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May 04, 2005

Hear No Conflict, See No Conflict, Win the Conflict

Former New York Times reporter John Phillips's column on the punditocracy's contempt for evangelicals is sure to set the righty blogosphere atwitter with "I-told-you-so's" and "even NY Times reporter John Phillips said!" But while they march off to the fight the good fight against fact checkers, it's worth a moment to figure out what Phillips is really arguing here.

His column has three concrete complaints. First, that the evangelical attempt to wrest control of the government is being compared to a jihad when it's not one. Second, that many historical men of science were men of faith, and the current divide posited between the two is bunk. And third, that religion should not be wholly booted from the public sphere.

Okay, one by one: He's right that evangelicals aren't armed and ready for a jihad as such. Like the good reporter he is, Phillips has unearthed a moment of rhetorical hyperbole from within his readings and realized that it overstates the situation. Congrats. But while no holy war lies on the horizon, it's hard to deny that skirmishes are being fought. Terry Schiavo, the campaign against an independent judiciary, the enormous and obvious power the Christian Right exerts on Republican legislation, and so forth. So John will have to excuse the hyperbole of his colleagues; there's no jihad occurring, but they can be forgiven for mistaking the unarmed war raging in the public sphere and perverting the government's ability to legislate effectively for something more than it is, as it's already reached a level much worse than it should.

Number two, religion was not historically separate from science, and many top scientists today are indeed believers (i.e., the head of the project that decoded the human genome). That said, contemporary public interactions between religion and science are characterized by faith's remarkable hostility to theories and findings that don't support a theological worldview. I'd imagine that the average biologist finds it hard to be neutral towards the onslaught of lies and confusion religious groups like The Discovery Institute have unleashed against the theory of evolution. So too would a climatologist find himself negatively disposed towards the crackpot, industry-funded science that attempts flush global warming down the memory hole in order to wrench a few more decades of profit from unfettered fossil coal usage at the cost of atmospheric havoc. So while religion may not have been separate years ago, and while scientists of faith certainly roam the earth (much like dinosaurs did, by the way), the institutional and public intersections of science and religion are wholly characterized by the former attempting to discredit the latter, making enmity between the two wholly understandable.

As for whether or not religion can coexist in the public sphere, of course it can. Our president regularly professes his faith, congressional sessions open with prayers and blessings, churches receive government subsidies for their charitable work, religious institutions are tax-exempt, spiritual leaders are considered powerhouses in the political sphere and offered unmatched access to those in power, and so on and so forth. The battle now isn't to eject God from the town square, but to make sure the town square doesn't start sporting signs detailing which God can be worshipped. Government vouchers that send four year old kids to schools with indoctrinating curriculums, Christian leaders arguing that Hindus and Muslims shouldn't be allowed into the judiciary, Tom DeLay demanding that judges who violate his faith's tenets when making constitutional rulings should face public reprisal, George Bush Sr. asserting that atheists aren't citizens -- if you see nothing threatening in these actions, then it's you're myopia, not our rhetoric, that's obscuring the situation.

Indeed, the story of the past few years has been an ever-increasing, ever-more successful attempt to insert religion into the public sphere without forfeiting any of its perks or constraints (i.e, special tax status). Attempts to publicize the few examples to the contrary and demonize those pointing out the obvious should be considered illegitimate, even if they come from ex-members of the "mainstream media".

May 4, 2005 in Religion | Permalink


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"Religion is markedly hostile to modern science, attempting to dislodge and undermine all conclusions that don't fit its worldview."
I would tend to disagree with this because it is only a small, but absurdly vocal, group of religious people (which in this instance really only means fundamentalist Protestant Christians) that is hostile to science and demands the scientific principles be based less on reasonable evidence than on how well you can shoehorn it into Genesis.
Of course the media in general has long made this group the supreme arbiters of all things publicly discussed as religious. Which is why sexual issues=moral issues and questioning=atheism in our current weird public culture.

Posted by: Chris | May 4, 2005 12:05:57 PM

The most common constitutional complaint I hear from the right is that the framers intended the first amendment to be "Freedom of Religion, not Freedom From Religion" - I'm not sure I see the difference. So can, should, religion be a part of the public sphere?


