May 2011 Church & State | Editorial

Bryan Fischer, a top-level staff member and online columnist for the American Family Association (AFA), enjoys saying outrageous things.Fischer, who serves as the AFA’s director of issue analysis for government and public policy, once insisted that a captive whale that killed a trainer at Sea World should be stoned to death, because the Bible mandates execution for animals that cause the deaths of people. He has called for a ban on the construction of new mosques in America and has asserted that same-sex relationships are a form of “domestic terrorism.”These opinions are strange enough, but recently the Religious Right bomb thrower went completely around the bend. He asserted that the First Amendment protects only Christians. Members of all other faiths, the AFA executive asserted, enjoy their rights only due to the tolerance of the majority.“Islam is entitled only to the religious liberty we extend to it out of courtesy,” Fischer wrote. “While there certainly ought to be a presumption of religious liberty for non-Christian religious traditions in America, the Founders were not writing a suicide pact when they wrote the First Amendment.” There is, of course, absolutely nothing in the text of the Constitution or the Bill of Rights to buttress Fischer’s view. In fact, the First Amendment guarantees “the free exercise” of religion – all religions. Christianity receives no special mention or protection in our nation’s founding documents; it is in no way elevated above other faiths.As outrageous as Fischer is, there’s actually something bracing about his approach. Unlike many Religious Right activists, Fischer isn’t trying to hide what he believes and what he wants. He is an old-fashioned religious bigot and an unrepentant theocrat who believes his version of Christianity should reign supreme with the full sanction of the state. His history is completely wrong, but at least we know what we’re dealing with.Many others in the Religious Right believe as Fischer does – they just don’t want to admit it. Lots of these people are running rampant right now in Congress and in state legislatures. They control the Republican Party’s presidential nominating process in Iowa and other states. Four years ago, Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, wrote a column demanding a government that kowtows to his understanding of religion. Land tried, but failed, to clothe his theocratic dreams in non-threatening dress.“When we preach that Gospel,” Land wrote, “and God has blessed it and people’s hearts and minds have been changed, then they have the right as citizens to come forth in the public arena and say, ‘This is wrong, and we want it stopped.’…When we convince a majority of Americans that we are right, that’s not called a theocracy, that’s called the democratic process.”The problem is, a majority of people can sometimes be persuaded to back ideas that violate the fundamental rights of others. Majorities can be carried away by inflamed passions and run roughshod over the rights of others. That’s why our Constitution places core freedoms (like religious liberty) outside the reach of mob rule.This would seem a simple concept, but it’s one that Religious Right leaders have consistently had difficulty grasping.More than 200 years ago, Thomas Jefferson faced down the Religious Right of his day. Efforts were made to restrict Jefferson’s famous Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom to Christians only. The gambit failed, and Jefferson rejoiced. The new law, he exulted, would protect “the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mohammedan, the Hindoo and Infidel of every denomination.”Jefferson’s pioneering vision stands as a rebuke to theocrats like Fischer, Land and others of their ilk. To fend off theocracy, our nation must recommit itself to Jefferson’s principles.