trans kids for such abuse.

The more widespread crisis concerned books. This panic was conjured up by right-wing parents and elected officials in roughly equal measure. The first target was “divisive” material about race. Then, elected officials began to agitate about “pornography” in schools, a category that included mostly literature featuring queer characters. Lawmakers proposed lists of books to be banned. In November, Abbott ordered the Texas Education Agency to investigate cases of pornography in public schools and prosecute those responsible “to the fullest extent of the law” because, he wrote, it had to be a top priority to “protect” Texas students.
Public school teachers and children’s librarians—members of two professions that offer highly beneficial services to society, for little pay—became villains to activist parents and candidates alike. They were called “groomers” and “pedophiles” on social media. In Granbury, near Fort Worth, two women lodged a criminal complaint in May against the local school’s libraries, prompting a police investigation. At a subsequent school board meeting, one of the women opined that a committee assembled to review troublesome books comprised “too many” librarians instead of “people with good moral standards.”

That’s right: no intersection in this Venn diagram of the universes of “librarians” and “people with good moral standards,” according to this woman.  She’s not alone in that kind of sentiment.  It’s so tiresome.

A year of manufactured outrage about the specter of loose morals in public education had the effect of making all of public education worse—which, for some, seemed to be the goal. Test scores have dropped. Even parents who strongly favor public schooling have begun to search for alternatives. State leaders, including Abbott, who have presided over an education system that spends about 20 percent less than the national average on each student, began to lay the framework for a renewed push to expand school choice and perhaps introduce a voucher system in which taxpayer dollars would be used to fund private schools.

Our right-wing lieutenant governor has been championing vouchers for years, and that came up in a terrific column by Chris Tomlinson in the Houston Chronicle this summer that highlighted the on-going effort by right-wing extremists and their rich Texas patrons to “gut Texas public education.”

Their top priority is helping Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick pass a school voucher bill that allows parents to spend state money to send their kids to private, religious schools, effectively defunding public schools. To inspire support for their plan, Patrick and his allies have set public schools up for failure by cutting their budgets.

Texas lawmakers have shrunk state spending per student over the last 15 years. Occasionally, they’ll authorize an increase, only to cut it later. Texas spends $9,900 per student, while the national average is $13,185, the Education Data Initiative reported.

Political vilification, school shooters, and poor compensation have led two-thirds of teachers to consider leaving the profession, the Texas American Federation of Teachers found in polling its members.

Texas already ranks 35th in the nation for pre-K through 12 education, U.S. News and World Report determined. WalletHub ranked the quality of Texas’s education as 33rd in the country. An exodus of experienced teachers will only worsen matters.

Few Texans can afford the $30,000 or more that a top private school charges and most do not want their child enrolled in a fundamentalist indoctrination camp. If we want our children and state to prosper in a competitive global economy, we must defend our public schools from those who would destroy them.

Self-described “conservatives” who demonstrate with their actions (and their money) that they do not believe in the American ideal of a free public education for all, nor do they believe in the separation of church and state or in real freedom of religion.  I can’t say how many of them fall into the 15% of all American adults who want the federal government to declare America a “Christian nation,” but I find it alarming enough to say I will have that in mind on election day.

Equal protection: it’s what we do here at the ol’ USA

The first time I wrote about gay marriage rights here was more than four and half years ago  (“Equal justice for all: the gay rights tide has turned,” Oct. 15, 2010) and the kernel of the argument was already formed:

We can proclaim not to understand why people are homosexual, or embrace a religious belief that homosexual activity is a sin, but none of that matters in a tolerant, secular, civil society.  The experts can’t say why a person is sexually attracted to one gender or the other.  And it violates the rights of due process and free speech guaranteed to each American in the Constitution to treat someone differently because of their sexual orientation just as it would to treat them differently because of their gender or their ancestry.

(snip)

You don’t have to “understand” gay people any more than you have to “understand” people of a different race or a different religion.  You only have to understand that these people are Americans like you, who believe in American rights like you do, who want to enjoy American freedoms like you do…

This week, history: a 5-4 decision from the Supreme Court of the United States in Obergefell v Hopkins takes its place alongside the great civil rights and civil liberties decisions of American jurisprudence.  The U.S. Constitution guarantees the right of all Americans to civil marriage, and all its advantages and protections, be they heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, or asexual.  As far as the civil law is concerned this isn’t about sex: it’s about equal treatment under the law.