People of faith can be a part of the public sphere - they can even publicly use the teachings of their faith to guide their moral decisions. But their religion should stay just that. Their Religion. Not mine, not ours, and certainly not the government's. We shouldn't be hearing biblical exhortations on the floor of the house, and we shouldn't even be giving jurists who's decisions are based in their faith, not the constitution the benefit of the doubt.

There is a holy war being fought (if I recall my university comparative religions course correctly - and I may not - I seem to recall that many islamic scholars think jihad need not be violent) for control of our country - and the secularists are losing right now. That may be the most frightening this this country has ever faced.

Posted by: Brew | May 4, 2005 12:07:02 PM

Chris -- good point, I'll edit.

Posted by: Ezra | May 4, 2005 12:19:17 PM

If historical accuracy on this noise is at issue, silly things about religious oppression relating to the likes of Galileo come to mind. On a more ridiculous note, Dr. Darwin was religious and distressed by being at the centre of a theological windstorm that predated his participation by a good century. Both sides might reflect it's likely God's opinion runs the railroad and doesn't require we understand or concur. That said, remember God is shorthand for "unknowable". Nothing like trying to unscrew the inscrutable.

Posted by: opit | May 4, 2005 12:29:54 PM

I find it amusing that Theocons so often advocate things in the US that they utterly condemn when being done in other countries by other faiths:

- Religious claques running the government (Iran, etc.)

- Secular-content free religious schools (madrasas) that teach hate-filled religious dogma (Pakistan, Saudi-Arabia)

- Censorship of the media to eliminate objectionable sexual material (Islam generally)

- Control and subordination of women in social, economic and political spheres. (Islam, generally)

- Faith-based tests for holding political office (Islam generally).

- Constitutions that establish state religions

It is often very difficult to see how the Taliban are much different than the US Theocons.

Do the theocons get an injection of hyper-hypocrisy when they are born again?

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | May 4, 2005 1:56:44 PM

Darwin wasn't religious -- he was a bourgeois Victorian. He was distressed at the thought of rocking the boat and upsetting the social order (and upsetting his wife, who was a believer!), but his private writings reveal great doubts and a man who was an agnostic leaning towards atheism.

Posted by: PZ Myers | May 4, 2005 2:59:21 PM

Good post. Though I think you mean "latter attempting to discredit the former."

Incidentally, I heard a lecture about three weeks ago, given by the biologist who co-wrote the H.S. textbook that got a warning label slapped on it in Cobb County, GA. A very cool guy, and very gracious considering the professional and personal crap he's had to endure. Forgive the advertisement for myself, but the URL below is to the blog post I wrote at the time.


Posted by: Dix Hill | May 4, 2005 10:26:16 PM

People of faith can be a part of the public sphere - they can even publicly use the teachings of their faith to guide their moral decisions. But their religion should stay just that. Their Religion.

Is that the danger, though? Maybe at some later date, some religious right-ers hope to make an Establishment of Religion. But right now the objective is to enact law and policy based on religion. And as long as that's done democratically, I don't think it's actually unconstitutional. That is, if a democratically-elected legislator votes a certain way because he thinks Jesus wanted it that way, that may be appalling to a lot of us, but it's not actually disallowed as far as I can see.

The debate at the moment is whether religion is a legitimate reason for passing legislation or setting public policy. And while believing that Jesus said so may be a stupid reason to pass a law, I don't think anyone would argue that the Constitution bans passing laws for stupid reasons; it just restricts the kind of laws that can be passed and how.

In other words, if fundamentalists ever get enough electoral clout to convince enough democratically-elected legislators to ban homosexuality, that isn't actually an establishment of religion; it's just a law passed for religious reasons. So the issue is whether religious conviction is a legitimate reason for wanting to pass a law -- and while I'd like to say that it isn't, you could turn around and argue that belief in other abstract concepts (say, social justice) isn't a legitimate reason for passing a law either. If a law is passed based on a belief in social justice, then that law imposes on us a belief in the nature of social justice that we may not share. But that's the way it goes with laws: if we don't like them, or we don't like the beliefs that underly them, that doesn't make them unconstitutional. The question now is whether religious belief should be one of the many beliefs that is allowed to influence policy (and all laws and policies are "imposed" on us), not whether Congress should establish a state religion. Imposing Christianity on us comes later, I guess.

