Today is my last day with Americans United. Tomorrow, I move on to become the social media editor of the New Republic. I’ve spent three years tracking the Religious Right full-time. There weren’t many surprises. I grew up in the movement; it educated me and trained me to join the ranks of America’s culture warriors. But there’s a difference between knowing the movement and understanding how to counter it.
Probably the most important fact I’ve learned is that it’s impossible to resist a movement like the Religious Right unless you form coalitions. The Religious Right itself realized this decades ago: Conservative Protestants joined hands with conservative Catholics and eventually Mormons in order to prevent the purported moral decline of America.
And it worked for them. They’ve struck major blows to the First Amendment. They’ve restricted abortion and contraception rights; they banned marriage equality until recently and still actively erode other legal protections for LGBT people. They pack state legislatures – and the U.S. Congress – with officials sympathetic to their views.
I also learned this was not really Ben Franklin at the March for Marriage in 2014.
If that bothers you, respond in kind. Non-religious people need to work with religious minorities and Christians who appreciate separation of church and state. That means looking past potentially profound philosophical disagreements in order to focus on an over-arching goal.
That goal, of course, is religious freedom. The Religious Right has co-opted this term to great effect. First Amendment advocates need to reclaim it. Religious freedom doesn’t look like Kim Davis refusing to fulfill the duties she was elected to perform; it looks like the freedom to worship, to wear religious garb, to build houses of worship, to declare your refusal to believe in any god at all. It looks like secular public schools and inclusive government meetings.
That’s the version of religious freedom we should offer the country. If we can’t do that, if we can’t set aside our ideological differences long enough to agree on what sets us apart from the Religious Right, then we’re going to lose.
We’re talking about a war of ideas. There will always be fundamentalists who genuinely believe their theocratic goals for the country will result in some sort of utopia. There will always be people who oppose them in the name of an alternative moral vision. To an extent, this exchange of competing political philosophies benefits the country. It forces us to think seriously about what America means to us and what we want it to look like in the future.
But the core problem with fundamentalism is that it doesn’t tolerate compromise. It is inherently antagonistic to pluralism. About eight years ago, I read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale for the first time. It’s now a cliché to say the Religious Right strives for the dystopian future the novel portrays. But all clichés are based in a bit of truth, and this one is no different. I read that book and understood that the theocratic surveillance state it describes resembles fundamentalism’s real end game. You hear it refracted in speeches at the Values Voter Summit, in policies proposed by legislators, in the agitprop produced by groups like the Family Research Council, Alliance Defending Freedom and the American Family Association.
The world they’re trying to build would condemn each of us to inflexible lives. We won’t be able to love who we want or believe what we want; there will be no free marketplace of ideas.
That’s why organizations like Americans United and the coalitions it’s built are still so important. And even though I’m moving on, I do so knowing the fight’s in good hands.