Back To The Future

You Don’t Need A Crystal Ball To See The Church-State Challenges Ahead

I don’t pretend to be psychic, but there are certain things I can say with certainty about what lies ahead in 2012. So come with me as I gaze into the crystal ball and offer the following predictions for the new year:

Religion will continue to roil the presidential race. We can expect to see ongoing efforts to interject religion into the presidential race. This is a pretty safe prediction, based on the unparalleled amount of religiosity we’ve already seen during the Republican primaries.

I don’t know who the GOP nominee will be, nor will I hazard a prediction. I told you I wasn’t psychic. What I do know is that the Religious Right is heavily involved in this race. Its leaders and activists will continue to demand that candidates profess their faith publicly as well as put forth various public policy proposals designed to undermine the separation of church and state.

President Barack Obama is not immune from this. The president’s team undertook an aggressive outreach to faith groups in 2008, targeting even some evangelicals who aren’t traditionally thought of as open to Democratic overtures. You can expect to see more of this in 2012.

When Team Obama sees the attacks on him for being “anti-religion,” they seem to react in defensive ways.  The very week that Texas Governor Rick Perry put out an “Obama is anti-religion” ad, the administration backed away from an FDA recommendation to make certain contraceptives more available to young women.  The next week, Joshua DuBois, head of the White House Office on Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, sent his vast email list an Associated Press story with a picture of the First Family walking across the street to church.

Alongside this, we’re going to see massive new efforts to mix the pulpit and politics. Polls show that nearly two-thirds of Americans oppose pulpit politicking, but some on the Religious Right are determined to bring this issue to a head by encouraging churches to break the tax laws by endorsing candidates and then hoping to litigate the constitutionality of the “no partisan” political activity rule.

The Religious Right will continue to grow in power and strength. Research by Americans United indicates that the nation’s top ten Religious Right organizations now raise nearly $1 billion annually. Many of these groups are firmly ingrained in Washington’s power structure.  While I don’t believe most Americans share the views of these groups, their money and influence makes them formidable.

Their attempt to forge a permanent alliance with the Tea Party may nor may not succeed, but it hardly matters. In an election year, it’s just common sense that the forces of theocracy are only going to raise more money and step up their activities.

“Culture War” issues aren’t dead yet. Polls show that some important cultural shifts are under way. The number of Americans who support same-sex marriage, for example, now tops 50 percent in some polls. At the same time, religious and philosophical diversity continues to expand, with increasing numbers of Americans rejecting the rigid biblical literalism of the Religious Right.

We may be approaching a tipping point on some “culture war” issues, but we haven’t quite tipped yet. Expect Religious Right leaders to dig in and rally their troops. They may go down – but they’ll go down swinging.  They are looking at the same research I review and know that the long-term trend line on reproductive choice, same-sex marriage and support for evolution is not in their favor.  This means they need to amend state constitutions and get more right-wing federal judges now — both initiatives to make it more difficult to reverse the “gains” they are making.

America’s public schools will remain under assault.  The two-pronged attack on our schools will continue. Some states will explore misguided and dangerous voucher schemes that divert taxpayer money from public to private (and mostly religious) schools. At the same time, Religious Right-led efforts to interject their narrow version of Christianity into the schools will go on. Some issues, such as creationism and school prayer, are simply perennial.

Those are the major challenges we will face this year. They may look daunting, but not all of the news is bad. I also believe that this year we will see an unprecedented outpouring of support from Americans United members and other defenders of the church-state wall.  This wave of activism will enable us to win many victories in the courts, in the legislatures and in the arena of public opinion.

Religious Right leaders often speak of this struggle as a clash of worldviews. To some extent they are correct. The American people have a choice: the Religious Right’s vision of a theocratic government – a state that has a point of view about religion and doesn’t hesitate to let you know it – or complete religious freedom undergirded by secular government and a high, firm church-state wall.

In 2012, Americans United will work hard to help our country make the right choice.

Barry W. Lynn is executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.