Deja Vu All Over Again: After Over Three Decades, The Battle Against The Religious Right Goes On

We’ve achieved some extraordinary successes in the epic battle for church-state separation, but it’s no time to rest on our laurels.

When I recently received a fund-raising letter in the mail from Ralph Reed’s Faith & Freedom Coalition, I thought to myself: here we go again!

In his "confidential strategy memo," Reed, a long-time Religious Right operative, has vowed to raise $25 million to mobilize America’s “conservative Christians” on behalf of favored candidates in the 2014 elections.

Reed and other Religious Right leaders are still pursuing their dream – I call it a nightmare – of forging fundamentalist churches and church-goers into a disciplined voting bloc. They seek to dominate the political process, elect their cronies and effectively repeal the separation of church and state.

Ultra-conservative TV and radio preachers, fundamentalist mega-churches, wealthy right-wing business interests and assorted sectarian lobbies have been at this task for well over three decades.

Fortunately, Americans United has been on the front lines opposing the Religious Right agenda, and we have won huge battles to keep the theocrats in check. I know because I’ve worked at AU since May of 1980.

Today is my last day here. I’m retiring from my job as Director of Communications and turning the responsibility over to my talented colleague Rob Boston. But I’m not retiring from my responsibility as a citizen. I’ll still be opposing any and all threats to church-state separation, and I hope you will be too.

The first major feature article I wrote for Church & State was titled “The New ‘Christian Politics’” (July/August 1980 Church & State). It reported that the Moral Majority was formed after TV preacher Jerry Falwell met with Howard Phillips and other right-wing Republican political honchos. The goals were partisan, sectarian and extreme. Other Religious Right groups soon were flying the same religio-political flag.

Said Falwell, “We must all band together under the banner of the Moral Majority and wage open warfare against the forces of Satan, locally and nationally, which threaten our freedom as Americans.” He said preachers must “get people saved, baptized and registered to vote.”

Of course, the real threat to “our freedom” came from Falwell and Company. They desperately wanted to dominate the democratic process and make America a “Christian nation” – with “Christian” defined according to their literalist reading of the Bible.

Said TV preacher Pat Robertson, “We have enough votes to run the country. And when the people say, ‘We’ve had enough,’ we are going to take over.”

It was frightening rhetoric, and Robertson, Falwell and crew meant every word of it.  Americans United immediately set to the task of countering the Religious Right agenda and educating Americans to its dangers, and we’ve been doing so ever since.

Religious Right leaders and groups have come and gone, but the movement's purpose and power have stayed the same. Falwell closed his Moral Majority in 1989, and some silly pundits pronounced the Religious Right dead.

Robertson, however, launched his Christian Coalition that same year and achieved levels of political influence that Falwell could only dream of. Robertson brought in GOP operative Ralph Reed to lead his group, and it achieved extraordinary power in the Republican Party through hardball politics, sectarian intrigue and outright deception.

Robertson and Reed eventually abandoned the Coalition, but its agenda and tactics have been taken up by a host of other well-financed outfits – the Family Research Council, Focus on the Family, the American Family Association, the Traditional Values Coalition and Concerned Women for America, to name but a few. (And most recently, of course, Reed’s Faith & Freedom Coalition.)

And today, these politics-minded organizations are joined by powerful legal interest groups – the Alliance Defending Freedom (founded by right-wing radio and TV preachers),  the Robertson-backed American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) and the Jerry Falwell Jr.-affiliated Liberty Counsel. They push for fundamentalist Christian goals in our court system.

All along, however, Americans United and our faithful allies have countered the Religious Right at every turn, and we have exposed the movement’s real aims to the American people.

When the Christian Coalition tried to distribute biased “voter guides” to churches, we waged a national campaign to alert clergy to the federal tax law barring campaign intervention. Coalition leaders complained that AU’s work caused many churches to reject their partisan project.

When a fundamentalist church took out national newspaper ads insisting that voting for presidential candidate Bill Clinton was a sin, AU filed a complaint with the Internal Revenue Service and the New York congregation’s tax exemption was revoked. Attorneys with Robertson’s ACLJ took the issue to federal court; we opposed them there and they lost. (A bitter Robertson said AU’s Barry Lynn was “lower than a child molester” for reporting the scofflaw church to the IRS.)

When Robertson told a closed-door session of Coalition state leaders that the group’s “game plan” was to emulate Tammany Hall – one of the most corrupt political machines in American history – AU released a tape of his remarks to the press. CNN, The New York Times, The Washington Post and news outlets across the country carried the story, and the Coalition’s application for tax-exempt status was bogged down for years.

We also had a little fun at the Religious Right’s expense. When I noticed that Falwell’s newspaper had bizarrely accused Tinky Winky, a children’s TV program character, of being gay and pushing the "gay lifestyle," I passed the information along to the Associated Press.

The story was picked up everywhere, and Falwell became an object of national and international ridicule. (Even the BBC ran a story.) Cartoonists had a field day, depicting the Lynchburg preacher assailing the purple Teletubby. In 2007 when Falwell died, a few cartoonists returned to the theme. More than one featured Tinky Winky ominously waiting for Falwell at the Pearly Gates!

But all fun aside, the Religious Right is no laughing matter. Movement leaders – and their allies in the Roman Catholic hierarchy – remain incredibly powerful today, despite all of Americans United’s work.

In 24 states, the legislatures and governors' offices are totally controlled or under the serious influence of right-wing Christian forces. Laws promoting coercive school prayer and Bible reading have been passed. Voucher and “neo-voucher” programs that divert taxpayer money to sectarian schools are spreading. Draconian measures restricting women’s access to reproductive services have been approved.

And things are difficult in Congress too. My AU colleague Maggie Garrett reports regularly on the myriad proposals there to undercut church-state separation. Religious Right agents are pushing religion in the military, seeking taxpayer funds to repair houses of worship, attempting to deny Americans access to birth control, paving the way for sectarian symbols on public property and angling to subsidize private religious schools with public dollars. They don’t always succeed, but it’s a constant struggle.

That’s why even though I’m retiring today, I plan to stay active in the cause of church-state separation. I hope you will do so too. Join Americans United. Send a donation. Affiliate with a state or local AU chapter. Monitor governmental activities from your local school board and city council all the way up to the legislature and the governors’ office. Write to your members of Congress -- and the president too, for that matter.

Alert your friends and neighbors to the importance of church-state separation and the dangers we face. If you’re in a faith group, make sure your clergy are aware of the hidden agenda that lurks behind wholesome-sounding Religious Right groups’ names.

In 1808, Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter to some Baptist allies celebrating the adoption of church-state separation in America.

“In reviewing the history of the times through which we have passed,” he observed, “no portion of it gives greater satisfaction, on reflection, than that which presents the efforts of the friends of religious freedom, and the success with which they were crowned.”

That’s how I feel about my time at Americans United. We’ve achieved some extraordinary successes in the epic battle for church-state separation, but it’s no time to rest on our laurels. Many difficult battles lie ahead.

But with your help, I know Americans United can win. Take up the cause today.