Posted by: M.A. | May 4, 2005 11:30:52 PM


Religion is part of the public square. For heaven's sake, haven't you noticed the great number of churches and other houses of worship that dot the American landscape. That's the public square. Churches have a public presence. Religion has a public presence. The public square is not the same as the government, which takes up a small part of that square. If Jerry Falwell or Bill O'Reilly think there are an insufficient number of manager scenes at Christmas, they can lead a campaign to have every church and every department store to feature one, and those will all be part of the public square, and the ACLU won't have a problem with it.


I beg to differ with your analysis. Every citizen has the right in this country not to be governed by someone else's theology; when a specific theology is embedded in law, that is establishment of religion. I agree, a moral principle that derives from religious belief is somewhat different. And there is a gray area. However, it's significant that Dr. King didn't confine himself to the use of Christian principles, he also invoked Thoreau and Ghandi. And even in his use of his own religion, he used that portion of the prophetic rhetoric of Christianity which has universal overtones. Justice like a mighty river is an image that you don't have to be a Christian to be inspired by. However, in his public presentations as a leader of a multi-religious civil rights movement, it was Jesus the prophet who was celebrated, thus King would speak of an image of Jesus as speaking to the redemptive value of suffering, but not about Jesus as the medium for personal salvation; that rhetoric he saved for his Sunday sermons as a pastor.

For example, it is certainly possible to be against legal abortion for reasons not intrinsically religious, however, the arguments of the religious right, both Evangelical and Catholic almost invariably turn on highly theological assumptions about when a specific life or personhood begins, and no matter what majority of Americans believed that to be true, to have a national law to outlaw abortion on that basis would be unconstitutional, until such time that the constitution itself was amended.

Posted by: Leah A | May 5, 2005 4:44:55 AM

From Phillips' article:

Evangelicals are concerned about the frequently advanced and historically untenable secularists' view of the intent of our non-establishment/free exercise of religion clause: that everything that has its origin in religion must be swept out of federal, and even civil, domains. That view, if militantly enforced, constitutes what seems dangerous to most evangelicals: the strict and entire separation of God from state.

I guess this was at heart of your 3rd point. 2 observations:

* Phillips belies a prejudice which contributes to the fear of these guys (radical evangelicals)in his choice of words:
>historically untenable secularists' view.
He is wrong on multiple counts...

a) this view was held by many people "of faith": it's not restricted to "secularists" at all.
b) it's far from "untenable", as Federalist papers are chocked full of explicit defense of this POV Phillips (eg. fundamentalists) is "concerned" about.

* Phillips fails to make a distinction between God and Religion (eg: "entire separation of God from state"). The fundamentalist "jihad" is fomented by vastly funded religious organizations. Turn your TV to any of several "christian" networks, and their plea for $$'s to fund political objectives is incessant and indeed (IMO) scary. Further, there's plenty of biblical NT references to dangers of "group think", along with invocations to learn and practice principles. Principles do not need enunciation of a religious sponsor in order to be practiced.

Given scrutiny of GWB's funding for Christian faith based oranizations, the impression that fundamentalist influences are likely to judge one by religious affiliation as opposed to "works" is hard to avoid. And in doing so, these fundies seem real willing to overlook glaring transgressions of objectionable "works" if the transgressors are members of the correct group. That Muslims are not allowed to participate in GWB's "faith" initiatives beyond political contributions to conservative groups further elevates these suspsicions.

I disagree with you: it does indeed look like a Jihad to me. And I think it's scary as hell.

Posted by: JDMcKay | May 5, 2005 12:08:06 PM

I disagree with you: it does indeed look like a Jihad to me. And I think it's scary as hell.

exhibit A: http://www.democraticunderground.com/discuss/duboard.php?az=view_all&address=104x3604552#3604716
or http://shorl.com/damikakibrupa

My Mom just emailed me the news. There's no link yet.

She said WLOS tv just broke in to report that the East Waynesville Baptist church has officially excommunicated all its democratic members.

She said that before the election, the preacher told the congregation from the pulpit that if they didn't vote for * they had to come to the altar to confess their sins and repent. they could'nt be members. (My Mom doesn't attend that church--she's United Methodist, but I know of lots who do attend).

From Mom's email: "One of the local women who got excommunicated said on TV that it was like a cult. Another man who got excommunicated said that the rest of the congregation stood up and applauded as the Democrats were told to leave."

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