By The Rev. Dr. Neal Jones
I grew up in a small town in North Carolina that was very much like Mayberry.
Everyone in my family worked, including us kids, and one of my jobs was to keep up the yard of my grandparents – mow the grass, trim the hedges and try to keep the kudzu at bay.
For those who may not know what kudzu is, it’s a leafy vine that grows like crazy. I would spend all day cutting it back, convinced that I had it eliminated, only to come back later to find that it had returned in full force and then some. I would get rid of it here, only to have it reappear there. It was a never-ending struggle. I had become Sisyphus, pushing a boulder up a kudzu-covered hill.
Kudzu was introduced in the United States from Japan to help prevent soil erosion, but this soil savior is also a demon of death for other plants. It grows cancerously over other flora, covering them in a green canopy, depriving them of sunlight, effectively smothering them until kudzu is the sole survivor.
The Religious Right reminds me of kudzu. However disdainful you may be of the followers of the Religious Right – of their pettiness and meanness of spirit, their willful ignorance, their irrational fears bordering on paranoia, their preoccupation with power and control, their fixation with sexual issues and their eagerness to rewrite history to fit their ideology of Christian nationalism – however much you may despise the beliefs and tactics of the Religious Right, you have to admire their persistence. They are kudzu choking American politics, religion and culture.
They rose to prominence by denying women autonomy over their own bodies and destinies. Then Roe v. Wade trimmed back the kudzu, but it came back in state legislatures in the requirements of waiting periods, sonograms, parental consent and physician hospital privileges. It came back with the violent force of an American Taliban – screaming protestors, graphic fetus photos, physician assassinations and clinic bombings – so that what could not be accomplished by law could be achieved by intimidation.
Next, the Religious Right made LGBTQ people society’s new bogeymen, portraying them as bathroom predators, home wreckers, mockers of marriage and demolishers of Western civilization. Then the Supreme Court’s Obergefell v. Hodges ruling cut back the kudzu, but only temporarily, until some county clerks, district judges and wedding cake bakers reinterpreted their religious liberty as their license to discriminate.
The Religious Right made the Bible a science textbook in many public schools, teaching that the earth is only 6,000 years old, that all living things appeared over the course of six days and that Adam and Eve rode on the backs of dinosaurs, verifying “The Flintstones” as an accurate depiction of history.
Clarence Darrow made a monkey out of the fundamentalists in the 1925 Scopes trial, but kudzu is a persistent vegetation. Creationists banned the teaching of Darwin’s theory of evolution in many public schools; after all, it’s just a theory, they said. Epperson v. Arkansas trimmed that kudzu, but then fundamentalists made public school teachers teach “creation science” alongside evolution in order to give students a “balanced view.” How reasonable and fair are these fundamentalists! The Edwards v. Aguillard decision sheared that kudzu, but it came back sounding more scientific than ever as “intelligent design.” Kitzmiller v. Dover lopped off that kudzu, and now we’ll wait for the next nefarious vines to appear.
Many of the colonial refugees from Europe came to these shores to escape religious persecution in nations where church and state were united. Ironically, many of those same colonists perpetrated the same sins from which they had sought escape by establishing their own state-supported churches.
Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, however, pruned the kudzu in Virginia, making religious liberty and church-state separation the law of the land, and the first Congress followed suit with the First Amendment. Throughout the generations, some misguided religious people have tried to siphon public money into their private institutions. Each time the kudzu is trimmed, it comes back with unrelenting creativity. Now it comes in the form of vouchers and tuition tax credits for students attending private, religious schools so that your taxes will be used to teach beliefs you don’t believe and doctrines that science doesn’t verify. This new kudzu will drain resources from our public schools at the very time they need more, not less, investment.
These are just a few of the varieties of the Religious Right kudzu you find growing across the American landscape today. You can’t eliminate it. Its roots are too entwined in the religious, political and cultural soil of this country. You can cut it back, however, so that it doesn’t get out of hand and smother the freedom of individual conscience and the life-nurturing institutions of society.
But you can’t sit back and think that your work is done. It’s too relentless for you to grow complacent. “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty” – that’s the way one gentleman farmer once put it. My grandfather Jones would say, “Boy, don’t turn your back on the devil!”
On behalf of AU’s Board of Trustees, I want to thank each of you for your dedication and diligence in keeping the kudzu at bay in your backyard.
The Rev. Dr. Neal Jones is president of the Americans United Board of Trustees and minister of Main Line Unitarian Church in Devon, Pa. Jones delivered these remarks