Homosexual conduct is no longer a civil crime in this country, and thus is no reason to withhold the full rights and exercise of citizenship from homosexuals.  Homosexual conduct is objectionable within many organized religions, to be sure, and virtually all of the opposition to extending the right to marry to gays and lesbians has come on religious grounds.  For the most part I don’t question the sincerity of that religious belief (although it would be prudent to account for the cynical exploiters, primarily from the political realm).

But that’s beside the crucial point, which is that, in this country, civil law is not answerable to religious law.  The First Amendment guarantees that we each and all get the freedom to practice our religions, but also guarantees that none of those religions wields authority directly over civil society.  The Constitution protects us from any majority that would try to force one or another religious doctrine onto everyone—because the Constitution takes religious liberty for all just that seriously—and guarantees that all men and women deserve equal treatment under law.  Despite the nearly hysterical dissenting opinions of some of his colleagues, Justice Anthony Kennedy’s decision didn’t create a new right; it reminded us about a right that’s been there all along…and my friend Mr. Jefferson recognized the rationale by which Kennedy connected the dots (and Peter Foster of the Daily Telegraph reminded via the Twitterverse) long ago:

Obergefell does not mean that First Amendment protections of religious liberties are at risk, despite what you’ve heard.  Some of that reaction is well-intentioned misinformation; most is hot air from right-wing politicians and conservative religious extremists who need a boogieman to scare their supporters into donating money.  (I’m looking at you, Governor Abbott—thanks, Evan Smith for the Tweet-tip.)  In either case, they are wrong.  Religious organizations are exempt from this ruling, as they are exempt from many other laws, like, say, tax laws.  As Lisa Falkenberg put it in this morning’s Houston Chronicle, this ruling has no applicability to individuals in their private lives or to private religious institutions: “It does not keep anyone from judging, or hating, or even just politely refusing to acknowledge gay people.  No court ruling has ever told a pastor whose wedding he or she can bless.  That hasn’t changed.”

It is possible to believe in the religious sacrament of marriage and still accept this court’s decision on civil marriage rights for homosexuals.  Michigan Representative Justin Amash, a Tea Party/Libertarian/Republican, made the point quite nicely this week on Facebook:

Throughout history, different cultures have defined marriage according to their own customs and practices. Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, agnostics, and atheists do not share identical views on marriage. In fact, significant differences regarding marriage exist even within Christianity.

What makes marriage traditional is not its adherence to a universal definition but rather that it is defined by personal faith, not by government. For thousands of years, marriage flourished without a universal definition and without government intervention. Then came licensing of marriage. In recent decades, we’ve seen state legislatures and ballot initiatives define marriage, putting government improperly at the helm of this sacred institution.

Those who care about liberty should not be satisfied with the current situation. Government intervention in marriage presents new threats to religious freedom and provides no advantages, for gay or straight couples, over unlicensed (i.e., traditional) marriage. But we shouldn’t blame the Supreme Court for where things stand.

To the extent that Americans across the political spectrum view government marriage as authoritative and unlicensed marriage as quaint, our laws must treat marriage—and the corresponding legal benefits that attach—as they would any other government institution. So, while today’s Supreme Court opinion rests upon the false premise that government licensure is necessary to validate the intimate relationships of consenting adults, I applaud the important principle enshrined in this opinion: that government may not violate the equal rights of individuals in any area in which it asserts authority. (emphasis added)

The civil right of marriage is open to all Americans.  We must be diligent about making sure that the implementation of this decision protects the First Amendment rights of those with a religious objection to same-sex marriage, keeping in mind that it doesn’t give them the right to ignore the law.  And while we’re at it we should work on getting rid of the laws which still permit discrimination against gay Americans in the areas of housing and hiring and other aspects of day to day life, and any other laws that violate anyone’s right to equal treatment.  Because we’re Americans, and that’s what we do.