November 2013 Church & State | Featured


Former U.S. Rep. Allen West (R.-Fla.) is troubled by the concept of church-state separation.

“America has a Judeo-Christian heritage, and when I hear people say ‘separation of church and state,’ it concerns me because we cannot be separated from our faith,” said West, an incendiary figure known for his extreme views. (He once accused Democrats of behaving like Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels.)  

West’s remarks came Oct. 11 at the Values Voter Summit (VVS), an annual gathering in Washington, D.C., sponsored by the Family Research Council (FRC), American Family Association and other Religious Right groups. It’s not clear exactly why West feels that church-state separation involves barring individuals from practicing their faith, but such dangerous and inaccurate generalizations are par for the course at the VVS.    

If you’ve never been to the VVS, which is now in its eighth year, it’s like stepping into a disorienting alternate universe ruled by fear, paranoia and anger – but also a deep sense that it’s crucial to stay the course no matter how often or spectacularly one fails.

In recent years, the VVS has mostly been an anti-Obamapalooza, but this time the rhetoric shifted slightly; while there was still quite a bit of bashing of Obama, gays and Muslims, the confab at the D.C. Omni Shoreham Hotel also featured loud cries that Americans are losing their “religious liberty” in schools, the military and the public sphere, so fundamentalists must save the United States from oblivion.

This sentiment was perhaps best embodied at the Summit by U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who has become a far-right hero (and potential presidential candidate for 2016) because of his open embrace of fundamentalism and his willingness to hold the entire U.S. government hostage in an attempt to thwart Obamacare.

At the VVS, Cruz pandered to the crowd by railing on the Obama administration, falsely claiming it is stopping members of the military from sharing their faith and raising the specter of secular, for-profit corporations that “must provide abortifacients or pay millions of dollars in government fines” thanks to the birth-control mandate in the Affordable Care Act.

Given these assaults on freedom, Cruz said it is critical for the Religious Right to act.

“These are extraordinary times,” Cruz told the crowd. “We’re nearing the edge of a cliff. And our window to turn things around, my friends, I don’t think it is long. I don’t think it’s 10 years. We have a couple of years to turn this country around, or we go off the cliff to oblivion.”

Not everyone at the Summit liked what Cruz had to say, and multiple protestors interrupted his comments with questions or challenges. Cruz responded in typical fashion – by blaming Obama.

“It seems that President Obama’s paid political operatives are out in force today,” he quipped after one interruption.

While Cruz (who topped a Summit presidential straw poll at 42 percent) focused on domestic “enemies” of religious liberty, another senator with presidential aspirations chose to highlight threats to Christianity from overseas.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) said “from Boston to Zanzibar, there is a worldwide war on Christianity” by radical elements of Islam. Although he acknowledged that the majority of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims are not extremists, Paul insisted that there are nonetheless about 40 million who are “committed to killing Christians.” Paul also criticized U.S. involvement in Syria, ranting that the Obama administration is helping forces that hate Christianity.

“Elsewhere in Syria, Islamic rebels have filmed beheadings of their captives,” Paul claimed. “They’ve filmed themselves eating the heart of their enemy… We are now arming Islamic rebels who are allied with al-Qaeda that attacked us on 9/11.”

On the domestic front, Paul mentioned the tragic terror attack that killed three and wounded more than 100 at the Boston Marathon in May. He said that “maybe [the bombers] weren’t targeting Christians, but they certainly didn’t target a mosque.”

Muslim-bashing is a common tactic at the VVS.  So is making outrageous claims and not bothering to back them up. FRC Executive Vice President William G. “Jerry” Boykin, a retired U.S. Army lieutenant general best known for his extreme dislike of Muslims, knows the drill.

Boykin claims to be defending the military from assaults on “religious liberty.” During the VVS, he said the Obama administration – you may sense a pattern here – has cracked down on the Christian faith in the armed forces because it can’t force American society overall to be more secular without first changing the culture of the military.

“We’re seeing a tremendous assault on religious liberty in our society,” Boykin blared, “but as long as you’ve got this big anchor called the U.S. military that is a bastion of traditional values, you’re not going to successfully change the society.”

What, exactly, is the Obama administration doing to change the culture of the military? Boykin and others asserted that service members are being subjected to a sort of “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy when it comes to belief.

A panel titled “The Erosion of Religious Liberty in the Military” featured Boy­kin, Fox News commentator Todd Starnes, attorney Jeff Mateer of the Liberty Institute and Air Force Master Sgt. Philip Monk, an evangelical Christian who claims he was reassigned to a new position after he disagreed with his commanding officer over marriage equality.

(Unfortunately for Monk, his story was undermined by an Air Force report that was issued just days before the Summit. See “People & Events” for more.)

Not only is the military under the secularist gun – all of society is as well. A separate panel at the Summit was titled “The Erosion of Religious Liberty in the Public Square.”

To this crowd, an “erosion of religious liberty” occurs any time they are not allowed to tell other people what to do or how to live their lives. A Saturday afternoon panel titled “Where Do We Go From Here?: Challenging Tyranny” featured a list of speakers who insisted that the United States is on the verge of embracing “tyranny” (if we’re not there already) because of things like government programs designed to help the poor and the birth control mandate of the Affordable Care Act.

