Alternative Universe: Iowa Presidential Forum Exposes Religious Right Disconnect From Reality

Religious Right activists and their political allies simply make stuff up.

I spent two hours Saturday evening in front of my computer watching the Religious Right’s “Thanksgiving Family Forum.” The event, which took place at First Federated Church, a large fundamentalist congregation in Des Moines, featured six of the leading Republican presidential candidates – U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, former U.S senator Rick Santorum, Gov. Rick Perry, businessman Herman Cain and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. (Mitt Romney begged off.)

The event was jointly sponsored by an Iowa group called The Family Leader, the National Organization for Marriage and CitizenLink, the overtly political arm of Focus on the Family. The discussion targeted issues like same-sex marriage, abortion and the role of religion in politics. Moderator Frank Luntz, a Republican pollster, gave each candidate a chance to explain his or her Christian faith.

I sat through the whole thing, and my takeaway is this: I continue to be amazed at how Religious Right activists and their political allies simply make stuff up. Facts to them are pliable things that need not be acknowledged if inconvenient or unpleasant. They live in their own reality.

I can’t dissect the entire event. I don’t have that much time or patience. But I did take a few notes and want today to explain a few basic things to the Religious Right:

Thomas Jefferson and James Madison don’t agree with you. You hate the separation of church and state; Jefferson and Madison loved it. Jefferson and Madison worked together to end the government-established church in Virginia and guarantee religious liberty for all. Jefferson coined the metaphor of a “wall of separation between church and state.” Madison spoke of the “total separation of the church from the state.” Neither favored an officially Christian government. They are not on your side; stop invoking them.

The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are two different documents designed to do different things.  There’s no doubt that the Declaration of Independence is an important historical document. It was a bold statement of our nation’s desire to be free from British control. But it does not list our rights. The rights of Americans are outlined in the Constitution, not the Declaration. I realize that it bothers you that the Constitution is secular and that you place great stock in the fact that the Declaration contains a deistic reference to the “Creator,” but that does not change this simple fact: The foundational governing document of the nation is the Constitution – and it does not state that we are an officially Christian nation.

We have three co-equal branches of government. It’s discouraging to hear you cheer when candidates vow to stop the courts from handing down decisions that you don’t like. Our system grants the president no such powers – and for good reason. We’re not a dictatorship, after all. An independent judiciary is essential to the maintenance of a free society. When you applaud a man who promises to fire, harass and intimidate judges and turn the courts into a rubber-stamp body, you are advocating for autocracy. Aside from the separation of church and state, there is another important type of separation in our Constitution: the separation of powers. You might want to read up on it.

When you advocate denying public office to people on the basis of what they believe (or don’t believe) about God, you are being bigots. Article VI of the Constitution states that there shall be no religious test for federal office. People are free to reject political hopefuls on the basis of their beliefs, of course, but candidates should not promote this type of bigotry. We would have no difficulty labeling a person who says that a Jew is unfit for the presidency an anti-Semite. Likewise, a person who says that an atheist is unfit for that office should be called what he or she is: a bigot. It’s not something to be proud of.

You cannot simultaneously argue that decisions are best left to states and localities and demand federal control when states and localities do something you don’t like. Several candidates attacked Washington, D.C., policy-makers and asserted that states and local governments should have more control, much to the delight of the audience. They talked about how people should have the freedom to make decisions on the local level. But apparently that freedom does not extend to making decisions that the Religious Right does not like. Moments later, many of these same candidates vowed to stop states from legalizing same-sex marriage or civil unions and demanded to criminalize abortion in all 50 states by federal writ. When you promote this type of intellectual disconnect, you expose yourself as the giant hypocrites that you are.

The day before the event, Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn said in a statement, “It’s a shame that so many candidates see fit to attend this fundamentalist Christian inquisition masquerading as a debate. Our nation faces many serious problems, but a lack of religion in our political system isn’t one of them. In fact, this election has already become deeply entangled with religion, with four candidates now claiming that God told them to run. Enough is enough.”

The event is online here if you really want to see it. Take my advice and keep a bottle of Maalox handy.