Ken Blackwell, former Ohio treasurer who now works for the FRC, told attendees that “big welfare states” seek to crush religious freedom. It’s all part of a plot, Blackwell explained.

“There’s an attack on religious liberty,” he said, “because there’s a need to silence the church in order to expand the welfare state.”

The Religious Right and its allies believe there is a far-reaching agenda to undermine liberty in the United States, and that extends to education, too. U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who claimed at the Summit that his “biggest fear” is that “we’re losing control of our nation,” touted private school vouchers as the solution.

“And that’s why I believe, as most of you do, that every single parent in America has the right and should have the opportunity to send their children to the school of their choice,” he said.

Rubio wasn’t the only voucher advocate at the VVS this year. U.S. Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), also a Tea Party hero, felt the need to defend another state’s voucher program.

“The state of Louisiana has come to the conclusion that liberty is part and parcel with the notion of education, and our federal government is suing the state of Louisiana because they believe in school choice,” Scott railed. “I believe in school choice! Louisiana believes that in order for us to create more liberty, we have to have a better education system.”

Star Parker, a woman who makes her living attacking government programs that help people in need, said that the problem with public schools is basically that they still exist.

“We’ve scrubbed our schools of all reference of God,” Parker, a frequent VVS speaker, told the crowd. “I can’t understand why Christians still send their children to these cesspools we call [public] schools, frankly.”

Some speakers at the Summit chose to focus on a major upcoming legal battle that could dramatically affect the separation of church and state.

Mateer and Ken Klukowski, an FRC attorney who heads that organization’s Center for Religious Liberty, both expressed their ire with Americans Uni­ted for challenging the Greece, N.Y., Town Board’s practice of offering almost exclusively Christian prayers to open meetings.

Klukowski said he hopes Town of Greece v. Galloway, which Americans United will argue in front of the U.S. Supreme Court Nov. 6, will stop groups like AU from using the First Amendment against people of faith.

“The [First Amendment] is not designed as a battering ram to knock down Christians and churches and people of faith in the United States,” Klukowski said, while failing to mention that FRC has been perfectly happy to use the First Amendment against people who have no faith or a minority faith.

Klukowski also said judges aren’t qualified to place any limits on prayer.

“Federal judges are not theologians, they are not qualified to sit as a theological review board and decide what sort of things a person of faith can or cannot say in a prayer in America,” he said.

The other major legal issue raised at the conference was one that has already been settled – except in the minds of the Religious Right. Many fundamentalists still seethe over the Supreme Court’s June ruling that led to federal recognition of same-sex marriages legalized by states, and they continue to express their hostility toward marriage equality.

Liberty Counsel founder Mat Sta­ver compared the marriage equality decision to the infamous Dred Scott ruling.

“Throughout history the Supreme Court has crossed the ‘red line’ of liberty,” Staver said. “In Dred Scott, they said to Dred Scott… ‘Sorry, Dred Scott, you don’t have the rights of a U.S. citizen because you’re black…’ I suggest to you that this decision [on marriage] by the Supreme Court will find itself in the same dustbins of history as Dred Scott.”  

Days before the gathering, the FRC painstakingly detailed 1,200 examples of “assaults” on religious liberty in a report titled Undeniable: The Survey of Hostility to Religion in America. Many of the “assaults,” however, are really just attempts to enforce the separation of church and state.

So what’s  a loyal Religious Right subject to do in light of these “assaults”? If you ask Mark Levin, a right-wing radio host and author of The Liberty Amendments: Restoring the American Republic, the federal government is so broken that nothing short of rewriting the U.S. Constitution can save the nation from destruction.

In what was basically an extended infomercial for his book, Levin said, “If you have one out-of-control Supreme Court, one out-of-control Congress and one out-of-control president, there’s nowhere to go. And that’s the problem, unless we go back to the Constitution to save the Constitution.”

Another far-right pitchman, Glenn Beck, regaled the crowd with a creative reinterpretation of the history of Nazi persecution.  Beck held up a purple triangle, which he claimed the Nazis forced Bible-believing Christians to wear. In fact, the Nazis did not persecute most Christians. The purple triangles were imposed only on Jehovah’s Witnesses, some of whom at the time referred to themselves as “Bible Students.” (Beck boasted about his lack of formal education. It showed.)

When not attending sessions, Summiteers could cruise the exhibit hall, where one woman ran a booth offering “Right-Wing Jewelry.” Representatives from dozens of Religious Right groups held court there as well. Among them were members of the American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property. This uber-Catholic group strongly opposes same-sex marriage; its male members wear blue blazers and cheap red capes clasped by brooches.

So what’s the Religious Right’s plan? Mainly, making sure that its activists stay in the game.

U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), who has made a career of spreading misinformation about health care and inventing Islamophobic conspiracy theories, employed war imagery as she urged the crowd to fight for its “values.”

“You see, battles count,” she said. “You need to know when to fight. This is the time to fight. This is our moment for posterity. And I thank God that we finally have the will to stand up, take on this oppressive president and stand for what is good and righteous and true. It’s the battle of our times.”

Bachmann, who has said she will not seek reelection after her current term ends in January 2015, apparently missed the irony of calling for battle as she prepares to exit the field.

But no one ever said insightfulness was a strength of the Religious Right.